Zhan Jiang

Chinese Media Through the Decades

Nov 10, 2021
Nov 10, 2021
Stella Chen
Zhan Jiang

Stella Chen

Stella Chen joined the China Media Project in 2021 as a senior researcher, responsible for daily CMP research and monitoring of the Chinese media and internet landscape. Stella has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Manchester, UK.
Back in July, Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan, experienced record rainfall. The flooding that followed resulted in the death of more than 300 people. As dramatic scenes from Henan were shared across social media, coverage of the floods by the media became a controversial issue in China. While correspondents from the Los Angeles Times and Germany’s Deutsche Welle were surrounded and questioned by local residents, accused of biased coverage of the flood’s aftermath, some netizens asked whether Chinese domestic media had done an adequate job reporting the story. Last month, CMP’s Stella Chen reached out to Professor Zhan Jiang, an expert on Chinese media development, to reflect on Chinese media coverage of the flooding in Henan and other breaking stories, and to discuss more generally Chinese media developments over the past 30 years.

Zhan Jiang

A retired professor from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Zhan Jiang (展江) formerly worked as a journalist for more than a decade at a number of local newspapers and at China Central Television. Mr. Zhan was previously a professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the China Youth University for Political Sciences.

On the evening of July 19, as streets in Zhengzhou were inundated the flood waters and thousands of people awaited urgent rescue, Henan Satellite TV, a provincial television channel directly under the control of Henan’s provincial propaganda office, continued to broadcast its regular programming, a slate of anti-Japanese dramas. These dramas, though popular with Chinese, have in recent years have become well known for their comically exaggerated scenes of graphic violence along with anti-Japanese and nationalist themes.

That evening, Zhan Jiang, a retired professor from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, posted to Weibo to remark Henan Satellite TV’s apparent inattention to the flood roiling through the province’s capital. He asked politely that the network stop its broadcast of anti-Japanese dramas and turn instead to live coverage of the flooding.

A Weibo post from Professor Zhan Jiang in July 2021 during floods in Henan province.

Last month, CMP’s Stella Chen reached out to Professor Zhan to reflect on Chinese media coverage of the flooding in Henan and other breaking stories, and to discuss broad developments in the Chinese media environment over the past 30 years.

Professor Zhan’s major research interests include history and theories of global journalism, as well as media law and media ethics. In addition to his academic writing, Dr. Zhan has translated numerous English-language journalism books into Chinese. He earned his masters and doctorate degrees in law from Renmin University of China’s School of Journalism.

A Trickle of Flood Coverage

Stella Chen: I’d like to start with what happened a few months ago in Zhengzhou. Zhengzhou was hit hard by flooding over the summer, and then there were some questions on the internet not only about the response to the disaster, but also about the response of the Chinese media at that time. How do you think the media reacted when the flood happened? Perhaps you could first share some of your general views.

Zhan Jiang: Actually, first I’d like to talk about the environment issue. By environment I mean the relationship between the media and the state. Nowadays, whenever there is negative news to report, whenever it’s something qualified as “negative,” such as the economy not doing well or worsening public security, the general practice is to disallow production and reporting of such news by the media. It’s been this way in recent years.

So talking just about one story alone, talking about one incident, isn’t so meaningful. Which is to say that reporting isn’t permitted in the first place, or all negative news is to be strictly controlled, or propaganda departments, central or local, issue instructions, or they release information first. We can say that the Central Propaganda Department, and local propaganda offices, have to a great extent become media themselves. In many cases they, rather than television stations or newspapers, have become releasers of news and information.

We can already see over the past five or six years, for example, that some county propaganda departments release news, and the local authorities don’t allow you to go to the scene. So never mind something as big as the flooding in Henan . . . . When something happens like a few children drowning in a reservoir in a certain county in Zhejiang province, for a story like that media are often not allowed to go to the scene. The scene is locked down, or the media are directly issued with orders, so that traditional media cannot report the story. So for such a big thing [like the Zhengzhou floods] this goes without saying.

