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Behind the great Firewall

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On Friday, August 19, the lede story in the Washington Post was about a fight that occurred in Beijing at a "friendly" basketball game between two teams- one from China and one from D.C.'s Georgetown University. Some American press jokingly called it "The Great Brawl of China."

The Global Times, one of the major English language newspapers here in China, did not report the game or brawl.

Had this been a mere "homer" story, the Global Times and other Chinese media that downplayed the game could be excused for either not mentioning it at all or giving it minor coverage. 

As it was, the events that Thursday night were rather ugly, with Chinese fans throwing water bottles at the Georgetown players as they left the court and pictures of one Chinese player kicking a prostrate Georgetown player. Videos of the event  popped up on the Internet.

The story was relatively big news in the US with one or another photo splashed across newspapers nationwide and the New Yorker Magazine writing a special "Sporting Life" segment about the contest. Events in Libya likely relegated the story to a shorter shelf life  and less spin than it otherwise would have enjoyed during a lesser news cycle.   

Much worse than the incident itself -in which no one was seriously injured- is the reinforcement of the perception that Chinese media are under the government's thumb here and that unpleasant news will be accordingly sanitized.

The melee was presumably buried in order to avoid embarrassment while US Vice-President Joe Biden was touring China. The Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the government of China, reportedly did not have an immediate account of the game, and Western media reported that Chinese government censors had removed stories about the game from websites.


In recent days, dissident artist Ai Weiwei who lives in Beijing and was confined by Chinese authorities for three months earlier this year has attacked China's human rights record. His comments have been widely broadcast in the West and have been generally available to English language readers in China.

It is no secret, however, that certain English websites (Facebook, You Tube and Twitter) are blocked in China, though they can be accessed with virtual private networks (VPN's). Some Internet search terms will result in a user being disconnected from the Internet. In recent weeks, access to two stories from the Washington Post about China - one on media censorship - have been blocked by Firewall censors. Those handicaps are ongoing reminders that Chinese media operate with one hand tied behind its back.

Chinese bloggers are similarly constrained. Under growing government pressure, China's leading micro-blogging service, Sina Weibo, has begun suspending users' accounts "for sending out false information," a euphemism here for posting something the government doesn't much like.

The real irony is that by prohibiting certain stories, posts, or ordering squeaky clean versions of the news, the government insures that Chinese media will never be a first-rate player on the world stage at a time when the government is spending lavishly to promote China's global media image. It's hard to rely on media or take it too seriously when there's a perception that the media isn't being allowed to perform its watchdog function honestly.

It may be possible to temporarily put a lid on the information jar, but inevitably information will get out. The tighter the government twists the lid, the more chance the jar will shatter in its face. In the meantime, China's censors insure that the predominant news views will come courtesy of the Western media.

Yet the fact that stories like Ai Weiwei's blast through the firewall here suggests that government censors are really more interested in managing the news then in shutting down access or controlling the message altogether. That is encouraging.

There need to be frank and ongoing discussions between the government and Chinese media regarding the "C" word. By allowing the media a freer hand to report all the news and even welcoming outside criticism, Chinese officials will be promoting a stronger, more self-confident China to the world. In turn, the world can learn to trust China's media.

Patrick Mattimore
Beijing

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and teaches law courses at Tsinghua University in Beijing through the auspices of Temple University. He writes a regular Web column for China Daily Online and wrote the "expert's take" on the media for China Daily's 30th Anniversary edition in June.

 

Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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