It is nearly impossible these days to open a national newspaper or magazine in the United States or Europe and not read about the People’s Republic of China. We are deluged with stories covering everything from Chinese sovereign wealth funds and “Great Firewall” Internet censoring to pre-Olympics efforts to clean up Beijing’s air. But for all the attention that the Western media have lavished on China, they have devoted relatively little effort to investigating the evolution of China’s media.
Understanding the Chinese press reveals much about how the Chinese leadership sees the country’s political future. It matters if journalistic outlets are still mostly organs of the Party, or if the Fourth Estate is beginning to break free. The picture that emerges reveals a party-state that is both beleaguered and resourceful—a political elite stressed by the conflicting interests of maintaining control and promoting prosperity. Today’s Chinese press increasingly responds to the demands of a consumer society, even as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) selects key media personnel and exerts behind-the-scenes influence over media content.
The result is a system in which old-fashioned censorship is rarely needed because stories about China meant for Chinese are shaped by the media elite to conform to the Party line well before they hit the presses or airwaves. Published reports concerning the world outside China come exclusively from central organs, and domestic reporting is shaped by a Party attentive to the need to mold what it cannot completely control, namely, news that reaches foreign audiences about China. Taken together, these methods of media control constitute China’s full court press.
Mass Line Meets Mass Market
Western social science associates market-based economic growth with the free flow of information, and with political arrangements that protect this flow. Markets need data, so liberalism must accompany capitalism (notwithstanding evidence to the contrary from places like Singapore). This is the lens through which Americans typically view Chinese media. Since China has a market economy, it follows that information must be flowing freely enough to enable the economy to prosper. Although Xinhua is the propaganda organ of the Chinese Ministry of Information, the Google News website treats it as a source akin to the New York Times or the Associated Press. Even some foreign-media analysts in the U.S. government fail to see that Xinhua is used by the Party as a strategic tool.
It was impossible to mistake Chinese sources as even semi-independent in the days when Mao Zedong issued top-level directives about class struggle on the front page of the People’s Daily. (The Sinologist Geremie Barmé, who was a student in Shanghai in the early 1970s, says that his favorite such message was: “Class struggle is like a net. Cast it wide and all is ensnared.”1
) According to Mao’s “mass line” theory, reporters helped the party-state aggregate the mass of popular opinion, which it then reconstituted into a coherent whole and fed back to the masses through media outlets. In practice, journalists were also tasked with sending private “internal reference reports” about happenings in their regions to the central leadership. Chinese reporters thus acted as domestic intelligence operatives. Under Mao, foreigners were not even supposed to read regional papers, lest they gain access to important information that could aid subversives.
As any recent traveler to China knows, the media landscape today looks quite different. Deng Xiaoping understood that market reforms would require the proliferation of revitalized Party-sponsored newspapers. He envisioned news outlets that catered to public tastes and were supported by advertising sales, which he legalized in 1979. He also understood the power of financial incentives; beginning in 1983, he allowed media managers to keep residual profits. At the same time, Deng believed in Mao’s mass-line theory, which implied that increasing papers and their readership would expand the Party’s channels for influencing the population.
Following Deng’s directive, publications that had long been little more than subsidized fish wrap were forced to generate proceeds from subscriptions and advertising to meet the goal of being self-sustaining. In response, the editors stopped propagating Party slogans in favor of colorful human-interest stories and useful news to attract readers and advertisers. The experiment worked; the number of papers increased eightfold over the course of the decade.2
These outlets functioned within constraints, to be sure. Censors answering ultimately to the Central Committee enforced a rule that 80 percent of all stories be uplifting rather than negative. Papers had to reprint Xinhua copy on sensitive subjects rather than do independent reporting. Careers ended, and issues, or even whole publications, disappeared if their content criticized well-connected elites or touched on stability-related subjects such as riots or ethnic tensions. In the aftermath of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the party-state closed media outlets deemed sympathetic to the demonstrators, shrinking the number of daily and weekly papers by 20 percent, from nearly 1,600 to 1,250. But this wave of repression passed. By the middle 1990s, China was back on its way to the roughly 2,000 newspapers it now boasts.33.
Since then, the pages of all but the stodgiest party organs have brimmed with celebrity profiles, human-interest tales, sports stories, consumer news, and reporting on economics, business and finance—together with flashy advertisements for restaurants, movies and a wide array of products and services. The average newsstand in Beijing today offers a panoply of glossies, broadsheets and tabloids, and television news doesn’t seem dramatically different in tone from what one would see in Rome, Rio or Rochester, New York.