I would also say that in the case of the Zhengzhou floods there is actually evidence to support the fact that this was not merely a natural disaster. Because there were human [decisions] to discharge [flood waters] for the purpose of drainage, right? So it’s not strange that media weren’t allowed to report. It’s not strange in the least. It’s been like this for quite some time, even for ordinary stories. And so much more so for major stories.

Stella Chen: So is it the case here with the Zhengzhou floods that journalists would not have been allowed to go to the scene?

Zhan Jiang: Of course. Reporters were not allowed to visit the scene. Strictly speaking, you could say it’s not that reporters were absolutely prevented from visiting the scene, but rather the government wanted to wait until the disaster became more serious, by which time it could send official television stations out to film. Because, you know, these television stations are classic official media. These are not commercial media.

So later on you might have seen TV reporters on the scene doing reports, sure. But they were there to produce news from a positive angle, focusing on the rescue rather than on the disaster itself. News about villages totally flooded out, or news of casualties, this they didn’t say anything about. Or perhaps in reporting positive news they might have touched on some details like this. But the main point is to be positive and to reflect the prompt response of the Party and the government, to reflect the care they show for the people in the face of disaster, and how they come to the rescue of the people. News must be placed within the “main theme” (主旋律) in order to be reported.

Stella Chen: Did your Weibo post about coverage have any impact at all?

Zhan Jiang: Perhaps my post had a bit of influence. But according to my understanding, before [I made the post] . . . Well, there are a lot of channels on TV in Henan, and those of us outside of Henan can’t necessarily see anything but what’s on Henan Satellite TV, because this is what they want Beijing to see, and [it keeps to] the “main theme”. So basically what we see [from outside the province] is the singing of red songs and positive news, and very little of anything about the flooding. But I do understand that other channels [in Henan], certain local channels, actually did some reporting.

We can’t actually say, therefore, that television in Henan didn’t cover it. We can’t say that. Because we don’t know the full situation. Actually, later on it seemed that my suggestion was taken on board, and news about the disaster was merged from different channels and broadcast. But this is something that was still done under the “main theme,” keeping to the tone of positive reporting.

Stella Chen: After you posted about coverage of the flood, how did netizens respond? Did domestic media contact you and ask you to comment?

Zhan Jiang: I seldom use Weibo anymore. I might go on once a month, or even longer sometimes. It’s very easy these days to provoke the anger of nationalists online with this or that post. They’ll attack you because they’re unhappy with what you’ve said and see it as negative. So generally I don’t post at all. As for interviews with the media, I don’t appear as a source in news reports anymore for reasons that are complicated – though perhaps my comments can still have a bit of influence. Later, though, as the disaster situation became worse and worse, it wasn’t just people like me who felt it was inappropriate for them to continue singing red songs and worrying about image. I would guess that people in Henan locally were even more upset about this.

Disaster Reporting in the Past

Stella Chen: I understand. We can come back to Zhengzhou a bit later. But perhaps you can help our readers understand the historical background of disaster reporting in China. For disasters before economic reforms, for example, like the Tangshan Earthquake, how were these reported, if at all, at the time?

Zhan Jiang: First of all, Chinese media did report the story [of Tangshan]. But at that time, definitely, the local media had no autonomy in reporting on the quake. They had to follow state media like the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency. There was a saying at the time that “local newspapers” (小报) were accustomed to copying the “central core newspapers” (大报),  and that things the core newspapers did not cover, mainly negative things, could not be spoken of.

Secondly, while the magnitude of the earthquake was reported in the news, there was no mention at the time of casualties. People across China all knew that the earthquake was serious, because preparations had been made everywhere. For example, I was in Jiangsu province at the time, which is quite far from Hebei, more than a thousand kilometers away. But even there in our local town there were warnings of a possible earthquake spreading, and our families even lived for a while in temporary shelters. Also, a large number of doctors and nurses from various places were transferred to Tangshan to help provide assistance. And this was the kind of main theme news story that Chinese media liked to report on.

