So I’m surprised to see Ji’s story being reported as another example of the Chinese state cracking down[link to ChinaGeeks] on the freedom of speech, and the efforts to intimidate him being misreported in English as detention or even jail time. On the contrary, both cases seem to belong to a thuggish and desperate effort to control PR fallout by local interests. That national papers, including People’s Daily and the official Xinhua news agency have covered the stories shows very clearly that the officials involved lack the kind of high-level protection it takes to get stories suppressed by the state’s censorship authorities.
This is an important distinction: while journalists in Luoyang encountered serious problems – murder, intimidation, and a clampdown on local coverage of the Li Hao story that succeeded for two weeks – they were local responses that posed little difficulty for a national paper like Southern Metropolis. The story here is less 1984 than Deliverance – in the absence of effective central oversight, much of China is governed by almost feudal networks of patronage and protection, no more answerable to Beijing than it is to the public.
To begin with, I’m a bit baffled that he linked us there. I think my original post was pretty clear; I said specifically that the hassle Ji got was because he caused local police to lose face, and I never suggested the central government had a hand in it. I did suggest Ji was detained — apparently that’s not entirely accurate — but there I was only paraphrasing a New York Times article that said the same thing (which was linked via this CDT article). I believe that was the most accurate information available at the time I posted the article (which was an opinion piece, not reporting).
Anyway, I want to address the distinction Cohen is making here. His argument is that this and other incidents were local issues that don’t really implicate the central government in anything except perhaps ineffectiveness and inefficiency. This is an argument one hears all the time, and I must admit, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with it at the same time.
Before we go further, I do want to state that I don’t think there’s anything in particular wrong with Cohen’s article, nor am I arguing against his specific conclusions there so much as I’m arguing against the general argument one hears all the time in China: ‘The central government is good, it’s just these local officials are out of control and corrupt!’
On the one hand, there’s no denying that many of the high-profile problems reported in the media are, at their heart, local issues. In the case of the stories that have been dogging Luoyang for the past few weeks, this is certainly true. The central government didn’t have a real hand in directly causing any of these problems, at least as far as we know.
And yet, something about the argument rings hollower to me every time I hear it. While national media did report the story, for example, I wonder if the central government — presumably now they’re aware of it — will take steps to punish the national security agents who harassed Ji. A year from now, I wonder, will Luoyang still be producing gutter oil? Will its government still be kidnapping petitioners (and tourists) from Beijing and dragging them back home? Or will these news stories lead to central government intervention and increased oversight in the future?
It’s the future, of course, so who knows. But history tells us that the central government, for all its promises, won’t do much. Sure, these are local issues in that the central government was not manufacturing sewer oil or kidnapping tourists. But how many years have we already been reading stories about gutter oil? About black jails? About the harassment of journalists both foreign and domestic? These are not new stories, they’ve been being reported for years now. All that changes is the place names.
Sure, the incidents in Luoyang were local. And the next high-profile black jail case will be a local story too. It will be local police and local officials acting, and ultimately local police and local officials who will fall if the stakes get high enough.
Increasingly, though, I feel like the distinction is an irrelevant one. If the central government can’t or won’t put a stop to these problems, aren’t they ultimately also culpable?
Deliverance was about one isolated, backward area of the US. But China has little Deliverance moments happening all over, all the time. Take forced demolition, for example. Readers of Shanghaiist may recall the “Bloody Map” they posted last year tracking incidences of violence related to forced demolitions. Each one of those dots on the right represents what is fundamentally a local issue. But if you look at the map as a whole, it should be fairly obvious why some people tend to lay the blame for these “local issues” at the feet of the central government.
On the other hand, as Cohen points out, state media has been allowed to report on many of these issues, although often only after a story has already been broken by independent media, usually one of the Southern Media Group papers. People will learn about these stories either way via Weibo and other social media; why not allow the state media outlets to build a little bit of a rep for being critical reporting damage that’s already been done anyway? I’m not sure the central government deserves any credit for having done something right if it isn’t also fixing the problem that’s being reported on ((Yeah, fixing these problems isn’t easy, but the central government runs the country. If it’s too hard, too bad. You’re the effin’ government, nut up and do your goddamn job!)).
Anyway, it’s a complex issue and I’ll concede there are some pretty valid arguments on both sides, so I wanted to turn it over to our crack team of commenters for analysis. What do you think? Are local issues really local?