Senior Chinese editor forced out for controversial editorial

“Some have commented that this event should go down in media history.” So says Zhang Hong (in English translation on The Wall Street Journal’s China blog today), co-author of an unprecedented joint editorial published last week by 13 Chinese newspapers. The editorials, criticizing the hukou system, which registers individuals in their place of birth and limits their ability to find work and education elsewhere, quickly disappeared online.

That was the first sign that the government didn’t welcome criticism of a system many believe maintains order and restricts the growth of slums in urban areas. Information officials then warned the newspapers. Zhang, the only public name attached to the article, lost his position as senior editor of the Economic Observer, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Media observers believe this kind of quiet retribution for speaking out is not uncommon within the mainstream media in China. But it is unusual to find someone involved who is willing to speak out in a public letter about the process; Zhang offers a unique window into the challenges of being a Chinese editor.

“We believed that publishing an editorial on this topic would be in line with the direction of Chinese government reforms and with the broad public interest, and that the risks were not too great,” he told the Journal. Yet he and his colleagues misjudged: “After this incident, I was punished accordingly; other colleagues and media partners also felt repercussions. I feel a sense of guilt whenever I think about it.”

Zhang doesn’t spell out those repercussions, but he concludes by acknowledging that he is no longer a professional editor: “I am now an independent commentator,” he said.