Whenever a disaster occurred, every place across China would send out medical staff to help with the rescue. There were reports about local medical staff heading to Tangshan. While news of that kind was widely reported, the core details of the disaster were not – like the number of deaths and injuries. It was impossible to talk about such figures.

So as you know, it was only nine years later, as [CMP co-director] Qian Gang published his book The Great Tangshan Earthquake (唐山大地震), that the details of the disaster were disclosed to national readers in an extensive report. The casualty figures he disclosed in his book were not from his own research, actually, but from a technical book on national earthquakes. This research book had a small readership and few knew about it outside of professionals.

Chinese Media in the Reform Era

Stella Chen: Qian Gang’s book was published in the early years of the reform era. Did things change much in the 1980s in terms of reporting on disaster stories?

Zhan Jiang: Let’s go back to reform and opening. The basic pattern before the reform and opening up was to report the good news but not the bad, right? This habit later continued to a definite degree, but there were also relative changes. But the roughly 40 years from the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, or from the beginning of economic reforms in 1978, up to now, can basically be divided into three or four stages.

If we take this period and divide it into stages, then the first is from 1976 or 1978 through to 1987. In 1987 there was an important official slogan that emerged during the 13th National Congress [of the CCP], which was that, “The people should be informed of major situations, and major issues should be discussed by the people” (重大情况让人民知道,重大问题经人民讨论).

So in this process, and we can say this was a ten-year period from 1976 to 1986, during these 10 years, there were still many forbidden areas when it came to disaster reporting. But these restrictions were not related to the law. They were unwritten rules to be grasped within [the Party system]. While the media system as a whole was moving toward opening up, and media did report a number of things that they would not have reported in the past – for example, a story about a government minister eating and drinking lavishly and staying at a pricey hotel, which was reported by the China Youth Daily, and which was huge news – people just didn’t know whether the media were protected by the law for such work.

Stella Chen: So there was never any clear direction to the media about what was now possible to pursue?

Zhan Jiang: People had the sense that the whole society was moving toward openness, and that the official attitude was more and more open and enlightened. It was basically a situation of not being told how to act, and them saying, look I’m not going to tell you, it’s not convenient to tell you, just go and do it. So it was really a period of experimentation. It was during this period that I had just started out as a journalist. And there’s a story I can tell you that is linked to this question today of disaster reporting, something I experienced myself.

So in 1986, I began work as a reporter for a local newspaper. At that point I had already been working for some time, spending about 10 years in the military before changing professions. As a journalist someone said to me at that time, look, in our area we have some village farmers who have gotten typhoid fever. To me this was news, and I said we should report it, because at the time things were relatively open. And this wasn’t about any one person’s culpability, right?

But there was an understanding at that time that this couldn’t be reported on. There were internal rules that I didn’t know about because I was new to the profession. But I was told that infectious diseases were something we couldn’t report on. This included all sorts of infectious diseases, like tuberculosis.

Stella Chen: Just to get a sense for our readers, who may not be so familiar, what sort of media are we talking about at that time?

Zhan Jiang: In the 1980s we had only official media [in China]. There were no market-oriented media yet. And at the time the boldest among official national media was the China Youth Daily newspaper. Why was this the case? It’s actually hard to explain, because the newspaper is published by the Chinese Communist Youth League, which today in fact is actually very much to the left, an entirely different situation compared to those days.

How was it that the China Youth Daily has courage at that time? It was an official media outlet, one of seven major national (全国性) dailies. These seven national dailies had a relatively privileged position as newspapers because they could be circulated across the country. Let’s talk about these seven, because today some essentially have no influence while a few others continue to have a major role.

First there is the People’s Daily. This paper has not changed, and it will always maintain its influence, right? This goes without saying. Then we have the Economic Daily (经济日报), which perhaps you’ve not really heard about. You might have heard of the Hong Kong Economic Times (香港经济日报), but the Economic Daily on the mainland, who’s heard of that? In the 1980s, though, the influence of the Economic Daily was still pretty strong.