Cosmetically, then, Chinese news sources could easily be mistaken for artifacts of a free press. Google’s error is understandable. Yet media ownership rights in China remain narrowly confined to political elites, and a vast apparatus of rules, incentives and party-state censors still monitors and shapes news coverage. Heading this apparatus is the Orwellian-named “Thought Work Small Group”, led by Chinese Communist Party Chairman and President Hu Jintao, along with the Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for the media. This Small Group guides the Party’s personnel unit in appointing the leadership of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD).4 The Party’s personnel unit and the CPD in turn choose the managers of national media outlets such as People’s Daily and Xinhua.
At the sub-national level, local party secretaries and provincial officials appointed by the Party’s personnel unit work with the CPD to choose managers of local media organizations. All managers are Party members and are carefully vetted for loyalty. In addition, the CPD supervises the state’s General Administration of Press and Publications, which transmits the Party line to media outlets via propaganda circulars. The persistence of such a network of media monitors may seem incongruous with the spirit of commercialism that Deng unleashed, but commercialization in China doesn’t really mean private ownership in the Western sense of the term. Indeed, Western concepts of “public” and “private” simply do not apply to China, where the complex, multilayered interpenetration of politics and business, power and wealth, defies conventional description.
Conglomeration, Cash Cows and Corruption
China’s media landscape has gone through several stages of evolution since Deng’s 1980s reforms. His reform program proved almost too successful, creating an environment that allowed, or even encouraged, hundreds of thousands of protesters to appear in Tiananmen Square in 1989. So many new small newspapers had emerged by that time that their sheer volume challenged central oversight. Conservatives—that is, traditional leftists in the PRC context—argued that Tiananmen necessitated something like the Soviet Union’s total control over the press. But reversion to Mao-era conditions was not an option for Deng. He remained committed to economic growth based on market transactions and supported by commercial channels of news and information.
In advancing the cause of commercialization, Deng benefited from the arguments of Shanghai Party Secretary Gong Xueping, a CCP press maven who argued persuasively that China could draw selectively from both the Soviet state-controlled model and a Western free-market approach. “The media is the party mouthpiece but also an industry”, became an oft-heard slogan in Gong’s Shanghai. He also espoused the line, “You must manage the news firmly, but not manage it to death.”5 The Soviets, he explained, had suffered from fostering a print culture oriented entirely around Politburo approval, with no attention to popular tastes. At the other extreme, American media coverage was too sensitive to public preferences and therefore dominated by smut—crime, sex and, from a Chinese point of view, intolerable “gotcha” pieces of investigative journalism targeting elites. In opposition to the example of both superpowers, Gong articulated a vision of “socialist mass media with Chinese characteristics”: The Communist Party would retain editorial control, and managers would adopt “Western” or market-based approaches to advertising and personnel.
While Gong laid out the theory, Deng created and seized opportunities to apply it. In defiance of CCP conservatives, still reeling from Tiananmen, his vaunted 1992 “southern tour” successfully advanced the case for a “socialist market economy.” The commercial media outlets that had been eliminated in the wake of the crackdown re-emerged. But once again the proliferation of publications threatened the Party’s monopoly on the expression of political opinions, notwithstanding Gong’s theory of state control.
Starting in the middle 1990s, Jiang Zemin found a solution to this problem in the form of consolidation. The specter of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, which required China to open itself to foreign firms—including firms investing in China’s media industry—gave Jiang a pretext. In the name of preparing for competition with Western conglomerates, Jiang restructured what had become a fragmented landscape into a set of large media groups that remain dominant today. Only the established publishing groups and party-state entities can register a new publication; foreign firms can only launch in China through one of these entities. In short, they enjoy a licensing monopoly.6 This has effectively reduced the number of publications the Party has to monitor, since those papers that were not bundled into a conglomerate were closed or eventually failed to compete.
Consolidation has also created a structure in which the boards and top managers in every group work with the CPD to police their own holdings. At the top of each group is a traditional Party paper, usually a money-loser. Beneath it and supporting it are “cash cows”, regional and special-interest publications with wide audiences that bring in substantial advertising revenue. Some of these niche and popular outlets are published by local government or Party offices, while others are connected less directly, through the board of the media group in which they are embedded, for instance. The structure of the groups and the awarding of licenses are designed to prevent local competition, lest publications try to best each other by reporting politically sensitive news.
