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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Red Line 

Ghastly article in the Global Times recently about press freedom in China. The article concerns a discussion on freedom of the press between members of the Chinese and German media, which was held in Shanghai the end of May.

Pretty mundane story until this: Horst Kohler, the German president, asked the members of the Chinese media in attendance about the level of freedom for Chinese journalists.

Chen Xiaochuan, editor of the China Youth Daily responded immediately, "The German media believe the Communist Party of China has set a red line for all of us. That line does not exist."

Rubbish. It was a completely dishonest thing to say, and the worst of it is that it was presented in the Global Times article as a serious comment. There is no integrity in that kind of "reporting."

Mr. Chen does "qualify" his statement somewhat: "However, we may have one red line, which is the common belief that the Dalai Lama is a separatist." Fascinating. So every single journalist in China has exactly the same opinion about the Dali Lama? I'd like to see if a mathematician at the Academy of Science could figure the odds of that happening by chance. If it's really true that every journalist in China sees that issue (or any issue, for that matter) exactly the same way, that speaks volumes about the kind of country China is with respect to news and information. Can you imagine a Japanese or American journalist daring to speak for every journalist in the country on such a hot button issue? In either of those countries, his colleagues would crucify him.

Certainly it is true that Chinese newspapers discuss a wide variety of subjects. It is not fair to characterize them all as being mere mouthpieces of the Communist Party. I have read many interesting feature articles in the China Daily, and quite a number of issues-oriented spots in the Global Times. Some issues are debated freely.

But some are not, and both the editor of the China Youth Daily, who made that horrendous statement, and the Global Times reporter who quoted him, know that. They know that there are some issues the Party does not allow papers to talk about, and especially some positions the Party does not allow papers to express. The whole piece was an exercise in practiced dishonesty. Here's how it actually works in China:

Most newspapers are not controlled by the government. But they are ALL regulated by the government. The party does not supervise the writing of every article in every paper. But they do read the papers, and tell the editors if there is something that they object to. And there are also times when they will issue an order in advance related to a given issue. A gag order, if you will. These orders are extra-legal, and they cannot be appealed. Thanks to some few courageous journalists, they are sometimes ignored, with consequences.

On occasion, a paper will publish something that crosses the line (and yes, there most certainly is a line, even when a specific gag order has not been issued), and they will get a warning. At other times, the infraction will be considered more serious, and there will be a punishment of some kind. There are many cases of this. One that got quite a bit of attention recently concerns the editor of the Southern Weekend, who was demoted after he interviewed Barack Obama during his visit to China in November of 2009. You can google this pretty easily and get several reports on it. It's a little hard for me to do from here, because most of the sites reporting this incident are blocked in China, but I did manage to find one. Again, I emphasize, for most papers, there is not micromanagement of every article. But there is definitely a clear understanding among editors of the "line" they must not cross, which results in a high degree of self-censorship.

But while most news reports are not specifically supervised by the party, there are times when the party will order a paper to publish a propaganda piece, which is not on the editorial page, and is presented as a news item. I am not sure which papers are subject to this. My surmise is that private papers are probably not as likely to be subject to this aspect, but the Global Times and the China Daily definitely are. I know that, because they are both English language papers, so I have seen many cases of these kinds of dictated reports. Headlines like "Government Policies Not to Blame" (China Daily), [The link goes to a Global times piece that references the original China Daily article. The headline in the Global Times piece is slightly different] and "Google Totally Wrong" (Global Times) are clearly dictated by the party. How do I know this? Because no self-respecting reporter would write an article with this kind of a headline. A reporter who did something like that in an open society like Japan or America would have a short career indeed.

Government Policies Not to Blame. It was clear at the time, and has become more clear since then, that, in fact, it was government policies that created much of the unrest that resulted in the Xinjiang riots. The party leader for Xinjiang was known to be a hard guy. His approach to the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang created a lot of bad feeling, and it is not a surprise that he was removed from his position at the recent party congress. Took awhile for it to happen, because he was a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. I don't think he was a member of the standing committee--I mean, one of the top eight or nine guys. But he was a member of the Politburo, so it was a little touchy getting rid of him. But they did it.

Google Totally Wrong. In this case, the article itself is much less obnoxious than the headline, and, to be fair, the Global Times has, at one time or another, allowed Google's position on the matter to slide through. But the reason that this headline is such an obvious example of propaganda is because everybody knew that Google was not totally wrong. If the headline had said, "Google Not Totally Right," it would have had considerable credibility, because, in fact, Google's actions were self-serving in a way that was not completely honorable. They violated their own principles when they thought there was money in it for them, then suddenly became righteous when it was clear that they weren't making that much money in China anyway. An article presenting these inconsistencies would have been helpful and informative. But the article Global Times decided to publish (more likely was ordered to publish) was, shall we say, less than interesting, and also patronizing, especially in the last paragraph. Again, Google was not totally right. But it was partly right. Google was right to correct their original decision to block access to certain sites. And they were certainly right to respond vigorously to the violent attacks on the email accounts of human rights activists, which we now know came from China (though not necessarily from the government).

We foreigners are often too quick to judge China. This is a big country with an extraordinarily diverse and complicated populace. As guests in this country, we should try to be patient and understand that China cannot just instantly adopt American standards of openness and democracy. So I try not to make bold pronouncements about what China ought to do, and I have learned to have a great deal of respect for the journalists who have to deal with that "red line" every day. If they are sometimes too cautious, who am I to criticize? But pretending that the red line doesn't even exist is inexcusable. The readers of the Global Times deserve better. More importantly, the courageous men and women of the journalism community who have paid the price for crossing that red line (sometimes unwittingly, but sometimes otherwise) for the betterment of the country they love also deserve better.

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