Wed, 21 Jun 2000

Reporting progress

Three recent articles in this newspaper illustrate what the press can do in Guangdong, and to some degree across the mainland.

One story described the plight of a restaurant owner plagued by local officials who felt entitled to free meals on demand. They ran up bills of 100,000 yuan (HK dollars 89,750) at his restaurant, plus another 300,000 yuan worth elsewhere in the township of Shiba. They would sign chits, which the township then refused to honor.

Another article concerned the sale of sex and drugs near Guangzhou railway station, something well known to residents and to a degree tolerated, even protected, by the police. The third concerned seven family members in northeast China who served long jail terms for a murder they did not commit, after trials at which officials produced no evidence.

Such stories are all too common in China. Officials frequently abuse power for personal gain, or to hide their own mistakes and incompetence. Court appeals can lead nowhere; the guilty officials either benefit from their acts or are afraid to admit doing anything wrong. And appealing to the allegedly high moral standards of party cadres can be a waste of time.

But these three cases had happier-than-normal endings, thanks to some enterprising journalists. The restaurant owner turned to Guangzhou Daily, bringing adverse publicity for the freeloading officials, who now promise to pay the bills. The railway station trafficking was cleaned up after the Yangcheng Evening News printed a series of investigative articles. The Guangzhou police chief even thanked the reporters concerned.

And the murder suspects were finally freed years later after Legal Daily in Beijing ran a detailed account of their case, although the police force involved still will not admit any wrongdoing or offer compensation.

Not too much should be made of these cases. The Chinese press can report failure to apply state policies correctly, but must accept the policies themselves without question. Criticism of high officials is not likely to see print. But the central government, with increasing frequency, does recognize that journalism can play a useful watchdog role.

This is a welcome beginning. History shows that those in power often will not police themselves effectively, so seeking help from others can do much to improve the practice of government across China.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong