HONG KONG—China’s information explosion was once expected to blow traditional government media controls wide apart. But the Communist Party’s powerful Central Propaganda Department still wields decisive influence over what gets published, media professionals throughout China say.
“Newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations all have credibility problems, as they have many limitations,” a magazine editor in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian said.
“They are run by the propaganda departments of the party and have to report positive news,” he said.
Li Xinde, who runs the Web site Watchdog Net for Citizens and Public Opinion, agreed: “Print media are under the strict control of the propaganda department of the Party,” he told reporter Wu Jing.
“Every media outlet is under the control of a ‘mother-in-law.’ Though it is independent as a corporation, it has to face very strict censorship,” Li said.
The last decade saw the creation of 130 million netizens during an Internet boom that ushered in an era of unprecedented access to information and services.
They are run by the propaganda departments of the party and have to report positive news.
At the same time, the government itself was reporting thousands of incidents of civil unrest across the country, as official corruption spread amid lucrative property deals, and the gap between rich and poor grew ever wider.
As Internet access has become more and more widespread, ordinary people have begun joining in discussions on forums, blogs, and chatrooms across the land, posting topics of interest and discussing them.
Now, domestic news will often break online before it appears anywhere else, posted either by those directly involved, or leaked by journalists unable to publish through approved channels.
Wang Yi, a law professor at Chengdu University and a well-known online writer, said the Internet has contributed to two very different versions of what life in contemporary China is really like.
“The print media have been portraying one China while the online media have been portraying another China,” Wang said. “The print media and the online media belong to two separate and different worlds, and the topics they have been reporting or heatedly discussing are also totally different.”
“A great number of people have taken part in heated online discussions, and what they have said has had a great impact. On the contrary, the print media have remained virtually silent, and no one cares what they have to say,” she added.
This phenomenon has pushed traditional media to venture further into sensitive territory, experts said.
Yin-Ting Mak, former chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, said the Internet is already playing a large role in compelling the traditional media to change.
“Traditional media will feel the pressure if they fail to report what the Internet has reported,” Mak said. “People won’t read newspapers and magazines if they do not report what the Internet has reported.”
Beijing-based freelance writer Liu Xiaobo agreed. “As the online media have become increasingly free of restrictions, traditional media have realized that, even if they don't report or get involved in something, the online media will,” he said.
“As a result, they have been using the strategy of 'touching the outer edge of the penalty area' in news reporting.”
Mak said that anyone in China has the potential to be a citizen reporter. “On the Internet, one posts both the good and bad events one has witnessed, and the information is quickly spread to families through the Internet,” he said.
However, strict reporting curbs on sensitive topics mean that while any "citizen journalist" can now upload video of the latest riots or civil disobedience, any attempt to tell the story in its proper context and pass it on to others will quickly be met with official pressure on service providers and forum hosts, who will remove the offending post, sometimes within hours.
Meanwhile, highly effective online filters mean that anyone searching for key phrases—including the words "human rights," "democracy," and "June 4, 1989"—will draw a blank.
U.S.-based technology companies such as Cisco, Yahoo!, and Google have come under fire for toeing the line on Beijing’s requirements for censorship and monitoring of content.
While some important information frequently leaks through the cracks in the system for those who know where to look, most Chinese people still surf a World Wide Web with Chinese characteristics.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Wu Jing. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.