Debates on CCP Newspaper Policy in Hong Kong Circa 1949 and the Elimination of Private Newspapers in the Early 1950S in the PRC

Bixiao He. Media History. 2020.


On December 30, 1948, a top-secret telegram reached the British Embassy in Nanjing from Hong Kong, carrying the news that the homes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Hong Kong Work Committee had been searched and their files intercepted. Included among these files was the diary of a Communist leader. The top-secret telegram dated the search to December 11 and 13. However, before the British colonial government in Hong Kong had translated the raided documents and was ready to send them to Nanjing, CCP chiefs in Hong Kong had already communicated the incident, also in a top-secret telegram, to the CCP’s Central Committee on December 15. The telegram conveyed that the home of the CCP chief in Hong Kong had been searched, and his ‘exchange with non-party democrats’ had been intercepted by British authorities. What information about contacts between the CCP and non-party democrats did these documents contain? Why did it trigger such anxiety within both the CCP and the British colonial government that it led to top-secret telegrams to their respective decision-making centres? Finally, among those associated with the home that was searched, to whom did the diary belong?

According to Xia Yan, a prominent underground CCP member, left-wing writer, and the then secretary of the Hong Kong Work Committee in December 1948, the home of the chief of the finance committee of the Hong Kong Bureau was searched in December. However, the address did not match the location mentioned in the intercepted telegram to Nanjing. The residence of another major leader of the CCP in the South, Fang Fang, was also searched, but that took place well after the Amethyst Incident (in April 1949, when the Red Army was encamped on the north bank of the Yangtze River, preparing to lay siege to Nanjing, they repeatedly shelled the British frigate HMS Amethyst, which had been dispatched to evacuate personnel from Nanjing), thus contradicted the time of the incident. However, in his December 15 telegram to the party central committee, Fang Fang claimed that the subject of the search was one of the key Communist leaders in Hong Kong—Lian Guan, a member of the Canton-Hongkong Work Committee. So it would seem the target of this search was very likely Lian Guan’s residence. This information confirmed the speculation of the British authorities about the diary’s author.

According to the colonial government, the top-secret telegram was of great importance and had to be dispatched immediately because it touched on several issues, including how the Hong Kong chapter served as a key node of the Communist organization in South China, how the CCP dealt with foreign trade, how it planned to take over Shanghai, how to deal with the various democratic parties, and how to manage the journalism sector.

On dealing with the non-party democrats, the intercepted diary mentioned above clearly noted that the alliance between the CCP and the democratic parties was merely strategic; the CCP was wary of ‘right-wing roaders’ and ‘opportunists’ gaining power through democratic parties. For this reason, Fang Fang thought the colonial government’s raid was intended to ‘crack down on the CCP’s transfer of non-party democrats’ and to gather information against the underground party cells in Hong Kong. Hence he requested in the same secret telegram that the scale of the party presence be reduced and its public offices be separated from private organs. According to the colonial archives, the search was instigated by Governor-General Alexander Grantham, who received intelligence and was determined to stop the CCP from sending Lian Guan to Hong Kong to collaborate with Li Jishen, a leading figure associated with the Revolutionary Committee of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang).

In addition to how the CCP dealt with the democrats, the CCP’s treatment of privately-owned newspapers was another major topic reported by the British authorities. According to the secret telegram, ‘No privately-owned newspapers will be permitted. Some of the fellow-travelling members of other Democratic Groups consider this to be too sweeping, but they are likely to fall in line.’

According to existing scholarship, the demise of private newspapers, including major popular journals such as Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, dated to approximately 1953. Before that time, it appears that the CCP did not have a consistent policy vis-à-vis private newspapers but instead chose to remain flexible and adjust its policy accordingly. Although empirically-rich examinations of 1950s China have increasingly become a key trend in the study of the PRC, very few studies investigating the early history of the PRC and its media policy have paid attention to the largely unknown picture outside of mainland China, where Hong Kong, rather than Shanghai or any other port cities in China, played an important role in shaping the media policy and system within the newly-founded PRC regime where it is still being applied.

