The Letter of Li Datong
Here is the brief background by Kristine Kwok in the South China Morning Post (via Asia Media):
A veteran editor of the outspoken China Youth Daily has taken the newspaper's editor-in-chief to task for allegedly restraining editorial freedom and succumbing to party dogma. In a high-profile move, Li Datong, who edits the Bingdian Weekly, an influential section of the paper that runs investigative stories every Wednesday, wrote an open letter to the paper's staff questioning a new appraisal system which pegs journalists' bonuses to praise by party and government leaders. The new editor-in-chief, Li Erliang, took over in December in a reshuffle regarded as a sign of a tightening of media controls by the authorities.
The lengthy letter by Li Datong was posted on the popular chat room Yannan BBS yesterday and picked up by other chat rooms. When contacted by the South China Morning Post, Li Datong said he had written the letter on behalf of the paper's editorial staff but declined to comment. "This is an internal letter I wrote for the editorial department and the management. But somehow it was leaked," he said.
In the following, I have made a full translation of the letter. The original can be found at Observechina and any number of other websites. P.S. There is a reference to a post by He Yanguang; you can find a partial translation at the bottom of this previous post Public Criticisms in China.
Follow-up: Newspaper kills plan to link pay with praise. SCMP via Asia Media. August 19, 2005.
A leading state-run newspaper has scrapped a controversial appraisal system linking reporters' pay to government approval after a high-profile protest by a veteran editor. The unexpected move to drop the proposal was announced yesterday after the management held meetings to discuss concerns by Li and other editorial staff, said senior staff members. "They have scrapped the appraisal system and will design a new plan," a staff member close to the discussions said.
A Letter To China Youth Daily's New Editor-in-Chief Li Erliang (就中国青年报新的考评办法致李而亮总编辑的信 ), from Li Datong (李大同)
To Editor-in-chief Li Erliang and the current editors' committee:
At the Monday office business meeting, you asked for a collection of opinions about the new appraisal system by the various departments, all to be completed within one week. These regulations will be operational on August 20. Although not a single department head had seen these regulations beforehand, it seems that the editorial committee meeting notes has affirmed the proposal and proclaimed on their own: "The direction is obvious, the principles are clear, the rules are precise, the coverage is extensive with powerful relevance and operatability" and other words of praise. This showed that you and the editorial committee have no intention of having any adequate discussion or possible revision with respect to basic news standards at the newspapers or the personal interests of all the workers at the newspaper.
Upon understanding, the purpose as well as all the details of these regulations were shown to most members of the editorial committee right before the meeting itself. This very important and detailed set of regulations was accepted by the committee in the course of a two to three hour meeting, which must be an administrative miracle. I also understand that these regulations were virtually the creation of yourself alone, and it was "hugely different" from the original draft prepared by Deputy Editor Wen Xin after a large amount of investigation and research. It is certain that you have made significant and substantive changes to the "Wen Xin proposal." It is just as shocking to see that at the high-level discussion of this important set of regulations, Wang Hongyu -- who is the publisher and party secretary responsible for the management of the newspaper -- had been absent as if he was not needed.
On the afternoon of August 8, this set of regulations was released on the newspaper intra-net. The newspaper editors and reporters saw them for the first time, and it caused a big stir. As I was busy editing, I did not have the time to look at them carefully. After completing my work on Wednesday, our department met to discuss the regulations. That was when I started to examine these regulations in detail. After careful reading, I don't know how to express my shock and anger ...
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.
Secondly, this is a method for delivering or withholding special interests. The excellent journalistic culture at China Youth Daily will be thoroughly destroyed. Instead of promoting positive social developments, supporting social justice, protecting public interests, encouraging enthusiasm in the reforms, exposing corrupt officials, denouncing corrupt social practices and encouraging deep reflection and being China Youth Daily journalists who have a clear sense of our historical responsibility, we will become a bunch of vulgar workers who sit around week after week arguing how many "points" we deserve. Since the number of points that are given out is finite, and the actual decision-making power is in the hands of neither an "objective and fair" third party nor the readers but the supervisors, this will inevitably lead to an obedience to the people on top and fights and intrigues among the equals.
Without doubt, the vulgarization and enslavement of the China Youth Daily journalists is being gradually and systematically implemented under your direction (in the name of the editorial committee) and put into writing in the appraisal regulations -- and that is a document that is attempting to subvert the spirit and value of the China Youth Daily.
Let us look at the following regulations:
(3) In each month's reader survey, the top three most frequently read articles receive 50 points extra for the author; numbers 4 through 10 receive 30 points extra.
(4) In each months' reader survey, the top three sections receive 50 points extra; numbers 4 through 10 receive 30 points extra.
(5) If the Chinese Youth Communist Party central committee praises an article, the author will receive 80 points extra.
(6) If the Central Propaganda Bureau praises an article, the author will receive 120 points extra; if it is singled out for praise in the Central Propaganda Bureau's "News Commentary", the author will receive 100 points extra; if it is named for praise in the "News Commentary, the author will receive 50 points extra.
(7) If an article is praised by the national department or a provincial committee, the author will receive 100 points; if a national department or provincial committee writes to praise, the author will receive 80 points.
(8) If an article is praised by the central leadership (members of the Politburo or higher), the author will receive 300 points.
From (5) through (8), if an article was praised, the corresponding editor will receive extra points equal to 30% of the author's.
(6) In the items (5) through (8) in previous section on "adding points", anyone who is criticized by name will get points subtracted in the same amount.
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!
Under this unreasonable system, the editors and reporters will go out of their minds instead of worrying about media's role to monitor. Oddly enough, the most basic and irreplaceable role for mainstream media to act as the conscience of society and to seek justice for the socially vulnerable groups is completely missing in this document about the appraisal regulations. This cannot possibly be explained as due to "omission" or "negligence."