The price of this arrangement, however, as with similar Party-industry arrangements outside the media, is a media sector rife with profiteering and corruption. It is difficult to say whether Deng would have tolerated this development had he lived to see it, but whatever his opinion might have been, there can be no doubt that the battles he won against the post-Tiananmen hardliners made current conditions possible.
Rules, Norms and Incentives
Thanks to a handful of scholars in Hong Kong and North America, we now know in some detail the mechanisms by which the Party shapes coverage in the era of media commercialization and amalgamation.7 Direct modes of control include strict rules about what subjects the media can and cannot cover. Writing about high-ranking Party officials without prior permission is forbidden. This restriction applies to the current President, Vice President and members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and to long-deceased Party leaders such as Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng. Permission is also required to publish a photograph of an elite Party member, and the application process is so cumbersome that many are deterred.
Chinese libel and state security laws present a slightly less direct but equally potent deterrent to writing anything that could offend powerful interests. Formally, Article 35 of the Chinese constitution enshrines the right of free speech. But subsequent articles erode this protection in the name of protecting the reputations of “PRC citizens”, guarding national security and preserving public order. Chinese libel law, moreover, awards the plaintiff the right to choose where a case will be tried. As China is far from boasting impartial courts or fair trials, plaintiffs tend to direct cases to friendly judges. In the end, the high likelihood of a publication having to pay damages makes even a top-selling scandal story a money-losing proposition.
More than money is at stake, too. A series of laws promulgated in the 1990s and enforced in several high-profile cases over the last few years explicitly target media outlets, providing for criminal sentencing of journalists and managers charged with revealing state secrets. Expansive interpretations of what constitutes a state secret, together with the unfavorable libel playing field, generally keep publications back on their heels.
The regulatory apparatus that constrains the media from tackling sensitive subjects is further supported by a structure of financial incentives. Managers are extremely well paid. Journalists’ base salaries are lower but roughly 12 times the average farmer’s income, and their salaries are only 20–30 percent of their overall compensation. The rest comes from performance bonuses based on the number and length of stories published, as well as the political acceptability of their content. Articles that offend censors or never reach them because they are squelched by managers typically are not counted or reduce a reporter’s prospective haul.
To be sure, a few publications take pride in offering high-quality journalism—for instance, Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolitan Daily of the Southern Daily Press Group in Guangdong province, and Caijing, a Beijing-based financial magazine registered under a quasi-governmental research organization. Southern Weekend has been known to try to encourage independent reporting by giving partial bonus credit for articles that go unpublished. Yet even these intrepid outlets largely avoid covering local cases of corruption, about which the censors in their jurisdiction are likely to be most sensitive. Publications that court danger lose libel suits and are fined. Often the Party also decapitates them by firing their editors, or shutters them outright. This is the practical explanation for why only a handful of such outlets are publishing at any given time.
At a deeper level, however, a culture of permissiveness or crony capitalism in China today also tends to steer journalists away from muckraking. Many reporters accept corporate favors or supplement their incomes by moonlighting in public relations, and “paid journalism” pervades the media. Media scholar Zhao Yuezhi, who earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in Beijing, has suggested that political-advocacy training smooths Chinese journalists’ transition to shilling for firms. By turning a blind eye to corruption while penalizing honest reporting, the Party seems to count on a certain number of reporters being bought off. The net effect of all this is that at most publications managers prioritize the financial bottom line ahead of the factual one, and so do most of their scribes. We have thus come to a point where ideological censorship and commercial corruption are so thoroughly mixed that it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.
Watchdogs and Lapdogs
One might imagine that the hard-driving coverage of publications such as Southern Weekend would earn them not only professional pride but also legions of subscribers and abundant advertising revenues. The market does in fact reward journalistic excellence in China. The Party’s handling of the media in a few recent crises suggests an effort both to harness and to mitigate this effect.
