China’s 1.3 billion citizens may make the country the world’s largest, but the vast majority of Chinese share remarkably similar views on a surprisingly wide range of issues, thanks to the unified message they get from a tightly controlled, state-run media. In ‘The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in China‘, experienced China journalist Doug Young examines how official views are shaped at the top by Xinhua and CCTV and then trickle down through regional and local media, giving the appearance of many voices but with a single message that is reinforced at every level.
Doug Young was a reporter at Reuters for 10 years in a range of positions, including Chief Correspondent for China Company News, Senior Technology Correspondent for Greater China, and Taipei Bureau Chief in Reuters‘ Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taipei bureaus. He currently lives in Shanghai where he teaches financial journalism at Fudan University. He also writes daily updates for his blog, Young’s China Business Blog, commenting on the latest developments at Chinese companies listed in the US, China, and Hong Kong. He also writes a regular blog for the South China Morning Post.
We had the pleasure of talking to Doug earlier this week, what follows is an edited transcript of a longer conversation about ‘The Party Line‘, the state of the media, and censorship in contemporary China, any errors are our own.
Shanghaiist: Your book is subtitled ‘how media dictates public opinion in China’. Doesn’t the media do this to some extent in every country, even if perhaps inadvertently?
Doug Young: Yeah that’s true, I would say in the West the better way to say it is that the media shapes public opinion, and the reason it shapes it is that the media in the West tends to be many voices, you have the left, the right, the centre, you have media catering to old people, young people, and so on.
In China, the big difference is that the media speak with a single voice, that’s why I use the word dictates, because essentially the media follows a very strict party line (which is the name of the book) in promoting the Party’s agenda. So what my book looks at is ‘What is the Party’s agenda?’ and ‘How has it changed over the years?’
I just came back from a book tour and one of the things I was looking at was how does new media fit into the equation, and what is the agenda like now that the new leadership has taken over.
When you say ‘dictates’, are media organisations literally handed stories from on high and told ‘this is what to publish’, or does it function more along the lines of self-censorship and self-policing?
I’d say it’s more of the latter, though it’s a bit of a hodgepodge to be honest. On the really big stories, on sensitive subjects such as foreign affairs, like with the Diaoyu islands; or with regards to Tibet or the Dalai Lama, the Chinese media do tend to almost exclusively use Xinhua copy, because Xinhua is publishing the official government. So for sensitive topics like that organisations literally use the same copy, and you’ll see the same stories printed in newspapers and websites all over the country.
When it comes to other stories that are less sensitive, Xinhua and the People’s Daily are more like guiding lights, people look to Xinhua and the People’s Daily, and CCTV, and take their cues from them. For example, Xinhua has been reporting a fair amount recently on corruption, and the arrest of corrupt individuals; regional papers will look at this and they’re able to draw the conclusion that fighting corruption is on the Party’s agenda right now, so they take that as their cue to send their own reporters out to uncover local corruption cases. Xinhua’s line gives local editors an idea of what kind of stories are on the agenda and what they can pursue.
There seems to have been a significant increase over the last few months in stories about corruption in the Chinese media, will this be because an edict has been made that newspapers and the like are free to go after corruption?
What I think is happening here is that Xi Jinping has made it really, really clear from Day Negative Five, and now from Day One, in all of his high-profile speeches that fighting corruption is going to be one of his top priorities. I think the Communist Party, and Xi in particular, are really concerned that corruption has just become so bad that it’s really undermined people’s trust in the Party, it’s undermined people’s trust in government (which is often the same as the Party). It really could reach crisis proportions if the government doesn’t do something about. I think it’s a high priority.
It’s interesting, because what you see are a lot more cases of corruption being reported, but when you look closely all the cases that are being reported are instances of low-level, local government officials. That’s typically the way the media works in China, they have their limits, the central government draws a line where it’s okay to do stories and where it’s not okay. For example, we see all these local corruption cases being reported, but when it comes to the Bo Xilai case that was basically blacked out in the national media for two or three weeks, even after international media started reporting on it. Because real high-level corruption is still off the agenda. I think it can only undermine the party to have such high level officials be accused of corruption, it doesn’t look good for government; the low level stuff doesn’t look good either but I think it can be used to send out a warning to other low level officials to say ‘Look, if you behave corruptly this is what might happen to you.’
