Chinese Media and the Information Revolution

Chinese Media and the Information Revolution
by Shanthi Kalathil

In July 2001, a small tin mine in Guangxi province flooded, trapping and killing scores of miners. What followed became emblematic of a growing trend in China. Amplified by the information revolution, the story itself became the story. Neighborhood media outlets, cowed into silence by local authorities intent on covering up casualties, e-mailed their version of events to regional journalists, who scrambled to the city to investigate. Subsequently, regional papers began to report on hundreds dead and missing, even while the official Xinhua news agency remained silent. Those reports were circulated by Chinese Internet users and web portals, allowing the story to spread nationally, until even the venerated and politically correct People’s Daily followed up on the story. The central government ultimately felt compelled to send an investigative team, resulting in the mine owner’s arrest.(1)

It is clear that the role of the Chinese media has changed dramatically from the days when it functioned strictly as an ideological Party mouthpiece and government cheerleader. At the same time, its evolutionary trajectory remains unclear. No longer simply part of the propaganda apparatus, the country’s media is still far from functioning as an impartial observer and commentator. Amidst the economic and political aftershocks of WTO membership, the country’s media sector is struggling to reflect and keep pace with the changes sweeping the country.

Foremost among the drivers of change for China’s media is the information revolution, whose impact has been significant and multifaceted. Although recent advances in information and communication technology have both empowered and weakened the state, they have undeniably made it more difficult for the government to hoard and control information resources. With the breakdown of the government’s monopoly on information, traditional and Internet-based media have capitalized on the opportunities made possible by new technology. By making available a wide range of news stories from geographically diverse locations, for instance, Chinese web portals have been encouraging competition between news organizations. This competition means that small, local news organizations are increasingly pushing the boundaries of acceptable reportage, pressuring larger national organizations to follow. News often appears on the Internet either exclusively or before traditional media outlets can publish it. Even stodgy, official media organs such as the People’s Daily view their web sites not merely as an extension of the newspaper, but as separate entities with their own corporate culture and often a more progressive mode of operation.

Of course, most people still rely on traditional media to obtain information. An October 2000 survey conducted by China Market and Media Research examined media consumption in 20 cities, and found that an average of 12.3 percent of urban residents were using the Internet. Yet a majority of those polled still read newspapers and watched television to get their news. Data obtained from the China National Readership Survey in 2000 shows that television achieved a penetration rate of almost 100% in the 30 cities polled. Meanwhile, Internet penetration is growing at a fast pace. China’s official Internet Network Information Center estimated the country’s Internet users hit 33.7 million at the end of 2001, although outside observers argue that this estimate is inflated.

Despite the statistics, history shows that new trends in the media sector are far from irreversible. Wide-ranging changes may be undone by a shift in central government policy. Hence, while the information revolution may indeed be an unprecedented development that has taken hold in China, it is still capable of being harnessed and directed by the central government to serve its own purposes, be they liberalization or increased control.


The PRC’s policy toward reporters and intellectuals has oscillated, with periods of state repression alternating with periods of openness.(2) As early as Mao Zedong’s “Hundred Flowers Movement” in 1956-57, in which he invited diverse schools of thought to contend openly and criticize the Party, journalists were encouraged by the Party to take greater editorial initiative and engage in investigative projects in taboo areas. In Mao’s subsequent crackdown, the most outspoken critics of the Party were vilified and cast out of their professions.(3) Overall, however, momentum toward less state domination of the media has been building since Deng Xiaoping initiated wide-ranging economic reforms in the late 1970s.

Under Mao’s totalitarian regime, the media’s function was to serve the state and impose ideological hegemony. His regime was characterized by vertical control of communication, exemplified by a top-down media system that acted as a conduit carrying Party thought to the masses. This was complemented by a telecommunications system that was accessible only to elites.(4) In practice, ideological hegemony was accomplished by overwhelming the citizenry in every aspect of daily life with official information and interpretations of reality. Since Mao’s Leninist state required the appearance of unanimity, the mass media served the function of explaining and justifying official policy, while still providing an important staging area where various factions could wage surreptitious battle over policy direction. Especially during the years of the Cultural Revolution, diversity and independent opinion in the media were sharply discouraged.