Other than the normal small awards, the editor-in-chief has a special "incentive method." This is a "grand" prize which is worth as much as 20,000 RMB. How does one qualify for this award? The rules are as follows:
Rule #1: "A-page among the top three". Hey, that is completely on the say-so of the editor-in-chief. "Total points among the top eight reporters." What is that leading to? It disadvantages those rare exclusive, in-depth and well-written investigative reports that will enhance the reputation of our newspaper and get us more subscribers. This newspaper does not lack ephemeral junk articles.
Rule #2: Quite expectedly, it is about being praised by officials. The more praises, the higher the award.
Rule #3: "Mission accomplished in major assignments under the editorial committee." Everybody knows that this means the typical propaganda activity such as the two Congresses. How can any media increase "their brand name and influence" with this? Besides, such articles are pre-determined to be non-competitive because they are designated to appear on a certain date in a certain space, even though nobody may read it. (If this refers to complicated cases that require multiple resources and coordination in the interest of monitoring and opinion expression, such as the Caoyuan High School cheating scandal, then I am 100 percent for it).
Rule #4: "Encountering huge risks during the process but was able to overcome the difficulties to complete the mission." Thank heavens! If this is not referring to a traffic accident, then this finally touches media monitoring. But this is clearly in conflict with the previously listed rules: a critical article will usually make the officials in the monitored departments quite angry and may even receive reprimands from the senior supervisors (the rate is no less than 50%, and as many as 40% of the articles are "killed" before publication). Under those circumstances, should the grand award also have "point deductions"? It goes without say that this is the case. You are lucky if you didn't get punished! If an article received the highest praise from the readers and caused a huge social impact but was also criticized by a certain senior official, then how shall that be dealt with according to this rule? It is an act of mercy to let the two cancel each other out, but the reporter and editor will likely get deductions ...
In this letter, I have no intention of giving a technical discussion of each and single regulation (although there are unreasonable situations all over the place, such as treating a 600-700 word news brief the same as a 4,000-5,000 investigative report). I listed the above points because they represent of the basic core values of the appraisal system. These points leads to an important question: Where is the China Youth Daily heading? Will the China Youth Daily live or die?
Since you began working at this newspaper, the phrase "We are a party newspaper for the Party and the Chinese Youth League's Central Committee" has been repeated to us relentlessly in all the meetings, large and small. At a meeting of department heads, you even said used threatening words like "You must understand what you are doing." Perhaps you think that the old and new stalwarts at the Beijing Youth Daily had never figured out what they were doing or that they had no idea what is a party's newspaper or a League Central Committee paper. So you are now giving us a lecture. But talking is not enough, so you have to design a rigorous 'system' -- so you won't be personally punishing us; instead, you are just "following the rules of the system."
When you first began working here, you gave your inaugural speech and you sounded sincere when you said things like the China Youth Daily is a newspaper with a excellent historical tradition, it has good social standing, it has a lot of social influence, it has a trained and quality team of editors and reporters and you hope to be accepted and "quickly blended into the group." Those words were quite moving, and the staff including elder editors like myself held hopes for you. We hoped that you will quickly get to know this newspaper's deep tradition and work with us to compete in the marketplace and maintain our quality and brand. But what do we see instead? You were not trying to "blend" in. You were trying hard to transform this newspaper. Within the set of regulations that you personally drafted, the future of the China Youth Daily is clear: It will sadly become the next <<Guangming Daily>>; it will have zero social impact; its circulation will dwindle unspeakably so -- and this was a newspaper that was the first to use truth as the standard and was the most memorable newspapers in the 1980's.
We are not na´ve enough to think that this was the product of you personally. It goes without say that you were merely the executor. Yet you have no psychological inhibition, you were creative and you were pro-active. The goal is to transform the China Youth Daily quickly into a party organ that the League Central Secretariat had in mind. This type of "party organ" has one characteristic: it must unconditionally help one to "get the right conditions for a promotion" and everything else that gets in one's way must be destroyed.
I joined the newspaper in 1979, and it has been 26 years already. I have gone through the reform process that began with the thirteenth central party congress, and I have personally observed the leadership qualities of the League Secretary Generals from Comrade Hu Qili, to Wang Zhaoguo, Hu Jintao, Song Defu and Li Keqiang. They came to the newspaper frequently; they gave speeches or they chatted with the editors. When Comrade Hu Qili was a standing member of the Politburo, he still came down to the newspaper to listen to ideas and made long and frank exchanges with us about propagandizing the news. When Comrade Chen Haosu was managing the newspaper, he wanted to understand the production process and he came in the middle of winter in a great coat and worked with the editors in the night shift until the newspaper was printed early morning. When Comrade Wang Zhaoguo became the first secretary of the League Central (I had previously interviewed him), he came to the newspaper to attend see the reporters who were participating in the national journalists' conference and he spoke with us in the crowded conference room. On festive occasions, Comrade Hu Jintao always dropped by to see us and speak with the department heads; afterwards, he always insisted on visiting with the kitchen staff.
In the early 1980's, during one of the Two Congresses, it was five or six o'clock in the evening and I was asked by the newspaper to interview the members of the Political Consultative Committee with a deadline of 10 pm. It so happened that Comrade Hu Jintao (who was the Standing Secretary of the League Central) was my neighbor. I knocked on his door and explained my situation. Comrade Hu suggested that I should interview the grassroots representatives instead. I said that the newspaper named him specifically and I said, "Whether you want to speak or not, you will have to speak." When Comrade Hu Jintao heard me say that, he let me interview him. He understood the nature of journalistic work -- at the time, I was a lowly reporter who had just entered the industry, but he was not offended by my very direct request for an interview.
