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.


Making Olympic-sized gaffes on social media

July 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Every four years, the Olympics arrive with its outsized baggage to set up camp in a host city, while disrupting the lives of residents, changing the character of entire city precincts, and sucking in attention like only a media sinkhole can.  I should know. I lived in Sydney for and leading up to the Olympic Games in 2000. London appears no different but, interestingly, some aspects ARE different.

For each of these titanic cast-of-thousands, audience-of-millions productions, the actors change but the plot usually remains same. There are the standard stories about athletes passed over for selection, and fears over transport, security, the weather, drug cheating and empty seats.

This year, there’s a new subject that is stalking the games and will continue to shadow it in this new era of personal mobile connectivity.  The first big clue dropped during the men’s cycling road race on day one.

After numerous complaints from television viewers about confused and confusing commentary during the race, it has emerged that the volume of tweets and texts generated by mobile phone using spectators absolutely bamboozled the race organisers’ GPS information that should have accurately logged the progress of individual riders. So much so, that the International Olympic Committee issued a plea to Olympic crowds to ration their tweets and SMS messages during road racing.

Good luck with that. London has been described as the first ‘real’ social media games because of the growth of social media usage in the four years since the Beijing Olympics. The opening ceremony even went out of its way to portray British youth culture as highly connected (did you notice the touch screen props?).

Twitter says there are now more tweets about the Olympics on a single day in a week than the total number of tweets sent during the whole Beijing Olympics.

Social media and the Olympics is a growing new thing – and lessons are being learned that will apply to future games. High profile athletes are endorsing products using social media (and fallen foul of International Olympic Committee guidelines) and many are simply using it to talk directly to their home support. The majority of athletes are of a generation that has integrated social networking into their daily lives.

But for games organisers and team managers, it has become a new scenario for a potential public relations nightmare.

Has anyone warned the athletes? In a word, yes. Every team will have issued guidelines on how to use social media safely and appropriately. The last thing the team managers and communications professionals want is to go into damage control over an errant tweet or Facebook post.

It’s worth a reminder that Facebook only became public in 2006, Twitter broke out in 2007 and China’s weibo platforms only hit the mainstream in 2009.  Today, Facebook has 900 million users (compared with 100 million in 2008), Twitter has 140 million users (six million in 2008) and Sina, China’s most popular micro-blogging network, now has 300 million users.

The International Olympic Committee has issued social media usage guidelines and central to them is this directive:

The IOC encourages participants and other accredited persons to post comments on social media platforms or websites and tweet during the Olympic Games, and it is entirely acceptable for a participant or any other accredited person to do a personal posting, blog or tweet. However, any such postings, blogs or tweets must be in a first-person, diary-type format and should not be in the role of a journalist – i.e. they must not report on competition or comment on the activities of other participants or accredited persons, or disclose any information which is confidential or private in relation to any other person or organisation.

You can find the full document here. If only Hope Solo, Michael Morganella and Voula Papachristou had actually read it.

Morganella is the most recent casualty. In a fit of sour grapes after his team lost to South Korea, he tweeted the Koreans were “mentally handicapped retards”. Don’t bother looking for his Twitter account – it’s no longer available and he’s no longer available for his team’s next game.

Solo, the goalkeeping star of the American women’s football team, used Twitter to pick a public fight with a former United States international player turned commentator, Brandi Chastain, over what she called unfair criticism of the team. It’s become a distraction for her teammates because she’s become the story, not the team.

Papachristou, a Greek triple jumper, found herself going home before the games began for tweeting “with so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food”. In country where immigration has become a sensitive political issue and non-Greek minorities are under attack from far right groups, her ‘joke’ got her expelled.

Meanwhile, Australian swimmers, Nick D’Arcy and Kenrick Monk, won’t be joining their teammates for the end of games festivities. They’ll be going home after their events – their penalty for posting photos on Facebook of themselves  posing with guns in an American gun shop.

Journalists are also not immune to social media blowback, as happened to Guy Adams, a journalist at The Independent, when he took a tilt at the official American Olympics network, NBC, over its coverage.

All of this simply heightens the need for athletes and anyone involved with the Olympics to take a 360 view of what they intend to post on social media. They must realise their posts can be seen by everyone and anyone. But as we know, common sense can only be learned and not necessarily taught.

To quote George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Like four yearly controversies over empty seats, drug cheats, transport and security, social media is now also an embedded fixture at the Olympics. It is also a guaranteed prospect to win Olympic gold for online gaffes.

