By Raymond Zhou
Peking University professor Xu Dianqing has apologized to citizens of Shenzhen for his prediction that real estate prices would rise in the past year.
A year ago on July 11, while attending a business forum in the southern Chinese city, he claimed that housing prices there would be higher than a year later. If it turned out to be the opposite, he would take out a one-page ad in a local paper to apologize.
Judging from online surveys, most people did not have much sympathy for him. Rather, the turn of events proved to be another nail in the coffin for the independence of China's pundits.
Business commentators in this country have long been accused of secretly aligning with business interests. They talk up prices, especially housing prices. They talk down to consumers who look up to them for a golden nugget of wisdom in a murky world of instant changes.
A few years ago, a Hong Kong scholar said that there were no more than "five" qualified economists on the mainland. You may dispute the exact number, but it is clear that many, if not most, of our talking heads in professional spheres do not have - or do not cherish - independence.
And I think I know why.
There are so many forces out to corrupt an independent mind it is a wonder we still have a few voices left that are relatively untainted.
By chance, I am something of a film critic on the side. I started by reviewing Hollywood movies and published them on the Internet. For the first two years, I wrote what I wanted.
By the time I arrived in Beijing, I got one-on-one interviews with well-known filmmakers. None of them pressured me to spin for them, but when I started writing I felt I should not say damning things about the works of these people who had granted me the "honor" of an interview or a dinner.
I woke up to the corrosive power of self-censorship. The more opportunities I have to sidle up to powers-that-be, the weaker my position will be as an independent critic.
I also got a taste of regular entertainment reporting: I was invited to a screening, given a red envelope containing a few hundred yuan for "taxi fare", and was expected to turn in a glowing review. When I refused, I was blacklisted. One big production company even suspended an ongoing screening to kick me out of the theater that was showing its latest blockbuster.
My biggest shock came during a so-called forum, taking place after a special screening of a mediocre film. The panel was made up of big names from the establishment, and they outdid one another in extolling the movie. When I used some adjectives to suggest the film's weaknesses, people looked at me as if I were from another planet. I was never invited again.
If people are willing to forsake their impartiality for a few hundred yuan, imagine the allure of 100 times that sum, which business experts may get for such public appearances. If not money, then peer pressure, group conformity, or the urge not to disturb the peace. In the end, what is left is a phalanx of paid publicists who are disguised as third-party commentators.
Industry insiders do not seem to know that independent reviews, including negative ones, are an inseparable part of the healthy growth of their industry. Once you shut off the spigot of outside voices, you are humming with only self-congratulations.
I was shocked at the lack of self-confidence displayed by some of our biggest filmmakers in dealing with people like me. I am not out to wreck their labor of love or massive investment - I do not have that ability, but I do not want to become their mouthpiece either.
(China Daily 07/05/2008 page4)