China’s National People’s Congress is debating a law that would regulate media coverage of emergencies. The debate (China Daily report here) over the law allows an intriguing glimpse of the struggle the Communist Party is going through as it tries to adapt to the change economic growth and opening have brought. A previous version of the bill contained provisions for fines to be imposed on media outlets that reported “without authorization.” That has now apparently been dropped. Although the bill is only getting second reading and is still subject to change down the line, the new version signals how senior party officials wish to harness the power of the press to keep errant local government honest by allowing reporters to bring to light environmental and other disasters that locals would much rather keep quiet. The pollution exacerbated algae-bloom in the once legendarily beautiful lake Tai is a good example. Local officials said the bloom –which rendered the city of Wuxi’s tap water undrinkable for over a week– was due to natural causes. But after extensive media coverage, the State Environmental Protection Administration contradicted that, saying that uncontrolled pollution of the lake by numerous factories was to blame. SEPA Also criticized local officials for not controlling the effluent. End result: Beijing looks good and a potential threat to social harmony is presumably on the road to being corrected. On the other hand, when the pesky media report street demonstrations like the one in Xiamen over the government’s decision to put a huge chemical plant in a suburb (though in fact that was largely an internet phenomenon, precisely because the official media were muzzled) they are of course actually encouraging social disharmony, which must of course be strongly discouraged.
The bill also provides for unspecified punishment for those making up or spreading false news, the definition of which of course is open to interpretation and presumably decided by government officials. Sounds like half a step back to me.