A Kinder and Gentler China?

Is the Communist Party of China liberalizing? The West has made a monumental bet that it is, so every shred of good news is given wide circulation and accorded great significance. The latest tidbit of speculation to come out of Beijing concerns media freedom.

In June, Hu Jintao, China's supremo, visited the offices of People's Daily, the Party's flagship publication, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding. There, he mentioned that "large-scale public incidents" -- the Chinese euphemism for mass protests -- should be "accurately, objectively and uniformly reported, with no tardiness, deception, incompleteness or distortion." He also suggested a "press law" to help protect the country's journalists from Propaganda Ministry censors. In the middle of last month, London's Telegraph, in response to Hu's words, reported that Beijing "is considering loosening its grip over the media."

The allowance of accurate and objective reporting would be a real breakthrough for the People's Republic. During the three decades of the reform era -- the period beginning with the accession of Deng Xiaoping -- the Party has drastically reduced financial support for media outlets. Now, most of them are expected to fund themselves, and this has resulted in vibrant television shows, radio programs, magazines, and newspapers, all ferociously competing for the attention of China's citizens. Moreover, traditional media has had to go up against the lively internet, where Chinese people are, for the first time in their history, carrying on national conversations. Central propaganda officials, therefore, have had to wage an ongoing struggle to rein in increasingly daring journalism -- and journalists.