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Can Modern China Fulfill A Marxist Vision Of A Free Press?

A Communist path toward less censorship
A Communist path toward less censorship
Zhan Jiang*

-OpEd-

BEIJING - During and after the 18th Communist Party Congress, party and state leaders re-stated that the country should be ruled by law and governed according to the Constitution. They also said that the supervision of power should be tightened, including oversight through public opinion by news media.

The 17th Party Congress report of 2007 mentioned citizens’ “Four Rights:” the rights to stay informed about, participate in, express views on, and oversee Party and government operations. And in 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave a speech on Chinese media on the 60th anniversary of official newspaper People’s Daily. All of this showed some degree of positive change taking place in the relationship between media and the state.

Article 35 of the Chinese constitution says that citizens enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press. When the Communist Party came to power, it formed a party-controlled newspaper system. This brought many important lessons. For the objective of winning a war, a highly centralized media system is effective. But when entering a period of peace, official news policy and management methods should be overhauled. However, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), newspapers and publications became a tool of class struggle. The historical lesson was profound.

During the Reform & Opening Up era, press reform has been put on the agenda. In an effort to open up the ruling party to more intra-party democracy, the Communist Party has gradually let the media decide its own content.

With the transition of Chinese society and the rise of the media, talk of supervision by public opinion has become common among the government, intellectual circles and the public. The Party is viewing the media less as a tool and a subordinate and more of an entity that should be respected – an entity that leaders should become adept at using rather than coercing.

Adherence to the rule of law is developing and the media shouldn’t be excluded. For a long time, the media has been a blind spot for the rule of law and a special zone for the rule of man. This phenomenon must be changed in stages.

Of course, the freedom of press we stand for is different from the Western concept of media being a fourth power completely independent of the government. We stand for press freedom with “Chinese characteristics,” meaning media independence is developed step-by-step, based on the Marxist view of journalism.

Learning from Stalin's errors

However, the administration of media should be different from the rigid model formed during periods of war and ultra-leftism. In particular, we need to learn from the historical mistakes of Stalin in the Soviet Union. We shouldn’t let media create personality cults or serve as a tool of class struggle.

Marx said, “The press in general is a realization of human freedom,” which is the basis of all other freedom. “The absence of freedom of the press makes all other freedoms illusory.”

Marx particularly opposed censorship, thinking it was a serious form of spiritual slavery. In his view, a press that is inspected is a press without freedom. “The censorship law, therefore, is not a law, it is a police measure; but it is a bad police measure,” he said. “The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilized monster, a perfumed abortion,” he continued. “The censored press with its hypocrisy, its lack of character, its eunuch's language, its dog-like tail-wagging, merely realizes the inner conditions of its essential nature.”

The consequence of the censorship system is that the system founders deceive others and deceive themselves. In his early years, Marx put forward the concept of "the third factor,” saying, “The administration and the administered need a third element, which is political without being bureaucratic; an element that does not derive from bureaucratic presuppositions. This complementary element, composed of a political head and a civic heart, is a free press.”

On other occasions, he raised the concept of a people's press. In his view, a real press equals a free press, which equals a people's press. It loyally reports the voice of the people. “The free press, finally, brings the people’s need in its real shape, not refracted through any bureaucratic medium, to the steps of the throne,” he said.

Marx would always hold his view that newspapers should be independent. In his work The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, he wrote a scathing critique on the press and publication law that was drafted by the French government requiring that “every article of a journal must bear the signature of the author." Marx opposed the measure saying, “As long as the newspaper press was anonymous, it appeared as the organ of a numberless and nameless public opinion; it was the third power in the state.”

Watchdog journalism

From "the third factor" to "the third power,” Marx’s basic idea on the independent status of the press not only didn’t change, but it strengthened.

Marx also said that, like plants and other living organisms, publications possess their own internal rules. These rules shouldn't and can't be forcibly broken by outside pressure. Hu Jintao made a good point in his 2008 People’s Daily speech, saying that Party leaders and cadres at all levels should fully respect the rules of journalism and communication. This has its origin in the views of Marx and Engels.

How can the Marxist idea of press freedom become localized in China? We can explore this in two ways. The first is perhaps best demonstrated by China Youth Daily in its “Supervision by public opinion” (also known as “watchdog journalism”). The second is a practical method, which is to gradually lift media controls during the process of fighting corruption.

Marx and Engels said that one of the missions of political party newspapers and publications of the working class is to oversee the leadership of the party and to criticize its shortcomings and mistakes. Therefore, on the issue of party newspapers and publications, it’s necessary to safeguard the interests of the people and the party, and also to insist on independence of publications and freedom of the press.

Marx and Engels have always attached great importance to the criticism function of party newspapers and publications. Engels said, “Criticism is essential for the worker's movement. How could the worker's movement avoid criticism; do they want to outlaw debate? Could it really be that we're asking others to respect our freedom of speech, so that we can put an end to freedom of speech within our own ranks?"

While evaluating freedom of the press within the political parties of the working class, publications should be fully allowed to carry out criticism and supervision. We should especially be vigilant against the “Prussian style” of cruel intervention in the press.

In today's market economy, we should be more alert about control and manipulation by bad political and business forces. In the 21st century, how to deal with the relationship between the state and the media is an important issue. It relates to the international reputation of a powerful socialist country. It’s about the sound development of intra-party democracy and the rule of law in the whole society. The Marxist view of press freedom is an important guide.

* Zhang Jiang is a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University



This article was translated by Zhu Na

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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