Posts Tagged ‘media’

China’s Troubled Media

Posted: August 11, 2014 in media
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Over the past few months, those who thought the state of Chinese journalism couldn’t possibly get any worse have sadly been proven wrong. A few weeks ago China’s chief censorship agency told Chinese reporters that they can’t pass information on to their foreign counterparts, nor can they independently publicize stories they find through their work. This is on top of newly required courses in Marxist journalism (AKA journalism that props up the Party). While it’s unlikely these regulations can or will be universally enforced, the intended message to journalists is clear: fall in line and keep your heads down.

This all fits with Xi Jinping’s overall approach since assuming power of squashing every hint of potential challenge. In the Telegraph, a well-known journalism professor recently estimated that “the number of journalists responsible for ‘independent, public-interest, negative or sensitive’ reports has fallen by 66 percent in the last three years.” This fits exactly with what I’ve seen. Among all the Chinese reporters I knew who were doing real investigative journalism two years ago, all but a few have shifted to more vanilla beats or left the field altogether.

Once upon a time, it was good to be an investigative journalist in China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw arguably the best officially sanctioned media atmosphere in PRC history. Muckraking private outlets like Caijing and Economic Observer sprouted up. Investigative journalist Wang Keqin came to prominence with stories on AIDS villages and securities fraud. And the Southern Media Group did a series of hard-hitting reports that actually prompted changes to long-standing government policies.

However, when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, a gradual regression began to take shape. New rules against cross-provincial reporting emerged that culled watchdog media; a few editors in the Southern Media Group were slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges; Caijing was put under pressure, prompting its star editor-in-chief Hu Shuli to jump ship; and Wang Keqin was unceremoniously pushed out of two separate newspapers.

Xi Jinping’s new government now appears to be accelerating this trend. But politics is only half of the story in the regression of Chinese journalism.

The internet has had the same disruptive effect on traditional media in China that it has in much of the rest of the world. Weibo, WeChat and a host of other social media sites, blogs and pseudo media have sprung up, grabbing market share from the traditional press. This is coupled with independent watchdog papers being watered down. The same provocative stories officials don’t want printed are usually the same ones that make people buy the papers. When repressive politics meet disruptive technology, it means tight budgets for independent papers that don’t get government subsidies. This trickles down to journalists who see their income squeezed and jobs cut.

One implication of this is journalists from respected independent media getting funneled out and ending up at state media (where they can have more money and better resources, but more ideological oversight and censorship). I’ve known of a few journalists that couldn’t bring themselves to leave journalism – either out of passion or because they lacked the skillset to go into another industry – so they reluctantly took jobs at state media after work at independent outlets dried up.

But what looks to be an even more acute implication of the current media atmosphere is good reporters getting pushed out of the industry completely. One of my former Economic Observer bosses, who’s been reporting for the past two decades, recently reflected on trends of the past few years saying that we’re seeing perhaps the biggest media brain drain ever. “People with dignity and passion get driven out of the newspaper business,” he told me.

In 2012, Jian Guanzhou, the reporter who’d broken the Sanlu milk powder scandal four years earlier, drove this point home when he finally decided to call it quits. “I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals,” he wrote on Weibo. “Now my ideal is dead, so I’ll get going. Take care, brothers!”

Working within China’s tightening media system entails an endless stream of moral dilemmas. If a story could be killed for political reasons, for instance, it might make a reporter think twice about pursuing it in the first place. In most cases, they get paid based on how much they publish. If the story isn’t published, they don’t get paid for it. Even if they’re willing to risk their necks to investigate and print these sensitive stories, the scope of allowable topics is shrinking, leading to moral and financial frustration. Many just can’t do it anymore and quit journalism to go into something more stable or morally straightforward. On the grand scale, as this happens and honest reporters with a moral compass get sifted out, corrupt and sycophantic peers take over.

There are no meaningful statistics, but in talking to several Chinese journalist friends over the past few months, there seems to be a feeling that the entire industry is getting dirtier. Making money through good honest reporting is a lot harder than it once was, meaning the allure of taking bribes and colluding with (or extorting) special interests becomes greater. So there may be some semblance of legitimacy to the government’s ostensible drive to “clean up” the media.

A sullying of the industry may be the downside, but this atmosphere is certainly conducive to keeping the CCP unchallenged. The days when the Party had to seriously worry about shutting down watchdog newspapers and clipping the wings of renegade reporters might be drawing to a close. Instead, it can just watch the papers struggle to stay afloat and the journalists sort themselves into less threatening positions…or out of the industry completely.

