Yes, things are better in China for journalists than they were 10 years ago.
But also yes, things are not all that great.
Thanks to mobile phones, SMS and micro-blogs, Chinese journalists can get information out more quickly without government interference. And that is what is making the difference.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a special report on journalism in China. (In China, a debate on press rights).
What is important to remember here is that the Chinese journalists are talking about “media rights” and not “media freedom.”
I recall about 10 years ago when I was part of a panel of U.S. journalists at a seminar for Chinese journalists in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. The Chinese journalists were anxious to have the government pass specific guidelines about what they can and cannot cover.
When I asked why not push for an official policy of no limits on coverage, the Chinese journalists said that officially that is the government position — see the Chinese constitution — but in practice it did not exist. A law, they said, with clearly defined borders would help protect journalists by making sure that as long as they stayed within those borders, they cannot be fired, jailed or otherwise punished.
It is this difference — in the Western mind — of “press rights” and “press freedoms” that get people into trouble when talking about China.
As one journalist noted in the CPJ report:
“We don’t speak in terms of ‘freedom,’ because that word”—he switched to English for two, emphatic words—”highly sensitive!” Shifting back to Chinese, he continued: “What do we say instead? Media rights. It means the same.”
Andrew Nathan, China scholar and one who is great at translating Chinese political speak into terms the rest of the world can understand tells CPJ:
“The Chinese government has long claimed to respect people’s rights—not human rights but citizens’ rights, which are rights that the state grants in its constitution and defines in its laws, rather than those that have their own existence and can’t be infringed. In the eyes of the regime, there is no contradiction between asserting those rights and maintaining that it’s the duty of journalists to serve the party, to obey the instructions of the Party Propaganda Department. All in all, the concept of ‘rights’ the Chinese government is using is one that perfectly well allows them to have an action plan to improve the protection of these rights, without intending in any way to weaken the Party’s monopolistic grip on power.”
This idea of saying one thing in Chinese terms and meaning another to the rest of the world also works with the terms “democracy” and “elections.”
But back to journalism and journalists.
Part of the control of the media comes from making it clear who is a journalist.
Only those with the proper government credentials and “training” are allowed to be called journalists. Therefore, unlike the United States, Brazil, Hong Kong, or other democracies, bloggers are not journalists and have no protections under the law.
Of course remembering that in China what the constitution and laws say can be set aside under the guise of “national security.” And threats to “national security” include any questioning of the primary role of the Communist Party to run the country or tell the media what to say.
And it is this fear that people might spread information that has not been carefully vetted by the appropriate government agencies or party committees is why the leadership is so worried about SMS and micro-blogs.
The CPJ report opens with the influence of texting and micro-blogs. It makes it clear that without this technology, many of the violations of press rights would not be known.
And that is why Twitter and Facebook are blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall.
For the ruling elite it is bad enough that they are having to deal with Chinese-to-Chinese unfettered communication. The last thing they want is open lines of communication between their subjects and the rest of the world.
What is clear, both in the CPJ report and in independent reports of the situation in China, is that media workers are pushing at the edges of what the government and party will allow. There are many journalists trying to do their jobs in a fair and objective manner even if it means risking prison and beatings.