Tyler Roney

The Diplomat’s Jonathan DeHart spoke with Tyler Roney, a Beijing-based China Power columnist, about working as a journalist in the tightly controlled state-run Chinese media, citizens’ ongoing struggle to speak freely and be fairly heard by the government, and Beijing’s attempts to soften its image both at home and overseas.

Jonathan DeHart
Tyler Roney
Tyler Roney

“China is getting wealthier and more diverse, so keeping tabs on all news organizations is simply not realistic.”

During your time as a journalist in China have you noticed any bigger picture shifts in media taking place, especially when it comes to press freedom?

Well, I began – as is common – with state media gigs in China, one of the earliest of which was before the 60th anniversary of New China back in 2009. It was certainly an education in the pace of media in China. The Global Times Beijing Metro had just begun publication, and many of the writers, journalists and editors were optimistic that it wouldn’t be just another propaganda rag. But when National Day rolled around, editorial discretion went out the window; serious and important stories were cut simply for not being “happy” enough. Still, small steps were made to push the boundaries. Yesterday, China celebrated its 64th National Day, and – while I wouldn’t say progress – I would definitely say “concessions” were made.

In my opinion, the state media organizations have (officially, at least) not moved a jot in the past few years, and occasionally have even ramped up rhetoric. However, China is getting wealthier and more diverse, so keeping tabs on all news organizations is simply not realistic. As such, as long as everyone tows the CCP line and never strays too far from fundamental precepts – such as one party rule and showing disdain for the Dalai Lama – things move smoothly. The state media organizations exist to serve the will of the Communist Party and as a result, receive its support, blessing and largesse. Until that balance of power shifts, I unfortunately see no potential for significant change for free press in China.

You have written recently about the various ways that Chinese citizens raise their voices, from petitioners to protesters. When you reported on petitioners in your recent feature story, what was the feeling on the ground as you observed citizens pleading their cases? And for those living in China, is there any sense that the government is gradually paying more attention to the complaints and cases of its citizens?

The petitioners I spoke with for that feature were optimistic in the extreme. But then again, it takes a certain type of person to put their faith in the central government, leave their families to beg for justice in the capital. It is important to mention that the hostility most face when petitioning comes from local governments, not the government here in Beijing. While the system for hearing complaints in China is deeply flawed, the actual problems that arise with petitioning grow out of deeper troubles, such as lack of an independent judiciary, poor oversight and corruption. The World of Chinese has recently been running weekly interviews with various petitioners around Beijing – from murder cases to land disputes – and the one thing they have in common is their inability to redress their grievances at home.

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As to the second part of that question, I would say that, yes, there has been an increase in efficiency in hearing overall public complaints. Even though it is highly censored, regulated and surveilled, the online world plays an invaluable part in public oversight. In fact, for all the bile that accompanies the central government’s rhetoric on the Internet, it’s their greatest tool in fighting corruption – something the current government has made a central goal. In a way, the lack of a free press helps in this regard because people are more willing to take random web posts seriously.

Another thing you’ve written about is protests. In the case of the one that turned destructive in Anhui province, the Central Propaganda Department clamped down on the news before it was widely circulated. Have you noticed an uptick in cases of citizens being able to beat censors to the punch when such events unfold? In spite of efforts to keep upheaval under wraps, do more people seem to be aware of the widespread sense of social unrest that continually surfaces in protests like this one?

That protest in Anhui was minor – something that happens in China every day – but what was interesting was how it grabbed the attention of the propaganda department who ordered a media blackout on the subject. Yes, it is easier to beat the censors, traditionally close-minded and draconian, but that matters little when they can retroactively erase content and then ignore the incident altogether. Exposing unpleasant issues is an attribute of modern social media, but it’s a mistake to think that it’s not in the complete control of the Party here in China. There’s a reason Facebook and Twitter have been banned for half a decade.

Generally, people are more aware and more vocal on these incidents of unrest. The question is, where do they go from there? It’s not safe to send your story or grievance to a media organization (which might have a blackout on the subject) or the office of Letters and Visits (which may literally just chuck it in the bin). This situation has made China’s curious online world a unique ghetto for citizen journalism.

The government is naturally keen to clamp down on these dissenting voices, but who seems to be winning this battle in the longer term? Even if Beijing can control information, are younger media savvy Chinese becoming increasingly cynical of the official party line?

It’s only a battle if both sides have weapons. It’s sad to say, but in the “online rumors” debacle, the Weibo side has little to no leverage. The CCP has poured tons of ink into making sure that everyone knows exactly how much they need a crackdown on online rumors, and they have officially dug in their heels. So far, the online rumors crackdown has seen a few legitimate arrests of black PR firms, but it has also seen people in detainment for asking questions, making jokes and just being wrong.

Despite recent clarification from the courts, this rumor regulation appears to be just another weapon in silencing dissent. The problem of online rumors is yet another that could be solved by releasing the stranglehold on the Chinese press. When the press has credibility, one imagines social media musings lose their luster.

