right The government watches the mass media closely, and maintains tight control over television and radio, as well as newspapers and magazines. The media in China is under the jurisdiction of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). The press, films and television are carefully supervised by SARFT and the Propaganda Department. The Propaganda Department is headed by the Central leading Group on Propaganda and Ideological Work, whose leader is often a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo and whose deputy leader is a member of the Politburo.

Since Mao’s time the government has controlled radio, television and newspapers and carefully selected what people are exposed to. Explaining the role of the media in modern China, an SARFT official told the Financial Times, “We must insist of the correct leadership of public opinion. We must transmit the party’s and the central government’s voice into every home.”

The main official news sources---New China News Agency, the People's Daily, China News Agency and Guangming Daily---have multiple channel reporting systems with one channel for public consumption and others for “reference” news that goes only to officials. A surprisingly large number of foreign magazines are available uncensored at Chinese public libraries.

In the 1990s, producers of a middle school production of “Snow White” where forced by censors to rewrite the script so the villainous Woodsman would be reformed after undergoing a self-criticism session to present the proletariat in a more favorable light.

Controlling the News in China

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The Chinese government is very successful at stemming the flow of negative information in China on issues it doesn’t want publicized. During a time when there was great deal of international scrutiny and criticism over the contamination and the quality of Chinese products, a survey by the Pew Research Centers found that only one percent of Chinese respondents had heard about problems with Chinese-made products.

Journalists must use euphemisms when reporting on sensitive topics or not cover them at all. Orville Shell told Newsweek, “How often I’ve been at a meeting or conference when the presence of Chinese officials, or even scholars,” serves “as a kind of warning pulse against certain kinds of analysis, using certain turns of phrase or even raising certain questions. These prohibitions radiate outward from a core of historical sensitivity that is still within most Chinese, and seems to have a long half-life indeed.”

Until recently news was only allowed to be released to the public after it had been reviewed by senior officials. One official told the Times of London, “In the past, when something happened the usual practice was that a senior person would hold off and say he would report to the leadership. And once something was reported to the leadership, they would issue an order for a media blackout.” Under a law passed in 2001, journalists based in metropolitan areas are forbidden to independently report on national or international stories and can not modify information provided by the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

In the case of he Sichuan earthquake, and to some degree with the Tibet and Xinjiang in 2008 and 2009, reporters were generally allowed to do what they wanted for a couple weeks before the government clamped down.

After the riots in Xinjiang in 2009 foreign reporters were not barred they were taken on official tours on which the government presented its side of the issue. Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, told Reuters, “They’re getting more sophisticated in how they’re handling foreign and domestic media coverage of a crisis. It used to be in a time of major crisis, you get a blackout...Now the approach is to get the government’s viewpoint out there.”

Reuters, Dow Jones and Bloomberg have filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization that Beijing reneged on promise to allow them access to suppliers of financial information. Instead they are required to get information from a Xinhua-news-agency distributor, which is a Xinhua subsidiary, thus giving Xinhua a virtual monopoly on financial information.

Censorship in the Media in China


Censorship of the media covers not only politics but also sexuality, violence and any topic the government doesn’t like. The "spiritual civilization" directive issued under Jiang Zemin set limits on the amount of foreign programming on television and blocked Internet sites. SARFT is the primary censor.

The Chinese government controls the media less through outright censorship than through the appointment of editors and news directors, the issuing of directives banning coverage of specific subjects and the expectation that journalists will censor themselves. Occasional memos are sent to editors informing them on which topics are sensitive. Those that don’t go along risk having their operations shut down. On rare occasions people got arrested.

The government tries hard to present its version of reality. Everyday government censors send news organizations a list of forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. When editors are informed of breaking news there instinct is not to rush and be the first to print the story but rather to sit and wait for the government to tell them what they can print. If the story is at all sensitive reporters are banned from reporting. Reporters that dare to investigate stories they have been told not to risk being fired or arrested.


