Wednesday, November 14, 2007

China's Citizen Journalists Check Government Corruption

An article that appeared yesterday in AsiaMedia reports on the third annual China Blogger Conference, with an interesting note on how blogging has helped counter the country's corruption:

After [Zola, a panelist and blogger,] investigated and wrote in April about a couple who refused to accept a below-market price from a real estate development company, traditional Chinese media outlets and overseas press such as The New York Times and Time magazine's The China Blog picked up the story. The issue wasn't only about a big company's business practices, but also about the local government's collusion with businesses in the name of economic growth. According to a Washington Post report, with nationwide media attention, local officials worked to reach a compromise; the developers increased their offer with a ground-floor apartment affording space for the couple's restaurant business and $120,000. The couple accepted. Beijing Youth Daily's weekly tabloid, yWeekend, celebrated the incident as the "birth of citizen journalism."

Zola, who goes by Zhou Muguang when he’s not blogging, has been contacted by other Chinese citizens battling eviction orders all over the country, according to Reuters. Given that traditional media outlets are barred from reporting on high-profile corruption cases, bloggers may be the only hope for those whose land is seized by developers in collusion with local governments.

The Reuters article notes other instances when citizen journalists have stepped in, like demonstrations and disasters. But it also reports that the less rigid restrictions on the Internet have given journalists and impostors an avenue for exploitation:
Authorities jailed four men in October who tried to blackmail a local official by threatening to write incriminating information about government abuse of power in land usage.

In January, a local reporter for a Beijing-based newspaper was beaten to death by hired thugs during an investigation into an unlicensed coal mine in Shanxi province. Officials there said he lacked accreditation and suggested he may have been seeking payoffs in return for not reporting problems at the mine.

Devin Stewart wrote previously about a survey which found that the credibility of Internet media in China is actually derived from its anonymity. At what point will impostors and blackmailers impede the work of sometimes anonymous citizen journalists trying to cover sensitive issues, and what sort of regulations could prevent this?

17 comments:

Devin Stewart said...

This story neatly shows the potential good and bad of blogging in less than free political environments.

I am giving a talk tonight at NYU on fighting corruption. One of my messages is that just as poor governance should not be a convenient excuse for reckless or anonymous blogging without justification, it poor governance should not excuse corruption either. In a sense, corruption is like a tax on bad governance.

And in my mind the culture argument does not cut it either. Companies and governments complain about cultures of corruption when working abroad. The power that aid agencies and multinational companies have gives them a responsibility and the opportunity to help be part of the solution. Moreover, I cannot find one philosophical tradition that condones corruption--or for that matter spreading lies or blackmail.

Mister Underhill said...

If only China were the only place that happened....

Linda Wallace said...

I admire the courage of all those who speak out against wrongs. In a very small way, I try to do the same for my community.

Click Here To See It said...

are you part of the revolution?

Oberon said...

......it's time to change the world.....we are feeding on our young.

George M Weinert V said...

There is certainly a sorely felt need for ethics when we have to compete with the like of moveon.org and the Daily Scuz. Culture? what culture? I hold a Masters in Music and another in CS and see only garbage in the media, on the idiot box and in the magazines.

China is peanuts - wait until you see what Hillary has in mind!!!

Davis Bigelow said...

I see this issue with less "broad spectrum" eyes. My limited experience in studying history has taught me that one person can make a difference. Truly, the pen is mightier than the sword - although there admittedly are plenty of power hungry people who think their opinions should obliterate all others and would use force to get their points across if deemed necessary. You must, however, have a pretty pathetic point if force is required. The founding fathers of North America fought for freedom of expression - not slander, liable or inscribed blackmail. I think we have come a long way, but obviously there are still some very rutted dirt roads to be paved. I believe that most people are basically good, and that their slow-but-sure combined effort will win out - eventually. Historically speaking, a corrupt person will always have to try harder to be corrupt than an honest person will have to try to remain honest. No amount of forced rhetoric or threatened armament will change that. Bullies will always be objects of disgust, and those who build up others will always find respect.
To all the honest Chinese bloggers I say, "Keep up the good work!" Let's help them all we can! :)

Christina Madden said...

The flip side of this is that irresponsible bloggers, or other disseminators of false information, can sometimes be harmful to a regime with strict freedom of information laws, and not just to other bloggers.

