Magazine finds limits of `bold'


Censorship: Journalism in China requires informed guesswork about what the government is likely to allow.

July 11, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - The poster of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara on the wall of Gao Yu's office hints at what kind of rebel Gao might be, daring but scrupulously patriotic.

Guevara was a potent symbol of anti-authoritarianism, but his leftist politics make him an acceptable hero in Communist China, and Gao is well aware of that. Gao is managing editor of Business Watch magazine, one of the nation's bolder publications, and he and his staff try to remain officially acceptable while taking brave jabs at the powers-that-be.

But with critical coverage of well-connected corporations, the government's handling of SARS and a big-city mayor, the biweekly almost inevitably became unacceptable. In May, propaganda authorities quietly ordered the magazine to shut down for two months.


Gao and Business Watch had miscalculated in their risky game of testing where the line of acceptable coverage is in today's China.

"It's only during the process of trying that you determine where the bottom line is," Gao said recently.

It was a harsh punishment meant to remind the state-owned news media that the state is still in charge, and of that there is little doubt among Chinese journalists. Initial hopes last year that a new generation of leaders might allow more press freedom have so far been unfulfilled.

The government continues to exercise stringent control over what topics can and cannot be covered in the Chinese press. Editors and reporters who go too far are reassigned, suspended or fired. This year, two editors of an enterprising southern daily that had angered provincial authorities were sentenced to lengthy terms in prison on what many believe were trumped-up financial charges.

As Business Watch learned recently, journalists can endanger their careers even when the topics they choose might seem to be in line with the government dogma of the moment. That can be particularly true of business journalism, which often deals with corrupt or financially reckless officials and entrepreneurs, some of whom are fair game and some of whom are protected by powerful patrons.

The article that provoked the suspension criticized the mayor of a northern Chinese port city, Tianjin, for borrowing billions of dollars for infrastructure projects from banks he used to regulate as governor of China's central bank, all in the midst of an already overheating economy.

The central government had been trying to clamp down on just such spending, and Mayor Dai Xianglong himself had spoken out against such bank lending in the past. An anonymous official from a major national bank told Business Watch he was worried that his bank's $1.8 billion loan to the city would never be repaid.

The topic - economic overheating - seemed safe to Gao: "We thought we were kind of in harmony with the voice of the central government, which was they were trying to get control of the overheating economy."

And though Gao didn't say so, Dai might have seemed a relatively safe target. His move to the Tianjin job was viewed by many as a career-derailing demotion, a sign that he no longer had a powerful patron in Beijing. But apparently Dai retained more political pull than the magazine realized.

Propaganda authorities ordered the magazine pulled off the shelves March 6, the day after it appeared, and the article was removed from the magazine's Web site.

Gao said the magazine will try to stay abreast of central authorities' policies about what is publishable, but he will continue to push for stories that test the boundaries. It is the media's job, he said, to help bring some accountability to public life in China.

"If we won't do those kinds of story, we might as well not do anything," Gao said. "Sometimes we make mistakes, but I believe that what we are doing is the trend. ... We are trying to promote rule of law. We are standing on the same side as the government. We are promoting them and pushing them to move forward."

Gao, a squat, bookish 30-year-old with oversized black-rimmed glasses, seems cautious enough. Chain-smoking in his office, he repeatedly emphasized his point that the magazine is "on the same side as the government." And out of fear of offending authorities, he also declined to discuss even the most routine details about his magazine's suspension.

But the magazine covers on the wall by his desk, opposite the Guevara poster, show a bit of his taste for taking on the powerful. Some, to be sure, are quite acceptable targets: Vice President Dick Cheney graces one magazine cover with an oil mustache and the English-language headline, "Got Oil?" A disgraced, jailed Chinese businessman, Yang Bin, is lampooned on another cover with the headline, "Sudden Death of an Opportunist."

But the suspension marked the third time the magazine had run afoul of propaganda officials. The last time Business Watch got into trouble, receiving a warning, was for its SARS coverage, when the state media seemed unleashed to cover the epidemic in full.

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