In our ongoing series of posts on media corruption in China, we look at an official perspective on media corruption and its impact on the practice of watchdog journalism — what in China is called “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督).

Supervision by public opinion has featured strongly in discussions of the role of media and press freedom in China since the late 1980s. In some cases the term can be used, particularly by proponents of an independent and professional press, as a stand-in term for “press freedom,” which is itself used only very cautiously by Chinese media (usually only in pejorative references to “Western press freedom”). Seeing the term as a Chinese cognate of Western “watchdog journalism,” they envision news media operating as a fourth estate, casting light on social, political and economic problems in China.

But “supervision by public opinion” has also been used frequently by officials in China to talk about the role of news media – under state control – in uncovering issues of official corruption and abuse of power on a range of issues, particularly at lower levels of the bureaucracy. In this official view, this “supervision by public opinion” must be subject to the overarching political demands of party leaders. Since 1989 the term has stood in tension with the cardinal control concept of “guidance of public opinion.”

In response to the recent news extortion scandal at 21cbh.com, China Press and Publications Journal — a publication run by a central-level media group founded in April 2011 by the State Council — ran an editorial by He Yonghai (何勇海) that spoke out sharply against the corrupting influence of commercial interests in the media.

“Media professionals must be independent of commercial interests, avoiding the corrosive affect of commercial interests,” He wrote. “[O]nly then can they earn the trust of the public. Acts like those at 21cbh.com, of using the threat of negative reports to press companies into buying advertising, or taking money to ‘profit from silence,’ without a doubt turn supervision by public opinion into a tool for profit.”

He Yonghai also voices indignation about media “doing excessively positive reporting or covering up negative problems about enterprises they [are] ‘cooperating’ with.”

Typical of official arguments on the question of media corruption, He Yonghai’s editorial blatantly ignores the elephant in the room, the corrosive affect of political power. He talks in an offhand fashion about how media should earn the trust of the public, when in fact the notion that the media should work in the public interest at all can be a highly sensitive one in China.

The media, make no mistake, work for the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, a point Xi Jinping has made more emphatically than his predecessor, telling propaganda leaders they should “show their swords” and “struggle” for domination of the ideological sphere.

Press controls under the CCP have always emphasized that “politicians run the newspapers,” a term that goes back to Mao Zedong. Under this idea of the role of the press, it is the Party’s prerogative to dictate what is meant by such things as truth, fact or rationality. And year after year, propaganda leaders bang their fists about the need to “emphasize positive news” and “speak with one voice.”

Long before money could ever corrupt the relationship between the media and the public, power severed that relationship.

How can this editorial by He Yonghai speak with outrage about media “doing excessively positive reporting or covering up negative problems” when this is precisely what China’s press and propaganda apparatus, one of its most robust institutions, is tasked with accomplishing?

This is the kind of hypocrisy we should be alert for in official reflections on the 21cbh.com case and other incidents of media corruption.

Think of the way, in the heady days of state-sponsored “supervision by public opinion,” two lines would form outside the offices of China Central Television’s “News Probe,” an investigative news program. In the first line were those with urgent complaints petitioning the program to tell their story — peasants whose land was seized, patients who suffered malpractice. In the second line were local and regional government officials (or their representatives) hoping to convince the network not to run damaging segments.

In the latter case, these petitions to do exactly the kind of covering up He Yonghai professes to find so offensive, money and power greased the wheels. And these were not “black-hearted journalists” or fake reporters. This was China’s official national television network.

When this is the sort of press environment created by China’s political institutions, how can we be the least bit surprised when pay-for-play and pay-for-silence become institutionalized forms of media business?

We should be surprised if they don’t.

One of the most interesting veins in He Yonghai’s piece is his principled defense of the “shareholders’ right to know” about possible mismanagement at publicly-listed companies.

Says He:

The acts of 21cbh.com in carrying out “supervision by public opinion,” exacting “protection fees” from listed companies and then doing what they could to sweep negative news clean, or doing excessively positive reporting or covering up negative problems about enterprises they were “cooperating” with . . . all of this seriously damages the interests of the shareholders and their right to know (股民的知情权).

