Skip to content Skip to navigation

Sixty Years: Pervasive Dictatorship Propaganda, Limited Press Freedom

October 21, 2009

Zhao Yan

Zhao Yan provides a broad overview of the role of media control and censorship in China over the past 60 years. He concludes that from 1949 to 1978, the press gave up and lost their freedom. Since then through the present, Zhao describes the ongoing challenges to the future of independent media and freedom of speech in China.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). According to the traditional Chinese way of calculating time, sixty years is one complete cycle. During this cycle, how much has history advanced, and how much has it retreated? Has China’s “freedom of the press” moved forward, or has it made no headway, still stuck in the same place? These are the questions this article will try to briefly address. In the author’s view, the 60 years of Chinese journalism can be divided into two phases: the first, from the founding of the PRC in 1949 to the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in 1978, and the second, from 1978 to present time.

The First 30 Years: The News Media Were Reduced to a Tool, a Mouthpiece of the Party

A hundred years ago, when discoursing on the standards to measure good and bad countries and politics, Marx, whom Chinese Communists consider their teacher and forefather, made the enlightened remark, “To find out if the politics of a country are civilized, you have to look at whether its press is free.” Regrettably, this universally accepted phrase is nowhere to be found in the Complete Works of Marx that was translated into Chinese after the CPC came to power.

In fact, ever since October 1, 1949, the day when Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China from atop the Tiananmen Gate Tower, “freedom of the press” has been turned into a propaganda tool for Mao’s personality cult and his feudalistic divinity-making campaigns. According to the recollections of Xinhua News Agency vice president Li Pu (李普), on the eve of October 1, 1949, when the [Chinese People’s] Political Consultative Conference sent for Mao’s approval the twenty slogans it had drafted for the parading troops to shout during the grand nation-founding ceremony, Mao chose five with one sweep of his big writing brush. The last one of the five was a cheer for “long life” to himself. Without exception, on October 2, 1949, all the official media carried on their front pages a large picture of the crowds shouting, “Long live Chairman Mao! Long live, long live!” as they passed through Tiananmen. The moment that slogan was shouted, that picture published, and the sound of “long live, long live,” all journalists of the so-called “New China” were doomed: they had already laid down their arms and surrendered. In the face of Mao Zedong’s personal super- charm, they basically put down their weapons of press freedom, which they had been using to fight the Nationalist Party (KMT) and Chiang Kai-shek, and became the propaganda tools for Mao Zedong’s dictatorship.

After the Communists founded the PRC, Mao Zedong used the president of Xinhua News Agency, Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), the “Grand Master of Clobbering” at his Imperial Court, to control the press .Although there were some conscientious journalists, such as Deng Tuo and Chu Anping (邓拓、储安平) at People’s Daily (人民日报) and Guangming Daily (光明日报), they were not able to use the media to advance their own points of view.

In 1951, Mao Zedong used the press to conduct the large-scale campaign of suppression against the counter-revolutionaries outside the party, and the news media became the tool of communist dictatorship. On May 20 that year, Mao unleashed the Rectification Campaign on the cultural circles. Once again, it was Hu Qiaomu who took to the stage and used official media to launch a national campaign of criticism of the film The Life of Wu Xun (武训传).1 The reason Mao Zedong did this was to see if journalists like Deng Tuo, those “divine dogs” who had been defending justice and truth under the KMT rule, could be turned into loyal “lapdogs” like Hu Qiaomu, who would renounce freedom of press and willingly bite or lick whomever they were told to. In the depths of the Criticize The Life of Wu Xun Campaign, cultural celebrities like Guo Moruo (郭沫若), Xia Yan (夏衍), and Sun Yu (孙瑜) all admitted their errors to Mao Zedong and submitted to self criticism, while news organizations headed by People’s Daily contributed to the campaign by adding fuel to the flames.

