Check out the full New Yorker article at this link.
In the annals of Chinese journalism, this has been a revealing couple of weeks. The Committee to Protect Journalists released its annual report on Thursday, and, for the first time in several years, China has ceded its claim as the world’s largest jailer of journalists. That was followed by a glum caveat: “That it was supplanted in 2011 was a reflection of the high numbers in Iran rather than a significant drop in China.” As in previous years, China is said to have imprisoned twenty-seven journalists; the largest share, seventeen of them, are editors and writers who focus on nation’s Tibetan and Uighur minorities.
To make matters worse, the new head of the state-run China Central Television, the former newspaper editor Hu Zhanfan, was found to have proclaimed in July that journalists’ foremost responsibility is to “be a good mouthpiece.” But where comments like that might have gone unchallenged four or five years ago, China has turned out to have millions of mouthpieces—just not in a way that Hu imagines. His comments ignited a bonfire of criticism on Chinese social-media sites, and before long he was being compared to Joseph Goebbels. (In one widely circulated case, a Chinese commentator compared images of a national state-news broadcast to Nazi-era footage. David Bandurski of the China Media Project analyzed it and others.)
Against that backdrop, it can be surprising to hear that Chinese journalists are some of the most inspirational and idealistic people I encounter. Of all the subcultures that have been revitalized and challenged and prodded by the advent of the Internet in China, perhaps none has been jolted so productively as the press. That was on my mind last week when news broke of a bleak development: A travelling production of the historical docudrama “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” had run into trouble in Beijing.
It was the final days of an unprecedented China tour: L.A. Theatre Works, led by producing director Susan Loewenberg, had brought to China the drama by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons, which tells the story of the WashingtonPost’s decision to publish the secret history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Drawing on archives, testimony, and documents, the play unspools the story of how a scrappy pre-Watergate Post went to trial in 1971 to defend the public’s right to know against the government’s appeals for secrecy. Its arrival could hardly have been better timed. China is in the throes of debating the lines around censorship, secrecy, and the public domain, and the shows had no trouble finding an audience. It played to spirited crowds in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing—until midway through a performance on Friday, December 2nd, at Peking University. That’s when producer Alison Friedman, of Ping Pong Productions, received a text message from the hosts that a post-show panel had to be cancelled to prevent “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater,” according to the Times. The crowd sighed and filtered out into the night.
The following evening, I showed up for a performance and to join another prospective panel. I was not optimistic. And, yet, the crowd was. Though news had spread of the cancellation the previous night, ticket-holders showed up in droves, representing a range of China’s scrappiest news organizations. The audience was overwhelmingly Chinese—and overwhelmingly full. Unlike the previous night, this time it was off the campus of Peking University, away from jittery administrators, and the performance unfolded without trouble. Afterward the panel took the stage to answer questions and marvel at the sheer fact of its own existence. As the playwright Geoffrey Cowan (a former director of Voice of America) put it, the play’s very presence in the Chinese capital was a measure of a place in flux.
I had to agree. Watching a young Ben Bradlee stalk around an unheated theatre in Beijing, huddling with a heroic Katharine Graham and ordering his military correspondent George Wilson once more into the documents, made it hard to sleep that night. It was thrilling.
Next stop: Tehran?