Suddenly Breaking Incidents in China

Some statistics from Xinhua:

These pitiless statistics shake up people's hearts: In 2005, there were more than 540,000 public incidents of all kinds, causing about 200,000 deaths and direct economic losses of 325.3 billion yuan.

In South China Morning Post: On the table: fines for breaking news, by Josephine Ma, June 26, 2006.

Mainland media outlets will face fines ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 yuan if they break news on emergencies such as natural disasters without authorisation, according to a draft law being reviewed by the National People's Congress Standing Committee.  Media organisations would also be penalised if they report on the handling and developments of such emergencies without authorisation, or publish false reports about disasters.

The law also stipulates officials in charge of handling the emergencies should release information to the public and "manage" media reports on time. However, they are not required to make the news public if it will inhibit their work.  Public emergencies include natural disasters, accidents, public health crises and social security crises, such as protests and clashes between farmers and local officials, which are on the rise. 

(Apple Daily)  June 26, 2006.

[in translation]

The draft of the <<Law for Handling Suddenly Breaking Incident>>, previously known as <<Law for Handling Emergency Conditions>>, consists of seven chapters, sixty-two articles and more than 10,000 words.  It has been revised several times by the State Council Legal System Office over the past two years.  The National People's Congress Standing Committee called for a meeting on the day before yesterday to review it.

The official Chinese media disclosed part of the contents of the draft law and enumerated four types of suddenly breaking incidents: natural disasters, accidents, public health incidents and public safety incidents.  In other words, if the draft law is passed by the People's Congress, mainland officials will handle epidemics such as SARS and avian flu and the world-famous Songhua River contamination last year in accordance with the law.

The draft law states that if the news media violate the regulations and publish information on SARS and avian flu, or about the government's management, or releasing false information, they may be fined between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan if serious consequences occurred as a result.  It should be also noted that although the draft law recommends that the government should publish information on a coordinated, considered and timely basis, this may be waived in the event that such information affects the timely handling of the matter.

As soon as this draft law was published, mainland netizens were in an uproar and commented on the BBS forums about the anti-constitutional and anti-democratic nature, the shortsightedness and the unpopularity of the Hu-Wen administration: "News should be free!  I strongly oppose this draft law!"  "I firmly support freedom of press!  When news reporting is subjected to criticisms, this is going backwards in history" "I firmly oppose this because it is a step backwards for democracy" "This is censoring news and restricting the people's right to know!  This is going backwards."

There are also other netizens who said that since freedom of press in China has never progressed, one cannot speak of going backwards: "It is like that right now.  This is the custom.  So the policy is not going backwards because we have never moved forwards."  There are other netizens who are worried that officials will abuse the waiver clause: "The exception about not having to disclose information that would inhibit emergency management ... this waiver must be concretely described because it will surely be abused otherwise!"  "Support freedom of press and remove the 100,000 yuan fine regulation." 

(Southern Metropolis Daily)  Changping's column.  June 26, 2006.

[in translation]

According to Xinhua yesterday, the draft law sent to the National People's Congress Standing Committee previously for review contains a restrictive regulation on media reporting: news media which violate the regulations to report on its own about how suddenly breaking incidents are being handled, progress reports on developments or false information will be fined between 50,000 to 100,000 yuan by the government unit with overall responsibility for managing the incident.  The draft law also stipulates that the release of information about the incident and all news reporting will go only through the government unit with overall responsibility for managing the incident.

As everybody knows, the law for managing suddenly breaking incidents has been brewing since 2003 after being motivated by the lack of information and coordination during the SARS episode.  During that incident, two senior officials lost their jobs for hiding information, and therefore "informing the public" became a prominent term in public forum.  This reflects that people want to have timely and transparent news and supervision.  Later on, in other incidents such as mining disasters, air disasters, typhoons and so on, the news media fulfilled the functions of publishing the timely news, preventing the spread of rumors and exposing corruption.  These facts showed that from the central government to the local governments, from the mainstream to the grassroots, almost no one doubts that public transparency and timely and accurate opinion supervision have important functions in handling suddenly breaking incidents.

Naturally, people assume that in the law about the handling of suddenly breaking incident, the use of opinion supervision should be affirmed formally by law and continued.  But the opposite is present in the draft law.  This is tantamount to canceling opinion supervision and is therefore a step backwards.  This is very puzzling.

Looking at the frequently occurring and seemingly unstoppable mining disasters in recent years, let us see what might happen under the rules of the draft law.

Everybody knows that due to considerations of interests and responsibilities after a mining disaster, coal mine owners often collude with local officials to conceal the number of casualties among the coal miners.  The 2001 Nandan mining disaster, the 2004 Handan mining disaster and this year's Zuoyun mining disasters are well-known examples.  Those involved in the cover-up are usually punished eventually according to the following steps: the masses complain -> the media report -> the upper-level officials investigate -> criminal prosecution.

