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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists
3. Commerce and Control: The Media's Evolution
The story of Chinese media since the 1990s is one of commercial growth and
political control. This uneasy policy alliance is critical to understanding the
domestic press today.
In the early 1980s, as supreme leader Deng Xiaoping propelled China along the path of economic reform and opening, a changing political climate brought a general revitalization of Chinese media. Reacting against the falsehood and emptiness of the Cultural Revolution, during which newspapers were effectively house organs of the Communist Party under Chairman Mao Zedong, media trended away from their former role as propaganda “mouthpieces” and sought greater public relevance. A more formal effort at media reform began in the mid-1980s, as a number of liberal senior officials, including former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei, spearheaded an effort to create a press law that, according to key drafters, would have sought to safeguard press freedom and to protect journalists.
When the notion of “media reform” re-emerged in the 1990s, it had a different character altogether.
In the 1990s, as China enhanced its trade ties with the outside world, it had to ready itself for the “coming of the wolves,” as competition from outside media was sometimes branded. This was done by the creation of domestic media conglomerates that could turn out modern, commercially savvy media products even as the party controlled the message under the banner of “guidance.” Change happened from within the existing media structure. Provincial-level party newspapers, for example, which were chock-full of propag and about official goings-on among senior cadres, began launching commercial spin-offs that could rake in sizable advertising revenue by commanding larger circulations.
The winning formula was to offer content relevant to China’s growing population of urban consumers,
On July 15, 2003, an official order known as Document 19 pulled the plug on dicey official publications by eliminating the unpopular practice of forced subscriptions. While the purpose of the order was to relieve the “peasants and the grassroots,” it served the further purpose of clearing the propaganda field of unessential noise and, in the view of senior party officials, increasing the effectiveness of key party mouthpieces. As early as the mid-1990s, some members of the party leadership had expressed alarm at the sharp decline in circulation for core media such as the People’s Daily, whose circulation had dropped roughly 70 percent from 1979 to 1996. By pulling funding from nonessential publications, party leaders could reduce both the national and the local burden, and at the same time invigorate the market by making media a contributor to the economy.
While media control remained the number one priority for the party leadership, commercialization did result in a number of developments for the press. Generally speaking, the reorientation of media toward the consumer meant content had to become more relevant and attractive. This brought a burst of lifestyle content, local news stories, and other consumer-oriented fare—a far cry from the official party papers. Even as control persists in Chinese media—most directly evidenced by crackdowns against particular publications seen to have made errors of “guidance”—an important gap has opened between coverage in the official party newspapers and that offered by commercial publications.
Breakthrough news coverage, commentary, and analysis are most often found in commercial outlets uch as China Newsweekly,
a magazine published by the state-run China News Service, and
While many cases of press supervision involved little more than party-sanctioned monitoring of low-level officials—“supervision by public opinion” had been listed in official documents as a recognized form of monitoring by the late 1980s—some of the best investigative reports of the past decade have been on par with Western standards. Chinese investigative reporting made important breakthroughs on a variety of topics—the rural AIDS epidemic for one—even when officials weren’t ready to address the issues.
The flip side of commercialization is a profit-driven mindset that, combined with limitations imposed by state media control, has led to a crisis of ethics in Chinese media, involving phenomena such as “news extortion” (forcing advertising contracts by threatening “watchdog” journalism), paid-for content, and the manufacturing of news stories. In 2005, for example, a regional newspaper in western China persuaded a young woman to donate her liver so it would have a news exclusive. These problems seem to be worsening in China, presenting new challenges and temptations for journalists.
Many journalists say that investigative reporting has regressed under Hu, and that even the media-produced internal party memos, or “internal references,” have been censored more vigorously. These memos are essentially compilations of news stories circulated among party leaders after having been deemed too sensitive for public consumption. Hu and core leaders have lately tweaked the terminology of press control in China, introducing fresher-sounding terms like “core values,” but the primacy of the Tiananmen legacy of “guidance” remains, and the principle is regularly instilled through the propaganda apparatus. While the official policy of control and commercialization continues to complicate the media environment in China, there is so far little sign within the party of a return to the kind of discussion of media reform that began in the mid-to-late 1980s. Discussions along these lines—for example, the need for a press law (which some free press supporters see as dangerous and others as promising)—are confined mostly to academic and professional circles.
Within China’s government (as opposed to the party), a number of notable moves have been made to improve access to state information. The State Council, the country’s chief administrative body, this year passed a kind of freedom of information law outlining procedures by which citizens may gain access to government information in a range of areas. The legislation is due to take effect in May 2008. Officials see the legislation as an important part in building transparent government, but major questions remain as to whether the ordinance can be enforced at a local level—and to what degree journalists will be allowed to take advantage of it. As the text of the legislation was released in April 2007, there were already hints that journalists would be treated as special cases, unable to use the law to obtain government information for news stories. Zhou Hanhua, an expert on freedom of information laws who played a key role in drafting the ordinance, told one Chinese newspaper in April that “the media’s right to interview and the citizen’s right to know are different.”
While some experts within China remain optimistic about the new legislation, there are already examples of similar ordinances failing at the local level because they are not backed up by political will. When a journalist in Shanghai, Ma Cheng, attempted in June 2006 to sue the City Planning Bureau for failing to release information despite a similar local ordinance, his case was dropped, and he was later dismissed by his newspaper under pressure from city officials. The Ma case serves as a reminder that political power, and not the rule of law, still holds sway in China, and that more fundamental political reform is necessary for journalism to thrive, professionally as well as commercially.