Fri, Mar 17, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Sacked editor fears for the future of China


It would be easy to presume that Li Datong (李大同), a veteran journalist with a Communist Party newspaper, is just another cog in China's relentless propaganda machine.

But recent events, in which the weekly supplement he founded and edited at the China Youth Daily was shut down, have revealed a man passionate about free speech and determined to push the limits of the nation's censorship system.

"It is like having the sword of Damocles hanging over your head: you don't know when it will drop," the 53-year-old chain smoker said recently when describing his 27 years at the paper.

For Li, the sword fell in January with the closure of Freezing Point, the supplement he founded 11 years ago that had built a strong reputation for its daring coverage of domestic events.

The closure was at the orders of the Central Propaganda Department shortly after he published an essay by a Chinese historian that challenged the official view of the foreign occupation of China in the late 19th century.

Li said the media censors had long loathed the non-conformist style of his publication, which often carried articles written by liberal intellectuals, including one by high-profile Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai (龍應台).

The supplement was reinstated this month only after Li and his deputy, Lu Yuegang (盧躍剛), were demoted to work at the newspaper's news research center -- a place Li describes as "a club for retired cadres."

"That doesn't matter -- I was purged for five years last time. Now I am 53 and my days are numbered," he grinned, referring to his demotion in 1989 after he started a lobby campaign for media reform amid the Tiananmen movement. "That's okay, it was worth it."

But behind his genial persona, Li is angry at the trends in China's media, amid what international and domestic critics of the nation's rulers charge are increasingly intense efforts to silence dissent.

Barely a week passes now without reports of a journalist charged with subversion, a rights activist detained or someone arrested for posting anti-government writings on the Internet.

"This is all quite ridiculous," Li sighed.

"Someone looks into a mirror, he sees a black mark. What he should do is to wash off the spot, but he smashes the mirror instead," he said. "The media is the mirror ... you don't solve the problems but you say the mirror is at fault ... this is stupid and ludicrous."

Li believes the more tightly the government controls the media, the bigger the problem it is creating for itself by removing one of the few checks on corruption, power abuse and social injustice.

"This is very dangerous ... [the] media is an outlet for people's frustrations," he said. "But if you press hard on it, like a pressure cooker, the pressure will accumulate and the whole thing will explode in the end. That is very frightening."

Despite the frustrations, Li said he was heartened by the widespread concern both in China and overseas over the closure of Freezing Point.

In a significant and rare move, 13 prominent retired Communist Party members, including former propaganda chief Zhu Houze (朱厚澤) and Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) former secretary Li Rui (李銳), issued a public condemnation of the closure.

International media watchdogs such as Reporters without Borders also criticized the decision, while Li and his colleagues launched an official complaint with the Communist Party.

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