Falling Short: The Media Managers

The Media Managers

An array of committees and agencies collaborate to promote the official line. For party officials, ‘propaganda’ is no dirty word.

Among party officials responsible for media content, the word xuanchuan, or “propaganda,” does not have a negative connotation. In recognition of the discomfort it evokes among foreigners, however, the department overseeing China’s media was renamed in 1998—in English only—from Central Propaganda Department to Central Publicity Department. (CPJ uses the Chinese translation elsewhere in this report.)

Under the leadership of Politburo Standing Committee Member Li Changchun and Publicity Department Director Liu Yunshan, the Central Publicity Department (CPD) and its local branch offices scrutinize appointments of media managers, keep media abreast of issues to stress in reports, and inform managers via telephone conversations of topics to avoid. Groups of senior cadres working in yueping xiaozu or “monthly evaluation small groups” critique news coverage seen as inaccurate or politically undesirable, providing the written rationale for how news content should conform to the wishes of the party. News content is also monitored by media employees with close ties to the Publicity Department whose charge is to protect their organizations from making political “mistakes.”

The CPD’s hold on the media is facilitated by intimate collaboration with state institutions such as the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), which frequently issue regulations, reminders, and reprimands restricting the conditions under which Chinese journalists can report the news. For example, in November 2006 the CPD and GAPP criticized the Beijing-based weekly Lifeweek for running a cover story on the 30th anniversary of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, along with a photo of Mao Zedong’s last wife, Jiang Qing, on trial for persecuting Communist leaders and attempting to seize power. (She eventually committed suicide while serving a commuted death sentence.) In January 2007, according to the South China Morning Post, the CPD issued an internal regulation requiring media to seek permission prior to reporting on major historic events involving revolutionary leaders or controversial political figures. Chinese media were later instructed, at a meeting held by SARFT, to avoid reporting on 20 specific historical events and issues, including the 1957 antirightist campaign affecting as many as one million people, the Cultural Revolution, the flashy lifestyles of China’s newly wealthy, and the debate over media freedom.

Openly flouting CPD directives can lead to immediate closure of a media outlet or precipitate an investigation of editors or journalists, leading to imprisonment on charges that, in recent years, have included corruption, leaking state secrets, false reporting, inciting unrest, and political subversion. Relatively few journalists (as a proportion of the country’s total number) experience repression directly, which is due in large part to financial incentives for self-censorship, or performance-based salary schemes in which journalists receive payment only for reports deemed politically acceptable. Many Chinese reporters steer clear of controversy to receive higher financial compensation.

Areas of the media industry that have been difficult to “manage” are privately owned Internet sites and blogs that feature content concerning military affairs, foreign relations, and protests in Tibet and Xinjiang. China had nearly 47 million active bloggers in 2007 and some 210 million Internet users by 2008, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. To monitor content, Internet portals employ computerized “filters” based on regularly updated lists of politically sensitive terms. In-house censors, some of whom work for state organizations, delete undesirable content and shut down blogs that display pornography, directly challenge party ideology, or advocate political activism. Despite attempts to tighten control over the Internet, growing numbers of Chinese have access to large amounts of information. In the blogosphere, the influence of propaganda has waned and millions of Chinese enjoy unprecedented freedom to articulate coded or vaguely worded dissent.

» return to Chapter 5:
Censorship at Work: The Newsroom in China