Changing Media, Changing China
Oxford UniversityPress, 2011
At first glance, Changing Media, Changing China is cut straight out of the standard China scholar anthology mold. Edited by Susan Shirk, well-known political scientist and former US diplomat, it adopts the popular academic naming convention of One Headline, Single Comma and abides by the generous definition of timeliness common in the ivory tower.
Can one take a book about Chinese media seriously if it doesn’t discuss the rise of Weibo or Beijing’s reaction to the Arab Spring? Is it worth examining graphs of newspaper print runs dated 1993-2004? What to make of an essay by Caijing magazine founder Hu Shuli about her publication’s hard-hitting reportage and its influence on the political landscape? Hu left Caijing in 2009. Oh, to be on the tenure track.
Qian Dang and David Bandurski lead off the volume with an essay on the effect President Hu Jintao’s “Three Closenesses” policy (that media coverage should be “closer to reality, to people and to life”) has had on the government’s relationship with the press. “The media now [has] two masters, the party and the public,” they argue.
While the government still has powerful leverage over individuals within the media, the incentive structure has changed for the institution. Beijing can fire this editor or that one, but the public – and advertisers – now have much stronger influence over what gets covered, and how it gets covered. Editors and TV producers are rewarded with ratings and the ad revenues that follow them when they diverge from the monotonous party line, and they are increasingly able to get away with it.
Bandurski and Qian’s description of the general incentive system, while wide in scope, puts the media reforms in their proper historical context. It also helps the reader understand the more focused essays that follow, which explore this dynamic tension between party and media as expressed on different platforms, including the financial media, the military press, television, and of course the internet.
Refreshingly, the collection generally avoids a simplistic portrait of the commercial Chinese press as a heroic resister against autocratic censors. Several essays point out areas where private media exerts negative influence.
Rooster or the egg
Benjamin Liebman, for example, argues that the popular press and local television stations frequently push the government to take actions that are popular with agitators but ignore due legal process. For every case in which the media exposes official malfeasance, there is another in which it serves as the voice of mob justice.
On the business front, in some cases the financial press has been bribed or suborned by companies who use pliant reporters to slime competitors. And then of course there is the rising wave of tabloid-style sensationalism – a model already familiar in the West for its advancement of prurient and commercial interests at the expense of everything else.
There are international ramifications to media liberalization as well: Shirk argues in her concluding essay that Chinese nationalists’ influence in the press and online has the effect of pushing Beijing into being more confrontational than it wants to be.
The ultimate picture is one of competing and often incompatible demands. “Television today is like a double-gendered rooster,” writes Miao Di in an essay about broadcast journalism in China. “Propaganda departments want it to crow while finance departments want it to lay eggs.”
This is undoubtedly true of other platforms besides television, and the contradiction actually has three facets, not two. The government relies on the media to keep the leadership apprised of the situation on the ground. The Party wants the media to persuade the population to accept its dominance. And the Chinese economy needs a vibrant, profitable media industry that serves as a credible source of business, social and political information and provides a platform for Chinese brands to promote themselves.
As Changing Media, Changing China shows, Chinese journalists, web sites and TV stations can sometimes serve two of the three purposes at the same time, but rarely – if ever – can they simultaneously serve all three.