Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) has had an interesting run of it in the international press this month. One moment he is indirectly ridiculed, through widespread coverage of unkind analysis offered in a new book by dissident writer Yu Jie (余杰), as a hopeless realist feigning solicitude for China’s masses. The next, he is painted as a political visionary courageously setting himself at odds with CCP hawks on the blockbuster issue of political reform in China.
So which is it? Take your pick, folks. It makes very little difference.
I remember sitting around a dinner table in Beijing with 11 of China’s best journalists in December 2004, when the Hu-Wen administration was relatively young. At one point in a rather lively discussion about the state of politics and tightening press controls in China (this was the year after the post-SARS shakeup), a top investigative reporter remarked: “I just wish Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao would show their true colors!” There was a lull in the conversation, and the other ten heads swiveled toward the reporter. I believe it was Lu Yuegang who then voiced the sour sentiment I could read in everyone’s eyes: “This is exactly who Hu and Wen are!”
Wherever Wen Jiabao stands on the question of political reform, his Shenzhen speech, which falls rather neatly within the CCP discourse on political reform, will offer at best a temporary launching point for those within the Party, the press and academia who wish to push the debate over China’s future in this direction. That’s not unimportant. But it’s a bit premature to start buying stock in the Chinese Democratic Party.
How does China even begin talking about political reform? What would it look like? What are the prospects?
Many aspects of substantive “political system reform,” or zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革), such as competing political parties or instituting private ownership, will undoubtedly face stiff political and ideological hurdles.
But many journalists and intellectuals in China have long argued for greater press freedom as a manageable and attainable first step toward political reform, allowing for a process of public engagement with current affairs and political decision-making. They imagine that even without some of the big-ticket changes to the political system, greater involvement by engaged and informed citizens through rich and free media could improve governance and fight corruption in the short term, lead to more rational, “people-based” decision making, and at the same time prepare China socially for a deeper democratic transition.
One well-known proponent of this view is He Weifang (贺卫方), a professor of law at Peking University. In a recent piece for Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily, which He Weifang posted on his weblog, the law professor shared his views on media in China — comparing newspapers in Shanghai and Guangzhou, for example — and argued that freedom of speech is a workable first step toward political reform.
Seeing as I’m from Beijing, a Shanghai friend of mine asked me recently to comment on the differences between media in the two cities. It’s a difficult question indeed. In the May issue of the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu this year, I read an essay called “Comparing Information Climates During the World Expo and the Asian Games.” The essay, which contrasted the different media approaches taken by Shanghai and Guangzhou respectively during these major events, was written by journalist who once worked in the Shanghai press but is now working for a news organization in Guangzhou. The young journalist, Zhou Xiaoyun (周筱赟), therefore has a rather deep grasp of the differences between these two places in terms of media policy and the public opinion environment.
Shanghai and Guangzhou each have their own major events to play host to this year. For Shanghai, it is the World Expo. For Guangzhou, it is the Asian Games. Making use of this opportunity, Zhou Xiaoyun sought to compare the media of both cities and how they dealt with these events. He found, on the one hand, that Guangzhou media heaped abuse on their government on a daily basis. The criticism could linger on the most trivial of details. First, the problem was traffic, then the problem was with road quality, then it was with noise pollution, and finally it was with expenditures. Whatever the case, the criticism just kept coming. The party secretary of Guangzhou, and the mayor, stepped out constantly to explain the situation to the public, saying for example that it seemed they had spent a bit too much money, and that they planned to cut costs in this or that area.
In Shanghai, it was all song and dance and extolling the good life — and the people of Shanghai seemed to sympathize with this entirely. During the building of one exhibit for the World Expo, for example, nearby residents were daily subjected to noise from the construction work, so that some had difficulty sleeping. Later, when reporters spoke to locals, they said it was no problem, for the World Expo it only makes sense for us to sacrifice a bit.
The conclusion Zhou drew from this was not that Shanghai residents were somehow more aware, that they understood the government, or that the actions of the government were completely beyond reproach. Rather, the case illustrated for him that Shanghai media had been “had.”
Seen from another perspective, perhaps it’s fair to say that there is a difference in significance for the World Expo for the city of Shanghai versus the Asian Games for the city of Guangzhou. This is the first time, for example, that the World Expo has been held anywhere in China, but the Asian Games have been hosted here. So perhaps the former is rather like the Olympic Games in 2008, when not the slightest whiff of criticism or fault-finding could be detected in China’s media. Perhaps our nation holds events as these in such high esteem that they respond with extreme “harmoniousness,” and do not permit the emergence of any “un-harmonious” voices. Of course, this perspective on the matter is a very generous one.
Actually, I share with Zhou Xiaoyun the view that not allowing the media to make any criticisms whatsoever is an extremely unenlightened approach. There is a saying that goes, “Those accomplishing great projects must stomach great acts of corruption.” We’re talking about a massive project here [with the World Expo], and Shanghai has seldom in the past taken on so many projects within such a short period of time — so do we need the media carrying out effective supervision in this process, ensuring that the projects are done properly, even if that means dragging down a few officials?
The name Chen Liangyu (陈良宇), Shanghai’s former top leader sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption in 2008, is now a sensitive word in China. It seems to me, however, that Chen was the recipient of much public praise prior to revelations of his wrongdoing. The path of Chen’s rise was not easy, from a low-level cadre to party secretary of Shanghai and member of the Central Committee of the CCP. But our Commission for Discipline Inspection has since told us that his acts of corruption began when he was just a district leader and carried through a career of around twenty years.
