A slate of amendments to China’s criminal law took effect in November, and one of the new provisions targets the spread of false information on social media platforms, particularly on WeChat and Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter and microblogging service, respectively. This clause attracted widespread attention for its potential impact on China’s media environment, which recently demonstrated significant progress through two events involving domestic and foreign press.
The first event was the purchase by the Nikkei, a Japanese media group, of the British Financial Times in late July, an acquisition that caused a major stir in China. The surprisingly vigorous outcry exposed China’s deep mistrust of Japan as the rivalry between the two Asian neighbors continues. The Chinese displeasure also reflects concerns with the future operation of the Financial Times’ Chinese-language site, which enjoys remarkable popularity in China. FTChinese provides 2.35 million registered users with timely news and insightful analysis on thorny domestic and global issues.
At the same time, Chinese ranting over the FT sale convincingly reveals that, despite pervasive censorship, Chinese people have a thirst for foreign media. Many of China’s 668 million netizens scale the Great Firewall to gain access to media outside the nation’s borders. The FT saga also proves that, even with drastically rising Chinese nationalist sentiment, media sourced from the English-speaking world still gets the most respect in China.
The second event was the massive chemical explosions in the northern port city of Tianjin in mid August, which caused 173 deaths. The news was broken by WeMedia, or news feeds created by smartphone users on WeChat and Weibo. The influx of mobile information emboldened news organizations to ignore the authorities’ routine media ban and compete to discover the truth of the blasts. The sharp questions reporters put to the unrehearsed officials responsible for the calamity forced the authorities to cut off live TV broadcasts of press conferences.
The Tianjin breakthrough served as a watershed, marking WeMedia’s debut as independent news media. Namely, the common use of the smartphone revolutionized the Chinese media environment. According to GSMA, the London-headquartered global mobile business group, China now has 632 million smartphone users. When each individual can disseminate news, media operation becomes an evolving social function with maximum public participation.
Apparently, the new criminal law amendment attempts to rein in the fledgling WeMedia, which is deluged with unruly information. The law punishes false reports of threats to public security with up to seven years of imprisonment if serious consequences result from those rumors. The vaguely defined “false information” and “serious consequences” enable the authorities to level these charges arbitrarily to silence critics. In fact rumor originates from deteriorating social morale and people’s lack of trust in government, and the best way to deal with it is through a free and open press. This is in fact supported by the thorough Tianjin reporting, which ironically dissolved rumors of nepotistic involvement of party heavyweights.
The amendment will put more hurdles in the way of a professional news media as the industry shift from traditional to digital media. China already has its first online-only news network ThePaper.cn, which was one of the media groups spearheading the Tianjin reporting. The revised law curbing freedom of mobile expression will further complicate media operations, making it even harder to report on threats to public security, such as epidemics, disasters and police activities. The government frequently blocks the information as the cause and handling of these events are often related to its own performance.
Though shadowed by the new law, the foreign press has more room to maneuver than domestic media. In recent years, China has greatly expanded its communications with the world, and Chinese citizens’ access to foreign cultural products far exceeds the outside imagination. Thus, the Financial Times drama is not an isolated case. In September, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, like many other Western dignitaries, opened a Weibo account, drawing attention to the 11 million fans of the online Chinese edition of The Wall Street Journal on the same platform. For foreign media, the challenge is not only how to get into China but also what to get into China. Media operators must strike a delicate balance between bypassing the censors and catering to readers.
The media environment in China remains harsh but not without its encouraging signs. In mid-October, the Ministry of Culture’s newly opened Weibo account was excoriated online for limiting foreign movies and TV dramas. Then the government mouthpiece, People’s Daily published a commentary via its microblog, directing some rare criticism at the Ministry of Culture for deleting critical online posts. By the end of last month, China had unveiled a draft law on film management, which drastically relaxes censure of screenplays and movie imports.
China’s new media environment is a product of its maturing civil society, which increasingly demands the right to information and objective journalism. The Great Firewall cannot block social progress forever; the Goliaths, or censors, can never outnumber the smartphone-wielding Davids. The public focus is now on how this rumor-busting statute will be implemented. But given the robustness of Chinese society today, the effect of this anachronistic law on China’s media environment should be limited.
Yun Tang is a member of the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C. [email protected]