Political decision-making in China is notoriously opaque. Foreign and local media have little access to sources with real political power, limiting the ability to understand the thinking of policymakers or accurately predict the direction of future policies. At the same time, both commercial and social media is tightly controlled within Mainland China, restricting the free flow of information. Some topics are simply not open to discussion.
Government control over the media can, in a somewhat counter-intuitive manner, provide a glimpse into the minds of China’s top leaders. A careful examination of Chinese media can help reveal the “red lines” of political discussion. Analysis of which topics are censored can provide insights into the political fears and hopes of China’s rulers. Meanwhile, commercial and official media outlets have been forced by the realities of the digital age to cover some controversial stories, which in previous decades may have been taboo.
Recent media coverage of a violent confrontation in eastern China’s Zhejiang Province show a degree of willingness to cover incidents that do not exactly paint the state in a positive light. Chengguan – “city management” officers with a violent reputation – began beating a local resident of Cangnan town. The man had earned the chengguan’s wrath for taking pictures of the officers roughing up a street vendor. Bystanders in the crowded street intervened, and a full-scale riot broke out with government vehicles overturned, dozens of police dispatched to control the crowds, and five men in the chengguan uniform nearly beaten to death.
Violent images of the battered chenguan soon flooded social media, and the incident was widely discussed on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. Nearly all of the most popular posts regarding the incident heavily criticized the chengguan, and the official handling of the riot. Many drew parallels between the violence of law enforcement and the fierce reaction of the crowd.
Weibo user “Zhaochu1962” wrote a popular post asking “If, in the middle of a violent incident, we ask the bystanders to by rational, then can’t we ask the police to be rational? The police take out truncheons and teargas, are these gadgets rational?” Meanwhile “Dousong 1194553567” questioned the official response to the riot: “Why did the chengguan who beat people only get administrative detention? Why did those who beat the chengguan get criminal detention? Are the authorities deliberately arousing public anger?”
State-approved coverage of the incident is also interesting. Some outlets focused on the charges leveled against those who were arrested for rioting, and published their names and hometowns. The local edition of People’s Daily claimed that the five people who were beat by the crowds were not actually full-time chengguan, but rather temporary hires.
Perhaps most interestingly, New Wave Sichuan published an editorial calling on law-enforcers to improve themselves in order to gain the people’s trust: “Violence against violence is wrong, but this time it is no accident the chengguan met with a beating – it is precisely the consequence of violent law enforcement.” Before the advent of instant social networking, Chinese media may have simply covered up a spontaneous riot against law enforcement, and almost certainly no outlets would have dared to write an editorial sympathetic to the crowds.
Now, as in the past, patriotism remains a common thread running through state-approved media in the People’s Republic of China. Patriotic overtones have been on full display in media coverage of a dispute between Mainland China and Hong Kong sparked over a girl urinating on the street.
The girl’s Mainland Chinese parents let her relieve herself on a busy shopping street in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district. Angry local bystanders started filming the incident and shouting at the parents in Cantonese, while the girl’s parents tried to explain themselves in Mandarin. An altercation occurred after the parents seized the memory card from a local’s camera, and the parents were arrested.
Footage of the incident has been hugely popular on social media, and has helped to kindle mutual resentment between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Weibo user “xuehabo” made a popular post that exemplifies the view of many mainland Chinese, in which he accused Hong Kong residents of having ingrained prejudices against Mainlanders: “Hong Kong people say Hong Kong is a lawful society, the children are not allowed to urinate on the street, but Indians (in Hong Kong) beat people, why not put a stop to it and tell the police – this indicates the degree of civilization in Hong Kong is not very high…. This is a type of servile thinking formed under British rule, loving everything foreign, thinking the foreign moon is better than China’s.”
As for official media, the famously nationalistic Global Times blamed anti-Mainland protests in Hong Kong on the local equivalent of European neo-Nazis: “This handful of radicals in Hong Kong remind us of the rampant skinheads and neo-Nazis in Europe. Xenophobia is the cult of these groups. Their opinions have an effect on public opinion, but their actions will usually make trouble for mainstream society.”
A piece in Xinhua was rather more understanding of the frustrations of Hong Kong’s local residents: “In recent years, with the movement of people between Hong Kong and the Mainland, mutual exchanges increased, and frictions also increased. It must be admitted, there really are some segments of the Mainland tourists who did uncivilized actions in Hong Kong, making the Hong Kong compatriots repulsed, and making the mainland lose face.” However, the editorial still said some Hong Kongers who complain about Mainland visitors have “ulterior motives” to “cook up a war of words.”
Perhaps one of the most important stories developing in China right now is the saga of Zhou Yongkang. Zhou was once the head of China’s internal security apparatus, and the general manager of China’s largest state-owned energy company. He was also a member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee – the highest decision-making body in China. Once a major ally of the fallen Bo Xilai, he is now under virtual house arrest, and the government of Xi Jinping has seized 14.5 billion dollars worth of corrupt assets he and his family have accumulated. If and when Zhou Yongkang is officially prosecuted, he will be the highest-ranking official in the history of the People’s Republic of China to face criminal charges.
Yet there has been conspicuously little coverage of Zhou Yongkang’s dramatic fall from power within Mainland China. An article in Real Estate China titled “Do You Really Understand the Zhou Yongkang Rumors?” briefly describes the seizure of expensive liquor and gold bars from one of Zhou’s properties.
Meanwhile, the website of Ningxia’s People’s Daily features a piece – written rather oddly in the traditional Chinese script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan – headed “CCP Spokesperson answers ‘The Last Question’ Regarding the Zhou Yongkang Rumor.” The article quotes Communist Party spokesperson Lu Xinhua as telling a reporter from the South China Morning Post “… regardless of how high the position, if one violated party discipline and national law, one will be subject to investigation and severe punishment… I can only answer like this, you understand.”
Rumor and speculation stemming from limited access to official information are often the fodder of many fascinating Weibo posts and discussions. However, when one searches “Zhou Yongkang” using the Weibo search engine, the only result is a message from Sina Weibo itself: “According to relevant laws, regulations, and policies, search results for ‘Zhou Yongkang’ are not displayed.”
Here is a very obvious, and very revealing, red line in Chinese social media. Riots can be debated. Tensions between Mainland China and Hong Kong are fair game. However, political intrigue and endemic corruption at the highest levels of power are very clearly off limits.
Brendan P. O’Reilly is China-based writer and educator. His specialty is Chinese foreign policy.