Controlling the conversation (or trying to, anyway)

GoldenGateBridgeOn a balmy November morning in San Francisco, with clear blue skies, clean air and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, being a recovering foreign correspondent feels pretty darned painless.

There is, after all, a reason why so many people who live in San Francisco rave about it, why so many who visit wish they could live here.  It would seem almost churlish to find it lacking in any way.

And yet, it can feel quiet here, compared to the energy of Beijing’s 22 million people, many of them converging on the capital from villages and towns around China, seeking to transform their lives and their fortunes.  They endure smog, corruption, abuses of power and social injustice, and just keep pushing, with admirable resilience and humor.  In recent years, as ever more Chinese have entered the middle class, that has included pushing their leaders for more of a voice, to be treated with more respect, for a different kind of relationship.

Veteran journalist Paul Mooney has covered that transition over the past 18 years, for news organizations including Newsweek and The South China Morning Post.  He was most recently hired by Reuters to serve as a features writer in Beijing.  He had to leave the country to await his visa, and chose to do so in Berkeley.  He’s stayed active, over eight months of waiting, chronicling and commenting on the same kind of issues and abuses he covered while in China.

Now comes the news that Paul won’t be getting his visa after all.  The Chinese government hasn’t told him why.   Smart money would be on this being part of the Chinese government’s enhanced efforts of late to silence critical voices, both within and outside China.   And that effort seems to be having its effect.  Even Bloomberg, after a round of impressive investigative reports in 2012, seems now to be pulling its punches.

Within China, critics in civil society have been slapped down and silenced.   Civil rights lawyer Teng Biao estimates that four to five times as many such people have been detained this year, under the new leadership, compared to last year.  Teng Biao himself has been detained more than once since 2010, for calling on the Chinese government to honor its own constitution.   The Communist Party has instead declared a battle for its own survival against “constitutionalism,” as well as such “Western” values as human rights, freedom of the press, and rule of law.   It’s an interesting tactic, as a way to deal with an an increasingly sophisticated, well-informed and demanding populace.  Good luck with that.

As Party leaders meet Nov. 9-12 in a plenum that state news agency Xinhua says will address “major issues concerning comprehensively deepening reforms,” few are holding their breath that the Party will attempt any reform that threatens its continued rule.  And these days, the Party seems quick to feel threatened.  So – a few tweaks to make economic reforms more efficient and inclusive?  Sure.  Any moves in the direction of empowering civil society?  Not likely.

It’s a shame that Paul Mooney is a casualty of the Chinese government’s considerable insecurity, as was Melissa Chan last year.  Melissa was China correspondent for Al Jazeera English and, like Paul, was both tough and fair in her reporting on China, living out the old adage that good journalism should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  I respect them both as colleagues, and enjoy their company as friends, so there is at least a silver lining (for me) that we’ve all ended up in the Bay Area.  But at least I chose to be here.   I wish they’d had the same opportunity to choose.  I already miss their reporting in China.

Beyond that, I wonder when China’s leaders will be able to take criticism without reflexively lashing out.  It comes with the territory of becoming a more developed economy, and a rising super power.  Trying to crush criticism rather than respond to it only costs them respect and credibility, both at home and abroad.  Seems a high price to pay for trying to control a conversation.



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One thought on “Controlling the conversation (or trying to, anyway)

  1. yes, yes, all that interesting stuff about withdrawal, but more importantly, Lucie and took that very same walk, and also have similar great shots of the Golden Gate Bridge!….though we didn’t go down to the beach…a lovely Sunday afternoon! hi to Lawrence!

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