China is different–and the same ; A visiting American journalist finds the country is more open than she expected, but even though the markets are freer, press freedom is elusive
[Chicagoland Final Edition]
Chicago Tribune – Chicago, Ill.

Author: Andrea Guthmann Andrea Guthmann is a producer for WTTW
Date: Apr 28, 2002
Start Page: 4
Section: Perspective
Text Word Count: 1291
Document Text

May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, a chance to reflect on the many benefits a free press brings to the world: the free flow of information, a link between the governed and their government, an essential element of economic development. Recently I toured one of the countries–China–that is still in denial about these benefits.

I was prepared to see the China of my grade school textbooks: a bleak totalitarian country in which everyone dressed alike. I was pleasantly surprised by how free and vibrant the country feels. I kept searching for signs of communism, but they were hard to find. Yet when it comes to free speech, the “new China” clings to many old habits.

China is in the midst of a revolution right now, an economic revolution. It recently gained entrance into the World Trade Organization and now stands as the Asian economic powerhouse of the future. One of the mandates under the WTO agreement is transparency in government. Conventional wisdom has it that the arrival of economic democracy in China will be followed shortly by political democracy. It is true that China is becoming a more open society. The Chinese government has been providing its citizens with more freedoms, most of them involving freedom to make money.

Money worship seems to have replaced communism as the new ideology. There are now more than 25 Starbucks in Beijing, giving Chinese the right to buy themselves a latte, a cappuccino, or a Frappuccino. You can choose from the plethora of fast food chains across the country, from McDonald’s to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Small entrepreneurs are opening stores and restaurants and seem to be doing well.

Yes, economic freedoms abound in this country. However, the freedom to go anywhere on the Internet, the freedom to watch whatever TV show you like or the freedom to write your opinions as a journalist still is elusive.

As free as China’s markets are becoming, the communist government is still acutely aware that control of information is vital to maintaining power. Instead of handling information the way politicians in the U.S. do, through high-priced public-relations strategists who put the best spin on information, the Chinese still think it’s easier to just threaten journalists, block Western news sites such as CNN.com and restrict ownership of satellite dishes. The Committee to Protect Journalists says China has more imprisoned journalists than any other country.

It’s a matter of perspective

I wanted to find out for myself what the state of press freedom was, so I scheduled meetings with many journalists, both Chinese and foreign, working in China. The amazing thing is that the Chinese journalists were adamant that they do, in fact, have a free press. But ask the foreign reporters who are accustomed to a Western style of journalism and you get a different opinion.

It appears that Chinese journalists are so accustomed to the totalitarian style of the media, where it was basically a mouthpiece for the government, that their idea of press freedom is vastly different from ours. Over and over I found Chinese journalists defending their media. In fact, I found myself, a producer for the Chicago PBS television station WTTW, being questioned at times about my connections with the U.S. government. “Do you not work for state- owned media?” Not exactly, I said. Yes, we receive tax dollars, but it stands at about 5 percent of our budget. Jim Lehrer is not getting calls from the White House telling him what stories to run.

Foreign journalists I met with had many tales about trying to do their job around the many Chinese restrictions. CNN and NBC correspondents complained of having to get permits from Chinese bureaucrats every time they wanted to travel outside Beijing. They also fear having their press accreditation, which is necessary to work as a journalist in China, suspended or revoked should the government be unhappy with their work. Foreign journalists talked of being called into the Foreign Ministry’s office if a government official was angry about a story. One journalist told me the hardest part of all this is not to participate in self-censorship. That’s exactly the quagmire the Chinese government wants them all to be in.

I also felt some of that Orwellian pressure during the trip. Two representatives from the Chinese Foreign Ministry accompanied me and the other American journalists. I will never know what sort of dialogue I might have had with the journalists, politicians and scholars I met with if these two bureaucrats had not been in every meeting taking notes.

The Communist Party is walking the fine line of wanting to maintain power while at the same time appearing to be an open society. They know that most foreign investors view a free press as a necessary part of a stable country because the media serve as a watchdog to government and private industry. After all, who wants to put their money in a country where you can’t trust the business pages of the newspaper?

The grip loosens a little

As a result, the Chinese government has in recent years slightly loosened its grip on state-run media. This is as much for economic reasons as it is for political ones. The Chinese government has been restructuring its state-owned enterprises during the past few years. When it comes to the media, this means that government funding is decreasing, forcing the media to turn to advertising revenue to make up the difference. For the first time they are actually having to take into consideration what their audience wants. Certain areas that used to be off-limits, such as consumer fraud and local corruption, have now become safe fields for reporting and even criticizing. However, coverage of corruption at the top levels of the Communist Party is still unheard of.

There was one topic that kept coming up as I asked Chinese politicians and business executives how they could reach their full economic potential without a free flow of information: Enron. Ah yes, the company that duped us all and leaves many journalists and investors with the lingering fear that our stock market may be nothing more than a flimsy house of cards. They had me there. American business journalists are now acknowledging that they haven’t been doing their jobs as corporate watchdogs so well lately.

So where does this leave us? It’s not that easy to defend the rights and, at times, bedlam of a free press, especially to nations that have never experienced the likes of Jerry Springer, Internet porn or investment bankers secretly touting their own stocks as “hot tips of the week.” More dialogue needs to take place about how the drive for profits is affecting our media. Although it is not perfect, I’d never trade what some see as our vulgar press for the vulgarity of not having a free press.

American journalism, like the rest of our society, is evolving. Fortunately, I believe the same can be said of our Chinese counterparts. The world, and more important, foreign investors are keeping an eye on China. The Communist Party knows this and is struggling with how it can appear to be an open society without actually having the kind of free press we Americans have, one that is more than happy to report on the mistakes and mismanagement of government.

I’ve been told that had I visited China 10 years ago, I would not even recognize it today because the pace of change has been so rapid. Let’s hope I’ll be able to say the same thing about the Chinese media in 10 years.

Credit: TV in Chicago She recently joined a group of US journalists on a fact-finding tour of China sponsored by the East-West Center, a think tank based in Hawaii

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