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.

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Chinese netizens flex muscles over Wenzhou train disaster

August 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

First there was the train crash, then a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, followed by an outpouring of grief and outrage on the internet. Now there’s an investigation and the search is on to find a scapegoat. The Wenzhou bullet train crash has shocked the Chinese public and rocked the Chinese government.

The authorities are now scrambling to seize control of the message but whatever that message may be, chances are many Chinese internet users won’t be buying it. This is after journalists and citizen journalists posted reports, images and video of the crash scene aftermath, especially the bizarre attempt by the rescue authorities to dig a trench and bury an entire train carriage.

As the heavy machinery moved the carriage, it became evident that not all the bodies had been recovered and there’s been deafening speculation on the Chinese internet that the death toll is actually much higher than the 39 killed, as reported in the state media.

The spectacular collision which happened in Wenzhou city in China’s eastern Zhejiang province last weekend is being called the 7/23 disaster. The China Media Project, and other aggregator websites like the Ministry of Tofu, the China Digital Times, the ShanghaiistChinaSmack have been translating and reporting the bubbling wave of anger on the Chinese internet.

Cue another credibility crisis for the Chinese state media and the government in Beijing. Independent journalists were reporting what they were seeing and the Chinese microblogging platforms like Sina Weibo have been flooded with expressions of rage, grief and scorn at the official response to the accident.

Here’s a telling item on China’s Youku video sharing website, via the China Media Project which has been doing an excellent job reflecting events as they are portrayed on the Chinese internet. There’s extensive coverage of the Wenzhou crash here, including these dramatic images posted on social media in China.

All of a sudden, the authorities were put on the defensive. A Ministry of Rail spokesperson gavethis unsatisfactory account of why the carriage had to be buried. The government has moved to increase financial compensation for the families of the dead and injured. An investigation has been launched to find out what and who was responsible.

A Chinese friend says this is all part of a typical strategy to try and placate inflamed public opinion and to restore the government’s often stated aim of social harmony. Social harmony is how the authorities justify their heavy hand on the internet and the independent news media. To outsiders, the most obvious manifestation of China’s heavily censored media environment is the country’s Great Fire Wall.

But what has become clear is that when the authorities mishandle a catastrophe as publicly as this one, there is no hiding from the internet and the scrutiny of millions of Chinese internet users. The bullet train accident is just the latest example of how two large and often conflicting forces are rubbing against each other and creating a great deal of heat.

The seemingly immovable object is the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The bullet train project is a showcase of China’s modernisation and the spreading network of high speed rail is poster child material for the government’s propaganda machine as to how technologically advanced the country is becoming, thanks to the CCP.

But the recently opened Shanghai-Beijing bullet train route has been plagued with technical problems and much satirised on the Chinese internet. Then the Wenzhou crash happened and all of a sudden, the government is faced with a credibility issue over the safety of its high tech, high speed train network and more questions are being asked about the sustainability and speed of the country’s technological and economic progress.

The unstoppable force is the internet. China’s netizens reached 485 million users by the end of June and internet penetration is 36 percent of the population. There’s a long way to grow yet. Mobile is also a big factor with just under 318 million users. China’s internet users are also, by and large, young – over 57 percent of internet users are under the age of 30.

All of this means millions of Chinese are getting their news and information in ways that cannot possibly be prescribed by government censors. The inescapable conclusion is the Chinese internet is now an increasingly anarchic entity that is sprawling beyond the government’s ability to tightly control the message, especially in times like these.

Bloggers and Chinese Twitter, China’s new media wave

June 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Media adviser Charles Mabbett sums up highlights from the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international media conference in Hong Kong, April 2010. This is the first of three articles in a series on latest developments in the Chinese media. Read part two and part three.

When China’s most popular blogger Han Han had his recent post about a spate of violent attacks in Chinese schools taken down, it wasn’t the first time that he had courted controversy and it is unlikely to be the last.

The post entitled “Children, you’re depressing grandpa” was critical of a media ban on reporting the latest attack in Taizhou, Jiangsu Province, at a time when the Shanghai World Expo was due to get underway. Evidently, Sina.com, the website that hosts many of China’s most popular blogs determined it was too sensitive to keep online.

Han Han represents a relatively recent phenomenon in China, one that commands millions of readers and is highly influential as both social commentary and barometer of public sentiment. As of April 2010, his blog had attracted 350 million hits, making him by far and away, the king of China’s blogosphere.

While we may think of the Great Fire Wall of China as being the main characteristic of the Chinese internet, another defining feature, increasingly, has been the rise and rise of the bloggers and their younger relative, the micro-blogger using Chinese Twitter equivalents.

In the ten years since Isaac Mao, who visited New Zealand in 2009, took up posting blogs to become one of China’s first original bloggers in 2001, some of his internet colleagues have since become mega stars among China’s  360 million internet users.

