First Steps Toward Political Reform

China Media Project looks at the recent discussion among Chinese journalists and intellectuals around the idea that press freedom could be a logical first step toward political reform in China. David Bandurski translates an essay by He Weifang comparing Guangzhou and Shanghai in this regard:

Shanghai and Guangzhou each have their own major events to play host to this year. For Shanghai, it is the World Expo. For Guangzhou, it is the Asian Games. Making use of this opportunity, Zhou Xiaoyun sought to compare the media of both cities and how they dealt with these events. He found, on the one hand, that Guangzhou media heaped abuse on their government on a daily basis. The criticism could linger on the most trivial of details. First, the problem was traffic, then the problem was with road quality, then it was with noise pollution, and finally it was with expenditures. Whatever the case, the criticism just kept coming. The party secretary of Guangzhou, and the mayor, stepped out constantly to explain the situation to the public, saying for example that it seemed they had spent a bit too much money, and that they planned to cut costs in this or that area.

In Shanghai, it was all song and dance and extolling the good life — and the people of Shanghai seemed to sympathize with this entirely. During the building of one exhibit for the World Expo, for example, nearby residents were daily subjected to noise from the construction work, so that some had difficulty sleeping. Later, when reporters spoke to locals, they said it was no problem, for the World Expo it only makes sense for us to sacrifice a bit.

The conclusion Zhou drew from this was not that Shanghai residents were somehow more aware, that they understood the government, or that the actions of the government were completely beyond reproach. Rather, the case illustrated for him that Shanghai media had been “had.”

Seen from another perspective, perhaps it’s fair to say that there is a difference in significance for the World Expo for the city of Shanghai versus the Asian Games for the city of Guangzhou. This is the first time, for example, that the World Expo has been held anywhere in China, but the Asian Games have been hosted here. So perhaps the former is rather like the Olympic Games in 2008, when not the slightest whiff of criticism or fault-finding could be detected in China’s media. Perhaps our nation holds events as these in such high esteem that they respond with extreme “harmoniousness,” and do not permit the emergence of any “un-harmonious” voices. Of course, this perspective on the matter is a very generous one.

Actually, I share with Zhou Xiaoyun the view that not allowing the media to make any criticisms whatsoever is an extremely unenlightened approach. There is a saying that goes, “Those accomplishing great projects must stomach great acts of corruption.” We’re talking about a massive project here [with the World Expo], and Shanghai has seldom in the past taken on so many projects within such a short period of time — so do we need the media carrying out effective supervision in this process, ensuring that the projects are done properly, even if that means dragging down a few officials?

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