BEIJING — A visitor to China may notice that the country's most authoritative medium, the People's Daily, cannot be found on newsstands in large cities. Its sales depend almost entirely on government subscriptions.
There are a number of reasons why the average person does not read People's Daily, but the most obvious is that they do not believe the Communist Party's propaganda organs. The media's official guiding principle is to focus on the "good" and ignore the "bad."
Consider how the persecution of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia last summer was reported by People's Daily. Anti-Chinese looting, killing and gang rapes shocked Chinese all over the world--except in mainland China. It was not until two months after the anti-Chinese rioting took place that People's Daily issued a commentary, citing international opinion, that called the behavior "barbarous." The following day, the paper finally published a news summary of the events. None of the reports were from Chinese journalists, which is strange: The official Beijing news agency, Xinhua, has a bureau in Jakarta.
Or consider the chaos in June at the newly built Hong Kong international airport, Chek Lap Kok. After seven years of construction, and a cost of some $20 billion (U.S), the whole world learned about the airport's disastrous opening day--everyone, that is, but the citizens of mainland China. Instead, People's Daily boasted of the airport's great and glorious achievements: the world's most sophisticated airport control system and weather-monitoring station; an advanced 24-hour runway; high-tech check-in counters; enhanced luggage security; autopilot shuttle buses; and so on.
All these achievements are true enough. It's just that the report omitted one minor item: None of these wondrous assets were operating properly on opening day.
Had this setback occurred under British rule, it would have been fully reported by the Chinese media. But now that Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong has been restored, the airport's bad day had to be ignored. Just last week, the opening of Chek Lap Kok's second runway was postponed for six months because of problems with the $38-milion (U.S.) lighting system. Will People's Daily tell its readers this news?
Not long ago, a Chinese journalist attacked U.S. reports of riots in Xinjiang and Tibet and demonstrations by laid-off workers in southwest and northeast China. She asked: "Do such stories of riots meet the needs of any Chinese people? They are of no benefit to the Chinese people at all. While Americans enjoy such exciting news, the Chinese people are suffering." The journalist also criticized the American reporter for "being more concerned about freedom of the press than about the friendship between the two countries."
These remarks shed some light on why Chinese authorities delayed reports on the anti-Chinese rioting in Indonesia: They want to preserve friendly relations with Jakarta, even if that means ignoring the sufferings of the Chinese there.
Some Chinese journalists try to defend the government's policy of not reporting bad news. One argument goes like this: Because the Chinese trust their media, if the media were to report on problems at, say, the Three Gorges Dam project, people would be so angry they might bomb the site.
This is surprising. Why would the Chinese, when informed of problems at the dam, want to bomb the site? If there is any truth in this supposition, the situation must indeed be very serious.
From its inception 50 years ago, the Three Gorges Dam project aroused strong objections from some specialists, but their opinions were never reported in the main media. Now under construction, the dam continues to be controversial. Reports suggest that corrupt local officials are concealing the dam's true problems and submitting false figures to Beijing. But rather than raise the risk of a bombing, reporting the truth would attract the government's attention and remedial measures might be undertaken.
It isn't fair, to be sure, to blame only the media for the lack of honest information in China. The media are controlled by the Communist Party, and the party forbids freedom of the press. In communist discourse, "journalism" is a form of "propaganda" that applies not only to editorials but also to news reports. Hence: Chinese news reports are tools of the party. They cannot be objective and fair.
Who benefits from unreported news? The officials responsible for the errors or who actually made the errors. But failing to report negative news does not erase it. If anything, it exacerbates the situation. An important reason for the overwhelming prevalence of corruption in China is that too little of it has been exposed by the press.
Still, there have been some positive changes in the Chinese media. For example, interviews and discussions on "Public Focus," a program on Chinese Central Television, are welcomed by the public, precisely because they present a mixture of the good and the bad, though freedom of expression is still limited. The same is true for the popular Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekend, which often boldly publishes negative news, including the problems at the Three Gorges Dam.
Since so much news is banned by the Chinese government, many Chinese get their news from the British Broadcasting Corp., the Voice of America and French International Broadcasting. These Western outlets enable the Chinese to evaluate the "good" news they hear and read in the Chinese media.
It is unrealistic to expect the Chinese media to open up immediately. But, ultimately, a controlled press is incompatible with the information age. An open press promotes democracy and sound economic progress.