Case Number: 2671

Council Meeting: JUNE 2018

Decision: Not Upheld

Publication: New Zealand Herald

Ruling Categories: Accuracy
Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Unfair Coverage


Zeyin Li complains that the article, Top Secret: China’s new 70,000 tonne monster kept under tight security,published in the New Zealand Herald on April 23, breached the Media Council principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.

The article in question dealt in the main with China’s development of as many as four aircraft carriers. Most of the article deals with the technical and military aspects of this project but there is also a reference to the recent Communist Party Two Sessions gathering and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Complaint

Zeyin Li’s complaint relates to a sentence in the article stating that the Two Sessions gathering installed Xi Jinping as President for life.

The complainant says this statement is incorrect and the decision at the gatherings was to abolish the two term limit for presidents - Xi Jinping was not installed as president for life.

He complains that this is irresponsible reporting and it should not appear on a professional news media service. He emailed theNZ Herald on April 24 asking for a correction.

The Response

NZ Herald senior newsroom editor Oskar Alley responded on May 18 apologising that the original complaint had been overlooked.

Mr Alley explained that the article in question was written by a reporter at news.com.au and republished on theNZ Herald site under a copy sharing agreement.

Mr Alley rejected Zeyin Li’s view that the article was irresponsible and noted that the world’s media, including Western news outlets, and in China itself, had consistently reported this as the outcome of the decisions taken by the Two Sessions gathering.

He cited and linked to a number of those reports.

Zeyin Li rejects that argument and says The Herald presented Xi Jinping as China’s “president for life” as a fact, and that was incorrect.

He adds that while it may be true that there were no laws preventing Xi Jinping from being president for life, that was also true of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

The Discussion

There is no disagreement that the Two Sessions gathering abolished the two term limit on Xi Jinping’s term as Chinese President.

There is dispute, however, over how the article interpreted the implications of that decision.

Mr Li argues that the decision to abolish the two-term limit is where it starts and ends as there was no resolution at that gathering that Xi Jinping would be president for life.

As Mr Alley notes, however, there appears to be widespread agreement among western media and academics that the effective outcome would be to install Xi Jinping as president for life, or until such time as he decides to stand aside.

The Two Term rule was imposed in 1982 for precisely the reason that China did not want a repeat of the indefinite reign of Mao Zedong.

Scrapping the rule effectively opens the door to indefinite rule by Xi Jinping, or as long as he lives, should he want to.

While the term “president for life” is merely journalistic shorthand to put the decision in that context, it would have been more accurate to make it clear that this was an interpretation of the rule change, rather than a statement of fact about the process.

That could have been done by rephrasing the sentence to read that the Two Sessions gathering " ‘effectively’ installed Xi Jinping as president for life" - or alternatively adding quote marks around "president for life", which would have made it clear that some journalistic licence was being taken.

On balance, however, this is a minor inaccuracy and not material in the wider context, particularly given the lack of prominence of this statement in what was a lengthy feature article.

Zeyin Li also makes a comparison with Jacinda Ardern and the New Zealand prime minister but of course three yearly elections are, by their very nature, term limiting on NZ politicians.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen (Chairman), Liz Brown, Craig Cooper, Chris Darlow, Tiumalu Peter Fa’afiu, Hank Schouten, Marie Shroff, Christina Tay and Tracy Watkins.


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