When the League Central wanted to award the May 4 medal for the first time, the recipient was Qin Wengui who covered the story of the Xinjiang oilfields. It was important that his feats be publicized beforehand. As the League Central's party organ, we had the obvious obligation to report on this progressive person. According to the usual rules, the League Central only had to issue a directive to us. But what did League Central First Secretary Li Keqiang do? One day, the newspaper received a notice that the Assistant Editor-in-Chief and I should go to a meeting at the League Central Secretariat's office. Why was an ordinary editor asked to go to the meeting at the Secretariat? Well, it turns out that the Secretariat thought that the Freezing Point section of the newspaper was best at showcasing people and they wanted to meet with its editor to see how best to showcase Qin. On that day, Standing Secretary Liu Peng chaired the meeting and he said: "Datong, you are the expert. How to showcase this case will mainly depend on your advice ..." Wasn't that a wonderful leadership quality? Freezing Point was located on Page 8 and it does not usually have a propaganda role, but Comrade Liu Peng wanted to seek advice and I could only honestly offer my opinion in detail: "the conditions for creating a sensation like the Zhang Haidi case have disappeared, because readers today prefer to see an intimate but not unapproachable progressive character. If your reporting is 'tall, huge and complete,' the readers will resent it." In the end, Comrade Liu Peng asked me if I could assign an Freezing Point reporter for this promotion. Although I did not think that this was within my domain, I still assigned the best Freezing Point reporter and this Freezing Point personal showcase appeared as a front page headliner. Thereafter, the reports of Qin Wengui were followed everywhere. Some years later, our reporter interviewed Qin Wengui and asked him which was the most satisfying report of his. He replied: "The one that the Freezing Point reporter wrote." This was not the result of an order -- when the leader had such class and style, we were willing to step up.
One time, Comrade Li Keqiang came to the newspaper office to see the Editor-in-Chief on business. He passed by my office and came in to say: "Datong, your Freezing Point is becoming hot!" I joked with him: "You take care of millions of things every day. When do you have the time to read Freezing Point?" "But I read every issue, and I sometimes write commentary directly on the newspaper," he said. How many of the current leaders in the League Central Secretariat have spoken with our editors this way?
League Central Secretary Qiang Daming was a co-manager of the newspaper. One time, his secretary found him crying in his office. She peeked at what he was doing, and saw that he was reading an Freezing Point report and crying for the fates of the children in the report. When I heard this narration, I was touched. It showed that while the Secretaries at the League Central were our direct superiors, they still read the newspapers like ordinary readers and became moved in the same way. This is an expression of humanistic values, not 'official' values.
How many stories like these about the League Central Secretaries can be told by the veteran editors and reporters of this newspapers? Our editors-in-chief know even more. Xi Bingxuan had co-managed our newspaper while he was a standing deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department. When our Editor-in-Chief wanted to see him, he always asked his secretary to make time without ever refusing. When Comrade Hu Chunhua managed the newspaper, there was an Freezing Point report that was severely criticized by a certain provincial party committee. But after reading the research materials turned in by our reporter, Comrade Hu said: "It looks like we'll have to fight all the way!" After all, it was his home province! After a few rounds, whether it was inside the party or out in the courts, we never lost. If Comrade Hu had any concern about his official career or if he distrusted or disrespected the professionalism of our report, would he have taken that position?
These are the deeds and attitudes of our newspaper under the leadership of the various League Central Secretariats and the co-managing secretaries. I have worked here for so many years, and no editor has ever said that we are not a party newspaper or that we do not represent the ideas and opinions of the League Central organization. On the contrary, the various League Central Secretariat beginning with the democratic style of Comrade Hu Yaobang never imposed orders, they respected highly the operational procedures of the media and understood the difficulties of running a newspaper, and so they carefully led and loved this newspaper and accepted their own responsibilities. Who can deny that the high esteem for the China Youth Daily also belonged to the League Central?
The China Youth Daily did not develop from a vacuum to what it is today. It was influenced by the democratic style of Comrade Hu Yaobang and it was led by the various League Central Secretariats and through the combined efforts of everybody from the editors-in-Chief to the frontline editors and reporters, the China Youth Daily became a newspaper with "high social esteem, huge social influence and public trust." This became the most popular of all party newspapers. On account of this reputation, many editors and reporters prefer to work here their entire lives. Most university journalism graduates are proud to be able to get a job here. We know that party newspapers were created under special circumstances during wartime. After the People's Republic was founded, the system was continued. But the reality was that the financial capital, the workers' wages and the subscription fees from the party members really all came from the taxpayers. Therefore, a party newspaper is obliged to repay and satisfy the people. It is a requirement for a party to satisfy the readers and the people, or else we are finished.
When Zhao Yong co-managed this newspaper, he ought to understand how to continue the leadership principles and styles of the various League Secretariats of the past. But in his first meeting with the department heads and senior cadres, he took out a copy of the 1951 document from the founding of the newspaper and told us veterans that the China Youth Daily is a party newspaper, that it is a newspaper of the League Central and then he warned us that anyone who doesn't want to work here can leave. I criticized him immediately ... there has never ever been a League Central Secretary who came to the newspaper to speak in that kind of threatening tone about something so absurd and ridiculous!
Does that mean that prior to the arrival of the current League Central Secretariat's Li Erliang, the China Youth Daily was not a party newspaper and not a League Central newspaper? If you accept this viewpoint, then you will have denied all the leadership work prior to Zhou Qiang and Zhao Yong; you will have denied all the accomplishments by the previous publishers and editors-in-chief that are respected by peers; you will have denied the journalistic tradition of the China Youth Daily as a party newspaper and a League Central newspaper. And you will have denied the hard efforts made by all the previous generations of China Youth Daily journalists.
Does Zhao Yong really think that all these editors-in-chief and department heads did not even have that much commonsense? That they did not even know about this simple professional definition? That they did not have any professional self-knowledge? Of course not!
