By Qian Gang and David Bandurski — As we noted in our last piece on Chinese media coverage of the upcoming 60th anniversary of the PRC, signs point so far to extremely tight press controls around the event. Media in China will likely be less capable of pushing the envelope this year than they were even during the last major anniversary ten years ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that nothing has changed over the past decade.
Looking at the differences between coverage this year and in 1999, two changes become immediately obvious. The first is a dramatic increase in the level of commercialization in China’s media. The second is a rise in the strength and importance of internet media in China.
Chinese media face strict propaganda controls ahead of the 60th anniversary. They must follow the mandate of Hu Jintao’s “five goods” formula, avoiding historical and institutional negatives and focusing praise on the CCP and the socialist system, etcetera.
Nevertheless, the 60th anniversary is a great big event and a great big story, and Chinese media have to stay on top of it. So how do media, as Chinese journalists often say, “dance with their shackles on”?
Looking at coverage at major internet portals so far, we can see this happening in at least three ways:
1. Sticking close to the directives and “main theme” (主旋律) of the central party， but attempting to make propaganda more attractive and salable. The most representative media in this category are China’s two major state media web portals, People’s Daily Online and Xinhua Online. They are the chief actors behind the push to amplify the “five goods” formula. But the way these pro-party messages are being propagated differs substantially from the past. The media tools and techniques are much more diverse.
These portals use online forum discussions, online digital video competitions, animation and quiz competitions, exhibits of old photographs submitted by internet users, online selections of historical propaganda films, and the list goes on. In one form or another, all of these “media products” praise the party and government. But if their message is one-sided, their media permutations are more rich.
2. Towing the official line and cashing in all at once (既要听话，又要赚钱). Commercial websites like Sina.com fall into this category. Their broad National Day content coverage does not stray from the mandates of propaganda discipline, but the explicit CCP hues are toned down or removed altogether — coverage is undertaken in the name of the “country” rather than out of fealty to the party.
Cleverly, these sites have avoided special reports chronicling China’s history since the founding of the PRC (a potential political minefield). Instead, they have opened scores of special pages recording various changes in the material circumstances and material life of China over the past 60 years – style and fashion, jewelry and accessories, makeup and heterosexual relationships. They obliterate hints of Chinese as political animals and focus instead on creature comforts. There are even special pages for the advertisers, like: “Influential Brands Over the Past 60 Years” (六十年影响力品牌专区).
Obviously, all of these content offerings have tangible commercial value. From a political standpoint, this type of treatment may gladden government leaders. But it has the added benefit of pleasing both consumers and advertisers. In much the same way that religious holidays in the West are merchandised to their fullest potential, Chinese National Day is being re-packaged, humanized, commercialized and trivialized at these websites.
3. Keeping distance from the discourse of power, but seeking to publish “words of conscience” within the bounds delineated by the authorities, evincing the professional character of the media. A few web portals, such as QQ.com, have attempted to highlight important lessons of the past 60 years through reasonably safe but backhanded methods.
QQ set up a section allowing users to vote themselves on what they saw as key events in the PRC’s history. Some sites have also tried to walk the line through special interviews with Chinese scholars, who may on occasion step gingerly into progaganda grey areas. Another important tactic is to run tragic personal stories from ordinary citizens in an indirect attempt to highlight the crooked path of China’s history over the past 60 years. Their focus is not on the party or the nation, but on the individual.
Coverage of the PRC’s 60th anniversary in 2009 can be seen as an important test of Hu Jintao’s policy on the media and a measure of the real degree of space Chinese media currently have.
Media are developing rapidly in China. The basic precondition of CCP control over the media is unshaken, however. 60 years ago, Mao Zedong talked about the need for “uniformity of public opinion,” and today, in the midst of the information age, China’s leaders are still grounded in this way of thinking about the media’s role.
Will Chinese media make forays against Hu Jintao’s “five goods” in the coming days? If so, how will they accomplish it?
The time has come to sit back and watch.
[Posted by David Bandurski, September 17, 2009, 12:15pm HK]