Growing Pains of China's Media

China's media still labor under tight control, despite promises to loosen up.
2008-10-01
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Two Chinese doctors read newspapers as they stand by for earthquake survivors at a hospital in Chengdu, in China's southwestern province of Sichuan on May 18, 2008.
Two Chinese doctors read newspapers as they stand by for earthquake survivors at a hospital in Chengdu, in China's southwestern province of Sichuan on May 18, 2008.
Photo: AFP/Teh Eng Koon

HONG KONGChinese society remains closed and its regime authoritarian following the highly successful Beijing Olympics, although some efforts have been made to boost the country's image in the eyes of the international community, media commentators say.

China promised greater media freedom as part of its bid to host the Olympics. It was promptly hit with several major news stories in the same year, including the devastating May 12 earthquake in Sichuan and the unrest among Tibetans, which began with peaceful protests that erupted into rioting in Lhasa on March 14.

Some reporting by domestic state-run Chinese media in English of protests for a Free Tibet in Beijing and elsewhere appeared to some to suggest a genuine flowering of reporting, free from the control of the Communist Party's powerful-but-obscure Central Propaganda Department.

But former state-run Xian television journalist Ma Xiaoming says that while some of the more sensitive incidents, such as the Free Tibet protests, were covered ahead of the Olympics, the domestic Chinese audience never saw these English-language reports, which were aimed at an international audience.

Now, if there's a problem with a site, they don't just shut down one computer. They shut down the entire data center."

Blogger Zhou Shuguang

"There's no way that you would be able to get news of that kind just by going to the regular domestic news sites," Ma said.

"This is a pose, to boost China's image in the eyes of the international community, to address some of the criticisms they have received in the past," he said.

Stories go unreported

"Nothing much has really changed. They still block, detain, and beat up anything that moves, and keep the lid on the free flow of information," said Ma, who said Beijing had been less concerned all along with the opinion of the International Olympics Committee (IOC) than with world public opinion.

"But in fact there were many things we didn't hear about [here in China]...for example, the mass detentions of petitioners in Beijing, just people wanting to complain to the government about something, who were shut up en masse in a detention center in Beijing. There was no reporting of that story," he said.

While foreign media were freed from getting permits to make reporting trips to other cities and provinces, the new rules appeared forgotten at times by officials in the heat of sensitive breaking stories.

The detention of two Japanese journalists in Kashgar, in China's northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and scuffles between security personnel and Hong Kong television crews filming the rush to buy tickets showed that the new orders hadn't necessarily filtered down to ground level.

And controls on China's growing body of bloggers and citizen journalists, often young people without formal journalism training, had grown as the Olympics approached.

Prominent blogger and citizen journalist Zhou Shuguang, known online as Zuola, who gained a following covering the "nailhouse" couple holding out against eviction in the southwestern city of Chongqing, said he had been allowed to cover that story without interference and report on a campaign in the southeastern port city of Xiamen against a planned chemical plant.

Warning to blogger

But just ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony, he received visits from local officials warning him against trying to travel to Beijing during the Olympics. Anywhere else was fine, just not Beijing, they said.

"I was told by one of them, a government official...that he read my blog every day," Zhou said.

"The controls have been extremely tight recently. Now, if there's a problem with a site, they don't just shut down one computerthey shut down the entire data center. It's very strict."

But according to the ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, the collision of values surrounding freedom of information that occurred is still likely to have an impact on Chinese officials.

"The Olympics was the occasion on which it was recognized that China's society is still very closed," said Huang, who was relieved of his editorship of the magazine after it published an expose of forced evictions in the eastern city of Jiangyin.

"In promising a freer media as part of the Olympics deal, China made a connection with the international community. But there is still a big gap between them. The authorities now are slowly beginning to recognize that gap. Some of this process has been very painful," Huang added.

Growing professionalism

But Huang also said the Chinese domestic media had grown in professionalism in recent months and years, despite constant government controls on what it could do.

"There has also been a recognition that there is a social attitude that is specific to the media, which has its own existence, whether or not you try to control it," he said. "Also, that sometimes you can control it and sometimes you can't. Now they are aware of the media as a social force."

Ma said the concept of press freedom in China had implications at many levels, and that information was blocked by the authorities in many different ways.

"We're not just talking about newsgathering. We're talking about the freedom of opinion, to gather news, and the freedom to publish or broadcast it. On top of that there is the freedom on the part of the audience to read, hear, or watch whatever they like," he said, citing jamming of international broadcasts by the authorities.

"It's the same with the Internet...There are a great many sites you can't access if you just use normal browsing methods, as opposed to special methods to get around the blockages," he said.

"There are huge stories and small stories every day which just pass the Chinese people by. That's why I tell people that they shouldn't bother commenting on current affairs. I'm not even sure that I should be commenting. Because opinions are formed from the facts, right? If you don't even know the true situation, how can you have an opinion about it?"

Milk scandal cover-up

The unfolding public health crisis sparked by the tainted milk powder scandala story kept under wraps until after the Olympics had concludedhas highlighted both to domestic and overseas audiences how the government approach to information focused on its restriction, rather than its usefulness to ordinary people.

Sanlu Group, the Shijiazhuang-based company at the center of the scare, was revealed to have asked for government help to cover up the extent of the problem.

And the official Communist Party People's Daily newspaper, in an apparent bid to regain public trust in the government, quoted Shijiazhuang city government spokesman Wang Jianguo as saying Sanlu Group had sought help in "managing" the media response to the case when it first learned of the matter on Aug. 2, six days before the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

China has already said the city government in Shijiazhuang, home to the Sanlu Group whose contaminated milk sparked a recall that has now spread worldwide, sat on a report from the company about the tainting for more than a month, while Beijing hosted the Olympic Games.

"Please, can the government increase control and coordination of the media, to create a good environment for the recall of the company's problem products," the People's Daily cited the letter from Sanlu as asking.

"This is to avoid whipping up the issue and creating a negative influence in society," it added.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Bai Fan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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