A remarkable incident has emboldened Chinese journalists. Earlier this year, the government suspended publication of the newspaper Bing Dian Weekly, provoking unprecedented open protest, which received extensive media coverage worldwide. Even more surprisingly, the government, under the pressure of public opinion, has allowed Bing Dian to resume publication. The editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief were sacked, but the open questioning of the legitimacy of the government’s authority to regulate journalism is bound to have a profound impact.
Foreign observers are prone to associate the Bing Dian incident with other recent crackdowns on China’s mass media, and to conclude that Chinese journalism freedom is hopeless under the present autocratic regulation. Undeniably, there has been no significant change in the government’s system of journalism’s regulation since China adopted its “open door” policy almost 30 years ago. On the contrary, it has become more rigorous and covert.
But I still have faith that subtle changes are occurring. A prerequisite of effective control of the media is that the controlled accept the controller’s ideology. After 1949, the Communist Party cultivated a stable of “theoretical experts” and other ideological servants to write lengthy articles propagating “Marxism and Mao Zedong Thought.” But nowadays, such writers are hard to find, and their work is received by readers with mockery and sarcasm.
In fact, the Central Propaganda Department’s ideological control can be maintained only through internal notices and telephone calls, which are widely scorned. More importantly, even the regulators themselves have ceased to believe in obsolete and rigid doctrines. I recently met an official working for a provincial Department of Propaganda and was impressed by his bold and straightforward comments on current affairs. In private conversation, one might even take him for a liberal – one of a new breed of young and well-educated propaganda officials with an increasingly higher threshold of political sensitivity.