Freedom to speak still a Chinese dream

Last updated 05:00 10/01/2013

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OPINION: Soon after Xi Jinping was confirmed as China's president-in-waiting, there were encouraging signs that the nation's severe curbs on free speech were being eased.

The decision to allow the internet publication of a book detailing atrocities committed during China's cultural revolution under Mao Zedong – still a revered leader for many Chinese – was a promising start.

However, the row over the censorship of a newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou has dramatically illustrated how much China has to change before it resembles anything like the sort of open democracy New Zealanders and others in the West take for granted.

It has also made clear that the all-powerful government does not plan to give the Chinese people the right to say, publish or read opinions that run contrary to its own any time soon.

Nations that value the principles of free speech do not have officials charged with ensuring that newspapers toe the party line. Nor do they issue directives to editors and journalists telling them what they can and cannot say and report.

That is the daily reality in China, where propaganda officers police what is published in newspapers and order changes if they are unhappy with what they see.

Journalists at Guangzhou's Southern Weekend newspaper have accused the Guangdong province's propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, of changing an editorial that called for political reforms and the right for citizens to speak their minds.

His version toned down criticisms of the government and was published under the gushing headline, "We are now closer to our dream than ever before", according to an analysis by Hong Kong's China Media Project.

The BBC has since reported that the state-run Global Times published an editorial, sanctioned by government minders, that denied the claims. It also warned that the present situation in China meant an "absolutely free media" was not possible. Other news outlets were ordered to run the piece, though some added disclaimers saying that they did not share its views.

At the same time, a government directive was issued that made it abundantly clear that Communist Party control of China's media is an "unwavering basic principle".

That does not bode well for those who hoped that the oppressive curbs on freedom of expression would begin to ease after Mr Xi takes office in March.

That would be a great pity. There were high hopes in the West that China would become more liberal under Mr Xi.

Whether he moves to lift the draconian restrictions on free speech will be a key test of his zeal for reform. It would also be in his interests as he embarks on his promised campaign to stamp out corruption.

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The best way to stop graft is to expose it to sunlight. A key tool in the battle is to allow the media to question what is going on in their communities and openly report abuses.

It is no coincidence that the world's least corrupt nations are those whose people are free to speak truth to power.

- The Dominion Post

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