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China: How a media professional upholds his liberal values

In China’s illiberal media environment, Zhang Ping (pen name Chang Ping) is a rare liberal breed. To maintain an independent voice in China’s heavily censored media is a fundamental dilemma, and, as the experience of Chang Ping shows, it often takes a sense of martyrdom to do so.

Chang Ping has served as news editor at the Southern Weekend and deputy chief editor at the Southern Metropolitan Weekly. Both newspapers are part of the state-run Southern Media Group, a Guangzhou-based family of papers known for its aggressive reporting of sensitive political issues and widely regarded as one of China’s liberal bastions in the print media.

In 2007, Chang Ping was honored as one of China’s most influential columnists by the Southern Weekend. In 2008, following the wake of anti-Chinese protests in Tibet, he wrote several editorials about Tibet, including the controversial piece ‘How to find the truth about Lhasa?’, in which he called on the government to allow more media freedom in covering Tibet. He was sacked from his job at the Southern Metropolitan Weekly.

According to the China Media Project, Chang Ping was prevented by authorities in August this year from writing for the Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan Daily. Cartoonist Kuang Biao depicts Chang Ping’s predicament with a cartoon in which the journalist was bound in an ominous stranglehold:

When I heard the news a few days back, I drew this picture in a complete fury! I’ve said that I want to use caricatures to spend my remaining years recording what I witness in our society, because I am a comic artist who deals with current events. This person is a true citizen. And this is predicament right now . . . His name is Chang Ping.

In a recent interview with the Taiwan newspaper Wang Bao, Chang Ping reflected on the innate conflicts between his liberal beliefs and working in the state-controlled media.

Temptations in the Chinese Media

Because of the influential role of the media, it is often a target of cooptation by the Chinese government. Chang Ping shares his responses to temptations from the government:

媒体人在中国不是弱势群体,媒体人的权力是非常大的,特别是你愿意跟权力合作的话,可能会有很多好处。现在的权力会直接诱惑你,合作一个项目,钱很多,用起来很随便,不公开,不受监督。前几天有个宣传部长来找我,请我帮他写点宣传文章,我拒绝了。事实上,这是可以跟对方商量的,可以写的不那么赤裸裸,可以骗老百姓觉得是作者真的想写的文章。像我这样拒绝的人不多。

The media profession in China is not a disadvantaged group. It has great power, especially when it is willing to cooperate with the government. The rulers will employ various temptations, such as projects or monetary benefits with little public scrutiny and strings attached. A few days ago an official from the propaganda department invited me to write a propaganda article for them, which I have rejected. In fact, I could well discuss with them the tone of the article, so that the propaganda is not so explicit and create a false impression among readers that this is what I really want to write about. There are not many people like me who reject the offer outright.

中国媒体的影响力很大,所以媒体堕落、做坏事的机会比别的地方多。现在也是几股力量在较量,政府部门想给媒体好处,而很多媒体造反是为了被招安,包括南方报业里也有这样的媒体人,想被招安,官员请他吃顿饭就很高兴。我对这些比较警惕,中国媒体的反抗是不清晰的。媒体会成为一个利益集团,与其去看媒体可以开拓很多空间,不如看到、更要看到媒体很容易干坏事。

Because the Chinese media has great power, the temptation for it to do evil is great. Currently there are several forces confronting each other. The government wants to offer advantages to the media. At the same time, many media professionals, including some in the Southern Media Group, rebel just for the sake of being co-opted. They would be very happy if officials invite them for dinners. I’m very alert to cooptation. The revolt by the Chinese media is not always clear-cut, and it is easy for the media to become an interest group. Rather than seeing the media as a pioneer of opening up the space for free discussion, it would be more important to realize its tendency to do evil.

