Steamed Buns: China and the media

“China shines. It radiates possibility. If it were a colour it would be the new black. My problem is that I remember the old darkness”.

Writing in the Griffith Review, former Age journalist Peter Ellingsen captured some of the conflicting essence of China in those short opening sentences to his Tiananmen Square evocation. Ellingsen was an eye witness and his account of the 1989 Beijing massacre is heart-wrenching. Despite that nagging memory it is shiny, modern China that now excites him with possibility.Ellingsen’s article is unusually tentative in one respect. Most foreign media representations of China focus on its struggles with democracy. This representation ignores a fundamental reality. China seeks détente with Western technology but refuses to adopt Western ideas about statecraft. The Chinese Communist Party has defied predictions of its demise, with a great deal of help from compliant western capital. The party has survived by applying strict censorship but also by judicious adaptation to the times. They still face a difficult problem from within. The billion-strong audience is capable of a communications revolution and it is unwise to assume there is undifferentiated opinion. Chinese journalists are on the frontline of that communications revolution. This post investigates how the government controls information and how journalists have adapted to these controls. A new breed of Chinese bloggers have opened up an online front in the battle between the nation’s growing affluence and government censorship requirements. China’s politicians, producers, and consumers create complicated, and often contradictory media patterns that will continue to make the field a fruitful subject of inquiry.

Setting the scope, I look at some of the factors China uses to define itself: law, politics, economics, technology and communications. Enormous legal and political changes have shaped Chinese media over the last 40 years and now the digital world is further cross-pollinating the landscape. The government controls the information flow helped by the profit imperative of western technological companies. China subverts the idea the Internet will bring about democratic change. Its growing clout in world affairs means their position will only harden. Despite sophisticated shields and compliant media, subversive messages are getting to the people. The less well regulated activities of bloggers and social networkers are subverting China Communist norms. Since the 1980s reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China has danced subtly with democracy while always keep the steady party hand at the tiller.

The People’s Republic of China has always been deeply uncomfortable with an independent fourth estate. The Communist Party has maintained a monopoly on state power for 60 years and sees the media as a strategic sector of control. A couple of weeks ago China blocked access to Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail in the latest attempt to stop online discussion of the Tiananmen crackdown. Despite the opening of the Chinese economy, the country’s information space is restricted by regulations inherited from pre-reform years. The main broadcasting stations and newspapers are controlled by the state while provincial and municipal authorities oversee regional and local newspapers and television stations. State propaganda messages dominate the press and the airwaves.

Journalist lobby body Freedom House sees China as middle of the road. It calls the country “partially free” with tight official control and a crackdown on dissent balancing increasing the apparent benefits of media commercialisation. Reporters Sans Frontières is less impressed ranks the country 167 out of 173 in its press freedom index. It says Chinese authorities continue to arrest journalists as a result of bad publicity from reports on corruption and nepotism. That so many journalists are so frequently jailed and attacked shows a willingness on the part of many of them to defy the machinery of state to get out dissenting messages.

In theory, the dissidents are supported by the constitution. China, unlike Australia, has a bill of rights. Usually more honoured in the breach, its existence shows a willingness to accept new ideas. Article 35 of China’s 1982 Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, press, assembly, association, demonstration, and protest. These admirable democratic rights have been trumped in practice by other more vaguely worded articles which prescribe the media’s right to infringe upon interests of the state. The media must keep state secrets, respect social ethics, and safeguard “the security, honour and interests of the motherland”. They are governed by the Communist “party principle” three elements: the media must accept the party’s ideology as its own; the media must spread the party’s programs, policies and directives; and the media must accept party leadership, organising principles and press policies. The fourth estate is a branch of the state. Those facets of journalism that serve wider purposes such as freedom of the press, objectivity, truthfulness and news values are all subordinate to the “party principle”.

The only watchdog allowed is the Communist Party itself. It controls the media through the Central Propaganda Department. This Orwellian creation is charged with dealing with politically sensitive news. As jailed journalist Dai Qing said in 2002, “In the Chinese media, only the weather reports can be believed”. But workers in the field are willing to address public issues in ways similar to their western counterparts. They subvert Chinese norms in subtle ways that are a testament to their journalistic craft. The view of Hu Zhibin is typical:
“If we have to play the role of government mouthpiece, we do it perfunctorily and at the same time we provide information. For instance, if the government announces new grain and oil price adjustments, we’ll put the old and new prices side by side so the people can see them clearly. If the government wants us to report on the achievements of the tenth five-year plan, we’ll try to point out some of the more interesting aspects, such as…how much the water shall be improved, achievements related to the interests of the people”.

