Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 8 News List

China newsmedia has found no freedom

By Wang Dan 王丹

The news media in China have had a roller-coaster ride over the past few months.

During his inspection in Jilin Province between May 30 and June 4, Li Changchun (李長春) -- a Standing Committee member of the Chinese Communist Party's (CPC) Political Bureau -- surprisingly proposed an unprecedented demand for cultural and propaganda reforms. He advocated that "all thinking and concepts that obstruct cultural development must be broken, all methods and rules that constrain cultural development must be changed, and all systematic flaws that affect cultural development must be eliminated." This "three alls" policy was, in fact, the Chinese government's most liberal propaganda policy since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

This announcement also provided cover for the news media that had long been eager for action. The SARS outbreak and both Chinese President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) and Premier Wen Jiabao's (溫家寶) instructions on information transparency further encouraged them.

On June 9, Beijing's The Economic Observer published an article -- entitled "Officials' dismissal due to cover-up of epidemic beyond doubt" -- in which the newspaper publicly criticized Vice Health Minister Gao Qiang (高強) for covering up former health minister Zhang Wenkang's (張文康) mistakes.

Later, it also published a telephone conversation between economist Wu Jinglian (吳敬璉) -- an adviser to former premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) -- and the "honest doctor" Jiang Yanyong (蔣彥永), who first revealed the cover-up of the epidemic, calling the central government to loosen restraints on freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, another Chinese newspaper ranked Zhong Nanshan (鍾南山), a respiratory expert in Guangdong Province, as China's top anti-SARS hero. Jiang was ranked second while Vice Premier Wu Yi (吳儀), who is responsible for China's anti-SARS war, was ranked only third.

It was unbelievable when I saw a journalist harshly questioning those health authorities during a press conference on CCTV-4's news program. "You covered-up the epidemic from us before. How can you prove that you are not cheating us again?" the journalist asked. Had freedom of the press really arrived in China?

The answer is a definate "no." A sweet dream is always short-lived. We have already seen the government's policy change.

In early June, a Beijing newspaper published an article, entitled "China's seven most disgusting things," criticizing both the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference for being wallflowers, and condemning government leaders for their empty words.

Beijing immediately closed the newspaper. Meanwhile, the party's Propaganda Department ordered government agencies to strictly regulate the media. People's hope for freedom of speech was dashed once again.

Nevertheless, the media's roller-coaster ride did reflect the public's strong hope for freedom of speech. Although the media had Li's words as their protective shield this time, their reports on Jiang, the open criticism of minister-level government officials, and critiques such as "China's seven most disgusting things" far exceeded the limits of China's propaganda policy.

These actions were obviously not led by the government. They were the achievements of the media that seized an opportunity. The government's backlash is therefore no surprise. The media's efforts to strive for freedom of speech also show that the power of civil society is accumulating, while strong public opinion is gradually forming.

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