I’ve written before about the way a competing claims from government, media, and individuals creates a reality where truth is slippery and misinformation hard to root out, but the theme has come back in recent weeks with examples of how the culture of bombastic accusations, rebuttals and uncertain information not only destabilizes truth but can be traced to a deep, pervasive sense of distrust in society.
But this is only allowed to persist, and in fact is given space to exist, because of the understanding that even the central government has limits to their sincere commitment to honesty. There seems to be a general understanding that stability and harmony are more important than truth.
This is most easily seen in the human rights stories that show up in the western media. For example, several human rights cases that have cropped recently: one a movement to free a blind activist lawyer from house arrest; the other a tale of brutal police torture to secure a confession. What doesn’t make it into the western press is the credibility battle waged in Chinese media.
In the case of the blind lawyer, Sina, the major microblog website, released information that a microblog account of a heroic trip to visit the blind lawyer in his detention was in fact a hoax. In the tale of police torture, a story (English/Chinese) appeared in the local paper detailing an official investigation of the torture claims that concluded the man was faking his injuries to get public sympathy. But those are just two examples, in both cases the debate involves a complicated back and forth of rival claims.
The role of the government, and at what level, in these kinds of incidents is unclear and doesn’t really matter. The mainstream news of course gets censored, and newspapers appropriated to voice the concerns of whoever can muster the power or money.
The website ESWN provides regular coverage of the conflicting media reports that often appear in these cases. The result is that observers have to decide which source they trust, and would be reasonable to end up trusting no one.
These are the kind of incidents that the central government wants to keep under wraps. According to the logic, if these cases gain too much public support they might spark open conflict that could undermine stability, and with it progress. The debate over how important stability is to progress, and whether the Chinese government has a good vision of stability or the ability to achieve it notwithstanding, the need for stability becomes fundamental and justifies extreme action.
One of the outgrowths of this tacit acceptance of extra-legal measures in the name of stability is the opening up of opportunities for local officials to subvert the law under the guise of preserving social harmony but in service of personal gain. With official power over news sources, more and more slanted, untrustworthy reports appear and media credibility is further undermined, and with it public trust, not only in information but the value of truth.
It would be unfair however to blame media’s lack of credibility entirely on government manipulation. Admittedly, the media undermines its own credibility. There are not a few cases of the media publishing sensationalized stories to draw readership (too lazy to track down links right now though).
But the ultimate impact of a credibility crisis in government and a credibility crisis in media is a credibility crisis in society. If all sources of information are undermined, starting with the government and extended into the media, quickly there becomes no one left to trust.
The salient recent example is the public sensation caused by the story of a baby that was run over by several cars and ignored by several passers-by before being taken to the hospital; she has severe brain damage. The common explanation is that people were too afraid to help. Helping someone is akin to an admission of guilt, or at the least potentially costly entanglement. The toddler story is often recounted along with the story of an old woman who, when helped by a young college student to the hospital after falling in the street, accused the student of pushing her and was supported by a court case that made the student pay significant damages. The lesson: don’t help someone because you can’t trust them or the system to back you up.
That’s just one example. I was told recently that a big reason China can’t change the system of reliance on a single exam for entrance to college is that people would find ways to lie about their talents and experience, making a test the fairest way. Add to that the prevalence of fakes, frauds, and manipulations and you get a sense of how distrust is a rational response to daily life.
But… a recent high profile editorial spoke directly to this phenomenon. It criticized the way official commitment to maintaining stability above all else undermines the government’s ability to work toward the rule of law, alleviating poverty, and harnessing corruption. I would add that removing unqualified government support for stability preservation would also help people trust each other.