Wednesday, April 12, 2006

To Censor Disaster? (Chinese Censorship Analysis)

There are some who believe China’s censorship of press freedom, and allegiance to the Communist party, has gone too far and may endanger the lives of Chinese citizens in crisis situations. Unlike in the United States press, reporting for the citizens and reporting for the good of the Communist party are considered part of the same job for journalists in China. Therefore, analyzing whether or not the government is overstepping its boundaries and blocking out valuable safety information to citizens in times of need is a respectable goal. The purpose of this paper is to compare recent reactions of the Chinese press and Chinese government in times of crisis, to determine if actual transparency of governmental information and action really exists. As the Chinese press is simultaneously the only check to the Chinese government and controlled by the Chinese government, I will consider the Chinese press and the Chinese government as one entity for the purposes of this paper.

China first received harsh criticism for its loyalty to the Communist party over the protection of citizens during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. Initially, SARS was in China’s Guangdong Province only - but after attempts to cover up the disease, the disease spread to Beijing and other provinces, turning a regional disaster into a national disaster. In total, an estimated $48 billion USD was lost by China (Yu, 2003, p. 91). This cover-up was a problem because the Chinese government treated the SARS outbreak as a political problem and demanded that all news agencies in China (which are state operated) defend the country from damaging political press by not covering the outbreak. The fallout from this was damaging for China’s tourism industry, and was seen worldwide, as a callous strategic move by China (“Old habits die hard…,” 2005).

In an attempt to save face, China had their Beijing mayor and their health minister removed from office for mishandling the release of information (McGregor, 2005, p. 6). This was a step towards transparency, and an explanation for the bigger step which followed.

In fall of 2005, the bird flu epidemic was the chief concern of people worldwide. The United States spent billions on protecting its own citizens from such an epidemic. China, an emerging world power and home to a confirmed bird flu case, felt the pressure of the world on its back to control the epidemic, which was predicted by the World Bank to cost the global economy roughly $800 billion if not controlled (Roberts, 2005, p. 1). Nobody wanted another repeat of the SARS fiasco. "Bird flu has suddenly become a global concern," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's People's University in Roberts (2005). "It's clear that how Beijing controls it will affect their international image."

Contrary to what some may have thought, China allowed its own reporters to have full access and ability to publish anything about bird flu. In Roberts (2005), according to Hu Shuli, editor of the Chinese financial weekly Caijing, "We have been playing a very active role in reporting this. This time the government seems to appreciate the role of the media." The government even issued public information kits on Avian Flu, with information about who to contact during an outbreak, and frequently asked questions (Roberts, 2005, p. 2). Regina Ching, assistant director of health for the Central Health Education Unit, said in Roberts (2005), “We've learned a lot since the SARS outbreak, and all this is what we call now risk communication." Perhaps, China had begun to shape up its full disclosure policies and coverage of crisis. Li Xudong, a PhD student at Beijing University agreed, saying in Roberts (2005), "The government has been more transparent, has acted earlier, and is proving more effective compared with SARS."

Most recently though, events have muddied the assumed progression towards transparency. In November of 2005, a chemical plant in Jilin China, off of the Songhua river, blew up and threw 100 tons of deadly chemicals into the neighboring Songhua river.  The Jilin government reported the environment had not been contaminated. Meanwhile, Jilin officials were releasing water from a nearby reservoir to dilute the concentration of toxins in the river. It eventually took one week for government officials to admit the river was contaminated and shut down the water supply to the down-river city of Harbin, with a population of four million.

Despite the government’s shady role in the cover-up, Chinese press was allowed considerable freedoms to report on the government. The China Economic Times reported, according to McGregor (2005), “If individual leaders tell lies irresponsibly, this is an extremely terrible crime against society, because any rumor could trigger a social disaster.” China Youth Daily asked, according to McGregor (2005), “Did they really have no knowledge (of the serious contamination) or did they deliberately conceal it?” These are harsh words for a country which censors its own press.