When there is a problem such as chemical spill, bombing or disease like SARS, the knee-jerk reaction of the government is to impose a news blackout. Local officials have close relations with those in charge of newspapers and television stations and can block any news they don’t want reported. So much news is blocked people are often poorly informed even about big stories that happened near them.

The decisions by the censors are often arbitrary. Propaganda officials seldom explain to editors and publishers why one story must be deleted and why some reports are forbidden. There's no clear rule in this area, and all decisions are based on the officials' personal judgment. Chinese courts normally won't accept cases relating to the decisions by the propaganda officials, even if these decisions might destroy a publication and leave hundreds of people jobless. [Source: Zhang Hong, The Guardian, November 2, 2008]

The censorship workforce is believed to number in the tens of thousands. In recent years, Chinese censors and propaganda personnel are becoming more sophisticated, using interviews and stories to present their side of an issue rather dogmatic propaganda language; allowing some information against their side to filter through so the government can say they allow all sides to present their side. These strategies were put to effective use during the Tibetan uprising in 2008. Michael Ant, a well-known Chinese blogger at Harvard told the Los Angeles Times, “The government is showing more confidence and learning more about spin. They’ve learned more PR tactics from Western people. They see the way the White House and the Pentagon do it.”

Censorship of the media drives consumers to pursue other avenues of information such pirated DVDs and Internet downloads. Sometimes it fuels social unrest by allowing rumors to circulate and people get stirred up.

Upper middle class people in gated communities generally enjoy uncensored satellite television and unblocked Internet access. The rest of China has to deal with stricter controls.

Self-Censorship in the Media in China

The propaganda department issues directives on what can not be covered such as the military, religion, ethnic problems but on other issues the process is more flexible.

Publications operate under a kind of “yellow card” system like that used in soccer. If a paper or magazine get three yellow cards in a year they can be shut down. In 2004, 35 publications were suspended for publishing “internal” information.

Lu Yiyi, a research fellow at the London-based Chatham House, an international affairs institute, told the New York Times: “In China your need to know how to do things and there are boundaries that you are not supposed to overstep.” As for those who get in trouble he said, “I think there always individuals who are not as skilled at this as they should be.”

Princeton China scholar Perry Link compared the undefined limits on the press with “a giant anaconda coiled on an overhead chandelier.” “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books. “It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its silent constant message is, “You yourself decide...after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadows makes his or her large and small adjustments---all quite naturally.”

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist

Chinese Journalist Challenges Censors in Court

In October 2008, in what is thought to be the first time a journalist has challenged the censors through the courts, Cui Fang, a reporter working for China Business Post, filed a lawsuit on against the Bureau of Press and Publications in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, accusing the Bureau of violating laws when it ordered a three-month suspension of the paper. [Source: Zhang Hong, The Guardian, November 2, 2008]

Zhang Hong wrote in The Guardian, “The previous July, China Business Post published a story based on Cui Fang's investigation, reporting that a subsidiary of the Agricultural Bank of China in Hunan province breached regulations in writing off 4.61 billion yuan (£387 million ) bad debt, an allegation the bank strongly denied. Two months later, China Business Post was suspended from publication for three months by a “superior administration”  believed to be the Bureau of Press and Publications.”

“In her complaint, Cui demands the administration lift the suspension of China Business Post, issue a public apology and pay her a symbolic one yuan (9p) compensation. According to Zhou Ze, the lawyer representing Cui, a court in Hohhot (the capital of Inner Mongolia) is now assessing the lawsuit and will decide whether to accept it later.”

“But Cui's attempt to challenge the censors through the courts is the first time this legal loophole has been brought to the attention of the public. Hopefully a debate will follow. Nobody in China expects censorship to disappear because of this challenge, but if the censors are forced to hand out clear rules then some progress will have been made. Undoubtedly, this process will take a long time, since control of the media is something the Communist party won't give up easily.”

