Speaking in Deutsche Welle's 2011 Global Media Forum, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, sincerely believed that they have the right to intervene in China's domestic affairs in terms of freedom of expression because it is a "natural right," with little awareness that such a libertarian conception of freedom was academically bankrupt. In Britain, the phone hacking scandal of the News of the World exposed how far the market-controlled media can breach people's privacy. Sometimes, Western journalists and travelers preferred an equally simple way of talking about speech freedom in China. They put certain words such as "Tian'anmen" into the Google search box and when the results did not come out as they anticipated, they confirmed earlier held stereotypes.
Hence, two opposing descriptions about speech freedom in China can be told, one from the Chinese government saying that the Chinese fully enjoy this freedom, the other from Western politicians and reporters saying that the Chinese are systematically deprived of such a right. Both sides are being unrealistic. To understand the type of speech freedom that China has, it is helpful to come to terms with the consecutive rise of the market forces in 1978 and of grassroots actors in 2003 and their influence over public opinion on a myriad of topics of the society.
The commercialization of the information sector that began as part of economic reform since 1978 provided the material means for the later rise of grassroots movements. A profit-oriented media can't afford to pay little attention to the information needs of its consumers. Growing out of the post-1978 process were two important groups of media outlets: urban media, represented by Southern Media Group, which maintains a critical stance toward state power on domestic issues, and economic media, represented by Caijing magazine and CCTV Economic Channel, which keep expanding their coverage of economic issues to include human rights concerns.
In 2003, grassroots voices arose with the Internet just in time to prevent the state and market from locking people's space of speech into numerous contractual relationships and intellectual property regulations. They have succeeded in submerging traditional media into voices of the people. The importance of the year 2003 was marked by two Internet-related events: the SARS epidemic and the Sun Zhigang case. In the former case, the state's initial disguise of the SARS epidemic sent a fatal blow to its credibility in an era of instant online communication and resulted in a radical change of state mentality. In the latter case, Sun Zhigang was beaten to death for not having a temporary residence permit, and the outcry led to the abolition of a biased state regulation dividing rural and urban citizens.
Since then, Internet activism has covered a widening spectrum, ranging from doctor-patient disputes, school entrance examination scandals, underpayment to migrant workers, corruption of civil servants, illegal seizure of private property, animal rights, children and women smuggling, slave labor, chemical pollution, traffic management, food contamination, waste treatment, school security, climate change, inappropriate celebrity behavior, and freedom of expression itself.
Loosened state control and unformed market control have given Chinese media a "water" nature. In Chinese philosophy, water is one of the five elements along with wood, fire, metal and earth. Water is seen as dynamic, versatile, fluid and flexible – like the media communication based on micro-electronic technologies found in China. Communication has become a flow of flows, an interaction of interactions, and a moving state of change. In such a fully networked society, the attempts made by state regulators and by market spinners to break and divide these processes often fall apart, no matter how flexibly they were organized.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/xupeixi.htm
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