China's Media Crackdown Grows

Chang Ping, one of the most respected and outspoken journalists in China, has been sacked by his employer, the Southern Media Group. He has been barred from updating his Sina microblog. His personal blog in Tianya.com, one of China's major Internet protocols, is also blocked.

Chang's management told him last month that his contract will not be renewed, also without giving him a reason. "I was told that there is too much pressure. It is probably because I continue to write," he told Asia Sentinel.

Chang is not alone. China had already taken a series of actions against others in the media before his dismissal. An editor of Time Weekly, a Guangdong-based magazine, was placed on involuntary leave after publishing a list of 100 grassroots influential figures, which included jailed milk activist Zhao Lianhai and other dissidents. Another journalist in Chengdu was sacked because his report contained a factual error that stirred up debate over whether an influential figure got preferential treatment.

The number of journalists jailed has risen sharply in the last year, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, propelled by a series of imprisonments of Uyghur and Tibetan journalists who were handed jail terms after writing about ethnic tensions and violent local demonstrations.

Crusading journalists in China are always trying to breakthrough official restrictions. With China's opening to the world, media are increasingly tolerant of different voices. However, officials still will not wait to take action when the journalists have crossed the line.

The 42-year-old Chang told Asia Sentinel that his upbringing wasn't unique. He was taught Marxism at schools, he said, but he started reading about different political ideologies at university. As China started to open up, the media started to emphasize content that readers wanted. Publications under the Southern Media Group, such as the Southern Metropolis Daily, in particular printed articles considered sharp and radical by local readers.

"I think expanding the scope of speech is basically the main duty of the media. It should be my mission," Chang said. "Speaking is the right of every one."

Chang thought he was staying within the boundary until 2008, when he wrote that foreign media should be allowed to go to Tibet to report the ethnic riots and there should be dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. He said he was well aware of the sensitivity of the topic, but had not expected the huge reaction after publication.

"I just thought that we could discuss the problem of China Central Television's reports when we were criticizing the Western media...And it is time to discuss how to solve ethnic issues," he said.

Chang was denounced as a traitor. Last July, he was banned from writing for the Southern Metropolis Daily and the Southern Weekend, another publication under the Southern Media Group, but he still continued to write. He was dealt another severe blow last month when he was told his contract wouldn't be renewed

There have always been demands for more freedom for the press and abolition of censorship in China. Last year, 23 former Chinese leaders issued an open letter, asking for respects to journalists and independent operation of media organizations.

There was no official response to the letter, but an article published in Seeking Truth, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said opening up the media would lead to "painful consequences" and accused the reformed media as well as political reform of causing the collapse of the USSR.

"(The media) not only failed to serve their role as mouthpieces of the party and the government, preserving a degree of fighting spirit and social responsibility, but even standing against the party and the government, carried out irresponsible criticism and censure of the party and the government," the authors wrote.

"The facts show that Gorbachev's news reforms brought collapse from the inside within a few short years of socialist ideology that the Soviet Union had painstakingly built over decades," the article says. "Russian media journalists became the final force pushing over the edifice of the Soviet Union."

It went to say that Russia went through 10 years of instability and decline after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and only the strengthening of controls on the media by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had resulted in economic recovery and political stability.

Some officials in China, Chang said, believe the lack of control on media is one of the reasons behind the collapse of communist regime in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

In China, a series of major events will enable the country to gain global attention this year. Some include the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty, and the 90th anniversary of birth of the Communist Party in China. Whenever there are major events, the grip on the press will be tightened in order to maintain "social harmony".

Controls have already been strengthened since last year when Google threatened to quit China and Liu Xiaobo was granted the Nobel Peace Prize.

In some occasions, writing on less politically sensitive topics may still put journalists in trouble. Qiu Ziming, a reporter with the Economic Observer newspaper, became the object of a police search last year in Zhejiang on charges of damaging a company's prestige and image after publishing a series of reports alleging insider trading involving a listed company. The wanted order was later dropped by police.

The belief on the part of Chang and others that the environment for the press will harden because of the unrest in the Middle East is already coming true. On January 5, the state-run Xinhua News Agency carried a brief report describing a closed meeting of officials in charge of controlling the party's message and the media industry in Beijing. A photo showed that it was attended by Chen Kuiyuan, a vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who praised Deng Xiaoping for slapping the "bourgeois liberalization" down in 1989.

Chen's presence at the meeting is a reminder that journalists have to stay in the line in 2011, wrote David Bandurski, a researcher of China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, in the project website.

Chang said social discontent in China has risen not because of the press but because large segments of society have not benefited from the country's rapid economic development, and that many are frustrated by forced demolitions and lack of official responses to their petitions. Media suppression, he said, will intensify the discontent and tension, not abate it.