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On Failing to Engage the Imagination of the Chinese Public: the

relevance of press freedom indicators in China1

“ .. we should be strong enough to remove those which are too close until
we can see and understand them without bias and prejudice, strong
enough to bridge the abysses of remoteness until we can see and
understand those that are too far away as though they were our own
affairs. This removing some things and bridging the abysses to others is
part of the interminable dialogue for whose purposes direct experience
establishes too immediate and too close a contact and mere knowledge
erects an artificial barrier.” (Arendt, 1953b: 12)

In her insightful essay on the difficulty of judging, Hannah Arendt argues that it is
crucial to be able to put things in ‘proper distance’, to achieve a perspective that
is neither too far nor too close. Evaluating the press freedom of countries through
comparative research is, in essence, a form of judgment. According to Arendt, a
proper judgment is an exercise in relationship to others. “It involves visiting
others – physically or in your mind – and consulting them, seeing things from
their point of view, exchanging opinions with them, persuading them, wooing their
consent.” (Young-Bruehl, 2006: 165). In this essay, I argue that with respect to
China, the press freedom indicators have yet to display a perspective developed
from a proper distance – and that as a result, they have so far failed to engage
the imagination of the Chinese.

Of the countries surveyed by the press freedom NGO’s, China is probably the
country they have the biggest distance of understanding with. The press freedom
studies have arguably failed to include Chinese perspectives, relate to them, or
make them feel compelled to engage. It is no secret that there is little dialogue
between the NGO’s that consistently place China somewhere last in terms of
press freedom and the Chinese government. Perhaps more revealing is that the
press freedom studies also seem to fail to capture the imagination of the Chinese
public. Actual data is hard to come by, but according to reports from the widely
respected Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, over 80% of the Chinese agree
that the internet should be managed and controlled, not that the internet should
be more free.2 One might ask whether a Chinese public is considered the
audience for these reports in the first place, arguing that it is really the NGO’s
funders or the Western nation-states that are the intended audiences.
Nevertheless, should a press freedom study on China include Chinese
perspectives as part of its audience? As Arendt would argue, the answer is an
undeniable yes.

Thanks to Anne Chen, Weiyu Zhang, Colleen Kaman, Tony Lambino, Andrea Leung and Lena Scheen for
their feedback on an earlier draft.
This is a confidential random survey and responses are anonymous. Also see Pew report by Deborah
Fallows, “Few in China Complain About Internet Controls,” Pew Internet & American Life Project (March
27, 2008),
How would an NGO start to “bridge the abysses of remoteness” when it comes to
understanding and judging China’s press freedom? Let’s start with examining the
methods that underwrite two influential press freedom studies, the reports by
Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House has been
measuring press freedom since 1980 by assessing the political, legal and
economic environments of each country, giving each a score and evaluating
whether they promote or restrict the flow of information. Reporters Without
Borders has been compiling the Worldwide Press Freedom Index since 2002,
which takes into consideration an array of issues, including (legal, physical,
indirect) attacks on journalists and the difficulties they might face, whether a state
monopoly on the media exists, and whether censorship or self-censorship in the
media take place.

Crucial to evaluating comparative research is understanding its normative

dimension, that is to say, the chosen values are evaluated against a norm, a
baseline, whether implictly or explicitly. Criticisms against the results of
comparative research are often of the variety that one case is privileged over
others, thereby skewing the results. Perhaps the classic case that is most often
maligned in comparative media research is The Four Theories of the Press by
Siebert, Peterson and Schramm (1956). This classic sought to theorize why the
press is as it is and why it apparently serves different purposes in different
countries. Probably the most cited critique of Four Theories is Nerone’s argument
(1995) that “Four Theories provides not four theories; it provides one theory with
four examples.” That is to say, the four theories are really measured against
standards set by classic liberalism. In his own (hilarious) words: “This meant that
the authoritative tone in which it mapped out the world concealed the particularity
of its own weltanschauung – it pretended its feet were planted on an
Archimedean point that turned out to be its own forehead.”

One could debate the universality of such concepts as ‘the press’ and its
‘freedom’, whether press freedom is something that can be captured in a number,
or whether the nation-state should be the unit of analysis (Gunaratne, 2002;
2005; Becker, Vlad, Nusser, 2007). For the purpose of this essay, I concede
these questions and accept them as constraints. However, even within the
constraints of this debate, I argue that what these studies lack is a taking-into-
account of divergent opinions, that they fail to locate their judgment in relation to
particular views, not just the views of the Chinese government but of the Chinese
public as well.3 Comparative research cannot hold fast to the norm of
Archimedean impartiality, but that does not mean we should give up on trying to
increase its validity. Judging from a proper distance involves constructing stories
from a plurality of perspectives that have an interest in doing so, and anticipating
what the response would be to a story different from one’s own.

For an interesting comparison, and to hear the other side of the story, the Chinese government also issues
a human rights report on the United States every year that I doubt the American public takes very serious.
See Xinhua (March 13, 2008)
And yet, in the press freedom studies on China, the stories from a Chinese
perspective are strangely absent. I realize that comparative studies on a global
scale have to make certain concessions to reduce enough complexity in order to
make the results accessible. But symptoms that indicate that perhaps too much
complexity has been sacrificed in the China case include the refusal of the
Chinese government to take these indicators into account, that they have not
found much traction with the Chinese public so far, that these studies are mostly
used by particular Western audiences and that there is strong academic critique
of these indicators (Gunaratne, 2002; 2005). These symptoms suggest that the
indicators reveal only a particular side of the story. A crucial perspective that they
fail to take into account is the everyday experiences of Chinese who are
increasingly going online.

