'Cultural Reforms' to Target Media

China's upcoming Party plenum will debate how to better control the flow of information.
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A woman walks past a newsstand in Beijing, Aug. 7, 2010.
A woman walks past a newsstand in Beijing, Aug. 7, 2010.

China's top levels of leadership look set to further tighten their control over media and the Internet at a forthcoming Party plenum, Hong Kong media and analysts said.

The territory's Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper said that a key theme of this year's sixth plenary session of the 17th Party Congress would be "cultural reforms," a phrase analysts took to mean closer controls on freedom of expression.

During the plenum, which will run from Oct. 15-18 in Beijing, delegates would debate a motion on the "socialist development and reform of the cultural system," said the article.

Xie Xuanjun, a Chinese studies expert in New York, said the motion was unlikely to concern itself with the relaxation of controls on the media, in spite of repeated promises by incumbent premier Wen Jiabao that the government will begin political reforms.

"Don't think that this is about relaxing controls," Xie said. "It's not. It's actually a way of tightening control."

Media challenges

According to the Ming Pao article, the authorities would consider loosening restrictions on any sort of online comment which did not challenge or criticize its rule.

At the same time, the government would debate tighter controls over social media and cell phone messaging.

He said the ruling Communist Party's attitude towards new challenges posed by the media resembled that of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911).

"The Qing dynasty was brought down by newspapers," Xie said. "Or rather, by the open reporting of public opinion."

"The Chinese Communist Party had the newspapers under control through its propaganda department ... but then the Internet came along."

He said the main question to be debated was the level of control that was possible over the Internet and social media, especially China's hugely popular microblogging platforms.

"If the Party can't control them, then they could have the same effect as newspapers did 100 years ago," Xie said.

Suppressing information

Hangzhou-based veteran journalist and blogger Zan Aizong cited the recent news of a fight aboard an express train in which three people beat a passenger to death.

"By cell phone, it only takes a few seconds to turn this into text and publish it online," Zan said. "This piece of news will be seen instantly on microblogging sites by thousands or millions of people."

"It makes it very hard to suppress information."

He said one of the key themes of the plenum was "spiritual civilization," a similar idea to President Hu Jintao's "harmonious society."

"They are trying to introduce some discipline into the cultural realm," Zan said. "In reality, they're putting too much emphasis on it."

He said Party elders were currently concerned over issues such as the size and scope of media corporations, and whether or not they should be allowed to list on stock markets.

Public influence

Xie said online opinion had influenced a number of key decisions by Chinese officials, citing the recent U-turn on the death sentence for a convicted murderer in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

"The High Court in Yunnan commuted the death penalty ... but the public weren't having it, and there was a huge outburst online," he said.

"The court caved in to public pressure and changed the penalty back to death again, and executed [the man] immediately."

Last month, China's propaganda chief spoke publicly about the problems of controlling the activities of the country's 500 million netizens, fueling fears that further attempts at control are on the way.

Many online activists have expressed concern that further controls over China's Internet users are imminent, especially in the wake of official campaigns against "rumor-mongering" via social networks and microblogging platforms.

The authorities also placed two popular Beijing papers under the supervision of the propaganda department, prompting fears the papers will face even tighter censorship. 

Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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