Letter from China
By Howard W. French
Published: December 7, 2007
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: For the second time in as many months there was big trouble in an important allied country that sits on China’s borders, with huge crowds demonstrating, bombs exploding, opposition leaders being arrested and demonstrators killed.
This time it was Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf had proclaimed special emergency powers. A few weeks earlier it had been Myanmar, where pro-democracy demonstrations were put down with deadly force.
But despite the proximity and important interests in play, most Chinese newspaper readers had to content themselves with dry, narrowly drawn and sometimes inaccurate accounts of the events. Absent from the foreign news coverage was independent reporting from the scene or any in-depth analysis that referred to China’s strategic interests in the countries in question.
The contrast with domestic news coverage could not be more striking. Despite continuing censorship and restrictive government rules about ownership and registration of publications, Chinese news coverage at home is in the midst of something of a golden age. A large and growing variety of news sources and a new generation of journalists have steadily expanded the boundaries of the permissible.
Less than three decades ago, there were only a few dozen newspapers in the country, all of them state-run. In 2005, according to one survey, China had 2,000 or more newspapers and 9,000 magazines, providing more in-depth coverage of events inside the country.
But what Chinese readers are able to learn of events in the rest of the world from most mainstream media here remains sharply limited in context and tightly controlled.
On Sept. 27, for example, a day after Burmese soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, including Buddhist monks, both Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post and the Beijing Youth Daily published an article from the official Xinhua news agency saying that the “Myanmar government has been restrained in handling the monks’ protest and didn’t use force” to disperse the protesters.
Only a handful of China’s conservative, state-run publications have permanent bureaus and correspondents in foreign countries. Even publications that use freelance journalists overseas, or that occasionally send out reporters of their own, rely heavily on what foreign publications publish, and carefully avoid delicate subjects.
The short list of Chinese media that maintain foreign bureaus includes Xinhua; the China News Agency; the official newspaper, People’s Daily; the state television broadcaster CCTV; and China Radio International. None of the publications that have made names for themselves with vigorous domestic reporting and investigative work make this list.
Asked why, editors pointed to a government rule requiring authorization to open bureaus or send reporters overseas. One editor said orders were sometimes received not to interview people overseas, and to avoid talking with representatives of the foreign media. An official at the State Council Information Office, a branch of China’s cabinet, refused to confirm or deny the existence of such a rule.
News media critics say one result of this lack of vigorous independent reporting is that what most Chinese news readers know of the world closely conforms with government policy and propaganda.
“By and large, China’s international reporting is a mirror of China’s diplomacy,” said Yu Guoming, a journalism professor at People’s University in Beijing. “As government mouthpieces, their international reports are linked with the government’s diplomacy. It’s not free, so what we’re really talking about is China’s diplomacy, not its media.”
No Chinese publications, for example, have explored the intricacies of China’s deepening interests in Pakistan, including Beijing’s supplying as much as 60 percent of the country’s weapons, according to some Pakistani estimates.
Nor have they examined in any depth the use of a Chinese-built deep-water port at Gwadar, which together with a similar project in Myanmar will ease Beijing’s projection of naval power toward the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. The critical role China is widely believed to have played a role in helping Pakistan develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs is also rarely mentioned. In fact, when issues like these are raised, it is usually to dismiss them as malicious rumors.
Chinese news coverage of Pakistan typically depicts the United States as the only foreign country that is a factor in Pakistan’s affairs. This is in keeping with a general tendency to depict the United States as a meddlesome power, in sharp contrast with China, which frequently proclaims that it does not interfere in the affairs of other countries, and sees to it that this line is scrupulously echoed in the news media.
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Letter from China