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China should relax government control of media
Publication Date : 14-01-2013
It has become clear that China's new leadership headed by Xi Jinping intends to tighten government control over Chinese media.
The New Year's editorial of the Southern Weekend, a weekly newspaper in Guangdong Province that is highly popular for its aggressive investigative reporting of corruption and other irregularities, was replaced at the order of the propaganda department of the Communist Party Committee of the province. The editorial writers of the Southern Weekend, also known as the Southern Weekly, went on strike to protest the action.
Management of the Southern Weekend and the editorial writers subsequently held negotiations over the matter, with the province's Communist Party Committee acting as arbitrator.
The issue was settled with the editorial writers agreeing to stop the walkout and the weekly's management agreeing not to punish them. It could be inferred that the way the problem was settled represented a concession on the part of the Xi administration, which is wary about expansion of democracy movements.
However, on the heels of the incident, the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department instructed media across the country to republish an editorial of the party's mouthpiece People's Daily that warned that any media that publicly criticised the government would be "certainly defeated."
Action counters Constitution
The Chinese government probably considered it essential to toughen its control over the freedom of speech in order to maintain the Communist Party's dictatorial rule.
The weekly's editorial that instigated the latest incident was titled "China's Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism" and published on January 3.
The editorial urged Chinese leaders to uphold the importance of steering the government democratically based on China's Constitution. The party must have regarded the editorial as tantamount to rejecting the Communist Party's dictatorship, and the weekly was ordered to replace it with another.
China's Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. The reality, however, is that the party's propaganda department has the power to reassign media personnel, a power it wields extrajudicially.
Interference in the content of articles has become an everyday event, but open challenges to the authority of the propaganda department are extremely rare.
In this case, maybe the editorial writers were testing the attitude of the newly inaugurated Xi administration toward the media.
When the incident was reported on the Internet, more than 150 former media employees posted protest letters online, and human rights activists and scholars released protest statements one after another.
Accept changes in society
An influential newspaper in Beijing also resisted the propaganda department, temporarily refusing to republish the editorial of the People's Daily.
Given that the number of people using the Internet in China has surpassed 500 million, it must already be very hard for Beijing to suppress voices calling for the freedom of speech by means of conventional iron-fisted oppression.
Meanwhile, income disparities in China have become increasingly egregious, and dissatisfaction among ordinary people has neared a breaking point.
Apart from this problem, easing media control is indispensable to clamping down on corruption by high-ranking party officials.
The United States has expressed its concern over the Chinese authorities' censorship of the Southern Weekend.
The Xi administration should be aware that the suppression of freedom of speech has marred China's image as the world's second-largest economic powerhouse.
If the Chinese authorities want social stability, they must respond sincerely to the rapid diversification in society that comes with the globalisation of the economy.