“Information Wants To Be Free”

(From guest-blogger Other Lisa, cross-posted at Other Lisa’s blog, The Paper Tiger)

I once worked with a guy who had a PhD in Library and Information Science. One of his favorite nuggets of wisdom was “information wants to be free.” To which I once replied with a couple of lines about the role of entropy in communication. But I digress.

I think there’s a great deal of truth to that line – the one about information trying to wiggle its way out of whatever traps have been set to confine it. A recent uproar in the Chinese blogosphere is a case in point. In spite of a government policy to increasingly limit public debate and political discourse, information will often find its way around official limits.

The South China Morning Post published this account of a bitter struggle at China Youth Daily over press censorship and the intrusion of party propaganda into reporting:

A veteran editor of the outspoken China Youth Daily has taken the newspaper’s editor-in-chief to task for allegedly restraining editorial freedom and succumbing to party dogma.

In a high-profile move, Li Datong, who edits the Bingdian Weekly, an influential section of the paper that runs investigative stories every Wednesday, wrote an open letter to the paper’s staff questioning a new appraisal system which pegs journalists’ bonuses to praise by party and government leaders….

Most mainland reporters receive payments for their articles on top of their basic salaries. Some newspapers weigh the price of articles by their quality, while others go by their length.

According to Li Datong’s letter, reports would gain 50 credit points for being among the top three most-read articles, while 80 credit points would be given to those praised by the secretariat of the Communist Youth League.

Stories praised by state government bodies and provincial leaders would gain 100 points, while acclaim from the Communist Party Publicity Department would be worth 120 points.

ESNW provides a complete translation of Li Datong’s letter. It really is something that should be read in its entirety. Here are some highlights:

The core of these regulations is that the standards for appraising the performance of the newspapers will not be on the basis of the media role according to Marxism. It is not based upon the basic principles of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not based upon the spirit of President Hu Jintao about how power, rights and sentiments should be tied to the people. It is not based upon whether the masses of readers will be satisfied. Instead, the appraisal standard will depend upon whether a small number of senior organizations or officials like it or not…

As I read these regulations, I could not believe my eyes. When a report or a page received the highest accolade from the readers, only 50 points is awarded. But if a certain official likes it, there is at least 80 extra points up to a maximum of 300 point! Even worse, in the section on ‘subtracting points,’ points will be deducted when officials criticize it. What does that mean?

This means that no matter how much effort was put into your report, no matter how difficult your investigation was, no matter how well written your report was, and even if your life had been threatened during the process (and enough reporters have been beaten up for trying to report the truth), and no matter how much the readers praised the report, as long as some official is unhappy and makes a few “critical” comments, then all your work is worth zero, you have added zero to the reputation of the newspaper and your readers’ opinions is worth less than a fart — in fact, you will be penalized as much as this month’s wages!

The China Youth Daily is known for its aggressive reporting and its willingess to expose official corruption. What makes this controversy particularly intriguing is that China Youth Daily is the house organ of the Communist Party Youth League, one of President Hu Jintao’s bastions of support and power – and Hu Jintao is generally considered to have ordered the crackdown on media.

I don’t know that I’m able to make sense of that conundrum, other than to once again note that the opacity of Chinese politics often makes it very tough to determine with certainty the real goals of any particular actor.

But illustrating the difficulty of completely controlling information in the age of the internet, Li Datong’s letter was leaked to a Chinese BBS. Authorities yanked it, but by then the letter had spread throughout the Chinese blogosphere. And made its way to the English language, thanks to the sterling work of ESWN.

UPDATE: Here’s the latest, thanks to Dylan – I don’t have the URL for you yet but will try to get it later. Dylan posted the entire excerpt in the “comments” but here’s the upshot:

BEIJING, Aug 18 (AFP) – A leading state-run Chinese newspaper has scrapped a controversial appraisal system linking reporters’ pay to government approval after a high-profile protest by a veteran editor, sources said Thursday.

Li Datong, a senior editor at the China Youth Daily, launched a rare attack on his employer over the plan to link salaries and bonuses to how much praise journalists receive from government and communist party officials.

The unexpected move to dump the proposal was announced after the management held meetings to discuss concerns by Li and other editorial staff, said senior staff members who refused to be named.

“They have scrapped the appraisal system and will design another new plan,” a staff member close to the discussions told AFP.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

Today is happy day for China Daily crowd. Thank you CD, and thank you China Lovers. No more horse mouth .

This Duck must be next.

August 18, 2005 @ 1:52 am | Comment

That would kind of put a crimp in my whole “information wants to be free” theory, wouldn’t it?

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

August 18, 2005 @ 1:57 am | Comment

truth wants to be free, misinformation and humiliation story need to be banned. Same in Western countries – racial vilification law for example .

August 18, 2005 @ 2:03 am | Comment

Please point me to an entry in the Horse’s Mouth that is equivalent to racial vilification.

August 18, 2005 @ 4:26 am | Comment

Who’s posting these threats anonymously? Very ironic that it’s on a thread concerning a principled Chinese journalist’s resistance to rigid CCP control of a media organ. I also find it ironic that someone condemning Western “misinformation and humiliation” of Chinese nonetheless needs to define acceptable practices in these matters in terms of explicitly Western standards.

