China changing? Not if the press has anything to do with it

Chairman Mao's China and the China of the current administration, goes the conventional wisdom, have as much in common as day and night. If that was totally accurate, China's media would by now have been released from being the fawning lapdog of the state, speaking only when spoken to.

That no such release has taken place suggests the legacy of Mao lives on. Obsessive control and intolerance towards freedom of expression remains a cornerstone of the Chinese system.

Continued blocking of China-critical websites and the events of last December confirms it. While the Nobel Prize committee was awarding its peace prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, China's government was ordering its poodle press to carry nothing more than a raft of frothing, state-crafted condemnations of the award. Public debate on the issue in China was neither sanctioned nor tolerated.

Ditto an open letter, circulated on the internet around the same time, from a group of former top-tier Party elders calling for political reform and an end to media censorship. Although the letter's 23 signatories included a personal secretary to Mao and a former editor of the Party organ, the People's Daily, neither China's print nor broadcast media so much as acknowledged it – because the government, through its state propagandist-in-chief, the Xinhua News Agency, so-ordered it.

Xinhua, from which every section of the Chinese press takes its cue and to which this correspondent was attached for two interminable, hair-tearing years*, is China's premier re-writer of history. If it's news of the Tiananmen Square massacre you want, don't bother looking for it in the Xinhua archive. Nor for evidence that the deadly SARS virus was killing Chinese people months before the government eventually admitted to its existence.

Both have been consigned to the Xinhua classified files where they were joined during this correspondent's time at the agency by any number of lower profile, but nonetheless highly relevant, stories denied inclusion on the Xinhua news agenda.

Unlike the foreign press, Xinhua considered it unnecessary to report that Chinese money was behind the highly suspect break-up of Russian oil giant Yukos, that a former Party chief who backed the Tiananmen demonstrators had died while under house arrest and that North Korea – China's closest ally – was admitting to possessing nuclear weapons.

For reasons of its own, Xinhua also decided to stay mum on a government report recommending greater press scrutiny of ministerial decisions, on the catastrophic famine that hit Robert Mugabe's China-friendly Zimbabwe and on the name of the new Pope.

Even the Olympics felt the heavy hand of the Xinhua airbrush artist. Any less-than-complimentary reference to the Games' facilities crafted by reporters attached to the Xinhua-affiliated Olympic News Service disappeared, this correspondent's included. The average reader of the Chinese press was left believing the Beijing Olympics were perfection personified. They weren't.

Likewise, it was only those with access to non-Chinese media who learned that a pre-Olympic government relaxation on rules governing the foreign press wasn't worth the paper it was written on. The local press took no interest in a post-Olympics report compiled by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China documenting continuing widescale state interference in its members' activities.**

As if to underpin its government-shackled credentials, the domestic press then went on to ignore a series of jabs to China's ribcage delivered in late 2009 by Reuters' editor-in-chief David Schlesinger at the World Media Summit in Beijing – organised by Xinhua.

In a presentation pointedly entitled 'Transparency and the Role of the Media in China', Schlesinger told delegates: 'Journalism at its best is a mirror exposing back to society a true and brutally honest picture of what is going on...The instinct for secrecy needs to be resisted.'

The government Рwhich the International Federation of Journalists says introduced hundreds of new reporting restriction regulations during 2009 alone Рclearly viewed Schlesinger's comments as unhelpful and promptly ordered a press black-out on all but President Hu Jintao's keynote summit address and a final, Xinhua-glorifying, communiqu̩.

The unvoiced feelings of many at the summit were finally given a platform at the 2010 Nobel Prize awards ceremony when Nobel committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland roundly and publicly condemned China's repressive political system and its continuing suppression of free speech.

China, he told invitees, must transform its politics – and by association its press – if it's to avoid the descent into chaos. Its citizens are already on the march, he said, sick of seeing the socio-political order failing to keep pace with the tectonic shift in China's economy and things can only get worse if the government continues to dig its heels in.

Many within the Chinese media privately agree. As one Xinhua insider complained to me recently:

'China changing? Not at media level it isn't. While the government is spending billions modernising its media operations we're seeing more, not less, restrictions on what we can report.

'The result is like putting turds down a golden toilet. The crap we're force-feeding the public is increasingly being seen as an insult to the people's intelligence and they're getting restless.

'There's a lot of dry wood out there just waiting for a match...'

*A full account of Mark Newham's time in the gearbox of China's propaganda machine is contained in his new book 'Limp Pigs and the Five-Ring Circus' published by Pen Press Publications.

**During 2009, the FCCC received 16 complaints of violence against foreign media, 100 incidents of foreign journalists being refused access to public spaces, 75 cases of members of the foreign press being hounded by the authorities and 18 cases of foreign media receiving a police reprimand.

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