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Killing the Messenger A bold newspaper is the latest victim of a purge linked to the Chinese leadership's own power struggle

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Zhang jun could be called china's Jesse James. He killed his first man in a public bathroom in 1994, and in the six years until his capture last September he grew into a legendary outlaw. He forced girlfriends to prove their loyalty by murdering innocent folk. His clutch of ruffians shot their way into banks and jewelry stores across central China, killing 28 people before the police finally nabbed him. For James, the end came when a turncoat gang member in 1882 shot him in the back. A state executioner dispatched Zhang in a similar fashion in May. But that wasn't the end of the story. Days after his death, China's most progressive newspaper, Southern Weekend, weighed in with a characteristically cheeky eulogy. It condemned Zhang's violence but bucked the official line by mythologizing the outlaw's deeds. Zhang represents "the weak" of China, the paper wrote, and showed more pluck than corrupt officials who "feign civility while filching riches." Now Zhang has reached from his grave to claim a new victim: China's liveliest paper.

Under pressure from propaganda officials, Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend this month sacked three editors and effectively downgraded itself from the sassiest read in China to a rag as bland as the People's Daily. It's the latest casualty in the Communist Party's battle against the nation's increasingly independent-minded media, a clash that's linked to an internal power struggle over who will assume top party positions in a reshuffle expected next year. More immediately, the party will be celebrating its 80th anniversary on July 1 and wants to ensure that it gets good press in an era of simmering discontent.

The squeeze began in January when President Jiang Zemin's propagandists tore a page from international football rule books and set up a "yellow card system." Publications must now gain permission from regional propaganda departments to cover seven forbidden topics, including the military, religion and the private lives of China's leaders. One violation means a yellow card. Two yellow cards means sacking editors; three, and the publication closes. It may sound childish, but the change is vast. In the recent past, newspapers have increasingly been publishing freely and risking the consequences. To enforce the new system, Beijing has let local governments play referee.

That's what undid Southern Weekend, best known for searing investigations into controversial topics like teenage drug syndicates and kidnapped women sold as brides. The weekly protected itself by rarely reporting on its home province of Guangdong, one of China's most corrupt, and focusing instead on its neighbors. Since power in China stovepipes upward, Southern Weekend was rarely smoked out. Two months ago, however, Beijing convened a national propaganda meeting at which other provincial leaders "demanded that the paper be stopped," says an editor at a party-run newspaper. Critics included provincial leaders from Hunan, who didn't appreciate the paper's sympathetic coverage of Hunan native Zhang. The man ultimately responsible for Southern Weekend's fate is Li Changchun, Guangdong's party chief who is apparently President Jiang's top choice to become Premier next year. Since Li is sure to face opposition in his quest for the post, "he can't afford criticism for his own province's newspapers," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing.

Other outlets across China are feeling the sting. Shanghai Weekend was yellow carded for running a suggestive photo of a woman's body on its cover. The government fined and nearly closed China's biggest private bookstore chain, Xishu Publishing, for selling a tract on dissident poets. And Guangzhou Television sacked its top three editors when someone ran subtitles under images of Premier Zhu Rongji reading, "Former follower of Falun Gong," the banned spiritual practice. The foreign press has suffered, too. For the past 17 weeks, China has banned newsstand sales of Time after the magazine published an article in February on Falun Gong. The ongoing crackdown has spooked some of China's most daring editors. "We killed a story on a corruption scandal," says a reporter at China News Weekly. "It's too sensitive now."

Still, the pressure is likely to ease at some point, as China's cycle of repression and liberalization makes another spin. Consider the recent track record of Southern Weekend's stable of editors. Qian Gang, recently removed as senior editor in charge of news decisions, made his name in the early 1980s for the first critical book on the government's response to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed 2 million people. In 1989 he was sacked from an army newspaper for questioning the Tiananmen massacre. A decade later he lost a job on television for what was then a rare exposÚ of a corrupt official. Two years ago, he joined Southern Weekend, replacing another editor pushed aside for her daring investigative articles. One suspects Qian will survive to fight further battles. Like the paper's other tarnished editors, he has been transferred but not fired. Despite earning three yellow cards, the paper, with its 1.2 million circulation, is too hot an item to close. "I simply hope the Weekend will not give up," says a typical comment on the paper's website. Without even dying, the paper is gaining a legendary status of its own.

-With reporting by Neil Gough/Guangzhou