In a word, Zhao Yong looked at things completely opposite to the views of the various League Central Secretariats of the past. He believed that the China Youth Daily was not the party newspaper of his mind. His idea of a party newspaper is a father-son relationship. When the father yells, the son trembles; if the father wants the son to go north, the son would not dare go south. So how come this newspaper never seems to be able to act according to the will of others? Why does it periodically even offend official colleagues and pose a threat to my own career?
The very cold facts are that the China Youth Daily is facing serious problems in terms of surviving and developing. The circulation is decreasing from year to year. The advertising revenue is not worth mentioning. The newspaper had a significant operating deficit last year. At the same time, many urban newspapers have begun to look and act like mainstream newspapers, including their responsibility to report. They are getting better with the news and commentary. In terms of business, there are numerous newspapers that make hundreds of millions per year from advertisements ... the mainstream newspapers in China are now facing a bad situation in their business. This reflects the choice of the readers; it is also the choice of the market. As to how to deal with this highly competitive situation to restore the party newspapers to prominence, the choice is obvious. 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."
Yet how did Zhao Yong want to "lead" the party newspaper as the League Central Co-managing Secretary? He emphasized several times that the newspaper must cut out the "Youth Theme" section. He wanted to cut out Freezing Point Weekly; he was unsuccessfully but he cut out at least half the space; he wanted to eliminate the most popular scholars' column. He wanted to eliminate the influence of these brand-name sections. Zhao knew that from the various reader surveys over the years that these are the most read and most beloved sections (the average monthly levels are over 70%, being over 80% sometimes; Freezing Point had even gone as high as 92%), and these are also the highest rated brands according to the news professionals. Freezing Point was not only rated by the Central Propaganda Department as a "famous program of major central news media", it was also selected as the "best known news program in China by National Journalists Association (the National Journalists Association conducted a large-scale survey of readers in seven provinces and Freezing Point was number one in the nation). In another survey of county- and local-level party secretaries, Freezing Point and Youth Themes were ranked number 1 and 2 in readership. You told me yourself: "Don't I know what the readers want to see? My wife wants me to bring Wednesday's newspaper home because she wants to read Freezing Point!" Did you tell Zhao Yong that?
So why is anything that is loved and welcomed by the readers not suitable for the purpose and principles of a party newspaper? Is this Marx's news viewpoint? Is this dictated by the party's propaganda requirement? Is this consistent with Comrade Hu Jintao's new governing ideas for the Party Central?
Without doubt, these newly unveiled appraisal regulations exposed your and the current League Central Co-managing Secretary's true standards for evaluating a party newspaper -- that is, you watch to see if a small number of officials are satisfied. If they are satisfied, rewards are due. If their sensitivity and interests are disturbed and they criticize, then you will be punished! Without doubt, this is a total reversal of the principles and values of the previous League Central Secretariats.
You have your ideas about how to run a party newspaper. After attending a class on "opinion battle" for editors-in-chief, you told us back at the office that you have "finally totally understood." What did you understand? You understood that "propagandizing" comes from "needs." At the meeting, you pointed to our reporter who was covering the Ren Changxia case, "Everybody knows that the relationship between Ren Changxia and her husband was very tense, but when you write the case up, you should write that relationship as being better. This is a matter of need." You also offered the example of Kong Fansen. You said that you knew him well. Although he was a decent person, he has his flaws. "He is flesh and bone. He is full of emotions. When we propagandize him, we cannot talk about this side of him. We cannot mention his flaws. We must write about how good he is ..." You laughed and everybody laughed, as if we understood what "full of emotions" meant. As for "opinions", you "understood" how it came about. You can create rumors and tell lies. You said, "This was how America went to war against Iraq!"
Never mind whether America was like that or whether American media were like that. Even if that were true, we should not imitate their example. Creating rumors and lies based upon "needs" means making up and re-arranging facts. Such behavior have been thoroughly rejected by Chinese media, at the repeated insistence of the Central Propaganda Department. You came over from the People's Daily. Did the colleagues at People's Daily not reflect with pain and regret that their "propaganda" and "opinions" during the periods of the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution" caused grave damage to the country and the people? Are such behavior not to be rejected thoroughly forever by all party newspapers, including our newspaper? Did you not notice when you spoke about how you "finally totally understood," some people in the audience were snickering?
At the recently concluded national reporters' conference, I heard that you taught the reporters about your ideas on "planning news." Some years ago, Zhengzhou built a large bridge and the local officials wanted to show it off in People's Daily." There are hundreds and thousands of bridges in China, so how does the Zhengzhou bridge get onto the front page of the People's Daily. This was impossible. But at that time, you were the Henan reporter for People's Daily, so you 'planned' to have a couple who had been married for 50 years to be present on the bridge. Then this piece of 'news' landed on the front of the People's Daily (did you write that article?). You were proud of your creation, and you said that this was praised by then Henan Party Secretary Li Changchun. Perhaps you believe that this is how a party newspaper ought to be run. I have nothing to say about such ideas, except to tell you that I have never heard anything like that after working 26 years at this newspaper. If it was known that a reporter actively created 'news', our newspaper's rules say that not only will this 'news' be killed instantaneously, but that reporter will lose all his/her reputation.
In your inaugural speech as editor-in-chief, you described your experience on how you ran a newspaper as editor-in-chief. You said that the key was that you were "good at writing assessments." This means that you knew clearly that a report that is popular with the readers will often be criticized by your superiors. "Being good at writing assessments" means being good at handling these criticisms. This was an expert opinion that captures the dilemma that Chinese journalists, especially those working at party newspapers, face between popular reception and official criticism. All the department heads welcomed those remarks of yours with loud clapping.
