BEIJING • A Chinese court has ordered the former chief editor of an influential magazine to apologise for challenging an official account of history, as Beijing further tightens limits on freedom of speech.
Mr Hong Zhenkuai cast doubt on the story of the Five Warriors Of Mount Langyashan, who allegedly jumped off a cliff while fighting the Japanese during World War II rather than surrender.
They are touted as patriotic heroes in schoolbooks and propaganda by China's ruling Communist Party as part of its nationalistic narrative.
But Mr Hong pointed out discrepancies in the story in two 2013 articles for his progressive magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, questioning if two of the five had jumped at all.
The Beijing Xicheng District People's Court ruled on Monday that he had "tarnished their reputation and honour", and hurt the feelings of their two sons, plaintiffs Ge Changsheng and Song Fubao, along with those of the Chinese people.
The court gave Mr Hong three days to issue a public apology, it said in a statement on its website. It was unclear what penalty he would face should he fail to do so.
The Langyashan soldiers were "a key component of the spirit of the Chinese nation", the court said.
As a Chinese citizen, it added, Mr Hong should have known better than to "diminish their heroic image and spiritual value". It said: "His judgment is clearly faulty and he should bear legal responsibility."
The official Xinhua news agency quoted one of the judges in the Five Warriors case as saying: "Free speech is not without boundaries, and it should be protected on the premise that it does not infringe on other people's legal rights."
China has imposed ever-tighter restrictions on freedom of speech and the press since Mr Xi Jinping became President in 2013.
Yanhuang Chunqiu was once one of the country's most outspoken political magazines, known for pieces that challenged official historical narratives, but has faced increased scrutiny and censorship in recent years.
Separately, the death of a deputy editor of the Communist Party's top theoretical journal has triggered speculation over political infighting, freedom of thought and corruption.
Mr Zhu Tiezhi, 56, a well-known essayist on party theories and the deputy editor-in-chief of Qiushi - Seeking Truth - hanged himself in the magazine's garage.
Citing an unnamed friend, Chinese media group Caixin said he had been depressed by ideological disputes in recent years between reformists and increasingly vocal conservative academics.
If the ruling party cannot solve real problems, "ideological debates would become empty talk to undermine the mutual trust between the party, the government it leads and the people", it quoted one of Mr Zhu's articles as reading.
Overseas Chinese media reports speculated that Mr Zhu killed himself partly due to links with Ling Jihua, a fallen former aide to Mr Xi's presidential predecessor, Mr Hu Jintao. Ling faces charges of accepting bribes and illegally obtaining state secrets.