“Even if the court accepts her case, Cui faces the task of proving her reporting is correct. Some have speculated that the court will order her to give the names of her sources, several local bank officials. In her blog, Cui says it would be difficult to persuade those people to testify before the court. They would lose their jobs if they did. Cui is facing the double burden of challenging the censors as well as protecting her sources. She may be fighting a losing battle, but whatever the outcome, she deserves all our support.”

Censorship Beyond China’s Borders

Self-censorship can extend beyond China’s border.”Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced an Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship”, a 2009 book by Chinese-Canadian writer Denise Chong’s which tells the true story of Lu Decheng, who threw paint-filled eggs at Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests, had trouble drumming up publicity as her work was deemed “a China-bashing book” and got very negative reaction from overseas Chinese. [Source:Emily Parker, New York Times, May 6, 2010. Parker is a senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations]

Emily Parker wrote in the New York Times, “A Canadian nonprofit economic development group, for example, which was trying to encourage Chinese investment in Canada, had invited her to appear at a fund-raiser but began playing down its association with her book once learning of the title, Chong said. A reporter for a Chinese-language television station backed out of an interview because of fear of Beijing, according to a conversation Chong had with a producer there.”

“In the United States the Library of Congress declined an invitation to hold an event with Chong, suggested by the Canadian Embassy. In a recent telephone interview, a library employee involved in the discussions acknowledged that the political sensitivity of the book was one factor in the decision, along with the library’s relationship with the National Library of China. In Germany, in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair, China pressured organizers to disinvite two dissident writers to a symposium on China and the World. (They were reinvited after a public outcry.) But more often, potential critics silence themselves pre-emptively. “

As China’s influence spreads throughout the world, so does a willingness to play by its rules. “I remember clearly the days when you could safely assume that as long as you wrote something abroad, it was free and clear from repercussions within China, said Orville Schell,” the director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and author of nine books on China, told the New York Times. One turning point, he said, was the growth of the Internet, which increasingly unites the once discrete worlds of Chinese and Western reading material. Another factor is the growing business entanglement between China and the rest of the world. “Suddenly we’re all Hong Kong, where no one wants to offend the mainland because it’s too close,” Schell said.

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and his take on

Academic Censorship Beyond China’s Borders

Academics are also affected. Perry Link, a professor emeritus at Princeton and source of the anaconda in the chandelier comment, has been repeatedly denied a visa to China since the mid- 1990s, apparently for helping the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi seek refuge in the American Embassy during the 1989 protests. Jerome Cohen, who teaches Chinese law and society at New York University Law School, has similar impressions. There are writers who I respect who don’t choose certain subjects because they will engage them in controversy with China, he said, adding that Xinjiang, the far western province that has been the site of ethnic and religious unrest, is certainly radioactive. For example, several Western contributors to the English-language book Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland (2004) were subsequently denied visas. It may not even matter what scholars actually write on contentious topics. Visa denials seem to be based on the subject matter more than what the individual says about the subject, Cohen said. [Source: Emily Parker, New York Times, May 6, 2010. Parker is a senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations]

“The idea that scholars collectively are compromising our academic ideals in order to gain access to China offends people intellectually, but we all do it, a professor at a prestigious American university told me in a telephone interview. He requested anonymity out of fear of alienating not Beijing, but his colleagues in the United States.”

“This caution shapes the overall body of Western books about China, which some say emphasizes the country’s economic success over its political repression. But this may also be a result of a widespread view that the Chinese model, whatever its unsavory aspects, has worked. China is now seen as such a success, said Ian Johnson, the author of Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from China for The Wall Street Journal. I think on a deeper level the books on China reflect the West’s deeper angst about its own position in the world, and an uncritical view on China that the Chinese themselves often don’t share.”

“You can still find Western books that take a less rosy view of China, as well as critics of its government who suffer no repercussions. But Beijing’s reactions can be unpredictable, which is precisely what makes its brand of censorship so effective. Those outside China have an even murkier understanding of how it works, and as a result may end up silencing themselves the most.”

