By Qian Gang
Translated by David Bandurski
Chinese media are changing. People from all walks of life in China have recognized this fact – businesspeople, politicians, professional journalists.
I have watched the crooked path of this change for three decades, beginning with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform, coming to an abrupt halt following the crackdown on student demonstrators on June 4, 1989, revived once again after Deng’s so-called “southern tour” in 1992, which quickened the pace of economic reform.
The media landscape is much changed today. Media hold fast to the “iron laws” of state news management because they must. But they rush out at the same time into the hurly-burly marketplace, keeping up as best they can with the changing times. The injection of capital into the media is transforming it structurally – we can now refer to it as an “industry”, a change in itself. The Internet and new media, with their unrealized potential, loom on the horizon. Meanwhile, a growing number of good reporters, intent on professionalism, forge ahead against sizable financial and political obstacles. And of course, the shutdown earlier this year of Freezing Point, a popular weekly supplement of China Youth Daily newspaper, reminds us rather poignantly that censorship is alive and well, and even mutating, in China.
It is a complicated picture indeed.
But a study of the terminologies used in China to talk about the media and its role in culture and politics may help us sharpen that picture just a bit. In Robin Lakoff’s The Language War, which has been translated into Chinese, the author talks about how we use language to construct reality:
Language is, and has always been, the means by which we construct and analyze what we call “reality” … What we know of it we know through carefully selected words, images that tell us what we ought to think and believe we know. It is no accident that, at the very moment at which meaning making rights are being contested, politicians and others in the public eye have developed armies of specialists whose job it is to construct public meanings via the skillful manipulation of language …
While Lakoff writes of the “democratization of meaning-making” in American culture, the opposite is true in China, where Party leaders continue to serve as the gatekeepers of language, defining social and political reality in all areas of life and work. This being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that changes in China’s political climate come with whole sets of new buzzwords, so that, for example, the “Three Represents” (the platform of former President Jiang Zemin) yields to current President Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society”.
The same applies to Chinese media, which the Party has always regarded as key to its exercise of power. Chinese leaders closely govern the very language journalists use to conceptualize their own work and role in society.
Over the last decade, but particularly over the last three years, I have carefully analyzed the media in China by looking at the buzzwords Chinese use to talk about it, terms like “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” (sometimes translated “watchdog journalism”), “media reform”, and “freedom of speech”.
These terms are like mile markers, some fading behind, others crowding ahead. Some are heard constantly, but used by different people with widely different meanings.
“Reform” under “Guidance”
Chinese Journalist, a monthly magazine published by Xinhua News Agency, and News Line, published by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, are China’s most influential professional magazines for journalists. They are largely responsible for conveying the “management spirit” of state propaganda ministers to the media at large, and many newspapers and television or radio stations take out subscriptions at public expense. The appearance and degree of prevalence of critical media terms in either or both of these publications can point the way to the dominant political position on media and its role in Chinese society. The graph below, for example, shows the relative frequencies of use for the terms “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” and “media reform” between 1994 and 2004 in the abovementioned publications. They suggest that control, via “guidance”, has been the top priority, while media “supervision” (of official corruption, etc.) has been an important, but secondary, priority:
(Source: China Knowledge Network Service Platform (CNKI), China Journalism Network (CJN). Search through complete archives of China Journalist and News Line for 1999-2004).
Of the three terms plotted in Graph 1, “guidance of public opinion” is most widely used, followed more closely by “supervision by public opinion”, and trailed quite substantially by “media reform”, which remains more or less level over the decade.
What do these peaks and troughs mean? The prevalence of “guidance of public opinion” suggests the term, which means leaders must carefully control the language of media to ensure stability and progress on policy goals such as economic growth, has been the centerpiece of Chinese media policy from the early 1990s onward. There is an important historical reason for this. While the second two terms are relics of the 1980s reform movement, “guidance of public opinion” appeared only after the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. It is a product of rethinking of media policy in the aftermath of social unrest.
In the 1980s, media reform in China began as a reaction against the “falsehood, sensationalism and emptiness” that prevailed during the Cultural Revolution. Communist Party leaders began to speak cautiously of “media reform” in the early 1980s, by which time the term was commonly used inside the media.
