Hu Must Free China’s Media

Hu Must Free China’s Media
By Sophie Beach

The Asian Wall Street Journal

March 14, 2003

As a new generation of leaders comes to power in China, they inherit a government plagued by endemic corruption and a populace increasingly angered by abuses of power. Aware of the mounting challenges he will face after being sworn in as state president on Saturday, Hu Jintao has worked hard in recent weeks to cast himself as an ardent foe of corruption, prepared to bring the fight to the highest levels of the Chinese government.

If Mr. Hu follows through with this campaign, his leadership will be welcomed by the Chinese people. But as long as authorities continue to exert stringent controls over the media and prevent journalists independently investigating official misconduct, Mr. Hu’s declared mission is bound to fail.

At a meeting in January, the Politburo, headed by Mr. Hu, heralded the fight for clean government as a top priority on the eve of a major leadership change. At the meeting, China’s leaders promised to eradicate corruption among their own ranks, and agreed that, “Of their own free will, they should submit to supervision by the party and the public.”

But neither the party nor the public can adequately supervise the conduct of officials without a free and independent media aggressively reporting on political developments. So far, however, Mr. Hu and his colleagues have given no assurances that they will allow Chinese journalists the simple right to do their jobs without interference.

Despite a loosening of restrictions on nonpolitical reporting in recent years, the Chinese media remains firmly under the control of the Communist Party, which views journalists first and foremost as propaganda workers. The Propaganda Bureau regularly issues directives declaring certain topics off-limits and instructing journalists how to report on other sensitive stories, including natural disasters, political developments and official wrongdoing.

Reporters who dare to defy censorship restrictions are often treated as criminals. China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 39 currently behind bars, many of whom were targeted by authorities after reporting on abuses of power.

For instance, Jiang Weiping is currently serving an eight-year sentence in the northeastern port city of Dalian for his coverage of local corruption scandals. A longtime journalist for China’s official media, Mr. Jiang had received awards from the government for his work. While working as northeast bureau chief for the Hong Kong-based, pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po, Mr. Jiang learned that many local politicians were involved with illegal financial transactions. Knowing he would not be able to print the reports in his own paper, he used a pen name and submitted them to a Hong Kong weekly. Although Mr. Jiang was imprisoned for his work, the government has since prosecuted, and widely publicized, several of the cases he reported on, in order to demonstrate official antigraft efforts.

While Mr. Jiang languishes in jail, unable to contact his wife or young daughter, the man many observers hold responsible for his arrest, former Dalian mayor Bo Xilai, who was himself implicated by Mr. Jiang’s reporting, has been promoted to Liaoning provincial governor and heralded as a rising star among the new generation of leaders.

In China, local officials such as Bo Xilai often have free rein to implement the law as they see fit. This gives them the ability to harass, threaten and imprison journalists who expose their dirty laundry or criticize their rule. Former Xinhua reporter Gao Qinrong was sentenced in 1999 to 13 years in prison for exposing a fraudulent irrigation scheme in drought-plagued Yuncheng in Shanxi province. Although his expose received widespread praise and attention in the official media, local officials angered by his reporting had him arrested. Vigorous calls for Mr. Gao’s release by prominent Chinese journalists, lawyers and officials have gone unheeded.

For Chinese officials, repressing the media may seem to be the surest way to protect their power and reputation. Government leaders often silence critical voices in the name of protecting social stability. But China will only gain true long-term stability when corruption is brought under control and citizens are allowed a channel to air their grievances peacefully — neither of which can be achieved without an independent media.

Political observers and journalists in China are aware of the fundamental connection between anticorruption efforts and the media, and they are increasingly outspoken on the topic. Bao Tong, the highest level official to be imprisoned following the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989, recently issued a blistering open letter to China’s leadership, stating in no uncertain terms that, “Freeing up the media is the most pressing matter of the moment. The choice now is between press freedom and corruption.”

In a recent front-page spread, Southern Weekend newspaper printed excerpts from a round-table discussion, titled “Chinese Media: Responsibility and Direction.” The discussion, attended by several top journalists and academics, emphasized that public officials should encourage supervision, via the media, as a way to help guarantee social stability. As a Beijing University law school professor said, “An important part of ensuring social stability is to allow the people to express their dissatisfactions. Of course the media is an important part of this process.”

This article, which ran in one of China’s most popular newspapers, demonstrates that many Chinese journalists no longer see themselves as mouthpieces for party propaganda. The participants expressed a sophisticated understanding of the changing role of the media as Chinese society transforms into a modern, market economy.

As one journalist pointed out, citizens’ demands for an independent media have increased as the planned economy becomes privatized, and they can no longer rely on the government for housing, healthcare and other basic services. As China reforms, he said, “individuals need to make their own judgments, and the prerequisite to making correct judgments is access to accurate and comprehensive information. Therefore, whether or not the media can fulfill its role will impact the functioning of the entire society.”

The responsibility now lies with Mr. Hu to allow the media to fulfill its role, and to prove that the incoming president’s promises to the Chinese people are more than just empty words.

Ms. Beach is the senior research associate for Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Reprinted from The Asian Wall Street Journal © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.