Courage and conscience: It’s time for independence in media reporting on ChinaDec 4, 2023
For the sake of Australia’s national interest, and for journalistic integrity that will be judged by history, can mainstream media maintain independence from short-term, vulgar political and geopolitical influence and interference, especially with regard to reporting about China?
At last, the relationship between Australia and China has been stabilised. One indicator is the welcome home to Cheng Lei before the Australian Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing. This was thanks to efforts by the Federal Labor government following its change of policy direction. These developments have given huge relief to state governments, the business community and, not least the Chinese Australian community. Relations are however still fragile because they depend on the political leadership of both countries and the foreign policies of a third party, the USA. These two factors are closely related to the mainstream media reporting of China.
Given the size of China and its apparent sudden rise, Australian worries and anxiety about the future are understandable. We have to deal with a country that consists of almost one fifth of all humanity. Can we have shared futures with a country that is so different in so many ways? “Different histories, shared futures” is a recent book of which I was co-editor that aims to provide a more profound understanding of China that requires a vision beyond short-term politics and geopolitics.
China under the rule of the CPC
China is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC). To many Australians this is a thorn in the flesh, but they must accept the reality that such a China is not going to go away, at least not for many years. They must also realise that although the Party is still nominally “Communist”, under its rule, China is not. Chinese official rhetoric terms its political system “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, while many would say it is “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. We hope that Australian journalists with some sense of responsibility for historical accuracy, especially in reporting about China, will try to put “anti-Commy” Australians out of their misery.
The CPC ultimately is the most dynamic and genuine force in China for the same modern values that Australians cherish: good government, a market economy and individualist society. This sounds counter-intuitive because the China portrayed by mainstream media is the antithesis, at best an authoritarian and at worst a dictatorial society under CPC rule.
China tries to practice meritocracy and has been carrying out stringent anti-corruption measures to support good government. Furthermore, it has been a thriving market economy for decades, though in recent years it has placed constraints on big capitalists like Jack Ma, Co-founder of Alibaba. The crackdown on Alibaba’s inroad into the financial market and the disappearance of Jack Ma from the public stage have been portrayed as evidence of repression, but we need to keep in mind that ordinary Australians also want more constraints on monopoly capitalists.
The intuitive image is that the CPC suppresses individualism, and some even think that Chinese people are like ants, with no individuality. However, Chinese themselves testify that despite more surveillance technology, especially during the Covid lockdown, they have never felt more individualistic in spirit and in material consumption. True, there is still too much repression, especially regarding political dissent. People know their individual freedoms are not as great as in Australia and elsewhere. But they also know that they enjoy unprecedented openness. Prior to Covid roughly a hundred million travelled overseas every year. They can still emigrate or send their children to study outside China. It is only fair therefore to expect Australian journalists to recognise that Chinese people are in control of their own lives and should not be patronised as morally inferior.
The rule of law is a cherished Australian tradition. Chinese people, and the CPC itself, acknowledge that China lacks behind in this respect. They do not like the fact that the legal system is not independent enough from politics and the executive government. But China has been trying to amend this. In May 2020 the Chinese People’s Congress enacted the Civil Code, copied from the West, that brings together codes that clarify rights, and contains 1,260 articles including property rights, contract rights, personality rights, marriage and family inheritance and tort liability. Personal rights include the right to privacy and protection of personal information such as electronic data. There are also provisions regulating organ donations, medical research using human tissue and sexual harassment.
As always in China, law on paper is not always carried out in practice. Progress is slow and often two steps forward and one step backward. But the CPC’s efforts to push for modern values are genuine. One study cited in “Different histories, shared futures” finds that Party members hold more modern and progressive views than the general public on issues such as gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange. The authors caution against a simplistic dichotomous characterisation of political regimes of being either open or closed.
Tensions between modernisation and political change are burdened by Chinese historical values of more than three thousand years. In the past the CPC has made disastrous mistakes such as the 1950s Great Leap Forward. But the CPC made amends and re-emerged a different self. Chinese people cannot change parties in government, as in Australia; but the system is sustainable because the one ruling party does change policies.
Democracy, what democracy?
China’s lack of democracy is discussed by Baohui Xie in our book. Calling for a more nuanced understanding, he writes that the CPC and the people do aspire to gain democracy. Evidence includes “democratic centralism”, the governing technique of “from the masses to the masses” (gathering suggestions from the bottom for consideration and once policy is ironed out, promoting it from the top), and genuine one-person-one-vote practice in village and township administration.
