Press Freedom in China Prior to Tiananmen Square

A relatively new commenter, Dylan, wrote such an interesting comment on Zhao Ziyang and press freedoms in China pre-June 4 that I wanted to highlight it in a separate post. Very interesting stuff. He begins by addressing another commenter:
You seem blinded by the assertions of CPC organs and boosters of the CPC leadership that freedom, openness and democracy is better than it was in ZZY’s time. Zhao was the one who implemented village elections on a widespread scale, he promoted the idea of multi-candidate elections for posts right up to party central but this idea was stopped after his ouster and to this day elections are only held at village level in rural areas. Zhao had said that within a decade there should be multi-candidate elections at provincial level. This has not taken place. Transparency of government was a big theme of Zhao’s, linked to greater supervision by the masses, during his time politburo meetings were reported by Xinhua without fail. This practice was abolished by JZM and there was no reporting of any such meetings by state mouthpieces thereafter (although interestingly Hu Jintao appears to be trying to revive the practice). At the 13th party congress, ZZY decided to implement a policy of ‘inner party democracy’ whereby higher party organs would submit to supervision by party congresses and deliver regular work reports to these bodies so their work could be subject to supervision by the broad CPC membership thus eliminating the practice of one-man rule. CPC mouthpieces published lengthy excerpts from these work reports so the general public could see what was going on during ZZY’s time. Since ZZY’s time this practice has been stopped. Regarding cultural freedom, as Bao Tong recalls “After the movie Hibiscus Town was filmed [dealing with the still sensitive topic of the Cultural Revolution], some in the Party approved of it, while others didn’t, causing great conflict of opinion. One secretary asked Zhao for an opinion, to which Zhao replied: “I don’t investigate movies; I watch them. If I have to issue a directive for every movie I watch, I think I’ll stop watching movies. After that, it became the accepted practise that the Standing Committee, Politburo and secretariat no longer concerned themselves with culture or the arts, thus establishing a limit to the Party’s control.” And yet, after 1989 it again became standard practice for the party central to involve itself in the arts, a practice which, despite your assertions, continues to this day. A decision was reached at a party plenum in 1989 that party committees would be removed from organisations and enterprises (this was the apex of ZZY’s achievements in separating party from state and society), but it was soon ‘forgotten’ and we now witness party heavyweights like Zeng Qinghong visiting Guangzhou to stress the importance of strengthening the role of party committees in the new private businesses! Following on from an article by Wan Li, ZZY introduced “scientific and democratic decisionmaking” by encouraging wide consultation outside normal party channels before decisions were made with interested constituencies, experts, etc. This approach was abandoned after 1989, only to be resurrected by HJT recently. As for press freedom, you conveniently forget that in 1989 there were independent journals like the student newspaper The New May Fourth in which Wang Dan published his famous article on the 13th anniversary of the 1976 Tianamen incident. The World Economic Herald in Shanghai published what would today be considered highly inflammatory articles against one party rule. Editor in chief Qin Benli had close ties to ZZY, ties that kept him in print despite the efforts of conservatives while ZZY was around. JZM shut it down after 1989. China hasn’t seen its like since despite the efforts of (now gagged) Southern Weekend and (now closed) Strategy and Management.

The coverage of the student movement in spring 1989 was itself evidence of the press freedom granted by ZZY. CCTV main news broadcast the statements of students such as a student telling Li Peng “the Communist Party has no hope” or students denouncing Chen Xitong to his face on April 30. For approximately two weeks in May 1989, Chinese media was free in a way that it has never been since. Uncensored coverage reached its peak in the days prior to May 20th, when martial law was declared in parts of Beijing. In the words of one Westerner living in Beijing 1987-89: “When I moved to China in 1987, I very soon realized that no amount of background reading and research about the People’s Republic would have properly prepared me for the extraordinary degree of openness and diversity which I encountered wherever I turned in urban Chinese society. During the first months I was amazed when reading the China Daily, when listening to the radio, watching the television and speaking to people. Newspapers published reports of party officials indicted for embezzlement and profiteering. Letters to the editor described the unfair treatment by party members of ordinary people. In general, many commentaries and editorials, both in the newspapers and on television, touched upon the failings of society, and were frank and to the point. I also was taken aback at how well-informed urban residents were about what was happening elsewhere in the world. This was, to a large extent, due to the ever-widening range of subjects which the Chinese press itself was covering and to the increasingly lively contact with foreigners. But the immense flow of information was also a result of the popularity of Voice of America and BBC broadcasts in both Chinese and English – especially among young people – and partly because many Chinese were regularly seeing the so-called “for internal use only” Reference News publications. ” Yang Yulin, a Chinese political scientist who used to work for one of the country’s most liberal research institutes, described the Chinese press of the 1980’s in the following way: “When the reformers in the Party had the upper hand, the press portrayed their more broad-minded views and especially the younger generation pushed the limits of what is acceptable. When the conservatives were in control of the Party’s policies, the press was forced to accept a stricter approach, which was less tolerant of diverse opinions.”

The Discussion: 13 Comments

Anyone see any future causes of an increase in press freedoms? I think probably we’re in for a decrease until after the Olympics.

May 19, 2005 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

I have to agree with you, Laowai, until I see evidence to the contrary.

Shouldn’t you be in bed? It’s 5 in the morning in China.

May 19, 2005 @ 2:48 pm | Comment

Yes, that’s why living in the U.K. is more conducive to staying up till when it’s 5 am in China…

Not sure why people think I’m in China. I’ve got a China blog because I’m interested in China and also partly so I can keep myself reading now and then, translating ?????????? and whatever else I have time to onto the blog – it actually keeps me motivated pretty well.

