January 11, 2013

It is telling that the protests in China this week over government control involve a newspaper and censorship — not a military tank in a public square.

China has walked the fragile road of modernism and capitalism without democracy. But history keeps repeating one message about trying to balance economic advances without freedom. Information by its nature is democratizing.

In China, the information box is already open. Half of the Chinese public is online, according to the data from fall of 2012 by the Pew Research Center. Fully 93 percent of Chinese have cell phones; 62 percent engage in social networking. And half the Chinese public, according to Pew’s data, share their personal views on social networks. (I was founding director of Center’s Project for Excellence Journalism for 16 years until December.)

What the Chinese are willing to share in these spaces is equally fascinating. Most — 86 percent — say they share their views about “movies and music,” but only 10 percent are willing to share their views about “politics.” At the same time, fully half say they share their views about “community issues.”

Those answers hint at the problem for authoritarians. The line from culture to community to politics at a certain point is only rhetorical.

The old Soviet Union tried to control thought by registering every typewriter owned in the country. When in the late 1980s fax machines, satellite TV and VCRs made it impossible to know what ideas people were learning and sharing, Soviet leaders created the first institutes in the country to conduct public opinion polling. When they could no longer control what people knew, they began to try to study what people thought so that they might begin to try to manage it. They also had to relax TV and radio programming to adapt to new popular demands, then tried to pull back, which led to similar frictions as we see now.

The Chinese for a time tried to post soldiers by every fax machine in the country.

In this photo taken and released by a protester, a local university student, left, a supporter of the Southern Weekly, is interviewed by a foreign media before being taken away by plainclothes policemen outside the newspaper headquarters in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo)

That brings us back to the source of the protests in China today. They began when authorities censored the New Year’s editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper, which had called for the new leaders of the Chinese government to make good on rights articulated in the Chinese constitution.

That led journalists and their supporters to issue an open letter. “By Sunday night,” the New York Times reports, “the protests had transformed into a melee in the blogosphere.”

The initial flashpoint over the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were journalism, too — a series of columns in the World Economic Herald, as Jonathan Mirsky reminds in a fine essay this week in the New York Review of Books. There was no blogosphere then for people to gather. So they met in a square and faced tanks.

The spark this time is similar. And they are a reminder that even in the digital age, journalism and democracy are inevitably and inextricably linked.

Fundamentally, the act of producing journalism is an act of putting more information and ideas in the hands of more people. That, in turn, inspires public conversation. Look back and you see that the birth of a periodical press can be traced to the Enlightenment and the evolution of democratic theory. Look wider and you find that societies with more journalism, of all sorts, have tended toward more freedom.

Meeting with journalists around the world over the last decade, I’ve learned, sometimes unexpectedly, that journalists everywhere tend to share a common cause. Whatever system in which they operate, in their own way, all journalists are concerned with accuracy and truthfulness. It is in the nature of being in the business of finding things out and making them public.

The march toward freedom engendered by making information transparent is not a straight line. It is often closer to two steps forward and one step back, or dancing a box step. The protests in China this week may lose momentum rather than presage immediate change. Mirsky reports that the words “Southern” and “Weekend” have now vanished from the Chinese Internet.

But the long view reveals something inexorable. As information begins to flow, so do ideas. That is the essential insight of the First Amendment.

Tom Rosenstiel is an author and journalist, a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, and the Executive Director of the American Press Institute.

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One of the most recognized thinkers in the country on the future of news, Tom Rosenstiel (@tomrosenstiel) is the author of 10 books, including three…
Tom Rosenstiel

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