By Qian Gang and David Bandurski — Propaganda authorities are serious when it comes to ensuring that China’s annual Spring Festival Gala, broadcast on the official China Central Television, goes off without a hitch, or the merest hint of political incorrectness. The program, which reaches an estimated one billion people worldwide, is meant to be a sequin-studded display of wholesome national pride and unity.
This year, however, despite layer upon layer of censorship, officials overlooked a rather critical detail in a comedy skit by famous comedian Zhao Benshan (赵本山), which seemed to trivialize an issue on which government policy is firm.
Zhao, in his role as a simple peasant in the countryside, sits on the stoop outside his home, when two men — one with a video camera hoisted over his shoulder — come by introducing themselves as “online journalists.” They work for an imaginary Sohu.com program called “Seeking the Root of the Matter” (刨根问底). They want to interview Zhao’s character and make the interview available “to the whole world” via the Internet.
[ABOVE: Video of the Zhao Benshan comedy portion of CCTV’s official Spring Festival gala earlier last month, in which an illegal reporter interviews a simple rural resident.]
That may sound harmless enough. But the two reporters for “Seeking the Root of the Matter” would, according to administrative regulations in China, be denied press accreditation in the first place. And that means the entire fictional interview that provides the frame for the Zhao Benshan skit depicts an illegal act.
The Zhao Benshan skit — and its censorship gaffe — is particularly interesting in that it depicts something both increasingly commonplace in China — that is, information gathering and dissemination by unauthorized “citizen journalists,” or gongmin jizhe (公民记者), of all stripes — and increasingly vexing to CCP leaders who want, as best as possible, to control information at its source.
The Internet, clearly, has been one of the biggest factors complicating control over information. This is why China’s leaders have been determined, since the very start of the Web in China, to confine information production to traditional media, which unlike commercial Websites are state-owned properties and therefore tied in to the Party-state system.
Major Internet portals like Sohu.com, Sina.com, Netease and QQ, have never been permitted to have their own news operations because this could seriously complicate the control of news and information.
But new media have progressively carved out a new terrain in China, giving rise to a new generation of bloggers, human flesh searchers, field researchers, writers at large and general information sharers. The upshot of all this is that the simple question, “Where does information come from?” is becoming very complex.
This is why the the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), the national government body that controls the licensing of journalists in China, drove hard on the message last week that the unlicensed gathering of information will not be tolerated.
On February 22, People’s Daily Online ran a news interview with an official at the News and Periodicals Department (新闻报刊司) of GAPP. The news piece was re-posted across all major news portals in China.
As the GAPP official discussed recent national press card renewals for journalists under revised regulations that took effect last October, he reiterated that Websites in China, including such major Web portals as Sina.com, Sohu.com, Netease, QQ, are not eligible for press cards, and therefore have no right to carry out interviews or gather news.
The pertinent Chinese word here is caifang (采访), which can mean “interview,” “report” or, more broadly, “gather information.” The GAPP official said Websites, or anyone without proper press accreditation, had no “right to interview,” or caifangquan (采访权).
These remarks do not necessarily signal a “crackdown” on citizen journalism, as Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post intimated last week (Verna Yu, “Crackdown fears as censor slams citizen journalists,” South China Morning Post, February 23, 2010). But they certainly do deserve our attention and continued observation.
Commenting on China’s revised measures on accreditation of media personnel, which took force in October last year, we wrote in December that “the scope of the ‘journalist’ has been further limited and demarcated [by the rules], to the point that the measures seem to criminalize citizen journalism.”
The revised measures specify that, “[those] practicing journalism [“news and writing activities”/ 新闻采编活动] within the borders of the People’s Republic of China, must possess a press card issued by the General Administration of Press and Publications.”
The control of press accreditation is an important media control tactic, meaning essentially that anyone who does not possess a press card cannot practice journalism in the broadest sense. Interviewing in particular is singled out as an illegal activity.
By maintaining the strictest control over the right to issue, review and revoke press accreditation, the government can exercise control over the media — and potentially over individuals who dare to practice “journalism” outside the system.
We can say metaphorically that four documents are used to control media in mainland China. The first is the “birth certificate,” or chusheng zheng (出生证), which means that the state controls which publications can and cannot be issued with publishing licenses, or kanhao (刊号). The second is the press card, or jizhe zheng (记者证), which determines who does and who does not have the credentials to practice journalism. Next comes the “certificate of appointment,” or weiren zhuang (委任状), which controls appointments of top officials inside media outfits. Finally, there is the “death certificate,” or siwang zheng (死亡证), meaning that the CCP can choose at any time to shut down or otherwise discipline media that do not fall in line.
The CCP has effectively controlled media for many years through these “four documents,” even though some journalists and media driven by a strong sense of professionalism and mission have managed to do important work. But the Internet and other new media have substantially complicated government control of the media.
The biggest difference between the Internet — or more precisely, commercial Websites — and traditional media in China lies in their ownership structure. Media in mainland China, whether highly commercialized spin-offs of party-run media, or media operated directly by party organs (党的机关媒体), are all in fact state-owned property. They fall directly, therefore, under the leadership of the Party-state system.
