In China, media find making waves makes money

July 25, 2005

XI’AN, China — A luxury car driven by a public security official, who had been drinking, hit a farmer and dragged him nearly a mile. Police sat on the case until it made the news. In the uproar that followed the official was convicted, condemned to death and executed.

A young graphics designer was beaten to death while in a police detention center for illegal migrants. Despite efforts to suppress the story, thanks to news coverage and Internet chatter it became a nationwide scandal and spurred reforms in the practice of detaining migrants and sending them home.

After 10 years a young girl who lost both arms because of an electrical transformer improperly placed on her family’s land finally received record compensation, the day after she was featured in a widely watched TV news program.

Those cases and others are signs of a new, raucous vigor in China’s news media, which are showing a taste for expose and a willingness — within limits — to attack and embarrass officialdom.

The cases come from a first-rate piece of in-depth reporting and analysis by a Columbia University law professor, Benjamin Liebman, on the changing relations between the Communist Party, media and judiciary.

Liebman and I took part in an unusual conference recently in this dusty Central China city sponsored by a local university and an imaginative U.S.-based international organization called Internews. Most of the participants were provincial Chinese judges. The purpose of the three-day conference was to help them deal with their media.

That’s not easy in a system, as Liebman points out, where the media have long spoken with the authority of the Party, and the judiciary has neither a tradition of independence nor an understanding that its chief duty is to apply the law – not please higher-ups. Until recently few judges even had legal training.

But greater independence for both courts and media may be essential if China is to sustain its headlong development push. Investors and entrepreneurs demand a system of rules that resolves disputes predictably and fairly. Business people insist that contracts be enforced, unimpeded by favoritism. Law isn’t optional, it’s mandatory.

Just as market-driven development needs the rule of law, so too it thrives on accurate information. Tightly controlled media have never been vehicles for trustworthy news.

The gamble now is whether the media can achieve some measure of independence through heavier reliance on advertising and market forces. Even party organs take ads. Media outlets have multiplied – to over 2,000 newspapers from 69 in 1979. Editorial swagger is encouraged in the interest of financial autonomy, which reduces state subsidies and even generates surplus money for local parties.

Still, this is a controlled system. The hybrid media are not so much independent as they are “commercialized government mouthpieces,” in Liebman’s choice phrase. News managers strictly limit their investigative passions. They target corruption outside their home bases, prefer lower level officialdom and have important stories vetted by Party apparatchiks. Journalists still routinely back-channel reporting to the Party, sometimes instead of publishing it. During an interview I did with a Radio Beijing reporter it was clear that my views were welcomed on certain topics and not others.

Still, change is in the air. At a seminar at a Beijing university, the journalism professors talked about the progressive impact of commercialization in China. U.S. critics of ad-supported media – like me — forget what a cool breeze the largescale advent of commercial influence can be in a musty, timid, state-run monopoly.

The perils of conglomerate ownership, where news organizations are entombed in vast interlocks of strategically unrelated businesses and where budgets are cut so that overall profit targets can be hit, are remote here. One professor told me cutting news budgets here is a sure way to lose: Chinese readers won’t stand for it.

Too, technology can’t fail to make the whole system more porous. Consider Internet links. One afternoon my niece, an accomplished China hand, looked up from the laptop she had just booted up in a café and said, “Beijing. I can’t believe this place. I’m online.”

I’ve been looking in vain for mention in the English-language China Daily of three days of huge demonstrations, involving up to 15,000 people, in a city southwest of Shanghai. Townspeople are furious about a pharmaceuticals plant they believe is poisoning them. For a full report, I must rely on The New York Times online. That I get with no problem.

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