Media and Democracy in China

By Hwang, Kathy | The World and I, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Media and Democracy in China


Hwang, Kathy, The World and I


Kathy Hwang is the bureau chief for United Press International in Hong Kong.

[Editor's Note: The following is an address that was presented at an international convocation of journalists sponsored by the World Media Association in February 2003.]

I represent a culture that is perhaps not much understood, and very interesting things are actually happening in China concerning the media right now. Personally, I have fun because, as you see by my name, people are usually expecting me to be a small Asian lady, and the first impression when I meet people is usually shock. Anyway, as a Westerner living in China, one clear thing is that you will never, as a foreigner, become completely accepted within the culture. You will always be a foreigner.

We are talking about media as a bridge or a divide, and in my region I think the media serves both functions. In mainland China, we still have a media that is completely state-owned and state-controlled, and so in terms of politics the media is viewed as an instrument of propaganda still. But something interesting happened last year. The government decided that it is no longer going to subsidize all the media that it has been subsidizing until now. There is a new policy. Newspapers, magazines, even television stations--with the exception of the central television station, which is huge--have to become self-supporting and independent. This is a tremendous challenge. Nevertheless, they are still subject to the same censorship policies.

It is a little window of opportunity, because people have to sell their products now. It means you have to create something that the audience wants to buy, because there is choice out there. In the past, subscriptions to things like People's Daily and the official newspapers were free; they landed automatically on everyone's desk in the morning. But this has changed as of last year. So there is a little more openness, and this is really creating a window of opportunity for foreign media; but still I have to say it is a small window.

Last year, something else interesting happened. You remember the SARS epidemic. This, in a way, was a blessing to the Chinese media, because it was reporters in southern China who discovered it first. In Hong Kong, we heard there was a strange disease and that bottles of vinegar were disappearing from store shelves because somehow the rumor was out that vinegar would help protect you from this dread disease. Of course, there was no truth to that whatsoever. But the point is, the media caught on to the fact that something was happening months before anybody else, and those reporters who initially began to cover the outbreak of this disease that was killing people were silenced. They were told by the local authorities, we are not talking about that, keep it quiet, get off the story. It was when the first case arrived in Hong Kong that the media caught on to it and it became an international story.

Hong Kong has a free press--a gift of the British, for which we are very grateful--and has been able so far to maintain it, except when it comes to reporting on China, where you need to go into mainland China. And the way that the Beijing government is controlling this to some degree is simply by issuing visas or not issuing visas. You still need a visa to go from Hong Kong to China, and if you are Chinese you need what is called a home return permit. The government can actually deny you a home return permit, home being, of course, mainland China. Everyone who is of Chinese blood, their home, their motherland, is China. So they can deny you a home return permit if you write things that are not appreciated or that are too critical; no permit, no story. So there are ways that even the free press is manipulated.

There is a cultural conflict between Chinese in Beijing and Chinese in Hong Kong. I don't know how many of you have been following the democracy movement in Hong Kong. …

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