By David Bandurski — Reliable CMP sources report that Guangdong’s top official, Wang Yang (汪洋) , ordered the recall of Guangdong journalists from Sichuan after a meeting just before the weekend in which he expressed his dissatisfaction with critical coverage of the quake by Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Metropolis Weekly and even the official Guangzhou Daily. [Frontpage Image: The cover of a recent issue of Southern Metropolis Weekly, dealing with the Sichuan earthquake.]

This rather unexpected recall of journalists should remind us of the chaos and complexity of China’s media environment.

CMP wrote yesterday about a number of indicators we can use to make educated guesses about the degree of media control or openness on Sichuan quake coverage. One of these was whether or not reporters from commercial media would be recalled from the scene, signaling a more general tightening. This would most likely occur, we thought, through a directive from the Central Publicity Department, with the result that media would be left to use official news releases from, or tonggao (通稿), from Xinhua News Agency.

But Wang Yang’s recall — we have yet to confirm that journalists from Guangdong have in fact left Sichuan — is a reminder of just how sensitive the idea of “cross-regional reporting,” or yidi jiandu (异地监督), has become in recent years in China.

Cross-regional reporting is a complex issue, but it essentially boils down to increasingly bold media, working in an increasingly competitive commercial environment, doing more critical or investigative reporting in someone else’s backyard.

So is Wang Yang offering a nod of respect to his beleaguered party buddies over in Sichuan, who face rising social pressure over, among other things, the issue of shoddy school construction? Is he calling off the watchdogs?

Another interesting point about Wang Yang’s decision is that it follows Hu Jintao’s April 29 statement concerning media, in which the president summarized China’s experience with disaster reporting over the last five years, saying:

1. Chinese media, particularly state media, must “keep a firm grasp” on initiative in reporting (报道的主动权). This means, essentially, that leaders have recognized the disadvantage of hitting hard with control initially, and then opening up only after pressure has been applied (by the public, by international media, etc.). SARS in 2003 was the perfect example of this, and Tibet arguably was too. By moving first (先发制人 for you Sun Tzu fans) with timely reporting, the government can, to a certain degree, control the direction of coverage more effectively.
2. China needs to raise the effectiveness of news, reporting at the first available moment
3. China needs to increase the transparency of news reporting, not covering up public incidents (公共事件)
4. China needs to utilize the strengths of all kinds of media, including the Internet and the mobile phone network

Hu Jintao essentially said that the Central Publicity Department would in future define public incidents, or gonggong shijian (公共事件), as natural disasters, production accidents (like mining disasters) and epidemic situations. In the future, reporters from China Central Television and Xinhua News Agency (at the very least) must be allowed to report from the scene.

When you take a historical view on Hu Jintao’s comments, they show a moderate openness. The flip side of that openness, however, is a much more nuanced approach to CONTROL.

As CMP director Qian Gang has noted again and again, the factors of control and change in China’s media have to be given at least equal consideration. For example, Hu Jintao mentions the use of the mobile network, a new media tool that has arguably been a force of change in recent years (as in the Xiamen PX case). But we cannot forget that the state still controls the mobile network, and that the leadership has actively explored new ways of using the network to shape public opinion.

This dynamic between control and change should persist for some time to come — and the result, the third of Qian’s “Three Cs,” is CHAOS.

And on that note, we share an in-depth news report from the June 2 edition of Sichuan Economic Daily, which should further confuse matters for the reader. The report revisits the problem of shoddy school construction, quoting students and teachers from the scene and offering their eyewitness accounts. This one is another gold star for the “openness” side of our media progress chart. But what an unlikely place to find it!

We don’t have time for translation at the moment, but we’ll try to get to it this afternoon.

We also point readers to Qian Gang’s blog at QQ.com, and an entry discussing the more sensitive aspects of earthquake prediction. The piece could not be printed as planned in a major mainland newspaper because, we are told, it “hit the red line” (碰了红线).

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 4, 2008, 2:27pm HK]