Myth of new press freedoms in China shattered with arrest of “cyber-dissident” Liu Di

Today the Christian Science Monitor profiles Liu Di, the Chinese “cyber-dissident,” and in so doing smashes the myth — the lie — that the CCP is slowly but steadily increasing press freedoms.

Things are getting worse, not better. The reporter notes how publications that for a moment gave us hope that things were really changing, have been pressured and threatened into silence.

“People talk about changes in the Chinese media,” says a Beijing-based media expert. “But it goes up and down. All political news still goes through the state. When it comes to important questions, there isn’t any independent media.”

Liu Di sounds like one brave lady. I have boundless admiration for heroes like this who are willing to say what they believe, letting the cards fall where they may. And in China, we all know where the cards are going to fall:

A third-year psychology student at Beijing Normal University, Ms. Liu formed an artists club, wrote absurdist essays in the style of dissident Eastern-bloc writers of the 1970s, and ran a popular web-posting site. Admirers cite her originality and humor: In one essay Liu ironically suggests all club members go to the streets to sell Marxist literature and preach Lenin’s theory, like “real Communists.” In another, she suggests everyone tell no lies for 24 hours. In a series of “confessions” she says that China’s repressive national-security laws are not good for the security of the nation.

If that doesn’t merit a decade in a Chinese prison, what does?

From my own experience in China, where all I did was work with the media, I know that there are pockets of press freedom, and some editors still push the envelope. But this is more likely to occur in smaller, more “vertical” publications — those with a relatively small readership in a specific niche industry. These publications are far less likely to be read by government censors (and even if they are, their sphere of influence is so small they may escape censorship).

These are drops in the ocean. In its last paragraphs, the article acknowledge the crumbs of anecdotal evidence of “improvement” (very small crumbs) but its conclusions are unequivocal:

But these are exceptions. The rest – labor activists, upstart college students, journalists, writers, intellectuals, professors, dissidents, religious believers with too much spunk, those who stand out in a too-public fashion or attract too much attention – are warned, or arrested. In this reading of China, free expression is not improving in the short- and midterm.

Despite some changes of style, more arrests are taking place, and ordinary Chinese are still strictly censoring themselves.

I’ll say it again: Reform is as reform does. Anyone who wants to believe the spoon-fed CCP mantra that China’s press is becoming freer is entitled to do so. But the evidence doesn’t back up such lofty phrases; just ask the “cyber-dissidents” sitting alone in Chinese jail cells this very moment.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

You forgot to put a link to the Christian Science Monitor article you referred to in this post?

November 6, 2003 @ 2:18 am | Comment

Fixed. Thanks.

November 6, 2003 @ 2:52 am | Comment

China does not have a free press and it’s not going to have one anytime soon. But compared to five years ago, there is a LOT more freedom.

I have edited and managed various English and Chinese print magazines in China. One of them was closed down by the government. All were subject to censorship of some kind, and self-censorship is a daily reality for anyone doing any kind of media, even if the content is all fluffy lifestyle stuff.

But five years ago, even fluffy lifestyle stuff could get you into trouble. This has completely and irreversibly changed.

November 6, 2003 @ 8:34 am | Comment

Jeremy, I am sure you are right. Things are certainly better than they were 5 years ago in some ways; but in terms of criticizing the government, has there really been a lot more leeway given to the media?

I know what you mean about the fluff. A friend of mine worked for Leo Burnett a few years ago and needed to get a TV commercial approved. The spot included a nightclub singer holding a microphone as she sang, and the censors wouldn’t allow it because — get this — they said if she was holding a microphone people might see her as a newsperson, and the censors were afraid it would somehow cast a bad light on CCTV newspeople. They had to redo the ad. I guess there’s some kind of logic to that, but not much.

November 6, 2003 @ 9:31 am | Comment

On a small scale, there is a lot more criticism of the government. Even some of the comments you see in BBS on Sina and Sohu would have landed people in a lot of trouble until fairly recently. But of course any media criticism that attracts enough notice will cause heads to roll. So you’re right, there is not really any more leeway for serious political debate.

The Leo Burnett story reminds of being censored when I did Red Egg magazine. An article about Playstation had a headline that was a Chinese idiom meaning ‘people like to play games’. The censor told me it had to go because “people should be building socialism not playing games”. This was in a magazine funded by Wall Street investors.

November 6, 2003 @ 9:54 am | Comment

Building socialism — I really like that. I always want to get into the CHinese psyche, into the mind that come up with that sort of contorted logic. But I can’t, and I doubt if I ever will.

November 6, 2003 @ 11:56 am | Comment

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