Just days after editors ended publication of China's leading liberal history journal last month, a new edition of the magazine is out again. But the original publishers are calling this a pirate edition — and they're preparing to fight it in court.
The magazine, the Annals of the Chinese Nation, or Yanhuang Chunqiu in Chinese, is seen as the standard bearer of the embattled liberal wing of China's ruling Communist Party. The publication has made bold calls for democratic reforms and questions the party's version of history.
The journal's predicament has triggered a sense of crisis among China's liberal intellectuals and journalists, who see little room left in their country for critical reporting and dissenting opinions.
In March, President Xi Jinping demanded obedience from state media. Last month, the government shut down a slew of political columns on major Internet portals in a bid to enforce a ban on independent political reporting.
The Annals' deputy editor in chief, Wang Yanjun, ticks off a list of other liberal, critical media voices that the government has silenced in recent years, including some at the Southern Media Group and the China Youth Daily column "Freezing Point."
"They've killed off one outlet after another, leaving the Annals of the Chinese Nation as the last bastion," he says. "Readers cherish our magazine. Some have even taken it as a sign that there is still hope for China."
'A question of whether we can still exist'
Wang says the magazine was forcibly taken over last month by its supervising organization, the National Academy of Arts, an official body under China's Ministry of Culture.
In China, every media outlet is under the supervision of an official organization. None are completely independent.
Wang says representatives of the academy physically occupied the magazine's offices, installed their own editors and even broke into the magazine's computer systems and changed the password. Wang says this violated the terms of the magazine's contract with the academy. He describes their actions as "barbaric."
"Some folks commented that for an arts academy, they didn't seem very artistic at all," he harrumphs. "Unless, of course, it was some kind of performance art."
Wang says the magazine has survived previous attempts to silence it, but this time is different.
"Before, it was a question of whether we were managed strictly or leniently," he says. "Now it's a question of whether we can still exist or not."
None of the editors or advisers knows exactly who is behind the assault on their magazine or why it's happening. But veteran jurist Li Buyun, an adviser to the magazine, says conservatives dislike the Annals of the Chinese Nation simply because of its liberal bent.
"The magazine's specialty is speaking the truth, especially about history, so that people may learn from it," he says. "There's no other motivation. We're not trying to smear the party."
In a recent issue, former culture minister Wang Meng called on China to reflect on the lessons of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. In another issue, a former provincial police official explained how millions starved to death in his province after the "Great Leap Forward" campaign of 1958 to 1961.
And Li Rui, former secretary to Chairman Mao and the most senior adviser to the Annals, looked back on his life on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
Conservatives believe the magazine has unfairly negated all of the Communist Party's achievements — the current administration labels this "historical nihilism" and has vowed to root it out — while adulating Western, liberal values.
Unwilling to go down without a fight
The magazine was founded 25 years ago by a small group of retired officials, working on old school desks and chairs in an office near Beijing's Forbidden City. Over the years, its circulation grew to some 190,000 copies a month.
The magazine's publisher, Du Daozheng, now 93, is representative of the people who put out and read the magazine — mostly liberal establishment intellectuals. He joined the Communist Party in 1937 and served as chief editor of the Guangming Daily, a newspaper catering to China's intellectuals.
He later headed China's Press and Publications Administration, which is part of the government's censorship apparatus. Du held this post during the 1980s, under then-Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Media freedoms reached their height at that time — until Zhao was deposed in 1989 for siding with pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Many liberal party elders like Du willingly joined the Communist movement because they hoped that, as it promised, it would lead China to modernity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But, with occasional exceptions, one administration after another suppressed and disappointed them.
The administration of Xi Jinping is just the latest to do so.
Unwilling to go down without a fight, the magazine's editors and advisers sued the National Academy of Arts last month for taking over their publication, but a Beijing district court refused to hear the case.
Mo Shaoping, one of China's leading human rights lawyers — and one of the few, he jokes nervously, who has not been arrested in an ongoing crackdown — says that the ousted editors are now considering suing higher levels of the government.
The entire incident, he says, will serve as a political litmus test. If the party's leadership "can't even tolerate a magazine such as the Annals of the Chinese Nation, then the leadership's talk of the rule of law and of listening to different opinions is nothing but empty words," he says.
The editors admit, though, that they're having a hard time getting out their side of the story. The government has banned Chinese media from reporting the controversy surrounding the magazine.