Effect Measure

China’s shame

Better not have a “sudden event” in China. Or rather, you can have one, but don’t tell anyone about it.

What’s a “sudden event”?

While state media did not offer a definition of “sudden events,” in the past they have included natural disasters, major accidents, public health or social safety incidents. (New York Times; h/t Easy Hiker)

What will happen to you if you tell?

Chinese media outlets will be fined up to $12,500 each time they report on “sudden events” without prior authorization from government officials, according to a draft law under review by the Communist Party-controlled legislature.

The law, revealed today in most state-run newspapers, would give government officials a powerful new tool to restrict coverage of mass outbreaks of disease, riots, strikes, accidents and other events that the authorities prefer to keep secret. Officials in charge of propaganda already exercise considerable sway over the Chinese media, but their power tends to be informal, not codified in law.

Although more than 100 million Chinese have access to the Internet and hundreds of commercially driven newspapers, magazines and television stations provide a much wider selection of news and information than was available in the recent past. As a result, Chinese authorities have also sought fresh ways to curtail reporting on topics and events they consider harmful to social and political stability.

Editors and journalists say they receive constant bulletins from the Propaganda Department forbidding reporting on an ever-expanding list of taboo topics, including “sudden events.” But a few leading newspapers and magazines occasionally defy such informal edicts. They may find it more costly to ignore the rules if they risked being assessed financial penalties.

The draft, under consideration by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, was described in outline by newspapers today.

It says that newspapers, magazines, news Web sites and television stations should face fines ranging from $6,250 to $12,500 each time they publish information about a sudden event “without authorization” or publish “fake news” about such events. (NYT)

So it’s OK to have a massive benzene spill, a coal mine accident (not that you could have one in China, of course) or a disease outbreak (SARS? bird flu?) as long as you don’t tell anyone it happened. Diagnoses of bird flu in humans are already regarded as “state secrets.” This proposed law will give a great deal of authority to local officials (often corrupt), who frequently try to cover up poultry outbreaks of avian influenza (see this post).

It’s hard to restrict information in the age of the internet. But China is making the effort. Too bad their energies aren’t directed towards more useful ends.

This is a government without shame and as a consequence will receive no honor or respect. Not that they seem to care.


  1. #1 Nancy
    June 27, 2006

    One could argue that the Chinese government is codifying what is essentially a de facto policy in the U.S. If a news organization reports on something that displeases the current administration, it is very often shut off from accessing sources. Not directly financially punitive, but it has its own ripple effect.

  2. #2 Interrobang
    June 27, 2006

    On Hardball, Chris Matthews and guests were debating whether the New York Times’ publishing stories the Bush administration doesn’t happen to like is grounds for charges of treason. That to me means that executing journalists has become a debatable policy issue in the US, which isn’t much better than what China is doing. At least you haven’t managed to hobble the internet yet.

  3. #3 Judson
    June 27, 2006

    Oh whatever, I’m not fan of the Bush Admin, but you can’t honestly think CNN wouldn’t run a story of a dam collapsing or something like Katrina for fear of Bush not liking it. The only thing running through their minds when events like that happen is beating the other news companies.

    Now for political stories that might be more true, but this Chinese law is a lot more encompassing apparently.

  4. #4 slovenia
    June 27, 2006

    Threats against the NYTimes are strictly for show (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). With some exceptions–Krugman, Rich and Ivins come immediately to mind–the MSM in the US are co-conspirators with the Cheney-Bush junta in keeping the American people ignorant regarding the “big” issues–the true state of the US economy, the all-encompassing nature of the disaster in Iraq, the stolen 2004 election in Ohio, lobbyist corruption, the parlous state of worker safety and the health infrastructure, etc, etc and on and on (not that the majority of the American people would be grateful if they were disabused). If the MSM were still the Fourth Estate instead of courtiers of the Neo-Con King, half the Bush Administration would be shuffling in orange jumpsuits and leg irons.

  5. #5 George
    June 27, 2006

    The real problem with the U.S. media is that they are constantly reporting on “sudden events”. CNN is nothing but “sudden event” after “sudden event” after “sudden event” reported on with breaking pictures, catchy sound bytes and reporters up to their knees in water. You get so numbed (bored) by the barrage of news that you can’t tell the important from the trivial.

  6. #6 revere
    June 27, 2006

    George: LOL. We need some Chinese law here!

    slovenia: Yes, sadly. It is Kabuki Theater.

    Judson: Every regime has their own way of managing info. Without Net Neutrality we won’t need the regime to do it because the telecoms will.

    Nancy and Interrobang are expressing the unease we have about how they try to manipulate information in the US and they do it sometimes and not others. The “sudden events” are the usual fare here, as George so astutely points out. Much safer to let “Acts of God” be the headline instead of the “Acts of Policy Makers.”

  7. #7 M. Randolph Kruger
    June 27, 2006

    I wonder aloud here folks if the NYT thing is overblown on both sides of the fence. Lefties, righties…. Does the USGOVT have the right to condemn the NYT for letting the world know that they were looking at Belgian money accounts for terrorist traffic? Is that aid and comfort to the enemy? I dunno. The NYT pretty much tried to defend their position as the Administration went ballistic for them blowing yet another intel capability into the pits of Hell. I wouldnt want to go to sleep at night in NYC knowing that the NYT was busily printing the next intelligence caper of my government. Its disturbing.