There are of course plenty of fantastic Chinese reporters still out there pushing what they can for the pittance they get in return. One friend reporting in the Southern Media Group recently told me that the tightening atmosphere makes him regret not pushing harder in earlier years when things were more open. But this is the new reality, which only looks to hold more heartbreak ahead. “For us reporters, new changes must happen,” he told me. “I just don’t know how they’ll go.”

This week China’s chief media regulator issued a statement  outlining new regulations for media organizations. They basically boil down to the following:

  • News organizations may not cite foreign media without permission.
  • News organizations must file with authorities when setting up an official Weibo account and assign a person to insure that only kosher topics gets tweeted.
  • Journalists should offer proper guidance of public opinion under the principle of focusing on positive propaganda.
  • People without journalist permits are barred from interviewing or reporting under the name of a news organization.
  • Online news sites should not publish any reports from a news source, freelance writer or NGO before the facts are verified.

Nothing too earth-shaking here, and these directives are hardly enforceable. However, they do present a clear message: The Party’s grip on the media will not be loosening one bit. If anything, it will tighten.

For years now there’s been speculation over whether Xi Jinping (and the rest of the new government) will maintain the status quo, be reformist or even head in the opposite direction and roll back reforms. This is an oversimplified debate. These things will happen and are already happening.

These new media directives are one of many recent examples of an overriding principle that’s hardly changed since 1979: Nearly everything is eligible for reform and a Communist Party retreat, except for the “Three Ps” – Propaganda, Personnel and the People’s Liberation Army.

Over the past few months I’ve spoken with a number of experts in fields ranging from gay rights to the environment who are very excited about the new leadership, and with good cause. Everywhere you look in China there seems to be the beginnings of actual reforms, or at least hints that the rigid status quo is going to change for the better.

Measures have been put in place to make leaders less pompous and overindulgent. After 24 years, public discussion has been re-opened on Hu Yaobang. Behemoth state monopolies are being put in check. Homosexuality is moving away from being officially taboo. It appears the model of “GDP growth ahead of all else” is being dismantled. China is improving its environmental transparency. A raft of long-overdue economic reforms are kicking off. The list goes on and on.

It’s still too early to say for sure, but this could very well be a new spring for civil society and long stigmatized groups.

But before we break out the champagne, let’s consider a few other recent signals from our bold new reformers. Last year Xi Jinping ordered more “thought control” in universities. Several times over the past year, Xi has commanded the PLA to remain “absolutely loyal” to the Communist Party above all else. There was the infamous Southern Weekly Incident illustrating an increasingly overbearing propaganda department. In the past year, two foreign correspondents have faced de facto expulsions for the first time since 1998, while new foreign journalists are waiting over a year to get their visas in some cases. And last, but certainly not least, China’s internet censorship apparatus is becoming ever-more sophisticated at weeding out “harmful” content.

So what’s the deal? Are these new leaders reformers or not? Obviously, it’s complicated, but you can make a pretty good prediction on the likelihood of a given reform just by establishing whether it threatens the Party’s absolute control over who educates the public, who holds any kind of political power, and which way the guns would face in the event of an uprising (AKA – Propaganda, Personnel, People’s Liberation Army).

Since the 1990s, China’s communist mandarins have religiously studied the downfall of the Soviet Union. The conclusions they’ve reached are that democratizing, opening the press and losing control over the military opened floodgates that resulted in the regime’s collapse. Xi Jinping gave a private speech to this effect to Party leaders in Guangdong last December on what was supposed to be his nod to Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour.”

Some have contrasted Xi’s private instructions to remember the Soviet Union with his efforts to align himself with Deng Xiaoping’s reformist legacy, but the two are hardly contradictory. Although he was unquestionably a real reformer that forever changed China for the better, Deng was also a firm believer in upholding absolute Party control over the Three Ps.

Xi, like Deng, recognizes that the Three Ps are non-negotiable in order to keep continued Party rule, and by extension (in their minds), a stable environment for other reforms to happen.

In some ways it may seem like the new government is more amenable to opening up the press. Xi has vowed to go after both “the tigers and the flies” (top leaders and low officials who are corrupt) and hinted that this involves more freedom for the press and the online public. But there will always be a cage over the press. If that cage gets bigger (and there’s been no meaningful indication that it actually will), it will be carefully designed to let reporters roam only in areas that serve the Party’s self-preserving interests. These new directives suggest that that the vetting process for those even allowed to roam in that cage is getting stricter.

