By Gunjan Singh
Whether it was the social networks that caused the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings this winter is far from clear. The People’s Republic of China, however, is not willing to wait to learn its lessons in a postscript. It has instead chosen to enforce a strict ban on Google, Facebook and even Twitter, in anticipation of negative consequences following the ongoing public movement against the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. It shows that the second largest economy in the world continues to trade cautiously as far as dissemination and control of the flow of information to its people is concerned. There is a need to analyze the reasons fuelling this paranoid reaction from the Chinese government. The logical answer would be that China is also witnessing a large number of domestic protests, and the government is thus is worried about the spillover effects of the protests on the streets of Egypt on the protests in China.
Over time, many aspects of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have undergone change. Of these, the most prominent transformation within China has been the transformation of the media. “Letting go” (fang) in the economic realm and “tightening up’ (shou) in the political realm has completely altered the Chinese media. With the withdrawal of subsidies, media houses in China have to get more reader-friendly as their existence depends on the generation of advertisement revenues. Attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has become a more open process as the government is increasingly more concerned with the debate of transparency in politics.
In a very famous declaration, Hu Jintao said in 2009, “the government had always attached great importance to the development of the media, encouraging the Chinese media to be close to national conditions, life and the masses, and to create new concepts, new content, new methods and new means in order to make the media more accessible, attractive and appealing.” The Chinese media is also encouraged to play a key role in encouraging healthy trends, reflecting social conditions and public opinions, orienting public focus, soothing public dissatisfaction, ensuring supervision by public opinion and safeguarding the public right to information, participation in public affairs, expression and supervision. But when one analyzes the behaviour of the Chinese media during the Tibetan uprising (March 2008) and the SARS outbreak, the independent role of the media becomes questionable.
The process of the post-Mao Chinese model of economic reform was unique in many significant ways. In this model Deng Xiaoping adopted an open-door policy and market liberalization, which sowed the seeds for the eventual destruction of the one-party system in China, although this should be viewed as an unintended outcome of the opening up. Chinese communist power retreated slowly but steadily from society as a consequence of this radical socio-economic reform movement. Social pressure for further fundamental changes gained momentum. However, since this transition is still unfolding, the outcome can only be predicted and debated.
The Chinese media was caught in the cross currents of nationalism and globalization in the post-Tiananmen and post-Cold War era. The impact of globalization on the Chinese media has been quite fundamental. The introduction of newer technologies like the internet, telephone and television transformed the process of the flow of information. With this, there was an increase in the flow of media content across Chinese borders.
This openness of the media and the accessibility of information for the Chinese masses is becoming a cause of concern for the PRC. The easier it is for people to access information the more concerned the CCP gets about its implications. With a complete erosion of the politico-ideological basis for legitimacy, the era is marked by economic growth and nationalism as twin quasi-ideologies. The party state finds it especially difficult to configure the manner in which information in the age of microblogging should be ably dealt with.
The PRC, already worried about the prevalent level of discontent in China, is taking only one step at a time in dealing with information on Egypt. Economic might notwithstanding, the PRC is uncertain about the role of information in its national strategy. Given the ongoing government control of political content, it is far from clear whether market forces in China are liberating the media to become a voice of free expression, or whether they are simply exploiting it as a tool of public relations and outreach for and within the confines defined by the State.
Research Assistant, IDSA
email: [email protected]