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July 23, 2007

Keeping Up Appearances


by Sascha Matuszak

The Chinese government has responded to the product crises that resulted in deaths and recalls around the globe. The execution of State Food and Drug Administration director Zheng Xiao Yu met with approval here in China, where death is seen as the only deterrent for corrupt officials. In addition, the government has shielded and defended enterprises wrongfully accused, giving them a voice in the Party's mouthpiece, and punished those with products that were found to be corrupt and unsafe. All of these efforts were duly reported in the Chinese media and shown on CCTV, now available across the globe.

The Chinese government is "killing the monkey to show the chickens" – putting on a show for the world to see. Domestically, an execution of a top corrupt official tends to resonate well with the masses, eager for any kind of justice, and it demonstrates to all the other corrupt people out there that embarrassing mistakes will not be tolerated. Many of the officials executed for corruption in recent years were guilty of either ridiculous hubris or mistakes that alerted the foreign community. Both, but especially the latter, will not be tolerated by this Chinese government, so intent on prestige and recognition.

China tends to "hide the broken arm in the sleeve" a lot. Appearances and perception matter so much more than truth here, because what China craves is recognition from the foreign community.

In pursuit of this goal, China has gone on public-relations offensives, utilizing an ever growing world media presence to wage a war of doublespeak with the nations of the world. News of China's domestic problems undermine the government's efforts to raise its international image. A few years ago, China chose to solve this problem by stamping out any domestic reports and limiting foreign journalists, but now the Chinese have discovered the power of the media and hope to turn it to their advantage.

Alongside the recent faulty product scandal, the crisis in Sudan is an example of China's reactionary attitudes toward, and recognition of the power of, international media pressure.

Mia Farrow's plan to organize an Olympic-style torch relay to protest China's role in Sudan has had a dramatic effect on Chinese public statements and policy. China's role in Sudan had been an issue in the media before, and China had remained mum on the subject, issuing the occasional dry press release. Now the entire Chinese media establishment is diligently stating the Party line – at one time purely economic, but now focusing on promoting peace and reconstruction. Linking the issue to the Olympics was pivotal.

Not wanting to appear despotic before the world, China has relaxed its restrictions on journalists for the 2008 Olympic Games, and only the Games. It is unclear what will happen to media laws after Oct. 11, when the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai end. Journalists from abroad will be able to interview government authorities and deputies and do not have to receive permission from state media bureaus for every interview.

For a short time next year, the media will be as free as it has ever been in China – for foreign journalists. Domestically, Hu's reign has been marked by a notably more hard-line approach to media. Unlike the U.S. government, which leaks strategic news to its outlets and relies on big business to help keep the media in line, the Chinese government hopes to keep a tight hold upon the media.

There is some speculation about what will happen to the media after the Olympics – and to Chinese foreign policy in general. The Olympics represent the zenith in a drive for international acclaim, it is possible that China will be confident and secure enough at that point to dispense with a strictly soft-power policy but begin using their power more aggressively, as they are known to do with less powerful allies. In terms of the media, some predict a harsh crackdown to remind the press corps that the government is in charge. Optimists believe that once the cat is out of the bag, it will be impossible to stuff it back in again

China hopes to counter bad press from the U.S. not with a free media with diverse opinions and thorough reporting, but with a concentrated, unified message backed by growing media clout.

The Chinese media still lacks the effectiveness of a slick New York Times series – the language still contains echoes of Communist slogans, and as a state-run mouthpiece, it lacks legitimacy. But a war of words is as much about volume as content, and both are less important than the argument and the audience. With the last two, China may have a leg up versus its main detractor, the U.S. media establishment: The U.S. has tarnished its international image so much that the world is eager to hear a different perspective.

Authoritarian regimes have an advantage over democratic regimes in public relations if they can build an equally sophisticated media system with all of the trappings – CNN-style newscasts, a strong Web presence, entertaining reporters, etc. Regimes such as the one in China wield the media like a blunt weapon. In daily society, the media is one of the major tools for competing businesses or other groups to fight it out. In a recent contract dispute between laborers and a highway construction firm in western Sichuan, the firm hired a Canadian engineer to give an interview on TV stating that the contract was binding. Case closed – the laborers had to back off.

If China were to go to war, the Party would have the media as a weapon, not as a watchdog.

China's media is growing more sophisticated, but will this necessarily translate into a free press? Not only is the Party adamant about control, but the society has acclimated to the media as is. Chinese journalists are aware of the Party constraints and complain about them openly, but their complaining rarely translates into open defiance and rebellion. A secure paycheck means a lot more than freedom – a pliable member of the media can amass a fortune placing stories for private and public-sector clients.

At the same time, the Chinese press is much more vibrant than it is given credit for. The Chinese populace is very literate and educated – they reward brave reporting with loyal readership, which translates into sales and more profits for the bosses, profits that often filter their way back into the government via bribes. It has now become uncouth in higher-echelon Chinese circles to be seen as against a free press, transparent government, and a market-oriented economy. There is a lot more pressure on the government to "modernize" itself and catch up with the rest of society.

There is a lot of friction, and nothing is black and white. A respected editor with extensive connections may be fired or worse for publishing an unfavorable story, whereas another may be held up as an example of the New China for uncovering fraud and corruption. It truly depends on the context and the forces involved. Unlike Western societies, China values harmony and a contextual, broad view of every issue.

But one thing will remain clear and in control of the government: the face they project outwards. The English-language press (including foreign journalists) has much less flexibility than the domestic press because it deals with the most sensitive part of China: how it is viewed by others.

The Chinese themselves may eventually receive a press that is as free as any in the world, but as long as China places utmost importance on its image, the Party will retain control of all foreign portals it can get its hands on. It will be interesting to see if China is as fixated upon acknowledgment from the outside world after the Olympics.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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