See Education, Blacklisted Profesors

Control and Censorship in the Media Under Hu Jintao


Censorship and restrictions on the media have increased under Hu Jintao. Books have been banned, Internet sites have been shut down, journalists have been jailed in increasing numbers and publications have received orders “not to sensationalize.” CNN broadcasts on issues deemed sensitive have been blacked out and commercials with “foreign actors” have been banned because they promote “excessive materialism.” Surveys have shown a clear decline of articles critical of the government under Hu.

Hu has curbed the media while pushing an image of openness to West. This has left journalists baffled as to what the rules are and how far they can go. During the SARS crisis media sources were both criticized and praised of their coverage depending on what they said and when they said it. Journalism students were required to take courses in “Marxist journalism” in which they sit through lectures on how the Dalai Lama is trying split China but, I some caes, are also encouraged by their professors to investigate corruption and advised to push the envelope of what is allowed rather than challenge the censorship system. .

In March 2005, journalists were told they would banned from five years to life from reporting if they were caught taking bribes, making up stories or convicted of crimes. . The rules were initiated after 11 Xinhua journalists were caught taking bribes in return for underreporting casualty figures from a mine blast in central Shanxi Province. In December 2005, Chinese authorities banned 79 newspapers and seized 169 million publications deemed illegal. The crackdown, authorities said, was targeted at pornography and intellectual property piracy but was the effort was used to shut down many small independent publications that the government found a threat, A similar campaign resulted don seizing 230 million illegal publications in February 2005. More than 41,000 publishing houses and bookstores were shut down in 2004.

New media regulations announced in September 2006, attempted to firm the government’s grip not only the Internet, television and newspapers but also on karaoke, video games and even children’s cartoons. The move was discussed on Internet chat lines with sarcasm and even mockery. In 2006 a number of reality shows, sitcoms and dramas that featured violence and steamy love affairs or dealt with themes that hinted of corruption were banned. Media censors called for more “ethically-inspiring” programing and that would “ensure a better TV environment.”

In August 2007, the Chinese announced new measures to crack down on the media and stop “false news, reports, unauthorized publications and bogus journalists.” The announcement came after the bogus story about cardboard being put into steamed buns. This was followed up by the purging of television shows of crime and even mildly suggestive sexual references.

In November 2008, the propaganda department launched a new policy to make more of an effort to report the news as it happens. What at first seemed like a move towards more openness was actually a way to preempt other news sources so the government could maintain its grip on the news. Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief and Politburo member, is reported to have said, “Let us use the method of providing the news as a way to control news.”

The move came in response to the reality that Chinese can now get news from a variety sources, mainly over the Internet, that were not available to them in past and the fact that rumors, speculation and inaccurate reports are circulated without official version of events. The trigger was disapproval over the way the government handled the tainted milk scandal. News releases are still tightly regulated to make sure anything potentially incendiary or disruptive is not released.

The Grass-Mud Horse, a mythical and popular Internet creature whose Chinese name sounds like an obscenity, was banned by censors because “the issue has been elevated to a political level.” In mythology the Grass-Mud horse battles the “river crab” which in Chinese sounds like slang for “censorship.”

In February 2009, the government said it was going to create a blacklist of “bad” journalists who broke reporting rules. Reporters who break the rules will have their name put on a “database of media processionals with a bad record” and repeat violators will have their press card taken away and be deported.

December 2009 The editor of Southern Weekend, one of China's most influential newspapers, is demoted weeks after an exclusive interview with Barack Obama. The decision was said to be due to the anger of censors. In March 2010 Thirteen Chinese newspapers publish a rare joint editorial calling for reform and the eventual abolition of the household registration system. It was removed from websites and authorities reportedly issued stern warnings to the paper which initiated the project.

