New rules in Sichuanese city to discipline officials on the basis of “mainstream” media reports

Chinese commercial media and more independent-minded strains within Party media often staunchly defend the media’s “right” to conduct “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督), which might otherwise be translated “watchdog journalism”. But any and all legislation touching on the news media is suspect, even when it seems on the surface to uphold and promote the media’s monitoring role. Today, a handful of commercial newspapers and Websites launched editorial attacks against new rules in the Sichuanese city of Chongzhou (崇州), which appear to tacitly protect official wrongdoing by making reporting by “mainstream media” a precondition for local discipline for leadership failures and mishaps. [BELOW: March 18 Legal Daily coverage of new rules in Chongzhou City via YNET.com].

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The Chongzhou rules, released by the official Xinhua News Agency on March 17, specify, according to Chinese media, that officials will be suspended or removed “if a major safety accident, epidemic or [other] negative incident occurs in their jurisdiction and is reported by mainstream media” (Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post).

The Xinhua News Agency release on the rules said they targeted township and village cadres in the city and specified that officials would be suspended or removed “in instances where major cases of violation of law or [Party] discipline occur, [or] major safety accidents, [or] large-scale natural disasters, [or] major epidemics, severely damaging the soft environment for investment, or exposed by mainstream media, or causing major losses to [local] enterprises.”

The last three phrases (underlined above) seemed to be presented as conditions for action in cases of official negligence or abuse of duty.

Chinese media today pointed out a number of gaps and inconsistencies in the Chongzhou rules, including the ambiguity of “mainstream media.” The term is sometimes used in Chinese to denote Party media, such as the official People’s Daily and China Central Television. As Chinese media rapidly commercialize, however, it has come to encompass, at other times, commercially driven mass media.

The following editorial, from Contemporary Life newspaper, was featured today at People’s Daily Online. It asks whether serious cases that are not reported by “mainstream media”, do not cause corporate losses, etcetera, will be irrelevant so far as the new Chongzhou rules are concerned:

… However, carefully poring over this news, I am really at a loss [as to what these rules mean]. First of all, if something is reported by “non-mainstream media” lying outside the “mainstream media” encompassed by these provisional rules, do these rules not apply? And will the responsibility of the official in question not be looked into? Secondly, if a severe case violating law and discipline occurs in some township of this city [of Chongzhou], but does not result in substantial corporate losses, rather severely harming the interests of ordinary people, and moreover is not reported by “mainstream media”, will [this case] not qualify for disciplinary action under the rules? Can the official involved simply go on in a high-minded fashion as though nothing happened whatsoever? If this is the case the “severe” repurcussions [these rules talk about] are just an empty line I’m afraid. This kind of systematic protection [of official abuse] is truly the most frightening thing of all!

“I staunchely believe that in coming out with a document like this the relevant [government] offices failed to think it through,” the editorial continued, but said the ramifications were all too clear:

Whatever the reason [for their creation], [the rules] have the effect of systematic protection for officials who committ errors. So if a case happens that does serious harm to the lives and interests of ordinary people, and is neither reported by mainstream media nor does serious harm to corporate interests, then there’s no need to make leaders responsible? Is this what we mean by “ruling for the people”? Is this kind of system creating yet another protection (保护伞) for those officials who lapse in their duties and should be held strictly responsible?

An editorial in Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post called it “inappropriate” to use media exposure as a basis for pursuing official responsibility:

First of all, media exposure cannot be used as a precondition for looking into official wrongdoing. Judging official responsibility is a task of discipline inspection authorities, and media exposure is merely a presentation to the public of facts in the case. Whether these facts merit official action, and how that action should be carried out, must be decided by discipline inspection authorities after thorough investigation. Even in the absence of media exposure, the presence of a problem and the existence of [bureaucratic] responsibility should merit investigation of cadres by the relevant authorities.

The editorial said the requirement that cases already exposed by “mainstream media” be followed up raised suspicions of official “theatrics” (有作秀的嫌疑):

Actually … exposing problems is the duty of the media … and determining official responsibility is the duty of discipline inspection authorities. These two do not overlap, and there is no necessary cause and effect relationship between them. Whether to investigate and how [are issues that] must proceed in accordance with the law — they have no relationship to whether or not the media have exposed [a case]. Linking discipline for official conduct with media exposure can only lead people to assume government offices are putting on a performance, and are not necessarily resolving the problems in question.

A page-four editorial in The Beijing News called the Chongzhou rules the latest case in the “insoluble contradition” of “ever more detailed rules yielding ever more chaos” at the local and regional level in China. “Lately not a few local governments … have come out with detailed rules or measures that seek to straighten out age-old problems. But as the clauses become more and more ‘thorough’ their effectiveness remains elusive.”

The reason for this, said The Beijing News editorial, was simple — the fact that the very process of discipline monitoring was controlled by the bureaucracy. Because power, it said, was “concentrated in the hands of a few ‘monitors’” this opened up room for “special power cliques” (特权群体)” to monopolize and control the process of discipline inspection, serving as both “players and referrees.” These officials could use their power, and rules like those in Chongzhou, to attack political opponents.

The Beijing News noted ironically that the Chongzhou rules (and other local measures) could potentially become “systems for transferring responsibility” (责任转移制):

It’s a good thing that news about the importance of supervision by public opinion [or watchdog journalism] has lately been on the rise. But whether it’s about some local government putting out [rules] saying officials must accompany reporters on their interviews, or these rules this time about officials “stepping down” when mainstream media have exposed them, all of these depart in my opinion from the proper aim of watchdog journalism, and could potentially become “systems for transferring responsibility.”

MORE SOURCES:
It is terrifying to offer ‘systematic protection’ for [official] errors“, Contemporary Life (当代生活报), March 19, 2007
Xinhua News Agency announcement on Chongzhou City rules, March 17, 2007
Should watchdog journalism be protected as a ‘right’ or mandated as a ‘duty’?“, CMP, January 10, 2007

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 19, 2007, 2:44pm]

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