BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. From the start of the SARS epidemic, the Chinese media have played down the seriousness of the situation. Fearing negative publicity abroad, the Chinese government suppressed reports about the spread of the disease, enforcing a virtual media blackout. But when a military doctor released an open letter to the international media exposing the serious under-reporting of SARS casualties in the capital's military hospitals, Chinese officials were forced to radically change their approach to the problem.
BOB GARFIELD:Earlier this week the International Press Institute condemned what it called a "culture of silence" in China that was helping to spread SARS. The organization called for journalists to be allowed to quote "report freely in China without fear of arrest or prosecution." Orville Schell is the Dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and our resident China expert. Professor Schell, welcome back to OTM!
ORVILLE SCHELL: A pleasure to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me first about the culture of silence. Is there one in China?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well there is-- long-lived and deeply confirmed tradition of the media being the megaphone of the Chinese Communist Party and the government and this means that it has not traditionally had much independence or any independence. The primary concern is always the stability of the government and the reputation of the state, and thus an epidemic, famine, flood, malfeasance in office -- any of these things are viewed very quickly as a kind of national security question because they have something to do with the reputation of and the public view of the government.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let's say all Communist regimes reflexively suppress bad news. What is it about SARS that is making the Chinese government re-think its historical unwillingness to talk about bad news?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well I think they recognize that unlike the old days, you know, when Mao was ascendant and the notions of self-reliance were the key words, they now understand that they're deeply and irredeemably connected to the world, and so in a very interesting way, the epidemic is the most sort of emblematic sign of this inter-connection. I mean after all, germs and viruses don't need visas and passports. They don't care about sovereignty and national boundaries. But that is also echoed in the world of trade, in cultural exchange, in multi-national organizations -- so they understand now it's not only a question of face, as it started out to be; it's not only a question of people dying and becoming sick; and it's not only a question of their reputation in the global world -- it's a question of their economy. And what makes that so crucial is the --almost the entire legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and its ability to rule, continue to rule unilaterally, relates to its ability to keep the economy robust. Otherwise people are going to look to blame someone; they're going to look for answers and suddenly politics will enter into this whole affair and that is exactly where the party does not want to go.
BOB GARFIELD:What about the development of the economy? Has it reached such a threshold that in order to participate in a global community, China simply as a practical matter cannot continue to grow economically while operating under the old rules of Mao and is successors?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well this was the mother of all questions. Can you have very rapid and tectonic kinds of economic reform and not have a parallel amount of political reform? In other words can you have openness on one side of the ledger but not on the other? I think China has been quite successful with this form of sort of Leninist capitalism to date, but who would have thought that China might find its major challenge a virus?
BOB GARFIELD:Let's just say this is a Pandora's Box -- once opened can never be closed in that free expression rather suddenly begins to reign in China. Do you believe that the media, as they're currently composed on the mainland, are up to the task of reporting news and giving opinion and criticizing the government in a Western style or do we have to see a whole new cast of characters not only in government but in the media before that takes place?
ORVILLE SCHELL: You know there was a brief and very tantalizing moment back in 1989 during the student demonstrations when the media actually did open up for 10 miraculous days and did a very good job, and it was almost as if one had entered into a - sort of a time warp - to see the People's Daily freely and openly reporting what was going on. So I mean I think it's not such a huge leap in China's case. Perhaps not as great a leap as in Iraq for the media to open up. Sure, they'll need a lot of training; the traditions are not deeply confirmed about independence, about ethics, about excellence, but there, there is more talent there waiting I think to be unleashed than one might imagine.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Orville Schell, thank you very much.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Pleasure!
BOB GARFIELD:Orville Schell is dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; he joins us from a studio there.