Ritika Passi is currently pursuing a graduate degree in International Security at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po. She completed her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Amity University, India, after which she worked for Magoo Strategic Infotech Pvt. Ltd as a research associate.
Her aim is to eventually converge her interest and work experience in print journalism and international affairs to ultimately work on India’s foreign policy.
The fiery dragon is busy blazing its trail and emblazoning its stamp across the world; the sturdy elephant continues to steadily march on despite the much agonized over global economic meltdown: China continues to amaze and awe.
Considering their geo-strategic location and their phenomenal growth rate in the last decade, there is a misconception that the two countries are following the same path to stardom. Nothing could be further from the truth. From governance to family planning, from land ownership to infrastructure, the two countries are worlds apart.
Nowhere can the difference be so starkly seen than in the way the media operates in the neighbouring Asian powers. While one is the purported fourth pillar of democracy, the other by and large still remains muzzled in its adherence to ideologies of communism that embrace extremes of socialism.
Take the World Wide Web, for example, jokingly termed as the "Great Firewall of China". In a one-month crackdown that shut down 1,635 websites earlier this year, China's rampage against online pornography is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Perhaps the rest of the world ought to follow; it would at least help in eliminating distracting elements in society. Granted, the internet becomes temporarily unavailable if the 'Tiananmen' is typed in Google search and BBC News and Voice of America are blocked sites. But who can afford another reason for internal crisis amidst the pressingly worrying economic recession?
In keeping with its communist ideology, China currently places more restrictions on journalists, foreign and otherwise than any other country. It also has a record of incarcerating more journalists than any other state for the past decade. Sensitive political issues such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident (which the then new and upcoming Indian channel NDTV valiantly covered and has since then traded its zeal for investigative journalism for opportunistic tactics), the Falun Gong and the Tibet problem remain taboo topics.
But it begs consideration what would have happened if China had not exercised its stranglehold on journalists on the above issues. China's human rights record is by no means pretty, and the world on and off clamours for correction of this aberration. But if the media had been allowed to cover the Tibet crackdown, the persecution of the members of the Falun Gong sect, 'unauthorized' protests and strikes, China would long ago have been officially labeled as a human rights violator by the UN. This would have only fed fire and given impetus for greater upheaval in the already fragilely strung together society, in face of social and economic tensions. Uprisings, riots, rebellions against the government would have been the order of the day. In all this, China's stability would have been lost, and the economy of China would have gone to the dogs. (Granted, China already sees more than 300 daily demonstrations bringing to light social and economic tensions. But a looser hold on the media would only amplify the voice of brewing discontentment.)
Furthermore, it would never have bagged the right to host last year's Olympics, which have been vital for China not only to showcase its economic prowess to the international community, but also to raise its nationalistic pride and fervor through the media. Whatever media sanctions it placed during the preparation and the Olympics events were only to ensure nothing went wrong, as well as to ensure China's grand arrival on the global world stage as a major actor.
And after the usual sniffs and long stares at China's abysmal media and human rights record, everyone moved on and enjoyed the show.
Another case in point - in 2003, when China could have lost its hold on its people (times of panic and alarm could have quickly weakened the communist regime's less than tight-fisted control), the controlled dissemination of information regarding the SARS epidemic prevented a major calamity. The media was forbidden to print stories regarding the coronavirus, and numbers of affected people were largely underreported (in some cases, up to ten times less than the original statistics). Instead of creating chaos and panic, the Chinese government chose restraint. It is a different matter that once the news was officially out, the population blanched at the breach of trust and a vacuum was temporarily created.
But also consider the 1000-bed hospital specifically built for the treatment of SARS constructed almost magically in seven days. Would that have been possible if the media had been given a free reign to criticize the government's efforts to 'control' the epidemic? Would the people have supported any further action from the government, instead of revolting and thus postponing much needed action against the virus?
Contrast this with the situation in India - our free press is the first to report rising numbers of dengue or chikungunya cases in poor outlying provinces. Our free press constantly keeps us updated on the worsening plight of the sewage systems come monsoon time - but we haven't seen any miraculous action taken by our democratic government. The Bihar floods last year are a bitter reminder of excellent coverage but poor action. But states like Bihar and Bengal have been battling water woes for the last six decades. Forget 7 day wonders, even pre-emptive measures to combat the same old problems the next year round are not taken.
China's media is the communist government's traditionally explicit and official mouthpiece, or the hou she - throat and tongue - of the government. At least the press, however little personal satisfaction of freedom it may confer, aids in extolling China's Communist Party's actions and achievements. And achievements there are many. No wonder then that China has plans to start TV channels and overseas newspapers in various languages to sing praises of the communist regime and China's economic accomplishments.
But India's press, the social advocate, which daily either denounces some political act or the other or caricatures corruption by our impressively growing fleet of cynical cartoonists, hasn't had much success in any field - neither in increasing literacy (39% illiteracy as contrasted with 9% in China) nor in infrastructure; neither in women empowerment (China has a female involvement of 45%, much greater than the world average of 35%; Indian women involvement in government and public service is much less than the proposed reservation of 35% seats) nor in raising nationalistic pride in the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
China's authoritarian political system is ensuring its survival in a time when individuals are increasingly straining against the limits, socially, politically, economically. It's a wonder not many in the world know that the country experiences 300 demonstrations daily on an average, as mentioned above. Given the fact that unlike North Korea, China's communist regime has chosen the globalized path (a choice which it is in no respect regretting) has only aggravated the tensions beneath the seemingly calm and ripple-free surface. In such times, when it would be anathema for China's Communist Party to appear out of control, it has become increasingly vital to keep the media on a leash. This has been a boon in disguise for the country's economic progress and projection as a global player.
If China covered up the melamine milk scandal last summer, if today it has taken away the right to decide what foreign sources and news to include from its official news agency, Xinhua, it is only to keep status quo an equation with volatile variables and thus preserve a façade of control and steer China towards greater economic prosperity. This year is a particularly sensitive one for China, thus the greater controls suddenly being imposed, what with the anniversaries of the failed Tibetan armed uprising, the emergence of Falun Gong, and the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown. Stability is the all-important element; without it, the country's economy would suffer. So, China's politicians walk along a known path, one of tyrannical suppression. And maybe in doing so it can one day finally render true the long held misconception in its history of being the centre of the world.
In the end, it cannot be denied that China's media track record is far from pretty. Nevertheless it has aided and abetted China's economic growth in a more 'proactive' way than India's free, uncontrolled and uncensored press has for the Indian economy.
Moreover, any country's media has an agenda, and there are many vested interests hanging in the news process. India's media has succeeded in making us used to the ineptitude of our politicians while pandering to Western interests while China's media has inculcated a fiercely nationalistic and suppressed environment.
And if China today can boast of the biggest dam, the highest railway line, the largest airport, the biggest foreign reserves in the world, somewhere along the line, its media has had a hand in preserving a false sense of calm by containing fiery eruptions.
Aiyyar, Pallavi. Smoke and Mirrors. Harper Collins, 2008.
CIA - The World Factbook (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2103.html)