Media reforms continued through the 80s despite political uncertainty. China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the China’s Communist Youth League, took the lead by introducing critical news reports and discussions of hot-button social issues. In Shanghai, the outspoken World Economic Herald appeared, becoming an instrumental force behind the economic reform drive.
Finally, in 1987, media reform received official recognition and was worked into the Party’s political agenda. In its official report, the Thirteenth Party Congress said, “Let the people know and discuss the larger issues”. In addition, news and publicity vehicles should “serve a watchdog function”, the report said. This was essentially a mandate for what has since been called “supervision by public opinion” in China, meaning the scrutiny of lower-level officials through investigative reporting. After the 1987 report, “supervision by public opinion” became a regular buzzword in the China media lexicon.
June 4, 1989, brought a swift end to all of these changes. On May 6, 1989, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang said in a meeting with top propaganda officials: “Open things up a bit. Make the news more open. There’s no big danger in that. By facing the wishes of the people … we can only make things better”. These words were severely criticized in the wake of June 4, and Zhao was blamed for creating widespread public support for the student demonstrations and “guiding matters in the wrong direction”. Just six months later, in November 1989, the Party’s new general secretary, Jiang Zemin, gave a speech emphasizing the need for “guidance of public opinion.”
And so a new media buzzword was born.
Party propaganda officials made it known through a series of statements to news media that language must “adhere to guidance of public opinion”. Aside from this new and dominant term, there was a dizzying parade of other media terms during this time. They included “Marxist view of media”, “disciplined publicity”, “politicians running the newspapers”, “mouthpiece”, and others. Taken together, they constituted Jiang Zemin’s policy position on the role of the media, which emphasized control and took its bearings from the unrest of June 1989.
“Guidance of public opinion”, as a buzzword for political control of the media, may have risen into dominance after June 4, but “media reform” nevertheless persisted as a term of importance. After Deng Xiaoping made his famous “southern tour” to major Chinese cities in 1992, commercial reforms in the media were jump-started. One after the other, flagship Party newspapers came out with profitable weekly editions or commercial daily spin-offs. In a limited capacity, and on a trial basis, overseas capital was allowed to flow into domestic Chinese media.
Foreign participation was not, in fact, entirely new. Some foreign media groups had struck up joint ventures in the 1980s in areas that were safe politically, such as computers and fashion. International Data Group led the charge in 1980 with China Computerworld magazine, set up jointly with a business arm of China’s IT industry regulator, Ministry of Information Industry. The Chinese-language edition of fashion magazine Elle followed suit in 1988.
But the boldest attempt by an overseas media investor to gain a foothold in the Chinese market came in August 1992, as Hong Kong businessman Yu Pinhai signed a joint-venture deal with Guangzhou’s Xiandai Renbao (现代人报). While the contract yielded complete editorial control to the Chinese partner, Yu’s company exercised its influence through Lie Fu, its manager for China operations. Zhao Shilong, a well-known investigative reporter, recalls the innovations Lie Fu introduced at the paper, and their impact on the industry:
The newspaper employed a system totally unlike others on the mainland. It introduced and implemented editorial methods and compensation systems in line with the modern [global] newspaper industry; it used new circulation and marketing methods; it put in place a totally computerized copy flow (reporters had to submit electronic articles rather than handwritten ones); it used full-color printing technology; it employed modern management techniques to create staff cohesion. All of this meant Xiandai Renbao was fresh and alive in a way never before been seen in China. The three top newspapers in Guangzhou, Southern Daily, Yangcheng Evening News and Guangzhou Daily were extremely nervous.
Yu Pinhai’s newspaper venture, an important first for overseas participation in the highly sensitive area of “news”, was nevertheless doomed. Officials in Guangdong shut Xiandai Renbao down on January 1, 1995.
But it was during this period that groundbreaking newspapers like Southern Weekend, for which I served for several years as managing editor, and investigative news programs like China Central Television’s “Focus”, came into being, offering a fresh approach to news and analysis. Naturally, political support was an indispensable component of their success, as it remains today. Southern Weekend was able to weather several political storms with officials in Beijing because it had a definite degree of support from provincial leaders in Guangdong. “Focus”, which routinely shed light on ugly social and political problems, like administrative corruption, was supported by the country’s top propaganda official, Ding Guangen, who actually had a role in its creation.
