What Can a Clever News Censor Change? – Liang Jing

Liang Jing (梁京) wrote the following commentary (see original Chinese version here). Many thanks to David Kelly of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore for providing the translation to CDT:

What can a clever news censor change?

The Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao leadership recently replaced Long Xinmin, the Director of the General Office for Press and Publications, who was transferred to a less responsible position. As successor to what is in fact the important position of top news censor, Hu Jintao selected Liu Binjie of the Central Youth League. This personnel change has led to some speculation at home and abroad. Some claim the political significance of the affair should not be exaggerated”Long Xinmin’s character placed his fate in the hand of others, he had lacked punch, and was presumably replaced for personal reasons. Others argue that the possibility of new people and a new deal lying behind this move by Hu and Wen cannot be ruled out. Last week, Shu Xiao revealed in a commentary in Nanfang Zhoumo that Liu Binjie had stated in his inaugural speech that he would “use more wisdom and less power.” [1] Such a declaration beyond the rhetorical needs of self-justification was rather surprising. As well as showing the new man may have high-level support in the background, it also shows we are dealing with a news censor who is clearly more intelligent than his predecessors.

In China’s situation today, what can an intelligent news censor change?

This is the question I asked myself when I read Liu Binjie’s declaration. Can he bring any substantive changes to bear? Thinking it over, I believe an intelligent news censor can still make a difference today.

The environment in which China’s autocratic regime finds itself today has a significant difference with the authoritarian past”the information environment of the public and intellectuals was not found in any previous era. Superficially, the regime’s surveillance of the press and of publications is most effective, many websites have been cordoned off and closed, and books and articles prohibited from being issued. But this is not so much a blockade of information as control of political behavior and in particular of political expression, since blockage of the message content has for the most part been ineffective. While demonstrating its arbitrary power, it has exposed the regime’s ignorance, lack of spirit and fear of the truth. The political costs have hence been enormous.

The “Freezing Point” affair showed how, in the era of opening up, an unintelligent news censor could inflict great harm on China’s top leadership. Hu Jintao’s attitude to the affair showed that he might have accepted and published Long Yingtai and Yuan Weishi’s articles in order to avoid such injury. What an intelligent news censor can do, therefore, is have a correct grasp of what is acceptable for his boss, rather than for himself, in terms of a baseline for expression.

An intelligent news censor should understand that in controlling political discourse in the network era, it may be far more harmful to damage the regime’s access to information than the people’s. So if he’s smart enough, while unlikely to promote private communication, he is likely to improve the information environment of those in power. This may be critical for China to rid itself of the political predicament brought by the communist dictatorship.

Hu and Wen represent a group of power-holders in the Communist Party who retain a morsel of conscience after reaching high office, not only because they are good at self-deception, but because of their extreme ignorance of history. Given only the former and not the latter, it would be impossible to explain their retention of conscience after their dirty fight for power. If the ability to delude oneself is a gift, then their ignorance is not entirely their fault. This will inevitably be a common problem for a generation who grew up under the red flag and were raised entirely on the wolf’s-milk of Mao Zedong. [2]

A new generation of intellectuals who grew up since the resumption of college entrance examinations 20 years ago is now not quite forty years old, and is beginning to realize what their fate may be. As intuited by the late master of management thought, Peter Drucker, a number of this generation of Chinese people form an elite group who grew up in the most difficult human circumstances. Having experienced all kinds of hardships and a variety of temptations, the greatest good fortune for them is the opportunity is draw upon the knowledge of humanity as a whole, and to re-discover and examine China’s history. If some of this generation were to get a chance to establish rational communications with the miserably ignorant Hu and Wen, the probability of China’s being again plunged into chaos may be reduced somewhat.

An intelligent news censor may not be able to facilitate such communication, which after all depends on his boss’s rather than his own wisdom, but he should at least not become an obstacle to it.

[1] “Xiao Shu: “‘Less use of power’ is key” [Á¨ëËúÄÔºö"Â∞ëÁî®ÊùÉÂäõ"ÊòØÂÖ≥ÈîÆ], http://news.21cn.com/today/topic/2007/05/09/3220229.shtml.

[2] Expression used by Yuan Weishi in the article in Freezing Point mentioned previously. — trans.