A recurring phrase in Chinese discussions of investigative journalism is “supervision by the media”, or “supervision by public opinion.” The expression hearkens back to Mao’s mass-line theory of the media as a mirror of popular views—albeit a mirror that adjusts what it reflects at the direction of the party-state. “Public opinion supervision”, an alternative rendering, may be preferable because it conveys the proper sense of ambiguity over who is doing the supervising. The term entered the lexicon of Chinese intellectuals during Deng’s reforms in the 1980s and was first used in an official speech in 1987 by Zhao Ziyang, the Politburo Standing Committee leader who was purged after showing leniency toward the Tiananmen protesters two years later. Like Deng, Zhao believed that a modern press acting in what the West would call a “watchdog” capacity could contribute to the party-state’s development. In particular, Zhao thought that investigative reporting would illuminate abuses at the local level, a natural extension of the media’s traditional internal reporting role.
More recently, Zhu Rongji, another Party leader known for relatively liberal views, explained, “Supervision by public opinion points out problems in our progress, reflects the suffering of the masses. It encourages the masses; it causes the masses to see hope.”8 For Zhu, stories of corruption, fraud or abuse of power convey information that might not otherwise reach central authorities and provide a satisfying release for the public, whose grievances need an outlet lest they build up and lead to unrest. The party-state’s use of investigative journalism as a means of gathering data is consistent with central elites’ new interest in polls. Once dismissed as a tool of the bourgeois, survey data is now appreciated as a window onto popular preferences that should inform Party rhetoric and priorities. Within limits, articles that uncover scandals are thought to be similarly salutary.
What, precisely, are those limits? Professor Zhao suggests that two classes of subject best suit watchdog outlets: general issues that the leadership already plans to address and minor grievances amenable to easy solutions. Systemic problems whose remedies would require political reforms unpalatable to the Communist state are out of bounds. Ultimately, investigative pieces are only tolerated to the extent that the Party judges them to contribute to “stability”, which translates roughly into political stasis. We can see this formula at work in media coverage of three recent incidents: outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the bird flu crisis of 2005, and last year’s industrial explosion in Yancheng.
The SARS Outbreak: The SARS outbreak began in Guangdong province in November 2002. Before it was contained in June 2003, it infected 8,421 people, 784 of whom died, including 340 Chinese victims. The outbreak coincided with the 16th Party Congress at which Hu Jintao was installed as Jiang Zemin’s successor. Hu was not a popular figure, and the CPD propaganda experts decided that the transition was tenuous enough to warrant sparing him a crisis. “The state of the epidemic is not frightening; the media is frightening”, is how one official assessed the situation at the time.9
Esarey, “Cornering.” The SARS timeline used here is drawn largely from this source.
By February, however, the number of cases had risen sufficiently that the people of Guangzhou, Guangdong’s capital city, were sending emergency text messages to alert one another of a contagion and to search for ways to protect themselves. Meanwhile, the Guangdong Party Committee’s propaganda department had banned any unauthorized reporting on the subject. The local papers could mention the official tally of cases, but could not describe the nature of the disease. On February 11, Guangdong officials held a press conference emphasizing that while there had been five deaths and more than 300 people were infected, the situation was under control and no medical personnel had died.
At this point, several bold papers began publishing in defiance of the ban. The Southern Metropolitan Daily ran a pair of editorials obliquely criticizing the Guangdong authorities for mishandling the crisis. The 21st Century Economic Report and the 21st Century World Herald printed what information they could glean about the sickness and how it was spreading, but the Herald’s more detailed piece led to its closure by the authorities in March. The 21st Century Economic Report, presumably in self-defense, soon published an editorial arguing that the scare was worse than the disease. Southern Weekend, which had covered the panic and quoted national public health officials on mistakes made by their local counterparts, also suffered a retaliatory blow in March: The Guangdong branch of the CPD demoted its editor and replaced him with a cadre from its bureau.
So few stories were published in March that some believed that the crisis had passed, even as the disease was spreading throughout China and abroad. Finally, in early April, National Health Minister Zhang Wenkong admitted that the number of cases had reached over a thousand and that 46 people had perished. But Zhang still sounded an optimistic note, stressing (inaccurately) that SARS had been contained, that travel around the country was safe, and that there were no longer new cases in Beijing. A 72-year-old doctor at a Beijing hospital then leaked to both Chinese Central Television and Rupert Murdoch’s Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television that the number of cases in the capital city was being concealed. Neither television outlet pursued the scoop, but Time magazine interviewed the physician, and word of the Time piece, which reached some Chinese English speakers by email, prompted Caijing to resume covering the story. However, the very day that Caijing’s extensive new package of reporting appeared (April 20), Xinhua announced via an article in Beijing Youth Daily the sacking of Health Minister Zhang and the mayor of Beijing. News of these firings upstaged Caijing and neutralized whatever anger its revelations might have produced. The next day, another Xinhua article in the Beijing Youth Daily reported on a press conference at which the Vice Health Minister acknowledged the extent of the epidemic, attributing previous inaccuracies to a decentralized public health system.
