Tunneling Through Stone
“Chinese media are evolving. They are in the process, as we say in Chinese, of ‘tunneling through stone drip by drip.’?”
Li Datong has been a critic of media controls in China since January 2006, when he was removed from his position as chief editor of Freezing Point, a supplement to the national China Youth Daily. His demotion was triggered by publication of an essay that alleged ideological bias in textbook accounts of Chinese history, but it followed a career of struggle against official censorship. In May 2007 in Hong Kong, he addressed the Society of Publishers in Asia on the future of Chinese news media.
Here are translated excerpts.
“China has a vast media industry. We are a country of 1.3 billion people in the midst of an historic period of transition, and the relationship between media and China’s social development is growing ever closer. That this is happening under an autocratic system goes without saying. Unavoidably, progress is punctuated by setbacks. It is a game of wits between the media and the system.
“If we dwell on the setbacks, we are sure to despair at the prospects for Chinese media. And yet, the solid ice is melting, the layers are beginning to soften and split apart, and beneath the crushing of this ice of autocracy, the Chinese people are demanding democracy and freedom.
“I began working as a journalist in 1979, just as China began its path of opening and reform. Over the course of 29 years, we have poured our energy into changing Chinese journalism and have seen it for ourselves. Judging from the depth and breadth of news reports today, Chinese media have already made epochal progress. We’re not remiss in saying these changes have already lodged in the hearts of the people and that they cannot be reversed.
“In point of fact, there has never been a loosening of controls. The censorship system has never undergone substantive change, even if its methods have become more nuanced and concealed. But in spite of this fact, change is unavoidable.
“Chinese media are evolving. They are in the process, as we say in Chinese, of ‘tunneling through stone drip by drip.’ This evolution may, perhaps, lack dramatic action. It may not command attention. But as someone who has participated in and observed this evolution, I know it is real, and that it cannot easily be reversed. Don’t get me wrong. The traditional system of media controls in China grinds on. Many of the most important political topics in contemporary China cannot be talked about openly. News that authorities deem harmful to the legitimacy of their rule is suppressed.
“In realizing their right to freedom of expression, as set down in the constitution, Chinese citizens have a long road ahead. That road will be winding and cursed with setbacks. But the seed of freedom of speech has been planted already. Chinese have awakened to a consciousness of their legal rights and the need to defend them. Their fear is ebbing away.
“The power and legitimacy of China’s censors have already been questioned publicly, and actions to close newspapers or ban books have met with an unprecedented degree of public resistance, forcing compromise on the part of authorities. This should make us feel encouraged. I believe the yearning for freedom of speech in China has never been more powerful than it is today. If journalists in China persist in upholding their professional conscience, if they work tenaciously to expand the space for truth, I believe the day when we truly enjoy freedom of expression in China, as guaranteed in our constitution, will not tarry much longer.”