A major mining disaster may be covered up and classified as a low-level minor incident that can be handled by the local government.  According to the draft law, the local government is the government unit with overall responsibility and it is therefore responsible for managing the process and controlling the release of all information, including managing the related media reports.  That is to say, the local government controls the release of all information.  Based upon the aforementioned cases of cover-ups at mining disasters, the local governments were the masterminds and participants in the cover-up.  If at the time, certain media reported the cover-up activities, then have they violated the rule against 'releasing information on their own'?  Obviously, they did.  According to the stipulations of this draft law, the local government and those engaged in the cover-up should be fining the media -- isn't this absurd?

Of course, the draft law also requires that the government unit with overall responsibility must release timely and accurate information.  But, without opinion monitoring, who is going to decide whether the information has been released on a timely and accurate basis?  Who is going to accept the complaints from the people?  Should the superior units sent out a few people to do that secretively?  How can we prevent collusion between businesses and governments?  Of course, opinion monitoring alone cannot solve all the problems.  But without opinion monitoring, the cost and risks associated with corruption are a lot less and the probability of occurrence is therefore much higher.

Actually, we cannot only let the local government control all information release.  We cannot even allow only certain authoritative media to monopolize the news either, because this will lead to the same rent-seeking corrupt behavior.  In recent years, there have been several cases in which reporters covered up mining disasters and this was to a certain extent the result of certain news organizations owning monopoly power on information.

Looking at international cases.  The biggest suddenly breaking incident in recent years is the 9/11 terrorist attack.  All the major media sent out large numbers of reporters to cover the scene.  The New York Times was the most prominent and it sent out large numbers of reporters to cover the scene of the attack, the causes and the consequences over long periods of time, and won the most number of Pulitzer awards.

The restrictive regulations on the media in the draft law will not only cause more ridiculous things to happen during suddenly breaking incidents, but it also reflect the fact that some people still do not understand the role and function that the news media have in society.  Everybody thinks that public opinion monitoring of the authorities is common knowledge, but within this solemn legal document, it is still being turned upside down.  Using the law to affirm that government units have administrative control over news reporting is a very dangerous thing to do.

The articles above are all related to the provision about media reporting in the draft law.  This is just one aspect and the draft law as a whole is more concerned about emergency management and responsibilities.  For example, here is the list of people or organizations who can be fined (via Boxun):

The draft law on suddenly breaking incidents has the following regulations when organizations violate the regulations.  Under the following circumstances, when they are serious violations or have serious consequences, the government unit with overall responsibility may impose fines between 50,000 and 100,000 yuan on:

Still, within the draft law, there are a large number of grey areas and loopholes.  For example, the fines are relevant to 'news media' and do not cover BBS forums and blogs.  The net effect will be to defang the mainstream media even further and empower civilian journalism. 

Can the government unit with overall responsibility go after a blogger?  If they insisted that only one coal miner suffered a broken collarbone whereas the blogger said, "I personally witnessed thirty-one bodies brought into the morgue from the mine," the facts are going to come out eventually one way or the other.  The truth will be on the blogger's side.  

Will the forum masters and blog service providers get into trouble on account of their users?  They can always put on the 'dumb' act: "Hey, we'll carry out any instructions that the Central Propaganda Department gives us -- no 6/4, no FLG, no whatever-you-say.  But we have to handle tens of thousands of forum posts per day and we are not mind readers, so how were we supposed to know that the number of bodies at a certain town morgue in Jiangxi is off limits?  It was not on your list.  Please put it on the list and we will follow that strictly!  We are all patriots here and we won't let the overseas hostile forces with ulterior motives sully the reputation of our great motherland!"

Also, the amount of fine (50,000 to 100,000 RMB) should be considered.  That kind of sum may be significant to an ordinary working person, but what is it to an organization with hundreds of millions RMB in annual revenue?  It would have been just the "cost of business."  For example, Next Media (including Apple Daily, Easyfinder and Next Magazine) has been fined more than 100 times in recent years, but that never stopped them from doing the same thing.

Triads -- that is what this is about.  No, I don't mean underworld criminal organizations such as the 14K, Sun Yee On or Bamboo Union.  I mean Georg Wilhelm Hegel's triads as explained in this paragraph in Wikipedia:

In previous modern accounts of Hegelianism (to undergraduate classes, for example), Hegel's dialectic was most often characterized as a three-step process of "Thesis, antithesis, synthesis", namely, that a "thesis" (e.g. the French Revolution) would cause the creation of its "antithesis" (e.g. the Reign of Terror that followed), and would eventually result in a "synthesis" (e.g. the Constitutional state of free citizens). However, Hegel used this classification only once, and he attributed the terminology to Immanuel Kant. The terminology was largely developed earlier by Fichte the neo-Kantian. It was spread by Friedrich Moritz Chalybšus in a popular account of Hegelian philosophy, and since then the misfit terms have stuck.

The above articles are virtually one-sided in defense of freedom of press, but what is missing is the other side of the story which is an unpopular position for anyone to take.

Let me use a specific example: The Water Crisis in Harbin.

