Three Gorges Probe

Gagging to be free

(October 21, 2010) Speaking to The Economist, Probe International fellow Dai Qing says liberal change is coming to China’s press.

At a gathering of intellectuals in Beijing, Xin Ziling, an author and former defence official, posed an interesting question. How would Marx have coped with the restrictions on civil liberties evident in China today? He would have needed government permission to publish his Communist Manifesto, and this would have been refused. “You say our capitalist system will disappear!” Mr Xin imagined priggish 19th-century English censors exclaiming. “You can’t say that!”

Freedom of speech and the press are enshrined in China’s constitution. But in reality there is only so much that people can say or write without getting into trouble. The occasion for the gathering at which Mr Xin spoke was the recent release from jail of Xie Chaoping, a former prosecutor and journalist who had written and published a book about the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people during the construction of a massive dam on the Yellow River in the 1950s. He had been detained for nearly a month by local officials in Shaanxi province who disapproved of his writings. The manager of his printing company was also detained. The case attracted great publicity, with many activists and intellectuals agitating for the two men’s release.

Mr Xin was one of two dozen retired officials, academics and Communist Party elders who, citing Mr Xie’s case and others, argued recently for greater press freedom in a signed open letter to the leadership of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s parliament. The mismatch between the right to freedom of the press, loftily asserted in the constitution, and the restrictions that are crudely enforced in practice, the group wrote, amounts to a form of “false democracy” that has “become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy.”

This is not the first attempt to expand press freedom in China. During a period of relative political liberalisation in the late 1980s, NPC members spoke openly about the need for a liberal press law. But that movement was doomed by the government’s anxious, brutish response to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989. The censor’s pen is still much in evidence. None of China’s thousands of newspapers and periodicals escapes it. And although officials pay occasional lip service to the fourth estate’s important “supervisory” role as a check against corruption and other abuses, they also define its primary role as a prop to social stability.

It is not only dissidents who find their voices muffled. The open letter to parliament also complained that recent support for political reform expressed by Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, in speeches at the United Nations and elsewhere, had been scrubbed from the Chinese media.

Yet many activists are optimistic that liberal change is coming. Dai Qing, a prominent dissident pundit, notes that activists are finding it easier to raise money for their causes at home. They “no longer have to rely on money from people like George Soros,” she says. She is also impressed by the diverse backgrounds of those pushing for a press law: they include young journalists, seasoned party members and officials, and even one or two military men.

The Economist, October 21, 2010

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