Letter from China
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
November 16, 2007
SHANGHAI: As reported in the news, the announcement sounded ominous.
China’s chief censor has launched another round of crackdowns to eliminate what he labeled the “four fakes.”
When the Chinese state assigns a numeric label like this – the three this, or the four that – they are usually talking about something they deem to be truly wicked, or something that is phenomenally good.
In this case, it was definitely a matter of denouncing the wicked, to wit: sham publications, sham news bureaus, fake journalists and bogus news reports.
Hearing this announcement, one might think that one of China’s biggest problems is the grave threat posed by something called false information.
What is really under threat, though, is the absolute monopoly the Chinese state has long enjoyed – and still claims – over the right to control the news and most other forms of information, and hence its control over what citizens know of affairs in their own country and the world.
I have witnessed authoritarian regimes wrestle with this issue the world over, and usually the government’s insecurity, revealed in this announcement and others like it here of late, such as the creation of a database of profiles to keep track of the thousands of foreign journalists who will cover the Olympics, augurs poorly for future stability.
This is not, of course, due to any threat posed by information, or even because of any objective element of instability in the country. Rather, it is because governments that are this defensive tend to create instability all by themselves, through overreactions and mistakes of one kind or another that are driven by their own insecurity.
It would shock many Chinese to learn that many African countries have already put behind them these fake pretenses for extending control over the media, well ahead of the world’s newest great power.
Typically, the breakthrough has come after a ham-handed attempt by a government to reign in a newly vigorous news media by imposing draconian permits and licenses, or tests of professional ethics and procedures. Libel laws are strengthened to protect the powerful, and when all else fails, journalists are harassed, beaten and imprisoned.
China, in fact, is already a world leader in this last category, according to Human Rights Watch, which counts “some 30 known cases of journalists currently imprisoned for their reporting activities.”
Smart and privileged young Chinese frequently deride Western journalists for the mere mention of the word Communist in articles about China, as if this automatically qualified the reporter as a cold warrior, as anti-Chinese, or most patronizingly, as someone who just doesn’t grasp how much China has changed.
But when one reflects on matters like these, one realizes that where control of the media and of information is concerned, China today is closer to North Korea than it is to the African countries that have made their breakthrough, throwing in the towel on censorship despite their relative poverty and supposed lack of social development.
Consider the gem in my library that goes by the title “The Great Teacher of Journalists,” supposedly penned by the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. I found it at an airport souvenir shop in Pyongyang a few years ago, and was intrigued to read this advice to aspiring reporters on page 116: “It is advisable that the newspapers carry articles in which they unfailingly hold the president in high esteem, adore him and praise him as the great revolutionary leader.”
China, in fairness, long ago jettisoned baroque Mao-type personality cults. The essence of Kim’s thought, however, applies just as much to Chinese journalism today as it does to the North Korean variety: a leader is never criticized.
The Chinese corollary to this thought need not be stated in North Korea, where everything begins and ends with Kim. Here, the next piece of advice to journalists would be: “Be careful in criticizing the system and all of its shibboleths. Be very careful.”
That the media is so tightly controlled here is not incidental to the rule of the Communist Party either, by the way. Susan Shirk lays this out in her excellent recent book, “China, Fragile Superpower,” when she says, “Two organizations within the Communist Party have the status of sacred cows because the top leaders depend on them to stay in power. The Organization Department, responsible for appointing CCP and government officials, controls patronage. And the Propaganda Department, responsible for the political content of the media, textbooks, books and movies, controls public opinion.”
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Letter from China