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A Chinese State Media Producer's Bitter Goodbye

China's state-run media, often criticized by foreign news organizations for prioritizing propaganda over news, has come under fire from a source once within its own ranks. Wang Qinglei, a well-known producer at the state-run network China Central Television (CCTV), took to Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, shortly after midnight on Dec. 2 to post an open letter to his former employer, which he claimed had fired him (though CCTV has not confirmed this). Wang called CCTV "a disgrace" and lashed out at the censorship, selective coverage, and violation of professional ethics he had seen during his 10 years at the network. CCTV is a behemoth, with advertising revenues of $2.5 billion in 2012 and viewership in the hundreds of millions, according to an internal survey by the network.

The letter made a splash on Weibo -- and censors noticed. Although they quickly deleted Wang's original post, other users shared the letter from their own accounts; one repost racked up almost 15,000 retweets before it got the axe. Wang's letter "has already disappeared too many times to count, but everyone continues to repost it," wrote British-Chinese writer Yilin Zhong, who also attached Wang's letter to her comment. Liu Yun, dean of the Haikou College of Economics in the island province of Hainan, wrote that Wang's complaints were not an attack on communist orthodoxy, but focused on problems that "someone with even a bit of a brain or a conscience can see." Deleting the letter, Liu continued, showed "a lack of self confidence" on the part of authorities. Sina Weibo also began preventing Wang from gaining additional followers; attempts by this author and numerous other Weibo users to do so failed.

In his letter, Wang complained about the heavy-handed censorship he encountered in the course of his work. He wrote that CCTV received over 1,000 propaganda orders annually, and criticized what he said was the network's selective coverage. In China, "working in media is like being on a treadmill," Wang explained. "You think you're moving forward, but you're really just running in place -- or even falling behind." Despite previous clashes with his superiors -- Wang was suspended briefly in July 2011 after questioning the government's handling of a deadly train crash on air -- he remained at the network, where he helped produce the popular programs "Face to Face" and "24 Hours." Yet eventually, the conflict between Wang and his superiors reached a breaking point.

CCTV had, in Wang's words, "gradually lost the public's trust and become less influential." In particular, Wang criticized the network's treatment of influential microblogger Charles Xue during a government crackdown on social media that began in earnest in Aug. 2013. "The media is not a court of law," Wang wrote of CCTV's decision to interview and broadcast Xue's confession on national television. (Xue remains in detention, though it is unknown whether he has been charged with any crime.) Wang traced his firing to Weibo posts in which he called the coverage of Xue a period "of shame" for network employees, though he specified that the post was not visible to the public and that CCTV had refused to name the offending post or posts.

Wang's departure from CCTV is not a first for the network. Bai Yansheng, an anchor on the network's China opera channel, left CCTV in early 2013 and explained why in a June 19 interview with the newsweekly Oriental Outlook: "You can't do what you really want to there," he said. "I would have been ashamed to stay any longer." Bai hedged his criticisms, stating that he "could not complain about the system" and had perhaps himself been at fault for "having too many opinions." But Wang held nothing back: His may be the only such open letter written by a former CCTV employee in recent memory, and is certainly the most critical.

Despite his complaints about CCTV and the state of censorship in Chinese media, Wang voiced a belief in the network's potential to "become a credible, influential media outlet" in the near future. But it's unclear when or how that would happen; CCTV is still required to toe the party line and has done so with gusto in recent months. That obedience, Wang wrote, is making life in China worse: "How can a country give you true sense of security and happiness," he asked, "If even speaking the truth gets you in trouble?"

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So Much for Exporting Democracy: Afghanistan Is as Corrupt as North Korea

After 12 years, nearly $700 billion, and more than 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers, here's what the United States has to show for its efforts in Afghanistan: a government that's perceived to be as corrupt as North Korea, according to a new report from the anti-corruption group Transparency International. File it away under things U.S. officials would probably rather ignore.

The Corruptions Perception Index culls expert opinions from groups like the World Bank, Freedom House, and the Economist Intelligence Unit on public sector corruption in 177 countries. Afghanistan has lingered near the bottom of the list for years, but since 2012 has shared last place with perennial losers North Korea and Somalia, countries where "corruption perceptions ... indicate a near-total absence of an honest and functioning public sector," according to Transparency International.

The report comes on the heels of a series of warnings by the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction that U.S. programs in Afghanistan are vulnerable to corruption. According to an October report, the Pentagon can't account for as much as $230 million in spare parts for the Afghan National Army. In September, the inspector general released a report highlighting the potential for waste and misuse of funds intended for public health programs. "The U.S. Agency for International Development continues to provide millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in direct assistance," the report read, "with little assurance that the [Afghan Ministry of Public Health] is using these funds as intended." In April, the inspector general warned that reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan may be funneling money to U.S. enemies in Afghanistan. 

USAID programs are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and corruption, as USAID often gives development funds directly to governments rather than through U.S.-managed contracts, making it difficult to ensure adequate levels accountability and transparency. In settings like Afghanistan, where political corruption is endemic already, the flaws of this approach become particularly apparent. The United States has plowed a total of $96 billion in non-military aid into Afghanistan, according to the inspector general report, but at least $236 million of that aid is at risk of "waste, fraud and abuse."

Iraq, for what it's worth, ranks 171 of 177 countries -- four spots ahead of Afghanistan. To get a sense of how they stacks up against other countries, check out the interactive map below. 


But the report isn't all bad news. Myanmar jumped from #172 in 2012 to #157 in the index, the largest single change in this year's report. This leap in the rankings largely stems from positive perceptions of the country's democratic reforms as it shifts away from its recent history of authoritarianism. But, as the report notes, those perceptions are not reflective of an actual decrease in corrupt practices, which is all but impossible to measure given the deliberately obscure nature of corruption. "The long journey has just begun," the report explains. "The government still has much to do to bring its legal framework and regulations in line with acceptable standards, strengthen its anti-corruption institutions, and open up space for civil society and the media to monitor and tackle corruption culture at all levels."

Lowered rankings for the Philippines, China, and India also suggest that perceptions of administrative and political corruption increase when economies grow, according to the report. Similarly, Libya and Syria's slide on the index illustrates the effects of political conflict on public perception of corruption risk. With a six point decrease, Spain fell the furthest in this year's ranking after what the report describes as "a summer blighted by political scandals indicating a lack of accountability and fading public trust."

While, the index is by no means a comprehensive survey of corrupt activities around the world, it draws on assessments by 13 independent institutions specializing in business and governance. There are some problems with this approach (which Foreign Policy has noted before), but the initiative nevertheless remains useful in raising awareness of factors that can deter corruption (such as public accountability mechanisms) and those that can facilitate it (such as an influx of foreign aid). The Philippines, for example, dropped two points in large part because of ongoing corruption scandals, including those surrounding Super Typhoon Haiyan relief efforts.

Here's a look at how the rest of the world fared:

 

 

Transparency International