A rare piece of news broke in Beijing on 8 July 2007: a stall selling baozi (steamed buns) in the city's Chaoyang district was creating its product by mincing up cardboard boxes, adding a little fat and flavourings, and using the mixture as the filling. The story was uncovered by Beijing TV, whose secret filming provided cast-iron evidence of the stall's behaviour. With such proof, who could doubt that this was a public scandal?
The answer came on 18 July, when Beijing TV admitted that the news report was a fake orchestrated by one of its producers and made a public apology. In a rare and surprising instance of government interference in a case that should have been dealt with by the media itself, the producer in question was detained by the police - a first for China.
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper
Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:
"The story of Freezing Point" (12 September 2006)
"China: a ‘great nation'?" (10 January 2007)
"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning" (7 March 2007)
"What China's new property law means" (21 March 2007)
"The Chinese ‘nail house': a Chongqing saga" (4 April 2007)
"'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy" (18 April 2007)
"An end to exclusivity" (2 May 2007)
"China's veteran voices of reform" (16 May 2007)
"Chinese and American unions shake hands" (30 May 2007)
"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary" (13 June 2007)
"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)
"Hong Kong's one-legged return" (11 July 2007)As a media worker myself, this saga does not come as too much of a shock. There will always be a few individuals who act recklessly in pursuit of personal fame. The Washington Post was embroiled in similar scandal in April 1981 when its Pulitzer Prize-winning feature Jimmy's World was discovered to have been fabricated by the journalist Janet Cooke (the Post suffered the humiliation of having to return the prize). More recently, it was revealed in June 2003 that thirty-six of seventy reports published under the name of reporter Jayson Blair for the New York Times contained varying elements of fraud, plagiarism and systematic inaccuracy. Soon after, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg resigned from the same paper after the exposure of his unacknowledged borrowing from the notes of a freelance reporter. In the aftermath of these affairs, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald M Boyd resigned.
The journalists who invent stories or appropriate the work of others will be condemned forever to the professional hall of shame. Yet such scandalous violations also have a salutary function in forcing the media to improve their ethics and regulations. Over the last thirty years, the professional regulations of western journalism have been widely introduced to China and accepted and supported by Chinese news workers. In the serious media, those who concoct their own news stories will usually be severely punished. One result is that utterly fraudulent reports such as the "fake baozi" story are extremely rare in the established Chinese news media. It seems to me, then, that the incident is an isolated case which is no different in essence from the scandals that have hit American newspapers in the past.
In fact, a far more important problem for contemporary Chinese news media is that many newsworthy stories are not allowed to be reported.
The cost of cardboard
At Beijing TV, those responsible for the story at various levels of seniority have been punished. However, many of the foreign journalists who have interviewed me about the story do not believe that it was fake. Similarly, many Chinese netizens believe that the "fake baozi" incident really did happen. This reaction from society at large is extremely interesting.
All the people who sell baozi in Beijing are migrant workers from other parts of the country, and no one knows whether or not their food has passed health and safety-checks. Plus, everyone is aware of the serious problems with food safety in China, one that is causing friction with some of its trading partners too (see Patrice de Beer, "The China fantasy", 15 June 2007). Thus, by now, people are familiar with stories about this subject, and this affected reactions to the Beijing TV report: the vast majority of people believed it and responded with resignation (simply deciding not to buy baozi anymore) rather than shock.
The next stage is where the real lesson lies. When the government stepped forward to clarify the situation, almost no one believed it. A large proportion of the public thinks the government is lying. This echoed an incident in May 2007, when people emailed or texted their friends and relatives to tell them that bananas from Hainan contained poison. There was an immediate and dramatic drop in sales of Hainan bananas, and the farmers who grew them suffered terrible losses. Government spokespeople explained that the story was just a rumour, but again no one believed them.
These two incidents - and more could be mentioned - show that in matters of public safety, public confidence in the government has been seriously eroded. People would rather believe rumours spread by their family and friends than announcements by the government.
They have good reason. During the Sars epidemic, the government denied there was a problem; when the Songhua river disaster led to water supplies being cut off in the city of Harbin, the government claimed it was "fixing water pipes". Indeed, even officials from the state council information office admitted on 13 July 2007 that local governments "cover up 90% of negative news stories" and leave uncovered "less than 10%". In such a climate, it is hard for the public to entrust the government with its safety.
This real and widespread public feeling is becoming a source of opposition to the government. But if the sentiment continues to build, it is not just the government that will be damaged: public safety too will be threatened - for safety cannot be built on rumours.
It is self-evident that the key to solving the problem is political reform. A government that is not accountable to the public, not controlled by its vote, not forced by a free press to tell the truth, will inevitably find itself in a crisis of governance. In the end, both those in power and the public pay a heavy price.