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Chinese press has impact, against the odds

The sky over Beijing, as it turns out, isn't quite as blue as the government long claimed. (Reuters/David Gray)

In China, state control over the media hasn't become more lax in recent years. Each year brings a new excuse for Communist Party censors to tighten the screws. The year of the rabbit brought the Arab Spring, and fears of a Jasmine Revolution. The year of the dragon brings a major political transition

If you're a Chinese journalist, as any reader of this website understands, working conditions are tough in any year. Publish press releases and government pronouncements, and you'll probably be fine. Report critically, and you risk the wrath--and sometimes violence--of local officials and thugs.  You can expect your editors to be watching censorship guidelines, or lose their jobs. And if you're a Uighur or Tibetan online journalist reporting on protests--well, watch out.

But by one unlikely measure, Chinese journalists seem to do pretty well. When it comes to having impact--shifting policies, changing local laws, and even provoking the arrests of party-connected criminals--the media in China have shown their power repeatedly.

The New York Times on Friday reported one example of media impact. To paraphrase: After years of insisting officially that the sky is blue, the government has been pushed to admit that it's actually gray.

The Times story focuses on the role of Internet activists in pushing the government to back off its line that air quality in China is improving. Taking to the microblogs with their own air quality readings, activists in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Wenzhou forced the Chinese government to track--at last--the tiny particulates (2.5 microns in diameter or less, known as PM 2.5) that are one of the deadliest forms of air pollution.

But traditional media in China also played a role in voicing perspectives at odds with the official clean-air story. In December, the straitlaced, state-owned China Daily was giving voice to environmental experts' concerns about PM 2.5 particulates. Around the same time, the Beijing-based Caixin was reporting on Beijing authorities' refusal to disclose this data to a concerned citizen named Yu Ping. Caixin, for its part, repeated (in English) this quote first published (in Chinese) by the hard-charging Guangzhou-based tabloid Southern Metropolis Daily:

"[Environmental Protection Bureau] Deputy Director Du Shaozhong previously said that he is willing to compare Beijing's PM 2.5 readings to that of the U.S. embassy's," Yu said to Southern Metropolis Daily, "If foreigners can see these statistics, why not Chinese?"

Surely, it was this combination of online rabble-rousing and traditional reporting that led the government to change its tune.

Was this a one-off? A paper presented at last year's American Political Science Association suggests not. (It's behind a pay wall; you need access to an academic database to read the whole thing.) But in short, political scientists Jonathan Hassid and Jennifer N. Brass compare what they call "government responsiveness" in China, where the press is not free, to Kenya, where it is. What they found was surprising. In one example after another in China, scandals led to public pressure, which led the government in China to respond. In Kenya, by contrast, enormous public pressure seemed to fizzle with few results.

And while it wasn't exactly the point of their paper, it was hard not to notice the huge role that the not-free Chinese press played in bringing scandals to public attention.

  • In 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily's aggressive reporting on the death in custody of a man named Sun Zhigang led to changes in the national law that authorized detention of migrants.
  • In 2007, it was Henan TV that first reported on the brick factories that were employing kidnapped children as workers--a scandal that led to the jailing and even execution of "dozens of colluding Shanxi officials," according to Hassid and Brass.
  • Southern Weekend had to fight through months of official censorship in 2008 to publish a report that the dairy company Sanlu was selling baby formula contaminated with melamine. When the story finally broke, executives from the company were jailed and even executed--though the larger problems in food supply seem to remain.

Paradoxically, these examples also illustrate the excruciatingly high cost of official censorship. Six babies died and another 54,000 were hospitalized because of the contaminated milk. Lives would have been saved if Southern Weekend had been allowed to publish its reporting when it initially had the story in July 2008--which was (not coincidentally) the month before the Olympic Games were held in Beijing.

In other cases, journalists themselves paid the price for the impact their work had. After their excellent reporting on Sun Zhigang, some of the journalists of Southern Metropolis Daily were rewarded with jail time.

It's clear that the Chinese press is thriving against the odds. Imagine the impact journalists could have there if the odds weren't quite so long. 

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