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How a liberal Chinese journal met its demise after 25 years

Yanhuang Chunqiu offered a platform for reformist voices.

TOKYO -- For a quarter of a century, the Chinese magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu served as a forum for reformist voices within the country's establishment. No longer: The liberal periodical has ceased publication amid the harshest suppression of China's media since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The magazine's 92-year-old publisher, Du Daozheng, announced the shutdown after the authorities effectively seized control of his operation.

On July 12, when all eyes were focused on the international tribunal ruling against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Chinese National Academy of Arts issued a notice titled, "Notification Concerning Appointments for the Leadership of 'Yanhuang Chunqiu' Magazine." The document detailed a sweeping reshuffle and demotion of the president, chief editor, vice president and deputy editor.

The academy named its deputy chief the new president and appointed its senior officials to top editorial positions.

On July 15, according to Du, academy employees descended upon the journal's newsroom and changed the passwords for its website.

Du and his team are protesting: The magazine's lawyer filed a lawsuit with a Beijing court on July 15, seeking to have the academy's decision repealed. For now, however, their run appears to be over.

Du's statement on the publication stoppage, issued July 17, showed his indignation. "From now on," he said, "even if somebody publishes a periodical with the name Yanhuang Chunqiu, it has nothing to do with us."

Big-name backers

For Yanhuang Chunqiu, resisting political pressure always came with the territory.

Du founded the magazine in 1991, in the wake of the Tiananmen incident, because he wanted to pursue historical truth. This quest was bound to ruffle feathers within the Communist Party, but the publisher also had some influential supporters -- a group of progressive party elders.

Li Rui, who became an adviser to the journal, once served as a secretary for Mao Zedong and was the No. 2 official of the party organ responsible for personnel.

Another big-name backer was Xiao Ke, a former general of the People's Liberation Army, who died in 2008 at the age of 101. Xiao was ranked at the top of 57 "founding" senior generals, a level below China's revered "10 marshals." He offered unwavering support for the journal when it faced strong pressure from the authorities in the 1990s.

President Xi Jinping's own father, Xi Zhongxun, once lauded the magazine. In 2001, the year before he died at age 89, the senior Xi sent a message celebrating Yanhuang Chunqiu's 10th anniversary, saying it was "doing well."

Du himself was a senior government official. After working as an editor at a state-run news organization, he served as director of the government's General Administration of Press and Publications.

A flag-hoisting ceremony in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4

With this support network in place, Yanhuang Chunqiu served as a vital platform for reformist party members to share their opinions. One article published in early 2015 tells us a great deal about its editorial policy. It was headlined, "Greedy Official Wang Shouye As I Know Him."

The article focused on Wang Shouye, a former Chinese vice admiral who was charged with corruption in 2006. It was written by a retired officer who was once Wang's superior, and it included surprising revelations about how an unscrupulous individual could climb the naval ranks.

Soon after the piece was published, it was removed from the magazine's website.

The political environment ought to have been ideal for such an article. The Xi administration had acknowledged that Wang was a tan guan, or greedy official, and the president had expanded his anti-corruption campaign to go after military targets. Nevertheless, the story was dropped -- probably because the government did not want the extent of military corruption to become common knowledge. Senior officers allegedly linked to Wang may have also balked at its publication.

Yanhuang Chunqiu was never intended to appeal to the masses, but it built up its readership by publishing scathing articles. In hindsight, the Wang episode was a sign of headwinds to come.

Carefully critical

During its 25-year run, the journal stirred up especially powerful antagonism among conservatives who seek to enhance the party's leadership by popularizing an "official" version of history. 

An article that praised pro-reform leader Hu Yaobang, who served as the party's chairman and then general secretary before being forced to resign in 1987, provoked a bitter backlash. The journal also published a controversial piece about the achievements of Zhao Ziyang, another former general secretary who fell from power after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The article appeared at a time when any official reference to Zhao was considered taboo.

When Zhao was under house arrest following the 1989 bloodshed, Du visited him several times. After Zhao's death in 2005, Du published a book in Hong Kong based on the interviews.

Yanhuang Chunqiu managed to survive attacks from the conservative elite thanks to the progressive elders' protection and earnings from its steadily growing readership. The publisher also took great care not to incur the wrath of the party leadership. There were eight "untouchable" topics under the magazine's editorial policy, according to Yang Jisheng, who served as editor-in-chief from 2014 to 2015.

They included the Tiananmen Square incident, the idea of separation of powers, the nationalization of the People's Liberation Army and ethnic conflicts in China. This self-restraint was a key element of the magazine's strategy for avoiding excessive political risk.

But after Xi became supreme leader in November 2012, pressure from the regime became much stronger.

The journal was subjected to various forms of harassment. Its website was temporarily shut down. The government meddled in its events. Authorities attempted to interfere with its personnel, as well, under the pretext that Du was too old.

In retrospect, the biggest blow to the magazine's editorial independence came in 2014, when the Chinese National Academy of Arts replaced a private-sector cultural organization as its sponsor. The academy is under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Culture and is part of the regime's control apparatus.

Now the academy has taken over Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Not what it seems?

It is clear now that Xi is far more aggressive in suppressing free speech than his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The case of Causeway Bay Books provides further evidence of this. Staff members of the Hong Kong bookstore, which was known for selling politically sensitive material, disappeared late last year and turned out to have been detained by mainland authorities.

The question is, what is driving the muzzling of Yanhuang Chunqiu and other platforms for dissent?

One factor behind the takeover of the magazine may have been the diminishing influence of the elders who backed it. Perhaps conveniently for the administration, many of them are now dead or advanced in age. But this is not enough to explain the radical change in the Chinese government's attitude toward the press under Xi.

The president's own political philosophy is probably a more critical factor.

On Feb. 19, Xi visited the country's top three media organizations: the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television. After the rare inspection tours, he said, "The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name."

Translation: The official media should prioritize the Communist Party's interests over uncovering the truth.

Some observers, however, smell a convoluted political conspiracy behind the shutdown of Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Proponents of this theory point to the support Xi's father offered the journal. They say the takeover was, in fact, a political attack on the leader.

One figure believed to hold the key to this theory is Liu Yunshan, the fifth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's supreme policy making body. Liu is regarded as China's propaganda chief. Before he joined the standing committee, he served as director of the party's Propaganda Department for 10 years, after a nine-year stint as deputy director.

Liu gained a foothold in the propaganda machine soon after Yanhuang Chunqiu was founded. Many China watchers believe his rise was supported mainly by Jiang, a Xi rival. And some allege that Jiang-affiliated forces in the propaganda department put the squeeze on the magazine as a way of hurting the president.

In other words, today's media censorship is part of a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Xi and Jiang.

If this theory is accurate, the crackdown will ease when the struggle ends. If the theory is wrong, the heavy media repression is likely to continue as long as Xi is in charge. In any case, the state of the media could be an important barometer of Chinese politics in the runup to the next big event -- the 2017 Communist Party Congress.

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