From 1953 to 1955,Mao Zedong once again instructed the media to criticize the grandmaster of Sinology Liang Shuming (梁漱溟) and the Dream of the Red Chamber specialist Yu Pingbo (俞平伯), and to attack Hu Feng (胡风) for forming a counter-revolutionary clique.2

During April of 1956, Mao Zedong laid a trap for the intellectual and cultural circles, calling for “the hundred flowers to bloom, and the hundred schools of thought to contend.” The China Youth Daily (中国青年报) reporter Liu Binyan (刘宾雁) took the lead writing the enlightening masterpieces “On the Bridge Construction Site” (在桥梁的工地上) and “Our Paper’s Inside Information” (本报内部消息). Soon after, Chu Anping, the editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily, bluntly criticized “the Party realm” while offering his opinion to the CPC. In the summer of 1957, Mao Zedong withdrew his promise and initiated the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Over 500,000 intellectuals were categorized as rightists, and the famous journalist Chu Anping committed suicide after being marked a right-winger. His reputation has not been rehabilitated to this day.

In 1958, Mao Zedong employed the slogan “Surpass England and catch up to the United States” and launched the Great Leap Forward (大跃进) campaign. Deng Tuo, who had just undergone self-criticism, was cursed by Mao as “a dead person running a paper” and was transferred away. The news media nationwide degenerated into a lie-manufacturing machine. The Southern Daily (南方日报) boasted that the sweet potato yields could reach 251,822 catties. People’s Daily advertised the slogan “If the people dare, the land will bear,” and reported on the “scientific planting experiment” yielding 400,000 catties of wheat per mu. Incited by the news media, peasants nationwide plunged into the Great Steel-Making Campaign (大炼钢), which left the land fallow and lead to the Great Famine throughout the country between 1959 and 1961 and 35 million people dead from unnatural causes, according to conservative estimates.

In 1951, Mao Zedong used the press to conduct the large-scale campaign of suppression against the counterrevolutionaries outside the party, and the news media became the tool of communist dictatorship.

After Mao rushed through this enormous error, he announced that he was withdrawing from the frontline, and that Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), Zhou Enlai (周恩来),Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), and Chen Yun (陈云) were in charge. Through several years of hard effort, the national economy improved. But on November 1965, unwilling to admit defeat, Mao plotted behind the scenes and ordered the Wenhui Journal (文汇报) in Shanghai to publish the article “A Criticism of the Historical Drama Hai Rui Dismissed from Office” (评新编历史剧‘海瑞罢官’) by Yao Wenyuan (姚文元) to mobilize public opinion for the launch of the Cultural Revolution.

In June 1966, People’s Daily published an editorial titled “Sweep Away All Ox Ghosts and Snake Spirits” (横扫一切牛鬼蛇神), setting off the nationwide raging tide of the Cultural Revolution. The former editor-in- chief and president of People’s Daily,Deng Tuo, took his own life. The ten years of the Cultural Revolution were the darkest, most violent and blood-drenched period in China’s modern history. The news media of an entire nation became the instrument for the fulfillment of the wishes of Mao Zedong alone. He played them as he wanted, and he would crush under his foot so badly any journalist who dared to oppose him that they could never stand up again.

During Mao’s time there was no freedom of the press in China of which to speak. It regressed considerably, compared to the period of KMT rule. Completely silenced, the press lost its “self” and was reduced to being the servant of politics.

The Tool and the Chess Game: The Last 30 Years of Struggle for Press Freedom

After the Cultural Revolution ended, the CPC convened the famous Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee to bring order to the chaos and redress the injustices committed during the reign of Mao. The then CPC Central Committee Party School (中共中央 党校) President, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), initiated a broad discussion on the topic, “Actual practice is the sole criterion for judging truth” (实践是检验真理的唯 一标准), and there was a new atmosphere in the press circles. The People’s Daily was the first to break out of the fetters, boldly call for the emancipation of ideas, and sound the rallying cry for reform and opening. At that time, the head of the Propaganda Department of the CPC Central Committee was extremely displeased with the People’s Daily, viewing its actions as a rebellion against the authorities and the desecration of the flag of Mao Zedong. This was the first time under the leadership of the CPC that the People’s Daily publicly confronted the Propaganda Department.

