It does not look like Chinese media. People in China were astonished at how quickly and intensively CCTV and China National Radio—the state-run television and radio stations—and some newspapers provided news about the Iraq war. Since March 20th, when coverage of the war began, audiences in China have also been exposed to another war—the media war.

On the war’s first day, special news programs about the war began being broadcast on CCTV-1 immediately when it started, and the coverage continued for about five hours. After that, news about the war was broadcast several regular times each day, as well as on National Radio, which also began its live broadcasts when the war began. CCTV-4 (the overseas Channel in Chinese) and CCTV-9 (overseas Channel in English) concentrated on the war for as many as 20 hours a day, seven days per week. At least seven provincial TV stations also had news about the war immediately.

In print, the International Herald Times (affiliated with Xinhua News Agency) released its 16-page “War Special” in the early afternoon of March 20th, just two hours after the first American bombs were dropped. The Reference News (also affiliated with Xinhua News agency) published a supplement at three o’clock that afternoon, and seven other newspapers in Beijing, Shandong, Guangdong and Hunan published supplements the same day. A newspaper in Hunan even published five issues in 25 hours.

“Constraints on China’s Coverage of SARS”
– Philip J. Cunningham
Finally, it seems, the war has unleashed the Chinese media and let them release their long-constrained impulse to act as real news media. Reporters here have not been able to report in this way on stories about mine explosions or food poisonings (which happen quite often) or, until mid-April, about the SARS epidemic. Nor are they able to report on the nation’s change in leadership or political topics. [In March, the chief editor of the South Weekend was replaced and the 21st Century Globe Report stopped publication because of trying to do such reporting.] Yet the Iraq War seems to have given the media in China opportunities to show their professionalism. It is a chance many of them have been longing and preparing for, for a long time.

During the 1991 Gulf War, the Chinese people could only get information about the war through limited means and from a few established media such as CCTV, the People’s Daily, and the Reference News. By 1999, when the Kosovo War took place, the Internet had become one of the most important resources, both for information and as a place where people could have their voices be heard. Notably, the Forum section of the People’s Daily Web site was set up during that time and remains popular today.

This time, with live broadcasts using experts in studios to analyze and illustrate what was happening in Iraq, television news became a prime news source. Usually, those who live in Guangdong and Shanghai don’t watch CCTV. In Guangdong, in southern China, many people watch Hong Kong TV and, in Shanghai, people normally watch local TV news. People make this choice because these news organizations often provide news that in ways are more relevant and attractive to these viewers. But with its coverage of this war, the audience rating of CCTV increased by 28 times nationally and even more in Guangdong and Shanghai. In 1999, two newspapers dominated coverage of the war in Kosovo—the Reference News and Globe Times (affiliated with the People’s Daily), whose owner then made a lot of money by selling papers at newsstands and selling advertisements. With the Iraq war coverage, the competition for audience among TV, radio, Internet and newspapers was very strong. Just the number of channels and publications for sale at newsstands is enough to make the news audience dizzy.

How about the content? If we use April 10th as an example (the day the American troops arrived in Baghdad), if Chinese people relied on conventional media like People’s Daily, CCTV-1, they would have had a more difficult time figuring out that the turning point of the war was coming. Their news reports only mentioned that U.S. forces claimed they controlled part of the capital city and showed President Bush stressing that the war is not finished and Iraq’s resistance will go on for a while. However, on the news pages of commercial Web sites (such as pictures were being shown of the huge statue of Saddam being torn down.

Usually, the Chinese media “borrow” a lot of information from U.S. media. But this time, footage from Arab TV stations was shown frequently, too. Audiences could also listen to local experts in international affairs and the military. Among these experts can be found various styles, stories and commentaries, but Chinese viewers know that what is being said is within guidelines issued by the propaganda department of the Communist Party. What the Chinese public still can’t hear is what the authorities dislike or don’t want them to know. So what they do read or watch or hear is still limited and filtered.

The situation on the Internet is somewhat different. There, the Chinese can find more diversity in terms of news and opinions. Those who don’t use the Internet can receive or send unconventional opinions by mobile phones. But how much information can be sent in these short messages? No real alternative media exist, and major foreign radio and Web sites are jammed or blocked. Phoenix TV is based in Hong Kong (ironically, it is called CCTV Channel N to refer to its cringing attitude toward the state), but ordinary people in China have no access to this station. What made this war coverage so special was the tension that came to the fore between media control that the Communist Party and the state exerted and the visible impulse of journalists to meet the needs of the audience and also make money. Also present during the war coverage was the evident tension between journalists in China who wanted to compete with the international media in telling this story, the changing attitude of China’s new leadership in permitting such a large amount of news coverage, and the reliance on newsgathering by sources other than Chinese reporters to report the news. All of the Chinese correspondents had withdrawn from Iraq by the time the war began. What this meant is that the media had an extraordinary amount of time to report on the war, but they were able to convey comparatively little information.

Nevertheless, in trying to find their way on this story, the media in China struck an energetic pose for those in their country and the rest of the world, even though they still appeared somewhat awkward in their practice of journalism.

Yuan Feng, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is an editor with China Women’s News, a daily newspaper based in Beijing.

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