Stella Chen: So to talk about influence, we have to talk about where these media are positioned in terms of their relationship to the Party or the government.

Zhan Jiang: Certainly. In China, state-run media are ranked in the same hierarchy from top to bottom. The People’s Daily is the organ of the CCP, and its administrative ranking is at the ministerial level (正部级). Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV) have the same ranking. The People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放军报), the organ of PLA, is another top newspaper, where [CMP Co-Director] Qian Gang had worked as a military reporter in 1980s. The Economic Daily, an organ of the State Council, has its administrative ranking at the vice-ministerial level (副部级).

Then we have to mention other national dailies: the Guangming Daily (光明日报), the China Youth Daily (中国青年报), the Workers Daily (工人日报) and Peasants Daily (农民日报), and they have their administrative ranking at the bureau level, next to vice-ministerial level. Among the top seven media [in the 1980s] the China Youth Daily was the boldest in news reporting and commentaries. Why was this paper more courageous? I think one reason is that as the organ of the Chinese Communist Youth League, it was under the long-term influence of its former general secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). Another reason is the paper had relatively open-minded bosses and editors. 

Stella Chen:  Hu had become general secretary of the Party in 1980, and was responsible for carrying out Deng’s pragmatic reforms. . . .

Zhan Jiang: That’s right. From the 1950s on, he had held the position of general secretary of the Youth League, and he was responsible [in the 1980s] for encouraging the media to open up. He would take certain things on, you know. And so the China Youth Daily at the time, and through the 1990s, had this internal atmosphere that was pretty decent. Unlike the People’s Daily and other newspapers that were more rigid, an ordinary reporter could go to the editor-in-chief’s office without having to first file a report. So it was a special case.

Naturally, the China Youth Daily might also receive criticism both internally and externally. But generally speaking, it was pretty bold and willing to speak out. China Youth Daily was at the forefront at that time, and it did really decent work. One of the most prominent stories was the one I alluded to earlier, in which the minister of commerce was exposed for dining at high-class restaurants. The paper also reported the Black Dragon Wildfire in Heilongjiang’s Daxing’anling in 1987.

So at that time there were no laws [about media conduct]. We just figured things out as we went. And China Youth Daily walked out at the very front. So this was the situation up through 1987. Then, in 1989, the entire situation for the media in China tightened up. And of course there was a change in the leadership as well, including a changing out of the top leaders in the propaganda ministry. The talk then was of “giving priority to positive propaganda”(正面宣传为主). And the media also had to “talk about the Party’s nature”(讲党性), which meant acting in accordance with the Party spirit and instructions.

Professionalism on the Rise

Stella Chen: So 1989 was a pivotal year in the development of Chinese media in the reform era, and for some journalists like those at China Youth Daily it must have really meant stepping backwards. But when did things start changing again? Because we know that afterward there was an explosion in media development.

Zhan Jiang: There were three years of strict control of the media after 1989 and up to 1992. This is the second of the periods I mentioned earlier. The second period since reform and opening up. The period from 1989 to 1992, which ended with Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” which again opened China up, an opening that spread from the economy to other aspects of society. Politically speaking, things did not open up, but there was eventually a comprehensive opening, and this meant that things relaxed in Chinese society – and that the media had more space in which to operate.

In the early 1990s, from 1990 to 1994, there were no market-oriented newspapers in China. It was only after this period that they emerged. I’m talking about 1994. There were no market-oriented media (市场化的媒体) at that time. From 1994 on, and perhaps this was partly coincidental in terms of timing, there was more space for media to report, and it was at this time too that the notion of “press/public opinion oversight” came onto the scene. [Editor’s Note: “press/public opinion oversight,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), is the idea that the press as an agent of public opinion, can serve a watchdog role, exposing inadequacies in society and even in the government. In some cases, it can be seen as Party-state media performing a top-down monitoring function, exposing local corruption at the behest of the leadership. In other cases, particularly among more professionally-minded journalists, it can be similar to the idea of “watchdog journalism,” referring to more fully independent reporting, and even investigative reporting. In scholarly literature on the Chinese media, yulun jiandu has also been translated as “public opinion supervision” (Zhao Yuezhi, Ji Weimin, Wusan Sun, et al) and as “supervision by public opinion” (Dan Chen, Liu Fu, et al).]

