Remarkable changes are taking place in the news media in China, but they are not getting much attention elsewhere in the world. Journalists in China grow up in a culture that expects the news media to serve the interests ofthe government. Traditionally, they have seen their job in terms not only of reflecting government policy—they would call this “educating the public”—but also helping maintain social stability and promoting economic growth.
Whether or not in their private thoughts they are concerned about the arrests of political dissidents, many journalists have lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, or they have heard their parents talk about the misery it brought. They do not want to see their country go through that kind of turmoil again. In other words, their concerns about the need to maintain stability are real and ingrained.
What does this mean to Chinese journalists? For them, getting to the scene of a flood or a plane crash as fast as possible is not as important as reporting what is being done by the government to battle the flood or improve the safety of air travel. Journalists in China are not trained to seek out the dramatic, controversial, suspect or contradictory elements in a story.
But this tradition is slipping away. Listen carefully to a growing number of journalists in China and you’ll hear a recurrent theme, expressed cautiously and variously, but the thrust is pretty much the same: “We want to be good journalists. We don’t want to overthrow the government or start a revolution. We just want to report the news.”
Where do they get these new ideas? Well, a lot of them have traveled and studied in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the West. Others frequently read American, British and other newspapers and magazines, or they spend time on the Internet. Over the years a considerable number of Western journalists have also gone to China to train writers, reporters and producers. All of these activities have produced some lasting friendships between American and Chinese journalists. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many of the top Chinese journalists are eager to send their staff to the West for training, and this certainly implies some kind of endorsement, perhaps even admiration, of the Western approach to news.
But admiration is certainly not universal. Like many Americans, many Chinese are troubled about certain aspects of American news reporting, particularly sensationalism, invasion of privacy, ambush journalism and so on. It’s equally important to note that the Chinese see what has happened to the news media in Russia, and they want to avoid the blatant partisanship and tabloid mentality that plagues so much of journalism in that country.
In China, some journalists, particularly in the south and the coastal areas, chafe at restrictions imposed by Beijing, especially the requirement that they must wait for the Xinhua News Agency version of certain kinds of stories, even breaking stories like the devastating floods last winter in southern China. (Xinhua is the government-operated wire service.) What’s interesting about this is that their complaint is not so much political as professional, that is to say, they think they can do a better job, get better quotes and details and pictures, than Xinhua.
A Marketplace Press Emerges
But for all their desire to “just be good reporters,” it’s unlikely that journalists in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could pull it off on their own. The really fascinating aspect about the news media in China is that the strongest impetus for what we might call a “marketplace press” is coming not from the newsrooms but from the business side, from the publishers, and from advertising departments. And it’s not that publishers and the advertising sales forces are burning with a desire for a Chinese version of the First Amendment. It’s simply that they want to make a profit and, to do that, they need advertising; and to get more advertising, they need bigger circulation and audience numbers.
In fact, you might say that advertising is the driving force for change in the news media in China and, in my opinion, it’s unstoppable. It’s one thing for the government to throw a few rebellious journalists into prison, but it is quite another challenge—in many ways, a more difficult one—to deal with the huge and increasing numbers of very aggressive ad salespeople throughout the country. As one might expect, advertising is creating media competition, particularly in the print press. Consumers are becoming more selective about the publications they read and this, in turn, compels editors and publishers to pay a lot more attention to the demands of the market.
Comparing Chinese and American Journalism
One way to assess the changes taking place in the news media in China is tomake a few comparisons with the current state of American journalism. (Of course, not everything about change in China coincides with the American experience.)
- Mergers and Acquisitions: In the United States we hear and see a lot of commentary about how large corporations such as Disney, General Electric, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Gannett, Knight Ridder and others dominate the news media. Something similar is happening in China but on a much smaller scale. Government-owned and party-owned news organizations are absorbing smaller papers and starting new ones. They’re forming what they call “groups,” organizations that publish morning and afternoon newspapers as well as specialty publications. They’re also going into revenue-producing businesses that have little or nothing to do with journalism. Xinhua recently opened a “mega-bookstore” in Shanghai offering 150,000 titles and two coffee bars. The Guangzhou Daily, which operates citywide kiosks at which newspapers, candy bars and sundries are sold, is planning to establish a chain of convenience stores.
- Tabloid Journalism: They’ve got it in China, too. But, of course, they are not as sensational or sexy as we are. Yet. This is a recognition by the powers that be that the public is not very interested in the dull, gray, party-line journalism of the past. Readers want more information about fashion, about celebrities, about music and movies, sports and so on. They are also eager to know about the latest corruption scandals. So afternoon tabloids are starting up and flourishing. You can buy them on street corners, which may sound unremarkable to us, but it’s only in the past few years that readers themselves actually paid for newspapers in China. The custom was for the work unit or the party cell to make the purchases. That still goes on, but less and less.
- Marketplace for News: The new phenomenon of readers buying newspapers shows how market forces are working to change journalism in China. The readers want value for their money. Hence competition. The odd thing, of course, is that it’s Communist party or government organizations that are creating these new, flashier publications.
