By Qian Gang — Environmental tragedies are being replayed over and over again in China these days. According to an official at China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, major environmental accidents have occurred in China at a rate of one every two days ever since the Songhua River Incident of 2005, when an explosion at a chemical factory in northern China sent 100 tons of toxic benzene and nitrobenzene into the nearby Songhua River.
This month alone, we have had arsenic pollution in Jiangsu’s Pizhou city, a cadmium spill in the city of Liuyang in Hunan province, and a mass lead poisoning in the city of Fengxiang in Shaanxi province. [More coverage from Xinhua News Agency here].
[ABOVE: Party media “take the initiative” in news reporting. Photo by Grant Neufeld available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]
A recent study found that children in two villages close to the Changqing Industrial District in Fengxiang suffered extremely high levels of lead contamination. Of 1,016 children under 14 tested in the county, 815 were found to have high levels of lead in their blood streams. The source of the contamination, Dongling Metal Smelting, has now been shut down, and tens of millions of yuan worth of equipment scrapped as unsafe.
The Commercial Media Step in First
But how did the Fengxiang lead poisoning case come to the attention of the public in the first place?
The story began when villagers reached a local metro newspaper, Sanqin Metropolitan Daily (三秦都市报), with their complaints. The paper published the first report on August 6.
Sanqin Metropolitan Daily is a newspaper belonging to Shaanxi Daily, the province’s official party newspaper. We can think of Shaanxi Daily as the “mother paper” (or “big paper,” 大报), and of Sanqin Metropolitan Daily as the “child paper” (or “little paper”, 小报).
While the “mother paper” relies almost entirely on subscriptions at public expense, mostly from government departments and state-owned enterprises, the “child” has to carve out an existence in the marketplace. It has to sell from the newsstand and draw advertising revenues. And while the “mother paper” is primarily a propaganda tool, a “mouthpiece” in the traditional sense, the “child” must accommodate the demands of the media consumer. This is the state of affairs as it has developed in China’s newspaper industry over the past ten years.
The small report in Sanqin Metropolitan Daily about the problems in Fengxiang was printed on page 8. In the days before the Internet in China, a report like this would not have been distributed widely and could not draw widespread attention. But these are different times. On August 6, the Web portal Netease, which has a broad reach, ran the story on its news page, and other portals followed suit, including Sina, QQ and Sohu.
All of these are commercial websites, the companies behind them listed on various stock exchanges. These sites are expressly prohibited from running their own news operations, but when combined with the commercial newspapers, the result can be powerful. Together, these websites and the “child papers” have opened up a crucial channel for the dissemination of important hard news in China.
As you might imagine, authorities in Shaanxi were not happy with the reports about lead poisoning in Fengxiang. This becomes clear when you observe the cold silence at the official Shaanxi Daily. It was not until nine days after the tragedy became known that the paper issued its first news item about lead contamination in Fengxiang. And this coverage was the direct result of pressure exerted by high-level party media – notably, Xinhua Online. Xinhua Online, in fact, was extremely active in reporting on the Fengxiang case.
How Xinhua Online took charge of Fengxiang reports
I’ve made the point before that some of our friends outside China often see China’s media in very simplistic terms. They might suppose, for example, that negative news cannot be reported at all in China. Or that party media are propaganda tools that would never dare to expose ugly facts. But what we have seen in the Fengxiang case is that high-level party media have been the fiercest, both in revealing facts in the case and in offering shrill criticism. They have, in other words, taken the lead (掌握了主导权) .
Xinhua Online ran its first report on the Fengxiang case on August 7, the day after the Sanqin Metropolitan Daily report. From August 12 to 20, Xinhua News Agency reporters Chen Gang (陈钢) and Liu Tonglian (刘彤连) filed 13 reports. When re-postings of these Xinhua reports on various websites are figured together, this amounts to 358 reports. According to statistics from China’s Baidu search engine, there were a total of 3,210 articles on the so-called “blood lead incident” (血铅事件) in Fengxiang.
Of these, the most important reports included, “An investigation into the Fengxiang ‘lead poisoning’ incident” (陕西凤翔“血铅”事件调查) on August 14, the editorial, “All the facts still unknown in the ‘lead poisoning incident’” (“血铅事件”真相远没有大白于天下) of August 16, and an investigative report on August 18 called, “If pollution standards were met, how is it that people were still poisoned with lead?” (排污达标了，咋还让人铅中毒). All of these stories went aggressively after the companies involved and the local government. And yet, strangely, through all of this, those media like Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily that were once so outspoken on such stories remained silent, shrinking in the cold.
Press supervision, which in China is called “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), often happens in this sort of top-down fashion. In the Fengxiang case, local leaders were placed in the awkward position of being monitored by central party media. If you compare coverage from the Shaanxi Channel of Xinhua Online with coverage from Shaanxi’s official website, CN West (西部网), the differences are obvious. While Xinhua Online describes the Fengxiang incident in the darkest of terms, CN West downplays the situation.
This is yet a further sign that China has now entered the era of what we have called Control 2.0 (新闻管制升级版). Not long after the Sichuan earthquake struck in May 2008, President Hu Jintao articulated his new press policy, which demanded party media, particularly central-level party Internet media, strengthen what he called “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导), taking the initiative in news reporting and controlling the power of discourse. Chinese media are referring to this as “grabbing the megaphone” (抢喇叭).
Under this new strategy, authorities exercise strict control over commercial media. They employ bans that “limit cross-regional reporting,” effectively shutting down investigative reports. They prioritize reviews of editorials at major newspapers. All of this works to bog down media. In contrast, party media, and particularly central-level party media are afforded privileges, and this means they are the first to get to many of the most important stories. This includes top-down monitoring within the system. But on Hu Jintao’s watch, entrenched local power and special power interest groups have strengthened, and press supervision has become increasingly difficult.
A cheerleader becomes a monitor?
Looking carefully at the reports you can see that Xinhua Online focuses its attention first and foremost on the source of the pollution – the private Dongling Metal Smelting. As for the government, which also bears responsibility, it brandishes a knife but goes easy.
When I searched further, I was shocked to find also that prior to the Fengxiang tragedy, Xinhua Online was an enthusiastic cheerleader of the county. The Shaanxi Channel of Xinhua Online set up special pages for the local government. These pages were stacked full of praise, with nary a word of criticism or supervision. The Xinhua Online news page for Fengxiang also praised the local government for its generous and respectful policies toward businesses. On the very day that Sanqin Metropolitan Daily broke news of the lead contamination, Xinhua Online ran a story praising the Changqing Industrial Zone, the source of the pollution, as “a great engine of economic development.”
This is the state of China’s official media today: they must do as the master says, whether that means blowing praise or striking out to kill. There are journalists within the official media who can be driven by a sense of justice, and when they strike out to kill they may earn the praise of the people. But in a larger sense, China’s official party media, which are controlled and directed by ideology and high-level politics, cannot win true credibility.
[Posted by David Bandurski, August 21, 12:59am]