After the mid-1990s, terms of commercial ilk, like “media industry” and “media market” became more or less synonymous with media reform. Searching all Chinese periodicals for the years 1994 and 2004, I found the frequency of the term “media reform” unchanged. The frequency of “guidance of public opinion”, on the other hand, rose 70 percent, and the frequency of “media industry” rose 50 times over.
In the late 1990s, new terms were coming regularly into circulation, terms like “enlarging and strengthening” (the creation, in essense, of officially-controlled media groups of a Murdoch-like nature), “media restructuring” (consolidation of state media), and “the influence of media” (an official version of eyeball economics in which politics plays no part). Each of these pointed to policy positions on key problems facing Chinese media.
“Enlarging and strengthening” is a good case in point. The longhand version of the term, clunky and comical in English, was: “doing the news media big and strong.” It was a response to commercial reforms, with a nervous eye on China’s nearing accession to the World Trade Organization, and essentially a policy shove in the direction of media consolidation. The idea was that a number of consolidated media groups would be better equipped to compete in a globalized market. The concept had in fact been appropriated from other industries. In late 2000, Xu Guangchun, then deputy head of the Propaganda Department and top man at broadcast regulator SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television), introduced the “enlarging and strengthening” slogan to the radio and television industries.
“Capital infusion into media”, another important concept as China’s media entered the new century, marked one of the most sensitive facets of “enlarging and strengthening”. Before the 1990s, this term did not exist in China. But with the implementation of media investment policies in 2002, the state approved a number of media groups for business registration as limited liability companies or as joint-stock limited companies and drew investment from government-sponsored institutions, with the important stipulation they would not interfere with the propaganda and censorship process. Foreign investors were also itching for more opportunities to enter the media sector in China, but this was a sensitive issue.
The Sixteenth Party Congress convened in November 2002, Jiang Zemin passing the position of Party chief on to Hu Jintao. In early 2003, politburo standing committee member Li Changchun, who was in charge of ideology, held up a new buzzword, “The Three Closenesses”, as the defining principle for future propaganda work. “The Three Closenesses” were: “Sticking close to truth, sticking close to the people, and sticking close to life.” Li emphasized that the first criterion in measuring “products of culture and spirit” (journalism, publishing, the arts, etc) was whether or not the people were satisfied with them. He said China should promote asset restructuring in the “culture industries” (including media), and “optimize resource allocation, thereby enlarging and strengthening them”.
China had by this time already become a WTO member, lending greater urgency to “enlarging and strengthening” as a means of “facing competition from global media groups and the fierce war for public opinion on the global stage”. Without a strong economic foundation, many academics argued, Chinese media would be shouldered aside by bigger foreign competitors.
Chinese officials, of course, were never about to let this happen. Commercial reforms could move forward, but the Party would maintain its white-knuckle grip on the media. Propaganda minister Xu Guangchun stressed that there were “four constants” (yes, another buzzword) in the media reform process. The media’s role as a mouthpiece of the Party would not change. Party newspapers (such as People’s Daily) would not change. The role of officials at the top of media organizations would not change. And the cardinal rules of correct guidance of public opinion (in other words, towing the Party line) would not change.
China’s “media reform” plodded forward under the all-important principle of “guidance of public opinion”. Reform might be an imperative. But so were social stability and the position of the Party in the life of the nation. The process of reform was to be safe and amenable. There would be no repeat of the events of June 4, 1989.
“The Three Closenesses” were just finding their feet when Chinese media were faced with their first major challenge of the 21st century, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This national health crisis would prove a major reality check for Hu Jintao’s new media policy.
Chinese media under SARS
The first known case of SARS appeared in November 2002 in Heyuan, a city about 160 kilometers northeast of Guangzhou. In mid-December, the People’s Hospital in Heyuan admitted two SARS patients. Within two weeks scores of health workers were infected. In late December, Zhong Nanshan, a well-known respiratory specialist, treated several patients transferred to his Guangzhou facility. On December 31, he issued a report to the Chinese Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and a few days later a group of CDC officials went in secret to Heyuan.
Local and national media knew nothing about the situation. But that afternoon people in Heyuan made a run on local pharmacies, buying out stocks of erythromycin, a common antibiotic.