Once Xinhua had aired some of the basic facts, SARS received renewed attention from the Chinese media, but reporters remained barred from gaining access to hospital records or interviewing doctors or patients. After late April, moreover, the coverage shifted in tone from exposés to propagandistic calls for the country to unite against the scourge. Xinhua wire reports comprised most of the articles printed throughout the epidemic. Outlets that had tried to report on the facts earlier than April received harsh punishments, including the jailing of Southern Metropolitan Daily’s senior managers and editor-in-chief. If not for the text-messaging of frightened citizens and editors’ access to information from abroad via the Internet, it is difficult to see how any independent reporting would have occurred. Even after the story had gone international, the CPD managed to spin domestic coverage by pinning blame on local officials in Guangdong and on the dismissed mayor and Health Minister.
Indeed, in the CPD’s telling, one of the key charges against local officials was that they had initially failed to inform the central leadership of the outbreak. This line of argument led some Chinese public intellectuals to speculate that the SARS experience would engender press liberalization. Talk of a popular “right to know”, which first entered public parlance around the time of “public opinion supervision” in the 1980s, peppered public conversations about lessons learned from SARS. In 2005, Xinhua even published a volume called Media and Citizens’ Right to Know.10 The book’s discussion of SARS concludes by recommending protection of the “right to know” to avoid future cover-ups. And yet, for all the talk of freeing media outlets to report on potentially cascading emergencies, China’s next major public health scare actually generated less investigative reporting than SARS did.
The Bird Flu Crisis: The first known cases of bird flu in humans in China occurred in 2005—or perhaps as early as 2003, according to a letter from eight Chinese scientists published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2006. Bracketing this recent revelation, the existence of the flu began to attract media coverage in March 2005, when migratory birds were diagnosed with the illness. Humans began to fall ill in the late summer or fall, with outbreaks cropping up in scattered provinces as the weather turned cold. A survey of the coverage reveals that in virtually all cases of reporting on new infections, the source was an official Party outlet. None of the more independent, commercialized publications broke these stories. Even foreign and Hong Kong-based papers such as the Straits Times of Singapore and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post were derivative in their coverage.
The official outlets also set the tone for other domestic sources, portraying the government as in control. The only novel contributions of foreign media were occasional stories about the censorship rules imposed on their mainland colleagues, who, as in the SARS case, needed permission to publish stories about any new outbreaks. Non-official Chinese outlets distinguished themselves from their Party-line counterparts in only two ways: Some offered detailed, gory depictions of mass chicken slaughters, and others indulged in obvious examples of “paid journalism”, reassuring patrons about the safety of Beijing duck restaurants, for instance. No evidence of local mistakes or abuses received media attention, nor was any material published that could have been interpreted as critical of central elites.
Admittedly, the bird flu crisis was less acute than the SARS outbreak. Some might argue that the “right to know” would have been respected had the flu exacted a larger toll. But the more urgent the contingency, the greater the justification for officials to control information flows—to relay public safety messages and maintain order. If the SARS cover-up actually inspired a new regime, one would expect greater toleration of investigative journalism in less grave scenarios like the 2005 bird flu outbreak. But that did not happen, suggesting that the “right to know” remains a hollow phrase.
The Yancheng Explosion: The November 2007 explosion at the Jiangsu Lianhua Technology Company plant in Yancheng city left at the least dozens of casualties, but some initial online reports put the number of dead and injured at around a hundred. What is remarkable about this case is that someone leaked the Xiangshui county propaganda department’s internal report on its handling of the event. The report boasts that the department’s “mediators” successfully followed three key principles of information control: the “Three Firsts”, the “Three Unites” and the “Three Supports.” The report’s discussion of these principles illuminates how an infrastructure of national and regional propaganda officials works with other party-state personnel and local media contacts to suppress unwanted reporting.