In the 1980s Deng and his cadres were single-minded in their quest for fast-paced development and integration with international norms. Chinese media got more in tune with the “interests of the people” and began to break free of Communist shackles. Journalists began to write about economic inefficiencies and political corruption hoping that a freer media would promote economic reforms. However, that trend did not survive the government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989. According to American journalist Harrison E. Salisbury who was in Beijing at the time, the media were complicit in the crackdown:
“It is a propaganda blitz, and it is backed up by the biggest lie they could think of – Tiananmen did not happen. No one, no one, was shot in the Square. They have even put down the memory hole their original announcement of the twenty-three students killed there. Now all they talk about are the brave PLA soldiers”.

After Tiananmen and the collapse of Communism in Europe, stability became a paramount concern. The Chinese Communists tightened its grip on power as the party prepared for the transition from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s rule was paternalistic coupled with a central-supervised application of market economics. The state closed down avenues of opposition while beefing up state-controlled media. In 1996, the People’s Daily (the organ of the Communist Party central committee) was China’s top selling newspaper. The paper’s target readership was decision-makers, government officials, executives, experts and scholars but its circulation was flagging. It was selling 800,000 copies daily but most were dutifully bought by work units of the party state rather than by citizens wanting real news. Concerned party bosses did not solve the problem by allowing lively stories and objective analysis. Instead they issued a directive to work units across China urging extra subscriptions and circulation lifted quickly to 1.6 million. But because the solution was artificial, it sagged back to the previous number within months. As Ross Terrill said, it was a “piece of make-believe, unconnected with the appeal of the People’s Daily, or lack of it, to the Chinese people, serving only the self-image of the Chinese state”.

Despite these state vanity projects, the 1980s market reforms did leave a lasting imprint on the newspapers. When the government loosened control on the media, it encouraged them to create their own revenues. Advertising rose from an insignificant component to rivalling circulation as newspapers’ most important source of income. There is now more emphasis on business information especially in the non-state controlled mass-appeal market. There is also increasing commercialisation in tabloids and weekend editions that results in a vibrancy and diversity that Beijing is struggling to control. Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, says the spirit of professionalism imbues many journalists to take the initiative in developing stories on environmental issues, labour difficulties, health problems, land disputes, abuses of power and corruption.

The state does not actively encourage such initiative. The Freedom House “Freedom of the Press 2008” global survey of media independence found that Chinese media control and internet restrictions were tightened in 2007 and the number of jailed journalists and bloggers increased. In November 2007, China introduced an emergency response law which allowed media licences to be revoked if they reported “false information” about emergencies, natural disasters or the government response to them without prior authorisation. Other pre-emptive restrictions stopped discussions of diverse topics such as flaws in the legal system, human rights defenders, a Hunan province bridge collapse, and negotiations with Taiwan over the Olympic torch route. Journalists who try to get around these restrictions have suffered harassment, sackings, abuse and detention. At least 29 journalists and 51 cyber-dissidents were in prison at end 2007, more than any other country in the world.

Foreign journalists also face many restrictions in China. According to Beijing-based New York Times reporter Joseph Kahn, they can expect to be bugged, followed, and have their texts and e-mails monitored. He described “huge obstacles” to reporting, including the risks his Chinese accomplices face:
“We’re closely monitored, our phone is tapped, we’re subject to detention whenever we leave one of the major cities if we’re not travelling with permission and probably the biggest barrier to us is that the Chinese who work with us are subject to Chinese rules which are very different from the rules that apply to foreigners”.

Kahn was pessimistic about the possibility of any impending change to Chinese policies. At the time, preparations for the Beijing Olympics were in full swing. Kahn said authorities used the Olympics as an excuse to deny reforms in the name of stability. He added “it’s been going on for some time” and other excuses such as the 2010 Shanghai World Expo have been, and will continue to be, used to justify further crackdowns.

Many of these crackdowns involve the state oversight of the media consumption of its citizens. China has put in place the “Golden Shield” electronic surveillance system with the help of western technology companies using methods developed to counteract terrorism. The shield is a “massive, ubiquitous architecture of surveillance” which will integrate a gigantic online database with an all-encompassing surveillance network including speech and face recognition, closed-circuit television, smart cards, credit cards and Internet monitoring technology. Legal channels also support the system of censorship. In order to overcome technological difficulties monitoring audiovisual content with automated filtering technology, the State Administration for Film, Radio and Television issued a regulation in 2007 requiring 600,000 websites with such content to apply for permits. Huge numbers of government employees filter Internet content in web portals and internet cafes and punishment for breaking the rules is severe. A 2002 Harvard Law School study found a range of sites were filtered. They included sites that provided information on dissidents and democracy, public health and HIV, religion, Tibet, Taiwan, and worldwide higher learning institutions as well as news sites such as the BBC, CNN, Time, PBS, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post and Reuters. Censorship is also becoming more subtle. Pages that contain proscribed terms cease loading while Internet access is limited without explanation for minutes or sometimes hours. Users are often not aware they are being censored.