But merely eight months later, you have made a 180 degree quick turn. At the national reporters' meeting, you declared: there will be no more criticisms from the supervisors. The reporters were happy because they won't have to be pressured! But you also said that a good report is one that will be praised by the various leaders. Which of these two totally opposite stands represents the real you? Do you know that even before the reporters' conference was over, many reporters went to see those editors who wrote criticisms that they regret that there won't be any more such in the future? Did you know that when many editors such as myself heard about this outcome, we felt an infinite despair? Did you know that many local reporters told me that this was the most 'dispiriting' and 'most disappointing' of all reporters' conferences? And one reporter told me that they were 'warned' before coming: "Don't speak out" at the conference. Who asked them and why did they ask the reporters to "shut up"? Is any of this normal?
A while ago, there was an 'incident' at the newspaper. The reason why this was called an incident was that this was turned into a document for the editorial committee. The target was photograph director He Yanguang's criticism of an article by one of our commentators. A special characteristic of the culture at this newspaper was that there are often free criticisms and counter-criticisms within our organization. The editors and reporters can see the exchange between different ideas and make their own judgment. But this was a relatively less important function, for it is the atmosphere of freely conducted debates that is the most important. Such practices encourage people to be honest, tolerant and open, and it is an invaluable spiritual resource for a national newspaper. I have taken on our deputy editor-in-chief Chen Xiaochuan as a debate opponent, by posting his criticism of an Freezing Point report next to my point-by-point rebuttal. This is quite normal within our newspaper. Just like the posting on the Internet, there are no restrictions and it does not affect our operations. Yet, this normal matter became an 'incident' and the editorial committee issued an "official document" for the first time in history over a normal internal criticism. The document was deceptive and ignorant in refuting He Yanguang's opinion and therefore set a bad precedent. The purpose of this document was clear: if you want to freely express criticisms, you better figure how much weight you carry around here!
In He Yanguang's post, he only pointed out a couple of things: "General Secretary Hu Jintao's directives were like a beacon that illuminated the forward direction of university students" and so on. There was sufficient basis to assert that this involved the cult of personality as well as using Cultural Revolution terminology. He Yanguang did not criticize the article as a whole. Quite the opposite, he and I have spoken with others that these kinds of commentary can be written and it can be written well, but it should never use the special terminology that was involved in the cult of the personality during the Cultural Revolution. This particular commentator was undoubtedly correct with respect to party rules and party standards about the contents of the comments. There is also no doubt that with the exception of the editorial committee, everybody agreed with He Yanguang's criticisms. Even the commentators did not disagree. Their director Li Fang said, "If I wrote anything like this, I would chop my hand off!" So this is a mysterious matter: those who were criticized were willing, even content, to be criticized, but the critic was criticized by the top leadership in the form of a document. The document did not mention whether there was any validity to the criticism; instead, it attacked the critic for inappropriate use of language. Meanwhile, the two principals continued to speak and communicate with each other without rancor.
Speaking of stopping the cult of personality, I have to tell a story. "How are you, Xiaoping?" was a classical news photograph. It was taken by He Yanguang. It was sent to the night shift in the editor-in-chief's office. At the time, the veteran journalist Wei Fangai was in charge and his first reaction was that "this cannot be released" on the ground that this was "advocating the cult of the personality"! After repeated explanations that this was a pure photograph that came spontaneously from university students, the editor on duty finally agreed to put the photograph on page 4 for only two columns wide. What did that say? It showed how serious our newspaper was against the cult of the personality. Nobody can deny that this was the culture at the China Youth Daily.
Meanwhile, at our League's fifteenth congress, we showed photographs of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao when they were the General Secretaries with young league members on the front page. Don't you think that our editors know how to handle that? But Zhao Yong was worried. Later, the night shift staff told me that Zhao came down personally and measured the sizes of the photographs and wondered where they ought to be placed. A League Central Secretary ended up volunteering as an editor. Why did he have to do something that was not his job? Because the next day, the special issue will be presented to the former and current General Secretaries of the Party. None of the other former League Central Secretaries ever had to go through this.
Comparing the two cases, do you think that the editorial committee ought to think about whether it was appropriate to issue a document that criticized the critic? How did the editorial committee reach a "consensus" on this? How kind of historical record will there be for the newspaper? Our feeling is that this is a shameful page in the cultural history of the China Youth Daily.
This non-incident has continued on as Commentary Department director Li Fang has decided to leave the newspaper. He is leaving the Youth Themes which he personally created and nurtured; he is leaving the page that has the greatest impact on "public opinion"; this is like his "son"! For some time, he told me that he was crying and having nightmares. When he saw the document from the editorial committee, his mind was made up. A few days ago, he came into my office and told me that "there shall be a resolution." I was wondering what needed to be "resolved" -- so this is what it is!
Previously, the workers at the Commentary Department held a meeting and asked their director Li Fang to see the editor-in-chief to clarify the bottom line for the conscience and shame of the commentators at our newspaper. He came to you in pain, but what did you say? You did not have the time to listen to a department director's explanation. You did not fairly discuss how to improve the commentary in the China Youth Daily in order to avoid the usage of "beacons" and other rotten terminology and thoughts that were a laughing stock to readers and other journalists. You said, "The values of the China Youth Daily are your values. The 'hidden script' is that my values are the values of the China Youth Daily!" Moreover, your tone gave him no further room for discussion. So what if he is unhappy? But now we know that a department director at the China Youth Daily answered to his own conscience -- he told the publisher Wang Hongyou: "I cannot be Zhao Yong's dog!"
This sentence will definitely go into the history of the newspaper -- he is the first department director who can walk out with this clear reason and he is a true man. Nobody can deny that he was forced out because our newspaper leader gave him no room left to hold his moral position. It is an incredible shame as well as sarcasm on us not to be able to hold on to this talented, creative and warm-hearted colleague. We cannot help but wonder with alarm: how many more colleagues with some sense of shame and conscience will follow the footsteps of Li Fang?
