By David Bandurski — Every so often in China, this or that local government tackles the issue of political accountability and cooks up something that resembles a fresh idea. They pass an ordinance demanding greater transparency of themselves. Or, with grand munificence, they distribute 960,000 name cards to the local populace.
Larger political realities render these gestures inconsequential, even ridiculous. But they manage at least to give local governments a nice flash of publicity before sizzling into irrelevance.


[ABOVE: Local government efforts at transparency reveal nothing but whitewash. Photo by cbcastro available at under Creative Commons license.]

The latest ooh-ah move comes from the city of Kunming, which earlier this month issued a draft ordinance against official abuse of duty saying that leaders who “interfered with or obstructed legal acts of press supervision would be held accountable and even face legal liability.”
Chinese editorials have called the law an “ice breaking action.” The shift, some say, from “official documentation in support [of watchdog journalism] to actual laws in support [of watchdog journalism]” marks a fundamental breakthrough.
Others, fortunately, have been duly skeptical.
The columnist Pan Duola noted quite accurately in a piece in the Zhu Jiang Evening News that, “if this [language in an anti-corruption law] is our standard, then before Kunming we already had an ‘ice breaking’ regulation in the form of Shenzhen’s ordinance against official abuse of duty . . . “
But the precedent goes back even further. In 2003, Fujian province passed a local ordinance with the stated goal of fighting corruption, and made “supervision by public opinion,” or watchdog journalism, one of its key components. Shenzhen followed suit the next year, passing the ordinance noted by Pan Duola.
From the standpoint of journalists, these ordinances have offered no real encouragement. The environment for Chinese investigative reporters, the standard bearers of “supervision by public opinion,” has gotten steadily worse since 2004, and local governments bear much of the blame.
What enthusiastic commentators on the Kunming ordinance fail to acknowledge is the fact that press control in China is not ultimately a matter of law. It is a matter of party discretion.
The CCP’s propaganda apparatus is a vast extralegal mechanism for maintaining the party’s vested interests, what is termed “propaganda discipline.”
As Pan Duola explains:

What is even more worrying is that the “Ordinance” [in Kunming] ignores the fact that state organs, enterprises and state-sponsored institutions often obstruct watchdog journalism not through direct conflict but rather by seeking help from officials further up the chain of command, through departments in charge [of the media, or through public relations [pressuring behind the scenes to have reports killed]. Then there is the media’s so-called ‘propaganda discipline’, and orders [from the propaganda department] which impel media to remove ‘negative reports’ and back off from watchdog journalism.

On a cosmetic level, language from party officials about encouraging and leveraging “supervision by public opinion” is welcome. We might search with faint hope for the term in political reports, an indication party leaders have not discarded it utterly.
But here, again, with this news from Kunming, the Chinese press is playing the part of The Boy Who Cried Change . . . Please, wake us with a swift kick when the party bosses of Kunming announce at a press conference that they have dissolved their local propaganda department.
[Posted by David Bandurski, August 27, 2009, 10:57am HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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