Three days ago, the New York Times published a story on the Chinese government’s crackdown on the press following the recent high-speed train crash that killed forty people and injured 192 in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Late Friday night, the Communist Party sent out an order that had newspaper editors tearing up their investigative articles on the disaster and replacing them with cartoons and unrelated stories. Despite the gag order, the Beijing-based Economic Observer published nine full pages on the accident in their Saturday edition. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, angry journalists protested the enforced media blackout; one said that he would rather his article be replaced by a blank page with a single word on it: “speechless.”

Publications in China are subject to propaganda authorities; the defiance of the Observer and the outspokenness of journalists on microblogging sites are signs of courage in a country where reporters are often repressed, fired, and threatened in an effort to shut out unwanted news.

Prominent investigative journalist Wang Keqin was hopeful about the state of muckraking reporting even before this media blackout. On July 12, Keqin, who worked at the influentialChina Economic Times, proclaimed on his blog that investigative reporting in China had reached a “new high” and that the country’s journalists were earning more attention and respect as a result of their tenacious exposés. But less than a week later, in a likely reference to the Chinese government, Keqin borrowed the words of German poet Heinrich Heine and lamented on Weibo, “Where political power burns books, it will ultimately burn people also. Where political power begins to suppress the voice, if it is not stopped, its next step will be to destroy the witness!”

After having just expressed such optimism over the state of Chinese media, what caused Keqin to turn around and speak so critically of the body that regulates its every move? His award-winning investigative reporting team had just become a casualty of the government’s media crackdown.

On July 18, the China Economic Times, lauded as one of China’s leading watchdog publications — despite oversight by the central government — reportedly “dismantled” its five-member investigative team, its reporters scattered into different departments at the newspaper. While Liu Jianfeng, a member of the team, told the Wall Street Journal that the move was “part of a turn towards more economic reporting,” that hardly seems the case — the decision comes at a time of increasing repression against reporters in the country, as fears of an Arab Spring-like uprising have led those in power to intensify their efforts to counter public unrest.

“In their drive to stifle public discussion, China’s propaganda authorities are depriving the people of some of the country’s most forward-thinking opinions,” Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) Asia program coordinator, said in March when two Guangzhou-based reporters were dismissed. “Not just bloggers and activists who straddle the realms of politics and journalism, but mainstream journalists who have long operated in traditional Chinese media are now being targeted.”

The China Economic Times is published by a government-controlled think tank called the Development Research Center of the State Council. These ties, however, have not kept the paper from going toe-to-toe with the government on at least a few occasions. The now disbanded investigative team had produced a number of high-profile, hard-hitting stories over the years, including a recent damning report that suggested the country’s Health Ministry was mismanaging the state’s vaccines, leading to the illness or death of at least eighty children. The paper’s editor-in-chief was fired after defending the investigation.

The move to disband the Times’ investigative unit has been roundly condemned by international press freedom advocates. Reporters Without Borders is calling on the newspaper’s management to “provide a clear explanation for this measure, which has all the hallmarks of an eviction,” while the CPJ has said that “if authorities are trying to silence him [Keqin], it is indeed a blow for press freedom.”

With anticipated challenges to leadership coming in 2012, China’s top authorities have been pushing tighter restrictions on the press in an effort to minimize public dissent against the ruling Communist party — as evident from the most recent media blackout. Unfortunately, this sort of repression is nothing out of the ordinary for China — the government has censored challenges to its authority for years and citizens are accustomed to living within a society dominated by state-sponsored propaganda. Occasionally, this issue makesinternational headlines, but typically, it resides in the shadows cast by China’s economic prowess.

But for the sake of the country’s future, the international community must stand up and loudly demand that the restrictive media controls cease immediately. An open, informed society is much more powerful than a repressed society can ever be. China has the opportunity to transform itself into the former, and it can start by dismantling its Orwellian culture of surveillance and censorship.