SARS cover-up a blow to media reform
By Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Whether Beijing can make amends for its cover-up of the pneumonia outbreak is a good gauge of the Hu Jintao leadership's commitment to media reform.
Also, unless the new president can convince the world of his sincerity in loosening up news control, his pledge to liberalize the political system will also be cast into doubt.
For the past month, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has been excoriated for blacking out news about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which erupted in Guangdong Province late last year.
Supporters of Hu and like-minded colleagues such as Premier Wen Jiabao, however, have argued that they have done a reasonably good job in damage control.
Last week, the Chinese Center for Disease Control issued an indirect but significant apology for failing to adequately inform the public -- and the world -- about the spread of the disease.
More significantly, orders have since late last month been given to regional authorities to allow journalists to report even "negative" events and phenomena without undue delay.
Cadres in a number of provinces and cities have made public "regulations on not denying access to news media."
As a example of this policy, the official Xinhua news agency last week cited officials in Yining city in faraway Xinjiang region, who vowed to "enthusiastically" cooperate with journalists -- and to "accept media supervision."
The China News Service (CNS) reported last Thursday that municipal authorities of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, called a press conference on March 31 to give details of an explosion at a local primary school.
The mishap, which injured 12 pupils, had occurred a mere four hours before the briefing.
CNS said this showed governments of all levels had begun to respect the public's zhiqing quan or "right to know."
According to media circles in Beijing, there is no denying that not long after Hu had become CCP General Secretary last November, the 60-year-old leader took steps to gradually lift the party's straitjacket on the media.
Much of Hu's fresh approach has been spelt out by Politburo member in charge of ideology and propaganda, Li Changchun, in a series of meetings with media officials and senior editors since January.
"Apart from pledges about expanding zhiqing quan, Li indicated news reporting 'must be close to the masses, close to life and close to the truth'," said a Guangzhou-based news executive.
The executive said Li, who is not known for his open-mindedness, was but repeating Hu's edicts.
This so-called sunshine policy on media administration was summed up in a message released by the Politburo after a late March meeting.
Again reflecting Hu's instructions, it said Chinese journalism should be rendered "closer to the practical [world], closer to the people, and closer to life."
Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said the unprecedentedly extensive coverage of the war in Iraq by CCTV and other media was a result of the Hu team's new press policies.
The analysts said, however, that apart from rectifying SARS-related mistakes, the leadership must in particular address accusations it had muzzled an avant-garde Guangdong paper, the 21st Century World Herald.
The Herald was last month ordered to suspend publication after it had carried an interview with respected liberal party elder Li Rui.
Journalists in the province, however, say the Herald may resume publication if there is a relaxation in Beijing's political climate.
A Beijing source familiar with the Hu camp said one sign the Hu leadership might forge ahead with media reform after a brief retreat was that the authorities had not penalized another liberal magazine, the Yanhuang Chunqiu, that had also run a Li Rui article recently.
He said, however, Hu was indeed adopting a more cautious posture on liberalization compared to the first couple of months after becoming CCP supremo.
"Upon being named party general secretary last winter, Hu laid out a road map to foster what he calls 'political civilization'," the source said.
"The blueprint includes not only supervision of the government by the people and the media but also constitutional reforms, including some form of checks and balance within the system."
For example, while not openly giving up the principle of CCP leadership, Hu hinted in internal talks that mechanisms and institutions would gradually be introduced to ensure a balance of power among the party, government, legislature and judiciary.
And it was under this spirit that forward-looking regional cadres such as the Mayor of Shenzhen, Yu Youjun, had early this year revealed to Western and Chinese journalists experiments his city was about to undertake.
For example, Yu told Xinhua there would be a "tripartite division of power" among Shenzhen's decision-making, executive and supervisory departments.
In talks to foreign reporters, the mayor indicated there would be "separation of power" among party, government and legislative organs in his city.
Yet it soon became apparent that such bold ideas, which recall those of disgraced party chief Zhao Ziyang, had encountered resistance from conservative elements in the party -- and Hu had to sue for compromise.
This is despite the fact that the president had in early spring continued to privately flag his liberal inclinations through several symbolic gestures.
For example, Hu attended the funeral of Qin Chuan, a former People's Daily editor known for his radical views.
He also paid a visit to the widow of former party chief Hu Yaobang, a leader of the CCP's liberal wing.
Immediately after the National People's Congress last month, the president cited four principles that would guide Chinese politics: "developing democracy; administration according to law; upholding CCP leadership; and letting the people be masters of the country."
The former hydraulic engineer did not explain the obvious contradictions among the different parts of this equation.
According to a retired party cadre, Hu had struck a deal with conservative elements including former president Jiang Zemin that for the foreseeable future, political reform should be pared down to just two elements: rule by law and an enhanced level of media supervision.
Thus at his post-NPC press conference, Premier Wen highlighted "democratic supervision" by saying his government would "self-consciously accept supervision by the masses and by the press."
Given the SARS and 21st Century World Herald sagas, however, it seems clear the Hu-Wen leadership has been unable to live up to even a circumscribed definition of political reform.
In spite of Hu and Wen's largely successful efforts to cut an image of being "servants of the masses," they have yet to convince Chinese and foreigners alike that the leadership considers values such as zhiqing quan and press freedom more important than the vested interests of the ruling clique.