China’s Press Czar vs. Authors of Censored Books

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CRD, for immediate release
March 22, 2007

China’s Press Czar vs. Authors of Censored Books

To put China’s press control authority on a trial stand? It would be a good idea. That idea came very close to a Chinese court hearing this month. The Press and Publication Administration (PPA) of the People’s Republic of China is the defendant in an administrative lawsuit filed by the author Dai Huang, a veteran journalist, whose memoir was banned from printing by the PPA. However, the court decided not to accept the lawsuit, citing a “legal” technicality that presumably disqualifies the plaintiff from suing China’s press Czar.

A second administrative lawsuit against the PPA by another writer, Ms. Zhang Yihe, is being prepared by her lawyers. Zhang Yehe, female, rose to prominence among Chinese readers after she published her first book in 2004 regarding her famous “rightist” father and his friends. That book was banned in China. Her latest book, Bygone Peking Opera Masters (《伶人往事》) was printed but stopped from further circulation when the deputy director of the PPA, Wu Shulin, mentioned it together with seven other books as unfit for publication at an official function on January 11, 2007.

Dai Huang, male, 79, joined the communist army in 1944 and worked as a journalist for the official Xinhua news agency. In 1957, during the communist purge against outspoken critics of the party, known as the “anti-rightist campaign,” he was banished and spent more than two decades in China’s northern prairie, where he was imprisoned in forced labor camps and lost his family. In 1997, he wrote about his stories during this period in a memoir, Nine Deaths and One Life – My Experiences as a “Rightist.”

On February 28, 2007, as the first lawsuit of its kind in PRC history, an administrative complaint was filed by the Beijing lawyers Zhang Sizhi and Pu Zhiqiang on behalf of Mr. Dai against the press boss PPA for “illegal administrative act.” The plaintiff demands the court to repeal a PPA’s administrative order entitled A Notification to Cancel Writers Press’ Selected Topic Nine Deaths and One Life – My Experiences as a “Rightist” (Library Control No. [2006] 403) (关于撤销作家出版社〈九死一生——我的“右派”历程〉选题的函).

Mr. Dai Huang filed this lawsuit in accordance with procedures stipulated in the PRC Administrative Procedural Law (行政诉讼法), Article 2, and the PRC Supreme Court Judicial Interpretation (最高法院司法解释) No. [2000] 8, Article 12. The complaint declares that the purpose of the lawsuit is also to ensure government agencies to act lawfully and to protect the plaintiff’s legal rights.

When the lawyers hand-delivered the complaint and supporting documents to the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court on Feb. 28, the court claimed that a decision about the case’s acceptance by the court regarding such an “important” administrative lawsuit must be made by “higher authorities” on a case by case basis. By March 7, when the seven-day time limit provided by the law came to pass, the court did not get instructions from the “higher authorities” as to whether to accept Dai’s case. On March 8, the lawyers went to the court and submitted “an application for accepting the case within legally provided time frame.” The lawyers made further follow-up contacts with the court on March 13 and 20, pointing out the illegality of the court’s prolonged indecision, and indicating the plaintiff’s intention to make public the law-breaking behavior of the court as well as the lawsuit itself. The lawyers were told that the case had been reported to the Beijing Municipal Higher Court and higher authorities were still “studying” it. According to the Administrative Procedural Law and the PRC Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, after the 7-day period, the plaintiff can take the lawsuit to the higher-level court if the lower court refused to hear a case.

On March 20, the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang phoned the court and was told that the court rejected the request to grant a hearing of Dai’s case. The court stated that Mr. Dai had no standing to sue the PPA because the PPA’s pre-publication “Notification” was not directly addressed to Mr. Dai, but to China Writers’ Association and Writers Press.

What the court fails to recognize is that, as the lawyers point out, Mr. Dai is injured as a direct consequence of the PPA’s administrative decision – his book was banned from publication. From the point of view of the law, there is a causal connection between the PPA’s administrative action and the violation of Mr. Dai’s right to publish books (著作权), which makes him legally qualified for suing the PPA. Clearly Mr. Dai has a standing to sue the party that caused him injury. In this case, the court apparently made up a legal obfuscation so that it could avoid an exposure and examination of the wrong imposed on Mr. Dai by the PPA, a powerful office with the Party Propaganda Department behind it.

In a clear indication of tightened press control by the government, the twice-published book by Mr. Dai (one version in 1998 by Central Translation and Editing Press and the other in 2000 by Xuelin Press) was oddly banned from print in 2006! The book was also published in Hong Kong (2004) and Japan in a Japanese translation (2003). When the Writers Press submitted to the PPA a list of books which it intended to publish , following a newly required procedure for controlling publications by the PPA, the book was singled out as “unfit for arranging for publication” by the PPA in the official “Notification” issued on June 7, 2006. Mr. Dai had requested the PPA to give the reasons for the “unfit” verdict on his book, but he never got an answer. The procedure, to which the deputy director Wu had recently acknowledged and referred to as “the censorship and documentation procedure of selected important topics,” was apparently newly installed by the press control authority.

As the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang pointed out, the pre-publication censorship system that can kill a book before printing, is stricter than banning a printed book from circulation. Eight books in print were singled out by Mr. Wu on January 11, including Ms. Zhang’s latest book. The ban on printing books discourages writers to write and makes it impossible for curious readers to find forbidden (but available) copies.

CRD supports the legal actions by Mr. Dai Huang, Ms. Zhang Yihe and their lawyers to challenge the PRC press control system through rule-of-law procedures. The effort to put the PRC press control authority on a trial stand is worthwhile even though the courts may never grant such a case a hearing. Trying to go through the motions is a process of great enlightenment value for Chinese citizens.

CRD is seriously concerned about the recent tightening up of press control in China, as this case brings to light. This is contrary to the officially cultivated image of increased press freedom in advance to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an image that the government would like to use for defusing international criticisms. The state mechanism of press control is systematic and the censorship procedures are rigorously implemented by the PPA, while some relaxation (such as open interviews of officials by foreign correspondents) is the exception rather than the norm.

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