The Beginning of Freedom of Press

The following is the translation of an essay by veteran journalist Qian Gang (錢鋼).  This essay came from the book entitled 舊聞記者.  This title is bit difficult to translate.  Usually, the term for a reporter/journalist is 新聞記者, which literally means a "recorder of news."  In Chinese as well as in English, 'news' is information which is 'new.'  However, Qian Gong's project here was a review of certain newspaper articles in the year 1945.  So this is about 'old news' (舊聞).

Out of the 50 essays collected in the book, this one was selected because of its possible relevance to the near future.

As Of Today, There Is Freedom Of Press

It was alleged that after the Nationalists retreated in defeat to Taiwan, they made a summary of the bitter lessons.  Among those lessons was that they eliminated censorship immediately after the war and therefore gave too much freedom to the press.  The wartime censorship system was removed by the Nationalists on October 1, 1945.  <Ta Kung Po> could not withhold its excitement and wrote in its editorial: "As for today, there is freedom of press."

When we read the <Ta Kung Po> of yesteryear, we often see their enthusiasm, emotionalism and innocence.  At the time, they not only believed that freedom of press had arrived in China and they even seriously contemplated the prospects rationally and made preparations for this "freedom."

When the Nationalists first established a national government, they stated their party's policies with respect to journalism very clearly, such as: "all narratives, works ... must follow the Three People's Principles (of Sun Yat-sen)", "the newspaper industry must pay attention to guiding and instructing the people," "they must never work against the national interests," and so on.  After the success of the northern expedition, the Nationalists began to establish a press censorship system and published "Regulations to guide party newspapers," "Regulations to guide ordinary publications" and "Regulations on examining publications."  

After the 9/18 incident in 1931, the Nationalists implemented the "pre-publication censorship" system on the grounds that the international situation was deteriorating.  After the 7/7 incident in 1937, this turned into the tight "wartime news censorship" system.  In 1943, the "Laws on journalists" was announced and the media became tightly controlled.

I read the "Penalties for violating controls" and the feeling of familiarity really made me pensive!

1. Warning
2. Severe warning
3. Confiscation of the newspaper article or the newspaper page
4. Replacement of editorial staff
5. Temporary suspension of the publication
6. Permanent closure of the publication.

The "white space" skylight in an editorial titled:
"Our protest after reading Mr. Chiang Kai-shek's
congratulatory message"

The control over the journalists were made mostly through the validation of journalists' qualifications and the approval, issuance and cancellation of press passes.  The power lied with the Nationalist government's Ministry of Interior Affairs Department as well as the "Journalists/Reporters Unions" controlled by the Nationalists at the provincial and municipal levels.

Then all of a sudden those bad laws had become waste paper and "freedom" fell down from the skies!  Yet <Ta Kung Po> maintained a certain cool-headedness.  It pointed out that for a long time, Chinese newspapers were deformed and their readers were deformed as well.  The newspapers were deformed because almost all of the major newspapers were located in the lease areas in Shanghai or Tianjin that were "protected" by foreign nations.  As long as they did not offend the foreigners, they had the "deformed freedom" to criticize or heap abuse on the Chinese government at will.  In this unfree environment, the readers were deformed because they had the deformed notion that "a good newspaper is one that scolds people."  Following the termination of the news censorship system, it was necessary to build a genuine freedom of press in China such that it could become the impetus for progressive democratic governance in China.

Here is an analogy which may not be entirely appropriate: Let us suppose that there is a prisoner who had been wearing leg manacles for many years; once those manacles are removed, he does not know how to lift his legs anymore.  At a time when freedom of press is beginning, the press has to be grateful that the restraints have been removed on one hand.  On the other hand, the press needs to step forward steadily and not trip over through carelessness. (1945 October 1, <Ta Kung Po> editorial entitled "The Beginning of Freedom of Press.")

The Chinese Communists hold two barrels -- the barrel of the pen and the barrel of the gun -- and they did not bother with these intellectual opinions.  The Nationalists had just eliminated the news censorship system, and it was very important for the Chinese Communists: they must seize the opportunity!  The Chinese Communists decided to send people to Shanghai and Nanjing and immediately start newspapers that "appear to be with the masses."  On the same month that the Nationalists eliminated the press censorship system, bookstores that published the works of Mao Zedong and Communist Party works opened in Shanghai.

For the next two to three years after October 1954, the Nationalists continued to conduct news censorship in the "recovered areas."  The Chinese Communists were ultimately unsuccessful in publishing newspapers in Shanghai and Nanjing.  But press freedom was like a flooded river overflowing the gates and there was an unprecedented situation of press freedom that had never been matched since.  You can understand why the people who are still fighting for freedom of press sixty years later would look back wistfully to those days in their present adverse conditions.  But I would rather record those reflections about press freedom because they have not lost their values even now.  Yes, history shall be repeated.