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Are we witnessing a slightly freer press in China?

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Strange things are happening in the Chinese media.

Articles that one would expect to be censored have appeared in the establishment press, exposing the possibly illegal behaviour of Communist Party officials.

For instance, the Beijing News, a state-owned newspaper, recently ran a story accusing officials in Xintai township in Shandong province of incarcerating in a psychiatric institution people with grievances against the local authorities who wanted to petition the central government in Beijing.

It is a time-honoured practice for Chinese with grievances to petition higher levels of authority if they cannot obtain satisfaction in their locality. The capital, with organizations such as the State Bureau of Letters and Calls, is the ultimate destination of aggrieved people across the country.

Local and provincial officials, however, find it embarrassing when their constituents go to Beijing to complain about them, and go to great lengths to stop them from doing so.

The newspaper quoted Wu Yuzhu, president of the Xintai Mental Hospital, as saying that some patients did not appear to be mentally ill, but “we could not say anything as most times the township officials bring with them a mental state evaluation and were accompanied by police officers.”

The paper reported that Sun Fawu, 57, a farmer seeking compensation for land spoiled by a coal-mining operation, was kidnapped by officials while on his way to Beijing on Oct. 19. He was released only after he signed a statement acknowledging he was suffering from mental illness and promising not to petition again.

Xintai township's tactics appear to be working. Its website said the number of petitions had dropped to 274 this year, 4 per cent less than in 2007.

Interestingly, the Beijing News story was picked up by other mainstream media, including the People's Daily. It was also posted on Sina.com, China's most popular portal.

Meantime, a subsidiary of the official Xinhua news agency has condemned officials who covered up dissent and called for greater press freedom. Liaowang, a magazine published by Xinhua, asserted in an article that officials who covered up the truth were guilty of “official dereliction of duty.”

The People's Daily has also allowed the party's dirty laundry to be aired in public by criticizing officials who put pressure on foreign non-governmental organizations to invite them on overseas trips that were ostensibly meant to strengthen friendship between cultures and peoples but actually were sightseeing and shopping junkets.

Other Chinese media have exposed the use of phony ages to enable Chinese athletes to compete in events for which they are not eligible.

At the same time these things were happening came the report that senior editor Jiang Yiping of the Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the country's most liberal newspapers, had been demoted and reassigned to a minor agricultural newspaper. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to reassert party control.

Another liberal publication that appears to have been targeted is Yanhuang Chunchiu, which provoked the powers that be by publishing articles about the late Zhao Ziyang, the former premier who voiced sympathy for student protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations and was kept under house arrest until his death 15 years later.

Its editor, Du Daozheng, was reportedly ordered to retire, but the situation remains unclear. The publication has the support of a number of senior retired cadres, including the former secretary of the late Mao Zedong.

So what's going on in the Chinese media? Is censorship being relaxed or strengthened?

From available evidence, it appears that a large number of journalists, even those working for the state media, are trying to push the envelope for more press freedom.

At the same time, government and party officials recognize that, in the age of the Internet, it's impossible to control the media as completely as they did in the old days.

Instead, they are trying to gain credibility by allowing the reporting of bad news, such as natural disasters and corruption cases. They also recognize that delays in reporting the news can lead to rumours that spread like wildfire in this age of text messages.

Officials seem to believe that allowing the reporting of bad news is better than being exposed in a cover-up. Moreover, managing bad news also allows them to minimize its impact.

But what is needed in China is not news management but a free press. An unfettered media will be a partner of the government by identifying problems that need to be addressed. The Communist Party should embrace, rather than fear, a free press.

Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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