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    Greater China
     Jan 11, 2013


Media stirs hornet's nest in Guangzhou
By Sreeram Chaulia

At a time when there is a chorus to regulate and control the news media in established democracies like the United Kingdom and India, a converse drama is ensuing in authoritarian China through a mini-revolt of journalists in Guangdong province against excessive government interference and skewing of reportage.

Unlike in free societies, where some sections of the media are being accused of sensationalism, irresponsibility and larger-than-life kingmaker roles in politics, the problem in single-party ruled China is the classic one of a censorship state that has never allowed print and audio-visual media to express themselves honestly and objectively.

The unfamiliar sight of 100-odd journalists gathering in the metropolitan hub of Guangzhou, holding banners and chanting slogans denouncing the gagging acts of the local propaganda chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), comes as a fresh challenge to the new leadership under Xi Jinping.

The media persons who decided to take the courageous step of marching in public and writing open letters demanding the resignation of the censorship boss are well aware of the risks to personal safety and security for locking horns with authorities in a closed polity like China. But they were driven to such desperate measures by subtle changes are occurring in Chinese society, viz what the rebellious Southern Weekly's daredevils have summed up as an "era of greater openness".

China's economic opening up to the world, which is now into its fourth decade, was bound to also engender hunger for greater information and scrutiny of how wealth and power are being distributed and exercised. The architect of China's economic miracle, Deng Xiaoping, admitted this risk when he warned that opening the windows will bring in not only "fresh air" (ie avenues for economic growth and prosperity) but also "flies and insects" (irritants to dictatorship).

The CCP's gamble with economic liberalization is whether the state and its agents will be sufficiently in command of the environment to swat the flies and to selectively leverage the benefits of integrating China into the global economy.

Hence the elaborate paraphernalia adopted by the Party to censor printed and aired news, build "Great Firewalls" on the Internet, and weed out "unpatriotic" content that can give Chinese people wrong ideas about living in a more transparent system where criticism of power-wielders carries no costs. But what if the "flies" metastasize into a swarm of locusts or a ubiquitous netherworld where mockery of CCP elites and their wrongdoings becomes so pervasive that it could undermine the core legitimacy of the party?

The journalists who are enraged by crude attempts of provincial CCP propaganda units to rewrite editorials that even mildly and generically discuss flaws in the status quo are young Chinese "netizens" exposed to the finest traditions of international investigative and critical reporting. They would have already scented some leeway to go after incidents of official malfeasance following Xi Jinping's opening speech as CCP general secretary last November, in which he chided his party colleagues for a culture of "taking bribes" and "being out of touch with the people".

Although Xi is not a Mikhail Gorbachev who might open the floodgates for a free press through a Chinese glasnost, he is ruling a China that is a lot more information-saturated, web-savvy and impatient about the glacial pace of political reforms. Journalists have often been the avant garde in using small windows of opportunity to whittle away despotic forms of rule since they have the training to probe deeper while the rest of the public can only skim the surface.

The pioneering staff of the Southern Weekly are testing the limits of a China that is today relatively freer than it was before. They are also trying to exploit a perceived gap between the central government's overall guiding objectives and the unscrupulous behavior of provincial CCP bosses. By appealing to Beijing to fire a propaganda bureaucrat in Guangzhou who is stuck in a time warp, the journalists are seeking a new China that is in sync with the worldwide trend of pushing for greater accountability.

Will the fire lit by the conscientious media in Guangzhou provoke nationwide agitation against the muzzling of the press and spread of disinformation? Xi will not be amenable to making major policy changes on the way the media is governed following protests owing to fear that such concessions would attract more uprisings.
When poor peasants in a village called Wukan (also in Guangdong province) rose up to defend themselves against CCP-enabled land-grabbing and corruption in September 2011, the crisis was nipped in the bud at the local level through a mixture of the symbolic removal of errant party apparatchiks, state intimidation and co-option. The Chinese state has developed a sophisticated crisis-response mechanism that deploys sticks and carrots and contains unrest, both geographical and ideational.

It would be naive to expect that China's close to rank bottom standing in the global Press Freedom Index (published by Reporters Without Borders) will improve in the near future. It is currently placed at number 174 in a listing of 179 countries for media freedom, with only the likes of Iran, Syria and North Korea faring worse. But the conjoined nature of economic and political rights, and the contradictions of a society where the former have advanced while the latter lag, mean that China does not have to languish forever as a journalist's nightmare.

The liberal thinker Michael Ignatieff posits that "post-Communist oligarchies" like China and Russia are "are attempting to demonstrate a novel proposition: that economic freedoms can be severed from political and civil freedom, and that freedom is divisible". The bold behavior of the striking journalists of Guangzhou and their sympathizers across China is effectively rejecting this divisibility thesis.

The proverbial "bread" cannot be dissociated in the human aspirational matrix from "freedom" precisely because we are not mere physical bodies with material needs but also spirits and souls that desire dignity and respect. China's Fourth Estate is fighting for freedom, inch by inch, and history may eventually reward its struggle.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, Haryana, India and the author of the forthcoming book, Politics of the Global Economic Crisis: Regulation, Responsibility and Radicalism.

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Xi has to get the party started
(Dec 21, '12)

Beijing plays up the carrot, wields stick
(Jul 25, '12)

Wukan 'solution' fails key land-rights test (Feb 28, '12)




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