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Li Datong meets the press
By Philip J. Cunningham

Li Datong is difficult to locate at first, at a glance he could have been any one of a number of middle-aged bespectacled gentlemen taking a break over cigarettes and tea in the crowded lobby of the Poly Building, a PLA multiplex sporting a modern theatre, art displays, a hotel and office block not far from his office at the China Youth Daily. Then I see a man emerge from the glare of sunlight by the front window, wearing a jacket but not a tie, waving me over to his table with a grin. That he had staked out a seat in the brightest yet most secluded spot in the café is somehow fitting for a diffident but determined local journalist stepping into the international media spotlight for the first time.

Embattled editor Li Datong appears to be in excellent spirits. He smiles often and his eyes are clear and alert. Freezing Point, the supplement he edits for China Youth Daily is closed down, he has been banished from the newsroom, his name is blocked in search engines, but he is communicating in every way he can.

Although he does not speak English, he has in recent days shown an unprecedented willingness to talk to the foreign press, in translation, in the hopes that some of what he has to say will be translated back to Chinese and distributed domestically. In doing so, he’s breaking the wishes of authorities who would prefer he did not speak to the foreign press.

In the last few days he has spoken to Asahi Shimbun, Die Zeit, Kyodo News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Financial Times and CNN in order that he might continue to say what he wants to say, albeit indirectly, to the people of China, and more critically, given his battle of wills with certain party censors, the leaders of China. When asked if he is being followed or monitored, he grins again. He seems unfazed even though the answer to both is in the affirmative.

"I watch the traffic for signs of being tailed and I sometimes say hello to the unknown people listening in on my phone, but I continue to do what I must do. I have nothing to hide," he says with gritty confidence. "What I do is legal and supported by the constitution of my country."

He explains that he had been abruptly transferred out of the newsroom into a research post, involuntarily, while his popular and sometimes controversial news supplement Freezing Point was closed down. He is guardedly optimistic about appealing the decision.

I asked him if the article by Professor Yuan Weishi, “Modernization and Chinese Historical Textbooks” challenging orthodox views of Chinese history, was the reason he got closed down.

“No, of course not. They have been warning me for a long time, at least once a month. They didn’t like my running stuff by Taiwan writer Lung Yingtai and some other things. It’s not one article, it’s everything, everything we do in Freezing Point.”

So, why single out that article?

“That’s just an excuse, they needed an excuse to close me down, and they chose that particular topic, history, because that’s an area they can easily manipulate public opinion on.”

He says the traditional view of history Professor Yuan discussed can be compared to being weaned on the milk of wolves. That’s a way of saying it’s all black and white, China against its implacable enemies, a winner-takes-all kind of struggle. So along comes Professor Yuan suggesting on the basis of his research that not all foreigners were bad and not all Chinese were good, this is going back to the Opium War, and you have a topic upon which the party can score points. He says he’s gotten harsh responses to running the history piece from some readers --it touches an identity issue-- something his official detractors can exploit.

He says that China’s press is freer than ever while paradoxically it remains as under control as ever. One way to illustrate this is an expanding balloon marked by a design that gets bigger as the balloon gets bigger.

I told him I had noticed that in some of his writings in defense of journalism he was quick to quote Marx, like the counterthrust he directed at his boss, saying “the trust of the people is necessary for a newspaper to live, without which it will shrivel.”

When I ask if invoking the name of Marx to protect press freedom is an example of using the red flag to fight the red flag, he gathers his thoughts, then smiles. “It’s more like making sure whatever trick they try to use rebounds back on them.”

Listening to Li Datong, his intense gaze now and then broken by someone walking by, I’m reminded of the comment Malcolm X made about sitting in shops. Keep your back to the wall, remain alert. He pauses only rarely, focused as he is on the flow of thought, deeply committed as he is to the cause of keeping his compact with his readers. Freezing Point is due to resume publication in March without the editorial leadership of Li Datong. To add insult to injury, the first issue is slated to include a state-mandated apology for running the Yuan Weishi article, which as Li explains, neatly frames the shutdown as an issue of nationalism.

It’s clear that Li loves his job and is a newspaperman through and through, very much of the ink and paper tradition, but he is quickly learning the power and speed of the internet now that his traditional platform for expression has been taken away.

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