In fact, this secret telegram raised the following crucial question: did the CCP have a consistent attitude vis-à-vis private newspapers and gradually adjust its policy or did it continue to adjust its policy and only settle on a policy at the end of the Phase of New Democracy, a policy which was initiated by Mao Zedong in 1940 and confirmed in the founding document as a Provisional Constitution of the PRC, but was abandoned in 1953, when the process of radical transformation toward socialist society began? As a key battleground where the CCP—the governing party on the mainland—remained an underground presence, what role did Hong Kong play in the CCP’s campaign to win the support of journalism workers and non-party democrats? What further implications does this campaign have for understanding the nature of communist media policy and its remodelling of private newspapers in the beginning years of the PRC?

Clayton argues that Hong Kong has become the new centre of a ‘Canton System’ that has been at work since the early 1950s as the Cold War expanded in East Asia. However, this Canton System worked not only for financial trade or industrial investment but also for the political purposes of the CCP to shape its policies during the early days of the Cold War. But this view of Hong Kong as the centre of a new Canton System is Anglocentric. This study attempts to understand the situation from the perspective of the Communists, who utilized British Hong Kong government to achieve their political goals, among which, the annihilation of private newspapers was a priority as suggested by the secret telegrams in 1948.

Answering this question is important for furthering our understanding of the nature of the Chinese regime of which the media system is currently a successfully-constructed cyber cage that distinguishes it from other defunct Leninist systems, such as that of the former Soviet Union. It is also important for understanding the choices of millions of intellectuals, who were either politically undecided or sympathizers of the communist movement, who subsequently joined the new regime and became victims of its various political campaigns after its rather half-hearted attempt at running a mixed economy under the slogan of ‘new democracy’ at the beginning of the 1950s.

Hong Kong: City of Press Freedom and Battleground for Revolutionary Unification

At the time of the secret telegram, the outcome of the civil war between the CCP and the Nationalists was coming into sharp relief. Major cities in the Northeast—Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang—had already come under Communist control, and Beijing was soon taken as well. If 1947 was still a year of ambivalence for many intellectuals, the difficulty of the choice that would influence the next half of their lives became increasingly acute towards the end of 1948. In a refugee-strewn China, two opposing routes of intellectual exodus emerged: just as one group chose to flee south from the mainland with Chiang Kai-shek’s government, the other group was entering the areas already under control of the CCP to join the new consultative assembly. The ‘non-party democrats via Hong Kong’ mentioned in the telegram were precisely those pro-Communist democrats and intellectuals who had begun their exodus from Hong Kong. In addition to academics, writers, and poets, among those moving north were also publishers of famous private newspapers from KMT-controlled regions. The CCP’s attitude vis-à-vis private newspapers could not be separated from how it treated non-party democrats. This is partly because many of these newspapers were headed by democrats; however, how the CCP treated the democrats was also considered a barometer indicating to many non-party members the degree of tolerance of and the parameters of press freedom under the new regime. Previous scholarship reached a fundamental consensus: after the Sino-Japanese war, the CCP actively courted the support of many influential intellectuals in Hong Kong; how it treated them was the party’s gesture of good faith, which it hoped would help consolidate the new regime. But who were those non-party democrats with a CCP connection mentioned in the secret telegram, and did they participate in creating the journalism policies of the PRC?

That the CCP’s treatment of the press as described in the diary was quoted in the telegram suggests that this topic was important to the British Hong Kong government; it is possible that the activities of the CCP and non-party democrats—especially those responsible for sending intellectuals northward—triggered the alarm of the colonial authorities.

In 1948, Hong Kong was the only free port in East Asia and the centre of propaganda and intelligence for both Western countries and the KMT and CCP. After WWII, with the threats to Britain’s world position at the head of what was still a great empire of considerable geographic scope, there was hope that decolonization and a ‘global power’ role for Britain could be accommodated in a cooperative international order. If the position of the British Empire was to be retained after the war, then it would be necessary to avoid expenditure on troops to deal with the revolts that had been occurring in various parts of the empire. This is one reason why the British government did not want to bother much about either the Chinese communists or the KMT, which contributed to a larger plan, according to which a victorious re-conquest or liberation of Southeast Asia as a region was predicted.

