Debate over media's role can find even balance

Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-4 22:33:01

The media's role is an interesting and controversial topic in China. Arguments usually vary about what media can do and should do in a Communist administration. Unlike most countries where the media is independent from government authorities, Chinese media outlets are under the leadership, in one way or another, of the Communist Party of China (CPC). This is a premise for all discussions about what role can media play in China.

However, the problem is there are always voices denying the legitimacy of the premise. Their argument, I suppose, is derived from what media can do in the public discourse of other countries, especially the developed world. In their view, Chinese media should not stand by the CPC, but the people, whose appeals and willingness represent public interests.

There are more than a few people who believe the ruling party and the government must grip the media tightly. In their opinion, media must serve as a propaganda machine in full compliance with the decisions made by the Party and the government. Challenges and skepticism are considered to be a potential threat to the reputation of the Party and the government.

Given China's "national conditions," a general phrase to indicate its exceptionalism, Chinese media should not be either of the two scenarios. It must be somewhere in between.

However, it is a pity that in the public debate on this topic, most people, infatuated by their beliefs, simply pick sides without being thoughtful enough. They put a gloss on their own argument but accuse others with different ideas of being good for nothing. We have heard too many calls for media's independence from government supervision. Some of their appeals, under the disguise of exposing reality, actually aim to instigate social instability that could jeopardize social justice and public interests. We are also fed up with fanatical ideas, having had too much of them in the 1950s and 1960s.

The media's role should be observed from a new and neutral perspective. There is a balance between being Party-controlled and being helpful to public interests. I am quite pleased to see your paper has raised this topic, in a soft and wise way. In the two Observer pieces in recent two weeks about the vaccine scandal that shocked the country, your commentators argued about why the media was absent from reporting the scandal at the beginning, and why rumors instead of truth had dominated public opinion. Although the two articles are mainly focused on one incident, I think we can read a lot more between the lines; Chinese media should find wiggle room between policy limitations and their duties. It is not easy, but doable.

In addition, many people are wondering whether China is putting more limitations on the media recently. I don't think so. The CPC knows, from its own experiences and lessons, the significance of media in navigating public discourse. It surely wants more freedom of speech so the government can have more reliable responses from the public for the improvement of governance. But the dynamic process requires a back and forth to scrutinize the stability and adaptability of public discourse, because an abrupt opening up with an influx of information, good or bad, will not enlighten the public, but confound them, and even cause unnecessary social instability.

Aaron Liu is an independent commentator based in Beijing.

Posted in: Viewpoint, Letters

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