Zuo Fang, a trailblazing journalist who helped start China’s most influential reform-era newspaper and edited it with the conviction that the press should inform, enlighten and entertain rather than parrot Communist Party propaganda, died on Nov. 3 in Guangzhou, China. He was 86.
His death, in a hospital, was announced by the newspaper he co-founded, Southern Weekly.
Southern Weekly — the paper prefers that English name over another common translation, Southern Weekend — was started in 1984 as the sister publication of Nanfang Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Guangdong Province, where Mr. Zuo had started his career in 1962.
A weekend broadsheet, it laid the groundwork for a golden era of Chinese journalism in the 1990s and 2000s, when the government somewhat loosened its tight control over the news media. New, market-oriented outlets pushed the limits of the Communist Party’s tolerance by producing hard-hitting investigative reports and heart-wrenching features about China’s poor and powerless. These publications set the agenda for national debates and held the powerful accountable.
“Mr. Zuo and the Southern Weekly were symbols of a certain era,” said Yan Lieshan, a retired opinion writer at the paper. Journalists, academics and others in China mourned Mr. Zuo’s death, he said, “because they still believe in journalism and truth.”
Mr. Zuo, an idealist who joined the Chinese Army during the Korean War, argued that newspapers had a responsibility to enlighten the public with the ideas of science and democracy — a sharp departure from the mouthpiece role the press had played under the Communist Party’s rule since 1949.
The Weekly’s circulation exceeded 100,000 by the end of its first year and surpassed one million within a decade. Many of its journalists left to start similar publications.
“Mr. Zuo believed that enlightening the public was the paper’s most important responsibility,” said Xu Lie, a former deputy managing editor there who started Southern People’s Weekly magazine in 2004. “He kindled the fire at the Southern Weekly and passed it on to generations of journalists.”
By the time Mr. Zuo died, however, that era had come to an end. Southern Weekly was among the first liberal-leaning institutions that came under attack after Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, took power in late 2012. Now, as is the case with other media outlets in China, the top items on its website regularly include news about Mr. Xi and the party’s latest initiatives and successes.
“The Southern Weekly has been reduced to a very ordinary paper,” Lian Qingchuan, a former editor there, wrote in an article after Mr. Zuo’s death. “I haven’t read it in a long time.”
Zuo Fang was born Huang Keji on Nov. 18, 1934, in a village near Guangzhou, according to a memoir he published in 2014. His grandfather Huang Kang joined the 1911 revolution that ended China’s last imperial dynasty. His father, Huang Wenzao, joined the anti-Japanese resistance during World War II and was executed. His mother, Chen Yuqing, worked as a maid for the owner of an opium den.
Mr. Zuo joined the Army when he was 16, changing his name to Zuo Fang (Zuo translates to “left” in English). His unit prepared to go to Korea by executing counterrevolutionaries, like former landlords, in a village in Guangdong.
Mr. Zuo once described how his hands shook during his first execution. His unit leader took his weapon and shot the prisoner but intentionally didn’t kill him, then told Mr. Zuo to finish the job. Mr. Zuo wrote that he shut his eyes and shot about six bullets into the prisoner.
He left military service without going to war and studied Chinese literature at Peking University in Beijing. After graduating, he joined Nanfang Daily.
Unusually for somebody involved in the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Zuo bluntly described his role as the leader of a rebel group during that period of party-fueled violence and paranoia. He attacked former officials in his commentaries and accompanied the Red Guards when they publicly denounced their enemies.
After the Cultural Revolution, he worked in the Nanfang Daily’s library for six years until he was asked to start a new weekend paper in 1983. By then, he wrote, he had come to reject revolution and radicalism and to believe that China needed to embrace economic growth and values like liberty and democracy. One of his biggest worries, he wrote, was that “the whole nation would lose its memory, its hearing and its speech.”
He set out to create a publication that people would read. The lead article in Southern Weekly’s first edition, in February 1984, was about a famous actress and writer who had gone into business. An article about Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, got second billing.
Southern Weekly published what might have been Communist China’s first sex column. It ran articles about hairstyles and pop music. Critics called it a tabloid with little social significance. But running entertainment articles on the front page of an official newspaper in 1984 “required guts and courage,” Mr. Zuo wrote.
The Weekly charted a course for other provocative publications that followed. It didn’t challenge the government or party officials at the national level. It also avoided issues in Guangdong, because government officials there ultimately controlled the paper. Mr. Zuo borrowed a line from a mentor and made it the Weekly’s motto: “There are truths that we cannot tell. But we shall never tell lies.”
Corrupt officials in other provinces were fair game. In its early days, the paper ran an article about the party secretary of a county in another province who raped his predecessor’s daughter-in-law. It named the official, but it used an obscure headline to avoid the attention of censors. “We started from the county level,” Mr. Zuo wrote, “and went on to expose the provincial party secretaries.”
China’s censors often ordered the paper to cease publication temporarily or pull articles. Mr. Zuo said he wrote many letters of self-criticism.
“If a newspaper only says the truth that it’s allowed to say, anyone can run a paper,” he wrote. “The testing stone of running a paper is how to tell the truths that are not allowed to be told.”
Mr. Zuo retired in 1994, but he continued working at the paper for four more years.
His survivors include his wife, Li Yaling, and two daughters, Zuo Dongyun and Zuo Yueyun.
Former colleagues said Mr. Zuo didn’t publicly discuss the changes at Southern Weekly after the rise of Mr. Xi. He stopped reading newspapers later in life because of poor eyesight but continued to follow the news. Former colleagues said that he listened to the Chinese services of the BBC and Voice of America.