"Evolution, not revolution": The State of the Chinese Media

Posted in China , Asia | 16-Aug-04 | Author: Janis Haize (Pseudonym)

Different newspapers - different views ?
Different newspapers - different views ?
On June 3rd, the day before the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, an editor of a prominent Beijing daily met me at the café of an upscale hotel in the center of the capital. It was no accident that she chose a table behind a large pillar and though she didn’t make her unease known right away, her chain-smoking and shifty eyes gave her away. “There is a rumor that we have too many contacts with foreigners” she told me. “That could be dangerous for us”. Her chief editor alluded to this, as well as the politically sensitive day the next day, and urged her to be “careful” in meeting a foreign journalist.

In three cities in China—Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing—interviews with editors, journalists and activists revealed a media landscape that is, like many things in China, shifting faster than the government and society can keep up.

China is still very much a totalitarian society. The Tiananmen anniversary sent a chill through the journalistic community and no one would speak about it on the record, especially with word getting around as the anniversary approached of leading dissidents—such as Liu Xiaobo, Hu Jia and Ding Zilin—being placed under house arrest, and others such as Dr. Jiang Yanyong and his wife and Dr. Hua Zhongwei disappearing altogether. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranked China is the sixth worst place in the world to be a journalist, China incarcerates more journalists than any other country, with forty-one currently imprisoned. Even China’s official press acknowledges this noting recently that journalism has “become the third most dangerous career in China, following coal mining and police work.”

Every Chinese journalist knows that writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre, directly criticizing the central government or saying something supportive about Taiwanese independence is a road to trouble. But as in other totalitarian societies it is self-censorship and the ambiguous and oft shifting line of what is acceptable that marks the daily efforts of Chinese journalists in the most profound way.

The Beijing publication Business Watch recently found itself on the wrong side of that line. In a story in its March edition of this year, it reported on massive loans totaling over 700 billion Yuan secured by the Mayor of Tianjin, Dai Xiang. The story alleged that these loans would be impossible for the township to pay back because they were being funneled into infrastructure. Bad loans are a hot story in China as economists point to widespread irresponsible loaning practices of Chinese banks as a potential disaster, both to China and a world economy that has grown increasingly dependent on its robust growth. In recent years the government has tolerated investigative journalism as a helpful means to expose corruption and bad business practices. But Business Watch crossed the line because Dai Xiang is a powerful man; as the former Governor of the People’s Bank of China from 1995 till 2002 he still wields enormous influence. The government was also upset by the timing of the story which broke during the annual convention of the Communist Party of China. As this was the third time Business Watch had fallen afoul of the government it was forced by the propaganda department to cease publication for two months and print an apology in its next edition.

The Business Watch saga offers a fine example of the dangers of an aggressive editor seeking to distinguish his or her publication in today’s China. The publication doesn’t have the market share of The Economic Observer or Caijing and it hoped to move up a notch by printing the Dai Xiang story. But it was a gamble that the editors of The Economic Observer decided not to take. The journalist who broke the story with Business Watch is a staff reporter for The Economic Observer but when he approached the editors they decided to pass.

But the result of such gambles can also be more dangerous than simply being shut down by the government. And they can also pay off quite handsomely.

Perhaps the best known Chinese publication outside of China these days is the –bi-weekly (soon to be weekly) business magazine Caijing. The spirited Editor-in-Chief, Hu Shuli, a veteran of the Workers Daily, has become a darling of the international press with her magazine’s aggressive investigative reporting exposing the corrupt business practices that have flourished in China’s quasi-capitalist society.

Caijing’s big break came with a story in August of 2001 by Ling Huawei exposing the inflated earnings of a company called Guangxia (whose stock is known as “Yinchuan”). Its earnings reports sent its stock skyrocketing on the Shenzen exchange with Caijing noting “the price had increased eight times over since May 19, 1999 and won Guangxia a second place spot on the list of biggest gainers on the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges for 2000.” But Ling Huawei’s story exposed that their claims of huge exports to Germany were fabrications. The stock plummeted from 33 to 7 RNB and the CEO, Li Youqiang, and the Chief Auditor, Liu Jiarong, were both given two and half year prison sentences. It was a “first time for the media” to break such a story and have such a direct effect, noted Hu proudly. It was such a big story that when the Enron scandal broke in the U.S. it was called “the American Yinchaun”.

After sharing her pride at breaking this landmark story Hu darkly noted “everyone thought it was very dangerous to report that story.” She feared for the safety of Ling Huawei and decided to secure insurance (life or injuries) for all her journalists to help defend them from the repercussions of reporting such stories. Hu believes that Caijing is the only publication in China providing its journalists with such protection. Clearly the competition within Chinese media is fostering a new kind of boldness, one which the government is ambivalent about and it doesn’t adequately protect its practitioners. As Sophie Beach, a Research Associate for the Asia Division of the CPJ notes, “Now that the media is opening up there is more of a chance to report on crime, corruption and social issues but there isn’t the rule of law to protect journalists”.

