Beijing wants no advice from earnest 'friends of China'

Chang Ping says its attempt to muzzle the media, domestic and foreign, is carefully considered

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:00am

Whenever a new leadership takes over or a major Communist Party meeting is convened, Chinese intellectuals often appeal to their leaders to carry out political reform and adopt democratic constitutional rule.

Their key argument is not that the people deserve elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech or other civil rights. Rather, they try to persuade Beijing that change is necessary because it will ensure the party's survival and continued rule and promote social stability. Or else, they warn, there might be intense conflicts, social chaos and political crisis.

Most of these intellectuals work within the system and live in the long shadow cast by their powerful masters. They might be punished, have their career promotions ruined, or even lose their job and end up in jail if they don't heed what they say. So they "camouflage" their proposals as thoughts in the best interests of the leaders and in terms of sustainable governance and social stability - even when their real intention is to fight for Chinese people's civil rights. This has become their habitual strategy, although it has never worked.

Of course, the leadership can see through their tricks easily. China's thinking class does not dare to confront the leadership. Its members continue to advise the leadership earnestly.

Appealing to the powers that be is, of course, an act of hope, dependent on the beneficence of a wise emperor. It's self-delusion, and apparently contagious, because even people outside the party's influence - even outside China - have succumbed to it.

Take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's open letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping published more than a week ago.

Bloomberg News and the Chinese-language website of The New York Times have been blocked in China for months now, so have the Chinese-language websites of The Wall Street Journal and Reuters recently. More than 20 journalists of The New York Times and Bloomberg News working on the mainland have been kept on tenterhooks about whether or not their visas might be renewed.

This is an apparent retaliation, because the two new agencies have both revealed how senior Chinese Communist Party officials and relatives, including Xi's family, have been amassing vast fortunes. Friedman wrote the "letter" to express his opposition to the media ban. But he did not denounce the retaliatory measure or reiterate the rights as a journalist. Rather, he told Xi, as "a friend of China", that doing that might not be good for him.

Friedman gave two reasons. First, foreign journalists can do the job to scrutinise Chinese officials, thereby increasing the transparency of bureaucracy, and help Xi fight corruption. I must say that might just be wishful thinking on Friedman's part.

He failed to see that the Communist Party has recently been fighting corruption on the one hand, while further clamping down on media freedom on the other. That is to say, Xi does not even want China's domestic media to cover anti-corruption activities, not to mention the foreign press, which is way beyond his control.

Then Friedman warned that foreign news agencies would likely set up alternative offices in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea if the Chinese government really drives foreign reporters away. There they would collect and screen materials and probably produce imbalanced coverage or stories for lack of face-to-face communication with Chinese people. But the fact is that Xi knows far better than Friedman what candid news coverage would be like if Chinese people have really been interviewed.

Freidman, lobbying the Chinese government like many Chinese intellectuals have been doing, might have assumed that the senior party leaders have interests that are aligned with grass-roots people and that all faults were caused by the greed of middle-ranked officials. If Friedman knows how Chinese leaders rise through the ranks to get to the top, he would understand which interest groups Xi represents.

Moreover, Xi's family would not be making less money than his subordinate officials.

The fundamental problem in China is that Xi has made it clear that the Communist Party insists on maintaining one-party rule. Like any authoritarian government, the press won't be welcomed.

Party mouthpiece Global Times recently ran the commentary that "China can't cede agenda-setting to Western media". The commentary pointed out, in addition to the usual Western conspiracy theories, that Western media are also sources from which many Chinese media get information about the West. "But we are clear where the traps could be," it said.

The article also made the point that China must prove to these Western forces that it cannot be fooled.

In this, the Global Times is apparently more sober than Friedman.

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