Before dawn on January 3, 2003, Heyuan leaders met at the mayor’s home to discuss measures for dealing with cases of “atypical pneumonia”. Hours later, Heyuan Daily, a mouthpiece of the city government, ran an article urging city residents to disregard rumors of an epidemic. Most urgent in the minds of Heyuan officials at the time was a planned meeting two days later with Guangdong’s executive committee on the development of “cities of excellence”, an important test of the city’s economic infrastructure.
In fact, Heyuan’s approach to dealing with crisis could be seen as indicative of China’s overall approach to spinning the news: economic development comes before all else, and information must be tightly controlled to this end.
SARS, meanwhile, spread from Heyuan to Zhongshan, 60 kilometers south of Guangzhou, and then to Guangzhou itself. On January 16, Guangzhou’s New Express sent a reporter to Zhongshan to look into rumors of an epidemic there. An article called, “’Pneumonia of mysterious origin’ appears in Zhongshan and could spread”, made the paper the next day alongside a photo of patient hooked up to a respirator. This was the first report on SARS to appear in China. Like Heyuan, though, Zhongshan moved immediately to combat what it said were baseless rumors.
“No disease has appeared in Zhongshan,” they said.
On January 21, national officials from the CDC made an inspection tour of Guangdong. On January 23, a report on the situation in Zhongshan by Guangdong’s health bureau was sent to subordinate offices throughout the province. Everyone was ordered to have a strong grasp of the appropriate procedures for prevention and treatment. On February 3, the provincial government sent a report on SARS to the Ministry of Health in Beijing. At the same time, instructions were sent to relevant offices below the provincial level.
It could be said that Guangdong’s provincial leadership were actually quite firm in dealing with the containment of SARS through administrative means. But they had settled on resolving the crisis behind closed doors. The media would play no part, save in the issuing of official lies and half-truths. In the three weeks from mid-January to the start of the weeklong Spring Festival holiday they kept a stranglehold on news about the epidemic.
By February 6 things were only getting worse. Information about the disease, most of dubious accuracy, started bouncing back and forth on the Internet and through SMS text messaging. On February 8 Guangdong made a report on the SARS situation to the State Council, the highest organ of state administration. However, an urgent announcement went out simultaneously to media in the province:
In order to avoid the spread of rumors and other forces of instability, all media units within the province are to refrain from interviews and reporting concerning the recent discovery in our province of a disease of unknown origin. At the same time, media units must work to maintain secrecy, neither exposing nor diffusing information to the outside.
Rumors were running wild in Guangdong. On February 10, under another strict order against “further reporting”, media were sent an official government news release, or tonggao, called “Atypical pneumonia cases found in some areas of Guangdong”. They were told to stick to the information in this release, not building on the story and not linking online sites to other news sources (such as overseas media). The release did not, of course, offer any facts about the serious spread of SARS, but only cautioned citizens to “take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the spread of the disease.” Just hours later a second release came through. This one obliged the media to report that there had been 305 SARS cases and five deaths, a willful misrepresentation of the epidemic’s true scale.
On a daily basis, the publicity office of Guangdong’s Party committee sent out releases detailing how media should talk about SARS, how much space should be devoted to the story and so on. But some media felt the door had been prised open and decided to make a gamble. Southern Metropolis Daily disregarded missives from the publicity office and ran two pages of SARS coverage. Southern Weekend’s tongue grew dangerously sharp: “It’s time we reassess the media’s role and purpose,” it wrote.
Less than a week later a stern warning went out to all media in the province against being adventurous with SARS coverage. On February 17, the publicity office said: “[Media] must not lead discussion toward suggestions the government has been sluggish in dealing with the present crisis, or that the people have a right to know”. On February 23, media were warned to “maintain correct guidance of public opinion”, which again meant walking the Party line. The text of that warning left little room for imagination: “From this time forward, with exception to news reports on SARS issued by the official Xinhua News Agency, decisions for all media in this province concerning SARS coverage are the prerogative of this office alone [Guangdong’s provincial publicity office], regardless of whether that coverage concerns sick cases, disease origins, expert analysis, stories about the effort on the medical front or economic factors”. “Big or small, all reports must physically go through this office, which will decide whether they can or cannot be reported and how they should be reported. Nothing may be reported that has not first passed through this office.”
The warnings were not entirely confined to Guangdong. Central media in Beijing had also been issued various controls concerning the “guidance” of SARS coverage.
