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China’s risky game of cat and mouse censorship
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China’s risky game of cat and mouse censorship
Published  08/18/2011

Financial Times
August 17, 2011 11:48 pm
By David Pilling

Mao Zedong famously suggested in 1957 that 100 flowers should bloom. Ostensibly it was an invitation for intellectuals to air diverse, even critical, opinions about the direction China’s leadership was taking. The campaign lasted six weeks. When it was over, many of those who had taken the Chairman at his word were marched off to labour camps.

The problem China’s leadership faces today is that there are no longer 100 flowers to worry about. There are 500m horticultural specimens thrusting into the light – and not a few of them have thorns. That is roughly the number of internet users in China today. While most of them are content to download music and chat innocuously to their friends, a significant minority use the internet to criticise the government and voice grievances.

To some extent this is useful to the Communist party. There are no official channels, such as elections, through which people can make their opinions known. So having a degree of free speech is a good way of keeping tabs on the mood of the non-electorate. It is also a means of flushing out egregious corruption or other misdemeanours by local officials who, far from the watchful eye of Beijing, may be abusing power. Encouraging citizens to express themselves can also be a relatively harmless way of allowing people to let off steam, providing a social safety valve and the illusion of free speech. And if they go too far, you can always lock them up.

The Communist party’s propaganda department has made an art form of loosening and tightening control. But it is far from omnipotent. There is a cat-and-mouse game going on between the state censors and a public testing the bounds of the permissible.

For an illustration of how quickly things can get out of hand, take the events in Dalian last weekend. There, some 12,000 people by official tally staged a demonstration against a petrochemicals plant. Their protest against the factory, which produces a toxic chemical called paraxylene, was enough to elicit an immediate promise from the local Communist party boss to move it – an apparent victory for people power. The protest was marshalled via China’s micro-blogging sites, such as Weibo. It also appeared to be influenced by knowledge of a protest in the southern city of Xiamen, which in 2008 forced authorities to scrap plans for a similar plant.

This spread of information – and dissent – is not confined to the internet. The mainstream press, too, is a lot less supine. That is largely because newspapers, magazines and television shows have become more commercial. Their numbers have proliferated. In 1979, there were only 69 newspapers in all of China. Now there are 2,000, plus more than 9,000 magazines. It is years since Chinese media were simply the “throat and tongue” of the Communist party, in the phrase of Susan Shirk, an academic and author of China: Fragile Superpower. That makes them far less amenable to spreading party propaganda, particularly if it is boring. As long ago as 2004, Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, said: “It is the consumers who command the loyalty of media managers now. They show fake enthusiasm for orders from above. But their efforts to curry favour with the customer are genuine.”

Hu Shuli, China’s best-known financial journalist, turned Caijing magazine into a must-read by leading investigations into official corruption, financial skulduggery and social injustice. Investigative journalism is now a staple of many newspapers and magazines.

There are also fewer taboos. Newspapers, even ones officially controlled by the Communist party, had a field day after the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou last month. State broadcaster CCTV ran a show questioning the cause of the accident, suggesting that the government was putting economic growth above people’s welfare. The show’s producer, Wang Qinglei, was subsequently suspended. But attempts to clamp down on coverage have mostly backfired. On July 30, Beijing News carried an unusual full-page weather report on its front page bemoaning “seven days of rain”, a mischievous reference to the seven-day anniversary of the crash.

These are positive developments for anyone who wants to see China’s population gain a greater voice and more influence over the policies of its government. Widespread dissemination of information about tainted milk powder – suppressed partly because it emerged around the time of the 2008 Olympics – could, for example, have saved many babies from death or injury.

But there are also dangers. Prof Shirk points out that, in a democracy, governments tend to pay attention to the average Joes (or Joannas) whose views are likely to determine the outcome of an election. But authoritarian governments are more prone to listen to those who shout the loudest. That may mean listening to people who do not want a toxic chemical plant in their backyard. But it could mean bending to more extreme or nationalist sentiment.

This makes the volatile relationship between the Communist party, the press and the Chinese people fascinating to watch. It also makes Mao’s experiment with freedom of expression look like child’s play.