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30 years

Media taboos linger, but journalists push envelope

by Francois Bougon*

On the eve of reform, China's regimented media relied on daily slogans, but 30 years on journalists are pushing the envelope, helped by the Internet and other new technologies, even if taboos remain.
Most recently, China's Internet and media attacked the government of a city in central China's Henan province for hiring 11 vice mayors in what the Beijing News called a waste of money "unacceptable to the people".
State-run Xinhua news agency recently used the word "strike" to describe a work stoppage by angry taxi drivers in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
More and more, topics that were seldom seen as late as a decade ago are being reported by the Chinese media, especially by daily newspapers and magazines that are considered "commercial".
Although they are spin-offs of party-run propaganda papers, they must seek to stay afloat through their sales and work hard to attract readers.
"While party newspapers tend toward dry propaganda reports praising the actions of party leaders, commercial newspapers sometimes offer more nuanced coverage," David Bandurski, of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, said.
"Of course media must still obey their party masters to ensure their survival but they have new masters too in millions of increasingly savvy Chinese media consumers. This tension can open up space for some pretty good journalism, controls notwithstanding."
Still there are plenty of off-limit areas that journalists must avoid, said one reporter, who, characteristically, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Coverage banned from the Chinese media includes reports supporting the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, advocating Taiwan independence, or sympathising with the outlawed spiritual group the Falungong or Tibetan independence, he said.
Meanwhile if local officials can become the target of investigative journalism, high level-leaders remain untouchable.
"You can kill flies, but not tigers," goes a local saying. When journalists do attack a "tiger", it is interpreted as a signal that the official's demise is approaching fast.
On top of that, the Communist Party's propaganda department, which controls China's media, has also shown that it is adept at coping with the new environment.
"If there is any change in the way the Communist Party has controlled the media, one could say they are more subtle," said He Qinglian, a former journalist forced into exile in the United States after her books were banned.
In the age of the Internet and mobile phones, the authorities can no longer stifle bad news, so now they seek to impose their version of the facts on the media.
"One of the best examples of how this works is the recent taxi protest in Chongqing. There was blanket coverage of this major news story in media across the country," said Bandurski.
However, the coverage was monopolised entirely by Xinhua, with heavy focus on a press conference held by Bo Xilai, the city's communist party chief.
"The news was not suppressed, as it might have been in the past, and reporting happened quickly, but all we got was an official version of the facts," said Bandurski.
"We have to be careful not to make too much of apparent signs of openness in the handling of information."
Meanwhile, China's leaders have never changed their attitude toward the media, said He.
"Top Chinese leaders repeatedly proclaimed that the media must remain the mouthpiece of the party. This has not changed at all," she said.


China’s economic development sees surge in lifestyle diseases

by Marianne Barriaux*

He Yifan has stayed at a weight loss clinic for more than two months to shed his kilos, one of millions of people in China whose richer lives have led to unwelcome side effects such as obesity.
"Some people (in China) are fat as living standards are quite good now, so people's habits are not the same as they once were," said He, 23, a graduate who reached 157 kilograms while at university.
He is one of 60 people at a weight loss clinic in the northern city of Tianjin, hoping to trim down in an effort to make him more employable, while also trying to avoid longer-term problems such as diabetes and hypertension.
These types of conditions have risen dramatically since China began opening up to the world 30 years ago, a phenomenal economic period that has brought a significant rise in living standards for hundreds of millions of citizens.
But as people have moved away from physically intensive lifestyles on farms and in industrial cities, their more urbanised lives have seen changes in diet and reduced mobility.
In 2002, China had 200 million overweight people and another 60 million who were obese, making up roughly a fifth of the population, according to the latest data from the country's centre for disease control and prevention.
These figures were up 39 and 97 percent respectively from 1992.
And around 160 million Chinese aged 18 or older suffered from hypertension in 2002, a 31 percent rise from 1991.
"There are two big changes in China during a very short period, compared to many other countries," said Hans Troedsson, China representative for the World Health Organisation.
"They're getting an ageing population," said Troedsson, adding that there was also an increase in behaviours that put people's health at risk such as smoking, reduced physical activity and an increase in dietary fats.
Life expectancy in China rose quickly from 1950 to 1990 due to better access to medical care and improved nutrition, but for the following 10 years, it plateaued as chronic diseases emerged, according to a report in medical journal The Lancet.
These illnesses came hand-in-hand with economic development, as people earned more money to buy richer food in larger quantities than before, and put on weight.
"It's typical to use more animal food like meat and dairy products when you have economic development because people can afford it," Troedsson said.
He Yifan explained that a faster pace of life also meant that people ate more convenient, fast food — as evidenced by the huge numbers of McDonald's and KFC chain restaurants that have sprung up throughout China.
"Our parents' lives were calmer than ours, but with the reforms and opening up, the economic development, and more and more new things coming to China, our lives have become more rich and varied," he said.
Economic growth and urbanisation have also led to a more sedentary lifestyle. People now spend longer in front of the television and more own their own vehicles.
Meanwhile, tobacco use and air pollution — the latter brought on by fast industrialisation — are the causes of an increase in lung cancer cases in the country.
The increase in life expectancy, as well as the country's one-child policy, has led to an ageing population that is contributing to the surge in chronic diseases.
"In the early 1980s, less than 10 percent of the population was over 60 years of age, but by 2035, one in every four Chinese will be be older than 60," said Troedsson.
The strong emergence of lifestyle diseases is a big economic problem for China, he said.
"What has been estimated is that over the next 10 years in China, the economic losses for main non-communicable diseases, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, might be up to 500 billion dollars."
But He, who has already lost 38 kilograms, is determined that these conditions would not affect him.
"My aim is to get to 90 kilos," he said.
"Losing weight is good, it's beneficial for your health and for your future."