Doug Young, former China business reporter, financial journalism teacher at Fudan University, proprietor of Young’s China Business Blog and author of The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China discusses the latest developments in mainland media
In your book you talk a lot about the sort of system that’s in place to influence and control what goes on, or what is published in the media here. So what are the main tools that are used for that today?
You know, nowadays things are much freer than they were in the past and the media, you know, has been ordered to be more commercial and print news that people want to read. So it’s a bit more open, especially in terms of reporting local news. But when it comes to bigger stories and stories on sensitive topics basically all the media still follow the lead of the big central organizations – Xinhua, CCTV and People’s Daily, are sort of the big three. And then that’s sort of supplemented with oversight by the propaganda ministry, which, when big news happens, they’re usually very quick to put out directives which they selectively send to top editors and news organizations. Then it’s the top editor’s responsibility to make sure the word gets around to the rest of the staff. And they almost never send anything in writing, they never want to leave any sort of paper trail. It’s all done mostly through phone calls.
In the years since Xi Jinping’s ascension, what are the trends you’ve noticed in Chinese media coverage?
Right when Xi came in there was that big Southern Weekend strike, where they all went on strike because the New Years editorial was changed and substituted with some propaganda thing – and [the government] took the unusual step of negotiating with them and trying to make everybody happy, so some people were saying this could be a more open attitude toward media. But instead it seems to have really gotten much more repressive. And I think there are probably some real reasons for it. One, it’s a new president and I think they really are trying to reign in the media. But then another thing is that I think things in China’s media sort of were getting a little out of control in terms of people just reporting anything – there’s this whole business with extortion and bribery… the Chinese media were sort of becoming this unruly whatever, so they sort of tried to clip its wings. So part of it is controlling the message, but I think part of it is really just trying to tame this unruly thing, and I think that the 21st Century Business Herald scandal is part of that.
So the CBH scandal, where you’ve got state media claiming the paper’s journalists extorted companies for hundreds of millions, is representative of that problem?
I think unfortunately that’s fairly typical of the kinds of things that happen in this industry. You talk with reporters, a lot of my students, they talk about the terrible pay they get, and the newspapers expect them almost to do this kind of thing to supplement their income. It’s sort of an unspoken deal – we won’t pay you anything and you can say whatever you really want to try and supplement your income
A lot of red envelopes.
Yeah, a lot of red envelopes. And that’s probably the more benign of the kind of stuff that happens. I mean this whole business of extortion… and I’ve had reporters tell me they let the PR agencies write the news story for them. They just say “write the story for me,” and then they just submit it to their editor, and then they get a nice little payment for that. And then you hear stories also from reporters telling me they’ve been pressured to ask when they go on interviews if they want to buy any advertising, which a total no-no in the West. You would never say “oh, I’m writing a story on you, oh, and by the way, would you like to advertise in our…” you know, with obviously the heavy implication being that maybe if you advertise my write up will be a little nicer, but if you don’t my write up won’t be as nice.
So to what extent do you think most of what we’d call “professional” outlets – Caijing and Caixin, places like that – have any real influence on the industry?
Even 21st Century Business Herald is sort of famous for actually giving their reporters decent salaries – they allow them to expense things. All these other publications, if a reporter wants to actually go out and meet a source and try and cultivate some networks they’ve gotta do it all on their own dime, they can’t expense anything. And I think 21st Century Business Herald and Caixin and Caijing were all trying to be more Western in the sense that they would give their reporters real, livable salaries. I think in some cases they even forbade them – I think at Caixin, Hu Shuli’s publication, reporters were banned from accepting red envelopes. They’re trying to do it. And that’s why this thing with CBH, in a way it almost looks like the central government trying to discredit a respected publication. Because they are a fairly respected publication.
One of the trends, or maybe aspirations that I was hoping to talk about was the conglomeration of certain outfits into more powerful media groups, as called for earlier this year by Xi Jinping.
I think it was even in the last couple months that he said something about creating these media conglomerates. It’s been talked about a lot, you haven’t seen much. I mean the big one that happened that I know of was here in Shanghai. Shanghai had three big media groups: one was SMG, which is the big TV operator, and the two old newspapers, one was the Wenhui, and the other was Jiefang Daily. They merged into a single company called Shanghai United Media or something like that. But that was sort of the first step.
They’re trying to do something similar right now in terms of China’s cable TV industry, to consolidate all these regional cable companies into one big single national operator. Sort of like what happened in the US. You used to have all these little cable operators and now there’s like three or four big ones: Comcast and Time Warner and so forth. But what happens in all of these cases, with the media and cable, is that you have really stiff resistance from local interests, because the Hunan provincial government doesn’t want to lose control of the Hunan cable TV companies to some company in Beijing that’s gonna try and operate the whole thing. So I think there’s been a lot of resistance at the local level. And that this particular Shanghai deal, they could pull it off because it was all engineered, I think, by the Shanghai propaganda ministry. But I think there was even a lot of resistance to that.
The only media group you I ever really hear much about is the Southern Media Group, and they’re considered to be a relatively prestigious outfit.
Yeah, cutting edge. They’re not afraid to push the envelope, they’ll stand up for their reporters. They’re definitely considered to be probably the most cutting edge, at least of the mainstream.
Aside from the Southern guys and magazines like Caixin and Caijing, which have adopted basically Western reporting standards, do think that anybody else comes close?
You see publications that are… ok. But yeah, nothing that’s super cutting edge. Nobody really great there, and I don’t see it getting any better anytime soon, to be honest.
Well it’s just that these old media, they’re sort of torn between two masters… well, lots of masters. I gave a lecture about that, about how these media just have so many different masters to answer to. On the one hand they’ve been told to be commercial, on the other hand they have their local stakeholders who want them to be their propaganda mouthpiece, and on the other hand you have the national propaganda guys who want them to advance the Party’s national agenda. They’ve just got too many different things that they’re trying to be, and a lot of times there’s conflict.
The other day at Lu Xun Park here in Shanghai – they closed it for one year for renovation, and it reopened and the local government in Hongkou, which is where I live – they held this big grand opening gala, and they wanted all the media to come and show how beautiful it was and everything. And this turf war broke out between these two groups of retirees who wanted the same area for their little singing performances, and all the media zoomed in on that. And apparently the Hongkou government was all upset, and they called the propaganda ministry, and the propaganda ministry was trying to squash the story in the media. Only in China. Where else would something like a skirmish at a local park turn into such a huge story involving so many people? But that’s how Chinese media are. Unless there’s some real reform to kick the government out of the media completely, which I don’t see happening anytime soon, it’s not gonna change. ♦
Interviewer: Hudson Lockett