Stella Chen: As the environment changed again and notions like “press oversight” were introduced, what were some of the better examples of media changing the way things were done.

Zhan Jiang: In 1994, China Central Television, [China’s state-run broadcaster], created the “Focus” (焦点访谈) in-depth news program. This program is the most influential program in the history of the Chinese media, by which I mean in television broadcasting. Because it was aired every day, every day, and even if you consider that it might have run one negative news report every three days, this was still quite staggering [in terms of impact]. Add to this the fact that “Focus” was reporting things from a national media standpoint, so that its reports were generally not about trivial matters. Right? So the launch of this program really was a milestone. “Focus” also published a lot of books about the content of its programming. CCTV released these books, which was still pretty rare at the time, given that the internet was still something ahead in the future.

A screenshot of CCTV’s “Focus” in-depth news program, which pioneered an official brand of tougher news reporting in the 1990s in China. The figure pictured is Fang Hongjin, the most famous host in the program’s history.

In 1996, CCTV founded another program called “News Probe.” While this program was aired every Sunday, it was done in a really professional way, and later came to have even a global impact. Several years later in Beijing, there would be a major forum attended by investigative journalists from around the world, and journalists from the BBC, from Australia’s ABC and many other top television media outlets attended. When they arrived, these journalists were surprised to find that China also had these sorts of television programs. “News Probe” would cover a lot of different areas, like pollution, investigative and in-depth reporting of breaking events. And this definitely also included disaster reporting. My recollection is that they broadcast a variety of reports at that time, and disaster reports accounted for a substantial share of that. They did a very good job reporting on coal mine tragedies, for example.

Stella Chen: So broadcast journalism, and particularly the work done at “Focus” and “News Probe,” were highlights in the middle to late 1990s. But when did other media, including print media, undergo similar changes?

Zhan Jiang: We can move on to 1998. I regard this as the first year of investigative reporting in China, the year when things really began. There are several signs we can point to. But first, when we speak today of investigative reporting, what we are really talking about is the kind of journalistic reporting that is recognized internationally, not simply about reports that are critical in some way. We’re talking about investigative reporting like that we typically see being done in the UK, or in the United States – the kind that wins the Pulitzer Prize.

It was in 1998 in China that this type of reporting actually began. So there were three signs, or milestones, in 1998. The first was the emergence of market-oriented media engaged in investigative reporting, notably in 1998 the founding of the magazine Caijing (财经) by Ms. Hu Shuli (胡舒立), the most famous journalist in China.

The second sign was the rise of the metropolitan daily newspapers (都市报) as newspapers facing the public. By 1998, we’re talking about four to five years of history for these newspapers by that point. But we had not yet, before 1998, seen these newspapers doing investigative reporting. That started in 1998. Quite a number of papers transitioned in 1998 to doing more of what could be called “press/public opinion oversight,” and the year before had seen the launch of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, which would soon become associated with the culture of the investigative report.

By 1998, more and more metropolitan newspapers wanted to do press oversight and investigative reporting, but they didn’t know how to do it. So Hu Shuli set an example for them. So, again, this was the second sign: metropolitan newspapers turning to “press/public opinion oversight,” also around 1998.

The third sign is something that involves some of my own contributions. In 1998 I worked with some of my graduate students from Renmin University of China to translate Pulitzer Prize winning investigative work into Chinese for publication. Why do I mention this? Because at the time the book was immediately and universally welcomed. There were those Chinese who had a mind to do “press/public opinion oversight,” or people with journalistic ideals that wanted to do real journalism. Recognized by such people, the book got a lot of attention, and it became relatively popular.

