Another press-corps sin now deemed unacceptable: pestering officials in public. During a mid-June news conference, a Beijing reporter embarrassed China's Executive Vice Minister of Health, Gao Qiang, by quoting back to him two of his contradictory statements and then asking which was true. "The Publicity Department said that's even worse than what foreign reporters do," says the editor of a party-run newspaper. Authorities are now reviewing all of the country's newspapers and magazines and may close down other transgressors. So much for the new era of openness that many viewed as the only welcome side effect of SARS.
China's leadership is drafting an overhaul of its communist-era constitution that would include guarantees of private-property rights. But freedom of the press will probably not be part of any charter-reform package. In its latest attempt to rein in the country's increasingly boisterous media, the Party's Publicity Department—formerly the Ministry of Propaganda—this month ordered the closure of the Beijing New Times newspaper after it ran an article criticizing China's congress. The department also forbade coverage of other sensitive topics, including Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who exposed the government's cover-up of the SARS epidemic; separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang; the financial scandal swirling around Shanghai tycoon Zhou Zhengyi, and avian flu, which has broken out twice in China in the past five years and can kill humans.