Media freedom in China goes south for the weekend

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

The news out of Hong Kong is that the Southern Weekend newspaper strike is over. It ended quietly and some kind of agreement has been reached with the journalists angry at having their independence threatened by provincial propagandists in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

It’s a no brainer to see how this brush fire over freedom of expression had the potential to become a conflagration for the Chinese authorities. Journalists generally stand shoulder to shoulder with their colleagues around the world, especially those who, by and large, believe in protecting the independence of their profession from controlling governments, big business and other powerful influences.

By their curmudgeonly nature, journalists hate interference and, most of the time, this works well in many countries as a check on abuses and corruption. The news media exposes corruption, waste and abuses of power and that in turn makes governments and corporations more accountable and transparent.  That’s the theory and often the practice.

It is also one reason why the News International phone hacking story in Britain is so shocking.  Instead of holding those in influence and power to account, it was the media that were committing a terrible abrogation of their responsibilities.

But that’s not the case in China where the Southern Weekend, a reform leaning newspaper that has carved out a reputation for integrity and independence, has been at the centre of a censorship row since last week. While it may be the latest in a string of clashes it has had with the authorities, for Southern Weekend, this is arguably the most important so far.

Here’s a New York Times article to help sketch you an idea of the newspaper’s crusading pedigree. That article is from ten years ago. It was breaking stories through its investigative journalism then, and has been a constant thorn in the side of the provincial Guangdong government.

Guangdong is not just any province. It is a key economic driver of the Chinese economy. Home of the Cantonese speaking diaspora, if Guangdong was a nation, it would be on a GDP basis the 13th largest economy in the world.

What happens in Guangdong matters a great deal to the rest of China. And news of any unrest, as in the case of the Wukan village strike, soon reaches Hong Kong and the news media there, unlike many of its counterparts in the rest of the mainland, is free to report it.

When the Guangdong propaganda ministry instructed its Communist Party representatives within the Southern Media Group (the company that owns the Southern Weekly) to publish a pro-government New Year editorial in the newspaper on January 3, it was duly done. But it was printed without the agreement of the newspaper’s journalists who rebelled after the fact and went on strike over what they viewed as an egregious breach of the newspaper’s editorial independence.  Look here for a detailed breakdown from the University of Hong Kong’s excellent China Media Project on what went down after the editorial was published.

News of the strike and protests then sped through Chinese internet. There’s also been some spill over on Twitter which some Chinese netizens access by circumventing the Great Firewall. The Southern Weekend journalists may even have been emboldened to strike because of the support shown by many Chinese internet users.

In what has become a very familiar scenario in a much bigger struggle over information, the so-called ‘sensitive keywords’ are being scrubbed from the Chinese web by China’s state censors and by self-censoring micro-blog platforms.  Check out the China Media Project’s Data Journalism Lab for a rundown on what is getting censored on weibo (a direct Chinese translation of the word micro-blog).

It’s all a bit like whack-a-mole. I have previously written about the war for information that is being waged on the Chinese internet.  Blogging, micro-blogging and mobile telephony have exploded the old information monopoly once completely owned and controlled by the state. Information on the internet now flows from many to many and it’s a very different information environment from when the government was able to broadcast information in the legacy media landscape that existed before the internet.

As an aside, there is one common tactic that Chinese netizens use to circumvent the censorship – the use of homonyms.  In Mandarin, Southern Weekend is nanfang zhoumo which is abbreviated to nan zhou. A homonym (same tones but different characters) for the abbreviated name of Southern Weekend is southern porridge and this innocuous phrase is doing the rounds on Chinese micro-blogs.

Photos of the demonstrations outside the Southern Media Group building in Guangzhou can be found by searching under the hashtags #nfzm and #nanzhou.

These two men have placards urging the protection of news media freedom.

The striking journalists and supporters did not have it all their own way. Here’s a counter demonstration by a group of Maoists.

If the news today is accurate, the fixers have had their day and the embers of rebellion are being dampened down. A truce is in place and the Southern Weekend has resumed production.  But for a while, the state authorities had a migraine and the authorities in Beijing were starting to get the headache too. The Southern Weekend showdown – and an associated kerfuffle at the Beijing News – is happening at a time of political transition for China. The country’s new paramount leader, Xi Xinping, is taking over from the incumbent, Hu Jintao, and it’s a sensitive time for China’s leadership. Once upon a time in China, it was possible to kill the rooster to scare the chickens but the internet makes it so much harder to clean away the mess and close the cooking pot.

