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CHINA'S MEDIA:

A STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE

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By James F. Scotton

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The Montréal Review, May 2011

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"New Media for a New China", edited by James F. Scotton and William A. Hachten, (Wiley-Blackwell, March 2010)

New Media for a New China is a timely introduction to the current state of the mass media in China and its growing role in the 21st Century global communication system. The book brings together an international cast of scholars to analyse the diverse roles of China's media, covering all the major industries (advertising, newspapers, broadcasting, magazines, film, TV, PR). It considers the position of China's media in the middle of the country's tremendous social, economic and political changes and also explores the concept of the 21st century as "China's Century" because of the nation's unprecedented growth.

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   Almost all the media in China -- the Xinhua national news agency, Central China Television (CCTV), some 2,100 newspapers, 9,000 periodicals, nearly 400 television stations, 200 radio stations and every book publisher-are owned by the government.    The exceptions are some Internet search engines that are privately owned but kept under close government watch.  The government spends huge sums monitoring the media to make sure it provides only "healthy, civilized news and information beneficial to the nation."  It is spending great sums on an international media campaign to show the world that China is a "harmonious society" with only peaceful intentions.  To do this, Xinhua and CCTV have launched satellite television programs in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Japanese and other languages.  China also reaches out through more than 300 Confucius centers in 80 countries to promote Chinese culture.

    This new media face of China is carefully crafted and even includes Western anchors on its international TV news programs.  But at the same time it is difficult to ignore the old media face that keeps appearing whenever the Chinese authorities are rattled by events within or outside the country.  When protesters in Egypt flocked into Cairo's largest public square in January, the word "Egypt" disappeared from Sina.com, a popular Chinese web site.  Echoes of China's 1989 student uprising in Beijing's huge Tiananmen Square were no doubt felt in that capital's corridors of power.  And this spring when Chinese dissidents tried to mobilize "strolling protests" by citizens along Shanghai's main shopping street, foreign journalists who tried to find out what was going on were detained and harassed.

     Despite the Chinese government's efforts, however, its control over China's media has been weakening in recent years.  The basic problem is that the government wants to own or totally control media content but it does not want to pay the costs of running the media.  The government has gradually withdrawn the subsidies that the media had depended on since Communist China was founded.  This has led to a basic conflict between the media and the government.  If newspapers, for example, have to charge readers more, they have to provide interesting material.  People are not willing to pay more for newspapers full of government propaganda.  Gradually the government began to let editors select the news as long as it was non-political.  Readership of newspapers that broke away from a strict diet of government propaganda boomed and advertisers quickly followed.  A new group of afternoon papers full of popular material became a huge media success story.  

    Radio also broke away from government content control -again as long as programs stayed away from politics.  Radio station managers quickly learned that talk radio -programs that even let listeners call in with complaints and problems- attracted large audiences.  Call-in programs about local problems -potholes, broken street lights, shoddy merchandise in the markets- were so popular that the hosts became local celebrities.  Especially popular were the late-night programs that let listeners talk about personal problems such as absent husbands and inattentive wives.  Some regional television programs discovered that programs on the "American Idol" model attracted huge audiences.  The "Mongolian Cow Yoghurt Super Star Contest"  (sponsored by a local dairy) got so many viewers (voting via cell phone for their favorites) that CCTV in Beijing had a big audience drop.

     The newspaper diet of crime, sex and features irritated some government officials but at least it solved the budget problem.  A larger problem arose, however, when editors found that readers were strongly attracted to stories about official incompetence and corruption.  Despite making the Beijing government uncomfortable, editors found that they could expose local corruption, boost circulation and generally escape serious consequences.  Southern Weekend, published in Guandong Province some 2,000 miles from Beijing, gained a national reputation for exposing corruption all over China.  Its editors told complaining government officials that unless it continued to be aggressive in attacking corruption, the paper would lose its readers to nearby Hong Kong competitors.  Caijing (Finance and Economy) magazine specialized in exposing corruption in the business community.  Caijing's editor, Hu Shuli, also led a campaign to expose the government's attempt to hide the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).  Caijing became required reading in China's business community and Hu was named 2003  "International Editor of the Year" by the World Press Review.

    The government reacted strongly to some of the anti-corruption stories but found it difficult to silence the publications or the editors.  For example, Hu Shuli was forced out of her job at Caijing in 2010 but was reported to be planning to move to another publication.  Another publication troublesome to Chinese authorities is Freezing Point,  that specializes in farm issues.  The government shut it down in 2006 for its aggressive reporting but there were so many public protests that it was allowed to reopen.  The editor, Li Datong, who had irritated the government many times over the years was not allowed to get his old job back.  Although government officials will take action when they believe an editor has just gone too far with some article, they find it more and more difficult to control these increasingly independent editors.  Editors throughout China continue to push against government controls.

    Perhaps even bigger threats to China's rulers are the Internet and cell phones. China has more than 400 million Internet users and more than 350 million cell phone users.  They represent an instant communication network.  The government has had the "Great Firewall" in place for years to block unwanted Internet messages.  In 2009 the government proposed adding a "Green Wall" by requiring all new computers to be equipped with filtering software.  The plan was dropped after massive resistance from Internet users.  The government does have a reported 50,000 people constantly monitoring web sites for any political threat. 

   Young people also use their mobile phones for both email and text messaging.  The government tries to monitor messages that go to large groups but the speed of cell phone messaging  makes it very difficult.  Especially irritating to the authorities are Twitter messages since it is virtually impossible to monitor the millions of short messages much less trace their origin.  As the technology becomes even more sophisticated -microblogging, for example, breaks up messages into small bits-  censors will be unable to block messages or even keep track of them.   Most Chinese on the Internet are looking for entertainment and chatting with friends.  But students will show anyone interested that they know how to find just about any information or Internet site they want.   The Chinese government still has firm control of the media in China, but the pressures for a freer media seem to be building steadily.

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James F. Scotton is Associate Professor of Journalism at Marquette University, Milwaukee. He has taught in China, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda, and has worked as a reporter, editorial writer, and editor with the Associated Press and newspapers in several states.

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