Esteemed Chinese Editor Quits Amid Political Pressure, but It’s Unclear Who’s Behind the Pressure

July 19, 2015 Updated: July 20, 2015

The editor of a well-known liberal political magazine in China stepped down recently, the culmination of years of mounting pressure from political opponents.

Yang Jisheng, 75, a noted scholar and the author of a seminal history of China’s mass famine caused by Maoist policies in late 1950s, also penned two letters announcing his resignation. The notes, and Yang’s interviews with the press, show the frustrations that even those with deep ties to the Party establishment experience when attempting to operate a publication that strays from rigid Party orthodoxy. Some observers in China also see behind the bullying of the publication the hand of political struggle within the Party itself, as one group of officials attempts to twist the arm of a respected institution in order to exert pressure on central Party authorities.

Much of the detail of the pressure of the magazine, usually hidden away from the rest of the world, was revealed on the Internet on July 16 soon after Yang Jisheng quit on June 30. Yang said in an interview with Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded broadcaster, that he did not leak the letters himself—but together they reveal in detail the intense behind-the-scenes pressure the journal was put under.

Yanhuang Chunqiu, the journal that Yang left, is known as China Through the Ages in English. First published in 1991, it is a monthly publication known for challenging Party-approved accounts of history—particularly on the Maoist political mania that rocked China in decades past.

Because of its limited circulation, specialist content, and the backing it has received by a group of Party elders concerned with reform, the publication has been able to operate for over two decades. But pressure has always been looming.

Earlier this year, for instance, Yanhuang Chunqiu was forced to cancel the annual dinner due to pressure from the authorities. Prior to that, editors reported receiving much tighter scrutiny from propaganda officials—for example, by being forced to submit their stories for approval to propaganda officials.

Yang said in one of his letters that from 2010 to 2014, only about a fifth of the articles they submitted to the censors made it into print.

Yang blamed the meddling of the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, the Party’s censorship bureaucracy, as a key part of his reason for quitting.

Yang said in one of his letters that from 2010 to 2014, only about a fifth of the articles they submitted to the censors made it into print.

Moreover, this past April they were handed a list of 15 topics— among them “military defense and historical warfare,” “important documents regarding the Party and the state,” ethnicity and religions,”—to replace the magazine’s own set of eight “untouchable” areas. The latter had already closely circumscribed the publication’s content, forbidding it from reporting on topics like Tiananmen Square massacre, Falun Gong, political leaders and their families, and more.

The publication was given a stern warning the same month for publishing dozens of articles without screening—in fact, many had been previously printed, Yang said, indicating that the complaint was no more than an attempt to find fault.

But it was pressure from another part of the propaganda bureaucracy that finally forced Yang’s hand, he wrote in his first letter, a farewell address to the Yanhuang Chunqiu staff and readers. A group of officials from Xinhua News Agency, the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China, had come to talk to Yang in April, and put him under pressure, he said.

“Times are changing,” Yang wrote. “Maybe one day, under our opponents’ pressure, Yanhuang Chunqiu may have no choice but to perish.”

The question of who, precisely, in the Party apparatus sought to make Yang capitulate is a vexing question, given the opacity of politics and propaganda in China. Blame for high-profile incidents of political pressure and censorship is usually assigned to the central leadership at the time—though in this particular instance, there may be more to it, according to a retired, senior Chinese Communist Party cadre, who laid out an alternative theory in an interview with the Australia broadcaster SBS recently.

Xin Ziling, the former chief of the editorial desk at National Defense University, and an old Party member who occupied a range of posts in the Party apparatus and propaganda system prior to that, said that the pressure on the Yanhuang Chunqiu journal came not from Xi Jinping and the current leadership, but from Xi’s “opponent”—former Party leader Jiang Zemin.

Jiang was head of the Communist Party from 1989 until 2002, but over the next decade remained a kind of godfather figure in Chinese politics, installing cronies and exerting immense influence without any formal position.

“Foreign observers and ordinary Chinese people often lump both good and bad policies on the head of Xi Jinping,” Xin Ziling said in an interview. “But they don’t know that there are some things that weren’t Xi Jinping’s decisions. Some were deliberately done by the opposition in order to smear Xi Jinping’s name.”

He listed “cracking down on Yanhuang Chunqiu” as an example, “something cooked up by the opponents” as part of an overall attempt to open multiple fronts of battle against Xi, and make it more difficult for him to carry out the anti-corruption political purge, which has heavily targeted the Jiang political network. “The opponents want to drag Xi Jinping into these other issues, to protect the ‘Jiang core,'” he said.

“History will show in the future that Yanhuang Chunqiu is correct …” Xin Ziling said. “China will not get anywhere if it doesn’t change its ideology, if it continues on the basis of Marxism–Leninism.”

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