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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.'

This was followed by a slightly detailed but equally bland description of the 'nine documents on co-operation in economics, law, science and technology and culture,' that were signed earlier on Monday, none of which had much real significance (barring a provision that would enable easy export of Indian mangoes to China).

There was no mention at all about the declaration on expanding border trade. Sikkim was missing completely from the report.

Xinhua, the national news agency, went a step further, doing away with the adjective 'historic.' It led with a simple 'China, India sign declaration on bilateral ties'. The text of the story comprised 91 words, dwarfed by a large photograph of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Premier Wen Jiaboa shaking hands.

The report made no mention of borders, trade or Sikkim. It did, however, mention tersely that "the Indian government has for the first time recognised, in an explicit way, Tibet Autonomous Region as part of China's territory."

This morsel of information was a product of the frenzied speculation by several Indian analysts of the significance and probable content of the joint agreement on border trade, the details of which will only be available later on Tuesday evening.

Is the Indian media then making much ado about nothing?

It has ocassionally been suggested that this visit means more to India. That India is the needy one and any improvement in bilateral ties will benefit her more than her larger, economically stronger neighbour. Could this be the reason why the Chinese media is treating the prime minister's visit politely, but briefly? Or is it the difference between a free press and one that is shackled by government control?

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.

When asked to write an essay on the role of the media, several of my students churned out pieces that started with 'The press is the mouthpiece of the government.' The essays were also full of sentences like 'the government should do more propaganda on SARS' and the like.

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.

Until the prime ministerial visit is officially over and the party leardership has had the time to analyse and edit the outcome, we can expect no truly analytical or thoughtful contribution from the media here. Not so different from our own Doordarshan a decade or so ago.

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.

PM's China Visit: The Complete Coverage


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