By this time, SARS had spread to other areas of China as well as Hong Kong and other countries in the region. The Tenth National People’s Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Congress, the country’s biggest annual political meetings, opened on March 5 that year. The publicity office of Guangdong’s Party committee warned provincial media they were not to report any official comments on SARS made by delegates at either of the forums. Southern Metropolis Daily, though, again seized the opportunity, printing an interview with the country’s second highest health official, Zhu Qingjun. The report was called, “SARS searching for international cooperation”. The reporter responsible was immediately recalled from Beijing, and not long after the meetings, both Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend were disciplined by officials for SARS and other reports.
While Guangdong media were working under severe constraints, a handful of other national media were testing the waters. Preeminent among these was Caijing, one of the country’s leading business magazines, which had done a series of SARS reports for its April 5 issue. These addressed problems in China’s healthcare system, possible economic fallout, and the need for international cooperation. Most media, however, kept quiet, either failing to recognize the seriousness of the epidemic or fearing uncharted territory.
By this time too, another big story had dropped out of the sky. When the United States launched its invasion of Iraq on March 20, propaganda officials threw the doors wide open. News of the invasion flooded the pages of Chinese newspapers and magazines. China Central Television ran non-stop news and commentary on channels One, Four and Nine, raking in substantial advertising revenues, which rose at CCTV that year by more than 30 percent.
Politburo member Li Changchun praised CCTV’s coverage of the war, saying it, “satisfied the public’s demand for information and showed the network had a good grip on guidance”, the last a reference to the familiar buzzword, “guidance of public opinion”. Li said news reports on the war in Iraq brought home the point that, “there was ample room for reform of the media, that CCTV had great potential, and that the network had the confidence needed to turn over a new leaf”.
On April 9, as American troops rolled into Baghdad, Time magazine ran Jiang Yanyong’s famous letter, in which the Beijing doctor contested the number of SARS cases officially reported in the capital and said military hospitals had been ordered to hide the truth about the disease. The shock of these revelations rippled through China’s top leadership levels. The forced resignations of China’s top health official, Zhang Wenkang, and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong followed on April 20, signals that the central government was determined to resolve the crisis as openly as possible. All at once, there was no end to the types of SARS coverage open to domestic media. Many took to the story with gusto, as the following graph makes clear:
After April 20 central and regional media were inundated with SARS coverage. Of course, the propaganda bureau still had its nose in the business, demanding all media “have a firm grasp on correct guidance of public opinion, directing all efforts toward creating an environment conducive to the prevention of SARS”. Some, though, were already starting to criticize Chinese media quite vocally for their complicity in deceiving the public.
For Western media, SARS and its cover-up once again begged serious questions about China’s political stability. When revelations of misinformation brought a public outcry and the resignation of two high-level officials, some foreign media started comparing the episode to the April 1986 explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, which some argued had accelerated glasnost, or “openness” and perestroika, or “restructuring”. Foreign journalists wondered whether SARS would usher in a new era of openness under China’s new president, Hu Jintao.
“Freedom of Speech” and “supervision by public opinion”
Academics and media professionals certainly saw SARS as inviting reflection on media reform and the idea of the “Three Closenesses”. What did reform mean, and what about relevance to the people, if the media failed such an important test? Who was media reform supposed to serve? As media were “enlarged and strengthened”, as they consolidated to form more powerful domestic media giants, did the public’s right to know expand too? Or could those in power deny this right at will?
At the height of the SARS epidemic in China, Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor in Beijing and frequent media commentator, had suggested two interwining factors posed a serious challenge to the media’s ability to play a more independent role. The first factor was autocracy, or “rule by men”, that old bogeyman never quite in China’s past – meaning the affairs of the nation, big and small, were handled through guanxi, or various forms of connection and power-brokering, rather than through rule of law. The second factor, somewhat ironically, was commercialism, one of the driving forces behind media reform.
The tenacity of “rule by men”, said Zhan, meant the idea of the media as a public service vehicle and balancer of interests was constantly rebuffed, and ‘freedom of speech’ viewed as a scourge and menace to entrenched interests. Commercialism, in the form of advertising and public relations, meanwhile, had given rise to what Zhan called “neo-feudalism”, a triangular conspiracy of government, business and the media. Zhan Jiang’s argument, which dragged ‘freedom of the press’ into the media reform debate, was of a kind rarely seen in the Chinese media.