Meanwhile, the setback experienced by the British after WWII gave Americans the opportunity to readjust their policies towards the Soviets, especially in East Asia. As George Kennan once said, the Americans had no interest in becoming involved in affairs in China as they did in Turkey and Greece in 1947 when British withdrew. As a consequence, both the British and American strategies contributed to the victory of the Chinese communists by leaving a vacuum in Hong Kong, which subsequently became a vacuum for the high tide of communist takeover and riots in Southeast Asia.

However, all the above concerns do not suggest that the Communist agitation was not escalating in British Hong Kong. Should the KMT lose the mainland, would Britain be forced to relinquish Hong Kong, the free treaty port? Between 1948 and 1950, this issue generated fierce policy debates between the Labour Party and the British Hong Kong government. Ultimately, the colonial government decided to defend Hong Kong. Then, the colonial government heightened its crackdown on underground communist cells. Communist activists and supporters were closely monitored, with the homes of underground leaders searched and sometimes ransacked.

However, despite the tense political climate at the time, Hong Kong still allowed considerable room for press freedom. After the Second World War, Hong Kong removed the wartime censorship system and upheld press freedom. In his memoir, Alexander Grantham, then Governor-General of Hong Kong, suggested that the government preferred legal rather than extra-legal means of dealing with anti-government journals. This environment of press freedom offered a sharp contrast to press censorship in the KMT-controlled region.

As for the CCP organization in Hong Kong, a stronger tradition of guerrilla fighting existed in Guangdong than in other newly liberated regions. Leaders of guerrilla teams maintained close ties with important leftist intellectuals active in Hong Kong during 1946 and 1948. Before the CCP evacuated from Yanan in 1947, the Hong Kong chapter spearheaded the CCP’s other chapters in Southern China, with the total number of party members reaching nearly 10,000. Among them, several committee members who were prominent communists active in South China and Southeast Asian countries took the lead of the Guangdong-Hongkong Work Committee. Altogether, there were 250 direct party members, scattered across sectors ranging from journalism, magazines, publishing, the United Front, and trading—they were the party’s front line. In Hong Kong, the CCP maintained a policy of ‘absolute separation’ between its public operations and underground organizations: the public offices and their affiliates were not allowed to participate directly in workers’ movements, and they denied their connections. This policy ensured that underground activities such as workers’ movements would face less resistance and that public organizations of the party could continue to operate within a legal framework.

Public Debates in Hong Kong and Press Remodelling in Mainland Cities

In this dual space of both opportunity and constraint, what kinds of public debates about private newspapers took place between the leadership of the CCP and the non-party democrats? Who was involved in this debate?

An important newspaper in Hong Kong for the CCP’s unification campaign was the Hua Shang Daily, which published before New Year’s Day in 1948 a series of articles on news policies in New China. Although the editorial board included many democratic intellectuals, actual control of the newspaper remained in the hands of the Communist party, and its funding also came from CCP Hong Kong. The main direction of the newspaper was decided by the party secretary of CCP Hong Kong’s Bureau of Journalism. On October 7, 1949, on the eve of the CCP’s occupation of Guangzhou, The New York Times referred to the Hua Shang Daily as a ‘Communist newspaper.’

In the special New Year’s Day edition of 1949, Liu Zunqi published an article titled, ‘Choice for New China: Press Freedom of News Conglomerates, or Press Freedom of the People?’ He had interviewed Mao and later became an underground Communist Party member; he also worked in the Chongqing branch of the U.S. Office of War Information. He maintained close contact with John King Fairbank, who was the chief director of the United States Office of War Information in Chongqing, and John William Powell, who was the editor-in-chief of the China Weekly/Monthly Review, before returning to China in 1948. He later took charge of the international propaganda sector of the PRC and was subsequently purged. His article became a catalyst for the debate regarding Chinese news policy overseas. His basic viewpoint was that

Private journalism can have but two goals: one is to make money; one is to use the press to elevate the class status of the wealthy. […] Press freedom in China should be democratic but not based on wealth. To achieve this, we have to nationalize and turn them into public institutions.