But my real life at the moment is in Protein Engineering and Structural Biology.

This is off topic though. Feel free to delete it if you wish!

P.s. how’s the job hunt? are you moving back to china?

May 19, 2005 @ 3:46 pm | Comment

Richard, thanks for reposting Dylan’s comment (I have a hard time reading long comments in the little box for some reason), and Dylan, thanks so much for writing it. Really interesting. No wonder so many Beijingers I met can’t stand JZM.

May 19, 2005 @ 6:29 pm | Comment

…and to this day elections are only held at village level in rural areas.

In case some people misunderstand this, I think that “in rural areas” should be deleted. For instance, one could hardly refer to “villages” in the Longgang district in the Pearl River Delta as rural. Longgang has thousands of factories and perhaps more than a million migrant workers, and is by any definition not rural. It’s more realistic to refer to places like this as “outer industrial suburban” (though this isn’t strictly true either).

And yet today they’re having “village” elections in Longgang.

I know that Chinese people still refer to these places as villages, but lest those unfamiliar with China think the term refers to small hamlets with several hundred residents working on rice fields it’s worth mentioning that they are often anything but that.

Personally I think it’s impossible to make judgements on whether China is more free today than 17 years ago. Who can tell? There are so many China’s that there is no one person who can realistically assess it. But for what it’s worth, in the spaces in which I spend my time I would have to say yes and no. I’m going to elaborate on that except to say that it’s just too hard to generalise.

May 19, 2005 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

Mark, (as I assume it is you)
reasonable comment, except as usual it contains a few flaws, you write as if the “million rural migrants” in Longgang are allowed to vote in Longgang. Of course they are not because their hukou is from somewhere else (otherwise they wouldn’t be migrants). I would be interested to know how many non-migrants Longgang has (who are permitted to vote). Moreover, my point was not about the scope of village elections, rather of course it was that these elections have not moved up the administrative chain as intended by Zhao and his friends. 17 years is a long time, and yet the CPC still insists the population is not ready for elections for higher organs.

May 19, 2005 @ 8:22 pm | Comment

Dylan, I don’t know who you are but you are one smart guy. Who are you??

May 19, 2005 @ 8:24 pm | Comment


You seems to think that I’m attacking Zhao Ziyang and what he stood for, which is not the case. Yes, there were individuals in the party and government like ZZY that were progressive and would very much like to pursue democratic reform, but the party and government as a whole in the late 80’s were much more conservative and repressive than it is today.

You mentioned village elections being started in 1987 under Zhao, and yet they were not implemented in the vast majority of Chinese villages until the 90’s. You talk about Zhao’s push for inner-party democracy and transparency in government but neglected to mention that in reality true power in China at the time was held by a bunch of old men holding no official posts but could override the Politburo and the general secretary, I wouldn’t call that a more democratic situation than today.

As for freedom of speech, some of the things that you mentioned as extraordinary back then are actually pretty common place now. Stories about official corruption, abuse of power, etc. are pretty common place in the Chinese media today (just check the news page of Sina) but they were still extremely rare in the late 80’s. I’ll admit that there were many extraordinary developments in the media during the student movements of 1989, but then we all know what happened afterwards. Would you really say that the party and government that sent tanks against peaceful protesters is more democratic, open, and free than the one that exists today?

In 1988, hardliners like Li Peng were still a significant part of the party (if not the mainstream), nowadays they are pretty much marginalized. Back then people avoided talking about politics, even in private with friends and family, now people would not hesitate to criticize the government to complete strangers they just met. Taking the government to court was absolutely unheard of in 1988, now it’s a more and more common phenomenon. And then there are the developments in the social sphere. If your argument is that Zhao, as general secretary of the CCP, is more progressive and more of a reformer than Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (so far), then I wholeheartedly agree (though I still say it’s too soon to tell what kind of a leader Hu will turn out to be). But to say the party and government in general in the late 80’s is less repressive than the one we got now, I can’t agree with that.

May 20, 2005 @ 3:24 am | Comment

Wasn’t the hukou done away with? I heard a rumor a while ago – but haven’t been to china for a while.

May 20, 2005 @ 5:16 am | Comment

Before Zhao came out to meet the students, people had the impression that Zhao was the bad guy and Li peng was the good one. Does anyone else remember that?

May 20, 2005 @ 8:22 am | Comment

I don’t recall Li Peng as ever being regarded as the Good Guy, unless you were a Stalinist sort…but I could be wrong.

May 20, 2005 @ 10:21 am | Comment

I don’t think Li Peng was ever well-liked. At the beginning of the movement in 1989 some people were critical of Zhao as well because one of the biggest complaints at the time was against children of high officials using their connections to make easy money in business and Zhao’s son was seen as one of them.

May 21, 2005 @ 3:57 am | Comment

I think Zhao is a typical reformist in Chinese history. He wanted to overhaul the Chinese state apparatus which is deep in conservatism and the Confucian-Legalist legacy. However, in his reforms he would be bound to step on the toes of the conservatives and hardliners who depended on the authoritarian order for their positions of power. Ultimately, in order to preserve their grip on power, they would just gang up and oust him, just a matter of time. Tiananmen provided that chance. Zhao, like his counterpart, Kang Youwei in the late Manchu period, tried to reform the existing system. And Zhao’s reforms ended like Kang’s “100 day reforms of 1898”, eventually crushed by the power of the conservatives.

May 22, 2005 @ 4:51 am | Comment

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