Friends and colleagues in the media:
One week ago, China suffered a serious railway disaster. All along, I watched these developments closely as they emerged in various media.
Some friends have asked me how I think Hong Kong and mainland media have performed this time around? What differences have I seen in reports from Hong Kong and mainland media?
Hong Kong and the mainland of course have very different media environments. Media on the mainland are subject to strict controls, and Hong Kong enjoys relative freedom. But we’ve seen a fairly complex situation over the past week:
After the accident happened, media on both sides reported the story quickly; on the heals of this initial coverage, Hong Kong media went aggressively after the causes of the accident, and thickly denounced government leaders. Meanwhile, mainland media had received directives from the Central Propaganda Department, the Information Office and others ratcheting up pressure. Many journalists were called back from the front lines. Media were instructed to report positive stories, and to avoid questioning of the Ministry of Railways and government responsibility more generally. Nevertheless even some programs from official state media were strongly worded in their criticism, resulting in the eventual firing of one CCTV producer, Wang Qinglei (王青雷).
But by July 29, there was another dramatic shift in mainland news coverage. Media, including even the official People’s Daily, did widespread reporting, and commented strongly, on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to Wenzhou and the memorial ceremony held by the relatives of victims of the crash. Full versions of Wen Jiabao’s responses to family members were reported, without omissions. The front pages of many Chinese newspapers conveyed the sadness and rage felt by ordinary Chinese. In my view, the level of reporting and criticism seen in China’s newspapers on July 29 was not at all short of what we saw from Hong Kong — and mainland media surpassed Hong Kong in terms of depth of reporting.
How is that possible?
Actually, this reflects a broader shift in the situation of Chinese media thirty years after reforms began. Before economic reforms, there were few media at all in China, and all were restrained by both ideological controls and by the system of the planned economy. Today, Chinese media are as numerous as stars in the sky, and many media now operate commercially. So even as political controls on the media remain relatively strong, the amount of free space has increased.
This is the larger background to changes in China’s media today. Against this backdrop, there are at least three reasons why media were able to make new breakthroughs in reporting of the July 23 collision and its aftermath.
The first factor is the rapid development of the internet and the emergence of microblogs. Today, the first channel for obtaining information for more and more mainland Chinese is the internet, and microblogs in particular. Many friends in Hong Kong’s media are already active on mainland microblog platforms, and they’re familiar with these Twitter-like tools for real-time interaction.
In the case of this disaster, passengers on the train were able to issue information through microblogs after the crash happened, at least 40 minutes before the first formal report from the official Xinhua News Agency. From that point on, microblogs were the most effective media in urgently pushing for the truth, raising questions, pulling people together and mobilizing them. While the authorities would like to control microblog platforms, this medium is far more difficult to control than, for example, television.
The second reason is the continued development of professionalism in China’s media. In China today, money and power work in concert, creating China’s own brand of crony capitalism. Aside from political controls, the authorities can use financial incentives and penalties to control the media. Nevertheless, there are media professionals who harbor idealism and see themselves as voices of the people, as tools of the public interest. Under the strong controls of the government, they defend “not speaking falsehoods” as their bottom line, and they grab all sorts of gaps and opportunities to say as much as they possibly can.
On July 29, Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily devoted an entire page to an editorial called, “Deeply Mourning the Victims, With Questions for Those Responsible” (痛悼遇难者，叩问责任人). With a great sense of honor and dignity, the editorial spoke the hearts of many ordinary Chinese over this disaster.
The third factor is also very important, and that is that there exists within the Chinese Communist Party a force promoting the advancement of political reform. Immediately after the July 23 crash, propaganda authorities instructed Chinese media to use only official information released by Xinhua News Agency. But there are journalists with ideals within the official media as well. On July 26, Xinhua News Agency released a report called “How Did the Major Disaster on July 23 Happen?” (“7·23”特别重大铁路交通事故究竟是如何发生的?) asking many hard questions about the collision.
Xinhua’s coverage played a critical role in encouraging Chinese media — which are often said to “dance with their shackles on” — to push ahead with bolder reports questioning the causes of the accident on their front pages. A visit to the scene of the accident in Wenzhou by Premier Wen Jiabao, who has frequently come out in favor of a more concerted push for political reforms, instantly cancelled out propaganda directives against coverage. Wen responded directly to doubts and questions voiced by family members of victims, and this further encouraged media to push harder on coverage, and ultimately made July 29 a day of unprecedented openness for mainland Chinese media.
The day after the Wenzhou train collision, a Chinese journalist wrote on his microblog words that were eventually heard all around the world: “China, please slow your soaring strides, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your moral, wait for your conscience! We don’t want derailed trains, collapsing bridges, roads that slide into pits or homes that collapse. Move more slowly. Let every life have freedom and dignity. Let no-one be cast aside by this age. Let every person reach their destination easily and in peace.”
This is today’s China: rapid development attended by deep crisis, but with citizens who are gradually awakening. Through each successive breaking event, media and the people have resisted and struggled, inch by inch expanding their right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to monitor. My hope is that, building on these changes, China can now push ahead with political reforms.
I wish everyone peace and prosperity!
July 30, 2011
[CLICK HERE for a Chinese version of this letter.]