With the advent of economic reforms in 1978, the role of the media began to change. No longer defined by the government as an instrument of class struggle, the media was promoted as an instrument of economic development and social modernization, with an emphasis on business information and entertainment.(5) Nonetheless, advances and reversals in press freedom continued during the 1980s with some regularity. For example, liberalization increased after the Third Plenum of the 11th Party Central Committee in December 1978, but quickly retreated after the crackdown on the Democracy Wall movement in 1979, as well as the campaigns against “spiritual pollution” in 1983.(6) The period of relative openness in the mid-1980s was followed by retrenchment after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Tiananmen crackdown was also perhaps the most seminal in terms of media involvement in protest. Journalists had significantly contributed to the wave of political activism sweeping student and intellectual ranks in the country. As students marched through Beijing calling for democracy in May 1989, hundreds of journalists staged a rally outside the Xinhua News Agency to protest the firing of a Shanghai editor, while objecting to restrictions on their own coverage of the pro-democracy movement. The protests were attended by reporters at smaller publications as well as by employees of prominent national media organizations such as the People’s Daily and the English-language China Daily. Journalists also joined student demonstrations in provincial capitals all over China. Semi-official publications like the China Women’s News and Science and Technology Daily, which received state funding but were not wholly government mouthpieces, broke with official instructions and covered part of the pro-democracy demonstrations. Needless to say, following the June 4 crackdown the media paid a heavy price. The entire editorial leadership of the People’s Daily was replaced, numerous journalists were arrested, and harsh regulations were imposed on all media organs.(7)

In recent years, amidst a liberalized economic environment and an increasing diversity of information sources for the general public, the media has continued to play a strong propaganda role for the central government, especially in setting the agenda for public debate on foreign affairs. The Chinese media’s reporting of the Balkan crisis in 1999, including the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, shows that the media is far from free of state pressures to present the central government’s version of overseas events. Chinese media painted the military campaign as part of a US-led plot to subjugate first Serbia and then the world under the guise of international humanitarianism, and barely touched upon Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing. The Chinese media also waited two days before reporting President Clinton’s apology following the bombing of the Chinese embassy on May 7, 1999. Subsequently, the press played a key role in fanning nationalism and anti-Americanism, at least until the end of July, when the central government ordered a stop in order to improve ties with the US to counter Taiwan’s independence rhetoric.(8)


Some posit that the trends of commercialization, globalization and pluralization are combining to break down state control over propaganda dissemination or “thought work.”(9) While assessments of the state’s “thought work” capacity vary, most observers agree that the information revolution, embodied most tangibly by the rapid spread of the Internet, has accelerated these trends. As a result, it is becoming difficult for the Party to dictate and enforce the media’s ideological role. A decrease in state funding also means that outlets must now compete for audiences and advertising, causing a shift from rote reporting of official visits to livelier, more adventurous coverage.

Despite the hype associated with the Internet, traditional media still remain primary sources of information for much of the public. Whether in the realm of satellite television or local newspapers, trends previously limited to specific geographic areas have been leveraged by technology into the national arena. The general character of Chinese television, for instance, has been affected by the growing availability of domestic satellite television channels. Although China Central Television is still the most popular station nationwide, local satellite channels are beginning to have a profound influence on the country as a whole. A case in point is Hunan Satellite Television, which provides lively, occasionally controversial content that has made it one of the most financially successful television stations in the country. Its nightly news broadcasts skip coverage of official steel plant visits in favor of investigative reports and human interest stories, enabling it to expand beyond a strictly local audience. Received by subscription only, the station claimed 200 million viewers last year, and its Saturday evening prime time advertising rates are the highest for any station in the country, including the national network CCTV-1. As with many other business ventures in China, commercial success has helped mollify officials who initially complained about its unorthodox policies, and other stations around the country are now hoping to duplicate its success.(10)

