China's Fourth Estate - Chance for Reform

With the world giving due credit to the Chinese government for its swift response and reasonable efficiency in the handling of the Sichuan disaster aftermath and for the simultaneous loosening of its grip on the domestic and foreign media, hopes are high that the latter act could signal a higher level of tolerance, on the part of those in power, for differing voices (including dissenting ones), both in the press and from the individual.

Even before the Sichuan earthquake happened, China was seen to be willing to call a truce in the media war between China and the west that had been going on over Tibet and the Olympic torch relay incidents, according to Monroe Price’s article in Huffington Post. On April 13, delegates from the International Federation of Journalists arrived in Beijing for a four-day visit. According to BBC Monitoring’s analyst Peter Feuilherade, “Editorials in some Chinese state-run media suggest that the authorities are anxious to prevent anti-Western protests fuelled by a resurgence of nationalism from escalating out of their control”. Increasing bad publicity over the torch relay protests was another thing that spurred the officials to relax somewhat on media censorship.

As Price put it, “the earthquake helps for China’s repositioning and the repositioning of the temperature of reporting”.

Indeed, with the Western media having backed down from bashing the Chinese government over Tibet and over its human rights records and even beginning to heap sincere praises for its Sichuan rescue efforts, and with countries from around the world pouring in humanitarian aids and donations in goodwill to help with the rescue operation, one has to ask whether this is not a golden opportunity for China to embark on developing a vibrant fourth estate. The obvious way to do it is by giving a free rein to the domestic media and reforming the dated and inflexible mentality of the CCP’s Publicity Department, elevating the media industry to world standards, as well as by truly condoning freedom of expression on the individual level (civic journalism).

It is a golden opportunity because at this time all Chinese people including those residing overseas stand in solidarity behind the Chinese government, China’s frosty relations with the West have begun to thaw and the Western media has refrained from antagonistic tactics. There is very little for the authorities to feel insecure about. Allowing different voices to be heard, rather than suppressing them, is the key to a harmonious and civil society. A society with a single voice cannot be a healthy one.

As is evident from responses in the mainland blogosphere and media, when the leaders do something right, like when Premier Wen Jiabao headed for the disaster area at the first opportunity, like when government ordered three days of mourning and the lowering of the national flag in honor of those who died in the quake, the people would always reward them with accolade. If they can accept praises, it would not be unreasonable to expect them to accept rational and constructive criticisms too, which is the whole purpose for having a truly free and independent media.

A free and open media can actually help leaders to expose corrupt and repressive practices at the local government levels, which are constant targets of complaints from Chinese citizens. It can also ensure that the government is held accountable to the people. Free flow of information and freedom of expression is conducive to developing a better-informed and more open-minded citizenry, not to mention it is a prerequisite for promoting constructive debate in society and creativity in the academic and business fields. When the people are better informed of what is going on both inside and outside of China (including the past), there will be less misunderstanding and less conflict between Chinese citizens and other world citizens. In this age of globalization, what is more important than being a civilized and knowledgeable global citizen?

While I am cautiously optimistic that the Chinese media will eventually attain the freedom it deserves and mainland Chinese will be allowed genuine freedom of expression (since Taiwan is too brilliant a beacon to ignore), I am more worried about China’s legal structure where freedom of expression is concerned, as shown in the flagrant case of the conviction and sentencing to three-and-a-half years in prison of human rights activist Hu Jia.

Civic China’s blogpost has pointed me to this article titled “Hu Jia in China’s Legal Labyrinth” by Jerome Cohen and Eva Pils (both legal professionals), which was published in Far Eastern Economic Review.

The authors of the article lamented: “If Mr. Hu’s case represents the reality of China’s rule of law, people inside as well as outside the country have reasons to be afraid, so flawed was it in both process and substance.”

These are some of the distressing parts of the article:

“It is part of the logic of the political systems that treat opposition as a crime that they must not only punish the opposition, but also break its spirit…….. Legislative progress has not deterred China’s police from honing its skills to the degree that they can now ‘successfully’ deal with dissidents much more quickly than their predecessors did.”

“Mr. Hu’s jailers were also evidently counting on his deteriorating health to diminish his resolve and ability to defend himself. This was actually the second round in their process of debilitating him.”

“In cases such as this, the police are usually not content only to break the accused. They also seek to implicate his family and friends in order to subdue his support group.”

For other details of the case, please follow the above link to the entire article.

It is obvious that if and when a free press and freedom of expression is officially condoned, corresponding reform to the legal system is needed to purge it of any loophole for abuse of power and unjust procedures. More important is that the authorities are committed to actually practicing what the law says, especially at the local government levels.

China took a seminal step forward when she enacted the Property Law last year, which safeguards an individual’s right to private property. If she can grab the present opportunity to take another giant step by guaranteeing (the practice of) a free press and freedom of expression, she will have earned even more respect from both her citizens and the world. At the very least, the truth about the Sichuan school construction will be told via the media to the deserving parents who lost their children to the quake.