I’m not sure I can comment on the cynicism of younger, tech-savvy Chinese toward the party line, but there is a sense of satire. Weibo, for all its faults, does have some genuinely interesting posters who relish skewering current events, just for a laugh; others do it to fight corruption. Such was the case of Wu Dong, who brought down a party official by via his expensive watch. The official saw the inside of a jail cell in mid-September in the anti-rumor campaign. Hoping upon hope that I am wrong, the CCP can keep up this crackdown without any meaningful resistance.

The case involving censorship of the Global Times showed that even state-run media aren’t exempt. From your own experience working in China for that paper, would you say there are elements within even the state-run media who have the potential to try to subtly offer a slightly different viewpoint? Do you think state media can ironically help bring balance to the dialogue in some cases?

To the first question: absolutely. Make no mistake, China’s dystopian press is not for a lack of talent. In my short run with the Global Times, I met some of the best journalists I have ever known, who, on a local level, busted their hump to get stories that would never see the light of day. That said, half measures have no hope of bringing lasting change, in my opinion. That was why the story mentioned above (on the Global Times being censored) got scrubbed from the internet.

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The author of that article did a great job, got incredible interviews and expressed a cogent idea. But it served its purpose better than expected. Its purpose – or at least the reason for publication – was to pay lip service to China’s online censorship. However, it just did it too well. Part of the reason subtlety is doomed to failure in changing the face of the Chinese media is because it’s not fighting the government – it’s fighting genuine fear. To many it may seem like suppression of information from the highest levels of government, but that is rarely the case. Self-censorship is the most pervasive form of censorship in China.

To the question of balance from the state media, I think that it does provide some. However, that balance only works one way. To what do you balance the benevolent leadership of the one true Party? If you’re smart, you won’t try. No one likes going to their editor in China and hearing the word “balanced” attached to their story. That means it’s about to get a lot shorter. That said, if major change is to be seen, the state media is where it has to happen. On readership and news aggregation alone, if the party plans to loosen its grip, I believe the state media is where people will be able to see the first signs.

You’ve also written about the “shadow banking” that is rife in China and the possibility of implementing reforms that would allow for private banks to operate on the mainland. Do you think such talk of reforms, generally, is only made in an effort to keep a frustrated populace at bay? Or are there genuine changes (however limited) coming down the pike?

I think the government is getting more serious about private banking, and I think it’s something the country desperately needs. But, if the past few years have proved anything, a freewheeling banking sector is not all it’s cracked up to be. I should also mention that, while shadow banking is potentially dangerous, China has had to rely on it so much that it has become a sort of institution. Yes, it’s likely to be highly leveraged, and yes, it can come from dodgy sources, but with China’s recent rebound, shadow banking is on the up. This blue skies mentality is great for the short term, but, with a longer view, China needs to work out a simpler way for entrepreneurs to stock their shelves.

Do you think China’s efforts to “charm” have truly been (or will be) effective? Or do you think China’s attempts to woo any country/region in a soft way will fall flat? Is it only a case of money doing the talking?

China’s “charm offensive” has been going on for longer that this government, and China will not give it up – no matter how hopeless it is. The propaganda departments in China are chomping at the bit to make a bigger splash in the world media, but the rest of the world seems, so far, unimpressed. Here in the far west of Beijing, in the heart of a military compound, China Radio International exists to spread Chinese news and culture across the globe; they even have a section for Esperanto. But in the end, no matter how hard China tries to put its story forward, it is hamstrung by a lack of legitimacy, perhaps the one thing that cannot be bought. Currently, the international tale that China tells is “development at all costs.” That’s all well and good, but it also casts China in the role of anti-democracy more often than not. The purpose of these soft power pushes is supposedly to “introduce China to the world” – perhaps they are a little too effective.

Then again, China’s investments in places like East Africa, the Caribbean and Central Asia come with huge media and education investments that raise China’s profile in those regions. Denying their lack of legitimacy is one thing, but there’s only so long you can ignore someone throwing money at you. That’s why I think Myanmar is such an interesting case. The country is mired in complex, violent attacks, but is still marginally on the road to becoming a free and open country. However, when they threw off the junta’s shackles, some tended to notice the “Made in China” logo on the steel. Just this last week, an editorial was published on Myanmar relations in the state media, referencing the taboo Myitsone Dam project, a snub that will likely never be forgotten.

The economies of Myanmar and China are too interlinked to be thrown off entirely, but now that Myanmar is opening up, China will have competition that it never had before. Myanmar’s hopeful free democracy raises some very uncomfortable questions at home in China, but, in the end, Myanmar needs Chinese investment a lot more than China needs diversified oil imports. So, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Jonathan DeHart
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Jonathan DeHart

Jonathan DeHart is a Tokyo-based journalist and correspondent for The Diplomat.

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