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?
When you first became a judge for the China Journalism Awards as the editor-in-chief of China Youth Daily, you came back and told us about how you worked hard to make sure that our newspaper received certain awards. You even said that you gave the good cigarettes that someone gave you to another group leader. You laughed at this as being "bribery." You wonder why nobody at this newspaper takes this "highest award" in Chinese journalism seriously. At two meetings, you demanded us to pay "a high level of attention" and you said that "the appraisal will depend on this because it is hardware ..."
Normally speaking, our newspaper ought to value this high-level rating by our peers, and work to find out how we can receive this honor. But a few years after these awards were established, one can no longer take it seriously. Not only is it fixed by "official" position (that is, the high-level media are guaranteed to receive more awards) and the judging also became a "great balancing act." The hosting newspaper is guaranteed to receive awards, and the other media will get awards too. Old Xu was a veteran judge for these awards, but I have never heard him explain the details of the judging, not even in private. He just came back and told us about the results. It was not worth speaking about, nor should he bother. If you had not come back and speak so colorfully about it in great detail, I really had no idea that it had been corrupted to such a disgusting extent. This is just a transaction made in the dark, with some minor intrigue. Who is going to respect the awards that came as a result of such 'judging'? How are the good works going to be recognized? The problem is at which point did you ever consider the rating of the readers about this newspaper? Why didn't you regard the reader's ratings as the hardware for appraisal in the same way, and it is even harder? Which newspaper has been welcomed by its readers because it received the large number of official awards?
When you became editor-in-chief, the office business meetings had a brand new sight. You read loudly with proper announcement from the "News Commentary." You often read the entire essay. This time, you openly inject the news commentator's praise or criticism as part of the editors and reporters' appraisal. Which Central Government document or Central Propaganda Department document gave this authority to the news commentators. Nobody! These people are just ordinary workers with the Central Propaganda Department, and their commentaries only reflect their personal opinions. What are their qualifications? What are their special experiences and education that qualify them to issue final verdicts that are beyond the challenge of the veteran editors-in-chief at various central news organizations?
The opinions of the news commentators is one part of the normal democratic life within the party. If they are sincere and look at the facts to make fair and correct commentator, we should regard them seriously. But if these kinds of criticisms are baseless, reified, partial, poorly argued and accusatory (and most of the criticism fall into category), then the criticized party should be able to follow the standard rules within the party and exercise the rights guaranteed by the party laws to offer counter-criticisms. Such is the normal way of party life. These days, the personal opinions of the news critics seemed to be Damocles' sword handing over the media's heads, which can fall any day due to some comrade leader's commentator (note: the comrade leaders at the Central Propaganda Department and the Central Government do not have the time to compare the original article with the criticisms)! The reality is that the editor-in-chiefs at the criticized newspaper often disagree with these news criticisms, but they seldom protest in accordance to the party regulations, because this would create an impression of "resisting one's superiors" and therefore all those intra-party democratic regulations are vacuous.
These news commentaries are released fairly frequently, sometimes two to three issues per week, and so this became the decisive factor for "directing" the various news units. An abnormal situation has arisen in which the news units are trying to get close to the news commentator groups; they seek relationships; they treat them to banquets and they present expensive presents, usually with the publisher and editor-in-chief as hosts. They hope that the news commentators will have mercy and write fewer critical notes and more praises. To put it bluntly, there is a new corrupt form of behavior inside the party.
Soon after you arrived at this newspaper, you feted the news commentators' group. If this was purely for the 'safety' of the newspaper, that is understandable (this is spending the blood-and-sweat money of all the workers at the newspaper). But we now see that you are taking the personal opinion of these people and making them the basis of the punishment/reward system for the editors and reporters. You have just given away the right of life and death over the editors and reporters. What for? Who gave them that power? Did you? Did the editorial committee? Did the Party Group talk about this? I don't think so. Because this is too absurd. It has no basis according to party regulations or national law. This seriously violates the legal rights of the editors and reporters.
Apart from criticisms, the news commentators group holds another weapon. That is, they can praise any newspaper that they want to praise. Within the current abnormal party life, this becomes a resource for a party leader to get a promotion. Driven by personal political interests, some people will rush to get these "praises" and even exchange interests in order to obtain them. I have heard many people said that a certain Central Propaganda Department News Bureau leader is a university classmate of yours, and some of the praises for our newspaper was in fact written by our own staff and turned over to the news commentators group for release. I dare not and I do not want to believe that this could be true. I would rather say "rumor." But the worse thing is that if all the various provincial "letters of praise" were all written by the principals themselves and then shipped out for an official stamp before returning it back in, then this appraisal system is going to lead to a lot of disgraceful 'transactions' -- will these things not happen? Unfortunately, I have heard about these rumors. I have no right to investigate the veracity of these rumors, but the editorial committee has the obligation to investigate and impose major sanctions if necessary; even if there is nothing there, this must still be clarified because these rumors are spreading like poison gas inside the newspapers and causing people to lapse ...
As for the new appraisal system, there are many more things to say. For example, there are many improper aspects in terms of technical and detail issues. But these are not the core problem. The core problem is the problem of the direction of the values. The appraisal problem is going to enslave, emasculate and vulgarize the China Youth Daily. As a veteran editor who has given the best 26 years of his life to the China Youth Daily, I am speaking on behalf of all the colleagues in my department as well as colleagues in other departments who agree with me. I ask the party as well as the editorial committee to reconsider the foundations and contents of the Appraisal Regulations. If you insist on going forward, then it will be clear that the China Youth Daily will collapse within two to three years. Who wants to see such an outcome? Who is going to be held responsible for such an outcome? Who wants to recorded as the sinner in the history of the newspaper?
