Saturday, January 28, 2006

Freezing Point

The only censoring that occurs at Time, and at most papers in the world, is for space and legal and ethical reasons. A small piece I was working on about the richest non-royal world leaders (Berlusconi, Bloomberg, Cheney, not to mention the recently deceased Arafat and Hariri) was a bit touchy because it made reference to Castro's wealth of $550 million, a figure calculated by Forbes based on his control of government industries, but then reportedly challeged with a lawsuit by the world's longest-serving dictator. Lawsuits are bad, and trying to determine how big Castro's humidor is definitely isn't worth one.

Also mentioned, after some tiring research by yours truly, was President Omar Bongo of Gabon, the second-longest serving head of state. This guy is your classic corrupt African quasi-dictator, having led his poor country since '67 while profiting from its oil riches. (He's no Mobutu, whose daughter my new friend Yumi knows from Paris--she's running an NGO now that works with Africa). What little news there is of him, at least in English, largely relates to a bribery scandal at a French oil giant and a Senate investigation of money laundering at Citibank in 1999. No way of knowing how much he has, but during the 90s about $130 million passed through his accounts. Though he was just sworn in for his 7th term following an election without challengers, his story and others (corruption, inequality, despotism) go under-reported in the western media.

Oh also: in 2004 Jack Abramoff asked him for $9 million exchange for a meeting with President Bush, and then they hung out a few months later. I'm just saying.

(Anyway, in the end, my piece got bumped for space reasons.)

In China, however, editing is more severe, its reasons a bit different. Whole papers, and even journalists themselves, are edited out of existence. The latest victims of Communist censors' wrath are editor Li Datong and his Bingdian (Freezing Point) paper, a popular four-page weekly supplement in the China Youth Daily. The paper has been shaking things up by reporting on official corruption and inequality and, notable of late, historical revisionism in Chinese schools. This week, the paper was closed.

But. Li didn't take this sitting down. He wrote a 19 page open letter to the editor-in-chief, detailing in it how the China Youth Daily sought to keep its reporters in line through a point system and, most powerfully, chastising his boss and the government for betraying their Marxist ideals.

It's an illuminating look at the way media is controlled in China, and pretty exciting proof that despite government control (and corporate kowtowing, as in the recent case of Google) people keep fighting for the truth.

The core of these regulations is that the standards for appraising the performance of the newspapers will not be on the basis of the media role according to Marxism. It is not based upon the basic principles of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not based upon the spirit of President Hu Jintao about how power, rights and sentiments should be tied to the people. It is not based upon whether the masses of readers will be satisfied. Instead, the appraisal standard will depend upon whether a small number of senior organizations or officials like it or not...

As I read these regulations, I could not believe my eyes. When a report or a page received the highest accolade from the readers, only 50 points is awarded. But if a certain official likes it, there is at least 80 extra points up to a maximum of 300 point! Even worse, in the section on 'subtracting points,' points will be deducted when officials criticize it. What does that mean?

This means that no matter how much effort was put into your report, no matter how difficult your investigation was, no matter how well written your report was, and even if your life had been threatened during the process (and enough reporters have been beaten up for trying to report the truth), and no matter how much the readers praised the report, as long as some official is unhappy and makes a few "critical" comments, then all your work is worth zero, you have added zero to the reputation of the newspaper and your readers' opinions is worth less than a fart -- in fact, you will be penalized as much as this month's wages!


There is no choice but to win the trust of the people, like Marx's "people's news": "It must live among the people, it must share the problems and pains with the people, it must love and hate with the people, it must fairly tell all the things that people hope for and suffer from." Marx emphasized: "The trust of the people is the condition for a newspaper to live. Without this condition, the newspaper will shrivel."

It is an undeniable fact that the atmosphere at our newspaper has been abnormal for quite some time. Increasingly, people feel that they can't talk. Everybody is worried and scared. All sorts of irresponsible rumors abound. Vulgarity and obedience abound. The meeting notes of the editorial committee always say "unanimously agree"; the public comment section only has adulations and self-aggrandizement. All the routine official "letters of gratitude" from various provincial departments after completing the required propaganda work are even published, as if we had never seen that kind of stuff before. So now those praises will continue to multiply with the newly announced appraisal regulations. Hey, there's money involved! What kind of guidance is that?

The whole letter is here, and its worth reading.

The South China Morning Post story is here.

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