View Full Version : Beijing's growing urge to dominate the media

24-09-06, 01:19
International Herald Tribune

Beijing's growing urge to dominate the media

By Howard W. French


SHANGHAI The question seemed innocuous enough when it appeared in an online poll this month on the popular Chinese Internet portal Netease: Would you like to be Chinese in the next life?

It is the answer that proved dangerous. Sixty-four percent of respondents replied no, with some of them commenting that to be Chinese lacked dignity.

Many foreign readers of such news might have felt a sense of surprise by the results. After all, why would such a clear majority of respondents prefer not to be citizens of a country that has progressed so dramatically on so many levels in the last generation? Moreover, with signs of prosperity springing up everywhere, what would motivate a large number of the participants to invoke a lack of dignity in their lives?

The Chinese government supplied the beginnings of an answer in the days that followed the poll. The editor of Netease was removed from his job, effectively banned from meaningful work for having conveyed opinions deemed contrary to the official view.

Upon further inquiry, it turns out there may be other contributing factors behind the disciplining of the Netease journalist. One that was advanced by people with knowledge of the case is that the editor had also recently run a news item about the Uighur opposition figure Rebiya Kadeer.

Never mind that the one and only source for the Netease story was an official statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. That statement was meant for circulation by foreign journalists outside of China in relation to the Uighur activist's nomination for a Nobel prize, and was not meant for use domestically, where she is all but officially a nonentity. As one can easily see, adding this supposed infraction to the mix hardly improves the picture.

China has been on a such a roll lately in terms of the exercise of an antiquated style of control over news and information that in a cheekier moment one might be tempted to propose officially proclaiming September "Thought Control Month." To get a picture of why cheekiness isn't called for under the circumstances, and of how a nation's sense of dignity could be imperiled, it helps to count the ways.

Advancing with dual motives, economic gain and censorship, the government has recently announced measures that would tighten control over foreign media, namely their distribution of information within China. Under the new setup, Xinhua, a state organ with strong roots in China's totalitarian past, would be both agent and censor.

Article 11 of the new regulations contains the kind of vague, omnibus language that animates this country's national security laws, which conceivably allow the arrest of anyone at any time for anything. It suffices to invoke national security. In that spirit the new Xinhua guidelines prohibit news being released in the country from "endangering China's national security, reputation and interests."

Facing mounting foreign criticism over this announcement, Beijing has been at pains to say that Xinhua will not seek unfair competitive advantages from the arrangement, and that foreign news operations will not be restricted in their work because of it.

Would that were so. The Xinhua move comes on the heels of a proposed law that prohibits both foreign and domestic media from unauthorized reporting on "sudden news." News, by its very nature, tends to be sudden, so it would be hard for anyone who values access to information to find a charitable interpretation for this, no matter the spin.

Foreign reporters in China already face restrictions quite unlike those that prevail in most of the developed world. On two recent trips, this reporter was reminded of practices toward the press that prevail in Africa's most retrograde countries, places like Congo or Zimbabwe.

The police showed up out of nowhere during a chat with elderly farmers in a tiny village in Sichuan, subjecting me to a lengthy interrogation and ultimately seizing the memory card from my camera. The biggest irony is that nothing even remotely political was being discussed.

During another recent trip, to Fujian Province, local propaganda officials escorted me to the provincial border to prevent reporting on Typhoon Saomai. The storm last month appears to have killed a significantly larger number of people than local officials were prepared to admit. The question arises, does stating the truth, or gathering the accounts of survivors, amount to endangering China's national security, reputation and interests?

It would be wrong to focus on the experience of foreign media. A far bigger problem involves Chinese people themselves. Take, for example, another recent announcement that court officials are not allowed to speak to the press. Take the detention and banning of bloggers, like Zhang Jianhong, who was reportedly arrested recently for "inciting subversion."

One can only guess in such circumstances, given the total lack of transparency, but it would seem that Zhang's biggest infraction was mentioning China's human rights situation in the context of the country's hosting of the 2008 Olympics.

Controlling information on such a vast scale is not done for its own sake, but rather for the purpose of controlling opinion, and perhaps for limiting the emergence of any true sense of citizenship in a fast-changing society, as well. In a world like this, each individual is taught through a million messages to mind his own business, not to seek the truth, but to receive it, and to avoid life's messy details.

Traditions of state control run long and deep in China. But today they are colliding with new realities, not least an information revolution that begins at one's fingertips with cellphones and computers. It is not hard to imagine how more and more Chinese will find that efforts to limit them infringe on their dignity.

It is increasingly difficult, meanwhile, to understand how the Chinese state plans to enter the future with both feet, while clinging to an ideology of control rooted firmly in the past.

E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com

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