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The Rediff Special/Pallavi Aiyar in Beijing
June 24, 2003
While in India the headlines are screaming the announcement of major steps forward in the resolution of the decades-old Sino-India border dispute -- with gaggles of journalists furiously analysing every nuance and every scrap of information available about the joint declarations signed by the two premiers on Monday evening -- the Chinese media is suffering from comparative verbal constipation.
The lead story of the June 24 edition of China Daily appeared at first sight to be encouraging. The headline in bold type proclaimed that the two countries had endorsed a historical declaration. The text of the story, however, only made a one-line reference to the agreement on the 'Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Co-operation.'
At the university in Beijing, where I teach news writing and reporting, my first and most difficult task has been to explain the concept of 'news.' In Chinese the word for propaganda, zhuan bo, is a neutral one. So, the Ministry for Information is often translated as the ministry for propaganda without a trace of irony.
While in recent times some Chinese language media, particularly those dealing with economic issues, have begun to attempt a more investigative and critical style, the majority of mainstream media are kept on a tight leash, reduced to writing government press releases and faithfully reproducing platitudes mouthed by party leaders.
How soon then will the mediascape in China change? It is difficult to say. The Chinese government faces tremendous contradictions as it liberalises the economy, yet refuses to reform politically. Foreign investors are increasingly demanding free access to reliable information. However, to allow this, would cut away at one of the primary means by which the Communist Party retains its legitimacy.
Post-SARS, the media has been reporting on certain issues more freely than before. In fact, the government ordered them to do so. Over the last couple of months then, the self-congratulatory, morale boosting toasts to the progress of China and sagacity of its leaders have started to be tempered by gloomier messages of the need for health care reforms and growing unemployment.
But even bad news is selected and endorsed by the ruling party. Several editors of some of the more outspoken papers have been sacked over the last few months. Until there is genuine political reform, media freedom will remain elusive, and until then visits like that of the Indian prime minister will continue to be portrayed more by visuals of standardised handshakes than critical analysis or meaningful debate.
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