So this is what we’ll need to get used to. Virtually everything outside the Three Ps is eligible for reform, and that’s good news. There’s still a lot of room for making China a better place within those confines. But the Three Ps will absolutely remain under complete Party control, barring some massive national movement that presents a crisis even greater than Tiananmen.

So far it seems that opening up and reforming in the allowable areas means locking down the three non-negotiables even more tightly so as to ensure the approved reforms don’t bring any unpredictability. So feel free to get your hopes up in many arenas. Just also recognize what’s not likely to ever happen.

On Chris Buckley’s Ousting

Posted: January 1, 2013 in media
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It’s just been revealed that New York Times reporter Chris Buckley failed to get his visa renewed and has been forced to leave the country. This is widely being viewed as retaliation by the Chinese government for an exposé the paper did on the hidden fortune of Premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives.

What’s especially raised eyebrows about the move is that Buckley had nothing to do with the offending report, while David Barboza, the author of the piece, had his visa renewed without issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t commenting on why it denied the visa, so any explanation is pure speculation. However, this is something I’ve thought for months could happen.

This year, without a doubt, has seen more muckraking from foreign journalists than ever before. Besides the NYT piece, Bloomberg reported bombshells like the wealth of Xi Jinping’s family and the enormous power descendants of the Eight Immortals still wield. And of course, western media reporting was integral to the fall of Bo Xilai.

These reports have proven it possible to dig up dirt on leaders at the very top, so one has to imagine other media outlets (or the same ones) are already working on more of these exposés. There are other very high leaders (who will remain nameless here) with rumors of extensive wealth and links to corruption that are likely even more vulnerable than Wen or Xi. It’s probably only a matter of time before somebody unacceptably high gets implicated in actual wrong-doing.

This leaves the Party with two choices: Address the issue systematically and accept the inevitable heightened scrutiny, or chop at the symptoms and try to scare people away from revealing the truth. Chris Buckley’s ouster makes pretty clear which choice is being pursued.

But why Buckley? It’s probably not as random as it seems. To expel David Barboza would be too explicit and make him a martyr. However, ousting someone at NYT unrelated to the damaging report sends a clear signal to the Western press, yet denies it the satisfaction of running headlines like “Journalist Behind Wen Exposé Expelled From China.”

But perhaps an even more compelling reason for ousting Buckley is the classic dissident’s dilemma. When Barboza started working on his Wen story, he must have known that it could result in his expulsion from China…or worse (Mike Forsythe received death threats after his piece on Xi Jinping). Yet he consciously accepted that risk and went ahead anyways. What’s harder to accept though is risking other people’s necks.

This is a technique the Party wholeheartedly embraces. It’s why Liu Xia (Liu Xiaobo’s wife) has been under house arrest for years despite not being charged with any crime. It’s why Chen Guangcheng’s family, right down to his six-year-old daughter, was held with him and virtually starved during his house arrest.

Dissidents and journalists accept (and often relish) the dangers of their work. Were David Barboza to be expelled, he’d have a pretty impressive claim to fame for the rest of his career. It’s much less impressive though to see a colleague pay for it by having to uproot his wife and young daughter from their home of 12 years.

If this is the case though, the CCP has (for the umpteenth time) completely miscalculated western journalists. This type of expulsion is the most it can do to scare them without causing a serious international incident…and it won’t work. Melissa Chan’s expulsion earlier this year obviously had no chilling effect and it’s unlikely Buckley’s will either. Instead, it’s nothing more than another bullet fired by the Party into the foot of its soft-power dreams.

Update:  Buckley was quoted in SCMP saying, “It’s a complicated situation, and I am not sure if you will use the word ‘expel’. I did not. My visa expired today and I did not receive a new visa. The situation is that I was working for Reuters until October, and then I took a new job with the New York Times. The visa that I was on was granted when I was working for Reuters, and I was in Beijing waiting for the Chinese authorities to grant me a new visa and accreditation to work for the New York Times. As of today, there was no word of approval.”

It’s within the realm of possibility that this was a bureaucratic trip up rather than a purposeful expulsion, and some folks at NYT have said they’re optimistic Buckley will be allowed back in. But given that NYT pushed the government to settle the issue before Buckley’s visa expired, the obvious political implications of the situation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s refusal to comment, it’s very hard to imagine there wasn’t intent to make Buckley leave.

A few days ago I looked at the two options the Party’s PR apparatus had in responding to the Chen Guangcheng situation:

  1. Show restraint. Acknowledge, but downplay the story as best it can until it blows over. Perhaps even allow a few commentaries that aren’t hyper-critical of the event to show that the leadership isn’t so insecure.
  2. Actively retaliate with the full extent of police and media power.