Foreign technology companies have been complicit in this sophisticated throttling of free speech. The Golden Shield could not have progressed without the help of US-based Lucent and Cisco, European wireless giants Nokia and Ericsson and Canada’s Nortel Networks. In 2004 many of the top international technology companies operating in China including Yahoo, Intel, Nokia and Ericsson formed the Beijing Association of Online Media which quickly morphed from a trade grouping into what Bandurski called “an active agent of the Chinese government’s initiative to stifle discussion of political issues”. Two years earlier Yahoo had signed a document called the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet industry in which it promised to inspect and monitor information on domestic and foreign websites and refuse access to those sites that “disseminate harmful information”. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said Yahoo had switched “from being an information gateway to an information gatekeeper”. For international companies, it was clear that profits were more important than the health of Chinese democracy.

Few people were especially worried about these technological constraints given China’s astonishing rapid growth and prosperity in the last two decades. Fons Tuinstra relates how when he first studied in China in 1994, the Internet was unknown, it cost $15 to send a fax, and his most important communication tool was a bicycle. At the time, the Chinese bureaucracy was heavily divided about the merits of the Internet. The security apparatus opposed it as it would make their task of keeping a lid on societal tensions much harder. But its concerns were overridden by economic development departments who saw the need to invest heavily in Internet rollout. Authorities also realised that too much censorship would cripple the useful function of using the Internet for government business. The Chinese government closely monitored the Internet not just to control content but also to listen to the increasingly powerful voice of online citizens. As Tuinstra put it:
“Like other media channels, the Internet is more often seen as an extension of the government than a meeting place for opposition so audiences deal with this inherent reality rather than expanding energy opposing it”.

China is now dealing with the paradox of using information technologies to drive growth in the integrated global economy, while at the same time maintaining the authoritarian power of the Communist single-party state. As a result, China walks an ambiguous road between promoting widespread access to the Internet while keeping comprehensive oversight using strategies such as content filtering, monitoring, deterrence, and self-censorship. Journalists must avoid stories about the military, ethnic conflict, religion (particularly the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong), and the internal workings of the party and Government. Yet economic reform has impacted the emerging professional culture of media organisations and working journalists, who improvise new reporting strategies to overcome official control and attract market success. And the Communist Party itself is evolving as much as the media that serves it. The 74 million member party has consolidated its iron grip precisely by transforming itself and its relationship with the public. It regularly uses opinion polling and sophisticated spin techniques in an effort to show greater responsiveness to public opinion while heading off alternative opinion at the pass.

While the Party moves with the times, there is less certainty as to what it now stands for. According to Zhou He, the death of Communist ideology is at the heart of most contradictions in China. He says that although China still claims itself to be in “the primitive stage of socialism”, it has tacitly turned itself into a bureaucratic capitalist society. David Harvey described China’s reform era political economy as “neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics”. Communism is no longer an ideology of values and ideas faithfully followed by adherents, but is instead “a ritualised rhetoric [which survives] because of the long convention and the justification it provides to the Communist Party”. Two different media worlds collide in this contradiction: the official ritualised public discourse of the media and a private discourse being explored by blogs. While the mainstream media is staid under the party’s watchful eye, the less well-regulated blogging platform allows for a range of newly emerging ideologies that run a full gamut from liberalism, conservatism, new-leftism, nationalism, cynicism, materialism, and consumerism. This plethora of opinions offers the best hope for a more democratic China.

Blogging was slow to take off in China due to the popularity of bulletin boards and chat rooms in the early 2000s. It took the sexual exploits of Lee Li under the pseudonym of Mu Zi Mei to bring blogging into the mainstream. Her blog about the minutiae of her sex life made her famous and brought the technology to public attention. Li tapped into the zeitgeist at a time when Sex and the City episodes were among the most popular DVDs in China. The popularisation of Li’s blog made blogging the hottest keyword in Chinese search engines. After attracting praise and condemnation in equal measure, the government finally stepped in. After she was strongly criticised by the state-run Beijing Evening News, her book was banned and she shut down the website.

