Investigating China

Books & Letters reviews two recent books that look at advances in and challenges of investigative journalism in China: Investigative Journalism in China by David Bandurski (of China Media Project fame) and Martin Hala, and Investigative Journalism in China by Tong Jingrong:

Two books published in the last few months offer a complementary analysis of investigative journalism in the People’s Republic of China. David Bandurski and Martin Hala’s book looks at stories that have caused a major stir both nationally and internationally, while Tong Jingrong’s work takes a more general approach to the profession in the context of the history of Chinese journalism. [1] The 1990s seem to represent the golden age for investigative journalism in China. It established itself thanks to a convergence of political, social and economic factors. In an authoritarian state such as China, where censorship is institutionalized, investigative journalism had to meet the needs, or at least conform to some extent to the will of the Party in order for it to first be practiced in the media. Tong Jingrong stresses the idea of a real need on the part of the political authorities. The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 enabled the Chinese economy to develop extremely quickly, but growth also led to major problems: mediocre quality of production, an increase in social inequalities, widespread corruption, environmental problems, etc. – all of which challenged the legitimacy of the policies implemented by the political leaders. As a way of regaining public trust in the Communist Party and the system of a socialist market economy, the government allowed critical information to appear in newspapers. Beginning with an investigation into the problems of product quality, investigative journalism gradually spread to other areas, thus prompting a form of “control by the media” (yulun jiandu).

The same issue features an interview with Bandurski about the current state of the media in China within a changing information landscape:

La Vie des Idées: Reports of recent crackdowns on Chinese journalists indicate that the government policy towards them is not relaxing. How would you describe the current state of the Chinese media? Has the greater opening of the Chinese press profoundly changed the face of the Chinese media industry? Has it led to more autonomy for journalists and more freedom of information for the Chinese?

[...] Control of the media and public opinion has remained an uncompromising priority for the CCP leadership. And yet, there have at the same time been dramatic changes. How do we explain that? Simply speaking, the major factors at play have been commercialization of the media, professionalism and the rise of the Internet and now social media. Media started commercializing – which is to say they started depending upon advertising, sales and subscriptions – in the mid-1990s, so China has only had a media market, you can say, for a little more than 15 years. In this sense, it is quite a new industry in China. This process did a lot of things, but one important thing was to transform the relationship between the media and the audience. Media still had to be careful politically, minding what is called “propaganda discipline.” But they had to mind their audiences and readers as well. This was a shift in orientation. Media now had to become more relevant to the public. It wasn’t enough to just report on what Party officials were doing, or the latest government notices. So by the late 1990s, we had a whole new generation of metro newspapers in China that relied entirely on advertising and other revenue sources. They received no state support. Most of these were what we call “spin-offs” of Party newspapers. In Chinese they are actually called “child papers,” and their official Party counterparts are “mother papers.” The mothers still receive state support, and their content is mostly dry propaganda. By contrast, the commercialized metro papers are rich in content.

December 17, 2011 10:54 PM
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