By David Bandurski — The dynamics of control and change in China’s media are enough to leave even more experienced observers feeling disoriented. China intermittently yields up stories like this one and this one, which tell us things are going from bad to worse, and then puzzlers like this one, which tell us China is on the verge of an Internet-driven glasnost. [Frontpage: 2008 report in SMD of top Shenzhen leader Liu Yupu on “thought liberation.”]
So which version are we supposed to believe?
The shutdown of the Freezing Point supplement of China Youth Daily in 2006 was surely an ill-omen, right? But in his keynote speech at the SOPA Awards the following year, ousted Freezing Point editor and former CMP fellow Li Datong (李大同) threw foreign correspondents a curveball by talking about progress:

And yet, the solid ice is melting, the layers are beginning to soften and split apart, and beneath the crushing of this ice of autocracy, the Chinese people are demanding democracy and freedom.

In one portion of his speech, Li hit directly on the paradox of CONTROL and CHANGE:

In point of fact, there has never been a “loosening” of controls. The censorship system has never undergone substantive change, even if its methods have become more nuanced and concealed. But in spite of this fact, change is unavoidable.
Imagine the traditional news control system as a balloon seeking to encompass the media and prevent their escape. This balloon swells up bigger and bigger, so that its skin becomes thinner and thinner. As this process continues, I leave it to your imagination to picture what will happen.

I was standing right next to Li that night, delivering the translation, and I remember the gaping, incredulous stares. When a journalist challenged Li during the Q&A session to provide one, just ONE, concrete example of the progress he was talking about, he answered simply: “I am an example.”
We are all waiting for the balloon to burst.
Sometimes we stand with the optimists. We feel sure that the last gust of expression is imminent, the one that will strain a failing system to breaking point. Sometimes we stand with the pessimists, marveling at the extraordinary resilience of authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics.
China’s odd ecology of intermittently vibrant but always constrained speech is a difficult environment to understand. But it has to be understood through the dynamics of CONTROL and CHANGE.
We have to begin by divesting ourselves of the notion that CHANGE necessarily means a loosening of controls, or that CONTROL necessarily eclipses change. We need to get rid of the simplistic metaphor we see constantly in foreign news coverage of China’s media — the one about expansion and contraction, of gains made and then reversed by the proverbial “media crackdown.” (There can, of course, actually be crackdowns and reversals — but they happen more frequently, in my view, in Western newspapers than they do in reality).
Let us meditate again on Li Datong’s paradox:

In point of fact, there has never been a “loosening” of controls . . . But in spite of this fact, change is unavoidable.

As we’ve emphasized continually over the last couple of years at CMP, the dynamics of CONTROL and CHANGE are both critical to understanding China’s media environment.
Some of this CHANGE has been propelled by the party itself, with the insistent precondition that CONTROL remain the top priority. The most obvious examples are media commercialization, a process that began in the 1990s, and the building of China’s communications infrastructure (including the Internet).
Some of this CHANGE, arguably, has come as a somewhat organic consequence of the abovementioned changes. One could argue, for example, that media commercialization and the rise of the Internet have helped to foster a stronger sense of professionalism among Chinese journalists, epitomized by the likes of Caijing and Southern Metropolis Daily. The emergence of investigative reporting in China in the late 1990s was certainly one example, although, as I argue in the most recent issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, those gains are at the moment facing substantial threats.
To complicate matters, CONTROL changes to accommodate CHANGE, which is why we’ve introduced terms like CONTROL 2.0 to describe loosely the evolving techniques of censorship and propaganda. As we’ve already written, examples of CHANGE to propaganda tactics under Hu Jintao have been evident since at least January 2007, and in some sense culminated in his June 2008 speech on media policy.
Getting down to business, the most recent example we have at the local level in China of the dynamics of CONTROL and CHANGE at work in CCP media policy came late last week from the city of Shenzhen.
Shenzhen’s top leaders, including party secretary Liu Yupu (刘玉浦) and propaganda minister Wang Jingsheng (王京生), visited with leaders from the city’s top three media groups on March 12. At the “forum” they heard a report on work carried out by the “city’s propaganda system” (我市宣传系统) and then offered their own remarks.
Secretary Liu emphasized first and foremost the CONTROL aspect of “news and propaganda work.” He spoke in no uncertain terms about the media as “mouthpieces”, or houshe (喉舌), of the local party and the government.

