Free expression in China: Opportunities and limits

An English-language Chinese newspaper is surprisingly candid, Steve Kelman learns.

One of my favorite sources for Chinese news has become a monthly magazine, published in China but oriented for a Western audience. It's called NewsChina, and is an English-language version of a newsweekly in China called Zhongguo xinwen zhoukan (China Newsweek).

What is amazing to me about the magazine is how critical it often is about today's Chinese society. Every month they run a series of quotes under the rubric, "What They Say," which is filled with amazingly frank statements that Chinese academics, critics, writers, etc. make about China. So the March issue, for example, quotes the novelist Ge Fei as saying, "It is sickening to write of beauty in this filthy society, so I rewrote my first draft." Last month they quoted somebody else saying that the evening TV news broadcast on the government-run CCTV network was like a constant "re-run." I would estimate that in a typical month's issue, probably 90 percent of the articles are critical in one way or another of something going on in China.

I have shown the magazine to a number of American friends, and they are inevitably absolutely amazed that this can be published in China.  It is really far away from the image many Americans have of a totalitarian society.

While in Beijing for a few days on my way to Singapore, I had lunch with two young reporters from NewsChina to talk about the magazine. It is generally known that English-language publications in China are freer than Chinese-language ones, for several reasons. For one thing, senior government officials generally can't read English well enough to put pressure on censors. Also, few Chinese people read these publications. And some Americans think it's an effort to create a misleading impression for foreigners about the degree of freedom in China. I asked the two journalists to bring along copies of the Chinese edition of the magazine, so we could compare.

Here's what I learned:

The English edition is separately developed from the Chinese one, by a separate staff, though about 30 percent of the content of the English edition is adapted (translated, with changes/explanations for a non-native Chinese audience) from the Chinese edition. The English edition is not for sale in China. The English edition is less heavily scrutinized by the government -- occasionally the editors of the Chinese edition get phone calls from censors, after an article is published, complaining about the article (there is no pre-censorship, though there is some self-censorship), but these journalists believed this had never happened with the English edition. However, they noted that they took the critical quotes such as those I presented above from statements that had been somewhere in the Chinese media or in a Chinese micro-blog. And they also noted that editors at the Chinese edition of the magazine were constantly trying to push the envelope for what they could get away with saying -- they would try something, and if they didn't get slapped for it, they would do something similar again, and then try something even a little more bold.

I raised this same issue with a university professor, to whom I also showed the quotes from NewsChina. He had heard of most of the people quoted (some of whom he described as "well-known loudmouths"). He said you could say anything you want in China, as long as you follow two rules: 1)  you can say just about anything is really bad, but you can't explicitly blame the Communist Party for it being bad, and 2) you can say a lot as an individual, but you can't organize a group to say the same thing as a group.

What does this add up to? A society that doesn't come close to the stereotype of a ruthless dictatorship suppressing all dissent that many Americans believe, and also one full of contradictions and ambiguities about how far the government will let free debate go. Stay tuned (and meanwhile, if you are interested in following developments in China, I urge you to subscribe to NewsChina, only $27.99 a year).

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