On November 22, I summarized after reading all sorts of reports from all sorts of places.  There were four explanations as to why the city of Harbin was going to shut down the water system in winter:

(1) This was routine maintenance for the water system.  This is the official statement from the Harbin city government.

(2) A few days ago, there was an explosion at a petroleum plant in Jilin, from which contaminants was discharged into the Songhua River.  Since Harbin is downstream from Jilin and draws its drinking water from the river, the water system had to be shut down while the contaminants flowed through.  But what about all the other people who live along the river?  There are cities (such as Songyuan) between Jilin and Harbin and how come they didn't have any water crises? This would turn out to be the truth and there had in fact been water shutdowns in the towns and cities along the Songhua river, but not reported as such by the media or the government initially.

(3) Beginning around noon, November 20, there was a rumor that an earthquake has been predicted for Harbin.  Tens of thousands of people rushed to the train and long-distance bus stations and fought to get tickets to get out of Harbin.  Those who had to stay started to hoard up on food and water and pitched tents outside to sleep at night.  But what has this got to do with the water shutdown anyway?  This was a roadside rumor.

(4) An unidentified person from the water works department said that a water quality inspector found out that there was a large-scale, systematic attempt to poison the water (specifically, it was cyanide).  There is no scientific basis for this sort of plan.  This fabrication was posted by an anonymous person on overseas websites.

The 'thesis' is that official lying (as in (1)) is unacceptable and ineffective and the truth is always best in the end (as in (2)).  And there is no way to make sure that (2) always comes out unless there is opinion monitoring by the media.  The 'antithesis' is that opinion monitoring also means bringing in well-meaning but misinformed opinions (as in (3)) as well as malicious calumnies (as in (4)), both of which may have serious harmful consequences for the general public.  So what is the 'synthesis' -- the arrangement that will make (1) cost-prohibitive and unnecessary, always give us (2), debunk (3) persuasively and make (4) self-destruct upon arrival?

Here is a bonus item taken from Asia Weekly (Yazhou Zhoukan), July 2, 2006, p.14-15.

[partial translation]

Recently, a Chinese air force early warning aircraft (EWAC) crashed in eastern Anhui.  According to informed sources, the incident caused a political chain reaction behind the scenes.

After the crash, certain air force officials wanted to minimize their culpability and reported to the central government on that day that the number of dead was 29 instead of the actual 40.  Why?  Because incidents are classified by the number of dead.  30 or more dead is a 'major incident' whereas 29 belongs to a lesser category.  Therefore, the air force units fooled around with that number.  In addition, they also manipulated the "black box" so that there was a gap of 1 minute 3 seconds.  The result was a political calamity within the air force that was much worse than the crash itself.

The person in charge of the whole thing was Guo Baixiong, a member of the Central Politburo and the Central Military Commission.  When he found out that there had been a cover-up, he was enraged and screamed: "I am going to personally send anyone engaged in any cover-up to face the firing squad!"  That put a stop to all further cover-ups.  So they are actually conducting a serious investigation based upon the facts of the matter ...

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(South China Morning Post)  Plan to fine media over emergencies criticised.  By Josephine Ma, July 4, 2006.

A law that would allow the government to impose fines of 50,000 to 100,000 yuan on media outlets that run independent reports on public emergencies has sparked strong resentment among journalists despite officials' assurances it would apply only if a report caused serious damage.

Outspoken journalism professor Zhan Jiang , from the China Youth University for Political Sciences, said the assurances by an official from the State Council Legal Affairs Office that the media would be encouraged to expose public emergencies covered up by local governments had failed to convince the media that the law was not aimed at restricting press freedom.

"The interpretation is not convincing. If that is really the case, they should have revised the draft of the law and inserted clauses that protect the rights of journalists," he said.

"There is not a single provision in the law to protect the rights of journalists, and they are talking about restricting the rights of journalists."

Professor Zhan said another provision in the draft, which stipulates that information about public emergencies should be provided by the government, had also caused concern.

Public emergencies include accidents, public health crises, social unrest and natural disasters.

No matter how the government tried to contain negative publicity after the content of the provision was released, the law was a clear case of intimidation of the media, Professor Zhan said.

"It has an enormous chilling effect and it is basically shutting up the media outlets," he said.

The ousted editor of the China Youth Daily's Bingdian supplement, Li Datong , said many journalists strongly opposed the proposed law.

"From past experience, we all know that the first government response to a public emergency is to lie," Mr Li said.

"For example, they denied there was a Sars epidemic at the beginning. As they cut off water supplies in Harbin after the Songhua River chemical spill, at first they claimed they were only repairing water pipes."

But Mr Li said he believed the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which was now reviewing the draft, would not accept such a provision.

The proposed law, which has passed the first review by the standing committee, is expected to be adopted this year.

A mainland journalist, who declined to be named, said journalists opposed the restrictions but at the same time felt helpless.

"We are not allowed to report on incidents that are not public emergencies, let alone public emergencies," the journalist said. "Before, there was no legitimate ground to fine us, and now they come up with one. What can we do?"