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
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
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.