In the wake of a massive outcry following Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen’s unilateral re-writing of content in the Southern Weekly, an influential weekly newspaper in China, an essay has begun making the rounds on Chinese social media. The essay, originally published as a blog post under the pen name Zeng Li, which sounds close to zhenli, the Chinese word for “truth,” claims to be an insider account from a member of Southern Weekend’s self-censorship committee. Readers should take caution; Tea Leaf Nation has not been able to verify this information.
Zeng’s essay, if genuine, provides a fascinating look at the boundaries that Southern Weekend was forced to accept prior to this latest incident. It depicts a censorship process at once brutal and nuanced, in which editors had to respond to political pressure while remaining highly sensitive to market forces and reader sentiment. It is possible that Tuo Zhen’s recent actions have caused such a stir because they broke this carefully brokered balance.
Among the highlights of the post, as translated by Tea Leaf Nation:
Censorship has been tightening for years.
“Over the past two years, we have tightened our internal [censorship] process because of increasingly stringent restrictions from above. Every issue, we had to kill some articles—7 or 8 articles on a bad week, 2 or 3 on a good week, with a dozen or so articles needing major revisions.”
Things got worse under new Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen.
“Since May 2012, when [Mr. Tuo Zhen,] the new propaganda chief for Guangdong, province was appointed, controls over newspapers have become much more strict and more and more censorship directives have been issued. The level of control exercised over Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily became unprecedented. They particularly required that the selection of topics for each edition of Southern Weekend was to be sent to the provincial propaganda department, and reporting and writing could only begin after the topics were approved. Major reports and editorials had to be read and approved by the department before publication. …
There were several incidences where the entire paper had been typeset, but editors were told [by the propaganda department] at midnight that certain articles had to go, so the editors had to round up new articles and redo the typesetting at a moment’s notice. For example, in our coverage of the Beijing flooding last year, we were told at midnight that the article mourning the victims had to undergo major revisions and an important article on the shortcomings of Beijing’s flood warning system had to be killed. This was when all other pages were typeset and the editors had gone home for the night, and there was no way to make it work, so we had to take out four whole pages, publishing 28 pages instead of 32. There was another time that an article was censored after the paper had gone to press, and more than 100,000 printed papers were thrown into the trash.”
Complete oversight isn’t just wrong—it’s logistically impossible.
“Even if it was the editor-in-chief who replaced the original piece and altered it, that’s against the paper’s rules for editing and publication. The editor-in-chief has the authority to replace and alter pieces, but he must implement this through the editor in charge of it, and not conduct the surgery on his own. This is because no one editor is all-powerful. On issues concerning major policies of the national government and public opinion, he is more knowledgeable than other editors and reporters, but he may not necessarily be more adept at editorial tasks such as conducting interviews and writing pieces. The overall plan is devised by the editor-in-chief, but the implementation of it is the responsibility of reporters and editors–he should not meddle there.
It’s like a hotel, where the general manager’s responsibility is to determine how the hotel should be managed; the chef and [restaurant] manager decide what food should be served at what time in accordance with the general manager’s wishes, but the purchase of the ingredients and preparation of the food is conducted by the hotel’s buyer and chef respectively. The general manager shouldn’t go into the kitchen and stir the pot himself.”
Censorship in China is more delegated than some observers might think.
“Some media outlets and netizens believe that due to China’s situation—whereby the [Communist] Party controls newspapers and manages the media, and the Propaganda Department has authority to supervise the media and determine how newspapers are run—therefore it’s nothing out of the ordinary when the [Propaganda] Department pulls and replaces any one piece. There is no basis for this kind of thinking; the management of the Party is the management of its position on big political issues and its basic principles, and not the management of its every minute detail, every topic selection, every interview, and every editorial process. To shove the paper’s editorial committee aside and have everything decided by the Propaganda Department wouldn’t be feasible even if the paper in question was the Party Committee Paper, to say nothing of a market-oriented newspaper. The paper must take responsibility for its own profits and losses. If it does poorly and fails to attract readers, losing buyers and subscribers, it can’t pay its employees–and whose responsibility is that?”
Southern Weekend’s writers and editors feel angry because they get attached to their work.
“Managers and officials have managed this paper [as if it were] state media [or a] Party publication, establishing a rigid framework within which they have us dance in our shackles. How can we not be angry and frustrated? Every year, the editorial department composes our New Year’s editorial with great care, as if assiduously preparing a wonderful feast for our readers. … The authors of this year’s New Year’s editorial slaved away for about two weeks to reach a version they could be proud of; the article was like their own child, and they cherished it. But the leaders and supervising managers took a giant knife out and randomly hacked it up. How could they not feel hurt and resentful?”