Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山): The Liberalization of News and the Flattening of the Society

Yan LieshanYan Lieshan (鄢烈山) is a well-established Chinese columnist and author of fifteen books. Born in Hubei province in 1952, he worked as a farmer, an elementary school teacher, and a government official before joining the news sector in 1986. He graduated from the Chinese department of Beijing Normal University in 1982. Yan is now a senior editor at the Nanfang Daily Newspaper Group. His columns in Southern Weekend and other publications have been very popular nationwide. He also writes on multiple blogs, including a blog on Elite Bloggers (精英博客). In his introduction to his blog, Yan writes: “I have published more then fifteen collections of my commentaries. Most of them are incompletely articulated. I see my work as ‘citizen writing,’ dreaming of the day of ‘my hand can write about my heart.’”

The following column from February 3, 2009, is from China News and Publishing Daily and was posted by People’s Daily Net, translated by CDT:

The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century” by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has also been a bestseller in China. The idea that the world is flat goes roughly like this: The globalization process started with Columbus’s discovery of the new continent in 1492, which first proved that the earth is round. It keeps evolving. Today, nations, corporations and individuals have become the main players in the growth of the world economy. People of all races and cultural backgrounds have easily achieved a new division of labor with the help of the Internet. The tide is wiping out all boundaries and the world has become flat. The distance between people is increasingly insignificant. Friedman described a great trend of “one world.”

Then what is the flattening of the society? The flattening of human society means achieving the oneness of mankind. It is the “one dream” of the human society, i.e. the values commonly pursued by all humans or the so-called universal values. There is no repression or exploitation between people (let alone between nations). Everyone is a free person and has a right to pursue happiness. The so-called communist ideal and “the inevitable realization of the Internationale” are exactly aimed at stimulating people to achieve these values.

It takes many means and conditions to achieve the flattening of society. For example, to push forward self-governance of villagers, residents and industries; to develop non-profit organizations; to promote the growth of civil society, allowing people to manage their own affairs and services. The outpouring of philanthropy after the Wenchuan earthquake and the participation of volunteers in the Beijing Olympics vividly demonstrated that there is a current of great force hidden in the Chinese public. That force can be effectively incorporated into the management of Chinese society. Undoubtedly, the liberalizing of news is an important means and condition to achieve the flattening of society.

The liberalizing of news has two dimensions. One is liberalizing for the outside world; one is for the Chinese society. Combined together, it’s a comprehensive opening-up that does not differentiate between foreign or domestic. On both fronts, the liberalizing of news is an irreversible trend in the development of Chinese society. From the perspective of “macro-history,” the global trend is irresistible. It’s better to take the initiative to ride the tide than to be engulfed passively. Looking back on the history of the past 30 years, “reform and opening-up” are inseparably woven together from the outset. When China joined the WTO, there was also an implicit attempt to use “opening-up” to accelerate “reform.” The saying “there is no way back for an arrow when the string is drawn” is particularly true today when the world is filled with goods “made in China.” It is impossible to allow the free flow of commodities but not information when China takes part in the division of labor in globalization. It is equally impossible to allow the free flow of only the “positive” information. There is no such bargain under heaven.

The information age has descended upon us. New media like the Internet and cell phones are still developing rapidly. It will cost more and more to control the dissemination of news and will eventually become impossible. Other than the globalized economy and the forever-evolving information technology, there is one more important factor – as Chinese society develops, many people have a global perspective now. The migrant workers have much better knowledge and many people’s education level has increased. On issues that concern people’s own interests such as land confiscation, demolition and back pay, the public’s awareness of their rights is increasing, regardless of their education level. People’s demands for social justice and objection to privilege and corruption are ever more powerful. This internal driving force motivates people to disseminate news to domestic and foreign audiences with whatever means and channels, in order to win the attention of the outside world. This is the reality our social managers must face up to today.

The liberalizing of news also requires ordinary people to change their traditional perceptions of news, such as “domestic scandals should not be made known to outsiders” and “criticism equals vilification.” But in general, ordinary people long for the liberalization of news and transparency in government policies and decrees, collective account books for villages and assets of officials. The peasants know how to air grievances by approaching the media. The “most awesome nail house” even turned to foreign media to “create public opinion pressures.”

However, the liberalizing of news in today’s China is still at the mercy of those in power. There are three types of officials in the way of liberalizing of news.

The first type is those who obstinately stick to the dictatorial imperial tradition of “mastering, not informing, the people.” They fundamentally oppose the modern concepts of equality, freedom, democracy and rule of law, which can lead to the flattening of society. But these anachronistic people cannot occupy the mainstream. They run against the core socialist values of people being their own masters and social justice, as well as the promises by the Party Central to achieve “four categories of democracy” and safeguard the four rights – the right to know, participate, express and supervise. So they have no legitimacy and cannot win over people’s minds and hearts.

The second type has a much larger number. They are mainly concerned that the liberalizing of news will spill things out of control and affect social stability. The liberalizing of news needs a gradual, step-by-step process. These kinds of concerns are unfounded worries. They should believe that most Chinese people do not want to see chaos in China. The March 14 riots in Lhasa, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics have proven over and over again that the Chinese people are patriotic. They will spontaneously refute the wrong reports that smear China. The liberalizing of news for the outside world will help change the stereotypes and prejudices against China among Western people (for example, their ignorance of Tibet’s present situation and its history before the democratic reforms); The liberalizing of news for the domestic public will actually reduce destabilizing factors rather than escalating social conflicts, as we can see in the resolution of the Weng’an incident. On the contrary, to control the media and the flow of information (will only backfire), as the old saying goes – to guard against people’s mouths is more important than to guard against rivers; when the river overflows, the number of injured will be huge. The melamine incident is a perfect example of how such measures will cause both physical damage and harm to China’s image.

There is another type of people who obstruct the liberalizing of news not because of their beliefs but because of their interests. They are just like feudal lords exerting absolute control over their turf – selling official jobs, embezzling, taking bribes and exploiting the people. They don’t care about the people’s sufferings. To get promoted with “achievements,” they at least will try to circumvent accountability. Overall, they use whatever means to cover up the truth and retaliate against whomever is in their way in order to protect their special interests. They conceal disasters and popular uprisings and persecute whistleblowers to death. There have been too many such “news” reports and they are still happening on a daily basis. (For example, the Oriental Outlook Weekly’s coverage of the mine flooding accident that buried a hundred villagers last August was muted until Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a probe.) The liberalizing of news will be the biggest check on the growth of these “independent kingdoms” and “local emperors.”

There is plenty of evidence to believe that both the liberalizing of news and the flattening of society are part of the irresistible trend in China’s development.

Yan’s column was reposted on cat898.com, one of China’s largest online communities, known for its more liberal viewpoints. Here are some examples of the comments it generated:

* Demolish the social and political hierarchical system, then there can be flattening.
Fully realize democracy, then there can be flattening

* What happens if the news is not liberalized? What kind of society we will be in? Pyramid?

* All three powers are in their hands. What’s the need to flatten society? Poor commentators, can only whine with their words.

* (In response to the previous comment) He at least did what he should do. What have you done?

* Down with the pyramid! Realize flattening!

* (In response to the previous comment) I am afraid I will not see this in my lifetime.