Letter from China: It’s a miracle people hear the truth at all

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
August 10, 2007
SHANGHAI: The newspaper headlines spoke of a miracle. Sixty-nine men had been rescued from a flooded coal mine in central Henan Province, a veritable cause for celebration.
For this reader, the very next reaction came a moment later in the form of a little voice of caution. “Wait a minute, miracles, if they exist, are exceedingly rare things,” it said. “If the media is so eagerly proclaiming one, there must be more to the story, or perhaps even another story altogether that the ‘miracle’ line was being used to obscure, to cover up.”
As often happens in such instances, it took several days for the other shoe to drop, but drop it did, when it emerged that in the same county at roughly the same time as the coal miners were being extricated, 78 people were confirmed dead and perhaps hundreds of others had perished in mudslides.
Why one subject made the news right away and the other, more serious incident, only managed to filter out slowly says a lot about where China finds itself today.
The “bad” news was suppressed by provincial propaganda authorities who forbade coverage of the heavy death toll in the flooding. This was ostensibly done so as not to step on the “good” news of the mine rescue, and to allow local authorities to put the best possible face on the situation.
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The words bad and good deserve quotation marks because this is how the Chinese government manages information and encourages its citizens to understand the news: There is good news, which is to be spotlighted and emphasized, and there is bad news, which at least when it involves Chinese affairs is to be covered up, minimized, managed and massaged.
The Chinese public is in the grips of an unreliable narrator. But unlike the novelist who leads you seductively down a story’s path only to reveal to you at the conclusion of the tale that you’ve been fooled by his devices, the system here never comes clean.
Instead, the censors and a universe of complicit or compliant media keep going to the same well, filtering and bending information to obey laws which insist that the first duty of public information is that it reinforces the legitimacy of the country’s system and strengthens public order.
It must be said that the U.S. government and every other government lies – both white lies and whoppers, often told with the same motives as the officials in Henan- to minimize a calamity, to hide corruption or incompetence, or even to cover up an atrocity.
This happens naturally enough because governments are seats of power, and people in power and the institutions they occupy relish control over their own narratives. More interesting are the ways in which China’s situation differs from that of so many other places, including the different expectations of the news-consuming public.
In places where a relatively free press exists, there is expectation of relative truthfulness from the authorities, or as is perhaps more often the case, an expectation that failing that, the media will quickly perform its most important duty, setting the record straight. If honest politicians are too much to ask for, a rough system of accountability is not. The diversification of news sources and of media of recent decades has led to a sort of Moore’s Law of the news, according to which revelation and disclosure tend to come ever faster.
Trained by a tradition that has changed surprisingly little over the decades, the Chinese reader brings no such expectations to her news reading habits. If China’s leaders are no longer demigods, as was the case under Mao Zedong, they are nonetheless exempt from any discussion of their flaws or any critical examination of their records.
Foreign leaders are merely human. President George W. Bush’s wearing of “Crocs,” a recently popular style of plastic sandal, with socks, drew mention in the press here, as did Hillary Rodham Clinton’s display of cleavage. Their Chinese counterparts remain untouchables, though. Little wonder, then, there are virtually no political cartoons, and no political gossip columns.
The only exception comes after a fall from grace, when the authorities can carefully stage manage a story whose narrative thrust is all about how the system successfully policed itself, how errors were corrected. And so, onward and upward, history marches on.
Sometime quite soon, China will be treated to a prime example of this with the trial for corruption of Shanghai’s once all-powerful Communist party boss, Chen Liangyu. Already, to prepare opinion, the system is speaking of making an example of Chen for the future.
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