Another phenomenon in Chinese governance is consultative democracy through the People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Congress at various levels of government, both containing a percentage of delegates from parties other than the CPC. These nine parties have been in existence since 1949. They are not allowed to compete with the CPC at the central level but members are selected for the two Congresses and thus participate in government.
By comparison, in Australia opposition party or parties do not participate in government though they may play an accountability role, but often they engage in personal and party politics that are not relevant or important to participation in governance for the public good.
The mainstream media claim frequently that China is a threat to Australia’s national interest, even an existential one. But the question of what constitutes “national interest” is hardly posed. Indeed, if something is harmful to a nation’s social cohesion and therefore erodes social trust, then that is indeed a threat, even an existential one. It is perhaps for this reason that some academics, even in the field of China studies, supported the enactment of the 2021 Foreign Interference Act.
Has the Chinese government done anything to threaten Australia’s social cohesion? The often-cited evidence is that some parts of the Chinese Australian communities conducted some activities supported by the Chinese United Front calling for “peaceful reunification of Taiwan”. But Australia maintains a One China Policy and it should not be against our national interest if the two sides of the Taiwan Straits unify peacefully. There is also some evidence that some businesspeople of Chinese background might have been lobbying politicians. But surely lobbying is what businesspeople do, regardless of ethnic background. I believe lobbying by the rich erodes democracy, but some argue that lobbying is part and parcel of democracy. The crucial issue is: Is it not hypocritical, if not down-right racist, to single out the Chinese ethnic group?
Erosion of social cohesion from inside
What is really threatening social cohesion and trust may be that the interests of business lobbies are often the opposite of the interests of the majority of citizens. Australian politicians might act in their own interest and in the interest of transnationals, claiming this is national interest. Media practitioners may act in the interest of big media companies instead of the national interest.
Is it not the increasing distrust of the mainstream media, of politicians and of transnationals, and the increasing powerlessness of ordinary Australians facing threats to democracy and social cohesion? The current organisation principles of market forces and the ballot politics of democracy once every few years are no longer capable of coping with the world today. That world demands inclusive economic growth that not only deals with ethnic and class diversity but also with the environment. It is high time for the mainstream media and politicians in Western countries to address domestic issues to ensure the wellbeing of citizens. To project a threat to social cohesion onto outside players such as China is emotionally infantile and theoretically poor.
One often-touted claim is that there is a freedom of expression in Australia and therefore truth is likely more accessible to us than in China. This claim requires nuanced analysis. In today’s multimedia planet, there is no reason to assume that middleclass Chinese know less about the truth. True, China’s official media is blatantly propagandist. Precisely because of this, Chinese have been immunised, are sceptical, and often turn a deaf ear to official rhetoric. They can access alternative sources of news via WeChat, social media, VPNs, through travel overseas, communication with family members overseas and so on.
At the same time, the mainstream media in Australia and elsewhere are not held accountable when they report on China. When they report what is happening in Australia they try to be accurate, or at least appear to be, because they can be judged by their well-informed audience. However, when China is reported, caution is thrown out of the window not only because of zeal but also because the audience does not know much about that country.
The progressives: The left and Greens
There is no Left position in Australia regarding China. Some Left thinkers might have supported China in the Mao era because it was then seen as a possible alternative for the organisation of society. Now it is regarded by the Left as more capitalist than the West. The Right wing of course find “Communist” China anything but likeable. In other words, China’s image embodies the worst of both worlds: capitalist greed and an oppressive Communist Party. The Greens, who are commonly supposed to be progressive, are among the most hostile. They tend to be silent about the tremendous progress China has made in green energy and environmental issues. Surely, if you want to maintain world peace and if you want to counter climate change and save the environment, you have to cooperate with China! If people adopt such an adversary position, how will that be possible?
Geopolitics and the Taiwan issue
The return of Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC) in 1945 was an outcome of the Allied victory over Japan. China fought with the US, Australia and others against Japanese aggression. In fact, China fought the longest and suffered the most. Taiwan is still officially the seat of the ROC, which claims national territory larger than that claimed by the PRC. The ROC occupies the largest island in the South China Sea, and is a crucial part of China and of the international order established after the Second World War. If the US thinks it is in its national interest to stop China from developing by igniting a proxy war over Taiwan, then it is the USA, not China, that is upsetting the established international order.
A media practitioner is naturally concerned to keep his or her job and career. But there are some who have a conscience, who do not follow fashion, who dare to speak the truth and who can imagine alternatives. The question is: when it comes to reporting on foreign lands, especially China, how many have the courage and conscience to be independent?
Read more articles in our China Perspectives series: