Freedom of expression and government reform


The May issue of Yanhuang Chunqiu contains an essay by Zi Zhongyun (资中筠) on freedom of expression and institutional reform. Zi is a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and is the former editor of American Studies Quarterly.

Her references to the relatively open media in the south (read, Southern Metropolis Daily and its stable of newspapers and magazines) are particularly relevant following the recent controversy over Southern Metropolis Weekly editor Chang Ping.

Realizing the Right of Expression Requires Institutional Guarantees

by Zi Zhongyun / YC

I don’t have much interest now in studying certain formulations in leaders’ reports. I have only one attitude: look at how they are put into practice. Sometimes, some statements are not workable. I remember a few years ago, a newspaper organized a symposium, around the time that “scientific concept of development” and “people-centered” had just appeared. I spoke at the symposium and wrote up an article based on that speech, arguing that “people-centered” had to include human rights. And I said that good slogans and good formulations had to rely on the healthy power of society to be put into practice. When the healthy power of society is suppressed, even the best slogans cannot be carried out. Later, I was unable to publish this paper anywhere. Someone said that leaders’ fine words were “promises” made to the people. I feel that the statements made in their speeches aren’t promises that are made good simply by saying them. For example, they say they’ll give the people the right of expression, but in practice, the right of expression is controlled as it always has been. To this day I have not found earnest action taken to allow and support the the right of expression. Even the most open newspapers in the south are frequently given yellow cards. Whether or not there is free speech is a touchstone; there’s no point to further discussion of democracy. We talked about democracy in the past, but it’s never been carried out.

To carry out freedom of speech and the right of expression, private-sector newspapers and periodicals must be permitted. They say you can criticize “according to the law,” but this “law” rests in the hands of the leaders. A few newspapers in the south are market-driven and no longer live off the state, but the higher-ups can still replace editors and publishers. And the publishing houses: they don’t need to openly say that you can’t publish this or that book. They just give you fewer book numbers and you can’t handle it. There are lots of techniques for limiting the right of expression, so there’s fundamentally no need to openly announce that freedom of speech is being suppressed, or that you aren’t being permitted to say something. Call up the editor or publisher, make an anonymous phone call—no one will dare to disobey. If you really disobey, there goes your job. The editor himself may not care, but his underlings will lose their jobs too. To date there has been no posture of relaxing controls on speech; it’s just that the methods have changed.

I feel that the question of freedom of speech does not only rest with the Publicity Department. The head of the Publicity Department must obey the Central Committee. If the head of the Publicity Department is not in line with the Central Committee, then they change people. We feel pressure from the Publicity Department directly, but in fact it’s a question of overall policy. We must analyze lots of statements, a great deal of things in the government work report and the 17th Party Congress report, and decide what’s going to be put into practice, what’s meant for the ears of foreigners, or what’s meant to assuage public opinion. I find that these are very hard to differentiate.

In addition, there’s one more thing about which I’m not very optimistic; that is, when outstanding individuals are influenced by interests and no longer uphold their old ideas. Recently I ran into a few academics who had good ideas at one time, but once they entered the CPPCC and the NPC or attained a certain position, they felt they had the opportunity to gain information, and said that things were quite free and democratic now. It’s impossible for them to abandon those interests. If their speech is not in line with the mainstream, then take away a few of their classes, suspend them from teaching for a year. Without classes, or if those conferences no longer invite them, they won’t be able to bear it. Their income will drop a sizeable amount, as will their social standing. Of course, there are some people who will disregard anything to uphold the truth. But those who aren’t shaken by poverty are in the minority.

As for whether we’ve improved, if we do a vertical comparison then of course things are much better than before the reform and opening up. But those expectations are a little low; we ought to do a horizontal comparison now. It’s the 21st Century, and things around us have made great progress. Chinese people have studied the American general elections quite carefully. But we are confused about the changing sessions of 17th Party Congress and the NPC, which ought to be our “general elections,” and as for the leaders who are elected to the seats they are marked down for, how much of a right to know and right to be heard do we have toward them? We can only guess at things through the rumor mill. The countries around us in southeast Asia, including Vietnam, are already out in front. Korea was originally an autocracy, but they’ve crossed that barrier. Russia, regardless of its many problems, or whether people are saying Putin is pulling back rights, they can’t return to the past; they’ve already crossed that barrier. Our democracy hasn’t yet crossed that barrier. It’s hard to push forward now. Even if a truly great leader wanted to push forward, it would still be difficult, because so many people with vested interests are blocking it, and there are obstacles both horizontal and vertical at the lower levels. I think the only thing to do is open up public opinion and let that healthy power express itself. And there might be further sacrifices, like in the Sun Zhigang affair: when the Southern Metropolis Daily exposed the Sun Zhigang affair, one person lost his job and another went to prison. And that was relatively stable. If we cannot open up supervision by public opinion in a timely fashion, who knows what will happen next.

Links and Sources
This entry was posted in Media regulation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.