Reflecting China's changing economic climate, the Chinese have been testing the limits of freedom of speech and expression through the use of online communications, including blogs. Participants in a World Leaders Forum last month discussed the impact of latest trends on the journalism profession in China: does a more fluid economic and social environment also allow for greater press freedom?
Cosponsored by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the Asia Society, and moderated by University president Lee C. Bollinger, the symposium -- part of the World Leaders Forum, which this year expands from United Nations week in September to include events year round -- explored the paradoxical situation faced by today's Chinese journalists. On the one hand, they are experiencing an unprecedented freedom to travel and gather information, as well as pressure to conform to market demands; on the other, they are still banned from exploring certain topics -- most notably, Tibet, democracy and Taiwan.
"We zigzag; we walk a fine line," said Anthony Yuen, managing editor and anchor for Phoenix TV in Hong Kong. If the central government does not like what a station is running, he said, they can "turn off your signal" -- something that he fortunately has yet to experience.
Xiguang Li, executive dean for the School of Journalism & Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing, pointed out that it is illegal to support Taiwan's claim for independent statehood. Journalists interested in writing about Taiwan would have to consider the implications for their career, he said.
Panelist Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, picked up on Li's point, noting that to this day, journalists who go too far risk paying the price of being jailed or having their newspapers closed. But there is good news as well, he added, which is that for all the journalists who are imprisoned, many more have been seeking ways to expand the boundaries of press freedom "in a non-confrontational way." As a result, "lots of good things are happening with freedom of the press."
One crucial issue that will help to determine China's capacity for improved news coverage has less to do with the government than with the status the Chinese assign to journalists in their society, noted a number of panelists. To this day, most Chinese journalists have only a high school education and lack professional skills and training. As a result, they are underpaid, which leads to the widely accepted practice of taking bribes.
"You get a packet of money at a press conference, and that is a large part of a journalist's income," explained Dorinda Elliott, former assistant managing editor of Time magazine and a reporter who worked in China for several years.
Moreover, in an atmosphere of rampant capitalism, journalists may be even more inclined to take a bribe, she said -- figuring it is their due from a system that thus far has provided them with comparatively few rewards.
By the end of the discussion, the only certainty was uncertainty: the bid for greater freedom in China is still too early to call. The notion that by introducing a market economy you automatically get civil liberties has been disproved, Neier said, citing Russia as an example of a country where civil liberties are being constricted while the market expands. Elliott suggested that many Chinese have made a "Faustian deal" with the authorities, in which they are allowed to go make money and have a better life so long as they keep quiet.
But press freedom and civil liberties may be difficult to stop, the Chinese panelists said, as Chinese society modernizes, the number of students attending universities increases, and more people have cell phones and access to the Internet -- despite attempts by the government to control search engines like Google and censor blogs.
For his part, Yuen concluded, if the government wants to limit freedom of the press, "they are fighting a losing battle."