Like most print-oriented people, my travel ritual includes sampling the local newspapers. Maybe such reading is just habitual, but often enough it also is rewarding or surprising.
That certainly was the case during a recent two-week visit to China, reading the China Daily, which is published in English six days a week by the nation’s Communist party or government, one and the same.
In Western Europe, you’ll find newspapers in at least four or five languages at every street corner. In China, a complimentary hotel copy was the only recourse. Curiously, the airports in Xian and Beijing sold no newspapers. And I guess that was the case in our first stop, Shanghai, although I didn’t think to ask at the time. Nonetheless, reading the China Daily was certainly surprising in one respect: The Freedom of Information rhetoric on the editorial and op-ed pages.
Government in Iowa should be as strident about FOI concerns as was the China Daily of the Communist party.
For example, in a June 15 editorial, “Justice in clear view“, the China Daily called for more openness in the nation’s courts:
“Upgrading judges’ professional qualifications is imperative. At the same time, allowing sunshine into the courtroom may be a more cost-effective approach to building public confidence.
“There is no better therapy for our judiciary’s chronic lack of credibility than the Supreme People’s Court’s decision to make open trials a universal practice.”
That discovery came on the heels of one a few days before in which I read an editorial two or three times to make sure that the phase “the public’s right to know” was really in the paper. It was – in an editorial, “Something’s Missing“, on scandals related to misuse of funds in something called the ‘National Steering Panel for Dental Disease Prevention and Treatment.” Here’s the surprising line:
“Just to satisfy the public’s right to know, it is necessary to establish the trail of money flowing within and through the disgraced affiliate of the ministry (of health).”
Perhaps the biggest domestic news story to break during our visit was an expose of slave labor in small brick kilns and mines in Shanxi and Henan provinces. More than 350 slave laborers were freed and some 170 arrests were made as a result of investigative reporting by a television news reporter after local government officials dismissed concerns from people looking for relatives, who had been kidnapped and sold to mine owners.
An incredible story that included this mind-boggling quote from one of those arrested: “I felt it was a fairly small thing, hitting and swearing at the workers and not giving them wages.” (Clip and save that personnel-management tip.)
The uproar led a China Daily columnist to bemoan the lack of investigative reporting in China. In “We need investigative journalists“, You Nuo wrote:
“But the cruel fact is that only once or twice a year does Chinese media produce investigative reports like (this). As Chinese cities are inundated with glossy promotions, people forget the problems behind their new wealth and enjoyment, especially the poverty and injustice in the countryside just a few hindered kilometers from where they live.”
That indictment of the Chinese media could apply to many nations today. So what lessons to draw from these isolated examples? A few:
•FOI principles, like those of human rights, are exciting and inspiring. That’s why government officials pay lip service to them even though they often ignore them.
•In previous talks with journalists from Mexico and in Eastern Europe, I had found more commitment to what might be called “sacrificial journalism” than I encounter in the U.S. – sacrificial meaning putting the need to inform the public ahead of the need to make a buck. Such an approach seems glimmering in China, too.
•A week or so before we left for China, Richard Doak, retired editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, had an op-ed piece about how the 2008 campaign had it wrong so far. Doak wrote that while discussion of Iraq and terrorism was unavoidable, the bigger picture required that candidates consider how the U.S. accommodates itself to the emergence of China and India as world powers. At the time, I found Doak’s article perceptive and persuasive. Even more so after a couple of surprising weeks in China.