By David Bandurski — The word “muckraker,” coined in 1906 by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, has come to typify the hardest of hard-nosed journalism in the West. Words over the weekend from Guangzhou Mayor Zhang Guangning (张广宁) may offer us a moniker more appropriate for tougher Chinese journalists, who labor under an unforgiving system of press controls and are only rarely able to break major stories.
Shall we call them “the nitpickers”?
In a speech made before thousands of swimmers ventured across the Pearl River on Saturday, Mayor Zhang encouraged more media coverage of environmental problems in the Pearl River Delta. He said: “The more the media nitpick, the more we can get people behind the effort to clean up the Pearl River.”
Today, Liu Yikun (刘义昆), a college professor in Wuhan, writes in Changjiang Daily of what he sees as recent shows of tolerance on the part of leaders in Guangdong Province, including Zhang Guangning’s “nitpicking” remark.


[Liu Yikun’s article on media “nitpicking” appears in Changjiang Daily.]

Liu argues that “information openness” and “nitpicking” by China’s media is critical to the overall improvement of governance and the building of “people’s democracy.”
Liu’s piece makes what seems to be a reference to recent unrest in Weng’an, saying that if China wants to prevent “the appearance of large-scale violent events, then media nitpicking is something we need a whole lot more of.”
The title of Liu’s piece gives us another familiar reference, to the “barrier lakes” that were such a concern in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Liu alludes to the words of Wang Yang (汪洋), Guangdong’s party secretary, on July 19, in which he said leaders must listen to the words of the people, and not build up “language barrier lakes.” We might also translate the term as “information barrier lakes.”
A nearly complete translation of Liu’s article follows:

Preventing “Language Barrier Lakes” Requires Nitpicking by the Media
Two things happened on July 19 that speak to the liberal mindedness of leaders in Guangdong Province.
At the recent graduation ceremony of a regular party discipline training session, Provincial Party Secretary Wang Yang (汪洋) demanded that all cadres treat democracy as a value to pursue, that they respect and act according to the will of the people, that they not obstruct the popular will, creating “language barrier lakes” (言塞湖). (Nanfang Daily, July 20).
The same day, the Guangzhou city government held an event in which thousands of people swam across the Pearl River. Mayor Zhang Guangning (张广宁) led the charge into the water, saying: “The more the media nitpick, the more we can get people behind the effort to clean up the Pearl River.” (Information Times, July 20).
Guangzhou’s media are famous for their nitpicking, whether in Guangzhou itself or in other areas, whether big or small, good or bad. In the wake of many news events – the Sun Zhigang affair, the South China Tiger controversy, the [hand, foot and mouth] epidemic in Yueyang, the Wenzhou earthquake – we can see nitpicking Guangzhou media doing what they do. Of course, Mayor Zhang Guangning’s words about media nitpicking and improving water quality in the Pearl River is just one case. If we want to avoid “language barrier lakes” and the appearance of large-scale violent events, then media nitpicking is something we need a whole lot more of.
Media serve as an irreplaceable bridge in openness of information and persuasion of the people. In the South China Tiger controversy, online opinion and [mainstream media] supervision of public opinion combined to become one of the most important forces determining the event’s outcome. Shaanxi Province’s vice-governor, Zhao Zhengyong (赵正永) later said that the government’s inability to face up to supervision of public opinion had lead to a loss of public confidence and the wasting of repeated opportunities to set things right.
Media supervision of public opinion is effective because it provides an open platform. Various kinds of information and viewpoints can meet and argue it out in this public sphere (公共领域), and the ultimate result is a fuller and more accurate picture. As China’s recent history shows, when the media can serve as a channel of communication between the government and the people, it becomes a force for development and progress . . .
When Hu Jintao chatted with Internet users through the Strong Nation Forum on June 20, he said: “We put our emphasis on listening to people’s voices extensively and pooling the people’s wisdom when we take action and make decisions.”
Whether or not tolerance can extend to allowing the Internet and other media to nitpick . . . is not just about the need to prevent “language barrier lakes,” but also about ensuring the achievement of people’s democracy. We need not just the tolerance of government leaders, but institutional guarantees as well.

[Posted July 21, 2008, 3:55pm HK]
UPDATE, July 24:
See also Tang Buxi’s article at Blogging for China, July 23, in which he translates yansaihu (言塞湖) as “bottleneck lake.”

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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