What I don’t get here is what exactly our media were doing during these twenty years. What were our discipline inspectors up to? How was it that an official could commit this act, and then that, and our newspapers wouldn’t expose him, our people’s congresses would turn its head, and our discipline inspection authorities would wash their hands of it? It’s as though they said, “Go ahead, it’s no big deal. Do it. Take your time. I won’t look over your shoulder. I won’t supervise you, even if you kill me with your own bare hands.” We tolerate them as they move on to ever more ambitious acts, and ever more dangerous ones.
The former party secretary of Shandong’s Tai’an City and a member of provincial party committee, Hu Jianxue (胡建学), said that once an official made it to the bureau level (厅局级) he didn’t have to worry about being monitored at all. I once wrote a piece for the Freezing Point supplement of China Youth Daily in which I said that so long as people were not saints they could not resist such a state of impunity, without being subjected to watchful eyes. I’m an example myself — if you let me do whatever I pleased, I too could stoop to just about anything. Fail to monitor human beings and this is an invitation to indulgence. Unless of course you’re a saint.
A system like ours seems on the surface to protect our officials in order to preserve the image of the nation. But in fact it does harm to our officials. As only a number of officials are pursued [on corruption charges], everyone feels an abiding sense of unfairness. Some say that Chen Xitong (陈希同), the former mayor of Beijing, might be condemned to death for his crimes, and Chen Xitong has said that all those in front of him in line should be killed before it’s his turn.
And people will naturally feel that those officials whose corrupt acts are aired out and who face punishment have only done so because they’ve run up against problems politically. Because according to our basic sense of how this business works, no-one with real power can possibly be clean. This sense of how things really work certainly undermines the sense of how sincere leaders are in the determination they are constantly professing to root out corruption.
I often think that the task of political reform is an incredibly difficult one for this country of ours, and that reform efforts in several key areas will face major dangers and difficulties. If, for example, our current political party system moves toward a system of modern political parties, this will undoubtedly come with major risks, and perhaps this is not something that can be done too rashly. Then there’s reform of the people’s congress system. While I have my own ideas in this regard, it looks the way things stand now like this would be no simple task . . . There seem to be major ideological hurdles to instituting private ownership in China as well.
But gradual opening up of the media is something we can do. For the Internet, for example, we can begin by getting rid of Internet controls, allowing the everyone to speak their minds freely, so that people gradually become accustomed to differing opinions, different voices. In this way, everyone will be free to engage in debate, and if this process uncovers this or that instance of official corruption, officials will ultimately be unable to become corrupt officials after the fashion of Kong Minsen (孔繁森) and Wang Baosen (王宝森).
In Western countries, I’ve never once heard prosecutors step out and say that in the past year they’ve uncovered 20 cases [of corruption] among officials at the vice-ministerial level or higher. Have you ever read the news that the United States rounded up 20 high-level officials all with one swoop of the net?
One reason for this is of course freedom of speech.
And so I believe that having free media in any country is a wonderful thing! The people can voice their resentment through the newspaper pages and on the Internet, and this means they don’t have to take to the streets, and even less likely are they to stage a revolt. They will say, look at how the Wenhui Daily and the Liberation Daily have published these fierce criticisms of the government, saying that the government has bungled this and screwed up that. These newspapers have put their finger right on what really made me so steaming mad. There are times when some of us will feel that media have overstepped the bounds, but it’s nothing the government can’t withstand. However, though the government may be often aggrieved, what it gets in return is social order and peace.
Some people say that when they look at newspapers in England they feel the whole place is going to bust out in revolution the next day — this kind of country is dark and sunless, they say. But England hasn’t had the slightest whiff of revolution since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
When the newspapers in a country or region sing nothing but praises day in and day out, the situation is exactly the opposite, and you can be sure the most terrible sort of danger is slowly fermenting under the surface.
When we see politicians in the assemblies in various countries fighting it out, even to the point of getting physical, China Central Television delights in this — “Look, Taiwan is fighting again!” But in my view, countries where politicians can duke it out are far less likely to suffer civil wars. Civil wars happen without exception in places where politicians all serve one agenda.
I certainly understand the concern leaders in Shanghai have about ensuring harmony during the World Expo. But I must say, after the World Expo is over, can we not allow Shanghai media to be a bit more open?
Speaking truthfully here, Shanghai may be an international city, shouting its slogan “Better City, Better Life” (which is of course a bit off-base, as it seems to imply that lives in the countryside lack beauty and grace), but one huge shortcoming of Shanghai is the listlessness of its media.
Look at Guangzhou by contrast. Even though it is far from having freedom of speech, a climate has already emerged there that is much more praiseworthy. Every time I go to Guangzhou and interact with friends in the media there, I get the feeling that journalists there are really after something, and that they’ve already developed a sense of basic professional ethics and concepts. Correspondingly, they’ve achieved in that city the best economic results anywhere in China. By comparison, Shanghai disappoints in some ways. I remember that during the SARS episode in 2003, a friend from Shanghai’s Liberation Daily got in touch with me and said: “We’re planning to improve the newspaper a bit, so won’t you consider writing a column for us?” I happily accepted the invitation, of course, because it would be a considerable honor to show my face in the media in this great city. But ultimately I only published one piece before they said they couldn’t print me again. Of course, the Oriental Morning Post is still out there trying its best, but its not easy.
So I’d like to say to Shanghai: if you really want to show your taste and greatness before the people of the world, you must give us more than just skyscrapers and economic splendor. It is so much more important to show the world that the people of Shanghai enjoy freedom of expression.