Critical Reporting Then and Now

12:41(UTC+08:00), 14 APR 2014 | CHN BEIJING
ITEM PART OF CHANG’ANJIE MEDIA NOTEBOOK SUB-BLOG

For the Chinese media, critical reporting has always been something very new that just came up in these years. Most notably, they came to the forefront during the era of Hu Jintao as Chinese President — I personally experienced this as the government-run media organisations started emphasising on big political meetings, but also enabling others to “have a say” on the issues of the day.

The question, of course, was how lenient critical reporting was tolerated. For the earliest “free reporting” since 1949, you have to, in fact, understand that Mao, out of all PRC leaders, wanted the press to be more frank. On 02 May 1956, in a meeting of the erstwhile PRC Supreme National Affairs Conference (since disbanded), he clearly stated:

We should take the policies of permitting a hundred schools of art and a hundred schools of academic thinking. [1]

When this later became “used” by some to carry forward anti-CPC thoughts, Mao felt this had gone too far — eventually those voices of dissent were quashed, sometimes with quite a heavy hand.

Freer reports were a fleeting appearance to some extents even during Deng’s freer (pre-Tian’anmen) years (1978–mid-1989). They only re-appeared in the mid-2000s, and this time, they were visible nationwide in the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报). The Daily was notable for breaking the news about SARS first (like what happened ten years after, when the paper called for constitutionalism in China, the Guangdong CCP chief was never too positive about the development being reported). Probably the two most notable reports of the Daily over the past decade included a 2003 report about Sun Zhigang being beaten by the brutal authorities for failing to produce ID during a police inspection (which lead to the abandonment of the hotly controversial custody and repatriation policy, and its notable rant in 2011, where it used expletives to severely criticise an incompetent railways ministry under Sheng Guangzu for its use of the word “miracle” (in an inappropriate context) in the wake of the Wenzhou HSR disaster.

The paper itself is often known for not just investigative journalism, but also for provocative commentary, which often puts it in Beijing’s crosshairs and lands it in trouble. [2] During the fiery debate over constitutionalism, the new year’s editorial of which ultimately got axed, it infuriated local censors in Guangdong so much that the Weibo account had to have hands transferred over to a more pro-Beijing poster. This in itself raises the question: just how much critical reporting is tolerated today?

The reality behind this is never simple. In spite of a call in early February 2013 by the man himself, CPC general secretary (and now Chinese President) Xi Jinping, for the CPC to tolerate “sharp criticism” (尖锐批评) [3], the fact is, any such criticism is still in actual fact restricted by the “seven red lines” which must not be crossed over. These involve the law, the socialist system, national interests, citizen rights, public order, morality, and truth of information. In other words, if you wanted to initiate a fierce attack on the CPC / PRC system, you’ve just crossed the lines — and are liable for punishment!

Yet the fact that critical reports are with us at all shows an improvement. Interestingly enough, the Mao years showed a huge shift — not necessarily for the better — from an invitation for diversity and criticism to the situation during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, where news and statistics were at times fabricated. China has had a difficult relationship with media telling the truth as it was (or as it is). To some extents, we’ve come a long way since the era of Mao or even the dynasties before, where the Di Bao cherry-picked content so that social issues were “overwritten” with content designed to, in fact, “fool the masses”. That period seems to have gone away now, although the population still “fears” its return when the authorities start cracking down in the form of forced directives. But the Internet and media in this day has meant that it is increasingly hard to “contain the truth (that hurts Beijing)”. The only real way out, then, is to allow more diverse viewpoints and deeper reporting of the facts, and to really facilitate more critical viewpoints to be aired.

When you come to think of it, critical reporting doesn’t hurt China — certainly not in a way that Beijing fears it might do. China is potentially hurt much more by fabricated, false reporting. The fact that China can tolerate and facilitate critical views shows that the country is improving, no matter how tiny those baby steps might be.

References

[1] Mao, Z. D., (1956). Speech at the Supreme National Affairs Conference
[2] China Media Guide. Southern Metropolis Daily. [online] Danwei. Available from: <http://www.danwei.org/media_guide/newspapers/south_metropolis_daily.php> [Accessed 14 April 2014].
[3] BBC, (2013). (Chinese) Xi Jinping: The Communist Party must tolerate sharp criticism. [online] BBC. Available from: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21785205> [Accessed 14 April 2014].