Friday, 26 October 2007

Blogging the Blog 3: Chinese blogs and Freedom of Media

Sometimes you wish you had the ability to read certain languages and if I could I would be able to reinforce this post. However, I lack the ability to read Chinese script so will have to rely on the evidence of a woman called Prof. Susan Shirk who is Director of the University of California systemwide Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation, quite a mouthful, but she seems to know her stuff. She comments quite a great deal on current developments in China and it seems that she knows Chinese very well. Anyway, recently I came across some stuff she was outlining on changes in the media in China and how blogging is playing a role in that.

As you know, China is currently under a kind of dictatorship which is Communist in name but is thoroughly engaging with capitalist economics. Since the 1980s there has been a huge economic boom with millions of people moving to the cities and being able to travel far more freely, buy consumer goods and so on. It has been noticeable in the UK where many universities now seem to each recruit hundreds of students from mainland China whereas in the past they would have come from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Despite the move to economic freedoms (itself causing major environmental and also social problems as China's welfare state seems to have disappeared) political freedom has been far more restricted. Most obvious was the suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tianamen Square in 1989 which were broken up by troops and tanks. This ended speculation (at least for a while) that China would follow the path of the USSR at the time, i.e. economic hardship leading to economic liberalisation and openness and then in turn to freer press and TV and to democracy (of course since then Russia has started going back to a more authoritarian system under Vladimir Putin.

As an aside, I was talking to a Chinese man who said that China currently has democracy at least to the level of democracy that there is in the USA and the UK. His view of Anglo-Saxon democracy is that it is dominated by multi-national companies and established families, along the lines of the Bushs, Kennedys, etc. in the USA and noble families in the UK. The people superficially have the ability to choose their government, but in fact it is these powerful families and their companies which run everything. Thus, he sees China with all its nepotism and Communist party leaders running large companies, as already having attained the level of democracy that the USA and UK have. Given that half of the British parliament (the House of Lords) is unelected, I would accept he has some points here, though I would not agree with his overall conclusion; neither Tony Blair or George Bush will be in power when they are 92. More importantly, though, it says something about the level of expectations of people in China, given that this man was in his 20s, spoke fluent English and had had the money to come to the UK for education.

A free media is vital for democracy. In China steps in that direction have almost come about by accident. Up until the early 1980s all publications, television, etc. belonged to the government and simply reported what the government wanted to say. The upper elite had access to information about the wider world, but they kept this to themselves. Journalists were civil servants and not only reported news to the public, but also reported on the feelings of the public to the elite. The cost of running such a system became impossible to sustain and so since then there has been a mushrooming of independent newspapers and magazines, particularly appealing to the urban middle class which has done well out of the economic changes. In fact most of them have a government newspaper at their core as these were the only people able to finance and get passed the bureaucracy to set them up. However, the news they report is much more extensive than in the old days. In addition, freer media from Hong Kong such as Phoenix television brings in a different view on things. Of course a free media may help democracy grow but it does not necessarily mean it is pro-democracy and a lot of the media in China is very nationalistic especially towards the USA and Taiwan.

So, where do the blogs come in. Well, the Chinese government still has a lot of power over the media and can push out editors they do not like. They still control the 11 television stations and 40 provinicial television stations and they still produce numerous official newspapers. Even on the internet they patronise news digest websites and ensure that the news they include on them is not out of step with what the government wants to cover. However, the internet cannot be a closed loop in the way that even television media can be. The Chinese government has heavy filtering of internet material accessible from China and some western companies have been criticised for collaborating on such filtering. In addition now, if you visit sites that are felt to include material that is inappropriate to what a person in China should be looking at, automated images of Chinese police appear on screen to tell you off. However, blocking and monitoring the internet is costly. Singapore which has an authoritarian government had to stop trying to control the internet coming into its country in the way it does with newspapers and television because it began to cost too much. The Chinese government continues to foot the bill for such control within its borders.

The Chinese government's filtering, despite the numerous monitoring staff its Department of Propaganda employs, is not perfect and things sometimes slip through, sometimes only for a few hours before they are eliminated. Now, apparently, however, there are bloggers waiting to snatch up such nuggets of news from the outside world. They email them around very quickly and put them up on their blogs so that Chinese people can read what is otherwise being denied to them. Obviously the Chinese government can go around eliminating blog by blog, but speed of communication and the number of bloggers will always mean some escape to post news of that kind in the weeks and months to come. Sometimes I worry that much blogging is little more than navel-gazing, so I guess my faith in its value was partly restored by realising that some bloggers out there are actually helping to spread knowledge and indirectly (hopefully) move the world's most populated country closer to (true) democracy.

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