China's Media Control - Cut the Bonds of Ignorance
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
Once again, mainland China is in the news for tightening its control over the foreign media. Xinhua announced last week that, effective immediately, reports from all foreign news agencies would be censored before being released on the mainland - including financial news.
Since Beijing already controls the distribution of general news in the country, it is unclear to what extent this makes the situation worse than before.
On one level, the move might represent an attempt by Xinhua to improve its own competitive position vis-a-vis foreign news agencies such as Reuters and Bloomberg.
Tian Congming, Xinhua's president, said this year that Xinhua was determined to improve its competitive edge in the financial-information market. "There is a big gap compared with Reuters, and the gap with Bloomberg is also not insignificant", Mr Tian said.
If Xinhua is going to regulate its competitors, it will be in a position to take advantage of its position to increase its own market share.
It is peculiar, and objectionable, for Beijing to appoint a player as a regulator. What is even worse is that Beijing is trying to tighten its control of information even further.
This move to control foreign news agencies is part of a recent pattern. Only days later, Xinhua announced that the country's judges were barred from talking to the press. In May, lawyers were forbidden to talk to the press.
It is notable that Beijing, which often insists on reciprocity, does not even pretend that the control it is seeking over foreign news agencies is practised anywhere else in the world. But then, it's quite good at interpreting reciprocity as meaning "you follow my rules and I'll follow yours" - especially when the foreign country has no similar restrictions.
What is Beijing trying to prevent foreign news agencies from disseminating in the country? According to Article 11 of the new regulations, "news and information released in China ... shall not contain [anything] that serves to...violate the basic principles enshrined in the constitution of the People's Republic of China"; or "undermine China's national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity"; or "endanger China's national security, reputation and interests".
It is unclear how a news report could possibly do any of these things. How could information violate the constitution?
Conceivably, an act could be construed as contrary to the constitution, but how could a report about such an act also be a violation?
Similarly, foreign governments conceivably could take actions that might endanger China's national security, but how could a report of such an event be construed as a threat to national security?
In fact, the suppression of such information may be a greater security threat.
Besides, if national security were threatened, wouldn't Chinese banks, brokerage houses and media companies need to know? Such news is certain to move markets, and Chinese players would be disadvantaged if they were deprived of this vital information.
If China wants a knowledge-based economy, it will need a well-informed populace. This cannot emerge as long as the government continues to control access to information.
Since even rumours can move markets, economic players need to be aware of inaccurate, misleading or fraudulent reports.
In the west, there is a concept of the people's right to know. In China, for thousands of years, the government practised a policy of deliberately keeping the people in ignorance through control of information, to make it easier to govern.
But times have changed. In what the Communist Party likes to call "New China", surely such outmoded concepts should be discarded?
Surely, China's "liberation" in 1949 should mean that the people have been freed from the bonds of ignorance?
If not, it would appear that there is a need for a second liberation.
(Originally appeared in the September 20, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)