In 1979, the journal People’s Literature (人民文学) ran a piece of literary reportage, “People or Monsters” (人妖之间), by Liu Binyan (刘宾雁). On July 22, 1980, the Workers’ Daily (工人日报) published “What Does the Bohai II Document of the Capsizing Incident Illustrate?” (渤海二号文件翻船事件说明了什么?), pointing the accusatory arrow at the problem of government officials’ dereliction of duty. These two articles set a bright new stage for the expression of public opinion and public oversight.

After the beginning of the 1980s, as people’s reflection on the disaster of the Cultural Revolution deepened, their thinking grew more dynamic by the day and they began casting doubts on the one party dictatorship political system. In response, the authorities launched two campaigns, Eliminate Spiritual Pollution and Anti-Bourgeois Liberalism, in succession. The press disgracefully participated by criticizing the movie Bitter Love (苦恋), Zhou Yang’s (周杨) theory of socialist alienation, and later, in 1987, the so-called Bourgeois Liberal Movement represented by Fang Lizhi (方励之), Liu Binyan, and Wang Ruowang (王若望).

Despite these disgraceful incidents, the press did not remain silent. In January 1987, the Shenzhen Youth Daily (深圳青年) published the article “Comrade [Deng] Xiaoping Could Also Retire,” and was closed down by the Propaganda Department. But the Shekou News (蛇口通讯报), the World Economics Report (世界经济导报), and the Beijing New Observer (新观察) took over the role of carrying the flame on China’s stage of new ideological awakening, public opinion, and public oversight. In the second half of 1988, CCTV ran the documentary series of political commentary River Elegy (河殇). For a time, the press became exceptionally active.

In the spring of 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang prompted students to take to the streets to march in protest. The World Economic Report (世界经济导报) quickly took the lead in grieving for Hu Yaobang and supporting the activities of students in Beijing, but it was shut down by the Shanghai Municipal Committee (上海市委). The fellow workers from the press circle in Beijing stood up for the Report and [its editor-in-chief] Qin Benli (钦本立), protesting against the Shanghai Municipal Committee’s crude interference in the freedom of the press. The press protests and the student movement combined to form the glorious chapter of the 1989 Democracy Movement.

From April to June 3, 1989, not only did the staff of People’s Daily, CCTV, Guangming Daily, Workers’ Daily, China Youth Daily, Science and Technology Daily (科技日报), and the vast majority of Party and government papers come out to protest, they all carried front page reports on the Democracy Movement prior to June 4. CCTV even set up video cameras in Tiananmen Square to broadcast live on TV. For almost two months,journalism in China can be said to have had a close face-to-face brush with “freedom.”

But good things do not last. As soon as the guns sounded on June 4, the newly appointed Propaganda Department of the CPC Central Committee Director,Wang Renzhi (王忍之), with support from the CPC old guard, closed down the Shekou News, Hainan Eyewitness Report (海南纪实), Economics Weekly (经济学周报), Asia Pacific Economic Times (亚太经济时报), the New Observer published by the Xinhua News Agency with Ms. Ge Yang (戈扬) as the editor-in-chief, as well as Watch and Consider (观察与思考) and Today in History (历史上的今天) published by CCTV, and other brave media outlets that had dared speak out, or here placed their editors-in-chief and presidents.

During Mao’s time there was no freedom of the press in China of which to speak. It regressed considerably, compared to the period of KMT rule. Completely silenced, the press lost its “self” and was reduced to being the servant of politics.

Since the 1990s, despite heavy political pressure, the conscience of the press circles has not been wiped out. The chess game between control and anti-control, between fighting for press freedom and suppressing press freedom goes on, and media professionals tenaciously carry on performing their social duty. The most outstanding among them are Southern Weekend (南方周末) and Southern Metropolis (南方都市报), published by the Southern Media Group, Beijing Times (京华时报), Beijing News (新京报), and magazines Nanfeng Chuang (南风窗), Caijing (财经), and China Times (华夏时报).

