"Chinese whispers" is one of those much-used phrases, such as "may you live in interesting times" and Zhou Enlai's supposed aphorism about the French Revolution, which it would be better to avoid. I used to wince every time it was slapped on one of my stories at the Guardian, not just because it was lazy sub-editing but because it reflected a largely false assumption about Chinese society. This is that communication is always indirect, oblique and masked by honorific politenesses of the "your honourable self" variety. (In fact the Chinese often say things much more directly than we do: when they want to take their leave, for example, they will just say, "I've got to go"). Of course there is rumour and obfuscation in Chinese political culture – particularly severe in the second decade of the People's Republic up to Mao Zedong's death. And there has always been a reluctance to criticize authorities who may inflict retribution on the critic. But we should focus rather on the extent to which this has weakened since the Cultural Revolution, and on a contrary tradition of speaking out and expressing "righteous protest" which was never entirely suppressed.
In the 1960s we all – including the Chinese – practised the art of Pekinology (now we would have to say Beijingology), reading between the lines of the official media to gain a glimpse of what was really going on. It wasn't so different from Sovietology, and not so difficult either once we had grasped the basic rules. I still remember how, on my first visit to China in 1971, I was instructed by a friendly minder how to deconstruct lengthy People's Daily editorials. The trick was to whiz through the first two-thirds which said that everything was fine till one reached a paragraph beginning with the words "However some comrades fail to understand that..." or "However some temporary problems have emerged..." Then one started to pay serious attention.
Even at that time, though not in the People's Daily, things were being said much more forcefully in polemics and pamphlets, some of which reached us foreign observers. Once the Red Guards had gone through the period of "110 per cent loyalty", quite a number began to question the system and in doing so sowed the intellectual seeds which would blossom on Democracy Wall in the late 1970s and in Tiananmen Square a decade later. Even in the set polemics, it was often possible to discern real clashes of ideology and interest.
In retrospect, our analysis as "China-Watchers" trying to tease out the contradictions in Chinese society was more accurate than the current writing-off of the Cultural Revolution as "ten years of madness". It could not have been done if the system was wholly opaque or if it had been impossible to sift fact from rumour.
The dissenting voices of the 1980s could be heard within the Party itself and on the pages of the official media, with encouragement from the then Secretary-General Hu Yaobang, tackling issues of one-party rule and alienation of the masses in language which needed little decoding. Hu went too far and his sacking by the Party elders and subsequent death led directly to the events of Beijing (and elsewhere in China) in April-June 1989. The following clampdown led to more severe censorship, which, in a formal sense, has persisted to the present day. It remains true that the printed word is most vulnerable – we may recall how Confucius insisted on the need to "get the name right". That is why communication is easier on the internet: some of the most notorious environmental and corruption-related scandals of recent years have been broken by Chinese journalists who resorted to website publication when the print media were closed to them.
I don't want to minimize the extent of censorship even on the internet, not least because of the number of people jailed for using it to criticize the regime, but the controls are patchy and only invoked when certain red lines are crossed, such as criticism of named leaders. There is nevertheless a significant amount of critical argument and expose-journalism found today on the web-based media, in discussion groups and even on a few TV investigative programmes and weekly magazines.
The tradition of "righteous protest" flourishes today in the 70–80,000 local incidents officially recorded every year, the majority in the countryside among rural communities who are overtaxed or cheated of their land, and among urban workers who have been deprived of employment and short-changed on benefits by corrupt officials and asset strippers. They are not whispering but shouting: some of these incidents end in bloody suppression but many more achieve at least a limited gain for the protestors.
Chinese society is less rumourous now than in the Maoist era – though paradoxically people then would mostly refrain from spreading rumours for fear of getting into trouble. When the SARS epidemic first broke out in the winter of 2002–03, rumours certainly flew around, but it wasn't long before fairly accurate information began to circulate, some published by more adventurous media but most of it sent by text message.
Foreign reporting on China – much easier to access now in spite of internet controls – can also play a useful role in providing information: this was true both during the SARS epidemic and earlier in exposing the scandal of commercial blood-collecting in conditions which spread the HIV virus among rural donors. But the overseas media can get it spectacularly wrong too: one of the tragedies of Tiananmen Square was that the students were encouraged in their defiance by rumours recycled in the foreign press that the regime was about to give in.
Oh, and "may you live in interesting times"? Not a Chinese curse, but may have been invented by the author of Dr Fu Manchu. And is it too early to decide whether the French Revolution has succeeded? Perhaps, but Zhou Enlai never said it.