Journalism, Censorship, and the 19th Party Congress

At Deutsche Welle, Sabine Peschel talks to Audrey Jiajia Li, a former TV journalist who has turned to social media and foreign media outlets as the media climate within China grows ever frostier. Li discusses self-censorship and social media blocks, her hopes for journalism in China, unpromising recent developments, Liu Xiaobo, and Yang Shuping, the overseas student whose "unpatriotic" speech about China sparked a fierce backlash in May.

Are you interested in bringing about change in China?

Of course I can dream of making my country a better place in terms of freedom of speech. But now I’m very pessimistic about the future. Just five or six years ago, the situation was quite different. People could discuss so-called sensitive topics online – on Weibo and the other social media platforms. But now everyone is so terrified, because punishment could come at any minute.

Just a few days ago, a professor at Beijing Normal University got fired because of his online comments. [See report at Reuters][…] Since 2012, the situation has been getting worse and worse. And there is no sign that it can get better. There won’t be any loosening up after the 19th party congress, I think.

So I’m quite pessimistic. But five years ago I was hoping China could enjoy some kind of freedom and democracy.

[…] Did you post anything on on your Wechat or Weibo accounts?

I posted one sentence when I learned about his death. I said, "He was a gift from heaven to China, but we didn’t know how to cherish him. So heaven has taken him back." And that was in English. It stayed online for about one hour before it disappeared. And I posted an emoji, a crying face. That got deleted, too. [Source]

The 19th Congress, which will see a sweeping transition in China’s top leadership and is expected to see General Secretary ’s personal power further consolidated, was a focus of discussion with China Media Project’s David Bandurski and on Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim’s Little Red Podcast last week. While Li sees little hope of improvement after the congress, Bandurski fears further deterioration. He suggested that the hostile takeover of liberal historical journal Yanhuang Chunqiu last summer, after years of protection by sympathetic former officials, gives "reason to worry about what’s going to happen ahead of the 19th Congress. When you have shifts in the leadership picture—people leaving the Politburo Standing Committee that may not be champions of press freedom, but may be defenders in another way of certain publications, able in some cases to go to bat for them—we are worried, what’s the situation going to look like after November for them?"

The congress, Qian Gang noted, is likely to see the emergence of Xi’s "banner term" in official media, which would offer insight into the much debated degree of his personal political strength. Qian explains the hierarchy of "-ism," "Thought," and "Theory" in official rhetoric: "If after the meeting ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ emerges, then we know he’s reached the pinnacle of power. The others are weaker than this. Theory, Concept, and Strategy are all weaker. […] If it’s an -ism then he’s more powerful than Chairman Mao, and that’s impossible. A Thought would be the next most powerful level." Xi, he noted, has already received unusually attentive coverage in state media, though he stops short of describing this as reflecting a "personality cult." Bandurski discussed portrayals of Xi as a "softer, more approachable people’s leader," with a more relaxed and efficient "work style," and the rise and fall of the familiar "Xi Dada" nickname.

Current media policy, he argued, has strong parallels with that following the June 4th 1989 crackdown. Now, however, it is less clear what "trauma" the policy is a response to. "We have antibodies without a clear disease," he commented. "We don’t know exactly what they’re afraid of."

The conversation also touched on the insistent official line that journalists "don’t work for the people, the public: you work for the Party"; the diversification of digital platforms, including social media, used to spread the Party’s message; the extreme sensitivity and shifting formulations of , and the current hotness of "One Belt, One Road"; the authorities’ war on "historical nihilism" challenging Party mythology; how and why media corruption occurs, how extortion by state media is particularly effective, and how allowing media to police each other could help; the Party’s outward-facing propaganda including music videos and animation; China’s "gift to humankind" of cyber-sovereignty as a theoretical innovation; and the government’s confidence that "we can nail jello to the wall, or we can mold jello," and its pursuit of the "holy grail" of controlled technological innovation.

Bandurski noted that the mere risk of undermines investment in investigative and other in-depth reporting. He cited a six-month investigation on the Three Gorges Dam by The Paper that was suppressed within seven hours of publication. NPR’s Anthony Kuhn noted various challenges facing the field in a recent article focusing on award-winning former investigative journalist Luo Changping:

Luo made his name by shining a spotlight on abuses. He got his start in newspaper journalism in 2001, at a time when media organizations were eager — and permitted — to attract advertisers and readers by pushing hard-hitting investigative reporting.

While government departments were required to subscribe to official papers like the People’s Daily, other outlets, particularly metropolitan papers and TV stations, were forced to fend for themselves financially. The government in those days acknowledged the importance of "supervision by public opinion" — in other words, it permitted a limited watchdog role for the media. Now, that role is seldom mentioned. Instead, the government emphasizes the importance of "guiding" public opinion to the "correct" conclusions and spreading "positive energy" — that is, highlighting leaders’ achievements rather than their failings.

"We caught the last, golden decade of China’s newspaper business," Luo recalls. "With a little hard work, you could rise to the top."

[…] Since 2014, he adds, things have gotten worse.

"At Caijing, I could publish 90 percent to 100 percent of the material I got," he says. "Now, they can only publish about 10 percent. And they are the media outlet with the most freedom." [Source]

At The Lowy Interpreter, Pál Nyiri of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam examined the contradictions facing journalists in China:

Xinhua continues to attract some of the best graduates of China’s rapidly expanding journalism schools. Many professors at these schools are liberals who teach their students the same standards of journalism as their colleagues in the West, often using some of the same textbooks translated into Chinese. Academics such as these have been targeted in the recent government crackdown on spreading ‘Western theories’ in higher education. Hu Zhanfan, the previous president of CCTV, the main state-owned broadcaster, reportedly said that who thought of themselves as professionals, instead of as workers, ‘are making a fundamental mistake about their identity’.

[…] ‘It is just a job, not a vocation,’ a People’s Daily correspondent told me, adding ‘How many journalists still have ideals?’ A CCTV reporter said ‘If you work for Chinese media, you cannot avoid having a split personality.’ Some live with this; others seek solace in small gestures like not putting their names under a story filed against their better judgment. Some speak wistfully about Wall Street Journal or Financial Times investigations into corruption in China as the sort of journalism they should, but never will, do in the West; others embrace the role of spokespersons for a misunderstood but vilified China. But little of this translates into better reporting. ‘In the past decade, information exchange between ordinary Chinese people and international society at the personal level has become a common occurrence,’ wrote a senior foreign affairs journalists who recently resigned from his newspaper because his room to write was shrinking, ‘but in people’s minds, there still is a solid and thick wall’. [Source]

While independent reporting is being eroded, state media coverage has increasingly been weaponized in sensitive cases, as Verna Yu wrote at The Diplomat late last month:

The state media used to maintain a stony silence over the suppression of activists, social unrest, and other news deemed sensitive. But in recent years, selected party news outlets or government organs are deftly using state-controlled and social media tools to take the lead in shaping the Chinese government’s own versions of these events.

“Troublemakers” such as activists and rights lawyers are now portrayed as agents of “foreign hostile forces” intent on destabilizing the regime. After the government rounded up over 300 human rights lawyers and activists in a crackdown that started July 2015, the Communist party mouthpiece People’s Daily accused the lawyers at the core of the crackdown of being part of a “major criminal gang” that “seriously disturbed social order.”

[…] The party also uses social media to promote its campaigns. As part of a national security drive earlier this year, cartoons and video clips were posted on the microblog accounts of China Central Television, the Communist Party Youth League, and the Ministry of Public Security showing how ordinary people could identify spies and report suspicious people to the authorities. “Come on, be brave, go and report!” said a narrator to the beat of rap music on one video. [Source]