Monday, July 31, 2006

Li Datong Speaks

The latest chapter of the Li Datong and Freezing Point controversy gives us cause to hope. Li Datong himself weighs in, and he's optimistic. I'm reprinting his essay in its entirety — it's short and nicely summarizes the controversy for those who missed it:
A remarkable incident has emboldened mainland Chinese journalists. The government suspended publication of the Bingdian Weekly newspaper supplement this year, provoking unprecedented open protest that received extensive media coverage worldwide. Even more surprisingly, the government, under the pressure of public opinion, allowed Bingdian to resume publication. The editor-in-chief and his deputy were sacked, but the open questioning of the legitimacy of the government's regulation of journalism is bound to have a profound impact.

Foreign observers are prone to associate the incident with other recent crackdowns on China's mass media, and to conclude that journalistic freedom is a hopeless cause on the mainland. There has been no significant change in the government's system of regulating journalism during the almost 30 years of its open-door policy in other areas. On the contrary, it has become more rigorous and covert.

But I still have faith that subtle changes are occurring. For example, a prerequisite for effective control of the media is that those who are controlled should accept the controller's ideology. But today, the Central Propaganda Department struggles to maintain ideological control through internal notices and issuing warnings by telephone - which are widely scorned. More importantly, even the regulators themselves have ceased to believe in obsolete and rigid doctrines. I recently met an official working for a provincial Department of Propaganda and was impressed by his bold and straightforward comments on current affairs.

For their part, producers of news have long since ceased to believe that news should be propaganda. I started my career with China Youth Daily in 1979 and have experienced the whole process of China's opening up and reformation. My generation of Chinese journalists broke from traditional communist ideas about journalism by the mid-1980s, through extensive reading of western journalism. Younger journalists have been exposed to western journalistic ideas from the very beginning of their training. This is a crucial change, and it is the fundamental reason for an increasing number of genuine news items and commentaries in the mainland media today. Market pressure has also been important in pushing the mainland media to embrace change.

Contrary to foreign perceptions, only a handful of publications - for example, People's Daily, Guang Ming Daily, and The Economic Daily -- still rely on government funds. China Central Television depends mainly on its advertising income, with only a symbolic fraction of its massive budget covered by the government.

To be sure, political information remains rigorously controlled. That puts a premium on harmless recreational, entertainment and sports information. This has resulted, in the short run, in an embrace of low journalistic standards. But many metropolitan newspapers that have thrived on such "infotainment" have seen their circulations fall in recent years. Sooner or later, readers will start to buy newspapers that can truly inform them and give voice to their opinions.

In fact, it is such tabloids, responding to market pressure, that have started to take on responsibility as public watchdogs. On many occasions in recent years, they have been the first to break sensitive news.

Thus, even without any change in the current system of regulation, it's become common to see extensive coverage of disasters, judicial abuses and citizens' pursuit of their statutory rights -- along with a questioning of policies from the public perspective.

Such progress is slow and full of frustrations, for it reflects the incremental evolution of the system. But it is nonetheless real progress, indicating the growing influence of the mainland media and pointing to China's becoming a country of "free expression".
Hat-tip to China Digital Times — what would we do without them?

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