A collection of translations and interpretations by Zhan Jiang and other translators/researchers, Journalism and Justice: Pulitzer Prize Winning Articles in Journalism, was published in 1998.

Laws and Decrees

Stella Chen: You mentioned before the importance of the leadership culture at the Chinese Communist Youth League under Hu Yaobang to the character of China Youth Daily in the 1980s. What relationship do you see between leaders in China in the late 1990s to early 2000s and changes in the media?

Zhan Jiang: When Hu Jintao became general secretary of the Party in 2002, with Wen Jiabao serving as premier from 2003, both continued the openness mindset. In my view, both leaders were relatively open. Some would say that Hu Jintao was rather restrained, but I think inwardly he was relatively open. SARS was the first major disaster to come soon after they took office, and the response was not open throughout. But this did promote to a great extent the push for open government information (政府信息公开) that came later.

It’s important to understand that decrees, or tiaoli (条例), are at the highest position in legal hierarchy of  China’s administrative rules and regulations (行政法规). At that time, there were many laws and regulations made [regarding the media], but most of these were decrees [as opposed to laws]. This is because it was difficult to introduce laws concerning the media, because we’ve always had in our system a very strong force pushing against the making of laws on the media.

In the 1980s there were two top leaders within the Chinese Communist Party. The first was well-known Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), and the other was little-known Chen Yun (陈云). Chen Yun was more low-key and did not often appear publicly, and he was also in poor health. But he was quite a formidable figure. Even Deng Xiaoping had to acknowledge him. At that time, in the 1980s, there was support in the Party to establish a press law. But Chen Yun was opposed.

Stella Chen: Why didn’t Chen Yun want a press law?

Zhan Jiang: It was in an internal speech that Chen asked, “Why do we need a press law?” He was entirely against it. The way he put it was that the Kuomintang had had a law on publishing, and we [as Communists] had exploited the loopholes. So wasn’t it possible that others would similarly exploit our loopholes?

It was precisely because others listened to Chen Yun’s words, and he felt that the establishment of a press law would be disadvantageous to the rule of the CCP, that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao could not make breakthroughs on the issue of a press law. But where they could make a breakthrough was on the issue of a law on access to government information (政府信息公开). So in 2003, with the occurrence of the SARS outbreak, they began creating related regulations. And from the beginning there were special areas, such as infectious disease, and this was later expanded to include all information having to do with the government. While media had covered disasters before this time, more had certainly been banned from coverage than had actually been reported.

Stella Chen: What kinds of stories were generally kept from being covered before 2003? Can you give us a sense of what was left unreported?

Zhan Jiang: Most news in fact was kept under wraps, and breakthroughs were the exception. Before 2003, very few things could be reported, and the majority of things could not. I can give you an example that is quite a famous case. In 2001, a coal mining accident happened in Nandan County (南丹县) of Guangxi province in which more than 10 people were killed, and in China an accident in which more than 10 people die is classified as an “extraordinary accident” (特大事故). I’m not sure you realized that.

These so-called “extraordinary accidents” are the highest level among accidents in classification, and they are accidents that involve at least 8 deaths. So what happened was that, with the internet already by that time having a definite impact, someone posted the information online [about the mining accident], and then media from outside of Guangxi were ready to go report the story. They were prepared to report the story, but they faced a great deal of difficulty in the process. Ultimately, though, they managed to report the story.

How much impact did reports on the Nandan County mining disaster have? You can understand the impact by looking at how the county CCP secretary and county chief were punished. After “Focus” went and did its own story on the disaster, the impact was huge, and as a result the county chief was sentenced to death, and the county secretary was given a prison sentence of 20 years. The death sentence, you know, was carried out immediately. There was no reprieve. It was just done right away.

After this, the People’s Daily wrote a commentary speculating on what might have happened had the media been silent on the incident, not doing its job. It supported the involvement of the media, asking people to imagine what might have happened had they not covered it. But were there any legal protections at all for this kind of reporting? No, there wasn’t. Media were fortunate if they managed to cover such stories. You might have success reporting on a story in this county, but in another county completely fail.

