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Press Freedom in China

From the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s English language newspaper, here is an article on press freedom in China which is itself an example of how much Hong Kong differs from the mainland. It also illustrates the Chinese government’s control over the presentation of history, as well as the media.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Press freedom is gaining momentum on mainland, says outspoken academic

Speaking avidly about how China should learn from mistakes in history – a balanced account not distorted by the authorities – Sun Yat-sen University professor Yuan Weishi may sound like an idealist.

But the controversial philosophy professor also knows how to stay clear of potholes on the path to free speech on the mainland.

“We better not discuss this question, because this is a taboo … I would like to maintain my right of speech on the mainland … Some people criticise the Communist Party in overseas publications. That’s much easier [than what I’m doing], but I would rather publish essays on the mainland,” Professor Yuan said when asked a sensitive question yesterday while in Hong Kong to promote a new book on Sun Yat-sen.

Not that the 75-year-old philosopher and historian is afraid of getting into troubled waters. He considers himself an “independent”, and does not fear criticism.

“I’m used to criticism, and I’m not afraid of being criticised. As an intellectual, we should have the courage to tell people the truth,” said Professor Yuan, who is retired but still doing research at the university in Guangzhou.

Known for his liberal-minded, critical analysis of the history of modern China, Professor Yuan’s essays have been widely circulated around the nation. And because of remarks that often clash or deviate from the official interpretation, his articles often attract criticism.

In January, Professor Yuan was propelled into the international spotlight after one of his essays triggered the temporary closure of an influential China Youth Daily supplement, Bingdian Weekly.

Li Erliang , the newspaper’s chief editor was sacked recently. It was reported that his dismissal was related to the Bingdian incident.

In his article, Professor Yuan argued that China’s high school textbooks had distorted some historical events, such as the Boxer Rebellion and the reasons that European countries were able to invade China.

Professor Yuan was branded a traitor because he challenged the official textbooks’ glorification of the Boxers as anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist.

Despite being at the centre of a controversy that has been held as an example of Beijing’s tightening press censorship, Professor Yuan said he believed that press freedom was actually gaining momentum.

“Be it economic freedom or that of speech, everything is returning [to a level of before 1949] … We’ve heard a lot of stories about [the government] shutting down newspapers in China. But if you pay attention to the mainland’s newspapers these days, you will see that, in general, China now has a greater freedom of speech than before,” he said, noting that some newspapers had been running outstanding editorials on subjects that might have been taboo before.

Professor Yuan said he was prepared for further criticism because of his latest book’s re-examination of the contribution of Sun Yat-sen, often referred to as the father of modern China.

The book, Modern China Studies, is a compilation of Professor Yuan’s essays over the past decade.

In one chapter, Professor Yuan argues that Sun was not as heroic and revolutionary as he has conventionally been made out to be.

“People have been singing praises on his role of overthrowing the feudal system and building the Republic of China. But [they] have ignored his deeds of betraying democracy and leading China to the crossroads,” Professor Yuan wrote in the preface of his book. Professor Yuan said he was trying to draw a fuller picture of China’s history by viewing it from a different angle.

“The government has been talking about building an innovative society, but this won’t happen when there is no freedom of academic thought and speech. It’s important that the people are aware of their rights.”

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