China learns how to use news leaks

Chinese officials are beginning to discover the usefulness of the "leak." The story that follows is not particularly sensa tional, but it illustrates some of the crosscurrents at work in Chinese society today as the leadership tries to encourage a more open, democratic style in party and government dealings with the "broad masses."

Not long ago the Guangming Daily, a national newspaper widely read by intellectuals, received a letter from the general administration of urban construction, a state bureau. It was a "leak," in the sense that the bureau wanted the newspaper to publish information that another organization, in this case a provincial government, wanted to suppress.

The letter concerned a case of enclosure of land in Harbin, capital of China's northernmost province, Heilongjiang. Beifang Daxia (northern mansions), an imposing building housing the leading cadres of the province, enclosed a 3, 000 square meter public square i front of its eastern and southern entrances. This was done illegally but with the private approval of the governor of the province, Chen Lei.

It caused many complaints from citizens who felt they were being deprived of space needed for public rest and relaxation. The bureau wanted the newspaper to publish the letter because, it said, similar cases were occurring in other cities throughout the nation and the public should be given an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons.

The Guangming Daily investigated the case. It found that there was no question that the enclosure had taken place and that it had not received the approval of the local planning authorities. The local newspaper, the Harbin Daily, received a complaint from a reader about the enclosure, which it published in its issue of July 14.

The provincial authorities then went to the Communist Party committee of Harbin City, which in turn contacted the Harbin Daily to say that the project had the express approval of the governor, Comrade Chen Lei, and that the newspaper was therefore not to publish anything more on the matter.

Since this was a direct order from the municipal party committee, the newspaper had perforce to obey. But letters from irate citizens continued to pour into its offices. The newspaper brought these letters to the attention of provincial and municipal leaders by means of internal, i.e. unpublished reports, but the leaders showed no interest.

Furthermore, as the enclosure of the square in front of the Beifang Daxin proceeded, the provincial public security bureau and the Harbin Industrial University also began to enclose public spaces adjacent to their premises.Unable to do anything locally, the Harbin Daily sent a letter to the standing committee of the National People's Congress, which is China's legislature, explaining the situation, citing the governor of the province by name, and asking the standing committee to take up the matter.

The standing committee, in turn, sent the letter to the general administration of urban construction, a state bureau under the state concil, that is, the cabinet. And so eventually, the information reached the Guangming Daily, which published the letter from the general administration of itself, plus the letter from the Harbin Daily to the NPC standing committee, in its issue of Sept. 27.

Observers here consider these points about this episode significant:

1. Abuse of privileges by party and government cadres continues, lowering the prestige of both in the eyes of the public. But these abuses now are being aired in a way that would have been inconceivable a couple of years ago.

2. The leadership's efforts to separate the Communist Party organization from that of the government and to move the party away from day-to-day intervention in government administration faces determined resistance at all levels. The enclosure of the square in Harbin was an administrative action. To prevent public discussion of this enclosure, the provincial authorities (who must have included both party and state officials) did not hesitate to work through the party committee of Harbin City, which directly controlled the Harbin Daily.

3. The National People's Congress, hitherto considered a rubber-stamp outfit, is beginning to be regarded as an outlet for public complaints. At the recent session of the congress, delegates sharply criticized various aspects of government work and were allowed to question ministers in detail. The congress so far meets only once a year, but the standing committee is an organization with a permanent secretariat. It is to this body that the Harbin Daily turned when it was gagged.

4. Finally, newspapers at both the local and national level are beginning to regard themselves as defenders of the public's interests against bureaucratism and what is called "the poisonous remnants of feudalistic behavior." The People's Daily, for instance, has attacked "the bureaucratic style of work in commerce" and recommended competition to improve the system. The case of the Harbin Daily shows that if a local paper can still be gagged, it is becoming more difficult to do the same at the national level, where there is greater diffusion of political power.

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