The one thing everyone seems to understand about China is that it is a Communist country with strict censorship. This prevalent depiction often goes unquestioned, but China has not really practiced communism for decades — if ever — and its media landscape is quickly evolving. People in China are hungry for information and it is becoming increasingly harder to control it.
Media in China wasn’t always as restricted as it is today, though the post-Chinese Civil War era does not have a glorious history of free speech. Reuters Institute reported on a June 2011 Oxford University speech given by Scottish journalist and China specialist Isabel Hilton. She said that while journalism today is better than it was in the 70s, there was a brief time in the 80s that saw media become “extraordinarily liberal and open.” The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 changed that.
Deng Xiaoping continued liberalizing reforms in the 90s, some of which might have allowed for the media to open up a little more. The modern Hu Jintao era has seen China move backward in some respects, according to Andrew Browne, the China Editor of the Wall Street Journal. Today China works to ensure its media has both “a measure of freedom and a measure of control,” Hilton said.
Even so, the rise of the Internet has made information tough to control. The Global Times, a state-owned publication, started out providing mostly entertainment news. Modern media in China has forced the publication to refocus its efforts to stay competitive. As more information has become available to the public in more places, the Global Times has come to rely more on its editorial content, which is often seen as controversial.
While state-owned newspapers do get some money from the government, part of the China’s liberalization has given some of these newspapers enough autonomy to run their own finances. As a result, the Global Times manages to pull a profit based on sales alone, before advertising dollars are taken into account. Even with its state ties and controversial content, the publication has not been shut down.
That is not to say that a publication like the Global Times does not have to be wary of censorship and angering officials. It is a very real concern that they seem not to want to discuss in too much detail. They expressed some sorrow over the fact that parts of the truth have to remain unpublished. Oriental Outlook magazine, a weekly news magazine in China, has the same issue and its staff members also seemed unwilling to discuss the matter.
Censorship clearly remains a very real problem in China. However, foreign news organizations can sometimes get away with publishing more, even if there are repercussions. China does not want to isolate itself from the rest of the world, as the economic implications would be grave, so there is a certain level of toleration when it comes to Western media outlets.
Severe repercussions for publishing less-than-flattering information about China are rare, but still are looming threats. In May, for the first time in 13 years, a foreign correspondent was expelled from China. Melissa Chan, an American journalist for Al Jazeera English in China, was not able to renew her visa. China says she violated some unspecified number of rules. It is suspected that the Chinese government was unhappy with content published by Al Jazeera, including a documentary Chan had no part in that was shown on the agency’s television station. China refused to issue any further visas for Al Jazeera English correspondents, so the organization closed its China bureau.
Even facing that bleak reality, it is possible media is playing a larger role in helping reform China. Browne talked about local media unearthing corruption in local governments that then gets addressed in Beijing. In a piece of anecdotal evidence, Browne told a story about media helping him out with an issue he had with a local gang. He brought the issue to the law but was told there was nothing that could be done except having a state-owned radio station cover the story in four parts. After that story ran, Browne was able to get a market-oriented commercial paper to run a full-page story, which eventually led to the gang leaving the property he was trying to protect. Among institutions that can affect change in China, “media may be… the most trustworthy,” Browne said.
Foreign media also has a lot of exposure among the educated in China. Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek were among the favorite publications read by the staff at Oriental Outlook. Some Chinese citizens are concerned about the portrayal of their country in foreign media, but still think foreign media offers important perspectives.
Yang Wenbo, a student at the Shanghai International Studies University, regularly read the Financial Times to practice her English until it was blocked. She is studying English to become a public-relations translator and had recently translated an article by FT called “What’s in the dumplings?”. Wenbo said the Financial Times was eventually blocked because of its reports on the Syrian uprising.
The future of media in China is hazy. There may be a resurgence of freer journalism in China, thanks to the disjointed and difficult-to-control nature of the Internet. China has its own form of Internet vigilantes loosely referred to as Renrou Sousuo, which literally translates as the Human Flesh Search Engine. This term is used to refer to groups of people who have taken to the Internet to uncover the identities of a perpetrator of a hit-and-run, a woman who posted a video of herself crushing the head of a kitten with her heel and other similarly atrocious acts. One reporter in China referred to it as “Batman on the Internet.”
While the Internet has opened the floodgates of information in some respects, it is still not the primary medium of news. A taxi driver who did not know any foreign languages said he was frustrated by the censorship of local media but he did not really have any other options for getting news. He sees media today as the freest he can remember, but he contributes that to a shift in culture, not the Internet.
Even with that cultural shift, it can be hard to find people enthusiastic about journalism in China. Few students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication said a career in journalism was their ultimate goal. Browne sees journalism as having become a very valid career choice in China, yet good journalism jobs might still be hard to come by. This is a reality that is all too familiar to American journalists and journalism students.
It can be worse in China, though. If a Chinese journalist gets hired by a foreign publication, he or she is not allowed to have bylines on articles and thus officially gets listed as a “researcher” while still doing the same work as any other journalist.
The job title should not hamper people’s ability to live fulfilling lives, though. The Chinese Dream, as compared to the American Dream, is more often about happiness and spiritual fulfillment than it is about social status and riches. Many Chinese citizens are legitimately upset about censorship in their country, but there may be promising improvements on the horizon. It is hard to see how China could permanently keep the floodgates of information from bursting through. The dream of a China with freer access to information is not an unrealistic one.