Sunday, December 23, 2001

China gets a taste
of press freedom

Economic and social reforms gradually
loosen government's stranglehold
on information

By Frank Ching
Special to the Star-Bulletin

HONG KONG >> "Good news is news, bad news is not news," is how Professor Li Xiguang, dean of the Department of Communications at Tsinghua University in Beijing, describes the attitude of the propagandists who have traditionally controlled China's official media. And a corollary, "Always make bad news look like good news."

In recent years, however, Li says the Chinese press has gradually won new freedoms, including freedom to make money, to debate politics, to publish unflattering opinions -- and to report bad news. He attributed the progress to forces unleashed by marketization and globalization, plus new technologies and the Internet.

"The conventional ideology that the Chinese government would not loosen control of the press is not supported by the empirical evidence in such newspapers like China Youth Daily," Li said at a seminar Dec. 10 at the University of Hong Kong. The seminar was the first in a series on "China's Media After the WTO" sponsored by the university's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. China formally joined the World Trade Organization on Dec. 11.

China's party propagandists, too, are gearing up for new challenges. A recent article in a provincial party paper, Gansu Ribao, declared that "the accession to the WTO has not changed the ruling position of the Chinese Communist Party" and "there will be no fundamental changes in the operation mechanism and competition environment of China's news media." A "collision between Asian and Western cultures is unavoidable," it warned, and foreign lifestyles "will surely sneak into China." Party newspapers, it said, "should strengthen the role of early warning and guidance."

But it did recognize the need for reform so that party newspapers "can meet the demands on news and information from the readers of different levels" and "guide the people to rationally understand foreign culture."

Certainly, in the future, even government mouthpieces will have to be more sophisticated. Hitherto, propaganda journalism has often been crude. A Chinese poet, writing in the January 1999 issue of the monthly journal Poems, provided examples of the kind of good-news headlines in the official press: "There have been no bad train accidents," or "Public servants have not taken bribes in recent years," and "Drug stores do not sell fake drugs."

Party papers give top priority to reports on the holding of party or government meetings. Thus, the top 10 stories in the People's Daily were led by the first meeting of the Ninth National People's Congress, a joint working meeting of the Central Committee and the State Council, and a "comprehensive victory" against flooding fought "under the leadership of the party's Central Committee with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core." This last is an example of bad news (flooding) presented as good news.

By contrast, the top stories in the China Youth Daily that year were the passing of a law on village committees, which indicated that "China is taking the first legal step towards democracy," the direct election of party secretaries in a county in Shanxi province, and an expose of how three farmers who had a brief argument with some township cadres were detained and treated as criminal suspects. China, it seems, is holding major party organs to their role as official mouthpieces while allowing a degree of press freedom in other newspapers.

These new freedoms are, in a sense, the result of social and economic forces unleashed by the party's economic reforms of the last two decades.

While in the past people could turn only to the government for news, the government has now lost its monopoly. As Li pointed out, there are today 2,300 daily newspapers, 732 radio stations, 1,313 TV stations, 242,739 Web sites, 26.5 million Internet users and 100 million mobile phones.

Nowadays, if people want, they can turn to alternate sources of information via the Internet. While some Western news sites are blocked, others, including that of The New York Times, are not. There are also Web sites in Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan that are available to people on the mainland.

And, in another sign that China is less fearful than before of the contamination of foreign ideas, the government has given approval to foreign media companies to broadcast to Guangdong province, adjoining Hong Kong, a move that is likely to be extended to other provinces in the future.

Increasingly, members of the Chinese public will be able to form opinions based on multiple sources of information.

The Chinese press may well evolve into a situation where a limited number of official papers toe the party line while others are free to report and comment on events as they see fit, just like newspapers in other parts of the world.

Hopefully, China will gradually move closer to the realization of the promise contained in Article 35 of its Constitution, which states: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration."

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong.

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