Falling Short: Commerce and Control: The Media’s Evolution

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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

The massacre of demonstrators around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, marked a violent interruption to the many hopes cherished by Chinese reformers. Substantive press reform was among the casualties.

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.

The political events of spring 1989 brought to a swift end any attempts to forge a new, more independent role for the media. In the aftermath of June 4, ousted Premier Zhao Ziyang, a reformist, was faulted for failing to rein in news media, which had voiced support for demonstrators, and for letting the situation get out of hand. China’s leader ascendant, Jiang Zemin, crafted a new supreme principle for party media control: “guidance of public opinion,” the idea that the party would strictly control messages to the public in order to maintain its hold on power and achieve social stability.

When the notion of “media reform” re-emerged in the 1990s, it had a different character altogether. Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” of 1992, in which he visited key economic bases in south China, gave a shot of adrenaline to commercial reform nationwide. Media, too, began to commercialize, albeit more slowly because of their central role in party politics. By the mid-1990s, a host of new commercial newspapers, magazines, and television programs was coming onto the market. The notion of the media as an “industry” was itself a rather revolutionary change for China.

In many ways, the story of Chinese media since the 1990s is the story of commercialization. While political controls on the news remained tight after June 1989, media were swept up in the changes of the day. The country’s priorities lay with economic reform, and it was as politically important to encourage change as it was to maintain control. In other words, controlling the message in an era of social and economic transition required a new approach that retained the principle of party “guidance” while allowing the changes necessary for strategic competitiveness. Understanding this uneasy policy alliance is critical to understanding the state of Chinese media since 1989, and especially today.

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 propaganda about official goings-on among senior cadres, began launching commercial spin-offs that could rake in sizable advertising revenue by commanding larger circulations.


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The winning formula was to offer content relevant to China’s growing population of urban consumers, who were willing to pay at the newsstand. Metropolitan newspapers were the most representative of this change in the 1990s. By mid-decade, Chutian Metropolis Daily, a metro daily launched in the Yangtze River city of Wuhan, was reaching more than one in 10 local residents, with a total circulation surpassing one million. But the changes were happening almost everywhere. Even China Central Television, the broadcast network controlled by party leaders in Beijing, developed programs such as “News Probe,” an investigative newsmagazine styled after “60 Minutes” and launched in 1996.

Direct political motivations were also behind media commercialization in the 1990s. One systemic problem had become clear: Government offices that held publishing licenses and received central government subsidies for licensed periodicals were using their publications to squeeze money from local governments by requiring them to subscribe to this or that official pamphlet. The claim of these publications on central government coffers was burdensome in itself. Even more troubling, though, was the way they sapped the fiscal resources of local governments and residents. By 1996, more than 50 percent of China’s 2,100 registered newspapers relied almost exclusively on public-fund subscriptions. In effect, newspaper subscriptions amounted to a form of indirect taxation.

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 such as China Newsweekly, a magazine published by the state-run China News Service, and Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), a newspaper spun off from Guangdong province’s major party paper. The seeming irony is the development of a kind of nascent journalistic independence at the intersection of commercialization and professionalism (a product of China’s pre-Communist journalistic tradition and increased contact with the Western media), but still within the context of the party media apparatus.

The 1990s also saw a relative surge in watchdog journalism, or what the Chinese call “supervision by public opinion” (yulun jiandu). 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.

Political conditions remain the biggest obstacle to healthy journalism. When President Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, there were many, including some journalists, who hoped he would deal more tolerantly with the press. Hu’s media policy, introduced early in his tenure, was called the “three closenesses”—closeness to reality, to the masses, and to true life. It boiled down to less staid and more enjoyable content, and was a reaffirmation of the commercialization efforts that had promoted media relevant to the public but still under party control. Hopes for fundamental change, which crested during the brief period of openness that followed the cover-up of the SARS epidemic, were dashed in subsequent press crackdowns: against a group of 10 publications in the summer of 2003, against Xin Jing Bao (The Beijing News) in December 2005, and against the weekly Bing Dian (Freezing Point) in January 2006. In the Xin Jing Bao case, Chief Editor Yang Bin and two other senior editors were removed after the newspaper reported on a crackdown against protesting farmers in which six people were killed. The next month, the two top editors at Freezing Point were removed and the paper briefly suspended after it ran an essay by historian Yuan Weishi criticizing the nationalist bent of Chinese history textbooks.

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 and policy-making body, passed a kind of freedom of information law in 2007 that outlined procedures by which citizens may gain access to government information. The legislation took effect in May 2008. Officials see the measure 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, 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 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 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.

» continue to Chapter 4:
Inwardly Restricted: Domestic Repression Remains

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