Teaching American slang on the Chinese Internet

December 10, 2011 § 2 Comments

OMG Meiyu

A star is born. It happened virally and unexpectedly in a part of the Internet that is off the regular English speaking end of the web. A young American internet broadcaster has become a surprise hit on the Chinese Internet by teaching American slang to young Chinese.

Jessica Beinecke is a young employee of Voice of America, the US Federal Government broadcaster. She is also the presenter of OMG Meiyu, a daily Internet show that introduces Chinese netizens to American colloquialisms such as muffin top, booger, freezing one’s butt, okey dokey and freaking out, among others.

The OMG Meiyu formula; introduce some inoffensive slang terms, sprinkle with some Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas, take aim at young Chinese internet users and hope for the best which is exactly what happened when one episode called ‘Yucky Gunk’ went viral, turning Jessica Beinecke into a rising star on the Chinese Internet.

Beinecke says Yucky Gunk, about the crusty or sticky sleep in the corner of your eyes and the boogers from your nose, was ‘user-generated’. It had been suggested as a topic by one of the Chinese viewers who chat with her on the Chinese micro-blogging platform, Weibo, where she has over 100,000 followers, or who email the programme.

Here is Yucky Gunk on Youku which is China’s equivalent to YouTube. The number of views is on the top right hand corner – 1,525,878 by my last count.

Here it is on YouTube.

This might not sound like much in the context of the Chinese Internet with its 400 million plus internet users. But it is enough to see why the 24-year-old from Ohio who has been learning Mandarin for five years and speaks it fluently has a growing Chinese fan base and received more than a few long distance marriage proposals.

Here is a look at the OMG Meiyu profile on China’s Weibo micro-blogging service.

My Chinese friends say Beinecke’s Mandarin is ‘awesome’ and that she relates well to young Chinese who are learning English and who are curious about the United States. The subject matter is also not typical of any English language textbook which makes it more appealing and memorable to learners.

“But it’s really intimidating, the thing has gone viral. It took weeks for the show to get to a million total hits, then one week later, we’ve passed two million. Now I have to find ways to keep it fun,” she told The Washington Post recently.

Meanwhile, her employers at the Voice of America must be overjoyed. As a government broadcaster – which is an organisation with a very different mission to a public broadcaster – VOA is a projection of America’s soft power to the rest of the world, particularly towards China, a country that is a key strategic competitor and rising superpower.

Soft power is the term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to describe how a country can project and amplify its cultural influence to generate offshore goodwill towards it. It is all about the power of attraction while hard power is about using methods that compel other nations to bend to your will, usually by threat of force or economic bullying. Hard power and soft power are complementary sides of any foreign policy equation. One is coercion while the other is seduction.

New Zealand has a small military which rarely gets used aggressively, with the current exception of a small unit of SAS soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. But the enforcement by the New Zealand government of travel sanctions on Fiji’s military is an example of our country’s use of a hard power tactic.

On the other hand, our soft power is seen in aid and development programmes, sports diplomacy, peacekeeping missions and Radio New Zealand International shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific.

China, like the United States, has a powerful military and formidable economic clout but it too employs soft power to project its culture, language and its own historical perspective towards the rest of the world. China’s aid programme in the developing world, especially in Africa, and the increased resourcing of its state run media outlets (CCTV, China Radio International and Xinhua) are examples of the country’s global charm offensive.

Confucius Institutes are also springing up to teach Chinese culture and language to foreigners and are the same manifestation of soft power as the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, Japan Information and Culture Centres and others that work to showcase their respective countries’ cultures abroad. There are now Confucius Institutes in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and they support the teaching of Chinese language and facilitate cultural exchanges.

As you can see, there are many ways of projecting soft power. But it is significant that the digital era is consigning one of the workhorses of soft power into obsolescence. Shortwave radio broadcasts have been used since the 1920s to deliver news and information to ideologically different regimes so that those populations had an alternative source of information. Now all of that is changing.

The Internet is the new highway to the hearts and minds of people in countries where information may not flow as freely. It has become the new channel for projecting soft power as is hinted at in this article about the phasing out of traditional radio and television broadcasts at VOA.

In the meantime, the bubbly host of OMG Meiyu continues to record her short VOA programmes on her Apple computer in her Washington home that are then posted five times a week on popular Chinese websites like Youku and Weibo.

Her unconventional language and preppy style are helping make thousands of young Chinese feel warmer about America and make her a highly effective cultural ambassador and torch bearer of Sino-US relations.

“Working out and breaking up and eating chips, we all do that. Sometimes we don’t always realise how similar we are.” Jessica Beinecke, you are a soft power star.

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,, 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 (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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