Chinese media - information or propaganda ?
Chinese media - information or propaganda ?
Working in an increasingly dangerous environment has only galvanized some Chinese journalists to pursue their craft.

Zhang Ping was Editor of the Guangzhou based Southern Weekend, considered until very recently the most progressive publication in China. The newspaper’s investigative reports had irritated the government in the past but a story in 2001 that linked a crime wave with problems in the rural world lead to Zhang Ping finally being pushed out. Once again the ambiguous line of what is permissible in China was crossed as the government, sensitive to charges that its hallowed economic development is leaving behind a huge number of people in the communist country, was offended. Southern Weekend has since fallen far. The newspaper has been effectively castrated by the government by threats of closure and interference in its editorial process and is unable to pursue the sort of groundbreaking stories that brought it notoriety and a loyal readership. Perhaps the process of cowing this once brave publication was completed this year as an official from the Guangdong Propaganda Bureau, Zhang Dongming, was installed as their Editor-in-Chief. They refused to even speak to a foreign journalist interested in their story.

But Guangzhou remains China’s most progressive media city and Zhang Ping one of its leading journalists. After a stint as a fellow at Berkeley, Zhang Ping has taken over the editor position of the new weekly publication The Bund. It is a common mistake to assume that Shanghai, with its dazzling development projects, vibrant urban life and large expatriate community, would have one of China’s most developed media markets. Rather, Shanghai lags far behind Guangzhou and China in terms of cutting-edge publications pushing the limits of free expression. The relatively new Oriental Morning Post has made inroads in this respect but sticks safely to business issues and no other publication has pushed the limit. Zhang Ping notes that provincial cities like Zhengzhou, Chengdu and Wuhan have better media markets than Shanghai and says “Shanghai is a backwater”. He points out that much of the success of Shanghai has come due to government largesse and its channeling of overseas business interests into the area rather than from specifically local ingenuity. Many people think that there is an unspoken pact within the media to not anger the government with controversial stories in return for the its continued support of the municipality’s development; the fear of the media in Shanghai is that if they were to expose some sort scandal it could endanger this supportive relationship and outrage a readership who have benefited so handsomely from Shanghai’s growth. A tour through Shanghai, whose skyline is an amalgamation of modern skyscrapers and the cranes building them, takes you down city blocks littered with construction projects. Considering the endemic corruption that has plagued China it’s not a stretch to think that some massive scandals are going unreported as the media looks the other way. The question is how would people feel if the media started reporting those scandals and development was slowed as a result?

But Zhang Ping hopes to change that with The Bund. Named for Shanghai’s famous waterfront strip that previously served as the cities de facto Wall Street (which it resembles with its neo-classical architecture), it is now home to more camera-toting tourists than bankers as China’s politicians have pushed the business sector across the river to Pudong. Zhang Ping is hoping to revitalize the name The Bund from its increasingly quaint form and charge it with new meaning. He speaks of “liberating” the press in Shanghai with a wry grin.

“There was no journalism ten years ago, only propaganda”, Zhang Ping notes, and while too modest to take credit his reputation around China underscores a man who has done as much as any other journalist in that time to bring more a more honest form of journalism to China. He notes that Jiang Zemin said that journalists should be politicians before they are journalists. Because this is China, Zhang Ping doesn’t say that his work involves letting journalists be solely journalists but everything about his work says just that. Instead he declares, “It is a well known saying among journalists that we should educate the government and the people.”

But Zhang Ping also knows that many “people in China think that the media in Guangdong is too liberal” and he laments that “I don’t want to be a teacher but sometimes you have to”, speaking about the still low educational level of many Chinese and the necessity of having to lead people in China to a truth they would sometimes rather not see. But rather than wallow in a martyr’s cause, Zhang Ping likes to point to the victories of Chinese journalism during the last ten years. He points out that “due to globalization, there is no difference in reporting on some kinds of items like culture, economics and sports” and the conversation turns to the reporting of the Iraq War, which was covered much more robustly than the first Gulf War. Only one journalist, from the official Xinhua News Agency, reported from that war but more than 100 Chinese journalists reported from the recent war in Iraq, some even embedded with US troops. Increasingly, Chinese journalists can report on whatever they want as long as they don’t cross the government’s red line.

Clearly this is not a perfect form of journalism. Independent reporting is one of the pillars of civil society and one of society’s most important checks on the power of government. But despite the tense atmosphere in the country during the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square repression, much progress can be noted since the dark days following those tragic events. Indeed some say that the government has relaxed its grip on the media in part to reach out to the people after its heavy-handed tactics on Tiananmen Square. The psychological scar of June 4th, 1989, looms large in the subconscious of the country, but so are other recent harrowing eras like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese seem in large part to crave the continued steady development of their country and earnestly want to avoid the traumatic clashes of fifteen years ago. As the editor of the Economic Observer put it to me, “We want evolution, not revolution”.