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".
A columnist with Bloomberg news agency even wrote of how the bans showed that Mr Xi was dreaming of a "Red Christmas", an allusion to the colour often associated with communism and to the Chinese supremo's reported penchant for Maoist traditions and ideals.
The impression given was that all of China had banned Christmas, which is both alarmist and inaccurate, given how tens of thousands of schools in China did not have to do likewise. It also implied that President Xi had personally ordered the ban, which is unfair to him.
In my opinion, attributing every action to the top Chinese leadership or government is doing foreign readers a disfavour as it prevents them from appreciating just how big and complex this country is and the different layers of administration involved.
Of course, there are times when the central government exerts itself and expects all agencies to act on its strict orders.
During the slashing attack at the Kunming railway station in March last year and the July 5, 2009 ethnic riots in restive Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, almost all Chinese media outlets toed the official line by blaming the incidents on Uighur extremists.
But local governments have been getting more leeway in decision-making on a wide range of matters, even on charting their own economic direction, while the "centre" - referring to the CCP, the government and the military - retains control over key areas such as defence.
Also, Chinese government agencies, similar to those in many countries including Singapore, enjoy a degree of autonomy that they exercise to secure more influence or funding. So, for many years, China's maritime policies and enforcement work were carried out by up to nine government agencies - known as the "nine dragons" - which had a history of trying to outdo one another.
But their actions, which were seen to be sanctioned by the central government, stirred tensions between China and its neighbours over disputed territories.
Second, in Chinese culture, officials at the lower levels usually follow the lead of the top leaders. But, more often than not, they may also act on their own discretion - either to avoid trouble, score brownie points or extract benefits for their own interests.
In the case of the Christmas ban, the key reason cited was to dilute the influence of Western festivals so as to protect the sway of traditional Chinese festivals among younger people. But it seems also possible that it was the work of officials seeking to show their superiors how zealous they are in preserving Chinese culture and traditions - another area that has gained prominence, given Mr Xi's increased attention to it.
In a way, the media, both local and foreign, can get away with the simplistic conclusion that the CCP is behind every significant move in China because, in most instances, there is hardly any reprisal. The party is not going to bother to come out to refute every allegation.
While the opaque nature of Chinese politics may be a justifiable reason for speculation, such reporting may also stem from ignorance of how things really work here or bias against China.
Analyst Li Cheng, a Chinese politics expert at the Brookings Institution in the United States, believes China's complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty are "no excuse for failing to use good judgment and to present well-grounded predictions".
"Rigorous, insightful assessments are particularly valuable today, when China has more influence on the world economy and regional security than perhaps at any other time in modern history," he wrote in a 2011 paper on American misperceptions of China.
After almost three years reporting in China, I can affirm that it is both interesting and vexing having to separate facts from rumours, and to figure out the reasons for certain puzzling moves, especially when the experts say they are clueless.
No wonder there is a popular saying among long-time foreign residents in China that the longer you live here, the more you realise you don't know much about it.
China is already a very tough place to understand. Let's not make it tougher.
This article was first published on January 08, 2015.
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