The “Three Firsts” consist of arriving first on the scene, intercepting reporters immediately upon arrival, and distributing press releases as quickly as possible. Observing the “Three Unites” entails: uniting “prevention and persuasion” around coverage, in other words, preventing the publication of damaging stories by persuading reporters not to pursue them; uniting the “important and the normal”, that is, treating all media organizations “equally” while still monitoring more closely the most influential outlets; and uniting “concentration and dispersion”, keeping reporters in a controlled space and encouraging their departure from the scene. Finally, the “Three Supports” call for mediators to notify high-level Party and government leaders, who constitute the first support; then managers and editors at local publications, the second support, from whom they extract guarantees not to report on the story; and finally local Party and state officials, the third support, who help persuade other media outlets to use official press releases and limit coverage.
To be sure, one would not expect to find an internal report highlighting a failure to inform central officials of a local problem. But surprisingly, it appears that notification protocol was actually followed, at least in this case. Whether or not authorities in Beijing are always as well informed as they appear to have been in this case, they have created a structure through which local propaganda offices can limit the spread of bad news.
The critical elements of the suppression effort in Xiangshui seem to have been the influence of the local propaganda office with local publications and the involvement of security units that physically prevented outside media from surveying the blast site or interviewing the wounded or their families. The leaked report underscores the cooperative nature of the undertaking:
Under the personal attention of the principal city and county leaders and under the proper leadership of the city and county emergency center, the city party publicity [propaganda] department and the city news publicity [propaganda] department went into full action to deal and mediate. . . . Because we responded deftly, we acted appropriately and we mediated properly (and with the cooperation of the major media inside our own city), the entire mediation process was steady and positive.
The dearth of media coverage of the explosion corroborates the boasts in this report, as does a Beijing-based journalist’s complaint about having been denied access to the scene. More important than the particular details of this case is the revelation of the media control mindset. With a minimum of threats and duress, propaganda department “mediators” successfully appealed to the local publications’ self-interest to prevent reporting of a dramatic news event. As a result, reporters from out of town were easily corralled. This case does not necessarily mean that the next SARS-scale crisis will be so effectively managed, but it does show a media landscape whose “freedoms” are suppressed by effective restrictions.
These three cases illuminate how the Party largely succeeds in keeping watchdogs muzzled by cracking down on “unruliness”—in other words, making examples out of managers and reporters who defy CPD strictures—and by reacting nimbly to the rare investigative piece that does get published. Because so little information about sensitive matters is available and the Chinese people are so unaccustomed to accountability, the Party can counter the effects of unauthorized articles by blaming the bureaucracy, releasing kernels of information, and occasionally firing “errant” officials.
Foreign China watchers should find the truth about the domestic Chinese media troubling for two reasons. It suggests that we are likely to misconstrue what is happening inside the country, and our misreading may be intended by China’s propaganda and censorship apparatus. A network of officials devoted to shaping domestic news coverage surely has time and energy left to shape coverage intended for a foreign audience.
On matters of international politics and diplomacy, Xinhua’s coverage invariably echoes formal statements from Chinese government and Party leaders. It does not always succeed in guiding public opinion abroad, however, and, unlike in China, its failures are public in that foreign media outlets are free to report as they see fit. American media coverage of China’s January 2007 anti-satellite test is proof of this.
Actions such as the anti-satellite test that contradict the Party line about “peaceful development”, and spinfests gone awry like the Olympic torch relay—together with the power of the Internet to deliver news from abroad—pose a serious challenge for the PRC’s propaganda machine. For the time being, however, the Chinese people are pretty well shielded from foreign news. Local observers say that Chinese news outlets currently devote less space to foreign stories than they have at any previous point in the post-Tiananmen era. Xinhua, as the state wire news service, has a monopoly on foreign reporting within China; none of the domestic Chinese outlets has any foreign correspondents. Xinhua is thus free to depict events as it likes, and if this serves the Party’s interest—say, by occasionally stirring up xenophobic nationalism—then there is no countervailing source to raise doubts. While the official monopoly over foreign news is bound to be eroded eventually by Internet penetration, it is premature to speculate about what effects this development might have over the Party’s control of its own media. If the recent past is any guide, predicting significant press liberalization would be foolish. The better we appreciate how Chinese media control works, the more deeply entrenched a system it appears to be.
Coda: Earthquake and Epidemic
As this essay was being prepared for press, a devastating earthquake struck China’s Sichuan province. Some Western commentary has suggested that the enormity of the tragedy overwhelmed the Party’s ability to shape media coverage of the event. More likely, however, the Chinese media’s handling of the earthquake has been consistent with the trajectory of Chinese media policies over the last two decades, a period in which the CCP has come to believe that it can control information flows without having to suppress them.
