Media Control in China Has Changed in Nature
|May 22, 2009|
Here is my condensed translation of the article:-
"In last year’s May 12th Sichuan earthquake, one saw a rare natural disaster in parallel with a social conflict. In the area of news reporting, there also emerged an extremely convoluted situation. It is difficult to comment simplistically in commendation or in reproof. In the early stages of the quake relief work, media reporting gave an impression to the world of, to quote The Times’ Beijing Bureau deputy chief Ma Tsun (馬珍): 'unprecedented media openness'. Yet, the suppression experienced by the Chinese media when they tried to report on the collapsed schools has shown the world that quite the opposite is true.
Most of the media reports about the collapsed schools were concentrated in the three weeks after the quake. During this period, it was not that the Central Publicity Department failed to issue a media ban, rather, the ban on such reports, just like the banning of reporters from entering the quake scenes, was just as though it didn’t exist. Other types of prohibition were just as ineffective. Up until May 18, collapsed schools in [many municipalities] were exposed by the media. The collapse of most of these schools was in a ‘crumbling’ manner and entire buildings just crashed to the ground within an instant – they were in sharp contrast to the surrounding buildings which did not collapse en masse.
The first wave of reporting on the collapsed schools appeared between May 19 and May 21. Southern Metropolis Daily published a series named 'School Shame' three days in a row, exposing many tragic truths. Some parents in Mianzhu municipality who lost their children to the quake insisted on petitioning their grievances and this led to a party committee secretary kneeling before them in an attempt to stop them. This instigated the second wave of reporting but also led to the authorities clamping down on the media. Then came the third and even more forceful wave of reporting. On June 6th, Caijing magazine published an article named 'In Memory of the Schools'. By this time, the Central Publicity Department and its local branches were already slapping a complete ban on news reports about the collapsed schools. The Caijing report was the last and also the most influential piece of commentary.
One month after the quake, media reports about the collapsed schools were almost nowhere to be seen. Media organizations that were pursuing investigations, like Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend, were severely reprimanded and later punished.
Everybody could see that in the initial stages of the quake relief process, news reporting was open, including reporting on collapsed schools. At that time, the Party’s mouthpieces like Xinhua and People Daily also joined in the effort. The authorities acted as if they had the intention to go to the root of the problem. There are three reasons that can explain the morphing from loose oversight, to tighter control, to outright banning. First, the shoddy school construction reports have involved more and more officials who should be held accountable. Many officials who had worked in the quake-related areas were promoted to higher ranks. The reports apparently were detrimental to their careers. So the labyrinth of power began to flex its muscle and officials were protecting each other. To that end, they decided to oppose the Central authority’s wish to investigate the problems. Second, the collapsed school issue has galvanized ‘rights’ activists into action. Third, the shoddy school reports have touched the most sensitive nerve of the authorities – Sichuan education department cadre Lin Qiang declined to be an Olympics torch bearer because of the collapsed schools, saying that 'the truth is more important than personal honor', and Southern Weekend’s interview with him was widely circulated on the Internet.
Mainland China’s control of the media is no different from that in the past. It is the context of control that has changed. Apart from methods and means, the target and degree of control are also changing – what should be controlled, what need not be controlled, what should be tightly controlled, what can be relaxed. Control in the past was focused on ideology. The Party’s propaganda department used to base its action on Marxism Leninism and Maoism in its effort to rein in the media. Then ideology began to fade out, the Central authority began to weaken, and local authorities and interest groups began to gain power. The current type of control is motivated by pragmatic political benefits. Local officials and interest groups often are the black hand behind the Propaganda Department when they want to suppress the media. The most serious crimes that they can accuse the media of include 'causing damage to the country’s interests' and 'destabilizing society'. This is why although reporting on the Sichuan earthquake was much more timely and transparent than during the Tangshan earthquake, yet reporting on collapsed schools has been banned. Reporting on collapsed schools has revealed one dark corner of corrupt officialdom."