Monday, June 15, 2009

Asia's future: Capitalism sans freedom?

Jotman's live-blogging the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress in Helsinki continues...

This panel and its agenda:

Can Economies Survive without Free Media?
Critics of the "Asian Values" propounded in the 1990s argued that they were a mere a justification by authoritarian regimes to suppress universal human rights. Yet the economies of such countries as Singapore and, in particular, China have continued to thrive without democratic reform. Will they now need a free media to help overcome the drag of the global financial crisis, corruption, and such problems as China's unsafe products?
  • Yuen-Ying Chan, Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, University of Hong Kong
  • Anthony Milner, professor of history, ANU
  • Xiao Qiang, Founder, China Digital Times; Director, China Internet Project, Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley
  • Matt Steinglass (Moderator), Correspondent, DPA (German News Agency), Hanoi

Matt Steinglass, the moderator, questioned the media's ability to cover corruption, given the strict government restrictions on covering politics in Vietnam.

Yuen-Ying Chan, Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre, the University of Hong Kong says media in China is neither free nor unfree. Fortunately, due to the Internet, there is space for dialogue.

The Internet is growing fast, with almost 300 million Internet users in China. Ninety percent on broadband. One third on mobile platforms.

Mobile phones are used to post photos. In Feb. there was a fire in the TVCC tower in Beijing. Within 30 minutes the picture of this 30 story building burning had been posted on the Internet. Although state broadcaster CCTV had an office close to the fire, the Internet led coverage of the fire. A story went in an online magazine, but got reposted elsewhere.

There are many examples of officials being forced on the defensive, to defend themselves against stories published on the Internet.

Xiao Qiang of UC Berekely showed a slide (next image). Shows that bloggers and online bulletin boards have the power to reconfigure the media and political landscape. These people are the frontline facing the state apparatus. This is where the most interesting things are happening. Issues of importance to the people first get raised on the blogs.

Showed us a confidential document from the propaganda department. Explaining what can be reported. What they say is conformed to by the official media.

Projected a graph (next image) showing how more and more frequently things raised on blogs reach up to become part of the national discourse and national consensus.

One blogger posted a list of names of children killed in a school collapse. Before long this information becomes part of the policy debate at the highest levels of state.

Look how search terms "free speech" "censorship" grow quickly (right image). Citizen, democracy, system reform search terms also growing – use of these words – increasing faster than growth of users on the Internet. Even taking new users into account, growth in frequency of these search terms is fast.

Also, the number of Chinese websites mentioning "democracy" has grown. Again this growth exceeds the pace of growth of the Internet (left image).

So what? What does this mean?

It means that momentum towards press freedom is facilitated by the Internet.

But society is still totalitarian: the vested interest of Party is not aligned with public as in a democracy.

Consider history. Consider that twenty years ago, in 1989 when the Tienanmen massacre happened, and the collapse of USSR followed, all these China watchers were saying that the Chinese regime's days were numbered. Now we all know China has had a successful totalitarian regime -- for which -- due to financial crisis, the West now turns to as a partner (in maintaining the global system).

I leave you with this question: How do we know, what makes us so sure that this time around -- with everyone assuming the regime will continue -- that the experts have China right?

Anthony Milner, professor of history at the Australian National University suggested that "the current global crisis is unlikely to demonstrate the particular economic strength of democracies." Looking to the future, he sounded some cautionary notes based on the track record of some Asian countries:

  • Philippines and Indonesia are more democratic, but not prosperous. Singapore ranks high as non-corrupt country, near Finland. Malaysia, China have more corruption. Thailand too. Indonesia, despite relaxation of media controls, has a lot of corruption.
  • Need to look to 97-98. Geopolitical consequence of the earlier crisis. Singapore and Malaysia -- nations with little freedom -- handled crisis relatively well.
  • Today's financial crisis looks like a "democratic" recession. Asia looks to be coming out of the crisis today.
  • Militarily, in terms of power balance, crisis seems destined to have an adverse impact on West. What of values struggle?
  • China may face values contest within Asia.
  • Bottom line: the old liberal agenda -- including freedom of the press -- is likely to face serious resistance in the future.

Yuen-Ying Chan says private ownership of the media has been undermined. It is not working. It has collapsed.

