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Media and Other Publications in China

When the Democracy Movement began in autumn 1978 with critical wall posters and journals and the activities of independent artists and poets, you would not find a single line on these events in the "official" Chinese news media (such as the central Communist Party organ People's Daily or the big regional papers). Every newspaper and every magazine at that time, was controlled by the CCP Propaganda Department or by one of the "mass organizations" such as the Communist Youth League or the official writers' or artists' associations.

Similar to a practice of other communist countries, in addition to the publically available media, China also had (and still has) a complicated system of "internal" (neibu 内部) publications accessible to a smaller or larger group of selected cadres or otherwise qualified readers. In such kind of publication one did find reports on the activities of the "Beijing Spring" and criticism of the official policies or even high-ranking personalities. The scope of such reporting depended on the designated group of readers, the highest state and Party leaders had of course access to more information than medium level cadres.

On theses printed materials the degree of confidentiality was usually mentioned at the top of the first page, it ranged from "Internal publication - keep with care" (for publications with larger circulation) to "secret" (jimi 机密) or "top secret" (juemi 绝密), which made it sometimes difficult to distinguish between "media" (they usually appeared in regular intervals) or (irregular) documents for internal communication between party and government institutions.

The largest of these internal publications used to be the "Reference News" (Cankao Xiaoxi 参考消息), a daily tabloid with a circulation of 10 million that contained (heavily shortened and edited) excerpts from international media. Cadres, party members and other interested oersons were allowed to subscribe to this publication, but the needed a letter of authorization from their work place or institution, which was easily obtained. Foreigners though were explicitly excluded from reading this paper. Today "Reference News" is freely sold to everyone at the newspaper Kiosks.

The "Reference News" occasionally also (partly) reprinted international media reports that mentioned critical posters, the Democracy Wall and the Chinese Democracy Movement. And regularly they carried more or less detailed references to the Eastern European dissident movements (in China usually interpreted as an opposition against Soviet "Social Imperialism"). Therefore the independent Polish "Solidarity" union or the Czechoslovak "Charta77" were well-known in China.

From the very few copies of the more restrictive internal media that got to be known abroad (such as a few issues from the "Situation Summary" from 1978 or one confidential issue from 1980 of "On the Youth Movement" published by the "Chinese Youth Daily", it becomes clear that high-ranking cadres must have been quite well-informed about the Democracy Movement. Sometimes one would even think that such publications - despite their critical tone - tried to support the reformist faction of the Communist Party by deliberately reporting in detail on the dissident movement and its ideas.

"The New Class" by the Yougoslav dissident Milovan Djilas (1957) published by the "World Knowledge Publishing House" (Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe 世界知识出版社, 1963) in Beijing. On the cover it says "For internal use only", further emphasized by a red handstamp that translates "Internal reading".
The same publishing house issued in April 1980 an "internal" translation of the book "Frost from the Kremlin" by the former Czechoslovak Communist Party Secretary Zdeněk Mlynář on his ideas for a "humane socialism".

Besides the restricted newspapers and journals there are also "internal" books that may only be bought and read by a selected readership. All big bookstores in China have some secluded shelves (sometimes a seperate room) with "neibu" publications. When customers want to enter and purchase one of these books, they have to Show an authorization letter or present an ID card of their workplace to prove their rank in the cadre hierarchy.

During the interviews, several Beijing Spring activists have mentioned that they had been able to read publications by Eastern European dissidents translated into Chinese that had some influence on the ideas of the Chinese civic rights momevement: Besides the famous book by the Yugoslav former communist politician and later opponent of the regime Milovan Djilas ("The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System") they also mention works by the Soviet author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the human rights activists Roy and Zhores Medvedev and the Czechoslovak reform economist Ota Šik ("The Third Way. Marxist-Leninist Theory & Modern Industrial Society"). Another stunning criticism of traditional communism that was "Night Frost in Prague: The Road to Humane Socialism" by Zdeněk Mlynář, Communist Party Secretary at the time of the "Prague Spring". The title of the Chinese language editions translates (like the Czech original) "Frost from the Kremlin".

The official and generally available newspapers and magazines like the "Peoples Daily" (Renmin Ribao 人民日报) mention critical wall papers and the Democracy Movement only during a short period when "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping (formally "only" Deputy Prime Minister and Vice-Chairman of the Party) spoke positively about critical dazibaos and debates in several talks with foreign visitors in November 1978.

Also in the course of the rehabilitation andl liberation of Li Yizhe Group in early 1979 in Guangzhou, some party media presented their ideas of socialist democracy and legality in a positive light, including their criticism of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the Mao era. The election campaigns at several universities in November 1980 though, are never mentioned or discussed in the official media.