Stella Chen: But you were saying that this situation changed in 2008, right? With the introduction of the new law on open government information.

Zhan Jiang: Yes. After 2008 there was a fundamental change. That fundamental change was the 2008 Open Government Information Regulation of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例). With the introduction of this decree it was impossible to simply cover up any disaster in China, whether natural or man-made. In the past maybe one percent of incidents were reported, but that is probably now 95 percent. Local governments just could not not report a disaster. You might have local governments reporting late, or keeping some details under wraps, but not reporting at all was now impossible – particularly when it came to deaths.

Reporting in the Social Media Era

Stella Chen: Is this the pattern we saw this year with the Henan floods, that there was reporting, but it was selective reporting, keeping important details out? I remember when there were floods in 2020 too that there wasn’t much reporting in the Chinese media.

Zhan Jiang: I think it’s still helpful to look at the various stages. So we had 1978 to 1988 or so. Then we had 1989 to 1992. Then 1993 to around 2000. So we can look too at the period from 2000 to what year? To 2012. The period from 2000 to 2012 was still a relatively open period. But the period from 2012 to today has been a period increasingly not open. So if we look at last year versus this year, we won’t see major differences.

But if we look at the differences right now, what can we say is different? What is different is the rise of the so-called “we media” (自媒体). So the authorities might cover their ears and not face things, they might choose not to report. But when there are disasters in our own villages, when there are accidents at our own factories, they don’t have any way around this. People just pick up their mobile phones and record, right? People upload things. And you can’t just dismiss these as spreading rumors. These things are truths, right? And so, the authorities have no way to completely contain incidents. They can only control the traditional media.

Stella Chen: But I have seen some reporting, for example the media outlet Initium did some reporting on this before, where in situations like you’ve just said, the things people have posted themselves to we media like Weibo, WeChat and Douyin seem to be drowned out by reporting from official accounts from local governments, for example. So content posted by people doesn’t get the same level of traffic. Do you think this is something done deliberately by social media platforms?

Zhan Jiang: This is definitely deliberate. But you can’t simply just look at a platform like Douyin. This is a problem we face as we try to research such things – that we don’t have any idea when certain content was removed [from a platform]. Perhaps this or that post actually circulated for a while. Maybe it lived for four hours, or for six hours, and in some cases foreign media have even broadcast reports about it. But as a researcher you try to go back and look at it and you find that everything is gone. 

If you look at television coverage in Taiwan, for example, you find that a lot of broadcasters regularly use material like this sourced from people on the mainland who have shot video. These are an important part of their regular programming, particularly over the past two years on stories like COVID-19, or flooding, or certain stories about the property market and so on. They have media people who specialize in the collection of content from social media, and they have the resources to do this – unlike us. We should also note that platforms like Douyin are even more prioritized by the authorities in terms of restraints, more so than for other video platforms.

Stella Chen: Do you think these self-media will become a new main force in domestic disaster reporting in the future? Compared, for example, to the mainstream media?

Zhan Jiang:  It is possible, but they are unstable. The authorities can’t completely restrain these self-media, which is impossible from a practical standpoint. But restraints on self-media right now are quite stringent. It’s not about controlling everything, but about prioritization of what is controlled.

Of course, it’s not really a question anyway of whether everything can be controlled or not. In fact, the news about disasters has two sides, you can say. On the one hand, if you post a video about a flood happening at home in Shanxi or Henan, the authorities might not take any action at all, because this might simply be regarded as a natural disaster, right? There is no question of the government’s responsibility. And when the population impacted is huge, and it’s something everyone can see clearly, it’s difficult to keep information back. However, if something if having too much of an impact, then the time may come for them to take action.

Stella Chen: It’s never easy to know where the red line is.

