After almost a week of uproar over heavy-handed and incompetent interference with a front-page pro-reform New Year’s editorial in the Southern Weekly — allegedly by Guangdong provincial propaganda official Tuo Zhen (庹震) — the newspaper returned to newsstands on Thursday, reportedly after a deal was struck that officials would not directly interfere with the paper’s content.
“It’s fundamental that the party regulates the press, but its method of regulation needs to be advanced to keep pace with the times,” the newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday.
That may sound progressive, but is little more than what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been doing in recent years in its efforts to stamp out liberal, pro-democratic thought. It has kept pace with the changing media landscape by shutting down newspapers and magazines or ousting their editors and journalists, by erecting the “Great Firewall of China” to block access to thousands of Internet sites and canceling accounts on social network outlets such as microblogs.
While the Southern Weekly was printed again, Beijing’s censors have blocked Internet references to the controversy, while police have detained activists who stood up for greater press freedom or invited prominent bloggers to “drink tea” with the authorities.
Beijing’s efforts to tamper with Hong Kong’s freer press — and other legacies of British colonial days — are not really new either. However, the moves this week to restrict access to information about company directors have reinforced concerns about Beijing’s disregard for its 50-year promise made before the handover in 1997.
Proposals submitted by the Hong Kong Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau would allow corporate directors to apply for their addresses, full identity or passport numbers to be blocked. Such information is currently available for a small fee. The move comes in the wake of embarrassing — for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) — reports by Bloomberg and the New York Times respectively about the accumulation of wealth and assets by members of their families.
The media organizations said they used identity card numbers from corporate filings in Hong Kong to document business ties among the leaders’ relatives, connections that would otherwise remain hidden among a raft of shell companies and aliases.
While the bureau claimed the amendment was needed “to strike a balance between the right of the public to information and the protection of privacy,” it is hard to believe that a system that has worked for decades now needs to be changed, unless it is to prevent embarrassments for Chinese leaders in the future.
Neither what the Southern Weekly sought with its original New Year’s editorial — a plea for the government to adhere to China’s constitution — or what journalists want to keep in Hong Kong — the right to access information about companies and the individuals that own or run them — are revolutionary. One asks for the government to live up to what it has promised, the other seeks to retain a legal right.
However, the CCP’s reflex action is to gag, deny and conceal, which is unlikely to change in the near future. This is why Chinese government spokespeople have become so adept at fending off questions from Western journalists (and others) by parroting the party line while keeping a straight face.