After Deng Xiaoping's speach on the "Four Basic Principles" in March 1979, regular Chinese media would hardly at all touch upon the Democracy Movement, and if so, only in a critical and negative context. Hence the arrest of activists is occasionally mentioned in the press, as well as the trials and verdicts against Fu Yuehua and Wei Jingsheng. The newspapers also report on the decrees by various authorities regulating and banning big-character posters and other activities criticizing the regime, not too much in detail though, probably because of the fear that the measures could stir up more debates and negative reactions from part of the population.

There has been some reporting though on the independent avant-garde art and literary movement, not so much in the daily press, but in some more extensive articles in the fine arts magazine "Meishu" and in some other journals. The Focus there is on the new artistic and literary tendencies, omitting all political contexts such as their links with the Beijing Spring movement or the famous street march demanding political and artistic freedoms together with the dissidents on October 1, 1979.

Book presenting the "Stars" Group (Changsha)
Article on Ma Desheng in the "Chinese Youth Daily" (22.11.1984, p.4)

All this is also true for books and scientific publications on contemporary history or arts. During the 1980s we do find some reporting on the new literary tendencies emerging from the independent journal  "Jintian" (Today). Every now and then we find articles on avant-garde artists like Ma Desheng, Huang Rui or Wang Keping. again omitting any political context. There has even been one book (or rathe a small brochure) published on the "Stars" artists (Yi Dan: Xingxing lishi [The History of the Stars]. Changsha 2002) in a Hunan publishing house, otherwise the group is briefly mentioned in various art anthologies.

Original version of the study on the electoral campaign printed 1980 in limited numbers at Peking University
The Hong Kong publication from 1990

As early as 1981 some researchers at the History Department of Peking University tried to publish a collection of materials and a comprehensive account of the 1980 pluralist elections, but this was quickly discouraged by the university authorities. What remained was an "internal" brochure printed only in limited numbers. Hu Ping and Wang Juntao, the two successful candidates at the elections, had this account published in 1990 in Hong Kong under the title "Kaituo - Bei Da Xue Yun Wen Xian" (Preparing the ground – contributing to the students‘ movement at Peking University).

"The Seventies" (Hong Kong edition from the "Oxford University Press")
Similar pages on street protests are missing from the Beijing version by "Sanlian Shudian", obviously cencored by the authorities.

After the year 2000 it still remains difficult (or close to impossible) in China to do academic research or publish comprehensive studies on the political movement of the Beijing Spring. A book on memories of the 1970s published by the "Sanlian Shudian" Publishing house in Beijing in 2008 can serve as an example: An article by "Stars" artist Yan Li is only printed in an obviously censored version, as can be seen from a parallel Hong Kong edition of the same book (from Oxford University Press) that e.g. contains an extensive description and several photos of famous October 1, 1979 street march. These pages are omitted in the Beijing edition.

"Die Ära Deng Xiaoping" von Yang Jisheng, ein Unterkapitel befasst sich mit der Pekinger "Mauer der Demokratie")

Nevertheless, there have been attemps by Chinese academics to do some research and documentation of the Beijing Spring, but usually the Democracy Movement only gets briefly mentioned. Even in more comprehensive studies of the contemporary history of the 1970s and 1980s, this aspect often is not touched upon at all.

The well-known historian and journalist Yang Jisheng (杨继绳) in his Chinese languange oeuvre "The era of Deng Xiaoping" (Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe, Beijing 1998) has described over six pages in rather factual language the big-character posters, the Xidan Democracy Wall, the independent journals and the criticism of Mao. In a personal conversation with the author he pointed out though that this chapter had to be greatly reduced in later printings of the book.

Another book published in one of the official party history publishing houses on the big changes after Mao's death (Cheng Zhongyuan, Li Zhenghua, Wang Yuxiang: Dramatic Years: China 1976-1981. Central Documents Publishing House. Beijing 2008) also describes - here in a rather critical tone - the dazibao movement of 1978-79. But it does mention the demands for more democracy and the challanges to the communist one party rule, telling also that the movement gained substantial support outside Beijing, and that some high-ranking Communist Party cadres sympathized with it. 

The Beijing journal "Spring and Autumn Annals" (Yanhuang Chunqiu 炎黄春秋) which used to be close to the Communist Party's reform faction, also published occasional articles on the early era of reform debates and the role that some well-known politicians and party officials played in it (like Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang or Hu Jiwei, then chief editor of the "People's Daily"). In 2016 though, the CCP Propaganda Department took a tighter rein on the magazine, partly because of its articles on contemporary Chinese history that were not always in line with prevalent official views. "Spring and Autumn Annals" was then continued by a new editorial board and a different focus with regard to contents.


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