CMP has commented frequently about the debate in China over the role of the media, particularly its identity vis-a-vis the Party and government. The debate can take a number of forms, as in the controversy surrounding the Lan Chengzhang case concerning the difference between “real” and “fake” reporters, or in the question of whether “watchdog journalism” is a “right” of the media or a “duty” of the media (insofar as it is a function of the state). In the simplest sense, the debate can be seen to arise from a longstanding conflict between the propaganda role of the press under Communist Party rule and strains of “liberal” public interest journalism going back to the Republican Era (1912-1949) and even as far back as the late Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the first independent newspapers in China. [BELOW: Screenshot of Yan Lieshan editorial feature at top of editorial section at Sina.com].
Questioning of the role of the press can be said to have reached a contemporary apex in the late 1980s, as China reacted against the falsehood of the Cultural Revolution and explored the creation of a press law to protect the work of journalists, an effort that died with the massacre of demonstrators following democracy protests in Beijing in June 1989.
Since the 1990s, commercialization has been the primary impetus for change in China’s media landscape, but the public interest strain of journalism persists, seeking opportunities in an unpredictable political environment.
The latest salvo in this ongoing struggle, an editorial by veteran journalist and former CMP fellow Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山), takes advantage of the opportunity afforded by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao‘s recent statements on March 16 — that China “must create conditions such as to allow the people to supervise and criticize the government” — to argue strongly for an independent monitoring role for the news media based on mutual respect between officials and journalists. This method, frequently used by Chinese media to address sensitive issues,is called jieti fahui (借题发挥), or, translated roughly, “using a current topic of conversation to put out one’s own ideas”.
The China Youth Daily editorial follows in full:
[Link to editorial on Sina.com]
“Respecting the rights of the media does not mean making it your footservant”
China Youth Daily
March 20, 2007
Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山)
If we want to inch forward, if we want to improve, if we want to work in concert, then we need to have an attitude of tolerance and compromise, we need to have more respect and understanding, and less opposition —
Can officialdom (Party organs and other offices of power, and officials) form a positive interactive relationship with the media? It should be possible. The media and officialdom are not necessarily cat and mouse, in zero-sum opposition (of course, the exceptions are those corrupt officials trying to cover up their crimes). If both sides see impartiality, factuality and the popular will as the basis of their work, then the main goal is the prosperity of the people and the strength of the nation. If in some cases they are divided in their views, this is simply because their roles are different.
In the early days of Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang’s (张德江) appointment to the province, many journalists within the Nanfang Daily Group had no idea where they would stand. They had doubts about whether the group could maintain its position at the front of the pack of national media. As the facts have borne out, these fears were unwarranted: the pep of the Nanfang Daily Group has never waned. And just recently we had news reports saying that at the close of the two meetings [of the NPC and CPPCC], Zhang Dejiang sighed with feeling and said, “Guangdong media workers are especially capable,” and stressed that a strong economy also necessitated a strong media. This can be seen as an example of good-faith interaction between the media and officialdom.
It goes without saying that democracy and rule of law are still being established in my country, and the economic sector and the direction of the market are still controlled by the hand of the government. That is to say, we are still a country in a period of transition. Under such social conditions it can be said that insofar as there are tensions between officials and the media, these owe largely to the “official” side. Therefore, if media and officialdom are to build up a favorable cooperative [“interactive”] relationship, the most important thing is mutual respect, which means particularly that officials need to set their own positions straight — in respecting the rights of the media, [officials] cannot use the media as their footservants or tools.
In this regard, Premier Wen Jiabao perspicaciously remarked on March 16 when responding to questions from reporters: “We must understand a principle of truth, and that is that all power vested in the government is endowed by the people … and we must create conditions such as to allow the people to supervise and criticize the government … Regardless of the past, in the present and the future there is no need for us to speak [of our official work] in glowing terms.” If officials have a general knowledge of democracy and rule of law, they won’t act with this ancient attitude that puts officialdom high above the people and deals arrogantly with the media, seeing the criticisms and probing of the media as a great profanity. They will not regard the exposures of investigative reporting as forces of “chaos” upsetting unity and order. They will not demand that the media produce paeans singing high the “accomplishments” [of the government]. The responsibility of the media is ultimately to seek out the facts of our society, to provide a platform and a channel through which the people may express their will. Supporting the media, allowing it the strength to stand in the world on its own legs — this is rooted in the will and public confidence of the people. We have no trouble imagining how the county secretary who conjured up the “Penshui SMS Case” … this kind of old-school official who is the “boss” of the people, treats media under his control [NOTE: underlined phrase just above is a wry play on the word “democracy”, 民主, in which the characters, 民 主, are separated to mean “boss of the people.”]