The conflict between being a writer and an official

China is a country with a strong emphasis on administrative system. Every professional administrator could be corresponded into an official rank. An editor in a newspaper is therefore equivalent to an official, and Chang Ping reflects on the conflict between his writing and being an ‘official’:

做官和作文是有冲突的,做官最大的密诀就是「不说话」,这跟民主社会不一样,民主社会是要多说话。我们的国家领导人主政之后,国内外媒体都会说他「很神秘」,但我们很难想象:欧巴马是个神秘的人,大家都不了解他,突然就当上了总统。可是在我们这里,为官之道就是「少说」,这个政治特点影响了每个行业。

Writing and being an official is contradictory. The secret of success for an official is ‘don’t say anything.’ This is different from a democratic society, in which speaking out is the norm. After a Chinese official join the rank of the high leadership, the media will often say he is ‘very secretive.’ But it is difficult for us to imagine that Obama is a secretive person, and suddenly becomes the US president when we know very little about him. In China, officials say little, and this characteristic affects every profession.

很多人文章写得很漂亮,不写了,我很遗憾,但大陆人为何多要选择当官这条路,因为中国官本位文化太强,所有优势资源都倾向于官僚体系,当官权力大,没有监督,办事容易,收入高,享受多。

Many people write excellent articles, and it is a pity that they decide not to write any more. Because of the strong orientation towards the bureaucracy, many people in China choose to be officials. With most resources tilted towards the bureaucratic system, officials enjoy a lot of benefits without much checks and balances.

我自己也矛盾,几次下来,几次又混上去,按照体制内说法,就是没管好这张嘴,还想发言,觉得自己有些想法,有这个能力、机会表达出来。我觉得媒体不缺管理者,但是缺做事的,所以我愿意在这方面多做点。而且我在做媒体管理时,多数是做采编,也是希望中国的言论状况有改变,有正常的言论空间。

Experiencing the ups and downs myself, I feel the contradictions. According to parlance in the system, I have not ‘properly controlled my mouth.’ I have the urge to express what I think, and I have the ability and channels to do so. I think that what the media profession is lacking is not administrators, but those who do the ‘real stuff’. I am willing to contribute more on this. The reason I chose to be an editor is because I wish to improve the freedom of speech in China.

Testing the boundaries

Finally, Chang Ping shares his beliefs and principles of being a journalist while staying in the game in an authoritarian system:

我不想把自己搞得完全不能在大陆发文章,不想只写给美国人看,没意思。我希望更多大陆人看到,但另一方面,我绝对不能因为这样就委屈自己。我,包括南方报业集团的许多同仁,不是一下子站到对岸去,而是在试探边界。对极权体制来说,边界是不清楚的,它不是法治社会,边界明晰,我们要去领会领导的精神。

I don’t want my articles to be completely banned in China. It is not that meaningful to write only for the Americans. I hope more Chinese could read my articles. On the other hand, I cannot let this to be an excuse to abandon my principles. But a lot of my colleagues in the Southern Media Group, together with myself, do not regard ourselves as the opposite force against the government, but instead are continuously testing the boundaries. An authoritarian system is not like a rule-of-law society, and the boundaries are not always clear. This requires understanding of the leadership’s thoughts.

空间有多大?不知道,不去撑就不知道。试图撑大空间,把边界扩展,我要做的是这个。但这的确是很难,很多人觉得你螳臂挡车,太自大了。

How large is the space? No one knows, no one knows if you don’t try. What I am trying to do is to expand that space and boundary. But this is difficult. Many people think that I am confronting a stone wall with an egg, and that I think too big of myself.

我只是希望能够对得起自己的性格和观念。媒体有时候管得紧,有的时候管得松。紧的时候可能连现在这个位置都没有,松的时候或许有机会做得更多,不管如何,我只能在能说的时候尽量说。

But I am just acting according to my characters and beliefs. Media censorship is sometimes tight, sometimes lax. When it is tight, perhaps I cannot even hold my current position. When it is lax, maybe there chances to do more. No matter what, I can only say as much as I can.

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