Li’s exposure showed the Chinese blogosphere could allow many different political views and ideas to flourish that were previously unavailable. Because China’s traditional press is tightly controlled, bloggers often break news and provide provocative commentary. Many are written by mainstream journalists who cannot speak out at newspapers. Blogs played a prominent role in spreading news and information about the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Bloggers have also taken to using euphemisms to get around keyword filtering to pass around banned material and have also used tactics such as changing pseudonyms and IP addresses or hiding behind proxy servers to sidestep government control. Despite the Golden Shield, the Internet still enjoys greater freedom than other Chinese media platforms. Luwei (Rose) Luqiu, the executive news editor of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, sidelines her broadcasting work with a blog called Rose Garden which focuses on analysing news and current affairs and gets two million regular readers across China. She covers the international tours of Chinese leaders such as Hu Jintao and says what interests her readers is the human aspect of government; something she says is forbidden in China’s news media. Although the blog’s portal server is in mainland China and therefore must obey Beijing regulations about restrictions on conducting interviews and avoiding sensitive key words, Luqiu is able to link to her broadcast stories, and write about politics, the Cultural Revolution, and democracy.

Luqiu, Mu Zimei and others have shown how apparently apolitical media practices influence the way people think about politics, culture and society. The ease of publishing a blog makes it an attractive and potentially dangerous weapon. According to Asian studies scholar Haiqing Yu, 2005 was “the year of Chinese blogging”. Two of the largest Chinese Internet Service Providers, and, sponsored competitions to stimulate blog usage while a series of “blogger events” such as the group production of satirical on-line mash-up movies (“Steamed Buns”) and videos (“A Hard Day’s Night”) reflected the general trend of cultural transformation. While the movies and videos showed playful spirit – with “Steamed Buns” becoming a synonym for spoof – the authors in each case denied any political purpose or innuendo. Nevertheless, references to contemporary Chinese politics abound in these works and the pieces were characterised by mockery, paradox, sarcasm, and deliberate misuse and misinterpretation of mainstream ideology. The blog Massage Milk uses the apparently innocuous motto “dai san ge biao” which literally means “wearing three watches”. However, it is also a pun on “three represents”, which was a slogan of former leader Jiang Zemin which was learned by all Chinese students. Meanwhile Dog Daily purports to gather news about dogs but the references are to humans. This proliferation of consumer choice is destroying the claim of the 2 percent ruling elite of a “hegemonic mandate” over the cultural consumption of the other 98 percent. The consumption of blogs has become a process of subtle resistance.

There are now signs that the elite understands the power of blogging and has started to crack down on some of its more open samizdat dissidents. Last month, the Committee to Project Journalists included China on a list of the ten worst places to blog. They said that despite having more than 300 million people online, Chinese authorities maintain the world’s most comprehensive online censorship program which relies on service providers to filter searches, block critical web sites, delete objectionable content, and monitor e-mail traffic. The crackdowns have forced international watchdogs to re-assess the fundamental meaning of what it was to be a journalist. In 1999, Ann Cooper, the then-executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), noted how her organisation had to decide whether to take up the cases of six Chinese bloggers arrested for “anti-government” or “subversive” messages. While none of the bloggers were professional journalists, CPJ reasoned they were “acting journalistically” by disseminating news, information and opinion and took up the case. Since then the CPJ has defended similar writers in Cuba, Malaysia, Iran and elsewhere. According to Cooper, these early Chinese bloggers have played a trailblazing role in forcing CPJ and American journalists as a whole to re-consider what it is to be a reporter and move the debate along from “who is a journalist?” to “what is journalism?” This is a question that Chinese authorities are also struggling to grapple with as it deals with a tidal wave of new media and new views.

These examples of “shiny China” sit uneasily next to the state-sponsored “old darkness”. Ellingsen’s contradictions have become the hallmark of modern Chinese media. While the state-dominated press and broadcasters serve the “party principle”, Chinese journalists continue to write critically about important issues. And while the media have been hamstrung by a laundry list of restrictions, commercial imperatives are slowly forcing change. Similarly, the state is using sophisticated technology to enforce digital rule on the Internet with the help of foreign companies yet new actors such as bloggers have launched a subtle resistance that is forcing a re-definition of what journalism is and what it is capable of doing in China. While it remains far from clear that the nation will embrace any lasting democracy, the Chinese media is diverse enough to accommodate a wide range of critical voices. The government may find the democratisation of media harder to handle than democracy itself.

5 thoughts on “Steamed Buns: China and the media

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