If China can limit the reach of American media companies, it can completely quash its own recalcitrant party-run publications. In late January, the Propaganda Department shut down Freezing Point, a popular weekly insert to the China Youth Daily. Although the supplement was known for taboo reporting on farmer protests and other social unrest, New York Times Beijing Bureau Chief Joseph Kahn tells Bob that it wasn't one of those stories that put the freeze on Freezing Point.
BOB GARFIELD: China's tough line on the Internet has made headlines this week in connection with the Congressional hearings, but perhaps more alarming is China's recent crackdown on publications, even those run by the Communist Party. Just a few weeks ago, China's Propaganda Department shut down Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily, itself an official Party organ. Although Freezing Point was known for aggressive reporting on farm protests and other social unrest, New York Times Beijing Bureau Chief Joseph Kahn says it wasn't one of those stories that put the freeze on Freezing Point.
JOSEPH KAHN: The last article that they published that seemed to go over the line was a long essay by a historian in Guangdong Province who looked at some of the treatment of history in official textbooks and how that compared with what he viewed as sort of the reality of some of the wars with foreign powers in the late 19th century.
BOB GARFIELD: Hmm. So it was, what would seem to Western ears, to be very unexplosive accusations of historical revisionism from, you know, 125 years ago. Someone was fed up to hear. But then what happened next was quite unusual. There was pushback from the Freezing Point and others. How did it play out?
JOSEPH KAHN: The editor of Freezing Point is a very experienced and wily veteran of sort of the ways of the newspaper business and the elite Party-run journals, a gentleman named Li Datong. And in late January and early February, he managed to get a group of liberal but respected retired Party leaders to sign a petition calling on the leadership to reopen Freezing Point and also to allow Li Datong to resume his position as editor, saying that China was at a delicate transition and desperately needed to have a more independent free-wielding and investigation-oriented press that can help expose problems before they become so big that the government is unable to grapple with them.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the upshot of this, which occurred actually, I think, while you were flying back from China, is that the Propaganda Department reported that the Freezing Point would be permitted to publish again, albeit with a different editorial staff. What do you make of this development?
JOSEPH KAHN: Li Datong and his deputy, the two of them together were identified entirely with Freezing Point. It doesn't have a sort of a separate mission without those two in charge of it. So it does not appear at this stage that they have managed to turn back the essence, anyway, of the order, although it's clear that the authorities are eager to show that they're not exceeding their authority by simply shutting down an entire publication because of something that they determine to be offensive.
BOB GARFIELD: The government and the party seem, on the one hand, to be permitting much more kind of aggressive press questioning and investigations, and then at some point reacting and, you know, once again repressing -- firing people, jailing people. Can you tell whether this government wishes to liberalize the press or just what it has in mind?
JOSEPH KAHN: It's a good question. I think they really do need the media to convey in a lively way the essence of official orders and directives, so they want an effective and well-read press. But I think actually more important is they don't want to pay any money to the press aside from a very small number of elite national publications, of which China Youth Daily is not one. They force all the newspapers, many or most of the TV stations, certainly all the Internet sites to support themselves through advertising or circulation revenue or subscription revenue. So these publications are hostage to their reputation in the marketplace, and that has proven consistently to be at least as powerful, if not more powerful motivating force for these publications than what the officials want.
BOB GARFIELD: So, I guess, you know, there's another classic 2006 Chinese paradox. You've got this free market [LAUGHING] Communist country which expects its papers to operate for profit based on readership and yet is essentially taking the editorial prerogatives out of the hands of the people who, you know, are trying to sell newspapers. Do you suppose that the market motivation itself will persuade them to let newspapers operate as they will?
JOSEPH KAHN: I just don't see the pressure for change going away. I think Freezing Point, at least for some period of time, is going to be run without its inspirational editors, and other publications can be successfully shut down or the editorial leadership reshuffled. But you tend to see these people and these issues popping up constantly, and their pushback against interference by the Propaganda Department gets stronger and stronger, not weaker and weaker.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Joe, thank you very much.
JOSEPH KAHN: Thank you. Enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Joseph Kahn is Beijing Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He joined us just off an airplane in Salt Lake City. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]