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China’s evolving news media: Commerce conditions the controls

By 20 July 2009 No Comment

It’s no secret the Chinese government heavily censors its country’s news media. Controversial topics are ignored and uncomfortable facts are sometimes omitted, particularly when it comes to the Three T’s: Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan. Newsroom editors must routinely ask themselves what stories are appropriate to run or risk having officials shut them down for crossing the line.

Historically speaking, there is good reason for such caution. Since the founding of the Peoples Republic in 1949, the news media have mainly served as an instrument in the dissemination of government policy and information, and is expected to show support for such policies.

Because of the recent commercialization of media, however, that may now be changing – if slowly. “Commercial media is only a couple of decades old in China,” said William Moss, a specialist in international public relations in Beijing and creator of the PR- and media-related blog Imagethief, but “[t]here are many things that are changing about it.” This includes the ethics, level of professionalism, and the relationship between the media, the people, and the government, all on an ongoing basis.

The commercialization of the media is part of China’s process of modernization and development over the last three decades, Moss said. And there are still some kinks to be worked out, particularly in the definition of what is “news.” The Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department gives direct and specific instructions on how to report such topics as social protests, environmental disasters, Tibet and Taiwan.

It is not uncommon for journalists to take bribes when it comes to reporting stories a certain way or to simply not report a situation, said Zhangdong Pan, a professor of communication studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who is currently conducting research at Fudan University in Shanghai.

According to Pan, Chinese journalists work for a modest base salary ranging from approximately 3,000RMB (430 USD) to 5,000RMB (724 USD) a month, which is barely enough to routine living expenses. Sometimes sources offer reporters “xin ku”  – or “hard work”  – pay which Pan called a “stack of cash” in return for reporterly sympathy in dealing with the issue at hand.

It is a recognized form of corruption, Pan said, and faces journalists who take such money with the dilemma of either not writing the story and thus suppressing the truth, or passing on the information to a colleague while still pocketing the money. However, if a situation is very serious, such as something that might prove truly dangerous, they may return or refuse the money.

Although the Chinese media must take certain precautions in “watch-dogging the state,” business reporting is a lot more aggressive,” Moss said. “The media here can take a very hard-nosed attitude when it comes to reporting on business. They can absolutely bulldog businesses.” One such publication is Caijing magazine, which has published investigative reports on stock market manipulation and criticized the actions of state-owned banks and politically well-connected companies.

The reason for this, Moss said, is credited to China’s rising economic power, which fuels the need for information.

“You have to have a functioning commercial media to a certain point… to help drive economic development,” Moss said. “There’s a component of [economic development] that relies on having a good commercial media to inform businessmen, inform investors, to watch-dog companies – which Chinese media does very well.”

However, the Communist Party remains very concerned with how and what the news media covers, even when it comes to business, according to author Tom Doctoroff in his book “Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer.” Noted Doctoroff: “As long as the Communists remain in power, media ownership/content will always be strictly controlled.  Any liberalization will be cosmetic, designed for propaganda purposes.”

Moss, along with other media experts, has a more optimistic view about the direction of press freedoms in China, particularly with the widespread use of the Internet to disseminate news. “The Internet is like the mainstream media,” he said. “You have to judge it in the context of where China is going as a whole and how it’s evolving.”

In spite of the government’s stranglehold on the Internet, in part through its infamous Great Firewall of China, most Chinese are too busy enjoying the Internet to worry about the controls Westerners often obsess about, Moss said.

“They have plenty to pay attention to online,” he said. “[T]here is a certain idealized American perception [that says] ‘Every Chinese person on the Web is dying to find political dissent and the truth about the Dalai Lama…’ And the fact of the matter is that’s not particularly the case any more than your average American Net surfer is dying to find out the truth of what’s happening in China.”

What Chinese citizens are interested in is what’s directly happening and affecting them, Moss said. But whether local or international news, the general direction of the media “is a positive one.” More sources of information can be found online than ever before and there is more access to domestic and international information.

“When you view the whole thing, you see a very positive trend,” Moss said. “And you see that in the grand scheme of everything that’s available online, what is restricted is regrettable but by no means is it comprehensive.”

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