In fact, Chinese citizens are entitled both to “free speech” (言论自由) and a “free press” (出版自由) according to article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. But “freedom of the press” – in Chinese, literally “news freedom” (新闻自由) – is a term of extreme sensitivity, merely tolerated though not outright prohibited. As such, the term appears only rarely in the Chinese press, and when it does appear the intonation is generally negative, maybe a snide comment about “the West’s ‘freedom of the press’”, or “so-called ‘freedom of the press’”.
Searching the China Journalism Network (CJN) database for appearances of the term “freedom of speech” over the last 10 years, I came up with the following graph:
Clearly, pejorative uses of “freedom of the press” account for the bulk of all instances. This is true particularly for the year 1999. Why should this be the case? I don’t know how many of you recall the bombing by U.S. warplanes of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but you can be sure the Chinese have not forgotten. The incident turned Chinese anger not only to America but also to its hollowed ideals, including “freedom of the press”, and shows how the question was related to the larger geo-political issue of Western dominance and values.
The issue of press freedoms was most openly discussed in the 1980s, as the Chinese Communist Party began drawing up its Media Law. In 1985, an official named Hu Jiwei led the effort to draw up a draft of the law. The third section of that draft stated, “We establish this law according to Articles 22 and 35 of the Constitution, as well as other related articles, in order to ensure freedom of the press and develop socialist media work”.
These efforts, again, were cut short by the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing. In the aftermath of June 4, Jiang Zemin addressed the question of freedom of the press in the most negative terms: “Hostile forces overseas and staunch domestic supporters of bourgeois freedoms see ‘freedom of the press’ as an important means of bringing about peaceful change [to the Party’s leadership of China]”, he said.
During and after SARS, Chinese media kept their thoughts on freedom of the press closely guarded. Any reflection on the institutional lessons brought home by SARS was nipped in the bud by an atmosphere of intensified control.
The next major policy statement on the media came in September 2004 and was aimed at “strengthening Party governance”. That statement reiterated the principle of the “Three Closenesses”, “guidance of public opinion” and “Party control of the media”. One particular focus was “the strengthening of publicity work related to the Internet in order to bring about more positive [non-critical of the Party] Web-based speech”.
The abovementioned decision made no explicit reference to “media reform”, but did in fact encourage “supervision by public opinion”.
“Supervision by public opinion” is a term much bandied about in the Chinese media. You may recall my first graph, which plotted frequency of three key media terms in China’s top professional journalism publications – “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” (or “watchdog journalism”) and “freedom of speech”. Running the same search for all mainland media through a Chinese news database from 2000 to 2005, I came up with remarkably different results:
In this case, “supervision by public opinion” far surpassed “guidance of public opinion’ in frequency of use, suggesting a sharp division between the official media publications and other media over the prioritizing of media principles. Obviously, we need to look more carefully at how “supervision by public opinion” is used, as Chinese have vastly different ideas of what this term means.
Chinese officials have employed the term for some time, in fact. Every report issued by a Party congress since 1987 has made some mention of “supervision by public opinion”. When General Secretary Zhu Rongji visited the CCTV studio of the “Focus” news program in 1998, he managed to work the term into his speech, as did his successor, Wen Jiabao, in a letter of support to the program in 2004.
While the Communist Party has acknowledged the need for “supervision by public opinion”, it has also stressed that this is one necessary aspect of “self-supervision” and not a process of opposition to the Party or its policies. So it will probably not surprise you that China has a toolbox of slogans and buzzwords with the express purpose of fine-tuning “supervision by public opinion”. “Emphasizing positive publicity” and “Help out, don’t create chaos” are the preeminent ones at present, and under these is a whole set of strictures governing whom the media may investigate, when it is appropriate to do so and when not, what proportion of overall news such reports may account for, and so on.
On February 17, 2004, just seven months before the decision on strengthening governance, the Party mentioned “supervision by public opinion” in its new statute on “internal Party supervision”, marking the first time the term actually appeared in Party laws and regulations. The statute defined it as just one of ten supervisory systems, emphasizing at the same time that news media must, “support the Party’s principles, respect news discipline and professional ethics, have a grasp of the correct guidance of “supervision by public opinion”, and pay close attention to the social implications of “supervision by public opinion”.