- Censorship: Another comparison between the United States and China would be in the area of censorship. We, of course, have the First Amendment to protect the public’s right to know. In China, the party and the government, central and local, still exercise strong control over the news media, make no mistake about that. In day-to-day practical terms, for journalists it is more a question of guessing how far one can go. Journalists in China sometimes joke about this: They ask each other, for example, what the party line is today on Japan, deforestation, bank policy and so on. And, of course, journalists are also careful about coverage of unrest among the jobless and demonstrations by political or, more recently, religious dissidents. Few writers want to be seen as instigators of political movements or mob violence. So there’s a strong element of self-censorship in the Chinese news media. In our own country we have some of that, too. Of course, the consequences for going over the line might not be as severe. But I think many of us have either experienced the displeasure of a publisher for offending an advertiser or a prominent member of the community or have known colleagues who have paid a high price for challenging a sacred cow.
- Civic Journalism: Another rather curious comparison is so-called civic journalism. It is a question in my own mind whether there is a growing tendency in our own news media toward adopting the sense of civic responsibility as practiced by the Chinese press. That may seem a far-fetched notion here. Still, when you hear American editors talking at conferences about going beyond traditional news coverage to help set a community’s agenda, you wonder whether they’re moving into the realm of what the PRC media call “ensuring the rectitude of public opinion.”
- Journalism’s Watchdog Role: Finally, to me, one of the most interesting comparisons between our media and the Chinese media is what some call the watchdog role. Most Americans expect journalists in our country to keep a sharp eye on politicians, business, labor and government. Americans are accustomed to criticism of the establishment, to investigative reporting, and to press exposés about corruption. Is this kind of press reporting possible in China? It may come as a surprise that one of the most popular national television programs in that country—broadcast on China Central Television, the nationwide government-owned-and-operated network—is a nightly feature called “Focus” that pretty much follows the format of the CBS news-magazine “60 Minutes.” To be sure, “Focus” is not as doggedly aggressive, clever and irreverent as “60 Minutes,” and it doesn’t use the slick production techniques we see on “Dateline,” “20/20” or “60 Minutes.” But its reports on smuggling, environmental problems, kickbacks to government bureaucrats, police brutality and other skullduggery draw an estimated audience of 300 million, a figure that would make an American network executive drool. What’s more, Premier Zhu Rongji has encouraged government officials to watch the program, a powerful endorsement that has created a multiplier effect throughout the country. The success of “Focus” has stimulated local television organizations to create similar programs. It has also inspired once-unthinkable threats against powerful bureaucrats. “I’m going to tell ‘Focus’ about you” is becoming a public tradition. Sometimes, I’m told, you can see a long line of angry citizens outside the “Focus” office in Beijing, waiting to lodge their complaints. Watchdog journalism in the Chinese media is still sporadic. The nationally distributed Southern Weekend has acquired a reputation for pursuing what in China might be considered unorthodox stories, such as coverage of the high number of suicides among women in rural areas. A senior editor at that newspaper worries that the traditional Communist Party practice of putting the positive spin on news can give rise to a public optimism that might not be warranted and raise hopes that might be unrealistic. In Tianjin, the editors of The Evening News newspaper identify specific problems of public concern, then ask appropriate government officials to come to their office and explain how they are dealing with the problem.
The Next Stages
Earlier this year, Strategy and Management, a journal that is widely read by thousands of officials and scholars, carried a long, detailed article about social and economic problems related to the construction of Three Gorges Dam, a project started and strongly supported by the still very powerfulformer Premier Li Peng. In Chongqing in January, the local media were providing banner headlines about a major corruption story that involved the collapse of a pedestrian bridge that killed some 40 people. Shoddy construction and payoffs to bureaucrats were involved, and the media were unrestrained in their reporting on this tragic scandal.
None of these observations should be taken to mean that freedom of information, as Americans understand it, is flourishing in China. The media still pretty much reflect the government view. There is still a ban on satellite dishes. Outsiders are not allowed to own and publish independent newspapers, much less start television or radio operations. And certainly no newspaper is going to attack the PRC hierarchy, at least not under current circumstances.
Still, significant changes are taking place. The government has cut Internet access rates in half and is offering free installation of a second phone line in residences. Why? The Ministry of Information Industry said the changes were made because “of increasing complaints from consumers.”
As for access to the World Wide Web, the government operates the country’s Internet Service Provider systems and filters out selected material, though on a somewhat puzzling basis. For example, it’s difficult to get the online editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post through the official ISP’s but easy to call up the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune. Most British newspapers, including the Financial Times, are accessible. In any case, a group of American journalists who recently visited China was told by American technical experts in Beijing that anyone with basic knowledge about the Internet can get access to news from the outside without much trouble. And according to an editor at one of Shanghai’s largest newspapers, by using a government operated Internet service provider called Shanghai Online he can access “any on-line newspaper in the world.”
As any number of editors, producers and writers in China will privately acknowledge, their country has a long way to go in the transition toward what they call “marketplace journalism.” But the media barons in the PRC persist in their drive for profits, which they know depend on attracting big advertising numbers and big circulation numbers, in much the same way that their Western counterparts have built press empires. Meanwhile, access to the diversity of information on the Internet is growing rapidly. These two powerful forces, a market driven media inside China and the increase in news coming from the rest of the world, may falter at times, but in the end they seem unstoppable.
Webster K. Nolan is former Director of the East-West Center Media Program in Honolulu, Hawaii, and has traveled frequently in China.