So citizens as such do not have a right to know news and information that might be in the public interest. But shareholders, they do have a right to know — about those companies, at any rate, where their capital is invested.

He Yonghai’s argument exemplifies the corrupt mindset he sets out to criticize and mobilize against. And that is another feather in the cap of Zhu Xuedong, who argued here at CMP last week that China, and its media, are in an “era of corruption.”

He Yonghai’s argument boils down to this. In China, who has a right to information? Well, the Chinese Communist Party, of course. And also those who are able to pay for it.

Perhaps next time, before we begin the debate about how money has corrupted China’s media, we should open our wallets, pull out a 100 yuan note and remember whose face is on it.

mao money

The Right to Supervision by Public Opinion Cannot Be Warped: It Must Be Independent of Commercial Interests
(舆论监督权绝不可异化 要独立于商业利益之外)
China Press and Publications Journal
September 18, 2014
He Yonghai (何勇海)

The news extortion scandal at 21cbh.com has been brewing for days now. The special task force dealing with the case has found that the website targeted listed companies and well-known enterprises under such themes as “listing,” “restructuring” or “business transitions” in order to press willing companies into expensive arrangements whereby they would be given exaggerated praise or have their problems covered up in order to carry out “positive reporting” (正面报道). For those companies unwilling to cooperate, the site would release negative reports seeking to corner them into buying advertising or signing cooperative agreements.

The website and individuals working there reaped huge rewards through such practices, earning several hundred million yuan since 2010. (China Youth Daily, September 11, 2014).

In the past, it was generally fake reporters or “black-hearted reporters” from various media that perpetrated news extortion. Whenever these people would hear about an enterprise or government office that they could “hijack,” they would spring into action, rushing off to carry out “supervision by public opinion.” They would use such threats as the writing of neican to corner these enterprises and earn money. At 21cbh.com people were involved at every level, from the chief editor to the management, editorial and advertising staff — amounting to a news extortion “bomb” that was ready to go off and send shock waves.

The acts of 21cbh.com in carrying out “supervision by public opinion,” exacting “protection fees” from listed companies and then doing what they could to sweep negative news clean, or doing excessively positive reporting or covering up negative problems about enterprises they were “cooperating” with . . . all of this seriously damages the interests of the shareholders and their right to know (股民的知情权). For example, if certain listed companies do not carry out their obligations and reveal information, or if they violate regulations, this might seriously impact the capital of the shareholders.

To accept “protection fees” under the guise of “advertising fees” also harms the interest of certain enterprises that operate in line with standards. Aside from those enterprises that might have real problems, there are those enterprises that are clean but remain concerned that financial media might, in exercising “reasonable doubt,” attack them maliciously with negative reports, damaging their reputations and shaking the confidence of shareholders even when the reports are shown to be false — and so these companies do everything they can to maintain their media contacts, even purchasing peace.

Aside from seriously interfering with the normal operation of the market economy, taking “protection fees” under the guise of “advertising fees” does massive damage to the media industry. Media professionals must be independent of commercial interests, avoiding the corrosive affect of commercial interests — only then can they earn the trust of the public. Acts like those at 21cbh.com, of using the threat of negative reports to press companies into buying advertising, or taking money to “profit from silence,” without a doubt turn supervision by public opinion into a tool for profit.

If we do not severely strike out against this sort of conduct, if we are lenient toward these villains, then the damage to the media’s reputation in society will be serious, poisoning the atmosphere for supervision by public opinion.

Right now, numerous suspects from 21cbh.com are in prison. The soul-searching in the media and in the capital markets cannot stop here. “If those who use the media have evil intentions, the damage done as a result is unthinkable. If things go on like this, not only will be fail to become the promoters of social progress, we will in fact become the destroyers of value.” These were the words spoken in the confession given by Liu Dong (刘冬), the president of 21cbh.com, and all journalists should be warned.

If we are to create a healthy and transparent environment for supervision by public opinion, and avoid supervision by public opinion becoming a tool that is sold at a profit, we must act without fail and without delay.