On 27 January, Chang Ping, one of the most respected and independent-minded journalist in China, was sacked from his job at the Southern Media Group. He was not alone. Two other prominent journalists, Li Wenkai, opinion page editor at the Southern Metropolis Daily, and Peng Xiaoyun, chief editor of Time Weekly’s opinion section, respectively faced involuntary transfer and leave. As a recent report at Asia Sentinel put it, it may signal a new round of crackdown on liberal forces in China’s media.
In a recent blog post, prominent writer Mo Zhixu examined the political context behind the crackdown, specifically focusing on the Southern Media Group. The so-called Southern family of papers usually refers to papers under the group, which include the Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis Daily, 21st Century Business Herald and Southern People Weekly. The group, which originates from Guangzhou, then at the forefront of reform, is known for its liberal stance even though it is an official Communist Party newspaper group. But apart from this core group of papers, Mo pointed to the wider significance of the Southern Media Group:
More broadly speaking, the Southern Media Group is the result of recent years of expansion. Because of Southern Media’s collaborations with Beijing News (新京报) and Yunnan’s Information Times (信息时报), these newspapers’ ideological missions are close to that of Southern Media. Perhaps there exists a more abstract ‘Southern family’. Because of the group’s success, its former professionals are targets of recruitment by other new media. These people are now widely scattered in various new ventures, and carry with them the same spiritual consensus.
It is difficult to define the spirits and values of the South Media Group and its professionals. But generally speaking, it includes: affirmation of market economy, globalization, rule of law, human rights and universal values, and the promotion of political reforms. In essence, there are two main points: political reforms, and responding to the demand of rights by the newly emerging social class.
His key thesis was that it was not the Southern Media Group becoming more aggressive, but the diminishing space of political reform which makes the group more conspicuous as a dissenting force within the system:
We should say that most of the opinions [from the Southern Media Group] do not exceed the official stance or touch the red line. In fact, for a time these opinions were promoted officially in order to effect political reforms and to respond to the demands of the emerging social class. Recognizing that the South Media Group is part of the system, the objective of advocating reforms and responding to new demands is in fact to inject new energies and to prolong the life of the current system.
However, the Southern Media Group is increasingly seen as a dissenting force within the system. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘two basic points’ are upheld, and China’s economic development is not accompanied by corresponding political change. In this context, the fruits of economic development are transferred by the system to vested interests. This creates a symbiotic relationship between the system and the vested interests, and develops a trend of conservative thoughts. The goal of this conservatism is to maintain the current network of interests though the rejection of any fundamental changes.
It is the strengthening of this network of vested interests and the natural ideological alliance of the Southern Media Group with the emerging social class which makes the group an obvious target of suppression:
China’s economic and social developments lead to the emergence of a new social class, which is demanding their fair share of rights and interests, and a change to the current establishment. The onset of marketization, globalization and informatization also bestows them with new tools to challenge the system. This is shown by the increasingly numerous rights defense and protest actions, and the demanding of rights in the media and internet. Although these challenges still cannot effect any fundamental change in the system, they are picking up steam.
As a result, because of its continuous advocacy on reforms, the Southern Media Group is seen as a dissident force within the system, and a part of the emerging challenge of the new social class. It needs to be suppressed. In a system which emphasizes stability and resists any great change, the Southern Media Group has no choice but to support the status quo and the existing network of interests. Hence the purges.
Therefore, the attacks on the South Media Group come from political reality – defending the existing network of interests and denial of any reforms in the name of stability. From this angle, the firing of Chang Ping and transfer of Li Wenkai are subtle psychological incidents. They indicate that even advocates of reform within the system will not be tolerated.