How to improve democracy in China? Start with a free press

Latest from our Deepening Democracy series.

All the news we’re allowed to print (creative commons)

Before joining the first cohort of students at the Blavatnik School of Government, I worked as a journalist for state-owned China Central Television, the biggest media outlet in China. Before that I spent four years working as a reporter and anchor for the Beijing Television Station, the local outlet for China’s capital city, also owned and operated by the government.

Based on the above, if I’m asked, about a single measure would strengthen democracy in my home country, I would firstly respond that you have to have more than one measure to reach that goal. However, if I can only choose one, I would definitely vote for free speech and an independent media.

As I am writing for a blog, I do not intend to jump into academic descriptions about why it is important to have independent media to build democracy in a country. In reality, there have been quite a lot of good case studies from which China can take lessons.

What is meant by the term democracy is also a widely discussed academic topic. But my basic, intuitive understanding of the term is that it is a condition, or a form of government or governance that enables eligible citizens to have equal rights to speak about and to make decisions regarding public policies affecting their lives. Or to look at it in the Chinese context, the term has something in accordance with Mr Sun Yat-sen’s vision of a government in modern China: a government of the people, for the people and by the people (“San Min Zhu Yi”). Thus, it is crucial to have citizens/people living in a country who are able to have a say in the state’s affairs, especially about things affecting their lives directly, such as taxation, health-care, education, housing policies and the fundamental of all – who should be the country’s leader. The latter point is best answered by an election.

Without an independent media that is detached from government and party control, it is difficult (and premature) to discuss the possibility of strengthening democracy in China.

Let us look at China’s current situation by examining just one of the pressing issues recently facing the Chinese government. Just one week ago, in Ningbo city – a modern and wealthy city in China’s relatively developed eastern Zhejiang province – there was a massive outpouring of citizen protesters. This is not an unusual occurrence. But on this occasion they were protesting against a local government plan to build a 55.9-billion-yuan oil refining and petrochemical complex in the city’s outskirts. They have reason for concern: it is believed that the proximity of the facility to suburban areas is harmful to local residents’ health.

This is a typical public policy issue you can find nowadays in China, where cities and the economy are growing rapidly. And there is an increasingly familiar contrast between the economic development-minded local governments and local citizens’ considerations of well-being. Is protest the best option? Not necessarily. The street-filled disagreements between Ningbo’s population and the government could have been expressed through legitimate channels, through which the government would have the opportunity to respond. What legitimate channels? I suggest there are media channels – television, newspapers, online news publications and forums. Protests are disruptive. And meanwhile, it’s unrealistic for every single citizen to go to the mayor and express individual opinions given the size of Chinese cities.

The role of media as a bridge between the public and the government has been missing for a long time in China. State-owned and party-controlled media is usually prohibited from publishing any report about ‘sensitive’ issues. Outlets take orders from the Ministry of Propaganda and its many local branches. Communication from the government on these issues comes in one direction: from the government to the public, telling people what the policy is and how people should act accordingly. End of story.  There is no debate, no discussion, no ‘opinion pages’ or ‘comments’ from ordinary citizens. As result, even if we can assume that, sometimes, the government is trying to adopt sensible and reasonable policy, it is impossible for people to trust them if there is no transparency. Without trust there are rumors and conflict. The Ningbo protests are a stark reminder of this.

Indeed, China needs an independent media to strengthen its democracy – or even to have it to begin with. This alone is not sufficient, but definitely a good start.

Haining Liu is reading for a Masters in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University.

This post is part of our Deepening Democracy series, responding to a September 2012 report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, on improving the integrity of elections. The series is being curated by the Blavatnik School of Government and hosted on Politics in Spires. It features contributions from students on the Master of Public Policy course at the Blavatnik School, as well as guest posts from Oxford and Cambridge scholars in politics and international relations.

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