See Television Programming

Crackdown on Vulgarity in the Media

In 2010 there were a number of highest-profile casualties in a crackdown launched on what President Hu Jintao calls the "three vulgarities": sex-obsessed, mindless and tasteless culture. "If You Are the One," a popular reality dating program, was forced to tone down and reinvent itself this summer after censors deemed it too sexy and materialistic. Online gaming and pornography have also come under renewed scrutiny.

Megan K. Stack wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Communist Party has long viewed itself as a guardian of its own version of traditional, conservative Chinese values. But the declared battle against vulgarity also has a layer of political showmanship, stirring memories of the elaborately named campaigns extolled by Chairman Mao Tse-tung in a show of control, said Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese political blogger.”

"It's not an ideological campaign," blogger Michael Anti said. "It's about social order. It's about obedience. It's to remind people, 'I'm your boss.'"

Chinese Media Coverage

Journalism is a vastly different concept in a country where free speech is fiercely quashed and propaganda the primary role of domestic newspapers and broadcasters. In China, which ranks among the top jailers of journalists in the world, the main media outlets, including Xinhua News Agency, were created to serve the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in whatever capacity possible.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times,”In the past, China media followed a simple formula for covering international events: If bad things were happening in richer, developed countries, the story got big play. They especially relished the chance to showcase the messier side of democracy, with large, unflattering photographs whenever legislators in Taiwan or South Korea engaged in fisticuffs. Anything that threatened Beijing's diplomatic interests was ignored as much as possible.[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 04, 2011]

In recent years the Chinese media has made an effort to be more current and relevant. "The Chinese press has been transformed in the last few years from a propaganda organ to covering real news. They are adopting the same techniques and standards as the Western press," Li Datong, a retired editor of the China Youth Daily's magazine supplement, told the Los Angeles Times. Ordinarily he is a vehement critic of the state media.

The Chinese government is making a big investment in its overseas media operations. Whereas American broadcasters are retrenching, CCTV recently opened bureaus in Moscow and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, giving it more than 50 around the world. Both CCTV and the official New China News Agency are expanding English-language operations with the hope of putting Beijing's spin on the world's news. "It is a huge soft-power push. They've got a lot of money and they're putting it into coverage," David Moser, an American academic working in Beijing and a former advisor to CCTV, told the Los Angeles Times.

Still, the state media ultimately report to the Communist Party, and the intervention of censors is at times embarrassingly apparent. The CCTV reporter in Libya, Shi Kewei, was cut off by an anchor during a live report in mid-August as he talked about Kadafi's unpopularity. "In general, the Chinese media's coverage is better when it is not about China, and it is improving," said Zhan Jiang, head of the journalism school at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "But you still see problems. You might see some very good objective coverage, and suddenly there is a directive from above and it turns into a one-sided propaganda piece."

China’s “go global” initiative is trying to affect international news coverage of China by opening bureaus outside the country to internationalize state media, especially Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television, and People’s Daily.

Good News: Riots in London and Debt in Europe and the U.S.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times,’so far, 2011 has been a challenging year for the Chinese media on the news front, not to mention the existential one, as they walk a fine line to satisfy both their political masters and an increasingly savvy public with growing access to honest news reporting on the Internet. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 04, 2011]

Perhaps not since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has there been as much international news so inherently threatening to the Chinese Communist Party. The strongmen with whom they did business in the Middle East are losing their jobs “ and nearly their heads. The U.S. debt crisis threatened more than $1 trillion of China's overseas investments. (The London riots were a happier occasion for the press here. The state media had a good chuckle reporting British Prime Minister David Cameron's call to restrict social media after evidence emerged that rioters had used BlackBerrys to communicate.)

Global Times, the nationalist newspaper closest to the Communist Party, had a field day with recent events. "A series of shocking incidents in Western countries, downgrading of U.S. credit rating, deteriorating European sovereign debt crisis, Norway's gun-shooting tragedy, large-scale street turmoil in the U.K., all show that the West is experiencing a deep systematic crisis under the heavy impact of the international financial crisis," read an editorial in Friday's paper. "Defects of the West's economic and political systems have been fully exposed."