    As a one step to the right centrist I believe that they have the right to do it. Lefty bastards! But as I curse their names I also respect their right to print it because I cant see a definitive breach of national security, the NSA act, the Patriot Act or violation of the Constitution and its Amendments. Therefore, I defend it in fact.

    The NYT is on 7th Street in New York City and I ask can any good have come from printing it other than to be a Bush bash on yet another suggested loss of a perceived liberty? But Hello, this was activity in Belgian territory and neither the Administration or the NYT has jurisdiction.

    Now I dont know Belgian law on terrorism or sedition/treason or espionage but they got the information from someone. If it was a breach of EU or Belgian law then they should indict them and right now. Not much chance of that. On the other hand if it was US then it was likely one of those pre-election spills that seem to happen every two years. Republicans do it, Democrats do it. Big surprise. Those spills in the past were fairly benign, didnt amount to much and we got a Watergate and a Monica as a result.

    Nowadays though it might cost someone their life or lives in the future. We have moved from armed physical contact wars, to a stealth/intelligence gathering wars, back to physical contact wars. One begets the other in a cycle it would seem. But in our particular case it could get someone killed in a hot fast fury. It might be a soldier in the field, it might be Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles. It might be New York. If its a nuke in New York then the debate over whether to use good common sense about security issues that are perceived differently between two diametrically opposed entities that being the Administration and the NYT is done. GAME OVER! No reset button on that and then the argument will move to the next available city and issue. Back to status quo.

  8. #8 Confounded
    June 27, 2006

    Slovenia, do tell…what is “MSM?” Have seen the acronym several times on blogs but only know it to be a dietary supplement. Please enlighten me. Thanks.

  9. #9 revere
    June 27, 2006

    Randy: What’s ridiculous about the Administration’s faux outrage over the NYT story is that anybody with half a brain (including any terrorist smart enough to move money around internationally) knew electronic funds transfers were the subject of surveillance. It was not a secret. No information was divulged that anybody didn’t know unless they weren’t thinking about it at all.

    Meanwhile the Administration leaks stories containing classified information whenever it pleases if it is to their advantage. It doesn’t even have to be true. The hypocrisy of this is beyond belief. It is just Kabuki Theater for the masses.

  10. #10 revere
    June 27, 2006

    Confounded: MSM is a blogosphere acronym for Main Stream Media (i.e., traditional print and broadcast media). In some contexts (e.g., AIDS) it has been used for Men having Sex with Men, but here it has the former meaning.

  11. #11 tardigrade
    June 28, 2006

    Revers, I have been talking to a friend who is a scholar from China. She is a Prof in Chemistry of the Environment. She told me that China has accidents all the time and that they have names for the ‘colors’ of their rivers and the associated chemical pollution…. I find this astounding. The Inuit have names for the different kinds of snow and ice just like China has names for the types of pollution poisoning their waters.

    Nitroglycerine flowing from TNT factories causes rivers to turn pink… for example.

  12. #12 guthrie
    June 28, 2006

    CHina should certainy be condemned for its lack of openness. It will be interesting watching how the leaders will attempt to maintain a dictatorship whilst trying to benefit from free exchange of ideas and moderately free markets.
    Though I do think comparing the US gvt actions with Chinas is going a bit too far, for now. Maybe in the future, we shall see…

  13. #13 Ana
    June 28, 2006

    It is one thing to repress news of sudden events or ongoing horrors, scandals, corruption, misdeeds, malfunctions, tragedies… it is another thing to fabricate news out of whole cloth.

    The line between omission and comission is a fuzzy one to be sure. Still any analysis of Chinese, US or other MSM should address that.

  14. #14 mara
    June 28, 2006

    China will do whatever it wants to do.We tisk,tisk to ourselves about human rights etc but rush to trade with this country where ever possible.China will do whatever it wants to do because it can.End of story.

  15. #15 revere
    June 28, 2006

    mara: True, but we can still deplore it. They also want to be considered reputable trading partners and this doesn’t enhance that image.

  16. #16 Marissa
    June 28, 2006

    Nothing much is going to change unless we stop buying from China, which would address the horrific trade imbalance and perhaps nudge China into floating the Yuan. But of course Wal-Mart won’t allow that to happen and the outcry from the public would be a caterwauling of immense proportions. No cheap goods anymore! Oh by the way, virtually all masks are made in China. On second throughts, we’d better be nice to them.

  17. #17 mara
    June 28, 2006

    It is midnight here and I am creepihg off to the crypt.As I nod off I shall try to think of your suggestion that China is wanting to be reputable in any shape or form.Heh

  18. #18 Ground Zero Homeboy
    June 28, 2006

    Heh. CCTV is China’s English-language cable channel available on basic cable. They used to have “Music Box”, a music video show. Most of the videos were standard love crap, but some were straight-out propaganda. “Better and better! Better and better! Our lives are getting better and better! There is enough food and there are no more traffic jams! Better and better!” Sung into her cel phone by a business-suited woman in Shanghai’s modern district.

    A variant was a pagan-themed video about worshipping the spirit of the lake, capping the video by dumping a huge vat of red pigment into the lake and watching it diffuse.

  19. #19 Confounded
    June 28, 2006

    Revere, So MSM=Main Stream Media. Thanks so much for letting me know. I appreciate the use of acronyms, but clearly I’m still on the learning curve w/some of them. Slovenia’s post makes so much more sense to me now.

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