Treatment of media setting China back

Editorial

Just now the Chinese government is focused on U.S. media, claiming they (we) have exaggerated the extent to which Chinese food products are tainted in the wake of all those dogs and cats dying horrible deaths a few weeks ago.

This aggressive defense of Chinese quality standards is considered important not only to bolster China’s growing commercial importance, but is part of a longer-term effort to burnish China’s image as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which will put the country on worldwide display, approach.

Unfortunately, some of the things the mainland regime is doing to “clean up” its image are hardly in line with the impression of a newly tolerant and increasingly open society that the government would like to create.

Chinese media and a few Western media, for example, have reported on plans to forcibly “return” to the countryside migrant workers — who have come to Beijing and other big cities in search of jobs — before the Games begin.

Can’t have all those scruffy-looking laborers, some of whom might be tempted to panhandle, interfering with the world seeing a neat, clean and prosperous-looking Potemkin — er, Beijing.

As to the Chinese media, despite wanting to look modern and progressive, the Chinese government has been engaged in a fairly systematic program of trying to make sure the media stay under the government’s thumb.

Back in the old days all media were owned by the government, and the biggest media still are. As China has sought economic growth by instituting something close to free-market economic policies, however (while maintaining tight political control), it has reduced subsidies to media outlets and told them to rely more on advertising and subscription revenue.

Many Chinese media have acted increasingly independent and also have found they don’t attract readers simply by parroting government propaganda. So they have occasionally strayed, reporting on protests against government actions and environmental disasters, even undertaking investigative journalism into government misdeeds.

The government has routinely punished such transgressions by firing or demoting reporters and editors, fining media outlets that publish unauthorized stories, closing news outlets and even imprisoning journalists.

According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, China imprisoned 32 journalists in 2005, making the country the biggest imprisoner of reporters in the world for the seventh year running. The government has installed firewalls in the country’s Internet system, banning sites with offensive words like “democracy” or “Tiananmen Square.”

Those who first exposed the cover-up of the SARS epidemic a few years ago were punished. Last year, when an Internet essay exposed corrupt collusion between pharmaceutical companies and the head of the government’s “watchdog” agency (Zheng Xiaoyu, who was hurriedly executed a few weeks ago) the first thing the government did was to jail the man who reposted the essay onto an Internet bulletin board.

This past January, with the every-five-years Communist Party Congress coming up in the fall, the government issued guidelines for political coverage. “We should sing high praises for socialism,” Li Dongshen, head of the propaganda department, told media executives. “We should sing loudly the main themes of our nation.”

Three weeks ago China closed the “China Development Brief,” a nonprofit newsletter that tracked the growth of civil society in China. Being oriented toward gradualism, mildly sympathetic to the government and even criticizing organizations like Amnesty International that have decried the persecution of journalists wasn’t enough. The newsletter had conducted unauthorized surveys.

There are reports (still unconfirmed) that “Minjian,” a quarterly focused on civil-society issues, has been closed down and that eight journalists at the “Democracy and Law” legal journal were sacked mysteriously.

Communist China has made remarkable economic progress in the past several decades. But this kind of censorship and persecution of independent journalists is hardly the way to reassure those coming to Beijing next summer or watching the Olympics on television that

China is worthy of respect and admiration.