LONDON — A short while ago, when I was in Beijing, I wanted to keep up with some political development in Hong Kong. I turned on my computer and went to the Asia-Pacific page of the BBC’s Web site. Or at least I tried to; I had forgotten that the BBC site is blocked in China.
As I was staying in a five-star hotel where it is possible to receive the BBC World station, I turned on the TV. Just as a Hong Kong news item appeared, the screen went blank. At first I tried adjusting the set, but then it came on again showing a different news item.
This is a nonsensical situation, of course, because all I had to do was tune in to other news sites on the TV (such as CNN), or other sites on the World Wide Web (such as Reuters), to find out what was going on. Foreigners in China can find out what is going on anywhere in the world through these channels and via the foreign newspapers available in hotels.
Chinese people can also keep up to date with world events if they choose to, via satellite television, which is illegal but widespread. Some can also find ways around the censors on the Internet — at home. There is strict surveillance over access to the Internet in Internet Cafes: They have all been closed down in Beijing. Elsewhere, identity cards have to be shown by Chinese and passports by foreigners. Their details, the times and the computers used are written down, and the information is made available to the security services.
Most Chinese do not have access to world news, do not travel and do not have friends or relatives abroad. They are dependent on the national media for their news about both world events and national news. That media is heavily censored; it has been getting censored more rigorously under the new leadership of President Hu Jintao.
It is a strange experience to give a public lecture in China about events in China that the audience is not aware of. In the last couple of years I have given several lectures in China in which I have referred to high-level corruption in the Chinese Communist Party and, accordingly, its government.
Such references have been met with disbelief, and I have been criticized for my ignorance even though all of my information came from official Chinese sources as reported in the Western media. These stories, while available in the international media (even some that circulate in hotels in China), are not published in media accessible to the Chinese people as a whole.
I have also had calls from Chinese friends visiting Britain to express their surprise at news items they have come across in the British media, either about China or about global issues. They have either not heard the stories in China at all, or heard or read completely distorted versions of the stories before they left China.
Why does Beijing restrict the access of Chinese citizens to accurate and honest (as it can be) news about events in both China and the world? The CCP has recently been tightening that censorship to make it even more restrictive, for example, instructing the media to limit or even cut out all references to the growing number of street demonstrations criticizing the party and its regime.
What is it frightened of?
The Chinese Communist Party and its government want to be taken more seriously on the world stage as the economy grows. Surely, then, shouldn’t it be seeking to allow Chinese citizens to become more educated about what is going on in China and the world?
The problem is that an educated and informed citizenship can form opinions as to whether the policies that the government imposes on them, and its international policies, are the most sensible or the most appropriate. It is this that the party wishes to prevent.
Once citizens can argue on a well-informed basis about policies being followed by their government, then they can question the legitimacy of that government, and the party that controls it, if they consider the policies it follows wrong most of the time. There is no doubt that the CCP and the government want to prevent that.
There is also the problem of corruption. Citizens everywhere in China are aware of the corruption at the local level. It affects them all in their everyday lives as local party officials, their friends and their protected associates in local government and state-owned enterprises take advantage of their positions to illegally accumulate wealth. The gap between the corrupt and the exploited is widening too much and too fast not to be noticed.
As far as the media goes, the party makes sure that there is publicity for some of the prosecutions of lower-level officials, and occasionally of higher-level officials when their crimes cannot be hidden. It also makes sure that the media cannot engage in investigative journalism. Journalists are not allowed to investigate the belief that corruption is more widespread nationally and at much higher levels than the party is willing to admit.
As the CCP seeks to raise the status of China on the world stage, its position on that stage will be questioned by issues of its legitimacy. It is sad that the party believes that it can only ensure that the Chinese people accept that legitimacy if they are kept ignorant of the truth about what is going on in China and the world outside.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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