One month ago, veteran journalist and CMP fellow Zhang Ping (张平), who writes under the penname Chang Ping (长平), was visited at the offices of Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily by state security police who wished to have a “chat.” At roughly the same time, propaganda authorities issued an order preventing Zhang from writing editorials for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, both respected commercial spin-offs of Nanfang Daily where his writings have appeared for years.
Now a researcher at the Nanfang Daily Newspapers Communications Research Institute (南都传播研究院), Zhang was formerly director of the news desk at Southern Weekend and a deputy editor at Southern Metropolis Weekly.
In a recent interview with Taiwan’s Want Daily (旺报) Zhang speaks about the current state of media in China and the prospects for change. A portion of the interview follows:
Want: In recent years, we’ve seen quite a number of editorials talking about how controls on the media have tightened in China. Some people have even talked about the rise of a “new nationalism” in China [as something contributing to curbs on the press]. How do you view these trends?
Chang Ping: On the issue of press controls, you can say that things have become more technical in recent years. Media control is now more concrete (更具体) and more focused (更到位) than it once was. A decade ago, during the Jiang Zemin era, the authorities lacked robust technical controls on the Internet side, so print media would often receive orders [from propaganda authorities] saying things like: “Do not re-print such-and-such information from the web, or such-and-such information is rumor.” These days, we don’t often see bans of this kind. Rather, it’s the Internet [sites] receiving bans like, “Do not re-post news from Southern Metropolis Daily.” This is because web controls have now become more systematized (有序了) and effective. If there is something problematic at a website, it can now be deleted directly. There’s no need to send an order down to the newspapers [about Internet content]. Quite the contrary, it’s often the newspapers that are often now the problem. This is an interesting shift.
The Battle of Darkness and Light
About your other question, there have been developments in terms of statism (国家主义) and nationalism (民族主义) over the past few years. This is a result, in fact, of national education and propaganda since 1989. [After the crackdown on June 4, 1989] there was a backlash against bourgeois liberalization (资产阶级自由化) in China. Many liberal intellectuals either left [China], or could no longer voice the ideas they had originally. Everyone started heading in the direction of National Studies (国学). The famous historian Li Zehou (李泽厚) has described the situation by saying that “thinkers have faded out and scholars risen to prominence,” [meaning there was less emphasis on originating ideas and more emphasis on resurrecting old ideas.]
This change was not a natural progression of any kind. It was just that thinkers had no choice but to fade into the background, because the atmosphere of political pressure was not conducive to their work. So everyone returned to the dusty classics. At the same time, the authorities also wanted to use National Studies to harp on the idea of the national spirit (民族精神). Over time an entire generation was educated this way. Add to this China’s historical sense of anger and victimization over the past century and you have a recipe for rising nationalism.
When you add more robust technical controls on the Internet to this social equation, control of the media becomes a much easier matter.
But the situation is actually quite complex. On the one hand, you have continued breakthroughs in communications technology. Services like Twitter are in some ways very difficult to control. On the other hand, younger Chinese who have been reared on the idea of nationalism will slowly mature and begin their own process of self-examination — their ideas will no longer be so “pure.” These changes will heap new trouble on the authorities [in terms of information control]. So compared to the past, you can say that controls are tighter now, but it’s also true that new cracks are emerging all the time, and new threads of light creeping in. It’s difficult for anyone to say which of these forces is stronger. We are still in the midst of change.
When Party Papers Must Face the Market
Want: Many things have happened in China’s media this year. During the National People’s Congress, for example, 13 newspapers signed a joint editorial calling for an end to China’s household registration system. Then we had Hubei Party Secretary Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠) grabbing a digital recorder from a news reporter and being widely criticized. We had Chinese media professionals signing a petition against the Chongqing Morning Post for its handling of police detentions of three of its reporters. And we have many journalists being issued with arrest warrants or otherwise threatened. Chinese journalists have shown a strong sense of idealism and have opposed suppression [of news and ideas]. Could you share your own observations on this?
Chang Ping: First of all, we can see that the very nature and role of the media is changing in China. Look for example at the Li Hongzhong case. In the past, only party media would have been able to gain access to the National People’s Congress. In the past, journalists generally couldn’t get access. If they did get access, they wouldn’t dare ask the kind of questions [that were asked of Li Hongzhong]. And if, by chance, they did ask those kinds of questions they couldn’t count on support from their newspapers. The interests of the top leaders running China’s newspapers lie with officialdom, [not with journalism or media per se].
Now, even the [official] People’s Daily must face up to the realities of the market, so it launches [the commercially-operated] Beijing Times. The journalist Li Hongzhong so rudely berated was from the Beijing Times. The interests of the leaders at the Beijing Times newspaper lie with the market. They have to run a newspaper that people will read, with advertisements. So from this standpoint they also have to support their journalists in sticking out their necks and asking different sorts of questions.
This is an unavoidable trend, because media are peeling away from their [traditional] propaganda role and heading in the direction of the market, so it’s no longer “media first, market second.” New media like Netease and Tencent have now pushed into other business areas, like online games, looking to turn a profit first and serve as media second.
We also see more idealistic journalists feeling constrained and frustrated by media controls, and when the opportunity arises, the animus of the market and the animus of professionalism can combine to make for opposition [to media controls through harder hitting coverage]. Many of these professionals are those who were influenced by events of the 1980s, and they hope for more open media policies. With the development of media in recent years, ideas like professionalism and independence have become more deeply rooted in the media.
We Often Band Together
Another issue is the growing pluralism of media platforms [in China]. Traditionally, joint efforts at resistance were quite risky, but now there are so many online tools that can be used. We can step out quickly and safely, and these factors can come together in a gesture of defiance.
The Li Hongzhong case resulted in some compromise, of course . . . And in the Chongqing Morning Post case, the signers [of the petition] did not target the authorities, and this was a strategic form of opposition . . . Besides, there are just too many things the authorities have to handle, and relatively speaking, journalists are quite cautious in their approach, so they don’t want to prompt harsh action from the authorities.
The household registration system is a pretty safe topic about which there is a lot of discussion. There is a consensus both outside and inside the system that it needs to be reformed, and everyone knows it’s difficult to sustain. So the organizers of the joint editorial wanted to push on this issue, and it was probably the method they chose, of “uniting together,” that most angered propaganda organs. They wanted to put a stop to this trend. In fact, we often unite together in the media — it’s just that usually these are [united efforts] orchestrated by the propaganda organs themselves. . .
Want: Lately, a number of mainland leaders have experimented with online democracy and online political debate, and we’ve seen the emergence of Wu Hao (伍皓), [a top propaganda official in Yunnan province], a more enlightened sort of propaganda official. How do you see this?
Chang Ping: This is a form of control, a way of using “closeness to the people” (亲民) to make them feel that you’re standing on the same side. In a truly democratic society there is no need for an official to say you can do this, or you can do that, so this is somewhat absurd.
Should Leaders Top the Headlines?
It’s just like [Guangdong Party Secretary] Wang Yang (汪洋) saying to the media that they shouldn’t put him in the banner headlines. Seen from another perspective that’s just another form of intrusion on the media. In the past, visits by officials and such things were always put in the banner headlines, and no one cared to read this stuff. But as a top local leader, it’s only natural that you should become a focus of the news, because you have so much power vested in you and so many resources at your disposal. So the media should monitor you. In fact, you should be in the headlines. Why are you suggesting media shouldn’t report about you?