Looking at the Appraisal Regulations, we can no longer keep silent. We must publicly express our opinions. Every colleague who accepts the values of the China Youth Daily has no reason to stay silent any more. This is our right, as well as the tradition under which we live. Silence equals downfall; silence is to let the glorious China Youth Daily die in front of our generation ...
(Washington Post) The Click That Broke a Government's Grip. Philip P. Pan. February 19, 2006.
The top editors of the China Youth Daily were meeting in a conference room last August when their cell phones started buzzing quietly with text messages. One after another, they discreetly read the notes. Then they traded nervous glances.
Colleagues were informing them that a senior editor in the room, Li Datong, had done something astonishing. Just before the meeting, Li had posted a blistering letter on the newspaper's computer system attacking the Communist Party's propaganda czars and a plan by the editor in chief to dock reporters' pay if their stories upset party officials.
No one told the editor in chief. For 90 minutes, he ran the meeting, oblivious to the political storm that was brewing. Then Li announced what he had done.
The chief editor stammered and rushed back to his office, witnesses recalled. But by then, Li's memo had leaked and was spreading across the Internet in countless e-mails and instant messages. Copies were posted on China's most popular Web forums, and within hours people across the country were sending Li messages of support.
The government's Internet censors scrambled, ordering one Web site after another to delete the letter. But two days later, in an embarrassing retreat, the party bowed to public outrage and scrapped the editor in chief's plan to muzzle his reporters.
The episode illustrated the profound impact of the Internet on political discourse in China, and the challenge that the Web poses to the Communist Party's ability to control news and shape public opinion, key elements to its hold on power. The incident also set the stage for last month's decision to suspend publication of Freezing Point, the pioneering weekly supplement that Li edited for the state-run China Youth Daily.
Eleven years after young Chinese returning from graduate study in the United States persuaded the party to offer Internet access to the public, China is home to one of the largest, fastest-growing and most active populations of Internet users in the world, according to several surveys. With more than 111 million people connected to the Web, China ranks second to the United States.
Although just a fraction of all Chinese go online -- and most who do play games, download music or gossip with friends -- widespread Internet use in the nation's largest cities and among the educated is changing the way Chinese learn about the world and weakening the Communist Party's monopoly on the media. Studies show China's Internet users spend more time online than they do with television and newspapers, and they are increasingly turning to the Web for news instead of traditional state outlets.
The government has sought to control what people read and write on the Web, employing a bureaucracy of censors and one of the world's most technologically sophisticated system of filters. But the success of those measures has been mixed. As a catalyst that amplifies voices and accelerates events, the Internet presents a formidable challenge to China's authoritarian political system. Again and again, ordinary Chinese have used it to challenge the government, force their opinions to be heard and alter political outcomes.
The influence of the Web has grown over the past two years, even as President Hu Jintao has pursued the country's most severe crackdown on the state media in more than a decade. The party said last week that Freezing Point would resume publishing, but Li and a colleague were fired, making them the latest in a series of editors at state publications to lose their jobs.
With newspapers, magazines and television stations coming under tighter control, journalists and their audiences have sought refuge online. The party's censors have followed, but cyberspace in China remains contested terrain, where the rules are uncertain and an eloquent argument can wield surprising power.
They clashed from the start, two men named Li with conflicting ideas of what a newspaper should be.
One was the maverick editor Li Datong, 52, a tall man with a scholarly air who had spent his entire career at the China Youth Daily and helped turn the official organ of the Communist Youth League into one of the country's best papers. After the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, he nearly lost his job for leading journalists in a petition drive seeking freedom of the press.
The other was the new editor in chief, Li Erliang, 50, short in stature and slick in manner, a favorite of the propaganda authorities who made his reputation running the party's official mouthpiece in Tibet. He was an outsider at the Daily, a product of the party apparatus who was sent in to get the paper's feisty staff under control.
One night soon after his arrival in December 2004, the new editor stopped the presses and tore out Li Datong's Freezing Point section because it contained an article criticizing the Chinese education system. The next morning, the chief editor went to Li Datong's office to explain, but Li was furious and refused to talk to him. He just kept writing, banging on his keyboard and ignoring his new boss, colleagues recalled.
Relations between the two men only got worse. The party's propaganda department had targeted Freezing Point in its media crackdown because it often published investigative reports that embarrassed officials, as well as essays on history, society and current events that challenged the party line. Colleagues said Li Erliang, who declined to be interviewed, tried to rein in the section to please his superiors. Li Datong, who spoke out after Freezing Point was suspended, said he fought to protect it.
"The propaganda department wanted to shut us down, and we were under a lot of pressure," he said. "They tried to get rid of our columnists and cut the size of the section and take away reporters, but we resisted."
Then, in August, Li Erliang proposed a point system for awarding bonuses to the paper's staff members. Reporters would receive 100 points if their articles were praised by provincial officials, 120 if praised by the propaganda department and 300 if praised by a member of the Politburo. Points would be deducted if officials criticized articles. Just one report that upset a party leader could mean loss of a month's salary.
The newsroom simmered with anger, reporters said. But Li Datong saw an opening to fight back. "The plan was just stupid," he said. "A newspaper can evaluate reporters that way, and many do, but it can't be so blatant about it."
Li holed up in his apartment, and two days later, emerged with a 13,000-word letter that denounced the point system, saying it would "enslave and emasculate" the paper, cause circulation to plummet and put the Daily out of business.
He also painted a damning picture of the propaganda apparatus. He described an official who measured photos of two party leaders before publication to make sure neither man would be offended. He wrote about a senior editor who resigned in protest over an obsequious column that compared President Hu's words to "a lighthouse beacon, pointing and illuminating the way for China's students." And he attacked the party's censors, questioning their legitimacy and alleging they favored publishers who showered them with gifts and banquets.