August 18, 2005 @ 9:09 am | Comment

I think Anon #1 is being sarcastic…

You know, I put up this post and at the same time am fuming over the blockage of blog-city. I’d started my blog-city site, a mirror of my already blocked site (because it’s on blogspot) at the request of several readers in the PRC who had trouble accessing blogspot. I woudn’t even say that my blog is very controversial for the most part – I’ll post things like this, but the post below it is about baseball…so I guess the Net Nanny has saved the Chinese people from seeing photos of Petco Park.

It will be interesting to see if the Great Firewall provides any greater “protection” than the Great Wall did. You know, some unhappy guy is always opening the gates and letting the barbarians in…

August 18, 2005 @ 10:13 am | Comment

Lisa,

I can’t cross-post this at your blog, because it’s blocked in China as you know. (And I would rather reply there than here, because already this thread is going askew, entropically.) But my response to the theory that “information wants to be free”, is:

1. A reminder that the etymological meaning of “information” is something which “forms…in” or “inwardly”, something which forms our inner selves. (It’s a Latin thing.)
2. The original meaning of the word, “information”, referred to the personal and inward mind, rather than to something external. The emphasis was on the thinker, rather than on the external “stuff” (And the words and its origins go back to before Descartes – to a time before Descartes pretended to separate thinking subjects from objects….)
3. So, information is inseparable from personal human minds – emphasis on personal. (There is no such thing as a “collective” consciousness, much as I admire Jung he was wrong about that. The more collective any “consciousness” is, the less conscious it is, and the less realistic it is…ants and lemmings and fish have collective consciousness, good for nothing except survival as dumb beasts…..)
4. “Information” does not have any desires or intentions. But individual humans do.
5. SOME Humans want to be free to inform themselves.
6. But most Humans fear the freedom to inform themselves, and they want to deny that freedom to everyone else as well.
7. However, the only way for anyone to prevent anyone from informing himself, is to force lies upon him. This can incllude lying by covering up the truth, or trying to cover it up – but it usually involves some active lying as well.
8. All lies, all untruths, are essentially, categorically, corruptible.
All untruths decay and die, through time. Truth does not need to do anything other than exist. And so, through time, all untruths decay and die, but nothing true ever disappears.
9. Gandhi (of whom I am NOT a great fan, but he did have some good moments) said something like,
“Whenever I despair, I always remember that tyrants and lies seem to have power for a while, but they always fail. Always, always.” (Sorry I haven’t bothered to google and find his exact words.)
……It’s not that “information wants to be free”. Rather, SOME humans want to be free to inform themselves and others – and in the long run, they succeed, because untruths and lies are just parasites on Truth, and so untruths always decay and fade away, while the Truth survives.
(Oh God, now I expect to be taken to task by some others, with some cynnical and overly abstract objections to what I’ve written here…. ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ Or maybe they’ll just ignore me, fair enough…. ๐Ÿ™‚
PS, when I say “Truth” I do NOT mean any kind of finally knowable, categorical abstract Truth. Humans can never know perfect truth – but we CAN know what is NOT true. It is impossible to say what is perfectly true – but it is NOT so hard (with some willingness) to identify lies.
And so, in our Human condition, most of our path toward truth involves sorting out willful lies and willful refusal to think….
…and so, “information” does not want to be free, but some Humans do. And they remain free in the long run because untruths are essentially corrupt, and all untruths die and disappear sooner or later.

August 18, 2005 @ 10:27 am | Comment

PS,
“What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.”
– Homer Simpson

August 18, 2005 @ 10:32 am | Comment

Looks like Li Datong won his battle (at least temporarily – no doubt the Central Propaganda Department will try something new soon):
BEIJING, Aug 18 (AFP) – A leading state-run Chinese newspaper has scrapped a controversial appraisal system linking reporters’ pay to government approval after a high-profile protest by a veteran editor, sources said Thursday.

Li Datong, a senior editor at the China Youth Daily, launched a rare attack on his employer over the plan to link salaries and bonuses to how much praise journalists receive from government and communist party officials.

The unexpected move to dump the proposal was announced after the management held meetings to discuss concerns by Li and other editorial staff, said senior staff members who refused to be named.

“They have scrapped the appraisal system and will design another new plan,” a staff member close to the discussions told AFP.

The appraisal system, which was to be implemented this week, stipulated that reporters would receive plus or minus points for their stories according to how much praise or criticism they got from government officials.

More points would mean more money.

Li’s open letter to editor-in-chief Li Erliang, published widely on overseas Chinese websites, said the move would jeopardise editorial freedom and would sacrifice the paper’s long tradition of unbiased reporting.

“Under such an uncivilised and unreasonable system, provided that editors and journalists have not gone mad, who on earth would still want to write reports which keep officials in check?” the letter said.

Under the management’s latest decision, reporters and editors will be invited to discuss a new appraisal system, which was not the case before, staff said.

But it might be too early yet for reporters to claim victory.

“We are not naive, it is always difficult to predict things,” said the senior staff member.

The China Youth Daily is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party Youth League, the power base of President Hu Jintao. It has aggressively exposed official corruption.

China maintains an iron grip over the media and regularly punishes outspoken reporters and editors. They are often dismissed or even jailed.

August 18, 2005 @ 3:00 pm | Comment

Thanks Dylan – I updated the post with this.

Do you have a link by chance?

August 18, 2005 @ 3:28 pm | Comment

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