What next in China’s Wukan stand-off?

December 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

A stand-off between a group of determined villagers and local government representatives in China’s southern province of Guangdong is currently adding to the formidable workload of country’s indefatigable army of Internet censors.

The name of Wukan is being ‘scrubbed’ from the Chinese Internet after the plight of the village’s inhabitants became a cause celebre among Chinese netizens for their stubborn protest against land seizures by corrupt local officials.

Simmering since September, the story received international attention when it was revealed that one of the village negotiators, whom the authorities suspected of being a ringleader, died in police custody after being snatched on December 9.

While events are being reported outside China, the country’s censors have put a lid on the story within, shutting a temporary window when videos and photographs of the village protest and the attempted police crackdown were easily shared among China’s Internet users. The village has been sealed off by a police cordon that is preventing food and supplies from crossing to the villagers.

The good news is that negotiators on both sides appear to be reaching a rapprochement of sorts with the authorities trying to calm the situation after a forceful crackdown using hundreds of police failed dismally. Here are the latest developments from Radio Free Asia and the China Media Project.

The story of Wukan is the latest of an estimated 150 thousand protests that occur in China each year. By and large, the causes of the protests are dispossession, exploitation and corruption at the hands of government officials in cahoots with powerful business interests.

The one big difference with Wukan is the sizeable corps of foreign correspondents that embedded themselves among the villagers. Journalists from the Daily Telegraph, McLatchy Newspapers, the New York Times, NPR Radio and others have been reporting from the village and creating an extra headache for the officials who have been trying to cover up the story and resolve it quickly. As this New York Times story says, another critical factor in the heightened level of coverage is the number of Hong Kong news media covering the issue.

Malcolm Moore of The Daily Telegraph is the foreign correspondent who provided the first reportsof the village rebellion in the overseas media although the villagers themselves are keen to avoid the issue being reported as an uprising or rebellion. In what can only be described as a tactical move, they are keen to underline that their dispute is with the local officials and their appeal is to central government for justice.

But while the news about Wukan has been getting out, it is no longer getting in. Wukan has ‘disappeared’ from China’s social web, except when it appears in news items generated by state news media sources.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Wukan is now blocked on search engines and “hot tweets” are being closely monitored.

The BBC reports that users of China’s most popular micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, can no longer find results for Wukan in searches.

Radio Free Asia says a video showing thousands of villagers gathered in protest was quickly removed after being posted on the Sina and Tencent. Here is a video compilation of events, edited by Charles Custer at China Geeks.

Blocking and censoring the topics that the government considers a threat to its stated aim of maintaining social harmony is one part of the equation. David Bandurski of the China Media Project says the Wukan case is also notable for the government’s more sophisticated approach to “channelling public opinion” – spin, by another name.

The emphasis on “channelling public opinion” so prevalent in media policy these last few years — what we have at CMP termed “Control 2.0″ — essentially comes down to finding more effective ways of spinning these public opinion crises, managing dangerous stories in the era of real-time interactive information.

Bandurski, an American who speaks and writes Chinese, says control of the Wukan story has been ‘robust’. When he posted a Chinese-language summary of a story by Malcolm Moore on Sina Weibo, it was quarantined in less than a minute.

Clearly Wukan is an object lesson in the dangers of runaway corruption at the local level in China. But it is also, unfortunately, shaping up as a test case in how the government is experimenting with new strategies to shape news coverage on sensitive incidents and issues.

The rapid growth of Internet users and mobile communications is deeply concerning for China’s Communist Party rulers and the speed and breadth by which a protest can escalate online presents a clear and present challenge to the Party’s hold on power. The real time multiplier effect that makes the Internet so formidable can give rise to hundreds of Wukans with no end in sight. A localised event can transform into national issue in an Internet blink.

The social marketing agency, Resonance China, says China’s web is a very personal space that allow otherwise economically and politically restricted Chinese a sense of freedom.

The drive to express online is a central motivation for the Chinese. Due to China’s strong censorship and control of traditional media, the internet becomes a major destination to receive balanced views, see how others think and react to events, and share and express one’s individuality.

We all know that personal space and political space mingle inextricably on the web. The balance of power between Chinese netizens and the machinery of censorship shifts constantly as the government attempts to imprint its sense of order on what it sees as a lawless and threatening frontier. But as the aggrieved residents of Wukan have been trying to tell the world, the attempts by the authorities to enforce the law don’t mean anything if there is no justice. That’s a point that seems lost on at least one important actor in the events that led to one village in China losing its faith in the system.

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