Half a month after this article was published, on January 16, 1949, the day after Tianjin was occupied by the Communists in the north, the Hua Shang Daily published an article by Li Weiming (literally this pen-name means the argument still deserves debate) entitled ‘Press Freedom and Private Newspaper: In Response to Liu Zunqi on whether New China should allow for private newspaper.’ In the article, he offered a counterargument that private newspapers should still be allowed after the founding of New China. Unlike Liu Zunqi, Li Weiming believed that private newspapers in China had been suppressed by reactionary forces and thus should be distinguished from KMT newspapers.

The article in which Li proposed different treatment of newspapers and that some progressive private papers should be preserved appeared two days after Tianjin was occupied by the Communists. On that day, CCP Central issued ‘Directives to Beijing and Tianjin Municipal Committees not to categorically ban old newspapers,’ noting that ‘it is usually not necessary to deal with old newspapers by fiat.’ Recognizing that ‘ordering a ban of all newspapers did not conform to the party central’s directive of November 8,’ the new order recommended that the party should, ‘depending on the character of the newspaper as progressive, middle, or reactionary, adopt different approaches’ and consult the party centre where necessary.

Tianjin was home to a prestigious private newspaper in Republican China—Ta Kung Pao. How to deal with this newspaper presented a serious challenge to the party. At that time, the editor-in-chief of Ta Kung Pao was already preparing to move north from Hong Kong. As early as September 20, 1948, the CCP Central Committee had telegrammed Qian Zhiguang, one of the leaders of the Hong Kong bureau, and two other leaders from the Shanghai bureau of the CCP to confirm the non-party democrats at the New Political Consultative Assembly. From the journalistic sector, many top journalists and editors-in-chief running prominent private newspapers were on the guest list. According to the memoirs of many individuals, most departed from Hong Kong together on February 27, 1949. In January 1949, as they were waiting to leave Hong Kong to travel north, did these newspaper men participate in the Huang Shang Daily debate?

According to veteran journalist Zheng Zhong of Wen Hui Pao, some renowned editors-in-chiefs participated in debates regarding press reform in New China, including the editor-in-chief of Wen Wei Pao, which was another prominent newspaper for intellectuals in Shanghai during the Republican era; they were concerned about whether New China would allow private newspapers. As a journalist for the New People (also a prominent newspaper in Shanghai during the Republican era) recalled, the famous journalist Zhao Chaogou was the real author behind the pseudonym ‘Duo’ used as the by-line for the Hua Shang Daily article.

With neither public participation in the Hua Shang Daily debates nor any mention in Lian Guan’s diary, the editors-in-chief of the two most prominent private newspapers, Wen Wei Pao and Ta Kung Pao, Xu and Wang, suffered months of trepidation from the end of 1948 to the beginning of 1949. It was not until Xu reached Beijing in March and subsequently followed the communist army southward in January that he finally received a promise from Zhou Enlai, who was in charge of propaganda and unification for non-party democrats: Wen Wei Pao would be allowed to resume publishing in Shanghai, where it was founded in the 1930s. However, approximately a month after Shanghai’s liberation in May 1949, Fan Changjiang, who had been a prominent reporter for Ta Kung Pao, subsequently became a chief executive of the People’s Daily in the beginning of the 1950s (and was later beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution) made a remark at the first congress of the newspaper and publishing industry that ‘under a people’s dictatorship, the regime itself represents the people; there is only a difference between publicly managed and privately managed newspapers, not a difference between party’s and people’s newspaper.’ On June 21, 1949, Wen Wei Pao reported Fan’s remark in its come-back issue, but according to Zheng from Wen Wei Pao, Xu was shaken: ‘The news hit me like a bucket of cold water. Since the Communist Party still distinguishes between the officials and the people, why can’t newspapers do the same? Suppressing my feelings, however, I stopped arguing with Changjiang.’

