Die Pressefreiheit hat es nach wie vor schwer in China: It was past 9:30 p.m. when the reporters finished writing. The presses were scheduled to begin printing the next day's issue of the Southern Metropolis Daily in a few hours, and space for a large headline had been reserved on the front page. But when the night editor read their story -- an investigative report about a young college graduate who had been detained by local police and beaten to death in custody -- he hesitated. Then he picked up a phone and called Cheng Yizhong, the paper's star editor. Cheng had built the Daily into this southern city's most popular and profitable tabloid, practicing a feisty brand of journalism editors across China were trying to imitate. But a few days earlier, in a clampdown ordered by a new Communist Party leader in the province, he had been stripped of his title as editor in chief. He was now running the paper as deputy editor. Others in the newsroom had briefed him twice about the article, but given the circumstances, the night editor wanted to check with him one last time, colleagues recalled. The story was certain to anger government officials, and there was still time to pull it. Instead, Cheng gave the order to publish. The article, published April 25, 2003, spread quickly on the Internet, and newspapers across the country reprinted it. Reporters dug deeper, exposing abuses in a nationwide network of detention camps that purchased and sold inmates like slaves. Put on the defensive by rising public outrage, Beijing ordered the camps closed and abolished a decades-old law that gave police sweeping powers to imprison people at will. It was a landmark victory for the Chinese press; never before had reporters influenced national policy in such a dramatic fashion. But in March, Cheng was arrested and two of his colleagues were sentenced to long prison terms in a corruption probe that party sources said was an act of retaliation by local officials. What happened to Cheng highlights a momentous and complex struggle now underway between the country's increasingly independent-minded and profit-driven state media and entrenched interests inside the ruling Communist Party. The outcome could determine the future not only of journalism in China but also of the largest authoritarian political system in the world.


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