Is Winter Coming For The Chinese News Media?

Tea Leaf Nation’s Yueran Zhang explores the shifting winds in the Chinese news media, where a number of “personnel earthquakes” have seen influential members of the country’s independent media leave or be forced out of their positions this year:

On July 18, the publication’s president and vice editor-in-chief were dismissed for unspecified reasons. Some rumors said the direct cause might be the Daily’s interview with Sheng Hong (@盛洪微博), president of Tianze Economics Institute, which was published in May. In the interview, Prof. Sheng acutely criticized the monopoly of state-owned companies in certain markets.

The misfortune has also befallen other media brands. On July 16, the editor-in-chief of the News Express Daily (@新快报) was forced to resign because of unspecified “sensitive” contents it had published. On August 23, the Oriental Vanguard (@东方卫报) published on its front page a feature article titled “Liu Xiang knew, officials knew, China Central Television knew, only the audience was waiting vainly for the legendary moment.” The article said that official heads of the Chinese Olympic Team, China Central Television (CCTV) and Liu Xiang himself had all known beforehand that his severe injury might render him unable to finish the preliminary heats of the Olympic Men’s 110-meter Hurdles, and CCTV had prepared four commentating plans accordingly. The report caused the editor-in-chief, the assistant editor-in-chief and the so-called “news supervisors” (新闻总监) to be dismissed.

Although the government’s control over news media has always been tight, the range and intensity of the purge this year has been rarely seen, suggesting that the censors’ controlling hand is tightening. As Wang Keqin (@王克勤), a former investigative journalist famous for his coverage of AIDS spread and illegal mining plants, comments, “It’s getting colder. The winter is approaching.”

Zhang’s piece stirred up a lively debate in Chinese social media, even drawing comments from journalists such as Liu Jianfeng who had received mention in the article:

For some readers, the reality of Chinese journalism revealed by the article deepens their hopelessness. @时评人黄国胜 is one of them, writing, “It’s so difficult to be an authentic journalist in China!” More directly, @新闻已死 (whose handle name literally means, “the news is dead”) declares the “death of Chinese journalism.” “There is no ‘news’ in China, only ‘propaganda.’”

Even more saddened are those who used to work in journalism. They said the piece reminded them of their unpleasant past. @高压锅老窝 writes, “If you worked in the media industry for a few days, you would not trust anything.” @雪峰NO1 attributes the mistrust to the tradition of telling lies in Chinese journalism. “Journalism is a high-risk occupation. Maybe just by accident, a disaster can befall you. Unless you follow your superior and tell lies, you are punished. It’s the destiny of journalists.”

With the persistence and idealism he still holds, Liu rejects the pessimistic notion that Chinese journalists could pursue nothing but “dead journalism.” “Don’t be so pessimistic. There are always still courageous and uncompromised reporters who tell the truth. Those who claim that ‘there is no news in China’ are the ones who cannot endure the pressure and give up. If your pieces are killed, you can still publish them online. Is there worse outcome than being fired? As far as I know, many dare to do that.”