Change and Control in China's Media: Interview With David Bandurski
Image Credit: China Media Project

Change and Control in China's Media: Interview With David Bandurski

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The Diplomat’s Tyler Roney speaks with David Bandurski, a China analyst, filmmaker, and journalist and editor at the China Media Project. Having written for the Far Eastern Economic Review, The Wall Street Journal, and the South China Morning Post, he has received numerous Human Rights Awards for his investigative commentaries. Bandurski continues to work with the University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Center on CMP and with Lantern Films.

First, can you tell us a bit about China Media Project?

The history of the China Media Project goes back more than ten years now to 2003, to the SARS epidemic, Sun Zhigang and other stories of the day. In a sense, 2003 marked the culmination of a new generation of commercialized media in China. They were associated with the official Party media structure, yes, but they were also pursuing readers and advertisers in a still fledgling media market—and many of them saw themselves as working in the public interest rather than strictly in the Party’s interest. The Internet, though only really four or five years old in China at that time, was also revolutionizing communication. So the short of it is that you had newspapers, like Southern Metropolis Daily, with booming circulations, trying to make their mark professionally with meaningful news coverage that could potentially reach massive national audiences through Internet portals where millions would then comment in the margins.

There was no systematic research being done at the time about how this new pluralism of voices was possible in an environment where very strict controls were still in place. So that was the impetus behind the Project. In 2003, Ying Chan, the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center, and Qian Gang, the former managing editor of one of China’s scrappiest new papers, Southern Weekly, launched the China Media Project here at the University of Hong Kong to monitor change in China’s media, in the context obviously of control. The last decade has been a whirlwind of change along with the relentless reassertion of control. We’ve gone from blogs, putting expression in the hands of Chinese in a way never before imagined, to the real-time world of the microblog. And meanwhile, the business of professional journalism in China has hobbled forward against incredible odds. It’s an exciting and rapidly changing field of inquiry.

Complementary to our research, we have a regular fellows program in which we invite leading professional journalists to Hong Kong. The purpose is to support their work, and to allow substantive exchange that is not possible, or not very easy, inside China.

What place do you think traditional media has in modern China? Do the infamous editorials from People’s Daily and Global Times hold the same sway they once did?

For a number of years there was a sense in China that traditional media were in their halcyon days. While newspapers in the United States were shedding staff and shutting down foreign bureaus, and while the New York Times (for example) was making the shift from a newspaper with a website to a multimedia platform with a supplementary print edition, Chinese newspapers were booming. The thunder and lightning of the digital age was a long way off. China’s advertising market was growing by leaps and bounds. This was driven, again, by commercial metro newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, the picture for Party media was more grim. Party newspapers, with their dull, boilerplate coverage of official announcements and CCP double-speak, were losing circulation rapidly, which presented the Party with an ongoing crisis of agenda-setting that first culminated, as I said before, in 2003.

But the sense of optimism about the print market is now fading rapidly. Chinese traditional media, newspapers and magazines in particular, face an immense challenge from new media platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat. The pressure has always been two-fold — on the one hand, pressure from the market, and on the other, pressure from propaganda controls. But this is truer right now than ever before. Traditional media are being squeezed between the floor and the ceiling. I’m guessing there will be a great deal of pain in China’s media market over the next decade, and we will probably see a lot of very ugly sensationalism, poor ethics and things like news extortion — or media holding negative coverage over the heads of companies and individuals for profit — as media try to avoid sinking in rough seas.

In China’s information environment right now there is a crisis of credibility. Information controls mean it is very difficult for traditional media to build credibility with their audiences through strong and relevant coverage. At the same time there is a growing sense of disillusionment with Party publications and with the state-run broadcasters like China Central Television. Chinese turn increasingly to social media — to Sina Weibo and WeChat — to slake their thirst for information. But controls, once again, interrupt attempts at truth seeking. Rumors circulate, and before professional journalists can do the necessary work of reporting and verification, these incipient stories are shut down. The government wants to push its own “authoritative” version of events, but controls dissolve the credibility of its information, however true. Meanwhile, the government brands as “rumor” those shards of information on social media that may, in the end, offer the most factual account of events that are of real concern to the public.

My favorite case in point is the PX protest movement in Dalian in 2011. This was a case of well-organized protest involving tens of thousands of people right in the middle of a major city. Millions of messages shot back and forth on social media, sharing pictures, videos, first-hand accounts, but the protests were never covered in the traditional media. The only report on China Central Television that night was an announcement that the PX chemical project in Dalian had been suspended. No explanation of why. Meanwhile, in the very same newscast, the Party leadership began its campaign against “rumors,” its way of legitimizing a crackdown on social media like Sina Weibo. So the “rumors” were the real news, and the “real news” was garbage. But if this isn’t sufficient illustration of the crisis, consider that the same newscast on China Central Television also ran a major bit of news about a new national income tax policy. A few days later, national tax authorities denied the policy’s existence, saying the document circulating on the web was a well-crafted fake. So CCTV was attacking social media as a hotbed of rumor while it reported — with a serious face and bullet points — a national tax policy that didn’t exist.

On that note, you mentioned in a piece in February that China’s state media’s power has been waning since the 1990s. Would you care to elaborate on how and why that has happened?

As I explained earlier, the emergence of a media market in China in the 1990s is one reason for the change. The phrase “media market” didn’t even exist in China until around the middle of the 1990s. But as the market developed, and as more commercial newspapers and magazines were available, you had choice. People in China were no longer just vessels to be filled with propaganda. They were media consumers, and they could vote with their pocketbook. Party newspapers, those traditional “mouthpieces” of the leadership at the city, provincial or national level, weren’t built for this sort of environment. They were chockfull of dry regurgitations of official speeches and Party jargon. Commercial newspapers offered local news, but also lifestyle sections, automobile sections, information about the property market. They offered relevance.

You’ve also written on many of the subjects seen deleted from China’s increasingly isolated online world, from deleted Human Rights Day posts to criticism of Deng Xiaoping and the National People’s Congress. Can China expect an easing of such censorship in the future?

Media control is an absolutely essential tool for the Chinese Communist Party in its maintenance of social and political stability. Barring any substantive progress on political reform in China, it’s impossible to imagine any real change in the environment for Chinese media. Real change hinges on a re-definition of the media’s role — as working in the public interest rather than in the Party’s interest. When China announced a new round of training in the Marxist View of Journalism last fall this was first and foremost a reminder to the media that the Party’s interests reign supreme. One of the central tenets of this so-called Marxist View of Journalism is the rejection of “Western” (Chinese hardliners would say that with a snarl) notions of freedom of speech.

So far, Xi Jinping has signaled loud and clear that media control is a central priority, and the chill has been ongoing ever since the Southern Weekly incident last year. Xi’s leadership of a new Internet Security Group suggests he is taking the reins, and that the focus of media control is continuing to shift — as it has since around 2007 — to the Internet, and now social media. An easing? I wouldn’t put my money on it. But of course any apparent easing has to be seen in the context of ten years of tightening control. What we can count on is that media control will remain a major priority. That doesn’t mean, though, that media can’t make tentative steps forward. That has been the dynamic for the past decade — media working to do often ground-breaking work within a tough and shifting environment, and new technologies mixing things up.

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