I think tackling low level corruption plays somewhat into the Party’s narrative of the ‘good emperor’, that the centre is pure even if regional government is sometimes corrupt. It seems recently that there’s been a lot more stories about Chongqing since Bo Xilai’s dramatic fall, and would you agree that the central government now seems to be allowing stories about Chongqing because they can blame everything on Bo Xilai as the one bad apple?
The one bad apple that spoiled the whole lot? It wouldn’t surprise me, though I haven’t noticed a huge mushrooming of stories about problems in Chongqing. I’ve noticed that we’ve seen a few more stories about the incoming guy, who’s obviously trying to build up his credentials in Chongqing.
There seems to have been an unravelling of the achievements of Bo’s war on organised crime to a certain extent. There was a recent high-profile story in Caixin about the use of torture during the crackdown, and Li Zhuang, the lawyer who was disbarred, essentially for just doing a good job representing his clients now looks like he may successfully appeal his conviction.
Bo Xilai hasn’t formally been put on trial yet, so it would be perfectly logical that they would start writing about all the issues, all the corrupt things he was doing, all the bad things that were happening in Chongqing under his watch, to sort of prepare the public for when he does eventually come on trial, to turn public opinion against him. Again, this is very much on the agenda, bringing down Bo Xilai and sort of putting this whole chapter behind them. In order to do something like that, because Bo was a very popular guy, you have to prepare the public and make your case on the reasons why this guy deserved to fall so hard, and he’ll probably end up going to jail. It’s not something you do lightly to someone who was once a pretty popular leader.
The elevation of Liu Yunshan, who oversaw a very conservative approach to media and the internet during his time at the propaganda department, is seen by many as a sign that the CPC will not relax controls over the media anytime soon. What do you expect we’ll see from the new Standing Committee with regard to censorship and propaganda?
I’m relatively neutral about it, I think people are probably reading more into his appointment than they should. Historically, the propaganda chiefs have nearly always been very conservative. The propaganda ministry attracts the blue blood communists, the real hardcore believers all seem to end up at the propaganda ministry because it’s all about trumpeting the Party and the Party’s causes. The fact that the head of the propaganda ministry was a conservative like Liu isn’t surprising. That he was elevated to the Standing Committee certainly isn’t great, but I don’t think anyone expected the Standing Committee to be seven flaming liberals.
Like anything else the makeup of the Standing Committee is about politics, the conservatives are going to want to have some of the seats, the liberals are going to want some of the seats, and in the end I think there’s a lot of horse trading going on and Liu is one of the horses that made it into the final group. But if it wasn’t him there probably would have been another conservative from another camp who would have taken that spot. I see him as representing the conservative camp and the fact that he comes from the propaganda ministry is probably secondary.
You worked for a number of years as a reporter for Reuters. Should people outside of China be worried that Xinhua seems intent on setting itself up as a rival to Reuters and the Associated Press? Particularly as those two companies don’t have the massive financial weight of the CPC behind them.
No. If anything I think Reuters and the AP are happy that it’s like that because nobody will ever read Xinhua as an alternate source of news because it is government sourced and government owned so it’s always going to have this Communist Party, government slant to everything. The main reason that people subscribe to Xinhua, outside of China, is basically for the China stories, nobody subscribes to Xinhua for their global stories. Often they’re not bad, I’ve looked at them myself, often there’s no big agenda, but if you come to rely on them, they’re not as good as the other international wire stories and there’s always the danger that they’re going to have a Communist Party agenda behind them, especially if it’s a sensitive issue.
I don’t think anybody at Reuters or AP are losing too much sleep over competition from Xinhua. That’s not to say that things couldn’t change, Xinhua might one day become a truly independent organisation but right now the place is just chock-a-block with Party members and all its highest positions are filled by Communist Party loyalists. I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
What role do foreign journalists and editors at state-run media outlets play in shaping the news in China? Are they any less or more controlled than their Chinese colleagues?
I don’t know if Chinese publications have many more than a handful of foreigners that are allowed to report, it seems that most of the foreigners they hire tend to be editors, they really hire them for their language skills. I have heard of a couple of cases where these newspapers will hire a foreign reporter, but if you look through them the bylines are almost all Chinese names except for the occasional column or editorial.