In his speech, Liu Yupu affirmed the achievements made on the front lines of news, propaganda and culture in Shenzhen, saying that news and propaganda work in Shenzhen “had distinguished itself and had its own characteristics” (很有特色, 也很出色). He expressed heartfelt thanks to cadres and employees in the propaganda office and at news and publishing units on behalf of the party and the government. Under the leadership of the [Shenzhen] party committee, he said, and under the direction of the [municipal] propaganda office, media in our city had been of service to overall interests and guided public opinion surrounding core work of the party and government, and had done much highly effective work. The party and government at the city level were “extremely happy and extremely at ease” with the work of [the city’s] three major enterprise groups covering newspaper, broadcasting and publishing.
Particularly in the last year, our city’s news and propaganda system artfully planned a series of propaganda topics and cultural products closely dealing with the 30th anniversary of economic reform and opening, creating a favorable public opinion environment for Shenzhen as a soaring banner of economic reforms. Facing the struggle against snowstorms, the earthquake relief efforts, flood relief efforts and other tough stories, [Shenzhen media] upheld correct guidance of public opinion, playing an important role in mobilizing various forces against these natural disasters, and in stirring the strength and emotions of the people . . .
Liu Yupu expressed an urgent hope that our city’s news and propaganda work and the work of public opinion guidance take a further step of progress under the new circumstances [of the global economic downturn, etc.]. He emphasized that newspapers, broadcast outlets and publishing groups are the most critical mouthpieces of the party and government in Shenzhen, and that they must further strengthen their own sense of political responsibility, remaining firm in maintaining a correct political direction, establishing a sharp political attitude and news orientation, maintaining a high level of consonance with the central party, the State Council, the provincial-level party and government, and the city-level party and government . . . [Speaks about the need for “political acuity” and says the content and presentation of major media “do not just represent the newspapers and TV stations themselves, but also represent the party committee and the municipal government.”] Therefore, [media] must resolutely take as their own “lifeline” the upholding of correct guidance of public opinion (坚定不移地把坚持正确导向作为自己的”生命线”).

This last statement by Secretary Liu — about “guidance” as the “lifeline” — is key because it frames the direct relationship between political good behavior and commercial well-being. These media may rely predominantly or entirely on readers and advertisers, but the most basic precondition of playing that game is that they serve first and foremost the interests of party leaders.
The language of CONTROL is followed directly in Liu’s remarks by the language of CHANGE, and the focus is on commercial viability as a means of achieving both economic and political vitality (so this is at once about CHANGE and CONTROL). The idea, in other words, is that media can serve a propaganda role while at the same time making their “media products” palatable enough that they sustain themselves commercially and even work as an engine of economic growth.
This idea goes back to the 1990s, but it was Hu Jintao again who more concretely formulated this approach to propaganda and commercial CHANGE back in 2002. The policy was known as the “Three Closenesses,” or santiejin (三贴近).
Liu’s statement about “correct guidance” as the “lifeline” of media is followed by an invocation of the “Three Closenesses”:

Liu Yupu encouraged our city’s media to further hold to the principle of the “Three Closenesses,” continuing to strengthen the attractiveness and infectiousness of news and propaganda work and public opinion guidance. They must [he said] stand firm in Shenzhen, face the whole nation, face the whole world, accelerate their development and work hard to create national and world-class media that are unique and of high quality (“努力打造有特色, 高水平的全国, 全世界的一流媒体”). “I hope your newspapers and TV stations have more and more voices of the people, more and more voices from the front lines of labor, more and more voices from the grassroots, making newspapers and television feel closer, more readable and watchable . . . continually broadening the influence of mainstream media, and fighting to become the most welcome newspapers and television broadcasters among readers and viewers,” [said Secretary Liu].

The language of CHANGE in this passage is almost enticing. More “voices of the people”? More “voices from the front lines of labor”? Isn’t Liu Yupu asking the media to serve as vehicles of public expression?
No. Emphatically, NO.
Liu Yupu is, in point of fact, asking Shenzhen media to titillate the masses while they staunchly maintain correct guidance of public opinion.
That does not necessarily mean newspaper pages and television programs will be utterly devoid of substance. But nor does it mean the media will be permitted to do even soft-glove reporting on tough social issues.
It means, if you’re an optimist like Li Datong, that there may be sufficient space opened up in the tug-of-war between CONTROL and CHANGE — what our director Qian Gang has called CHAOS in his “Three C’s” formula — to push relentlessly against the source of CONTROL.
If you’re a pessimist? . . . Stay tuned.
[Posted by David Bandurski, March 19, 2009, 4:03pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

Latest Articles