Editorial: Press freedom is good news for business
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Relaxation of controls on foreign journalists in China—intended, it seems, to promote “harmonious” reporting during the Olympics—is a welcome sign that the government is alert to the power of global public opinion and recognises the need for a more sophisticated approach to news management. This may be good news for Chinese journalists too if it proves to be the harbinger of greater domestic freedoms—which are necessary for the profession to develop and become the foundation for a globally competitive, Chinese media industry.
New regulations to take effect on January 1 will allow accredited foreign journalists to travel inside China (except for the Autonomous Regions of Tibet and Xinjiang) without needing extra permits, and nor will they need permits to conduct interviews, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao (刘建超), as quoted by the China Daily. Liu explicitly stated that the opening up will apply not only to sports reporting but also to “politics, economics and society.”
This will make the work of foreign correspondents easier (even if some local authorities are slow to absorb the spirit of the new rules), and it may raise the standards of international reporting on China by reducing bureaucratic obstacles that make it hard to consult appropriate sources and check facts.
At first sight, however, the central government is not yet ready to loosen controls on domestic media. Many Chinese journalists are already doing valuable, investigative work, but the occasional closure of news outlets and detention of writers help to maintain a largely successful system of self-censorship. Thirty one Chinese reporters are currently languishing in jail, according to a report issued this month by the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, more than in any other country in the world. No-one knows quite where the line is, and most reporters are careful not to find out. Meanwhile, top propaganda official and Polituburo member, Li Changchun (李长春), is exhorting subordinates to "strongly promote the building of harmonious culture."
But this kind of control is simply not sustainable. The rapid spread of the Internet and the—less often remarked but equally rapid and significant—spread of English language ability mean that a growing proportion of the educated, urban elite has access to other information sources, including international media. Although the authorities work hard to block sites deemed unsuitable, wholesale censorship in an information-rich world is simply not consistent with creating a more sophisticated and dynamic economy.
Moreover, according to a report published in April by Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an estimated 60 million Chinese citizens (half of all Chinese Internet users) now read weblogs. More than three million Chinese bloggers are writing online and although many of them are more interested in shopping than in public affairs their ranks do include social commentators. For example, the personal blog of retired paediatrician and celebrated AIDS activist, Gao Yaojie (高耀洁), is reported to have attracted more than 800,000 visitors.
“The rise of the Internet has provided the public with an opportunity to participate in public affairs and voice their own views,” concluded an August editorial in Caijing (财经) magazine. The point was illustrated well at the beginning this month by a “Netizen” outcry when Shenzhen police paraded 100 sex workers through the streets in a public shaming exercise reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Shanghai lawyer Yao Jianguo (姚建国) denounced the parade on an Internet forum as both illegal and damaging to China’s international standing; and 70% of 150,000 people polled by sina.com also opposed the Shenzhen police actions, according to a China Daily report. The reporting of this reaction in mainstream media itself demonstrates the growing ability of Net opinion to make news.
Such competitive pressures have already helped to nurture a new and livelier generation of Chinese media such as Phoenix TV (which, although based in Hong Kong, was originally an initiative of mainland citizens) and its associated print magazine. Vying for urban market share are several other promising news magazines such as Caijing, whose editor, Hu Shuli (胡舒立), was recently named by the Wall Street Journal as one of ten “Asian women to watch.” The English language services of state radio and TV broadcasters are also becoming more nuanced and penetrating in pursuit of “international” standards.
These market-driven developments are important not just for the sake of abstract principles of free speech but for the creation of a Chinese media industry that is professional, credible, globally competitive and able to give an informed, Chinese perspective on domestic and international affairs. With foreign media companies keen to access China’s markets (and already supplying content to Chinese outlets, albeit subject to restrictions), and with chatrooms and blogs only a click away, boring “official” media will not be competitive in China, let alone the wider world. Government agencies must learn to argue their case rather than relying on crude controls to kill embarrassing stories; and Chinese journalists should be given space to develop their talents without fear of arrest, in the alleged interests of harmony, on charges of subversion or divulging of state secrets.
In 2003, Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre established a China Media Project that monitors and researches media reform in China. It is developing a useful archive of relevant articles, in English and Chinese, that can be found at http://cmp.hku.hk