Playing the Political Ping Pong Game
The recent two months carried grim news for press freedom in China. Hu Shuli’s resignation from Caijing pulled a temporary plug out of a publication that Westerners courted as a rising star in Chinese journalism. Southern Weekend’s top editor got demoted for taking on an Obama interview even though it never appeared in print. And Obama himself failed to put teeth behind his comment on non-censored internet.
It is tempting to chime in that the state is back as strong as ever; China can and indeed is saying no to Western demands over the traditional list of freedoms. But hold that chord. Chinese society is changing in spite of the presence or absence of foreign pressuring. Domestic journalists are among many actors that are agitating for social change in everyday practices that may be invisible to the Western eye.
Rewind back to mid-November. Southern Window, a bi-weekly magazine with a circulation of 500,000 published an article titled, “China’s Commercialized Media’s Glory and Danger.” The gist is that there is a bifurcated media system in China, one that eats from the political iron rice bowl and one that answers to the market. The latter are smaller voices that have opened a Pandora box, out of which pops the spirits of press freedom and of civil society. This is reflected in three functions of commercial media: First, it brings mass incidents into the public eye. Second, it gets people talking which generates a culture of debate. Third, it engenders participation in public policy-making. He ends the article with a catch: 2008 was particularly hard for commercial media because of 国进民退 (the comeback of the state and the retreat of society).
The author’s views on the impact of commercial media may be overly optimistic, but the very publication of this article last month does signal that there are indeed spaces for speech, even during sensitive times. Progressive domestic journalists often analogize their business to a ping pong move “擦边球.” You take your risk by hitting the ball right up to the edge of political acceptability. You might end up getting a call from the censor police or you might wind up with a free flying article that pushes the edges just a bit further.
Southern publications are especially apt players. Deng probably never thought that his Southern Tour would be a harbinger for a market reform that would carry such significant implications for media reform. And in case one is in doubt about whether Chinese media is indeed reforming from the inside, read and be awed by this commentary published by the Southern Metropolis Daily. The fact that the Yunnan Propaganda Bureau is urging journalists not to immediately label mass incidents as unfounded conspiracies by a small group of malicious people is an odd sign self reflexivity within the party-state.
*Note: For English commentary discussing the Southern Metropolis Daily article, click here.
The opinions expressed in this blog are strictly personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.