In the days after the May 12 earthquake, the Party won plaudits for allowing journalists to report from the scene despite a Central Propaganda (Publicity) Department directive limiting non-Xinhua reporters’ access. Lax enforcement facilitated the dissemination of human-interest stories describing tremendous suffering and loss of life, but on the question of the authorities’ response to the disaster, the message from print and television outlets was virtually all positive. Without blocking information, censors succeeded in creating a climate in which deviation from the central line about the competence of security forces and rescue workers became prohibitive.
To be sure, a difference in emphasis between official outlets and commercial publications was evident, with official sources dwelling on expressions of compassion by high-ranking Party members, while commercial outlets focused on the destruction and death toll. Perhaps more important, some intrepid Chinese Internet users faulted the government for not admitting foreign aid workers immediately, and even pointed out that shoddy construction increased casualties in schools and other public buildings that collapsed, implying that corrupt officials bear a measure of responsibility. But if the Internet proved problematic, Party officials doubtless derived solace from observing how members of the mainstream media, whose reporting reaches the broadest audience, exploited their access to propagate a line favorable to Beijing.
Some China watchers have contrasted the coverage from Sichuan with the suppression of news about a major earthquake that occurred in China in 1976. True, China in 2008 is not China in 1976, but those who read into the latest events a general liberalization of Chinese media policies are likely to be disappointed. Even as the tectonic plates under Sichuan were preparing to shift, an epidemic of hand, foot and mouth disease was killing scores of young children in Fuyang, a city in Anhui province. The first cases appeared in March, but no published reports surfaced until late April, by which time the city was in a state of panic reminiscent of the SARS and bird flu outbreaks. This suggests that officials’ relative openness to coverage of the earthquake was a concession to the inexorable spread of information by means of cell phones and the Internet, not a sign that the Party has decided to abandon efforts at media control.
In the short term, shaping the message from Sichuan was essential lest the earthquake—together with the recent unrest in Tibet, turbulence during the Olympic torch relay, record snowfalls over the winter, and the outbreak of hand, foot, and mouth disease—convince potentially restive elements of the population that the Party has lost its right to rule, the “Mandate of Heaven” in traditional Chinese parlance. Going forward, news stories prejudicial to the legitimacy of the Party will continue to be suppressed. Natural disasters, as well as other readily observable macro issues like labor shortages and price hikes, will receive media attention, but blame will either go unassigned or fall onto local officials.
Of greater long-term concern for the Party could be the way that leaks of the censors’ directives received attention in Western accounts of the earthquake, exposing China’s censorship apparatus to general view. For Westerners this may be a dramatic revelation that inspires predictions of press liberalization, but we would do well to remember that the Party’s goal is to retain its authority and that it will do whatever it deems necessary to achieve this end.
Barmé, “Paper Tigers”, Beijing Scene (September 1999).
Ashley W. Esarey, “Cornering the Market: State Strategies for Controlling China’s Commercial Media”, Asian Perspective (Winter 2005).
That works out to roughly 1.5 newspapers per million people in the PRC—still well below the U.S. figure of about eight newspapers per million. See Joel Rosen, “Black, White, and Red All Over? The Media in Contemporary China”, Long Term Strategy Group (October 2007).
In recent years the party has revised the English translation of the CPD to “Central Publicity Department” to avoid the negative connotations of the word “propaganda”, which the Mandarin term does not evoke. Similarly, there are no negative connotations attached to the Mandarin for “mouthpiece”, a word long used to describe China’s media (as in “the Party’s mouthpiece”).
Quoted in Esarey, “Cornering.”
To safeguard the Party’s dominance, the conglomerates have channeled these investments into subsidiaries, separated from the parent company that retains editorial control.
Notably Chin-Chuan Lee and Zhou He of the City University of Hong Kong, Zhao Yuezhi of Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Benjamin Liebman of Columbia Law School, and Ashley Esarey of Middlebury College.
Quoted in Zhao Yuezhi, “Watchdogs on Party Leashes? Contexts and Implications of Investigative Journalism in Post-Deng China”, Journalism Studies (November 2000).
Esarey, “Cornering.” The SARS timeline used here is drawn largely from this source.
See Rosen, “Black, White, and Red All Over?”