Foreign media companies, too, play pioneering roles in China’s television sector. In 2001, the world’s largest media company, AOL Time Warner Inc., signed a landmark deal with the Chinese government to broadcast a Mandarin-language cable channel into southern China. The deal marked the first time that an American media corporation was able to participate in China’s cable television sector, which has always been classified bureaucratically under the propaganda apparatus and subject to special ideological considerations.(11) Meanwhile, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation maintains a stake in the well-connected satellite broadcaster Phoenix Television. Phoenix has been cautiously testing the limits of politically acceptable information, by reporting events such as the election of Chen Shui-bian as the new president of Taiwan in March, 2000.(12)
Yet foreign and domestic broadcasters are, on the whole, still not willing to overtly challenge the government on the limits of acceptable speech. Phoenix has been able to get away with its programming partly through the high-level connections of its chairman and principal owner, who is a former Army propaganda officer, and partly because only relatively elite, affluent households can afford its signal. Moreover, media investor Murdoch has taken great pains in recent years to stay on China’s good side. After inflaming Chinese leaders in the early 1990s by characterizing satellite television as a threat to totalitarian regimes, Murdoch subsequently dropped BBC news programming from his Star TV satellite network in an attempt to mollify officials and curry favor. New television ventures that lack the right clout are not likely to generate significant envelope-pushing content. Even AOL executives concede their new channel will feature only politically and culturally inoffensive programming, although reportedly it will include contemporary dramas and sitcoms from Taiwan and Hong Kong.(13)

Newspapers, both local and national, are also feeling market pressure to commercialize and provide more reader-friendly content. Many are doing so through their web sites, which often address topics considered too politically sensitive for traditional newsprint. The People’s Daily, for instance, maintains a strong web presence that is significantly livelier than its print counterpart, and offers an increasing mix of sports and lifestyle reporting, enhanced with popular, nationalistically-themed forums and chat rooms that compete with similar forums run by private companies. The site also caters to local audiences throughout China by picking up news from local papers, which are often more daring in their investigative reporting than papers geographically and ideologically closer to Beijing.(14) The People’s Daily has also used its web site to post news that is unavailable through traditional outlets. For instance, while Chinese television and newspapers excised the portions of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s August 2001 television interview that dealt with human rights, the full text was eventually posted on the People’s Daily website, reportedly in response to Washington’s protest over the cuts.

However, although the People’s Daily’s website features a more liberal atmosphere than that found in the print version, it nonetheless fits into the government’s plan to build a large, coordinated online propaganda system. The US spy plane incident on Hainan Island in 2001 touched off a flurry of nationalistic sentiment on the People’s Daily “Strong Country” web forum, set up earlier by the newspaper after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Similarly angry postings also rose in volume following the September 11 attacks on the US. The government has historically used nationalism to bolster public support and divert attention from domestic problems. As a result, much official news on domestic websites features a nationalistic tone – although this can be altered to suit the policy objectives of the central government. For instance, while nationalism was fanned following the Belgrade embassy bombing, it was deliberately dampened in January 2002, following the discovery of bugging devices on Jiang Zemin’s American-produced plane. Many felt that this was done to preserve good ties with the US in the run-up to an upcoming presidential summit. Hence, while the Chinese government hopes that cultivating nationalism will boost its legitimacy, it is also aware that overly militant public opinion could constrain its policy choices, and in the worst case scenario, turn against the government.(15)

Some of the most interesting media developments have taken place on new commercial web portals, which inject some – though not all – formerly taboo issues, from homosexuality to environmental pollution, into the public debate. Such forums, which permit users to read, circulate and respond to news and opinions, generate discussions previously impossible in the public sphere and on a nationwide level. Many Western advocates of freedom of expression point to these developments as a sign that the information revolution has catalyzed an irreversible stream of politicized thought that, once unleashed, will inevitably lead to demands for political liberalization. Others argue that the Internet and other new technology help create a chaotic space filled with apolitical content and atomized individuals, a space that ultimately will not contribute to the formation of an independent civil society.(16)

It seems more likely, however, that the government is allowing the Internet to be used as a pressure valve, preemptively allowing the broadening of acceptable discourse in order to prevent a buildup of mass frustration. While still ambivalent about open political debate, the Chinese government appears to be tacitly encouraging a degree of public throat-clearing in the relatively controlled environment of Internet chat rooms rather than in areas outside state purview.

It would be a mistake to characterize the online environment solely in terms of growing openness and diversity. Internet-based news gathering by non-official organizations is prohibited, and even that which is permitted exists under a slew of restrictions adapted from traditional media regulations. Although the scope and scale of online commentary has been expanding, most users still practice some form of self-censorship, generally avoiding obviously politically sensitive web sites (such as those promoting Taiwanese independence or highlighting Chinese human rights abuses) and the expression of controversial opinions on politically sensitive topics. Commercial Internet portals refuse to see themselves as part of the Chinese media per se; they prefer to think of themselves as information aggregators, not interpreters or providers. In fact, many of China’s up-and-coming Internet entrepreneurs see a substantial regulatory role for government in the Internet sector. Though often heralded in Western media as democracy’s pipeline-builders, these businesspeople usually have visions for Chinese Internet development that are pragmatic and complementary with state strategy. While many entrepreneurs note that their relationship with government is increasingly consultative, giving them some form of input into the policymaking process, few are willing to push the state on politically sensitive topics such as those relating to press and speech freedom.

