It’s impossible to pinpoint a precise moment when official Party media in China lost the agenda. But the progressive erosion of Party media influence has been a fact ever since the 1990s, when the rise of a new generation of commercially operating metro newspapers and news magazines was paired with the rise of the internet.
Over the years at CMP, we’ve written a great deal about the many ways the Party has attempted to transform and solidify its control of information, a project it refers to as “guidance of public opinion,” or yulun daoxiang.
In 2003, the year of China’s SARS epidemic, we saw what was in some sense the culmination of a new force of agenda setting, resulting from the combination of commercialised media and the internet. By that time, commercial newspapers like Southern Metropolis Daily were pursuing harder-hitting stories in a bid both for market success and professional point scoring. Their stories could then find broader national audiences through commercial internet portal sites. Local news could go national in a matter of hours and impact subsequent coverage in unforeseen ways.
Never had the job of China’s propaganda leaders been more difficult.
Ever since that time, Chinese leaders have been trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Hu Jintao’s approach, in a nutshell, was to invest in core Party media (including the likes of People’s Daily Online) and encourage them to report quickly on sudden-breaking stories that were potentially sensitive. This tactic was combined with traditional forms of control, such as bans preventing commercial media from doing independent reporting. In this way Party media could control the agenda early on — or, as journalists said, “grab the megaphone” — allowing leaders to shape and dominate the story.
Another complimentary tactic under Hu Jintao was to strike out against investigative reporting by more independent-leaning commercial newspapers and magazines. This could be seen in a 2004 central ban on “cross-regional reporting,” the practice of reporting tougher news stories in neighbouring provinces to avoid reprimand by the local officials directly responsible for overseeing your publication. It could also be seen in the more aggressive internal control approaches taken at papers like Southern Weekly, which from 2008 onward had internal “news readers” exercising an unprecedented level of prior control on content — what eventually culminated in last year’s Southern Weekly incident.
But even before Hu-era control could have a decisive impact, along came new media platforms to upset the status quo. By 2010, microblogging services like Sina Weibo were having a dramatic impact on news cycles. It was no longer sufficient for Party media to dominate stories in the first couple of days when public opinion could coalesce around unforeseen stories in a matter of minutes.
The problem of Weibo was largely left to Xi Jinping, and over the past year we’ve seen very robust action — including the campaign against “Big V” users — to bring this now five year-old medium to heel. The thirteen months since the Southern Weekly incident have also seen continued encroachments on the work of journalists at the commercial papers and magazines where for years we have looked for the most professional in-depth and investigative reporting.
In the midst of this lull of uncertainty, central Party media like China Central Television have tried to reclaim the agenda with soft-glove “investigative” reporting, including spots on allegedly poor customer service by Apple in China, high prices for Starbuck’s coffee in China, or news writ large about a government crackdown on the sex trade in Dongguan.
Reports like these have not, however, won CCTV admirers. Many Chinese on social media panned the reports on Apple and Starbuck’s as petty and one-sided. After the reports on the sex trade in Dongguan, many Chinese chose to side with the victimised prostitutes rather than with the authorities.
Shortly after he came to power, Xi Jinping pledged to deal actively with the problem of corruption, “striking tigers as well as flies.” So far, however, Xi has been unwilling to deal systematically — rather than symbolically — with corruption. The government has persecuted those who, like the activist lawyer Xu Zhiyong, have called on officials to be transparent about their assets.
“Swatting at flies and letting the tigers run free” has long been a phrase in China’s media — generally levelled at state outfits like CCTV — to refer to half-baked investigative reports that go after small-time crooks rather than high-level officials. The crackdown in Dongguan, and related reports by Party media, seem to establish a new pattern of expectations, both in terms of the Party’s anti-corruption campaign and the Party’s journalism. That is, government campaigns that swat at flies, and media reporting that fawningly follows suit.
In the following article from the official Xinhua News Agency, the author argues that China Central Television has regained its place lately at the “forefront of watchdog journalism.” If that is true, it is only, unfortunately, because commercial media have been actively discouraged from pursuing harder-hitting coverage.
Real investigative reporting is under threat in China. Meanwhile, CCTV is establishing itself as the country’s preeminent swatter of flies. It’s hard to congratulate the network for exposing “serious quality issues with more than ten types of facial tissues” when there are serious stories in the public interest waiting out there.
After China Central Television exposed the story of the Dongguan sex trade, it then exposed such stories as that involving the “China Hospital Management Society (中华医院管理学会), and serious quality issues with more than ten types of facial tissues. The Dongguan report brought anti-prostitution campaigns in places across China, and the impact of these other reports is still unfolding. CCTV has once again returned to the forefront of watchdog journalism.
There was a period of time in which CCTV served a “flagship” role among Chinese media for the practice of watchdog journalism [or “supervision of public opinion”], with program’s like Focus, Friday Quality Report and News Probe capable of touching on serious issues and stirring attention. Later, with the rise of the internet, a new locus for public opinion was generated, challenging the authority of CCTV and other mainstream media [i.e., Party media], and China’s public opinion pattern experienced profound change.
Perhaps it was the fact that online public opinion was often “too extreme” that gave greater urgency to the task of mainstream media “seizing the public opinion initiative,” and directly challenged and diluted the role of supervision by public opinion. Up to the time of the appearance of Weibo, various news tips, true and false, emerged, so that all traditional media were behind the curve.
On March 15 last year, when CCTV exposed problems with Apple, And later exposed high Starbucks prices in China, it faced an unprecedented clamour online. This suggests that some people online already do not trust the public interest motive of traditional mainstream [Party] media in carrying out supervision by public opinion — and certain forces even wish to deprive CCTC and other [Party media] of their right to conduct supervision by public opinion.
If they do not conduct supervision by public opinion, traditional [Party] media will be progressively marginalised.
If social media sites become the unquestioned chief force in conducting supervision by public opinion, then they might actually become the broadcast center of public opinion in China and its moral high-water point. The fact that CCTV exposed the Dongguan sex industry, and yet still suffered a lot of online criticism, this should be heard as an alarm bell. Mainstream [Party] media Must once again capture the initiative in carrying out supervision by public opinion, winning the full trust of the public. This is most crucial in striking the right balance of online and offline public opinion in the new global internet era.
What we need to recognise is that, with the constant mounting of supervision by public opinion by commercial media and international online supervision, the public’s expectations of supervision by public opinion have already surpassed what they were in the early days of News Probe. . .
Supervision by public opinion can have a soft touch, or it can deal with serious problems we see all around us. The public hopes that mainstream [Party] media are brave enough to pursue “major” and “sensitive” issues, exposing things that the Me Media (自媒体) cannot. This might be strenuous, and it might mean taking risks, but this is certainly what the public expects of traditional mainstream [Party] media.
The influence and authority of the current mainstream [Party] media among the public is a matter that concerns China’s ability to persist along its present political path . . . The government must have a firm consensus about this, recognising that the protection of the authority of the mainstream [Party] media is a key part of enhancing its governing capacity.