Some people currently believe that China has been progressing more and more towards transparency in crisis situations, arguing that without transparency, others in the world would not have even known outbreaks or chemical spills in China even occurred. Supporters of this position point towards the lax regulations on Chinese business newspapers, and English written news coming from China as well (Yu, 2003, p. 91). These examples should show evidence of foreign pressure and capitalism exerting itself on Chinese regulations. Those who see progress, claim that as the world becomes more interested in China, the transparency of China becomes clearer. This is evident in the SARS fiasco, and the treatment of Avian Flu. Had the rest of the world not been concerned about SARS outbreak spreading beyond China, there might not have been punishment of the mayor of Bejing and the health minister. There might not have been such an open approach by China with Avian Flu either, had other countries like the United States not invested so much in funding to prevent Avian Flu from spreading and threatened bans of Chinese poultry exports. In regards to the Jilin fiasco, those who feel China is progressing towards transparency will cite the fact that the news media was allowed a liberal amount of freedom in saying what it wished. This, supporters say, is sound evidence China is shifting towards transparency since now Chinese people know a mistake happened.

Others however, hold that China has not changed much. This, in turn, risks the safety of citizens by denying access to information: a key element to one’s survival. Pointing to the SARS outbreak and the lack of information flow – naysayers of Chinese governmental transparency believe China only reacted openly to the Avian Flu crisis to satisfy foreign demands and save their own economic future. Trade with the United States is vital - so any interest the United States has becomes China’s interest. People who say China is not transparent are drawn to the most modern tragedy of the chemical plant in Jilin. The fact that this situation is more modern refutes the idea of progress even if the incident with Avian Flu was one of true transparency. Chinese officials deliberately denied the fact a crisis ever occurred. Yes, journalists reported liberally, but the fact the chemical plant exploded was virtually undeniable, and after-the-fact reporting had to be allowed. It is also notable that China has a history of letting reporters speak liberally, and then snuffing them out when the public spotlight has turned off. For example, after the crisis of SARS had passed in Guangdong, the newspaper editors who published expose stories on the cover-up were either fired or demoted (McGregor, 2005, p. 7).

Whether or not an optimistic viewpoint of China’s transparency is taken – there can be agreement that friction exists between party control of the country and governmental transparency. This is the new age of Chinese informational sharing - where the traditional party desires, and the new age of information are coming together. No matter which position one thinks China is trending towards on the issue of transparency, one must agree that it is only a trend existing within a larger culture that censures information quite often. The debate is whether or not the censoring of crisis situations in China is heavy or light, with a ‘light’ dose of Chinese censure exceeding what many people in Western countries would be accepting of.

It also seems that China is beginning to see greater friction between the press and the government. Regardless of if one believes China’s press is more vocal or not, one will have to agree on the potential it now has to grow – with the influx of technology innovations like blogs, and other internet technologies which can outrun the guillotine of governmental censure. In addition, the rise of China into the global economy will undoubtedly put more critique upon itself from outside sources, digging for more information.

The future of China remains uncertain, and the strategy of information sharing during times of crisis that China employs can still be considered unknown in the present time. However, as more and more people become plugged in and tuned into China, more people both in and outside of China, will want to know just what is going on in a time of crisis. It is too early to tell for certain if political considerations will usurp individual safety, but perhaps the general awareness of two opposing positions based on modern events, will help give way to solid, contemporary theories.


Dexter, Roberts. (2005, November 17). This time, Beijing gets transparent. Business Week Online. Retrieved February 15, 2005, from Academic Search Elite (EBSCO):

McDonald, Joe. (2005, December 5). China clings to culture of secrecy; river disaster | embarrassment, criticism unlikely to increase openness, observers say. Seattle Times, P. A8.

McGregor, Richard. (2005, November 26). China media open up in aftermath of chemical spill newspaper have taken advantage of new leniency to criticize the government response to the disaster. Financial Times. P. 6.

Old habits die hard China’s heavy-handed efforts at damage control slow progress. (2005, December 2). The Fresno Bee, p. B8.

Yu, Sun. (2003, Winter). Lessons from SARS Coverage. Nieman Reports Vol. 57, pg. 91.


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