China’s annual full session of the National People’s Congress, the country’s highest government body, will convene this week, and Premier Wen Jiabao’s online chat with Internet users last Saturday, in the run-up to this week’s session, has prompted varying reactions in Hong Kong. Personally, I do not agree with those who are completely dismissive of the move, saying it is purely a publicity stunt — “putting on a show,” or zuo sao (做骚), in Cantonese, and what we mainlanders would call to zuo xiu (作秀).
I feel quite sure that Premier Wen speaks from his heart when he hopes that “ordinary people can live with more dignity,” or when he talks, as he has in recent years, about the need for democracy (民主), political reform (政改) and supervision by public opinion (舆论监督).
But Wen Jiabao is powerless. His remarks, as pleasing and encouraging as they may sound when they come off his tongue, are rendered totally void by the stubborn powers that surround and constrain him.
While Wen’s chat may not be conceived as an empty “show,” I do think this online exercise is a seriously inadequate way of listening to public opinion in China. The premier may wish to speak directly to Internet users, but it goes without saying that the vast and intrusive system of controls on the Internet erases a great many opinions that should be heard.
And even if the conversation were not manipulated and restricted, this kind of spontaneous fast-food dialogue cannot possibly be an effective way of exploring policy issue in any meaningful depth — even if it does allow the leadership to dip its toes into the pool of public sentiment.
As an alternative to this shallow exchange, I suggest that Premier Wen Jiabao take a hard look at the ideas expressed by media of conscience in China. He might begin, for example, by looking at the March 1 editorial issued jointly by 14 newspapers and three Websites, “Will Our NPC Delegates Please Turn Their Attention and Efforts to the Reform of the Household Registration System.”
[ABOVE: 16 of the 17 commercial media in China that issued a joint editorial on the household registration system on March 1.]
Generally reported to have the support of 13 newspapers, the joint editorial was in fact endorsed by the following 14 newspapers:
1. Economic Observer (经济观察报)
2. Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报)
3. Yunnan Information News (云南信息报)
4. Inner Mongolia Evening Post (内蒙古晨报)
5. Southeast Evening Post (东南晚报)
6. Huashang Bao (华商报)
7. Anhui Commercial Daily (安徽商报)
8. City Evening News (城市晚报)
9. Xin’an Evening Post (新安晚报)
10. Chongqing Times (重庆时报)
11. Dahe Daily (大河报)
12. Xiaoxiang Morning Post (潇湘晨报)
13. Metro Times (都市时报)
14. Liaoning Evening Post (辽沈晚报)
Sina.com, Economic Observer Online and Phoenix Online provided support on the Internet side.
All of these newspapers and Websites are what we would call “commercial media” in China, differentiated from the “party media,” by which we mean media that are operated directly by party organs.
In China and elsewhere, the joint editorial is a rare form of expression. Ahead of the climate change conference in Copenhagen, 54 newspapers from 44 nations ran a joint editorial calling for reductions in carbon emissions. Included on that list were just two Chinese publications, China’s Southern Metropolis Daily and Economic Observer.
“China has long suffered under the household registration system!” the March 1 joint editorial declared. In clear violation of China’s Constitution, it said, the two-tiered system of household registration cleaves China’s urban and rural residents into two distinct and unequal classes, and restricts the free movement of Chinese citizens.
Will this [system of] segregation persist for several generations more? . . . Will this inequality persist for several generations more?
The editorial “strongly urged” the National People’s Congress to pressure relevant government ministries to abolish the 1958 Household Registration Ordinance (户口登记条例).
We hope that the millions of our nation will not be separated into north and south, into city and countryside, that they all enjoy the right to employment, medical care, pensions, education and freedom of movement. We hope that the rigid household registration system ends with our generation. Let the next generation enjoy the sacred rights enshrined in our constitution, to freedom, democracy and equality.
[ABOVE: The joint editorial runs on page one of the Economic Observer on March 1.]
The joint editorial’s style, and its tone of righteousness, imitate the style of Chinese literati toward the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republican period. Writing of this kind, which boldly and directly faces the present realities, is rarely seen in openly published newspapers and magazines in China — and it is increasingly scarce even in “free” Hong Kong.
Without a doubt, Chinese media are struggling through a thorny terrain of public opinion controls. But media professionals pursuing their right to free expression have not yielded to adversity.
There are courageous and intelligent journalists in China who understand where the boundaries lie, but who also work conscientiously to make progress where there are gaps and opportunities for expression.
The issue of reforms to the household registration system will not necessarily become a key item on the agenda for this session of the NPC. But calls for action are growing louder both inside and outside the system, and we are already approaching a critical point for reform of the system. This is the most opportune moment for the media to make their voice heard.
China’s media have a long road ahead in seeking independence, and true freedom of speech is a distant goal. Some journalists and media have thrown up their hands and turned away from this struggle. They do as they are told, steering clear of controversy and serving as tools of government propaganda — making money the whole time.
Other journalists are overly anxious and take a contrarian attitude regardless of present circumstances. What the government opposes, they stand for as a matter of principal. What the government advocates, they oppose in turn. They have utterly given up the idea that progress can be made by inching forward.
This joint editorial should inspire us, and at the same time remind us that reform in China must be achieved from inside and outside the system. Achieving democracy in China demands that everyone of strong will and conscience works steadily and unceasingly to reach this goal by steps.
I hope Premier Wen Jiabao gives this joint editorial the attention it deserves. And I hope delegates to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress likewise give it its due.
Aside from the points the joint editorial urges, I hope China’s leaders also understand and recognize the importance of the “intermediary class” (中间层) in the process of developing Chinese democracy. This class includes intellectuals, citizen’s organizations, and the media. They are in tune with public sentiment. They sort through the views and concerns of the public and relay these to policy makers. They criticize public policy and offer alternatives.
The knowledge conveyed by this “intermediary class” includes the opinions of China’s massive Internet population. But their facts, ideas and opinions are fuller and more rational than any that might be shared by an average Internet user through a superficial online exchange.
With all due respect to the premier, it is much less profitable for him to spend his time chatting online with “netizens” of dubious identity — in an exchange that will inevitably be dismissed as a publicity stunt — than it would be to interact more readily with the media, and particularly with those media who have the courage to speak the truth.
In fact, the process of running this joint editorial never went smoothly. Of the 14 newspapers involved, about half ultimately did not dare to publish it. In mainland China, this is called “being harmonized,” or bei hexie (被和谐) in tongue-in-cheek reference to President Hu Jintao’s policy of the “harmonious society.”
Other newspapers ran the editorial but altered the headline, replacing the more aggressive words “strongly urge,” or duncu (敦促), with softer pleas.
This is simply the way things work in China. People are not yet accustomed to making their own independent voices heard outside the tone set by the government. This is true for more timorous suggestions on issues of reform, and it is certainly true for jointly organized acts of expression on matters of public policy.
But there is another fact to glimpsed here. And that is that the trend toward political democracy is unstoppable in China. Reform will come. That much is certain.