The “Bing Dian Incident” (冰点事件) involving China Youth Daily in 2006,3 the Cheng Yizhong Incident (程一中事件) involving Beijing News in 2003,4 the settling of accounts with China Society Periodical (中国社会导刊) editor-in-chief, Ms. Liu Xin (刘昕), after she ran the article “A Challenging Lawsuit: Citizens Cite Constitution to Sue the Supreme People’s Procuratorate for the First Time in China,” and other similar incidents illustrate that China’s press circles never stopped fighting back in their struggle for freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, as fortune would have it, the era of global networking has brought citizen reporters and online media to the stage, in keeping with the times. In the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident5 and Sun Dawu (孙大午) Incident,6 as well as in the recent Weng’an (瓮安) Incident in Guizhou(贵州),7 the Shishou (石首) Incident in Hubei (湖北),8 the Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) Incident,9 the Green Dam (绿坝) case,10 and other similar events, the online media and citizen reporters joined forces with scholars and professional journalists to force the government authorities to make concessions. In doing so, they are playing an increasingly important role in expanding freedom of speech and the space for its expression despite heavy political pressure. Let us look forward to the near future, to the time as early as possible when China’s freedom of the press can be realized, allowing the media to serve their proper function in the transformation of society. That will be a blessing for the country, and a blessing for the nation.

Translated by Human Rights in China

Editor's Notes

1. Wu Xun was an illiterate beggar who donated the money he collected toward the establishment of several schools in his home region during the Qing Dynasty. At his death, the imperial court honored him by building a temple in his memory. The film The Life of Wu Xun was at first lauded as one of the ten best films in China in 1950, but an editorial published on May 20, 1951 in the People’s Daily attacked it for glorifying a supporter of “feudal education.” The attack signaled the beginning of a campaign of criticism and Party interference in China’s film industry. ^

2. Hu Feng was a literary theorist and critic, who emphasized the subjective nature of creative writing. This put him at odds with the left-wing literary circles, who believed that literature should serve a political purpose by depicting class struggle. His views were ultimately condemned as counter-revolutionary, and he was imprisoned for them from 1955–1979. He sustained physical and mental damage while in prison, but was fully rehabilitated posthumously in 1988. ^

3. Bing Dian Weekly was a special weekly supplement of China Youth Daily. On January 24, 2006, the authorities announced they were suspending its publication for reorganization. The reason was that it had published the article “Modernization and History Textbooks” by the Sun Yat-sen University Philosophy Department professor Yuan Weishi, which the authorities felt had been a “malicious vilification of the socialist mainstream culture promoted by our Party,” and they ordered the major media outlets in the country to stop reporting on this incident. Bing Dian Weekly editor-in-chief, Li Datong, and deputy editor-in-chief, Lu Yuegang, were both fired. Li Datong issued a public protest on the Internet. Bing DianWeekly resumed publication on March 1, 2006. ^

4. Cheng Yizhong was a former editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily, who later became editor-in-chief of Beijing News. OnMarch 17, 2004, the Guangzhou People’s Procuratorate filed a case against him on suspicion of economic crimes, and he was later arrested. On August 27, Dongshan District Procuratorate of Guangzhou decided not to bring a lawsuit against Cheng due to insufficient evidence. Sources believe that this incident was related to the damaging effects the Southern Metropolis Daily 2003 reporting on SARS, and the Sun Zhigang Incident, had onthe reputation of local authorities. On April 5, 2005, Cheng was awarded the UNESCO Press Freedom Award. ^

5. Sun Zhigang, from Huanggang in Hubei Province, graduated from Wuhan University of Science and Engineering and was hired by a clothing company in the city of Guangzhou. On March 17, 2003, he was picked up by Guangzhou police for not having any of three essential documents: an identification card, a proof of employment, and a temporary residence permit. On March 20, he died at a hospital while in custody. The authorities initially claimed his death was natural, but media investigation found that he had died as a result of beating. This incident sparked widespread discussion in China about the system of custody and deportation of undocumented migrants. Many in the legal profession submitted letters to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, asking that the legal provisions regulating it be changed and repealed. On June 20, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao signed a State Council order declaring the provisions annulled. ^