Major Chinese news portals like Sina.com, Sohu.com and Netease, however, are Nasdaq-listed corporations, and the portal QQ.com is a Hong Kong-listed company. While the government can in theory use “birth certificates” (Website registration) and “death certificates” (shutting the sites down) to deal with the Internet, the political costs of taking such actions against these Internet giants would be immense, creating an international uproar.
Nor can the government install CCP leaders at the helm of these commercial Websites as it does for traditional media.
The CCP’s only ace in the hole in controlling Websites is control over the process of press accreditation.
In his interview with People’s Daily Online, the GAPP official gave the following reason for not issuing press cards to commercial Websites:
Commercial websites are not news units, as they do not have the legal qualification to conduct reporting and break news (首发新闻). They have been approved only for the function of re-running news, and not for the function of self news reporting.
For anyone outside China, this argument might sound strange. For ten years, under the influence of private investment, Web portals have developed rapidly, and they have already become the principal channel of news consumption for 100s of millions of Chinese Internet users. They have showed a willingness, moreover, to cooperate with authorities.
News portals are real news media, but they are not yet recognized by the Chinese government as “news units.” GAPP defines “news units” as: “newspapers, magazines, news agencies, radio stations and television stations, etc. whose establishment has been officially approved (官方批准).”
Last week, the GAPP official also gave clear indication that China’s government is seeking to expand the online presence of trusted national CCP media even as it tightens its stance on unauthorized “online journalists”:
We also have a great interest in researching the question of the dissemination of news online, in order that our nation’s priority media can further expand their online transmission. We support news Websites operated by key state-run media in relying on traditional media journalists to apply for press cards, and in this way carry out journalism and expand the country’s information and communication’s capacity.
This effectively establishes a double-standard for press accreditation for Web-based media in China, in which official state media such as People’s Daily Online and Xinhua Online can issue press cards for Internet operations through their traditional counterparts, and therefore do have the right to report (采访权).
GAPP’s press accreditation rules are crude and discriminatory, and there are real questions as to their practicability. GAPP’s prohibitions would encompass many professional journalists in China as well as employees at news Websites, “citizen journalists,” those who teach journalism in Chinese universities, and many retired veteran journalists.
Here is how the accreditation rules explain the prohibition:
The following persons shall not be issued with press cards:
1. Non-editorial personnel such as those participating in Party work (党务), administration (行政), logistics (后勤), business operations, advertising, engineering technology, etc;
2. Workers outside the news organization, including correspondents (通讯员), freelance writers (特约撰稿人) and freelance journalists (特约记者), personnel from party and government organs, enterprises, other work units, or any other members of society, editing news stories for the news agency in a full-time or part-time capacity;
3. Personnel who teach and guide classroom newspapers, or work as staff at newspaper in institutions of higher learning;
4. Personnel working for periodicals not of a news reporting nature, or for other journals without newsgathering operations.
5. Those who have been severely punished for violations of discipline or illegality in newsgathering and editing activities.
Can none of these people conduct interviews or gather news in mainland China?
A clear definition of the Chinese word caifang (采访), or “interview,” is also a point of difficulty. What about field research conducted by social scientists? What about evidentiary research carried out by lawyers? What about authors researching details for works of nonfiction? All of these could be construed as acts of caifang.
Obviously, the goal in controlling the journalist accreditation process is to monopolize the process of information gathering and the right to interview altogether, to control the flow of information at its source. But if the government wants to put a stop to all of these undocumented illegal interviewers, it faces an impossibly immense task.
Still, if the government acts with resolve on the letter of these regulations, this could have a chilling effect on bolder acts of “citizen journalism.”
These rules might have enabled the suppression of a number of important stories in recent years — including the Chongqing nail house case, the Shaanxi brick kiln scandal, the Xiamen PX case — because in the process of reporting these stories, commercial news Websites and citizen journalists both played a critical role.
The GAPP’s resolve, as voiced last week, in going after unlicensed journalism activity, might have heartened officials in Shaanxi province had it come three years earlier. They might have been spared embarrassment in 2007, when Internet users demonstrated that a photo of a tiger purportedly taken in the wild, and meant to boost local tourism, was a complete phony.
Zhou Jiugeng (周久耕), a property department official in the Nanjing district of Jiangning, who is now serving his sentence for corruption, should be outraged that the government didn’t put its foot down sooner. After all, the news of his improbably extravagant lifestyle was broken by Internet users who did not possess press cards.
Internet users in China will surely continue to exercise and defend their “right to report,” their right to pursue the truth and the facts as granted in China’s Constitution, which states that, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration” (Article 35). This is a right that cannot be subsumed by the GAPP-issued press card.
But the warning shot from GAPP last week signals the government’s continued resolve to control information at its source.
For China’s leaders, masses of unauthorized “citizen journalists,” human flesh searchers and online story breakers are no laughing matter. [Posted by David Bandurski, March 1, 2010, 10:52am HK]