A quick look at the reports done by the Freedom House and Reporters without
Borders reveals the following interesting picture about China’s record on press
freedom over the years:

World Wide Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders4

Year %
2008 85,50
2007 89,00
2006 94,00
2005 83,00
2004 92,33
2003 91,25
2002 97,00
(percentile ranking of all countries in the world)

Freedom of the Press survey of Freedom House5

Politica Economi
Year Legal l c Total Status
2008 28 35 21 84 free
2007 28 34 22 84 free
2006 27 34 22 83 free
2005 27 33 22 82 free
2004 27 32 21 80 free
See the reports online at
For the studies see
2003 26 34 20 80 free
2002 26 31 23 80 free
(out of a potential 100 points, the higher the worse the level of press freedom is)

Both studies paint a picture that suggests China’s press freedom has remained
virtually unchanged over the past few years. In the Reporters without Borders
studies, China remains consistently near the bottom of the rankings, while in the
Freedom House reports China’s scores remain more or less the same. But the
static picture that both studies paint of China is odd to say the least. Have the
flows of news and information in China really remained unchanged over the last
few years?

A look at the growth of internet users in the last few years paints a very different
picture of China. According to the official reports from the China Internet Network
Information Center (CNNIC), 34 million users were online in 2002 and this
number rose to 103 million in 2005. And according to the latest report, a
staggering 253 million people are now online, making China the country with the
largest online population in the world (CNNIC 2002; 2005; 2008). Furthermore,
several academics have revealed how the internet has facilitated an emergent
and burgeoning civil society in China (Yang, 2003; 2006; 2009; Zhou, 2005). This
is not to say that China’s media system is ‘free’ or even ‘partial free’, but there is
plenty of evidence which suggests that change and growth, not stasis, should be
the operative metaphors to think about China’s information and news flows. The
press freedom studies fail to capture these significant and complex changes in
China’s media ecology.

The flow of information is not the same as the regulation and control of it. That is
to say, if the flows of news and information have increased, does that mean
regulation and control have decreased? Is it paradoxically possible that flows of
news and information can grow in the face of stable or even increasing control? If
so, what does that mean for how we (should) understand press freedom and how
we should construct press freedom indicators? And what implications does this
have for how the Chinese public perceives the legitimacy of the press freedom
studies? Big questions, and I am unable to answer them within the scope of this
essay, but one thought to take into consideration: Massive changes in China’s
media ecology, such as the introduction of the internet and the incredible growth
of the online population, simply cannot be invisble and need to be reflected in the
results of the press freedom reports in order to increase the validity of the
studies. If studies (Guo, 2007) show that about 95% of the Chinese believe they
can learn something new by going online, and this experience is not included in a
study of press freedom, it is hard to convince them that press is is in a dire
Of course, my cursory glance at merely the scores do not do justice to the totality
of the press freedom studies. At the same time, the final scores and rankings are
arguably the core and summary of the studies. Not unimportantly, they are also
the numbers the (Western) press usually depends on to write their headlines and
what catches the public’s attention. Should those who use the reports do more
than just skip to the final scores? Of course. Should the NGO’s keep the final
rankings? This is less clear. The scores make it relatively simple to grasp the
essence of the reports; and I would add, perhaps too simple. The reality is of
course that most people, especially the press, work under time constraints – very
few people have the time to read reports of all countries in the world in a
comprehensive manner except maybe a handful of dedicated policy analysts and

A few decades ago, Arendt (1953a: 392) in an essay “Understanding and

Politics” wrote: “We are contemporaries only so far as our understanding
reaches. If we want to be at home on this earth .. we must try to take part in the
interminable dialogue with its essence.” The dialogue on press freedom
worldwide and the particular role of China in it is too important to give up.

CNNIC reports:
2008, 22th report
2005, 16th report
2002, 9th report

Arendt, Hannah. 1953a. "Understanding and Politics", Partisan Review 20

(July-August): 377-392.

---. 1953b. On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding. The

Hannah Arendt Papers at the Library of Congress.

Becker, Lee B., Tudor Vlad, and Nancy Nusser. 2007. An Evaluation of Press
Freedom Indicators. International Communication Gazette 69, no. 1: 5-28.

Gunaratne, Shelton A. 2002. Freedom of the Press: A World System Perspective.

Gazette 64, no. 4: 343-369.

---. 2005. The Dao of the Press: A Humanocentric Theory. Hampton Press.

Guo Liang. 2007. Surveying Internet Usage and Impact in Five Chinese Cities.
Research Center for Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Nerone, John C. 1995. Last Rights. University of Illinois Press.

Siebert, Fred S., Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm. 1956. Four Theories
of the Press. University of Illinois Press.

Yang Guobin. 2003. The Co-evolution of the Internet and Civil Society in China.
Asian Survey 43, no. 3: 405-422.

---. 2006. "The Internet and Emerging Civil Society in China." In Political Reform
in China: The Rule of Law versus Democratization , edited by Suisheng Zhao. M.
E. Sharpe, pp. 196-214.

---. 2009. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activis Online. Columbia
University Press.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 2006. Why Arendt Matters. Yale University Press.

Zhou Yongming. 2005. Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and
Political Participation in China. Stanford University Press.