6. Sun Dawu was a peasant entrepreneur and the chairman of the board of Hebei Dawu Agro-Pastoral Group, LLC. Xushui County Court in Hebei Province sentenced him to three years in prison, suspended for four years, and a fine of 100,000 yuan for “illegally absorbing public deposits.” This decision raised the suspicions of legal and economic experts, who believed that Sun Dawu was innocent and that he was a challenger and a victim of a rigid legal system, calling for an urgent revision and perhaps even abolishment of old laws and regulations that did not conform to the principles of a market economy. ^

7. The Weng’an Incident refers to the mass rioting that took place on the afternoon of June 28, 2008, in Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province. The local populace staged a mass assault on the building that housed the County Public Security Bureau, county government, and county Party Committee because of the unnatural death of a female middle school student and resentment over unjustified use of violence in law enforcement. ^

8. On June 17, 2009, mass rioting ensued after Tu Yuangao, the 23-year-old chef at the Yonglong Hotel in Shishou City, Hubei Province, fell to his unnatural death from the hotel building. Dissatisfied with the handling of the case, people confronted the police, and there were numerous large-scale clashes, with 70,000 people taking part in the largest of them. This incident sparked discussion on how the government should handle mass incidents. ^

9. Deng Yujiao was a pedicure worker at the Dream and Fantasy City bath center at the Xiongfeng Hotel in the town of Yesanguan, Hubei Province. On the night of May 10, 2009, a dispute started after she refused to provide “special services” at the request of three local officials. Pinned down, she used a fruit knife to stab one man to death and injured another. After the incident, the public opinion expressed on the Internet almost unanimously supported her. On June 16, Badong County People’s Court held a public hearing and ruled that she had acted in self-defense and released her. ^

10. In June 2009, the Chinese government issued a directive requiring that all computers sold in China be equipped with “Green DamYouth Escort” filtering software as of July 1, 2009. However, at an August 13, 2009 press conference, Li Yizhong, Minister of Industry and Information Technology, announced that, aside from the computers in schools, Internet cafes, and other public venues, the government would no longer require mandatory pre-installation of Green Dam. See Human Rights in China, “Green Dam Youth Escort Censorware,” http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/169925. ^

Explore Topics

709 Crackdown Access to Information Access to Justice Administrative Detention All about law Arbitrary Detention
Asset Transparency Bilateral Dialogue Black Jail Book Review Business And Human Rights Censorship
Charter 08 Children Chinese Law Circumvention technology Citizen Activism Citizen Journalists
Citizen Participation Civil Society Commentary Communist Party Of China Constitution Consumer Safety
Contending views Corruption Counterterrorism Courageous Voices Cultural Revolution Culture Matters
Current affairs Cyber Security Daily Challenges Democratic And Political Reform Demolition And Relocation  Dissidents
Education Elections Enforced Disappearance Environment Ethnic Minorities EU-China
Family Planning Farmers Freedom of Association Freedom of Expression Freedom of Press Freedom of Religion
Government Accountability Government regulation Government transparency Hong Kong House Arrest HRIC Translation
Hukou Human Rights Council Human rights developments Illegal Search And Detention Inciting Subversion Of State Power Information Control 
Information technology Information, Communications, Technology (ICT) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) International Human Rights International perspective International Relations
Internet Internet Governance JIansanjiang lawyers' rights defense Judicial Reform June Fourth Kidnapping
Labor Camps Labor Rights Land, Property, Housing Lawyer's rights Lawyers Legal System
Letters from the Mainland Major Event (Environment, Food Safety, Accident, etc.) Mao Zedong Microblogs (Weibo) National People's Congress (NPC) New Citizens Movement
Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Olympics One country, two systems Online Activism Open Government Information Personal stories
Police Brutality Political commentary Political Prisoner Politics Prisoner Of Conscience Probing history
Propaganda Protests And Petitions Public Appeal Public Security Racial Discrimination Reeducation-Through-Labor
Rights Defenders Rights Defense Rule Of Law Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Special Topic State compensation
State Secrets State Security Subversion Of State Power Surveillance Technology Thoughts/Theories
Tiananmen Mothers Tibet Torture Typical cases United Nations US-China 
Uyghurs, Uighurs Vulnerable Groups Women Youth Youth Perspective
Error | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC

Error

The website encountered an unexpected error. Please try again later.