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Death of a journalist as govt toys with changing media rules

world Updated: Oct 09, 2012 16:01 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times
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In late August, Xu Huaiqian a 44-year-old editor with People’s Daily, among the primary mouthpieces of the omnipresent Communist Party of China (CPC), jumped to his death from the top of a building. He was depressed, on medication and the probable cause behind his condition triggered exchanges on the internet.

The BBC quoted an interview attributed to him: "My pain is I dare to think, but I don't dare to speak out; if I dare to speak out, I don't dare to write it down, and if I dare to write it down, there is no place to publish…I admire those freelance writers, but I can't leave the system because if I do that my family will suffer."

The CPC firmly controls the news industry in China, forcing journalists to toe the official line, restraining free-thinking individuals; it’s alleged that Hu’s condition was a direct result of not being able to put his thoughts to paper.

But change might be on the way. Earlier this year, a video conference was held between five government departments including the Central Propaganda Department and Press and Publication Department where news organisations were asked to “go to the grassroots, change work approaches, revise prose style”, which according to experts roughly translates into the Chinese word “zouzhuangai.”

Journalist Margaret Simons, quoting a Chinese professor, wrote in an Australian website today that the concept has been advocated by the Minister for Propaganda at “five different occasions between August last year and the present day, most recently last month.”

It’s unlikely that the new concept will revolutionise Chinese media, freeing it from the shackles of continuous state-sponsored propaganda. But zouzhuangai, as the author argues, could probably bring elements of best practices in journalism, the demands of the contemporary consumer, and, well, the government’s needs closer; it could make the Chinese media more journalistically relevant and possibly raise it from the levels of a hapless propaganda machine.
Though it’s too early to predict the impact, one thing is sure: there will be limits, and thick ones at that.

For Hu, that limit remains even after death; on the website of the very news organisation he worked for his entire life, his name throws up a “zero” on clicking the search button. Expectedly, his name is also blocked on all search engines in China.