Words don't wash

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am

I was at the barber's when I saw familiar scenes on the television, as I lay down to get my hair washed. Premier Wen Jiabao was fielding questions from the press, at the close of the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress. When the barber called me away after the wash, I was a little sorry to go, not because I particularly enjoyed watching the broadcast, but because it made me nostalgic for old times.

A decade or so ago, I would not have been so blase about the national meetings. I would have sat in my living room, turned on the TV, adjusted the volume to the perfect level, and listened attentively to the questions and answers. The man in the hot seat then was premier Zhu Rongji. Compared with Wen, Zhu spoke faster, in firmer tones and was more expressive. But I didn't watch the broadcast for his lively delivery; I watched it to gain information, which I believed my readers were eagerly awaiting.

The Communist Party was just at that time promoting the new slogan of 'ruling the country according to the rule of law'. As a journalist, I joined the many legal scholars, human rights lawyers and some judges who held high hopes for the campaign, and we wholeheartedly advocated the idea. I thought, now that we had had some success solving our economic problems through market reform, it was time we started building a strong society based on the rule of law. Zhu was not the best spokesman for either market reform or governance by rule of law. Nevertheless, we found support in his passionate and fluent words, highlighting and exaggerating those we agreed with, and ignoring those we did not.

Journalists today do the same. They dissected Wen's speech to find positive messages that they could blow up in headlines and quotes. We saw the result after the news conference. A sampling from this year: 'Our confidence is as high and as bright as the sun', 'Corruption is our greatest danger', 'People must be allowed to monitor the government so that grievances may be resolved', 'Political reform should go hand in hand with economic reform', 'Leaders' performance should be judged on advances in fairness, justice and people's livelihood', and so on.

This journalistic approach is markedly different from the critical tone favoured by media in democratic societies.

More journalists than before are being sent to report on the NPC and CPPCC meetings, but I doubt more people than before believe the positive messages they hear. Quite the opposite, in fact. One reason is, with the internet now more widely available, people no longer rely only on traditional media for information, so they are less easy to fool. The other reason is, in some way, social problems have become worse.

Here is one example. At the annual meetings last year, Wen famously said: 'We aim to enable people to live a happier and more dignified life', and 'Fairness and justice are more glorious than the sun'. The two sentences were splashed across media reports, and his words touched many Chinese people. But, since then, we've seen more cases of people setting themselves on fire to protest against their forced eviction from their home, and more cases of suicide by the poor and destitute. Schoolchildren were killed in a series of knife attacks, and intellectuals jailed for speaking out. On all these incidents, Wen was silent.

The premier's enthusiastic backing last year for political reform caught a lot of attention. He spoke of our need for reform no fewer than seven times, and quoted Deng Xiaoping's comment that economic reform would not succeed without political reform. Even though in this framework political reform remains secondary to economic reform, many people were encouraged by what he said. But his comments were censored or downplayed by the state press.

Not only that, a series of editorials then appeared in the People's Daily, written by a 'Zheng Qingyuan' (a pen name playing on the idiom zhengben qingyuan, which means bringing something back to the correct path). The editorials said China should not copy Western political models, with their multiparty systems and separation of powers. At the national meetings this year, Wu Bangguo , chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, drove home the message of 'a political system with Chinese characteristics' with his 'seven yeses' and 'five nos'. The bottom line was: yes to one-party rule by the Chinese Communist Party, and no to a system of checks and balances. People who believe Wen is sincere in backing political reform think he does not have the power to act on it; those who think he is just putting on a show sarcastically call him 'China's best actor'. People from both groups will have watched his press conference through different lenses, but none of them are likely to believe his sweet-sounding words will come true.

Chinese people have waited in vain for a wise and benevolent ruler for at least 2,000 years. I hope now we can use instead the yardsticks of a modern civilisation to judge our political leaders. This requires that leaders are held accountable for their decisions during their term in office. And the media's job is not to lavish praise; more often than not, they should seek out and criticise any efforts that fall short. This is why, when I heard the premier say (while I was getting my hair washed), that 'we have eliminated the discrimination against rural migrants in the city', it left a bad taste in my mouth. Even those of us who are not in his lofty position know that this discrimination cannot be eliminated while the household registration system exists. And there was more.

According to the premier, the complaint that the state sector has expanded at the expense of the private sector is unfounded. China does not have such a problem, he said.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese