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World Press Freedom Day 2017: Is the Chinese pen mightier than the CPC’s ruling fist?, By Asma Masood

, dated May 3, 2017

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C3S Article no: 0038/2017

May 3 which marks World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is being commemorated this year at Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, from May 1-4 2017. Ahead of this event, Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO based in Paris, declared the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. According to the index, Taiwan has moved up six places, to be the leading player in Asia [i] with a ranking of 45. However Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking has been lowered by four places to number 73, given that China is increasing its influence over the city.[ii] India’s ranking has also gone down three places to 136. While these changes occur, one indicator stands out clearly as maintaining the status quo in media freedom: China at rank 176, the same as last year. This year’s China ranking falls behind countries including Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

The issue of media freedom in China is a well-known one, with government censorship and even self-regulation dominating the domain. Nevertheless the prospects of China rising to great power status raise queries on how the country will contour its media regulations in the decades to come. A country’s rise in this century depends significantly on how it can achieve its Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 16  is the very basis for this year’s WPFD theme.

This theme is termed ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies. It revolves around “why it is vital to strengthen free and quality journalism to enable the media to effectively contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16. Specifically, the interrelationships between freedom of expression, justice for all and the rule of law, peace, and inclusiveness will be explored.”[iii]

This interrelationship can be further understood in the following extract regarding this year’s theme:

Media’s contribution to good governance and development has been recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the 193 Member States of the United Nations in September 2015. While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that guided the international community’s development efforts between 2000 and 2015 made no explicit mention of the media’s role, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize the importance of public access to information and fundamental freedoms, which includes freedom of expression. This is under SDG 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels). This recognition is of great significance since the SDGs will guide countries’ actions, in the 15 years to come, to address the most pressing challenges facing societies, ranging from ending poverty and fighting inequalities to tackling climate change.[iv]

Ironically, one questions how China can participate in this exercise when its perceptions of ‘rule of law’, ‘inclusive development’, and ‘justice for all’ are distinct from the rest of the world’s.

What is the role of China’s media in the rule of law in the country? Where does China’s media stand on the issue of inclusive development? Does the Chinese media support ‘justice for all’? What is the impact of Chinese media and social media engagement on sustainable development? Lastly, how will China’s media reporting on India affect sustainable development?

Rule of law with Chinese characteristics

Given the state-controlled nature of Chinese media, it is not surprising that most reports on China’s rule of law are in tandem with the CPC’s stand. Nevertheless the media has taken a firm stand on reporting on issues such as corruption. In fact, before the fourth Chinese Communist Party plenum in 2014, which was focussed on rule of law, Chinese media reports emphasized “the need to shift the focus of the anti-corruption campaign from addressing the symptoms of corruption to addressing the root causes of corruption.”[v] Despite the Chinese media’s strong anti-corruption stance, it cannot be ignored that the Chinese media is subservient to the CPC. It is only with government approval that such reports can be voiced.

While corruption is overtly lambasted in the Chinese media, the rule of law which restricts fundamental rights does not cause the media to frown. Rather, the state controlled media reports on punishments meted out to ‘violators’ of these laws or their ‘confessions’. For instance:

In 2015 and 2016, many citizen journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists, including foreign ones, were arrested and forced into confession. In violation of the “fundamental right to due process,” these confessions were broadcast by the state TV news broadcaster, CCTV, and were reported by the state-owned New China news agency.[vi]

Thus the aspect of interrelation between China’s media and its role in supporting the rule of law is a paradox in itself. The rule of law in China has an indefinite time period before shaping regulations on freedom of expression. Until then, the Chinese media seems to be aiming the spotlight on certain aspects of ‘inclusive development’.

China’s ties that divide

Inclusive development largely depends on closing the gap between income disparities, access to basic amenities and access to infrastructure. For long, China has depended on the hukou (permanent residence permit) system, whereby the government allots rural and urban hukou, thus creating large development gaps. The Global Times has brought out a report, on Beijing abolishing this dualistic system in October 2016.  Surprisingly, the reports sheds light on the disadvantages of hukuo system:

For the past half century or so, great disparities have existed and expanded between urban and rural populations in terms of welfare and rights. Urban workers have their medical expenses reimbursed and are granted pensions, but farmers are entitled to no such “luxuries.”[vii]

However, the report is careful to showcase the apparent advantages of a rural hukou as well:

Decades later, when simply feeding the country’s 1.3 billion people with very limited land resources became a central political issue, farmers with land have felt more privileged and often have little interest in becoming urbanites. Farming has subsidies, and leasing the farmland also makes money. Zhang’s son, Zhang Hongliang, 34, feels lucky to hold a rural hukou. According to a 30-year agreement between his family and the village, they are granted 25,000 yuan (3,700 US dollars) per person per year for leasing their farmland for commercial exploitation. His father, with his urban hukou, receives nothing.[viii] 

It displays the classic Chinese media narrative, whereby the ‘good’ is balanced with the ‘grey areas’ in such a way that the latter becomes negligible. In addition, there is subjectivity via omission of certain facts, which belie the drawbacks despite China reforming the hukuo system. These omissions are glaring, especially since the Western media has taken upon itself to highlight the ‘missing’ facts.[ix]

Meanwhile, the Chinese media is not missing out covering detainment of lawyers in the country.

Justice for ‘all’?

There is a debate on whether the Chinese media is merely controlled by the state or also reflects the society’s thinking. On one hand, there are certain pockets of Chinese people who perceive that human rights has scope to improve in the country. On the other hand, the majority appear to support the government’s stand on rights, and thereby the detention of some rights lawyers. The reason being that they believe that such measures and regulations are vital for the state’s stability, the smooth growth of economy and thus their personal security. The Chinese media is crucial to the government’s stances on justice, in order to maintain the ethos of the CPC as well as continuing to reflect the public’s perceptions.

That said, media is, at the end of the day, a business enterprise. Which is perhaps why it reported news which was later alleged to be fake, on ‘torture’ of a detained Chinese lawyer. [x]

Despite these inconsistencies, China claims to uphold justice for all. This claim must be examined from the lens of the Chinese mind, and thus the mirror that is the media.

China’s government and thereby the media there, believe that justice for all means not merely legal justice, as in western parlance. It rather seems to refer to equal opportunity for a developing nation like China, amidst the international political economy. China has taken a profound term used to uphold legal principles, to apply to economic dimensions.  Observing the importance of development in the Chinese media’s dictionary, one raises a query on the impact of the Chinese media on sustainable development.

‘Sustaining’ the government’s policy

It is clear that the Chinese media is not propelling any significant effect on shaping China’s sustainable development policies. Rather, it is sustaining the rhetoric of the government on its efforts to contribute to the same. There is also some constructive appraisal of China’s progress on S.D.[xi] This shows the Chinese media offers itself as a mirror to the China that can be in future, devoid of economic letdowns.

Similarly, Chinese social media is also becoming involved in sustainable development. Recently, UNDP partnered with Chinese social media giant Sina Weibo to engage on the issue:

Weibo will allocate resources worth over 20 million yuan (2.90 million U.S. dollars) to support UNDP work to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to Cao Guowei ,  Weibo’s Chairman . Social media is playing an increasing role in encouraging public participation in public welfare causes, and Weibo’s significant media and celebrity resources and active user interaction can help make SDGs a public topic, according to Patrick Haverman, UNDP deputy country director.[xii]

Interestingly, a study has also been carried out by Chinese researchers on how China’s environment quality can be monitored using social media. They recognized that social media analysis is an efficient and feasible alternative to achieve this goal with the phenomenon that a growing number of people post their comments and feelings about their living environment on social media, such as blogs and personal websites.[xiii] It remains to be seen how the study will be implemented to carry out environmental assessment in China.

The Chinese media is not concentrating on the domestic situation alone. It is also attempting to portray itself as a mirror of India. One questions the authenticity of this reflected image, given India’s strides in various fields and its contributions to the international system.

The Mirror has two faces

The Chinese media is only taking care to herald China’s accomplishments in S.D, but ignores the progress made by India. Chinese media reports do not give room for the possibility of India joining the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, due to China’s veto.  This again brings up a contradiction on how China can cooperate with India on S.D, when it is denying Delhi the right to greater access to renewable energy. Similarly, a secure environment is indispensable for S.D, but China is holding back the U.N from denouncing JeM founder Masood Azhar, mastermind of the Pathankhot attacks as a terrorist, on grounds of a technical question. Even the commendable leap by ISRO to successfully launch 104 satellites in one go, was seen as less compared to China’s advancements in all fields.

There is hence a constant pattern, where China’s media is defining the way S.D is perceived by the Chinese people. The Chinese media reports paint a picture that sustainable development is a successful venture in the Chinese context.

“Chinese culture values harmony between man and nature. With its commitment, China is practising what it preaches”,[xiv] says a Global Times report following the COP22 summit in 2016.

This statement sums up the crux of this article: China’s media is playing a role in the country’s Sustainable Development Goal 16, but only by toeing the government line. The media in China can survive by this method alone. Hence on World Press Freedom Day 2017, one ponders how China can truly achieve great power status, without allowing a free rein of the fourth estate.

[i] Cheung, Han, “Taiwan’s press freedom No. 1 in Asia”, Taipei Times, April 27 2017, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2017/04/27/2003669485

[ii] See: Cheng, Kris, “Hong Kong falls 4 places in 2017 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index; Taiwan freest in Asia”, Hong Kong Free Press, April 26 2017, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2017/04/26/hong-kong-falls-4-places-2017-reporters-without-borders-press-freedom-index-taiwan-freest-asia/

[iii] “Themes for 2017”, UNESCO- World Press Freedom Day, Accessed on April 30 2017, http://en.unesco.org/world-press-freedom-day-2017/themes

[iv] “Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies: CONCEPT NOTE”, UNESCO- World Press Freedom Day, https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/wpfd2017_concept-note_en.pdf Accessed on April 30 2017.

[v] “Rule of Law: Why Now- A China File Conversation”, China File, October 17 2014, http://www.chinafile.com/conversation/rule-law-why-now

[vi] “China”, Reporters Without Borders, https://rsf.org/en/china, Accessed on May 2 2017.

[vii] “Beijing moves to close the urban-rural gap”, Global Times, September 21 2016, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1007425.shtml

[viii] Ibid 7

[ix] See: “Internal barriers: Shifting migration”, The Economist, December 18 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/china/21684145-government-reforms-socially-divisive-system-warily-shifting-barriers

[x] See:  “Prosecutors refute media reports of torture of detained lawyer”, Global Times, March 2 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1035546.shtml

[xi] “Sustainable development makes progress in China”, Global Times, April 16 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1042686.shtml

[xii] “Weibo, UNDP partner to promote sustainable development”, Xinhua, January 17 2017, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-01/17/c_135989606.htm

[xiii] Wang, Zhibo, et al., “Monitoring Environmental Quality by Sniffing Social Media”, MDPI, 10 February 2017,  http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/9/2/85/pdf.

[xiv] “China resolved to fight climate change, pursue sustainable development”, Global Times, November 18 2016, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1018796.shtml

(Asma Masood is a Research Officer with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. She can be contacted at asma.masood11@gmail.com. Twitter: @asmamasood11. The views expressed are the author’s own.)

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