I think these papers really make a point of not letting foreigners report for them, their feeling seems to be that these are Chinese newspapers we should have Chinese people reporting, why give jobs to foreigners apart from language copy-editing roles that non-natives are less able to do. In the two or three cases where foreigners are allowed to report for some of these publications, an assignment editor would never send a foreigner out on any sort of a sensitive story where they might come back and write something that’s not really in line with the official view. I think these foreigners mostly get sent out on local colour stories, maybe small events or minor local initiatives. I think anything sensitive, and this goes also for Chinese reporters, I’ve been told in the process of writing my book that at Xinhua especially they’ll send out their most senior, loyal reporters to report on anything that’s even remotely sensitive.
Away from traditional media, there are a lot of tech evangelists and perhaps overly optimistic commentators who like to paint Weibo and other social media as the ‘saviours’ of Chinese freedom of speech. How does the Party exercise control over new and social media?
The key difference I think is that traditional media are all state owned whereas most of the new media are privately owned, a lot of them are listed in the US and even the ones that aren’t listed, they’re funded by venture capital and private equity. So the new media don’t tend to have nearly as much direct connections to the Party, their executives are more likely to be entrepreneurs and internet geeks than somebody who came up through the Party system.
So the Party can’t exercise the same level control over new media, but at the same time it does exercise control by having the power to shut them down or make regulatory problems for them. China has very strict rules about censorship, that was one of the reasons why Google left. A great deal of it too is self-censorship, it’s not the government coming in and deleting words from a website it’s the company itself deleting them. So new media may have to self-censor and self-police a lot more than traditional media does.
What we’ve seen with new media is that a lot of the time they are a bit more commercial and since most content is user-generated they tend to push the envelope a little more than traditional media. Often you’ll see discussions and conversations start up, and you get the sense that people at Sina or wherever are waiting to see if they get a phone call from Beijing to say ‘Close down on this conversation’, and if they don’t get that phone call they’ll let the dialogue go on. We saw a few interesting cases, one of the most recent ones was with Yang Dacai or ‘Big Brother Watch’, where people started doing some digging and found out that this guy had all sorts of expensive watches and the fact of the matter is that Weibo and all these other social media could have shut down the discussion any time they wanted, but they didn’t and the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, that the government is more tolerant of these low level corruption cases and even encourages them. So the new media can kind of push the envelope, for starters things happen very quickly and then it’s much less structured and the ties and quite as tight with the central government as in other media.
Are Weibo and other new media slowly pulling us towards a less controlled media environment, or is the Party always there ready to pump the brakes if they ever get near sensitive subjects?
I think it’s important that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that the new media is China standing on the cusp of a new and enlightened era, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think the government has discovered that new media can provide a very useful function as far as it’s concerned, and that’s why it lets people behave in this sort of open manner.
Some of the useful functions it provides is that it does help to clean up corruption, as the government itself doesn’t have the resources to root out all these guys whereas if you let people on social networking sites do it they’ve got tons of time and all sorts of interest to go and do this. So they unleash a resource that helps the government advance some of its agendas, for example if you’re trying to clean up pollution you might get internet ‘vigilantes’ who go out and expose people dumping toxic waste into rivers and so on and so forth.
The other thing I think the government really likes about new media too is that it empowers the people a little bit. I think one of the things you see really quickly on the ground here in China is that people feel very, very removed from government, very unempowered. If you ask people what they think about politics they might say ‘Oh, I don’t follow it at all because there’s nothing I can do to affect it.’ By allowing this sort of group action on the internet through social media you are empowering the people in a way, because they can voice their grievances, and in the case of Yang Dacai this group action actually resulted in the guy getting fired and stripped of his Party credentials.
The last thing I would also add is that I think the government finds social media a very good way of gauging public opinion, which is something it often had significant trouble doing in the past. Because in the past the central government was very reliant on reports from the provinces, and the provinces couldn’t always be depended upon to give the most objective information if there were problems. If you’re a local corrupt official, you’ll probably try to cover up problems or sugar-coat them, whereas now central government can go straight to the internet if they hear that some shenanigans going on in some little county in Fujian, they can just go onto Weibo and type in the name of the county and probably instantly see hundreds of people posting about what’s happening there.
To sum up, the government has discovered that social media serves a number of useful purposes: (1) they empower the people, they make people feel like they have more of a say in government; (2) they help the government advance its social agendas like cleaning up corruption and pollution; and (3) they’re a very good way for central government to gauge public opinion on any number of important issues.