Media can’t play every part in China’s immature civil society

Like many countries that are fascinated with education, China has its own ranking list of schools, Wu Shulian’s Chinese University Rankings (CUR). Each year the announcement of CUR routinely attracts criticism of its questionable methodology. CUR 2011, announced on May 4, suffered the usual magnitude of disbelief.

It’s very hard to offer a ranking of universities that everyone will accept. Then, what about an even harder topic to rank, such as press freedom?

Just two days prior to CUR 2011’s announcement, Freedom House released this year’s Freedom of the Press survey book that ranked China among the worst-rated countries along with Laos, Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Rwanda. 

This result may shock any Chinese liberals who believe their acerbic commentary in papers, usually targeting the government, should merit at least some foreign attention.

It may give people the impression that Chinese commentators and investigative journalists are merely puppets manipulated by a clever censor who thinks a speciously free society should display a variety of opinions and disagreements in newspapers like this counterpoint that you are reading.

Freedom is a intangible and difficult concept. Different history and conditions predisposes a country to distinct ways of promoting its idea of freedom, sometimes with frustrations. 

From the past experience, Chinese have been aware of the supposed virtues of prudence. Freedom without necessary checks can lead to disaster, and the same goes for press freedom.

Admittedly, Chinese media doesn’t enjoy the same degree of freedom as in many countries and regions. However, it’s fair to say that the Chinese media does enjoy partial independence from the authorities, which allows them to constantly generate investigative reports and opinions. 

But I question whether Chinese society is ready for a fully independent and unrestrained media.

The reason is that Chinese media is, paradoxically, both weaker and more powerful than media elsewhere. Weaker, because it remains limited by the authorities, more powerful, because it has come to fill roles that in more developed societies are taken by other institutions. 

Chinese media have had much more social responsibilities, and influence as well, than the overseas audience might realize, most of which should be taken by other institutions or non-governmental organizations in a mature society. 

For instance, many journalists actively join the weiquan (civil rights) movement not only by reporting it, but also by helping victims through networking, which leaves them tackling questions of non-participation and independence. 

The media also play an extensive role as a whistle-blower, recently active in exposing food safety problems. Their unchecked influence sometimes degenerates into sensationalism. Given their profound involvement in China’s social transition, letting them loose would shake the whole of society. 

Media causes the partisanship of Chinese public intellectuals and activists. In particular, intellectuals are often reliant on or even clustering around specific media, which means an absence of independent intellectuals. This is an increasingly obvious phenomenon. It shows that media have also continued to generate ideas and concepts that seriously change the country.

If in the West, media follow the news, then in China, the news follows media. The authorities make policy changes as a result of media-shaped public sentiment. The public defines who’s good and who’s bad through media reports. Lawyers expect to win lawsuits by persuading the media to make favorable reports. Businesses manipulate press contacts to slander rivals. 

The media industry profoundly influences the trajectory of social development, and there are worries about the collusion between powerful media and malevolent interest groups.  

A desire for better self-disciplined media doesn’t mean that China should return to the days when the government had a say in every story. 

The Chinese media has developed much faster than almost all other parts of society, including intellectual society, social tolerance, participatory democracy, and the fair distribution of wealth. As we cannot fetter the leader, we have to spur those behind.

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