Asian Games

Self-censorship on sensitive issues is a backwards step

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 June, 2011, 12:00am

Guangzhou residents have been concerned about the quality of beautification projects for last October's Asian Games for two years. Now it seems their nightmares are starting to come true.

Widely reported has been a mass dying off of cotton trees. After being transplanted from other Pearl River Delta cities less than eight months ago, several dozen 30-50-year-old cotton trees, and other trees, have been found dead at Huangcheng Plaza, the city's new landmark.

The dead trees were among about 600 trees transplanted in August to decorate the plaza, right outside the main Asian Games stadium, for its opening and closing ceremonies. The facelift cost the city more than 300 million yuan (HK$360 million).

Horticulturalists said the trees should not have been transplanted in August and that the contractors, who finished the job in a rush, had not paid enough attention to them. The contractor admitted the timing was bad, but argued that it had been assigned the work by a state-owned company at the last minute.

For a time there was a media outcry, with reporters trying, early last month, to find out which officials were responsible for deciding to move the trees in summer. However, in less than a week the reports had evaporated: it was impossible to find a single word about the trees, the cost of the project or who should be held responsible..

In fact, the trees were not the only shoddy facelift project for the Games finished in a rush. It was also reported early last month that five of the nine stations on the Metro line that runs through Huangcheng Plaza, opened before the Games, spring leaks when it rains. In the station under the plaza, Metro staff were seen using plastic tanks to collect water falling from the ceiling and some of the station's walls were wet.

Again, no officials or construction firms were asked to take responsibility for the problem and there was a conspicuous absence of follow-up reports.

It is a cliche that no news is good news. But on the mainland no news sometimes means much bigger news, especially when the news that suddenly vanishes used to be so hot.

The lack of media coverage of such newsworthy issues can be seen as a dangerous sign that the public is losing any possibility of access to information that it has the right to know. After all, they paid for the construction and should be told what they got for their money.

Generally, the mainland propaganda authorities will ban sensitive reports relating to official corruption or social arrest. But this time the story is different: according to a local journalist, media self-censorship is at least one of the obstacles.

The journalist, who requested anonymity, said that colleagues following the cotton trees storywere told to stop by senior newsroom executives worried that one more investigative step might result in political repercussions.

'As far as I know, there was no ban from the propaganda authorities; we imposed it ourselves,' the journalist admitted.

Guangzhou spent billions of yuan on tens of thousands of beautification projects for the Asian Games. Many of them, including road paving, wall painting and the transplanting of trees and flowers, were completed in just a year, beginning in late 2009.

Many residents complained at the time that the rush was causing problems in their daily lives and those complaints made headlines almost every day in late 2009.

To assuage public anger, then Guangzhou party secretary Zhu Xiaodan (now a deputy governor of Guangdong), then mayor Zhang Guangning (who later succeeded Zhu as city party boss) and other senior officials publicly apologised several times, winning nationwide applause.

Less than two years later, it's a shame to see the city's media, maybe the mainland's boldest, keeping silent on some sensitive topics. No matter who is restricting their voices, it is a backward step for the whole city.

Such silence also means that public nightmares about jerry-built projects will continue: without reporting and exposure by the media, it is unlikely that any officials will ever need to apologise again.