Monday, September 05, 2011

China gags on free speech (again)

Communist bosses move in at Beijing newspapers
Authorities claim the move was aimed at reigning in an advertising war between the competing publications, and say the two papers may be merged into one.

Propaganda authorities take over Beijing papers
Beijing's Communist Party-run media authorities have taken over at the helm of the popular "Beijing News" and the "Beijing Times," the government-run Qianlong website reported late Saturday.

Both papers routinely run stories critical of local governments around China, as well as articles that defy edicts issued by the party's propaganda bureau ordering media to show Chinese society in a positive light.

Both began publishing about a decade ago and gained widespread popularity for their colourful stories and advertisements.

The Chinese government strictly censors the country's newspapers, broadcast media and the Internet, blocking any information it considers sensitive.

Controls have been further tightened by a heavy clampdown on dissent, with a number of prominent lawyers and activists detained amid official fears that recent uprisings in the Arab world could spark similar movements in China.

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Pen, Meet Market. Market, Meet Sword
"We are a commercial enterprise," an editor at the Beijing News told the Financial Times. "We need to produce a paper that has what people want to read." The remark is revealing of the way in which today's Chinese media think about their trade—that is, as a business, and a competitive one at that.

China's press is usually referred to as "state-run," but that obscures the fact that the country's media landscape today is diverse, commercialized and relatively free of direct state interference. In 1967 there were only 43 regular newspapers and a handful of mostly Communist Party-run television and radio stations. Today China boasts some 2,200 newspapers, 8,000 magazines, 2,900 television channels and 1,000 radio stations—all vying for audience attention.

Turning the media into a business has had profound effects on Beijing's ability to shape public sentiment. Some forms of censorship have become less feasible. The sheer volume of output makes it difficult to screen every title and broadcast. Municipal outlets—smaller and farther from the centers of power—enjoy relatively free rein in covering local affairs, even when doing so touches on sensitive national issues. Because local governments provide the most direct oversight of local media, one city's press may get away with reporting on another city's controversial news.

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China’s risky game of cat and mouse censorship
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.

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.

There is a cat-and-mouse game going on between the state censors and a public testing the bounds of the permissible.

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