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What Spurred Crackdowns and New Restrictions on Chinese Press and Internet Media

January 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez talks to James Fallows of the Atlantic and Ming Wan of George Mason University about China's new leadership may approach government oversight of Chinese print and digital media.
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, we turn to James Fallows, national correspondent for “The Atlantic,” who’s written extensively about China. His latest book is “China Airborne.” And Ming Wan is professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He was born in Beijing, left when he was 25, and is now a U.S. citizen.

Professor Wan, was there an event, a sparking moment, a reason for the government to both crack down on Southern Weekly and on the Internet, or is this more of a just change in approach toward free speech in China?

MING WAN, George Mason University: I think in the buildup to the power transition, the party Congress, the Chinese government tightened the control in Internet and also the press.

So this is just continuations of what they have been doing. This particular incident, we don’t know whether the propaganda official who did all that was instructed to do it or he was sort of taking the — interpreting the political atmosphere in such a way that he thought that was the right thing to do.

But part of the reason that you see these protests is of course they have experienced censorship, and things were getting worse last year. I think people are just fed up.

RAY SUAREZ: James Fallows, you have been visiting China and talking to Chinese on the street periodically over the years. Does this reaction to the suppression of the Southern Weekly surprise you?

JAMES FALLOWS, “The Atlantic Monthly”: It’s — it impresses me.

And I think what’s significant here is this is the latest manifestation of struggles that have been going on for 30 years, since China liberalized, and the last five or six years, when the Chinese economy was reaching maturity in many ways and the political system has been lagging behind, that the sophistication of the people and the maturity of the economy.

There have been for four or five years struggles over Internet censorship. Google has been having its — its phrase. There was during the time of the Arab spring that there was a lot of crackdown in China to avoid the counterpart Jasmine protests.

And so the real argument in China is whether the continued development of its economy and its social system will be matched by all the other attributes of a free, liberal society and that’s the real question for China’s future, I think.

RAY SUAREZ: If you had any doubts, in covering the protests, one party organ said, the party’s control over the media is — and this is their word — ‘unshakable.”

JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. Well, there was…

RAY SUAREZ: Is that just the way that showing that it is shakable after all or…

MING WAN: Right. And there are sort of subtle differences in the Chinese audience as well.

Some media, like Global Times from Beijing, tend to be more nationalistic and Southern Weekly is known to be more independent. And that’s part of the reason that it became the target of this sort of a crackdown. And that’s also part of the reason that you see people rallying around Southern Weekly, because they see this as an important voice for them.

That’s what James said earlier. The Chinese society has become wealthier and more educated. And people have alternative sources of information. They travel. And in that context, the government censorship just looks silly and demeaning.

RAY SUAREZ: Those people on the street aren’t afraid of losing their jobs, they aren’t afraid of losing their apartments?

Entertainers with 19, 20, and 30 million followers on the Web are supporting the strikers, supporting Southern Weekly. In the old days, wouldn’t they have fear for their future livelihoods and for their families?

JAMES FALLOWS: Sure. If we were talking 30 years ago or 50 years ago, during the Mao era, of course there was totalitarian control. Even 30 years ago, there was still a lot of control.

Now I think what impresses most visitors, including those who, unlike Professor Wan, weren’t born there and are seeing it anew, is the range of conditions. Some things are very tightly controlled. You can’t organize for any kind of activity that might be a challenge to the government.

Certain kinds of the media really are controlled. And other things are just wide-open. So it’s that tension. And we see it in the media, too. Some like Southern Weekend try very hard and they are very brave journalist. Others are just kind of mouthpieces for the government.

So that range and diversity create a tension in China, something that’s often underappreciated in the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: But is there a limit to this? We have got a new leadership in place. Every country in the world that gets richer gets freer.

Is China trying, are the leaders trying to make it a rich country that remains less free?

MING WAN: The government is certainly trying to do that.

In fact, with the global recession, they even argue that the Chinese system might be better. But the people in China disagree. In fact, the government themselves are pretty insecure. And part of the reason why they are trying to tighten the control is because they feel vulnerable.

They know the social protests by the farmers, by urban residents, by workers. And what’s interesting about this event is this is largely so far is China’s middle class, educated, wealthy.

And, as one would expect, unlike people elsewhere, they want to have the right to know. It matters to them, not just sort of freedom of speech. It matters to their lives, tribal and all the other things.

So that’s part of the reason you will see. Essentially, you touch off this sort of protest movement. It’s actually — I think it’s wider than what we see. The reason, I would say, it’s harder to organize, but clearly there’s evidence there is widespread sympathy for the Southern Weekly.

RAY SUAREZ: Because, James, isn’t China trying to modernize, trying to expose its people to the world? And is there something contradictory about, at the same time, trying to control the Web, which is one of those doorways that you open to the rest of the world?

JAMES FALLOWS: Exactly.

I think this is the contradiction of China that affects its future or makes it both fascinating and important. On the one hand, the system has to change, for the reasons Professor Wan was saying, that the sophistication of the people, if they want to have more mature industries, it has to change.

On the other hand, it can’t change because there are so many vested interests who have so much to lose and so my hyper-suspicious and paranoid figures in the leadership. So that contradiction is the one we’re going to see played out, and I don’t know which side of it is going to prevail.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? And will it tell us something about the new leaders in China, where stories like the Southern Weekly story, how they end.

MING WAN: Yes. And these are tests of the new leadership, in particular for the — also the leadership in GuangdongProvince. The new party chief is a young rising star, and one of the persons who people are watching for — as the possible next top leader in China.

And the recent reports seems to indicate that he was negotiating sort of a settlement between the journalists, and essentially let them go back to work without being punished as long as they agreed to publish still on Thursday. And they’re on strike right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Who wins in that case? If they take the ultimatum and go back to work, have they won?

JAMES FALLOWS: I think any — any solution that doesn’t involve just a crackdown and a step backwards is a step forward.

So what we’d like to see, I think what most people in China would like to see and the rest of the world is a government comfortable enough to allow freer and freer expression, in pace with the greater and greater capacities of its people. So we will hope for negotiations away from the brink, because a frontal showdown with government power cannot turn out well.

RAY SUAREZ: James Fallows, Professor Wan, thank you both.

MING WAN: Thank you.

JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you.