Hunan Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian (张春贤) said recently in an interview with Southern Weekend: “The Web, this form of new media, is a discussion platform, and by using this method one can rather broadly understand the sentiments of the people. The only thing for those who govern is to understand the will of the people and to gather their knowledge … So if now leaders are not familiar with [the Web], they should get up to speed. And if these postings contain also challenges, then officials should face those challenges head on.” Zhang Chunxian’s comments came, in his own words, “out of respect for and trust of Internet users.” That’s exactly right. Respect and trust are linked intimately. And I especially admire his [Zhang Chunxian’s] comment that leaders should accept challenges. Many leaders have for a long time become accustomed to issuing orders and demanding others step into line with them. They are certainly not accustomed to discussion on terms of equality. To make the transition from a ruling mentality to a service mentality (从管治型转变为服务型), our government needs to begin conversing with the media and the people on terms of equality. For example, Party and government organs definitely need to become accustomed to answering “cunning and strange” questions from journalists and participants at news conferences … For many officials, transitioning from sending orders down to the plebians from on high to conversation with them on terms of equality is a tough and formidable challenge.
Here we come from the topic of mutual respect to mutual understanding. While the role of the media is to serve as the voice of the people, the power of the media, insofar as it arises from public opinion, can exert political pressure on our leaders. But the media needs also to “understand” the “troubles” facing officials: first of all, by not setting their hopes to high, giving them time to change their viewpoints and ways of operating; secondly, by observing our “national state of affairs” (国情), respecting not only the characters of our officials (we all share the same human weaknesses of character), but also to a definite degree respecting their interests. “Without tolerance, there is no freedom” [Chinese philosopher and essayist Hu Shi, 1948/text here]. If we want to inch forward, if we want to improve, if we want to work in concert, then we need to have an attitude of tolerance and compromise, otherwise we’ll look on one another as enemies, and only violence will settle things, precisely the old way of thinking that does nothing for us.
My feelings on this subject arise from two meetings between current Guizhou Governor Lin Shusen (林树森) and reporters. Formerly, as Party secretary of Guangzhou, he [Lin] expressed dissatisfaction with journalists and angrily accused media of “playing up” (炒作) Guangzhou’s public security problems. What “hand-chopping gang“, “speed-racing gang”, “backpack gang”, he said. Did Guangzhou have such gangs? During the most recent two meetings, he met again with journalists from Guangdong. He said disapprovingly, “Some leaders, they have houses of over 200 square meters, and they still say they can’t afford homes — they tell lies unblinkingly.” “High real-estate prices are the result of media playing things up right and left”, he said. A number of people have already pointed out that his [Lin’s] points don’t stand up to scrutiny, but I can understand why he expressed his dissatisfaction.
Truthfully, being the top political player in Guangzhou isn’t easy. In fact, many problems exist just the same in other places, but as Lin Shusen said, “the key is that in other places they are not reported [by the media], so that Guangzhou looks bad [by comparison]” (Southern Weekend, March 12, 2007). I completely trust that these words are true. Bordering Hong Kong and Macao, Guangzhou’s affairs are reported in those quarters as soon as the wind blows and the grass stirs. You couldn’t cover things up if you tried. Perhaps with Guangzhou’s newspaper industry so developed, and competition so fierce, city leaders in Guangzhou face media scrutiny to a degree leaders in other provinces do not.
If officials and the media enjoyed greater mutual understanding and mutual tolerance, and less opposition, this would benefit China’s gradual progress toward democracy and rule of law.
“Southern Metropolis Daily calls for a domestic ‘partnership’ between government and media“, CMP, January 5, 2007
“Should watchdog journalism be protected as a ‘right’ or mandated as a ‘duty’?“, CMP, January 10, 2007
“Debate on press freedom in China continues as 12-ex-officials and scholars issue open letter“, CMP, February 15, 2006
[Posted by David Bandurski, March 20, 2007, 1:47pm]