Chinese leaders themselves attempt to shape current trends in media development, often resulting in ambiguous messages. Few see a totally independent role for the media. Jiang Zemin, describing the power of the information revolution in an August 2000 speech, extolled the speed and scope of free-information flows while simultaneously warning against the dangers of so-called harmful information and calling for an international treaty to regulate it.

An August 2001 campaign to clamp down on the media included a list of “Seven No’s” banning media involvement in seven broad areas. These include disclosure of “state secrets,” interference in the work of the Party and the government, and negation of “the guiding role of Marxism.” Similar rules exist for news and information made available on the Internet, and many are simply new iterations of past media regulations.

The recent deluge of regulations, some conveyed unofficially, show that the government is attuned to the effects of the information revolution and other pressures on the media sector. The influence of the information revolution, alongside urgent commercial pressures, has helped give birth to another period of relative openness and liberalization in the Chinese media. This has not been an insignificant development, and institutional and ideological structures have been shaken at a fundamental level. Yet new organizations such as the State Council’s Internet Propaganda Administrative Bureau have been created specifically to guide and coordinate the news content of Chinese websites, and are intended to develop a “healthy direction” for the dissemination of online news. Even as the government encourages new technology as a stepping stone for economic development, it continues to advocate their “healthy and orderly development,” which is a commonly used official expression used to indicate development at a government-dictated pace.

Moreover, China’s history shows that periods of relative openness are often followed by periods of retrenchment, and it may be that recent media restrictions, such as the “Seven No’s”, represent part of such a process. With a change in leadership looming, the future direction of media sector reform is up in the air. What seems certain is that the government will continue its attempts to ensure that the information revolution empowers the media to serve state interests.


1 Sophie Beach, “Running in Place,” CPJ Briefings: Press Freedom Reports from Around the World, August 2001.
2 Lynn T. White III, “All the News: Structure and Politics in Shanghai’s Reform Media,” in Chin-Chuan Lee, ed. Voices of China: The Interplay of Politics and Journalism (New York, NY: Guildford Press, 1990), p. 88.
3 Judy Polumbaum, “The Tribulations of China’s Journalists After a Decade of Reform,” in Chin-Chuan Lee, ed. Voices of China: The Interplay of Politics and Journalism (New York, NY: Guildford Press, 1990), p. 36.
4 Daniel C. Lynch, After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics and “Thought Work” in Reformed China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999)
5 Yuezhi Zhao, Media, Market and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998) p. 34
6 Lee, Voices of China, p. 7.
7 Judy Polumbaum, in Chin, Voices of China, pp. 37-38.
8 Willy Wo-Lap Lam, “China: State Power Versus the Internet,” in Louise William and Roland Rich, eds., Losing Control: Freedom of the Press in Asia (Australian National University: Asia Pacific Press) pp 38-39.
9 Lynch, After the Propaganda State.
10 Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Hunan Style Television: Spicy and Crowd Pleasing,” The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2000.
11 Mark Landler, “AOL Gains Cable Rights in China by Omitting News, Sex and Violence,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2001.
12 Allen T. Cheng, “Phoenix Rising,” Asiaweek, March 9, 2001.
13 Mark Landler, “AOL Gains Cable Rights in China by Omitting News, Sex and Violence,” The New York Times, Oct. 29, 2001.
14 Interviews with Chinese officials, Beijing, June 2001.
15 Some argue that while nationalism can be manipulated by Chinese officials, it may also, if properly directed, help create a more vibrant public sphere. See Jack Linchuan Qiu, “Chinese Opinions Collide Online: U.S.-China Plane Collision Sparks Civil Discussion on Web,” USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, April 12, 2001.
16 Lynch, After the Propaganda State.

Ms. Kalathil is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.

Reprinted from the Winter 2002 “Media Freedom in Asia” issue of Harvard Asia Quarterly.

Winter 2002

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