Stepping en masse across China’s censorship

A story in the New York Times looks at how disobedience by numerous reporters, who covered the Chinese earthquake against direct orders, challenged — and broke down — China’s censorship system. An excerpt:

The earthquake has tested this country in many ways, including a death toll that has steadily climbed into the tens of thousands and the logistical nightmare of reaching isolated hamlets in a mountainous region with narrow, treacherous roads.

One of the biggest challenges, though, is to the country’s sometimes sophisticated, sometimes heavy-handed propaganda system. China’s censors found themselves uncharacteristically hamstrung when they tried to micromanage news coverage of the earthquake, as they do most major news stories in China.

By Wednesday, so many reporters had ignored the government’s instructions that the Propaganda Department rescinded its original order, replacing it with another, more realistic one, reflecting its temporary loss of control. “Reporters going to the disaster zone must move about with rescue teams,” it said, giving tacit, retroactive approval to freer coverage.

One reporter from The Oriental Morning Post, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because the workings of the propaganda system are often treated as state secrets, described the widespread defiance as “stepping beyond the boundaries collectively.”

Another New York Times piece speculates about what could happen if China were to become more open, based on a reporter’s analysis of the breakdown of the USSR. Excerpts:

A dash of openness can be a dangerous thing in an autocratic state…

it could set in motion political forces that might, over time, be unsettling. That’s especially true in an age of instant communications, even in a nation like China, which tries to control Internet access.

“When you start opening up and loosen controls, it becomes a slippery slope,” Jack F. Matlock Jr., the American ambassador to Moscow during much of the Gorbachev period, said last week as he watched the events in China. “You quickly become a target for everyone with a grievance and before long people go after the whole system.”