Much criticism has been leveled at “supervision by public opinion”, particularly that carried out by Party-controlled newspapers, for “swatting at flies and leaving the tigers alone” – that is, only going after small-time officials and petty businesspeople. And some academics have rather pointedly remarked that it actually amounts to “state supervision by means of the media”. In other words, rather than serving a real watchdog role, it complements and reinforces the power of the Party and state.
But while it is true that “supervision by public opinion” can and has been leveraged by the center to supervise the actions of small-time officials and businesspeople, even this is not a simple matter. The most influential of Chinese media, programs like CCTV’s “Focus”, routinely kill segments addressing very real cases of official wrongdoing after local leaders pull their weight. Chinese corporations complain supervision by the media ties them down, and officials, wary of economic growth figures, are rather inclined to listen. In the new age of advertising, powerfully connected companies with important advertising budgets often enjoy the media’s blind eye.
As commercial reforms have accelerated in the industry, “supervision by public opinion” has been abused by runaway opportunism. Some reporters have become adept at extorting money from those they investigate, so the expose has now become the ransom note. This problem occurs industry wide, and in many cases media dangle scathing reports in front of corporations or officials to induce them to sign advertising contracts. Another trend lately on the rise is the spinning of “supervision by public opinion” by companies or clusters of interest to engage their commercial or political enemies.
Reporters or editors with strong professional sensibilities, those who care about such niceties as ethical journalism, are not without their shortcomings. Many of these set out to do investigative reporting for the good of Chinese society, but lack sufficient professional training.
It is fair to say “supervision by public opinion” is under assault on a number of fronts. But it is also in this general area of Chinese journalism one can expect to find the incipient forces of professionalism and the very best Chinese journalism has to offer. There are many reporters who patiently move ahead, one step forward, a half step back, even as they are bound by Party dictates, oppressed by hardships of their trade, and ridiculed by their colleagues. Inch by inch, they push the bounds, opening more space for their craft, upholding their right to cry out where there is injustice. Their yardstick of self-discipline (which means not overtly challenging the Party, something all reporters must weigh carefully) is the phrase, “As long as Mom and Pop are happy”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the need to keep both the Party and the public satisfied.
I should also mention that it is under the auspices of “supervision by public opinion” that investigative reporting has made notable progress in China over the last decade. A group of top-notch investigative reporters has grown up in China in recent years. Their efforts have also brought some recognition from colleagues in the West, and there is even a core that views the work of “supervision by public opinion” from the standpoint of freedom of speech. They argue their investigative work stems from an inalienable right mandated under freedom of speech as guaranteed in China’s constitution. For them, “supervision by public opinion” is the Chinese cognate of Western “watchdog journalism”.
“Supervision by public opinion” is both one of the most widely used and most complex of Chinese media terms, and in many ways understanding its nuances can help you see more clearly what Chinese journalism is like and what its possibilities and limitations are.
“The Harmonious Society” and Media Reform
Changes in Chinese media are of course subject to the vicissitudes of Chinese politics. The graph below should give you an idea of what political moves in China look like two dimensionally. It plots frequency of occurrence in the Chinese press for the terms “Deng Xiaoping Theory”, Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”, and Hu Jintao’s “The Harmonious Society”:
(SOURCE: Huike News Database (慧科新闻数据库), January 2004 to June 2005, search of all mainland Chinese publications).
The sharp rise of “The Harmonious Society” signals the burgeoning influence of the ruling concept of Hu Jintao’s administration. So far, the rise of Hu’s new buzzword has not brought a shift in dominant media terminology, but the old terms have undergone some reshuffling. Under Hu’s governing ideology, “guidance of public opinion” still dominates, and “freedom of the press” continues to be more or less unwelcome.
The key priority behind Hu’s policy is stability, which he and other officials see as undergirding the essential of economic development. The idea is to enter what officials have termed “a period of golden economic growth” without deep inequalities dividing the Chinese population. But the media is often viewed by officials as a source of instability. Since the second half of 2004, “The Harmonious Society”, Hu’s buzzword underscoring stable development of Chinese society as a whole, has risen sharply as a term of importance. At the same time, “supervision by public opinion”, which some regard as a potential force of instability, has noticeably slipped, as Graph 5 makes clear.
