Biased reporting on China fuels misperceptions

Biased reporting on China fuels misperceptions
A couple hugs during a memorial ceremony for the victims of a stampede during a New Year's celebration on the Bund, in Shanghai.

CHINA - Given the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) power and reach, it can be easy to think that everything happens at its command or that it has absolute control over government agencies and local officials, as suggested in recent foreign media reports.

Take, for instance, the fallout from the Dec 31 stampede in Shanghai that led to 36 deaths and some 50 people injured. The city's propaganda authorities reportedly reined in criticism - issuing gag orders to media outlets and questioning netizens - of how it allegedly mishandled the event.

By Jan 3, local media reports were shorn of criticism and full of feel-good stories on how many in the crowd helped to prevent more deaths.The turnaround led some foreign media to report on how China's censors had mounted a media clampdown.

So one might be puzzled to read again two critical editorials in the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily this week.

The editorial published on Monday said all local leaders need to "answer and address" problems exposed by the accident instead of suppressing them.

The latest, published yesterday after Shanghai mayor Yang Xiong acknowledged that there are "lessons to be learnt from the tragedy" and pledged measures for future major occasions, said these moves are "a late but necessary beginning of what the municipal government should do for people's safety".

The reason media criticism has continued is that the clampdown was unlikely to have been ordered by the central government or the CCP's propaganda department, says Beijing-based public administration expert Liu Junsheng.

He believes it is more plausible that Shanghai's propaganda authorities acted on their own to save the city's officials from the wrath of top leaders such as President Xi Jinping over the embarrassing incident.

Besides, the city's officials have no authority over the national-level media outlets.

Christmas also provided another example of how readers are fed the misconception that the CCP is behind all sorts of action at the local level.

After several schools banned students from celebrating Christmas, a few foreign news websites, such as the International Business Times, misreported their actions as being the result of a directive from Beijing, with one story headlined: "China clamps down on Christmas: Several Schools, Universities Ban 'Kitsch', 'Western' Celebrations".

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