By David Schlesinger
There is nothing like reading a report on China and the media to highlight the mass of contradictions that is the country today.
Compared with when I started studying it in the 1980s and ’90s, China’s media and journalism scene has a vibrancy I could never have imagined, and that still surprises me. However, compared with the ideal of freedom of expression espoused by the Committee to Protect Journalists and, more important, by increasing numbers of China’s own netizens, journalists, and ordinary citizens, it falls far short.
CHALLENGED IN CHINA
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Decades of reform and opening have produced nearly 600 million Internet users, more than 400 million mobile users, and more than 300 million microbloggers. The amount of pure content and communication created and enjoyed hourly is staggering.
And much of that content would have been unimaginable in the very recent past: pointed comments, reporting, pictures, and jokes on corruption, food safety, transport conditions, dodgy deals, abuse of authority, and scores of other challenging topics.
Local newspapers and magazines try to push the limits in reporting and editing and even commentary. Foreign reports on China reverberate internally like never before, becoming a part of the domestic debate.
Compare that with when I was China bureau chief for Reuters in the 1990s: Huge stacks of provincial newspapers would land on my desk with a depressing thud, each broadsheet seemingly in lockstep with the official “line.” Dissidents then had no microblogs to try to send out provocative or borderline daring messages—they had, at best, a shared telephone line.
So there has been huge, obvious, and palpable progress. And yet, like an electrified fence around a yard, evidence of the limits around tolerance and freedom is there, too, ominously looming.
Anyone too daring is threatened, harassed, or even arrested. Any message too provocative disappears. Any journalist pushing too far is yanked back. Any publication that steps over the line feels the heavy official hand of authority asserting itself. And the Internet, that great instrument of content creation and discovery, is surrounded by a seemingly ever-more impermeable Great Firewall, making hot topics non-topics, making news figures suddenly nonexistent, and making the power of the state an omnipresent specter.
The challenge for the Communist Party is that as China changes, its people have new expectations of how to exercise their own rights—rights that in many cases are already enshrined in China’s constitution.
The importance of this report is not that it is a CPJ report. It is not that it is issued in New York about concerns that are somehow unique to a Western audience and group. This report is important because the debate about media rights and the limits on freedom of expression is an important one that needs to occur in China itself, for in the end it concerns every one of the 600 million netizens, 400 million mobile users, and 300 million-plus microbloggers—any one of whom could find him or herself on the wrong side of a shifting political line at any time.
CPJ board member David Schlesinger is the founder and managing director of Tripod Advisors, a media and China consulting service based in Hong Kong. He is the former global editor-in-chief of Reuters and the former chairman of Thomson Reuters China.