China's Political Economy of Public Communication: complexifying a rights approach to information.

Author:Chen, Ni
Position:Cultural Rights and Global Development


The role of information does not occupy a particularly visible place in the broad spectrum of Human Rights provisions. Unlike freedom of speech, which has a provenance in many ancient political and civil rights and privileges, information as a concept is both multivalent (subject to many meanings and appropriations) and also the object of significant transformation (most notably, the role of communications technology and digital media). In terms of law, legal practice and the 'rights' dimension, information is submerged in a multitude of discourses and debate--on communications and media, regulation, distribution and markets, government, public authorities and governance, political communication and the public sphere. It is in this last discursive arena that this article is situated.

As a generalisation, the subjects of political communication and the public sphere have only concerned human rights to the degree that they are conditions, or facilitate, other rights--principally, of course, the right to freedom of speech and the concomitant public debates and usual Press-based public discourse that free speech implies. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which is reiterated as Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966) asserts as follows: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". A self-evident fact all too easily ignored is that this, and most other, articles of the UDHR are either inoperable, insubstantial or of little effect, without shared information (offering, for example, an understanding of facts and procedures, the content of decisions, an understanding of causes and contexts, the ability to make judgements or assume a position in a given debate). Information is central, and makes possible both political communication by government, and public realm discourse by citizens or social institutions. It is one thing to propose a 'right', it is another to know, communicate, access and to claim or exercise that right in political, social or cultural contexts.

Information is central to the empowerment of citizens to know of, and claim, their rights. Other articles of the UDHR arguably assume this: concerning the rights to life and freedom--articles 2-7--justice and fair public representation--articles 8-12--mobility, belonging and privacy--articles 13-17--Article 18's crucial 'freedom of thought, conscience and religion'--association, membership and equality up to article 23, and up to article 30 providing the conditions for human fulfillment and flourishing, through work, leisure, education, culture and community). It is difficult to see how these spectrum of rights are substantive at all without the availability of information identified by Article 19.

Aside from the general observations on how information has become a central fulcrum of social and economic life--the 'information society', the 'knowledge economy' and models of globalisation built on these concepts (like Castells' famous 'network society' concept, and so on)--the actual rights to information itself remains problematic. Every society tends to its own privacy, confidentiality and State secrets laws, and moreover all societies have their own approach to informational accuracy, truthfulness, representation, and the conditions of factual, verifiable and evidential sources of information. The policing of information, across political communication, publication, print and broadcast reporting, research and public debate, crosses many spheres of law and order. The interest of this article is in the status of information itself, and the 'rights' to information--particularly where this information is central to the formation of public knowledge on the national body politic, identity, political values and the matrix of perceptions around the relation between one's country and the rest of the world. There is an area of cultural research not altogether developed, and this concerns the relation between information, knowledge and national cultural identity, and moreover, how national cultural identity is constructed through a political management of culture, as a significant dimension of the relation between political communication and the public sphere.

Traditional mass media (radio and TV broadcast and the Press) as policy areas (subject to law) were usually kept apart from the arts and cultural policies, perhaps obviously because of their centrality to the political relation between State and citizen. Through the history of the Twentieth Century, the perported freedoms of speech, the press and public debate, were crucial to political distinctions between 'liberal' and 'totalitarian' societies. While a few 'totalitarian' still exist (North Korea, for example), the spectrum of political orders has arguably grown; and in the age of the internet and of terrorism, the political management of public media and communication has become complex, and not altogether self-evident to observers or indeed transparent to researchers (whether in democratic societies or others). One cannot simply look at the legal apparatus, or the laws and regulatory frameworks, of a country and blithely proclaim that society posseses 'free speech' as indicated in the second clause of Article 19 of the UDHR. Whatever counts as 'speech' (in the UDHR, opinion and expression) is heavily mediated by social institutions, a communications infrastructure, a range of organisations engaged in representation and distribution, and a highly segmented, stratified, public.

The purpose of this article is a negative one, insofar as it aims to offer an informed and research-grounded insight into the complexity of contemporary information and its role within a politically managed public sphere of communication--how information today is far more complex than the assumption of the UDHR's assertion that "Everyone" must have a right to "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". As noted above, the presupposition of this article is that rights are contingent upon information, and its argument is that information is less a body of knowledge channelled around through media technology than a context-contingent conflict of discourses all subject to a complex infrastrucure of political management. In this framework, traditional Western assumptions on 'free speech' as a central criteria for a just and fair society is less relevant than the apparatus of the political management of information and the veracity and verifiability of that information as it is made available, represented, distributed and edited (doctored, censored or altered)--and thereby forms a public sphere. The object of this article is the largest and legally most complex information infrastructure in the world--the national media and regulatory bodies of the People's Republic of China. The article will not investigate the political infrastructure itself--the vast Press, media and broadcast industries, or the distinct operations of the twenty or more government ministries, such as the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, and the State Council Information Office, or Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and so on. Rather, this article will adhere to what, arguably, is the biased focus of the UDHR--the 'public' availability, access, circulation, knowledge and debate, in which and with which a citizen can engage and contribute to a substantice public discourse on the world as it really is (and, by implication, for the furtherance of a fair and just society). The article draws on surveys of Press and broadcast reporting of major events of public concern, notably the handover of Hong kong and ongoing political disagreement with Japan. Its purpose, however, is to demonstrate how assumed distinctions between fact and value, information and commentary, can be collapsed or dissolved with a broader national project of self-assertion. Within this project, information is no longer simply conceived as indigested fact or 'data' (and hence we will not make reference to 'freedom of information' or 'right to know'). Equally, the article does not make reference to the rights regime for information, starting with the 1998 Aarhus Convention (UN Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters). This article is concerned with a more fundamental political reality--the role of information in the rising nationalism of China, where central to 'culture' is public knowledge on one's country, its people, and its relation to its neighbours and the rest of the world. This subject is internal to the values that motivate identification, belonging and allegiance, and the relation between the State and citizen, and the formation of national identity itself. This article argues that the political culture of national identity must be understood through understanding the political management of informational infrastructure--not as a technical apparatus but as meaning-production and public representation within the broader ideological meta-narratives of moral self-assertion (a nation's fundamental appeals for legitimacy). It is only in understanding this that we will begin to be able to define what 'rights' actually means for individual citizens in China.

The rationales for propaganda, censorship and the political management of public information

Epitomized by the 1989 Tiananmen Square Movement, the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, various social and political upheavals that have taken place both within and outside China since 1978 seem to issue a clear warning on the destructive effects of un-managed...

To continue reading