Sun, Jan 01, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Editors stand up to Beijing

Reports that hundreds of staff at the Beijing News are on strike are intriguing indeed. The reason for the strike was the removal of editor-in-chief Yang Bin (楊斌) and several of his deputies over what many believe was the newspaper's outspoken editorials and sustained coverage of official corruption and social problems.

The incident shows that press freedom has not just failed to increase under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) -- it has in fact been eroded.

One example of such control is the blocking of access to virtually all news Web sites from Taiwan. This means that there is no access in China to either yahoo.com.tw or even online Taiwanese bookstores such as books.com.tw.

The move against the Beijing News follows the sacking of the editor-in-chief at the Southern Metropolitan News for running a story on the government's punishment of a Guangzhou provincial official after a mining accident.

It was not the first time that an editor-in-chief at the Beijing News was removed for irritating the government with its news coverage. Yang's predecessor was thrown in jail on the grounds of having an "economic problem."

The good news to come out of this is that Chinese readers are becoming more conscious of -- and dissatisfied with -- the way that their rights are being trampled on by their government. It takes guts to go on strike over such matters in China -- where police can throw people in jail on groundless charges of threatening the national security, and all in the absence of due process.

The reason cited by the government for the personnel change at the Beijing News was "political security" -- a typically lame excuse used to arrest people or suppress opponents or perceived irritants. Some believe that stories published by the Beijing News in June last year relating to an incident of rural unrest that led to the death of six villagers and more than 100 injured may have been the last straw. The newspaper had been warned by the government already for its candid coverage.

The popularity of newspapers known for publishing critiques of social issues and coverage of social discontent suggests that there is strong demand for knowledge among average Chinese. Beijing News itself is very popular among intellectuals and white-collar workers.

Such a demand for free information by the general public is typically a precursor to further political liberalization. This demand will only grow stronger as China continues to open up economically and increasing amounts of information from the outside world become accessible.

The Chinese leadership is manifestly anxious about allowing a more autonomous press to develop, which explains the recent clampdown on the news media. The interesting question is how long the drive for more freedom and less government interference can be suppressed by the government without bringing the formidable amount of unrest occurring in the countryside into the cities.

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