Chinese Censor Unburdens Conscience Days Before Death

April 6, 2013 Updated: April 8, 2013

Chinese mourned the passing of an unlikely hero Wednesday–a newspaper censor whose final regrets exposed some of the backstage machinations in the Chinese communist apparatus.

Zeng Li, the former in-house censor of Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly, died on April 3, only three days into his retirement. He was 61.

Zeng left behind a telling letter, written on March 28, which was shared thousands of times on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog service, the day after his passing.

“Looking back on the last four years, I have made mistakes,” he wrote. “I killed reports that I shouldn’t have killed, I deleted content that I shouldn’t have deleted. But in the end, I woke up, preferring not to carry out a political mission and go against my conscience; I don’t want to go down as a criminal against history.”

“In the Southern Weekly New Year’s editorial incident, I stood up and spoke up out of a sense of justice,” he added. “I have a clear conscience, no regrets.”

Despite his role as “content examiner,” Zeng became well-known after the newspaper’s protest against censorship in January, when staff went on strike after Guangdong’s chief propagandist, Tuo Zhen, altered their 2013 New Year edition without consultation.

The greeting was written in support of respect for rule of law, and new Party leader Xi Jinping’s “dream of constitutionalism,” but was replaced with a pro-Party piece called “Seeking Dreams.”

Zeng’s job was to ensure the paper’s content adhered to censorship regulations laid down by provincial and central authorities. After the January incident, he explained in a blog post titled “Who Revised the New Year’s Greeting at Southern Weekly?” that he was employed to help the business avoid political risks, rather than to “strangle freedom of speech.”

He noted that the political environment became more sensitive last year after the ousting of Politburo official Bo Xilai, and the Party’s leadership change in November. Since the May 2012 appointment of Tuo Zhen, the provincial propaganda czar, the paper had been heavily censored, and all editorial had to be approved, Zeng added.

Tuo is a lapdog of ex-propaganda chief Li Changchun, a close ally of former Party leader Jiang Zemin. Analysts believe that Jiang’s faction is afraid Xi Jinping will use the propaganda of implementing the constitution to weaken Jiang’s power.

Former colleagues, writers, and other netizens reflected on Zeng’s life in online memorials. Chen Zhaohua, editor at sister newspaper Southern Metropolis Weekly, shared Zeng’s farewell letter, saying the outpouring of grief reflected the values he stood for. 

Sociologist and history scholar Ma Yong at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences commented on his Weibo: “This letter is surely an important document in China’s history.”

Writer Li Chengpeng described Zeng as “entangled,” but said “justice always dominated his heart,” on his Weibo. “When this happened some time ago, he behaved very well. Now that he’s gone, he will continue to edit this country in heaven.” 

Oian Gang, once a managing editor at the Weekly, blogged: “He showed the sincere strength of character typical of a Southern Weekly journalist and stuck to the bottom line,” adding: “Everyone has a choice.”