The Case of the World Economic Herald
Disarray and disunity within the Communist Party's central leadership between the death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang in April 1989 and the military's violent suppression of demonstrators in June opened the door for the Chinese media to test the limits of political acceptability during that two-month period. One measure of the disarray was that regular weekly meetings in Beijing between Propaganda Department officials and top newspaper editors to discuss party guidelines, press content, and coverage of news events were not held at all from the last week in April until after martial law was declared on 20 May.(1) No publication was bolder in exploiting the opening presented by these circumstances than the Shanghai-based World Economic Herald.
The Herald, launched in 1980 by longtime party cadre and journalist Qin Benli--a confidant of Hu Yaobang and reformist ex-Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang--had gradually moved from being a strictly economic journal to one that delved into more controversial topics of political reform. Some of the articles were highly controversial: these included a defense of Western over Marxist economic techniques; excerpts from speeches by prominent dissident physicist Fang Lizhi; and attacks on Chinese bureaucrats through symbolic use of foreign news, such as President Jimmy Carter's civil service reforms in the United States and changes in the Hungarian bureaucracy. The Herald, although affiliated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and printed under the auspices of Shanghai's official newspaper Liberation Daily, was effectively a quasi-private newspaper--that is, it was a satellite operation under the Shanghai Academy's Association of World Economics rather than an official organ. The paper was one of the first important publications in China to become commercially successful--turning away State subsidies, supporting itself with revenues from advertising, and achieving a circulation that had reached about 300,000 at the time of its closing by the regime in May 1989.
Reflecting Qin's close relationship with Hu Yaobang, the Herald was one of three publications that presented wreaths at an unofficial memorial service for the reformist late party chief at Tiananmen Square in April 1989, raising the eyebrows of top party leaders who wanted to play down Hu's passing. When Qin decided to print the proceedings of an unauthorized seminar in early May on Hu's life and teachings--without agreeing to deletions ordered by Shanghai Propaganda Department officials--and sent advance copies to Beijing for early distribution, the Shanghai Communist Party Committee suspended him from the Party and sent a team to "inspect" the Herald on 7 May. The newspaper's issue the next day contained a denunciation by the staff of Qin's suspension and an assertion that only the Association of World Economics could fire him. In response, the Shanghai Party Committee closed the paper. During this period, journalists demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in substantial numbers--about 500 individuals on 4 May alone--to show support for the Herald and for the principle of press freedom. Following Qin's dismissal, more than 1,000 writers and journalists signed a petition circulated by China Youth News protesting his ouster.
(1) From the published work of a US scholar, 1995.