It’s now become pretty apparent that they learned nothing from The Liu Xiaobo Nobel PR debacle and have decided to go all in on option 2.

Many of Chen’s extended family and rescuers are still unaccounted for, have been interrogated, beaten, or been placed under soft detention. And several journalists have been blocked from reporting.

Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin whipped out the one-size fits all response to international disputes saying, “The US move is an interference in China’s internal affairs.”

The Chinese media is now on the offensive as well, using pretty much every official cliche you can imagine for responding to dissent and foreign involvement in China.  Here’s a few rough translations from recent Chinese media commentaries:

Beijing Daily:

Chen Guangcheng has become a tool and a pawn of the U.S. politicians to discredit China.

Chen doesn’t represent the interests of the majority of people, just the interests of his boss: The Western Anti-China forces.

Chen has been made famous and labeled as a “hero” and a “freedom fighter” by the US and western media – An anti-society, anti-establishment figure.

Paraphrase [kind of an awkward translation]: Chen and the people supporting him are very naïve to think they can use this event to interfere with and blackmail China. It won’t get any response from the 1.3 billion Chinese people, who are mature enough to realize it’s a conspiracy.

Just think if other countries’ embassies became highly interested in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, giving support to the people to revolt and reinvent the image of America. How would the US respond?

Ambassador Locke, since taking office, has used his duties to strain relations between China and the US instead of being devoted to the development of Sino-US relations. He rode economy class on his plane ride, he carried his bags himself, and used coupons to buy coffee – all as a show. Then he monitored Beijing air quality and published readings at the embassy, creating debate in Beijing city administration. Now he dares to bring Chen – a Chinese citizen – into the US embassy. These things are not in line with Locke’s role as an ambassador, but are meant to stir up contradictions in the whirlpool and it’s very obvious what motive is behind his behavior. [Loosely paraphrased from Chinese parable]: This farce directed by the US embassy gives a lesson to Chinese citizens: The US has ill intentions toward China.

Beijing News:

Diplomats from foreign governments stationed in other countries have the obligation to comply with the laws and respect the culture of the host country. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations does not give ambassadors the right to intervene in domestic issues and doesn’t give them “extraterritoriality” to flagrantly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Since World War II, marks of colonial rule like “extraterritoriality” and “consular jurisdiction” have been thrown in the trash bin of history.

When exploring the new power between China and the United States, one cannot simply use the Cold War mentality to look at how to deal with the differences between the two countries.

Beijing Youth Daily:

Chen Guangcheng left the US embassy in China on May 2nd, Ambassador Locke sent him to the hospital in person, pushing the wheelchair under the foreign media’s spotlight. He went beyond his duties as an American ambassador. Under normal circumstances it’s understandable that American officials give help to ordinary Chinese citizens, but Locke used American values to judge Chinese society and forced China to accept American values. His actions were a “show” and “performance” to attract attention, which is typical Western politician behavior. It’s impulsive and hypocritical. It’s not only offensive to Chinese, but the American media also criticizes such behavior.

In recent years, human rights has been relegated to a very secondary position in Sino-US relations. The era in which the US finds fault with China’s human rights should belong to the past. We are willing to make concessions to the relationship with sincerity and goodwill to maintain the overall situation of Sino-US relations. Any behavior that damages the overall situation of Sino-US relations has no future.

Beijing Times

The US is already stretched too wide and too thin in other countries, but it still shows too much concern about Chinese domestic issues. Under the flag of humanitarianism it interferes with other countries’ issues showing its intention of being the master of the world. This kind of behavior totally betrays international law and the principle of non-interference. But if other countries interfere with American internal affairs then the US will retaliate. This kind of logic is pure hegemonic logic.

The countries who have such logic always deliberately look for some tools to flaunt their own rights and the mistakes of others. In this case Chen Guangcheng is their new tool. When he was at the US embassy, he couldn’t find justice but only found himself being used by the US, which left him only frustration and disappointment. Any country during the period of transition and reform will face a lot of conflicts and contradictions. But during the past 30 years after Reform & Opening Up, China has not passed on its problems or contradictions to other countries, but rather it solved a lot of problems on its own and achieved great accomplishments and progress. But some individuals and countries with ulterior motives intend to exaggerate Chinese domestic contradictions in an attempt to discredit China. But this one of the contradictions that Chinese can solve on its own as it did in previous years without the need of others to intervene.