Li Datong on Press Freedom in China

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For a guy who lost his job and saw his publication closed down, Li Datong seems like a remarkably upbeat guy. The former editor of Freezing Point, a supplement of the China Youth Daily that was shuttered by propaganda authorities in 2006 in response to his critical stance, spoke to a media association in Hong Kong last night. While acknowledging the severe restrictions on the press in China, Li spent most of the time discussing how far he thought Chinese media had come in terms of fighting for free expression. Since Li started as a reporter in 1979 mainland journalists have abandoned the idea that their role is to merely transmit party directives. Publications must survive on financial support of the market, not the government. And the Internet offers an outlet for stories that are blocked from being run by newspapers and magazines. Under these pressures, the system of press control is like “solid ice melting,” he says. “The layers are beginning to split and break apart.”

That prompted a few skeptical questions. One person pointed out the journalists behind bars in China. Another asked what examples Li could point to of people struggling for democracy. “I myself am one of them,” he replied. It seemed like what separated Li from the audience was his long-term perspective. He was forced to step down from journalism for 5 years after taking part in the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing. So he’s been through this before. And his sense of history goes way back. China’s modernization was a 200-year process that began in 1840, he says, so “we still have 30 years to go.”