Wang, who was the editor-in-chief of Ta Kung Pao, experienced even more hardship during this period. According to previous studies, upon embarking on the ferry on February 27, 1949, Wang already knew that Ta Kung Pao in Tianjin had been changed into the party-owned Progressives’ Daily, only a couple of days after Tianjin was liberated. He remained hopeful that he could prevent the name change and preserve the prestige of Ta Kung Pao in Shanghai. However, Wang could preserve Ta Kung Pao in Shanghai, although the fate of its sibling newspaper in Tianjin was a coincidental event at best. His success was partially due to Mao’s personal preference for Ta Kung Pao, but it had more to do with Mao’s aversion to overseas media coverage and to the practical need to rally support from the intellectuals. His success also reflected Wang’s personal submission to CCP policy and support for its press reform for eliminating private newspapers. The other prominent private newspapers had no such privilege.

As the Tianjin Ta Kung Pao was forced to remodel into the Progressives’ Daily, the debate in the Hua Shang Daily regarding whether private newspapers could exist continued. On February 3 of that year, when the CCP Central Committee changed its strategy to take over the Tianjin newspaper, an underground party member within Ta Kung Pao, Yang Gang, who subsequently became the vice editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily in the 1950s and committed suicide in 1957, began to spearhead Ta Kung Pao‘s reform. From February 3 to 19, all editorial and newsroom staff began to study the new policy of PRC and engaged in a self-criticism campaign.

Perhaps in response to the divergent opinions of non-party democrats in Ta Kung Pao, the Hua Shang Daily rekindled the debate on February 6 with a full-section article, ‘Special Discussion of New China News Policy,’ and carried four articles and a special note from the editor. The four articles emphasized that the nature of the regime dictated that journalism could only be nationalized.’ Another article continued the argument presented in Li’s article in the New Years edition, maintaining that there would be no need for private newspapers in China. The author of the later article became a key propaganda official and chief executive of the Guangzhou Daily, the prefectural-level party organ of Guangzhou in 1949. He enumerated how newspapers in New China would be incapable of tasks such as ‘suppressing anti-revolutionary forces, mobilizing all citizens to engage in economic construction, pushing ahead socialist education.’ The other author of ‘New Country and New Newspapers’ was the famous journalist from the New People, Zhao Chaogou, who shared the editor’s viewpoint as follows: ‘private newspapers should be gradually collectivized and socialized; or they should be nationalized after being collectivized. These reforms are all possible and indeed, necessary.’

The article ‘On Freedom of Press and Publishing’, by an author using the pseudonym Xing Huo, approached the topic from a legal perspective and explored the value of private newspapers and a sustainable solution for protecting press freedom. Citing Mao’s ‘On New Democracy’, he suggests that regardless of the type of journalism—nationalized or publicly or privately managed—it should be ‘welcomed, respected, and protected’ as long as it conformed to the New Democracy Revolution. This distinctive article supported press law and argued that private newspapers supported the cultural policy of New Democracy, using Mao’s own theories to support his ideas.

Lian Guan’s Secret Diary and Underground Debates in Hong Kong

In addition to those involved in the public debates in which it was argued that tolerance should be allowed in the Hua Shang Daily, who were the non-party democrats involved in the news policy debates mentioned in Lian Guan’s diary? Who were their interlocutors inside the party? How did they talk about private newspapers? Lian Guan’s diary noted that there was a dispute at the December 6 meeting between Sa Kongliao, a prominent Democratic party member and the general manager of the Hua Shang Daily, and a person surnamed Cheung (In Cantonese)/Zhang (In Mandarin). Sa Kongliao drafted ‘Opinions on News Policy’. Lian Guan thought that while Sa’s article satisfied the CCP, his performance during the debate was not satisfactory because he publicly aired grievances against the CCP’s attitude towards private newspapers—he believed that it was ‘too narrow.’ Sa’s words raised censure from Cheung.