One key question behind Hu Jintao’s harmonious society is how the relationship between the media and the state should be defined. Some have suggested the Party harness the mobilizing power of the media to achieve its policy goals, that “as a ruling Party, the CCP must strengthen its ability to use the media and influence public opinion”. In late 2004, Wang Jiarui, director of the International Department of the Central Committee, the highest authority within the ruling Communist Party, circulated a document offering lessons from international experience as to how China might handle media relations. Three of the options were as follows:
1. Direct control of the news media
2. Emphasizing public relations work with media in order to mitigate negative reports and guide public opinion
3. Placing emphasis on new publicity concepts and methods in order to improve on publicity mechanisms and enhance the government’s image
The priorities of censorship in China are without a doubt changing. Generally speaking, disaster reporting was more timely and open after SARS, but the “what” and “why” – which might for example point to government ineptitude – were often left out of the mix. In May and June 2005, blanket coverage was allowed for some stories, for example flooding in the Pearl River Delta (Guangdong province), while for others more in-depth coverage was banned, such as with the story of the death of 100 primary school students trapped in floods in northern China. For still others, outright bans were in force. No media were allowed to report on an investigation against the vice-governor of Henan province, suspected of murdering his wife. Nor could they report on a civil uprising in the town of Chizhou in Anhui province.
For all news stories in China, there is a constant push and pull between the priorities of “supervision by public opinion” and “guidance of public opinion”. While one seeks to expose (again, often for the benefit of Party leaders), the other seeks to minimize social and political fallout for the sake of “stability” and the interest of the Party. Freezing Point, the China Youth Daily supplement shutdown briefly last January, was long a bright spot of “supervision by public opinion”. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find, in the “decision” on the paper’s suspension issued by its publisher, the Communist Youth League, our other buzzword: “[We must] boster political consciousness, and the sense of [political] unity and responsibility, strictly respecting the rules of news propaganda, and supporting correct guidance of public opinion” (my emphasis).
Hu Jintao’s doctrine of the “three closenesses” has brought some change to the media. Insipid stories about official goings-on, which used to flood news pages, are slowly giving way to more palatable fare. But this ostensible “media commercialization” is not really about a free market of media offerings. Statements from Chinese propaganda ministers make it clear that Hu’s concept of the “three closenesses” is the flip side of “enlarging and strengthening”, which essentially seeks to fortify the media as one of China’s key state-owned sectors.
The idea is to accelerate development of a Party-run media sector in order to enhance the Party’s power and control. This win-win proposition for the Party allows it to keep a monopoly on news and information while profiting enormously from the media business. The bombast of the Party mouthpiece yields to the subtle suggestion of the soft political advertisement. The ersatz watchdog (“supervision by public opinion”) is let loose in the yard to nose out a a few major stories now and then, creating news sensations to grab attention and ad revenue.
The advance of bottom-line consumerism is something we need to watch carefully in China. Even as a core of journalists seek newfound professionalism and a larger civic role for media, the peculiar marriage of commerce and politics in China is throwing up new commercial obstacles to this goal. While media are still carefully controlled by the state, they have become a major source of revenue for officials. We have already seen this year, with the controversy over the participation of U.S. Internet companies in censorship actrivities in China, that it is foolish to hope commercial reforms alone will usher in a new era of press freedoms. It’s just as possible that China’s state-controlled media could sit like a great red dragon atop its pile of riches, while a few Murdochs and Microsofts nestle under its wings.
I personally believe “freedom of the press” in China today can take shape only through the formation, under constitutional mandate, of a group of credible, independent news platforms seeking to serve the public responsibly and not under state control.
For now, however, the future of freedom of the press rests with political reform. Journalists in China must keep a watchful eye on the development of internal Party reforms, such as the implementation of more “democratic” selection of Party leaders. As system reforms and changes to the Chinese constitution move ahead, one key question will be how “media reform” factors in to the equation.
When I was at Southern Weekend I used to tell my staff there were no shortcuts to media reform in China. It would be a long and arduous process, and we could only ever expect progress by increments. It is true Chinese media continue to be rigorously controlled by the country’s leaders, and events like this year’s shutdown of Freezing Point deserve our utmost attention. But in our more optimistic moments, perhaps we can be heartened by the recognition that we parted long ago with the days when the newspapers were dominated by official bombast and declarations from on high.