China takes step backward in media openness

Thursday, June 26, 2003

By Evelyn Iritani ~ Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- You won't find the June 20 edition of China's hard-hitting Caijing economic journal at newsstands here. That issue, featuring articles on the SARS outbreak and a high-profile Shanghai real estate scandal, appears to be the latest victim of a government retreat from a brief period of post-SARS openness.

The clampdown on China's media is particularly ironic, coming the same week that Gao Qiang, the country's executive vice minister of health, assured the world that Chinese leaders had learned a painful lesson about the need to "face up" to problems exposed by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

His comments came during a news conference at which the World Health Organization announced the lifting of a SARS-related advisory against travel to Beijing and took the capital city off the list of SARS-related areas. SARS, which surfaced in southern China in November, has infected nearly 8,500 people globally, killing at least 800.

Road to disclosure

There are clearly limits to just how far China's leadership is willing to travel down the path of full disclosure, particularly when it means stepping on influential toes. For those who speculated that the SARS crisis might spark greater freedom for China's heavily controlled media, the latest restrictions are a reminder that sharp divisions remain within the government about the wisdom of greater transparency.

"There seems to be a mini-conservative backlash in the aftermath of SARS," said Richard Baum, a China expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I think the current leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao may have gotten out in front of some of the leadership on the issue of greater media openness and candor."

The more restrictive reporting environment coincides with an effort by the Chinese government to clean up its bloated media. Newspapers and magazines have been ordered to stop taking subscriptions while the government reviews their books and weeds out those that are unprofitable or corrupt.

During the height of the SARS panic, Chinese leaders criticized for their handling of the outbreak eased up on their controls over the domestic media. Aggressive weekly journals such as Caijing, Sanlian Life Weekly and China Newsweek, which is not related to the U.S. magazine, wrote extensively on allegations by military doctor Jiang Yan-yong of a SARS cover-up, the resultant sacking of the mayor of Beijing and the country's health minister and the vulnerability of the rural health system.

But in recent weeks, Chinese officials have started reining in journalists writing on those and other sensitive subjects. Beijing New Times, a small newspaper run by the Worker's Daily Group, a large government newspaper company, was closed after it published an essay in its June 4th issue that included the National People's Congress, a largely ceremonial body, on a list of "China's Seven Disgusting Things."

In Sichuan province, a reporter for the Chengdu Business News was ordered this week to drop her coverage of a scandal in which a 3-year-old girl allegedly died of starvation at her home while her mother was in police custody. The reporter said she was so upset by the muzzling that she posted her unpublished story on the Internet, where it provoked a huge outpouring of support from angry readers.

The editor of one influential Beijing magazine said Wednesday that a Communist Party propaganda official visited his office the previous day with instructions on covering a number of sensitive topics, including the death of a young graphic designer, Sun Zhigang, in police custody in Guangzhou. That case triggered a debate about police brutality, and the State Council, the country's Cabinet, responded this week by banning torture, extortion and other abuses in holding centers for unregistered migrants.

Also designated for special treatment were financial scandals involving two prominent Chinese tycoons, Zhou Zhengyi and Yang Bin. Zhou, a 42-year-old real estate speculator, is accused of improperly obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from high-placed Shanghai officials. Yang, who has been accused of tax evasion, was a high-flying entrepreneur tapped by North Korea to run an experimental development zone in that country.

The Beijing editor, who asked to remain unnamed, said his staff members were told that they could report on those cases but should "keep the same tune" as the New China News Agency, the government's official propaganda arm.

In spite of the recent setbacks, the veteran Beijing journalist remains optimistic that China's new leaders will eventually prevail. "The new government advocates the openness and reform of the media," he said.

Caijing is expected to survive, though its staff is clearly under pressure.

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