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:
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.
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’:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.