Wednesday, August 17, 2005

"Information Wants to Be Free"

I once worked with a guy who had a PhD in Library and Information Science. One of his favorite nuggets of wisdom was "information wants to be free." To which I once replied with a couple of lines about the role of entropy in communication. But I digress.

I think there's a great deal of truth to that line - the one about information trying to wiggle its way out of whatever traps have been set to confine it. A recent uproar in the Chinese blogosphere is a case in point. In spite of a government policy to increasingly limit public debate and political discourse, information will often find its way around official limits.

The South China Morning Post published this account of a bitter struggle at China Youth Daily over press censorship and the intrusion of party propaganda into reporting:
A veteran editor of the outspoken China Youth Daily has taken the newspaper's editor-in-chief to task for allegedly restraining editorial freedom and succumbing to party dogma.

In a high-profile move, Li Datong, who edits the Bingdian Weekly, an influential section of the paper that runs investigative stories every Wednesday, wrote an open letter to the paper's staff questioning a new appraisal system which pegs journalists' bonuses to praise by party and government leaders....

Most mainland reporters receive payments for their articles on top of their basic salaries. Some newspapers weigh the price of articles by their quality, while others go by their length.

According to Li Datong's letter, reports would gain 50 credit points for being among the top three most-read articles, while 80 credit points would be given to those praised by the secretariat of the Communist Youth League.

Stories praised by state government bodies and provincial leaders would gain 100 points, while acclaim from the Communist Party Publicity Department would be worth 120 points.
ESNW provides a complete translation of Li Datong's letter. It really is something that should be read in its entirety. Here are some highlights:
The core of these regulations is that the standards for appraising the performance of the newspapers will not be on the basis of the media role according to Marxism. It is not based upon the basic principles of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not based upon the spirit of President Hu Jintao about how power, rights and sentiments should be tied to the people. It is not based upon whether the masses of readers will be satisfied. Instead, the appraisal standard will depend upon whether a small number of senior organizations or officials like it or not...

As I read these regulations, I could not believe my eyes. When a report or a page received the highest accolade from the readers, only 50 points is awarded. But if a certain official likes it, there is at least 80 extra points up to a maximum of 300 point! Even worse, in the section on 'subtracting points,' points will be deducted when officials criticize it. What does that mean?

This means that no matter how much effort was put into your report, no matter how difficult your investigation was, no matter how well written your report was, and even if your life had been threatened during the process (and enough reporters have been beaten up for trying to report the truth), and no matter how much the readers praised the report, as long as some official is unhappy and makes a few "critical" comments, then all your work is worth zero, you have added zero to the reputation of the newspaper and your readers' opinions is worth less than a fart -- in fact, you will be penalized as much as this month's wages!
The China Youth Daily is known for its aggressive reporting and its willingess to expose official corruption. What makes this controversy particularly intriguing is that China Youth Daily is the house organ of the Communist Party Youth League, one of President Hu Jintao's bastions of support and power - and Hu Jintao is generally considered to have ordered the crackdown on media.

I don't know that I'm able to make sense of that conundrum, other than to once again note that the opacity of Chinese politics often makes it very tough to determine with certainty the real goals of any particular actor.

But illustrating the difficulty of completely controlling information in the age of the internet, Li Datong's letter was leaked to a Chinese BBS. Authorities yanked it, but by then the letter had spread throughout the Chinese blogosphere. And made its way to the English language, thanks to the sterling work of ESWN.

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