Who is Cheung? Between 1948 and 1949, at least four prominent democrats or CCP members in charge of the Hong Kong Bureau of the CCP surnamed Zhang / Cheung were in Hong Kong. According to related documents, Zhang Bojun, a leading democratic figure in the Chinese Democratic League who subsequently became a prominent rightist, was the most likely to have joined the secret meeting and criticized the tolerance for private newspapers.

In the same document, Sa registered both his question and criticism of CCP news policy. Observing the difference between Sa’s opinion and that of the party insider, the diary writer asked, ‘Why can’t we openly suppress private newspapers?’ From this question we see that Sa believed that the CCP’s attitude towards private newspapers was too narrow to allow for the existence of private newspapers in China. Such an attitude did not appear in articles printed in the Hua Shang Daily. Even party member Liu Zunqi did not openly approve of eradicating private newspapers; he only explored the nationalization of newspapers as a necessary step to safeguard democracy.

In February, when Ta Kung Pao of Tianjin was being restructured, the opinions expressed in the Hua Shang Daily grew even more diverse, with some championing formal legal protection of press freedom and touting the thriving of private newspapers as a sign of cultural flourishing in China. If Sa had written the editorial in the Hua Shang Daily and supported the nationalization of the newspaper, it would have contradicted his private criticism of CCP news policy as overly narrow.

During this complex back-and-forth of public debate in print and private exchanges underground, Sa Kongliao, Zhao Chaogou, Xu Zhucheng and Wang Yunsheng argued for the continued existence of private-owned newspapers. The dispute between Sa and the man named Cheung on December 6 suggests that even before the CCP issued its own news policy, a divergence of opinions existed even among the democrats about how to support the private newspaper sector. As the telegram rightly predicted, these democrats later accepted the reality of the eradication of private newspapers. On October 13, 1949, the communists took Guangzhou. The next day, the Hua Shang Daily set its last issue in print and was subsequently suspended in Hong Kong. Travelling to Guangzhou, its editors embraced the New People’s Republic and became the backbone of what subsequently became the Nanfang Daily, the provincial party newspaper of Guangdong Province. As non-party democrats travelled north to Beijing from Hong Kong, they became part of the new regime.


The CCP newspaper debate in Hong Kong circa 1949 is important not only because it was a part of newspaper policy making for the whole nation but also because the people involved in the debate included party cadres from the highest levels within the CCP, called as they were, the ‘Cabinet of Elites of the CCP,’ with their head none other than Zhou Enlai. Furthermore, for private newspaper runners and other democratic party members, Hong Kong became the final stop and last chance for their personal choice to be either pro- or anti- PRC, which in all probability would end up having life or death consequences for them.

The most striking parts of the debate maybe the underground discussion in which the Democrats and the party leaders in Hong Kong both took part. It seems that the CCP invited democratic party members, who had been their supporters but were later abandoned and purged by the new regime, to join the policy-making procedure on the eve of its takeover of China. Compared with the violent means of consolidating the regime in the Campaign against Counter-Revolutionaries and the Three-Antis and Five Antis campaigns, the non-violent means they used were also very successful in their effort to place the democrats in circumstances which would ultimately bring about their demise.

The intercepted diary shows that the CCP leaders in Hong Kong did not have any interest in either preserving private newspapers in China or inviting public debate regarding press reform; however, they nevertheless staged successive debates in party journals in Hong Kong that had been charged with rallying the support of party members and veteran journalists with experience in international news and foreign affairs. Balancing military operations in major urban cities with press campaigns that explored the possibilities of newspaper reform, the CCP was flexible in adjusting its policy goals. Nevertheless, the CCP already had a clear plan for what news should be prior to its establishment of the new government in China that was one that would no longer tolerate the existence of private newspapers. This was not a policy that came about gradually after the founding of the People’s Republic.