Sparks from Chinese Media, Extinguished, Remain as Embers

January 21, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

For the first time ever, mainland China's general public decides on their own annual news awards. (Getty Images)
For the first time ever, mainland China's general public decides on their own annual news awards. (Getty Images)
In mid-December something happened to newspapers in China. Often docile, many of them became the center of controversy after spilling ink on topics the authorities expect them to keep quiet about.

Hard-hitting investigations highlighted the limits of state intervention in the market, incisive commentaries illuminated the meaning and value of universal rights, figures that the Communist Party jails and attacks were given news features and awards, and a satirical news award was established for journalists who dare to push the boundaries of the permissible.

Frequently, the apparat was not to be bested, and responded with characteristic harshness. But the incidents demonstrated how the rift between the Party and the people continues to grow, exemplified best in the print media.

China Times Challenges the National Development and Reform Commission

China Times reporter Wu Lihua didn’t think the piece over which she labored, “The Price Regulation Dilemma: Food Oil Companies Forced to Halt Production,” published on Dec.12, would bring much controversy.

After hearing that the Beijing-based Huifu Grain & Oil Group had halted production, she began digging around. Her words say it best: “On Dec. 2, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) communicated two requests to four cooking oil giants in China, including Zhongliang and Yihai: ensure supply and steady the price; sources say that the price of cooking oil is not allowed to increase until after the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) of next year.

“However, at the current market price in China, these companies will lose around 500 yuan (US$75) for every ton of cooking oil sold. Even industry leaders can only hold out under such pricing for about a month. Many cooking oil companies stopped production; stores are expected to be out of stock within a month.”

The article pointed out that the fault lay with the NDRC, who was willing to set price controls but not pay for them. “While the domestic harvest of soybeans was good this year, their purchase price, propped up by the central authorities, was even higher than that of imports,” she wrote. “Consequently, industry chose to import more, but this then increased the demand from China in the international market, and the price. The rising price of soybeans seems to have become an insoluble problem.”

After the article was out, First Financial Daily and others republished it. The next day the NDRC criticized the article as “gravely inaccurate” and “purely subjective speculation.” Often when a central ministry demands conformity, the media are made to correct their “mistake.” But this time, things went a little differently—at least at first.

On Dec. 14, China Times issued a statement saying that their reporters had conducted extensive research, and had interview audios and written records to back up the reportage. The First Financial Daily also published a statement on their website on the same day, confirming that cooking oil companies had indeed halted production.

But the resistance was short lived. The next day China Times issued a short statement saying that “the report was biased, and caused some misinterpretations and negative impressions; [we wish to] express [our] apology.” It also mentioned that “We will continue to operate based on the directions given by the central authorities, maintain market stability, and further improve our reports.”

Time Weekly Punished

The Dec. 13 issue of Time Weekly in Guangdong Province published a list of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2010. The creator of the website “A Home for Kidney Stone Babies”, Zhao Lianhai, was selected as the nongovernmental person of the year and was placed on the front of the special issue.

Zhao’s child was one of the babies poisoned by melamine-tainted milk powder in 2008, and he led the call for investigation and compensation. For that he was convicted of “disturbing public order” and sentenced to two years prison last November.

Time Weekly’s description said that his experience reflects the danger and dilemma that rights activists in China face. It also reflects the Chinese people’s faith that justice “cannot be blocked by imprisonment.”

Zhao’s previous defense lawyer, Li Fangping, told Radio Free Asia that Zhao and his family paid a heavy price to protect the rights of the more than 300,000 victims in the poisoned milk powder episode. The fact that Zhao was picked award winner carries great significance, since “Only when everyone takes action to protect his or her own rights and speaks out, will a strong force be gathered that compels the government to change.”

Soon after, Sun Fanyin, chief editor of the magazine, was removed from his post and Peng Xiaojun, director of the Commentary Department, was dismissed. Though many copies had already been distributed, remaining copies were quietly withdrawn.

Special Report on a ‘Dissident’

It is well known in China that 53-year old artist Ai Weiwei is on the Chinese authorities’ “dissident” list. He actively and publicly defends human rights, including collecting the names of students who died during the Sichuan earthquake due to sub-standard school buildings, supporting Sichuan dissident Tan Zuoren who was sentenced to imprisonment, and supporting a Beijing man, Yang Jia, who killed policemen when he felt that his rights had been violated.

On Dec. 16, Hebei Youth Daily, in its Cultural Figures page, published a special report titled “Ai Weiwei: Looking for All Possibilities.” The article praised Ai's achievements in the arts and talked about his social commentary: “The Internet made it possible for Ai Weiwei, who is not a professional author, to make his voice heard. It provides him another ‘fighting ground’ to re-affirm the value of an individual’s life, in addition to the area of modern art. Ai Weiwei’s criticism of current affairs also extends his artistic point of view: to maintain the dignity of the individual and one’s freedom of expression.”

News Award Established

On Dec. 13, Wang Xiaoshan, a columnist for over a dozen newspapers and websites and chief editor of Rongshuxia (, China's most influential literature website, established the “Wang Xiaoshan News Award” for journalists and other remarkable people in the industry.

The names of the award categories were double entendres. For example, the “Big Hammer Award” is for news with the most intensity; the “River Crab Award” is for news that had an impact but was “harmonized” by the authorities (“river crab” is a homonym for “harmonize” in Chinese, while “harmonize” is a euphemism for censorship); and the “Alpaca Award,” for the year’s most newsworthy figures (this is a reference to the “grass mud horse,” depicted as an alpaca-type beast; the term “grass mud horse” has been deployed on the authorities by Chinese netizens because its homonym is a very strong insult).