Zhan Jiang: No, the red lines are always in flux. In a nutshell, it’s about restraining the negative, restraining negative news. This is not just about negative perspectives in the news, but also about negative comments and commentary.

Stella Chen: Just to change gears a bit, one issue that is getting a lot of attention when we talk about information being shared on breaking stories through social media is the spread of misinformation. How do you think the pros of social media sharing – for disaster stories, for example – can be balanced against the cons of false information?

Zhan Jiang: As for my views on self-media and misinformation, I can only say that this is the same problem around the world. So long as you have a free market there’s no reason to fear this sort of fake [information]. The key is to have someone out there fact-checking your misinformation. So if the government releases something untrue, people out there in the world can respond with credible information to compete.

This is really a question of having a free marketplace. What country in the world does not have false information? This is an issue that has been discussed for over a decade already, and I don’t think I can add much to it. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to a free market of ideas, what John Milton spoke about almost 400 years ago.

Stella Chen: Coming back to the question of disaster reporting and the stages you talked about earlier, I wonder if you could reflect on where we are now. You said earlier that you felt the Hu-Wen era had been relatively open. What environment are journalists facing now?

Zhan Jiang: Ten years ago, there were many things that still could be done, and even that you might be encouraged [as a journalist] to go and do. Such things are no longer possible. The emphasis now is on “the media being surnamed Party” (媒体姓党), which essentially means media must all be sons of the Party-Father. So now, regardless of whether you are a traditional party organ, a market-oriented media outlet or a  we-media outlet, you must abide by the Party’s instructions .

Stella Chen: Does this general change in the environment also impact foreign media working in China, or reporting on China?

Zhan Jiang: The impact has been huge. In particular, investigative reporting about China has pretty much disappeared. These journalists haven’t just left, they’ve been encouraged to leave. Those who feel quite pessimistic about the situation even suggest that it has returned to what we had in the pre-reform era.

Stella Chen: So clearly, you would say the media environment today has changed dramatically from what we saw 10 years ago?

Zhan Jiang: We can’t even compare the situation today to the situation 10 years ago. Consider that in 2009, Xinhua News Agency invited international media, mostly Western media, to have a global media summit, and Hu Jintao actually delivered a speech there. When I look back on that meeting, I think his speech was actually decent, you know. What did Hu Jintao say? He said that global media, foreign media reporting on China was becoming more and more extensive, that there were more reports and that the reports themselves were more expansive. This, he said, had a positive role in China’s social development and progress.

We had never seen a Chinese leader formally address the international media like this before, especially Western media. He was mostly talking about the Western media, you know? And now? They have become an enemy of the Party-State. They are now being called “anti-Chinese media” (反华媒体).

But just because we have grown silent now does not mean we don’t have thoughts. And certain things that are said right now are not really representative of what people think. China is complex in this way. Chinese talk about a unity of thought and action (知行合一) – what you think is how you act. But while that might work in a relatively relaxed climate, when the climate gets bad you put on your persona (人格面具). You say certain things and do certain things. You might role-play in different ways.

People weren’t like this 10 years ago. The public generally believed that the media should reveal the truth, that they should expose those things that are shameful. It’s quite different now. They feel that China is great and strong, and that Western media are blackening China’s image.

Stella Chen: Are there still ways that Chinese media can push ahead?

Zhan Jiang: You certainly can’t expect any breakthroughs in investigative reporting right now. It would be enough just to hope things do not continue sliding backward. Change could happen, but we can’t be too optimistic. One trend we can see right now, after all, is that young students in China no longer want to become journalists. Investigative journalists are nearly a thing of the past, and they face a lot of risk today.

Stella Chen

Stella Chen joined the China Media Project in 2021 as a senior researcher, responsible for daily CMP research and monitoring of the Chinese media and internet landscape. Stella has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Manchester, UK.

Zhan Jiang

A retired professor from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Zhan Jiang (展江) formerly worked as a journalist for more than a decade at a number of local newspapers and at China Central Television. Mr. Zhan was previously a professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the China Youth University for Political Sciences.