The Chinese blogosphere has evolved into a highly competitive and socially aware 40 million population of writers who collectively represent a sphere of public discourse in China that exists without rival, despite central government efforts to monitor, filter and control content.

While long form blogging has been growing in the past ten years, the micro-bloggers are the newest manifestation of online comment and the startling increase in numbers of both pose a huge unanswered question to the Chinese authorities on the issue of media control.

As we have seen, even if bloggers like Han Han, a former racing car driver and singer, fly as close to the sun as they can, secure in the knowledge that they have a certain Teflon status because of their celebrity and massive readership, they are not immune to self censorship by host websites and government rules.

But it doesn’t stop them from trying. Han Han’s blog on the school attacks was available online for a short while, and it enabled the China watching website Danwei to translate it into English and republish it for an English speaking audience.

Here’s an example: “We know only that 32 children were injured during the Taixing nursery school incident. Government and hospital officials repeatedly emphasize that not a single child died, but word on the street is that many did. Tell me, who should I believe?”

And furthermore:  “I’m totally astonished. By blocking off information and the hospital, controlling the media, prohibiting visits, and changing the subject, the Taizhou government has successfully diverted our anger from the killer onto themselves.”

With such outspokenness given the context of China’s media environment, it seems little wonder that China’s netizens have embraced Han Han who in September 2008 overtook Xu Jing Lei, a well known actress, film director and representative of the 1970s generation, to become China’s most popular blogger. That was the month the number of accumulated hits on his blog surpassed that of Xu’s on 209 million.

Quoting The Beijing News at the time, Danwei reported “this historic passing of the torch came about because of netizens’ love of controversy, which Han Han provides in spades. Xu’s journal-style blog about her daily activities may delight her fans, but Han’s attacks on the establishment have a much broader appeal”.

Han Han’s blog is considered influential as a representative of a generation of young Chinese born in the 1980s, a generation that escaped the hardships that existed under Chairman Mao before the reform and opening up era that began in 1978.

Other popular bloggers have different appeal to audiences, for example, Guo Jing Ming and Hong Huang.  Guo is another flashy representative of the 80s generation and a top selling fiction writer who has been dogged with accusations of plagiarism while Hong is representative of a constituency that was born in the 60s.

Educated in New York, Hong also has a New Zealand connection. She is a well known actress and writer, and famous for being formerly married to Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, Life on a String). She has holidayed in New Zealand several times and her celebrity in China has been used by NZTE to endorse New Zealand at the Shanghai Expo.

But recently, the blogosphere became a little more crowded with the latest manifestation of China’s booming internet and mobile communications – micro-blogging or Chinese Twitter.

With Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia all blocked by the Great Fire Wall, Chinese equivalents such as t.sina (known as the “Chinese Twitter”), Ren Ren (a direct copy of Facebook) and Youku (China’s YouTube equivalent) have all been established to fill demand for social media within China.

Micro-blogging in particular had boosted sales of smart phones in China and many Chinese journalists now had their own micro-blogs, a Guangzhou journalist Deng Zhixin told a recent media conference in Hong Kong. “They try to pay attention to the blogosphere, especially for sensitive issues that they cannot report.” Deng Zhixin was speaking at the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific conference in April 2010, organised by the Hawaii-based non-profit think tank East-West Center and the University of Hong Kong.

“Micro-blogging also leads to the fragmentation of news. There’s so much mobility there and a lot of journalists want to have freer space so they go on to the internet to screen news and to communicate. Users don’t have to wait for the complete report from Xinhua or CCTV because they can read it on the micro-blogs.”

While Chinese Twitter can accommodate up to 400 characters, it is more common for users to post messages up to about 120 characters. Compared with English, Chinese characters allows between two to eight times more information to be packed into the same number of characters.

Professor Xiong Peiyun of Nankai University told the same audience that micro-blogging posed a challenge to government because if people saw something happening in the daily course of their lives that was unfair, they could report it instantaneously on the internet. “If everyone participated, it would impossible for the government to control everything.”

At the same conference, a Chinese media academic Qian Gang concluded a discussion on Chinese media by saying, “In China, the media is controlled, and it is changing, and today’s media changes are controlled, and – coming back to the first one – the control is also changing.”

Observing what happens next and where it all leads will be fascinating but there are plenty of clues. The former editor of the Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, Fan Yijin, says increasing media freedom in China is unstoppable because of two factors – market forces and the internet media.

But he also believes that China’s leaders are not opposed to greater media freedom because they are pragmatists. “High level leaders have already seen that for major news stories, if the traditional media do not report them, then new media certainly will.” “We’ve seen the emergence of a new kind of triangulated media supervision involving new media, traditional media and popular opinion, and this major force has been a factor in bringing greater media openness as well as national and social progress,” Mr Fan said.

– by Charles Mabbett

Asia New Zealand Foundation media adviser Charles Mabbett attended the Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific international media conference in Hong Kong from April 25-28, 2010.

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