When a Journalist's Voice Is Silenced
In using the Internet to share his views, Li Datong is ‘breaking the wishes of authorities who would prefer he did not speak to the foreign press.’
Li Datong is difficult to locate at first. At a glance he could have been any one of a number of middle-aged bespectacled gentlemen taking a break over cigarettes and tea in the crowded lobby of the Poly Building, a multiplex sporting a modern theatre, art displays, a hotel and office block not far from his office at the China Youth Daily. I see a man emerge from the glare of sunlight, wearing a jacket but not a tie, waving me over to his table with a grin. That he had staked out a seat in the brightest yet most secluded spot in the café is somehow fitting for a diffident but determined local journalist stepping into the international media spotlight for the first time.
Embattled editor Li Datong appears to be in excellent spirits. He smiles often, and his eyes are clear and alert. Freezing Point, the supplement he edits for China Youth Daily, is closed down. He has been banished from the newsroom; within China, his name is blocked in search engines, but he is communicating in every way he can. Although he does not speak English, he has during these winter months shown an unprecedented willingness to talk to the foreign press, in translation, in the hope that some of what he has to say will be translated back to Chinese and distributed domestically. In doing so, he's breaking the wishes of authorities who would prefer he did not speak to the foreign press.
It's February, and in the last few days he has spoken to Asahi Shimbun, Die Zeit, Kyodo News, The Yomiuri Shimbun, Financial Times, and CNN so that he might continue to say what he wants to say, albeit indirectly, to the people of China and, more critically given his battle of wills with certain party censors, the leaders of China. When asked if he is being followed or monitored, he grins again. He seems unfazed even though the answer to both is in the affirmative.
"I watch the traffic for signs of being tailed, and I sometimes say hello to the unknown people listening in on my phone, but I continue to do what I must do. I have nothing to hide," he says with gritty confidence. "What I do is legal and supported by the constitution of my country."
He explains that he was abruptly transferred out of the newsroom into a research post, involuntarily, while his popular and sometimes controversial news supplement, Freezing Point, was closed down. He is guardedly optimistic about appealing the decision. I ask him if the article he published by Professor Yuan Weishi, "Modernization and History Textbooks," challenging orthodox views of Chinese history, was the reason Freezing Point got closed down.
"No, of course not. They have been warning me for a long time, at least once a month. They didn't like my running stuff by Taiwan writer Lung Ying-tai and some other things. It's not one article, it's everything, everything we do in Freezing Point."
So why single out that article?
"That's just an excuse, they needed an excuse to close me down, and they chose that particular topic — history — because that's an area they can easily manipulate public opinion on," Li Datong explained.
He went on to say that China's press is freer than ever while paradoxically it remains as under control as ever. One way to illustrate this is an expanding balloon marked by a design that gets bigger as the balloon gets bigger.
In an Open Letter that Li Datong sent out via the Internet after his dismissal, in part, he wrote:
"This incident exposes the basic flaws in the news control system of our country. A small number of people in the Central Propaganda Department have a narrow worldview and mind and used dictatorial methods to impose controls that deaden what should be a lively political scene in which a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools speak out. These people want obedience and not equality. Which item in the party constitution of the Communist Party lets them do that?"
In some of his writings in defense of journalism, I'd noticed that he quoted Karl Marx, including a counterthrust he directed at his boss when he'd said "the trust of the people is necessary for a newspaper to live, without which it will shrivel." When I ask if invoking the name of Marx to protect press freedom is an example of using the red flag to fight the red flag, he gathers his thoughts, then smiles. "It's more like making sure whatever trick they try to use rebounds back on them."
Listening to Li Datong, his intense gaze broken by someone walking by, I'm reminded of the comment Malcolm X made about sitting in shops. Keep your back to the wall, remain alert. Li Datong pauses in speaking only rarely, focused as he is on the flow of thought, deeply committed as he is to the cause of keeping his compact with his readers.
It's clear that Li loves his job and is a newspaperman through and through. He is very much of the ink and paper tradition, but he is quickly learning the power and speed of the Internet now that his traditional platform for expression has been taken away.
Freezing Point resumed publication on March 1st with a different appearance and without the editorial leadership of Li Datong and his deputy editor, Lu Yuegang. The first issue included a state-mandated apology for running the Yuan Weishi article that, as Li explained, neatly frames for its readers the shutdown as an issue of nationalism. This article was adapted from what Philip J. Cunningham, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, wrote in February 2006 and was posted on Danwei, a Web site that provides links to Chinese publications.