"The blogs are where people speak there mind in China. It's not what people say to a camera on the street."

Matt Steinglass: (In Vietnam) I don't see big corruption stories picked up by bloggers on the Internet, I see them picked up by professional reporters.

Nationalism may be playing an increasing role (in stirring up interest in corruption stories). For example, there was the story of Thaksin's sale of his telecom firm to Singapore. Seemed to be a case where nationalism is a new factor in media narratives. A trend perhaps.

Xiao Qiang: There is the need to legitimize party. One way is through performance; another is through a new nationalist narrative. So they are trying to construct a narrative of Chinese nationalism. There seems to be no intellectually coherent value behind Chinese nationalism. Are we witnessing a nationalism "bubble" in China? Perhaps. Maybe we are overestimating the importance of nationalism.

Yuen-Ying Chan: Young Chinese are not so brainwashed....

Question from Dave Underhill of Global Post: What gets through from West? What do you see as the role or potential of new media in the West impacting what happens in China?

Xiao Qiang: In China, if you have the incentive, then you can get around the censorship. There is more and more censorship more all the time. The people who know how to circumvent the censors are those with enough curiosity and incentive to do so. These people tend to be the opinion leaders in China, who then, in turn, put this information into circulation in the Chinese domestic discourse.

The important point is that the intended audience of the Western media is different. It's not the Chinese. That's one reason the Tibetan issue generated controversy. The background knowledge on the issue is different. The underlying perspective is different. If you want the Western media to have an impact on China, you have to know how the audience in China. You would need to take the Chinese audience into consideration in the reporting of the story. I don't think that's on the agenda of the Western media today.

Yuen-Ying Chan: I would caution: don't write off the Chinese state media either, or the official media. I would like to see some representatives from the Chinese media in future (media freedom related) conferences (such as this one). I think they could contribute and learn from future gatherings.

Xiao Qiang: We should not over-estimate the power of the Western media when it comes to China. The official Chinese media have real advantages. They have 1) access Westerners won't get, 2) real understanding, and 3) experience. The best scenario is everyone working in context, together, using each other's strengths to get China right.

Anthony Milner: As for Southeast Asia – nationalism is making a (critical) space. You have to deal with Islamic ideas in careful terms; but this can open up space too.

Matt Steinglass: True these (critical) spaces -- i.e. Islam in Indonesia -- (theoretically at least) seem to allow people to make claims that may be critical of their governments.

Often in Vietnam, there will be a designated spokesperson liaison for media, but that person can never be found. Maybe there is a generation gap... It often seems to me as if old people in Vietnam need approval to speak, whereas the young will say what they think.

Xiao Qiang: Because there is control, therefore online discourse tends not to be explicit...

Question (Netherlands): One lesson i pick up from here is that we need to converge the frame of mind of a countryman, and of the international press. In terms of Africa, it seems to me the Internet could play a role. To what extent could converging the news rooms of the West and Asia come to contribute to the media in Africa?

Yuen-Ying Chan: The bottom line is that people want to express themselves and don't want to be lied to. I would point to this basic commonality of values. In spite of the tight control of the party, the country has a robust IT infrastructure, allowing citizen journalism to develop. These citizen journals will push the ideas of openness. It means that building the enabling structure of IT infrastructure has to be on the development agenda.

Anthony Milner: The convergence question. I think there are problems with that. There is the style question; the recognition of local styles question. A grabbing back into past to seek dignity. A bad century or two (of colonialism) leads to this looking back. How one couches arguments about the media seems to me very important indeed. "Digging back" is important in this region.

Question (World Press Freedom representative): We tried inviting Chinese official representatives to our conference. But they (basically sent people to spy) on the attendees of our conference. And we later had incidents of hacking against the sites of people who were at the conference. So dialogue is one thing, but it is not so easy as it sounds.

Yuen-Ying Chan: There are different types of groups that you can reach out to. I appreciate the difficulties. They will have to make decisions. They need to work, they need to adapt international standards.

Xiao Qiang: Southern Media Group is the one of the most progressive news media organizations in China. Under the relatively autonomous government of the southern province that has politicians who support it (and so it is not subject to direct central government oversight).

Jotman live-blogged the following panel discussions at the IPI World Congress:

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