Chinese journalists say they ‘can think but can’t write, can write but can’t publish.’
The suicide this week of a top features editor at the Communist Party official newspaper People’s Daily has sent shock waves through the tightly controlled world of China’s state-run media, commentators said on Thursday.
Xu Huaiqian, 45, was the editor of the “Dadi” cultural supplement of the paper when he took his own life on Wednesday after suffering severe mental health problems, a friend and associate said via China’s microblogging services.
“I received a text from a friend to say that … Xu Huaiqian jumped off a building and died on Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., because he was suffering from clinical depression,” wrote Xu Xunlei, editor of the Hangzhou-based Metropolis Express newspaper.
However, an employee who answered the phone at the newspaper offices declined to comment. “We don’t know about this matter,” the employee said, before hanging up the phone.
Some microbloggers made an immediate link between Xu’s reported depression and the huge mental pressure on journalists under China’s draconian controls on its media.
“Xu Huaiqian said when he was alive that his pain lay in the fact that he dared to think things but didn’t dare to say them; that he dared to say them, but didn’t dare to write them; that he dared to write them, but that there was nowhere to publish them,” wrote microblog user @huayanbatu.
User @haiyangzhilushang agreed, saying that Xu was sure to have many things bottled up inside him that couldn’t be spoken about.
“This internal struggle and conflict forced him to take the road from which there is no return,” the user wrote.
No suicide note was reported, but Xu’s own writings may give some clue as to the meaning of his suicide in his own mind.
“Death is a heavy word,” he wrote in a 2008 article about social injustice.
“In China, there are many situations in which society won’t pay much attention to you unless you die; in which only death is sufficient to change things for the better,” he said.
Indeed, Xu’s death appears to have had a very public impact.
The editor of Qingdao Literature magazine, Han Jiachuan, posted a statement online in response to Xu’s death, expressing his grief that he wouldn’t get together with his friend again, while China Youth Daily columnist Cao Lin said he was “in shock, and in tears” at the news.
Current affairs commentator Yang Jinlin said via her microblogging account that Xu’s passing was a “terrible pity” for a man only in his forties.
Meanwhile, Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said she had frequently written articles that her editors didn’t dare to use, a situation which most Chinese journalists have found themselves in.
“When I wrote for the China News Service, I would pass myself off as a foreign writer based overseas, but very frequently they couldn’t publish my articles,” Gao said.
“It made me feel as if I couldn’t express my ideas,” she said. “I was also in the position of daring to write but being unable to publish.”
“Of course it’s hugely depressing to be in that situation.”
Li Datong, ousted former editor of the cutting-edge China Youth Daily supplement “Freezing Point,” said people who worked at the People’s Daily would have long ago come to terms with media restrictions, however.
“I think this is an individual case, and it doesn’t really represent anything else,” he said.
Xu graduated from the Chinese department of the prestigious Peking University in 1989, going on to gain a master’s degree in literature at the equally prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, before starting work at the People’s Daily.
He also wrote a number of articles in his spare time, which were published on the China Writer website, including “Testifying Through Death” and an essay collection, “Walking and Thinking.”
According to the ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, Xu may have had unknown factors in his private life contributing to his mental state.
“I have tried to ask some of my friends at the People’s Daily, but they can’t really get to the bottom of it,” Huang said. “We’re no longer limited to a few official media outlets for our expression.”
“We can express ourselves in private gatherings, and online, on the microblogs,” he said.
Last month, in what many said was an renewed censorship drive ahead of a crucial leadership transition later this year, Chinese authorities removed from their posts top editorial staff at a Shanghai newspaper and the editor-in-chief of a cutting-edge Guangzhou newspaper.
Li Fumin, former editor-in-chief of the New Express newspaper in Guangzhou, which is published by Nanfang newspaper group, and Lu Yan, who headed the Shanghai-based Eastern Daily News, were both removed from their posts.
The 2010 survey of global press freedom carried out by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders put China 171st out of 178 countries and territories for journalistic autonomy.
Chinese authorities retain blocks on foreign social media platforms like Twitter and have tightened controls on investigative reporting and entertainment programming in advance of a sensitive leadership change scheduled for 2012, according to a recent survey by the U.S.-based Freedom House.
Detailed party directives—which can arrive daily at editors’ desks—also restrict coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy, among other issues, the report said.
Chinese journalists and millions of Internet users continue to test the limits of permissible expression by drawing attention to incipient scandals or launching campaigns via domestic micro-blogging platforms, it added.
Reported for RFA’s Cantonese service by Grace Kei Lai-see and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
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