Somehow poison got into the food at a snack shop in Nanjing, China, on September 14, 2002, and more than four hundred people fell ill. After forty-one of them died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in Nanjing, but this was quickly withdrawn and the government imposed a black-out on all such stories. Word of the poisoning spread by people telephoning overseas, however, and after thirty-six hours, publication of the news abroad forced an end to the domestic ban. By then about one hundred people had died.
During the news blackout what did citizens of Nanjing hear from their own press and television? Here are three of the lead stories on the nightly news for September 14:
• A reemployment conference in Nanjing elicits a warm response across the country; laid-off workers are grateful for the heartfelt care of the General Secretary of the Party.
• The results of central tax collection for January through March are splendid in every way.
• Senior Minister Li Peng visits the Philippines and delivers a report.
He Qinglian, the economist and journalist whose book China’s Pitfall exposed the ways in which officials in control of state-owned resources used their power to make huge unearned profits during China’s economic boom in the 1990s, has now written an account of China’s press. It concentrates on two questions that the bad-food story raises: How is real news suppressed? And what is the effect on popular thinking of the political drivel the government offers the public instead?
He Qinglian considers these questions against the background of a recent boom in popular publishing. In the early 1990s the government cut the budgets of most publishers, whether of books, magazines, or newspapers, making it clear that they would now have to support themselves even while they remained technically within the state system. This presented publishers with a new challenge: how to appeal to the public while still steering clear of political trouble. Many created evening or “metropolitan” newspapers that carried stories on entertainment, fashion, sports, and other popular but politically innocuous topics. By 2002 about half of the two thousand or so newspapers in China were of this kind. Normally they have outsold the mainline Party papers, which they are forced to subsidize.
The new publications have led some foreign observers to speculate that China is developing its own version of a “liberal” press. The Chinese government, trying to improve its international image, encourages such perceptions and hence will find i hard to forgive He Qinglian for showing how very superficial they are. Every Chinese publication, however gaudy, she writes, still has to be owned by a state-controlle organization. Private investors can put money into publications, but accountants hav to record this as “debt,” not investment. Officials of the Party’s Propagand Department allow the papers to publish what they please on many topics but carefully monitor anything that is politically sensitive. About chess tournaments, anything goes. About Taiwan, the implicit message is “you know what we want.” The Party’s goal is to protect Party interests while giving the impression that the press is not controlled Ironically, because readers prefer the livelier style of the popular press to Part officialese, the less formal papers can be more effective in circulating the Party’ propaganda. So there certainly is more variety and range in Chinese journalism today than ten years ago, but “liberal” is hardly the word for it
From time to time the Propaganda Department makes broad criticism of the popular press. Last April 30, for example, the hosts of television news programs throughout China were warned that they should not appear with orange hair, tight pants, or partially nude, since these were “un-Chinese”; they were also told to stick to standard Mandarin and avoid the increasingly popular southern accents or English words like “cool.” The Party has long feared that if “bourgeois” freedoms affect matters of dress and speech they could have deeper and more subversive effects. “Southern accent,” moreover, is a euphemism for a Taiwan accent, and mainland Chinese citizens are not supposed to admire Taiwan these days. This kind of censorship, however, is relatively gentle and ephemeral; it is not taken very seriously. The TV hosts dyed their hair black and a few weeks later let the orange creep back.
But He Qinglian shows in detail how censorship, confiscations of editorial work, closings, firings, threats, harassment, beatings, and even killings have been used in the last ten years when serious political issues have been in question and journalists have gone too far. She has compiled lists of banned books, closed-down magazines, and “rectified” (i.e., retrained and reorganized) publishers…
What can be published and what is forbidden? The answer is complex, but on way or another it involves the regime’s power. Criticism of political leaders—or merely bad news that might suggest the criticism of leaders —is seen as causing “instability.” … Even a handbook called Work Manual on Reducing Farmers’ Tax Burdens, which summarizes farmers’ rights under national law, was banned because farmers with grievances have a well-known tendency to rebel….
For the complete article, please see the Feb. 24, 2005 issue of the Review, which is available online.