In 2003 when the Chinese government refused to release accurate reports about the SARS pandemic, rumors fled through SMS exaggerating how widespread the disease actually was. This led the country- and the international community- to panic, and brought heavy criticism from abroad about China's mishandling of a serious public health issue.

Devin, the piece by you and Joshua Kurlantzick that recently appeared in the National Interest notes that the lack of transparency within the Chinese system may challenge its prospective role as a global or regional leader.
"...Beijing does not appear to have learned from its SARS stonewalling. In recent years, China has responded hesitantly to outbreaks ranging from the mass pig deaths to a rash of foot-and-mouth disease... As a result, China has not been able to assume the kind of regional leadership role many Chinese officials would like."( http://www.nationalinterest.org/General.aspx?id=92&id2=16026)

These outbreaks, along with recent product recalls, could give Chinese citizens--or any blogger--ample opportunity to spread rumors about much worse scenarios that could easily be seen as credible--and at a particularly sensitive time with the Beijing Olympics coming up next year.

While the SARS rumors led to the arrests of over 100 people and may have driven the government to seek out ways to censor SMS, could there be a point at which purposely abusing the Internet's laissez faire regulations might in fact be an effective tool to encourage greater transparency and freedom of information on a government level- while at the same time encouraging more corporate responsibility- so China can protect itself from slander?

Anonymous said...

Blogging is a personal journal. The truth is actually not out there. The truth is inside each individual. In another words, we interpret things differently. What is truth to you may not be truth to me. What is truth to me may not be truth to you. Truth can therefore be subjective. Sometimes even solid found evidences are not truth enough. A lawyer's job is therefore not an easy one. China is communist and communism means unquestioning loyalty to the government. So, it is something foreign and something to be rejected by one who does not know what it means to be a citizen of a communist country.

Chelle B. said...

Communism is truly evil.

I just blogged about the fact that China is angry with Japan for allowing the Dali Lama to tour there, and Japanese officials are choosing not to meet with him for fear of the Chinese backlash.

I am honestly amazed at the courage many of the Chinese people have given their situation. I had a good friend in college who flew back to help get her family out just after the Tienanman Square ordeal. She was 19 and the bravest person I have ever met.

I don't think most of us can ever know what it feels like to live under communist rule, and let's all keep working hard to make sure that we never do.

Chelle B.
The Offended Blogger

R2K said...

: )

Chelle B. said...

Anonymous,

I'm sorry, but philosophy of "what is truth" doesn't apply here. Truth IS out there, it is not 'within us' when it comes to the horrors of Communism.

We just recently passed the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'd say the truth spoke for itself in that situation. The truth spoke for itself in the communist killing fields around the world. The truth speaks for itself now in China and in North Korea...the reality of life for these victims of Communism is the truth.

The truth is...communism is EVIL. There is nothing resembling anything but evil when government that has to wall in or kill its own citizens to keep the "peace".

Chelle B.
The Offended Blogger

Len Gould said...

In a discussion of published thruth, Davis Bigelow writes "the founding fathers of North America" and no-one blinks. Really?

I suppose, in the parochial view of the readers here that may seem founded. Blogging your head off is wasted effort without a) education b) experience c) empathy.

Davis Bigelow said...

I most certainly agree with Len Gould. "Blogging your head off is wasted effort without a) education b) experience c) empathy." It seems to me that every reasonably minded person seeks after these qualities. At least I'd like to hope so.
As for Len's comment about the "the founding fathers of North America" being parochial, (It means: relating to the narrow scope of a parish as a unit of local government - limited in geographical scope - selfish pettiness) I disagree. While one may make a case to support the notion of self interest on the part of those who drew up the constitution of the US, for example, that debatable portion of history means nothing to my comment. In fact, an old adage used by my parents may well apply here. "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." In other words, wherever the ideas to promote protection for freedom of expression, freedom of religious worship and freedom of speech originated from doesn't really matter to me. What matters to me is that I know about the ideas and I whole heartedly support them. Suppressing a fellow human being's rights to express, unless the expressions are slanderous, liableness, etc, is just wrong. It doesn't matter who first thought of the idea or how many brave souls died to protect the idea. As far as any of us are concerned, let's not lose perspective in the semantics. These ethical things we are discussing here most certainly transcend our own self interest.

Abhishek Hingu said...

Nice Post

Abhishek Hingu said...

nice post

Davis Bigelow said...

Thanks. That is kind of you.