Li saved his harshest words for his new boss. But he crafted his letter carefully, citing the support of generations of party leaders for the paper's journalism and even quoting Karl Marx to make the case that editors should put readers first.
He showed the letter to a few colleagues and to the reporters on his staff. Then, on Aug. 15, at 10:09 a.m., he posted it on the newsroom's computer system. "I hoped it would have an impact," he said. "I never expected what happened next."
System of Censorship
Every Friday morning, executives from a dozen of China's most popular Internet news sites are summoned downtown by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, an agency that reports to the party's propaganda department.
The man who usually runs the meetings, Chen Hua, director of the Internet Propaganda Management Department, declined to be interviewed. But participants say he or one of his colleagues tells the executives what news they should keep off their sites and what items they should highlight in the week ahead.
These firms are private enterprises, and several, including Sina, Sohu and Yahoo! China, are listed on U.S. stock exchanges or have attracted U.S. investment. But because they need licenses to operate in China, they comply with the government's requests.
The meetings are part of a censorship system that includes a blacklist of foreign sites blocked in China and filters that can stop e-mail and make Web pages inaccessible if they contain certain keywords. Several agencies, most notably the police and propaganda authorities, assign personnel to monitor the Web.
The system is far from airtight. Software can help evade filters and provide access to blacklisted sites, and Internet companies often test the censors' limits in order to attract readers and boost profits. If an item isn't stopped by the filters and hasn't been covered in the Friday meetings, the government can be caught off guard.
That is what happened with Li Datong's letter. Minutes after he posted it, people in the newsroom began copying it and sending it to friends via e-mail and the instant messaging programs used by more than 81 million Chinese.
"We had to move quickly, before they started blocking it," recalled one senior editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer and advocate of journalists' rights, said he received a copy at 10:20 a.m., 11 minutes after Li posted the original. He forwarded it to 300 people by e-mail and sent it to others using Microsoft's MSN Messenger program. Then he began posting it on some of the bulletin board sites that have proliferated in China.
At 11:36 a.m., Pu put the memo on a popular forum called Yannan. Then he noticed that someone had posted a copy on another part of the site.
About the same time, the editors' meeting at the China Youth Daily ended and Li Erliang rushed back to his office. Colleagues said he contacted superiors in the propaganda department and the Communist Youth League after reading the memo.
Neither the government's censors nor the editors at the major Web sites had begun deleting the letter, yet. Some editors said they waited because it didn't challenge the party's authority or discuss subjects that were clearly off-limits, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. At the same time, the official censors either failed to spot the memo or hesitated to act because they were worried that some senior officials might support Li Datong's views, editors said.
As they waited, the letter continued to spread.
At 12:17 p.m., it appeared on an overseas news site run by the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and minutes later on others managed by exiled dissidents. These sites are blocked in China, but many people access them using software that slips past the government's firewall.
By 1:30 p.m., a prominent blogger, Li Xinde, had downloaded the memo. He said he sent it using China's top instant messaging service, QQ, to more than 20 chat groups, each with 30 to 40 members. By 2 p.m., the memo had been posted on popular university Web sites.
The document was spreading so fast that many people received multiple copies. A writer in Anhui province said that when he went online to check his e-mail at 2:30 p.m., four friends immediately offered to send him the memo on MSN Messenger. But two copies were already in his inbox, including one that had been sent to 1,000 people.
Race in Cyberspace
It was midafternoon before someone in the party bureaucracy decided Li Datong's letter should be removed from Chinese cyberspace and government officials began calling executives at the major Web sites.
Some said they were contacted by the Beijing Municipal Information Office, others by its national-level counterpart, the State Council Information Office. None reported receiving a formal notice or any legal justification for the decision. As usual, they were just told to delete the offending material.
There are at least 694,000 Web sites in China, according to official statistics, and the party didn't try to contact them all. They called the most popular sites in Beijing first. Hours passed before some smaller bulletin board sites were notified. Forums with national audiences in other cities received calls only at the end of the day.
At a recent news briefing, Liu Zhengrong, a senior Internet affairs official in the State Council Information Office, declined to explain the legal basis for the orders, saying only that many comments about the China Youth Daily remained on the Web.
Even as Li's memo began disappearing from some Web sites, it went up on others the authorities had not contacted. Shortly before 10 p.m., it was posted on the popular Tianya forum. At 11 p.m., it became a featured item on Bokee, China's top blog and portal site.
Almost everywhere the letter appeared, users added hundreds of comments backing the reporters of the China Youth Daily. Inside the newsroom, spirits were buoyed. Some journalists posted notes on the internal computer system supporting Li Datong.
The next morning, officials continued calling Web sites, but readers started posting the memo on sites that had already removed it. Some Web site managers said they tried to drag their feet or leave copies on less prominent pages. One said the memo was viewed 30,000 times before he took it down.
But other Web sites added Li Datong's name to keyword filters used to block sensitive material from being posted.
At 2:15 p.m., Li Erliang distributed a rebuttal on the China Youth Daily's internal network. It was quickly leaked, too, triggering another wave of e-mails and postings.
Authorities were scrambling for a way to end the controversy. A few hours after Blog-City, an overseas blogging site, was blocked, the party announced in a rare retreat that it was ditching Li Erliang's point system.
"It was a breakthrough, and the Internet played a critical role," said Xu Zhiyong, a civil rights lawyer in Beijing. "If something is written well enough, they can't stop it from spreading. People will find a way to read it."
Freezing Point enjoyed a renaissance in the months that followed. Li Erliang appeared chastened, unwilling to risk another fight he might lose, reporters said.
But in January, propaganda officials finally shut down the section. Before doing so, they called executives from all the major Web sites to a special meeting and warned them not to allow any discussion of the action.
The news spread quickly anyway.