The catch has been how to scold the United States for its profligate spending ("irresponsible" and "immoral" were among adjectives used by the People's Daily) without going so far as to make it look as though the Beijing government had squandered the national wealth investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. Much of the coverage revolved around the 5,700 yuan “ $893 “ owed to each Chinese man, woman and child by the United States.

"It's been good for them to have a legitimate issue for which they are taken seriously," said Robert Kuhn, an American investment banker and author of "How Chinese Leaders Think," told the Los Angeles Times. "Then again, they know they can get the blame for investing in lousy assets."

Moser, the former CCTV advisor, said, "Sometimes the coverage veered toward gloating. 'This is what you get for being a cowboy, hegemonist.' There was a certain schadenfreude. "But at the same time the analysis of American politics was quite sophisticated on the talk shows. It got to the point where even taxi drivers in Beijing were able to discuss the debt crisis intelligently."

Bad News: Arab Spring Protests

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, This year, the news proved too big to tune out. Not that the state media didn't try: At the outset, they downplayed the revolt against Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, portraying protesters as hooligans and looters and praising Mubarak's efforts to "maintain stability." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, September 04, 2011]

Up until 24 hours before Mubarak resigned, the Cairo correspondent of China's CCTV was declaring on air that CNN and BBC were wrong and that Mubarak would survive. By the time it was Moammar Kadafi's turn, notwithstanding China's economic ties to Libya, CCTV journalists were out in the trenches with the rest of the international press corps witnessing and reporting the regime's collapse.

The popular uprisings in the Middle East were particularly unnerving for the Communist Party, which has pointed to the Arab countries to validate the model of one-party rule. Apparently fearing that the Chinese people might be inspired by the scenes from Cairo, censors at one point even blocked Internet searches of the word "Egypt." (In fact, Internet activists did try to launch sympathy demonstrations under the banner "Jasmine Revolution," but the effort was quickly stamped out.) "The claim that democracy will lead to chaos, turmoil, pain and suffering is one of their bedrock arguments," said Perry Link, a China scholar at UC Riverside. "They play on that fear."

Propaganda Directives and Deletion Orders by Chinese Government Censors

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “When fears of radiation spreading from Japan prompted a rush on iodised salt in China, a weekly business newspaper posted the story on its website under the headline: ''Panic buying in Guangdong, Shenzhen and Dongguan; iodised salt out of stock, nuclear panic in Japan spreads.'' Within minutes, government censors called the Economic Observer's vice-chief editor, Zhang Hong, ''and asked us to delete that post immediately'', he said. In a small act of defiance, Zhang left the story on the site, but he changed the second part of the headline to read: ''Salt bureau said the stock is sufficient''. [Source: Keith Richburg, Washington Post, April 16, 2011]

That March 17 incident is just one example of the daily tussle between editors of China's state-controlled media and the government's army of propaganda officials and censors shaping every aspect of what its citizens read, see and think. Normally the government's relentless effort to control information plays out behind the scenes. But an aggressive news website called China Digital Times, run from Berkeley, California, by Xiao Qiang, a long-time human rights activist, has begun publicly exposing the practice by publishing the official weekly directives and guidelines to the print media from the government's main censorship organs.

The list of do's and don'ts opens a window on how the party and government pay close attention to even the most seemingly routine news stories and how they might affect Chinese opinion. For example, when the Japanese earthquake struck in March 2011, during China's annual meeting of its two legislative bodies, the media were instructed to give prominent coverage to the disaster and the role of the Chinese rescuers, but not to neglect the annual legislative forum.

''We must fully propagandise the state of the rescue work that our teams have initiated in Japan. We must closely follow the circumstances of Chinese people and overseas Chinese in Japan,'' the March 13 directive read. A week or so before the disaster the came the intriguing item: ''All media are not to hype the salary increase given to the People's Liberation Army.''

Most journalists said they had never actually seen the written directives from the censors. Those are normally passed only to a newspaper or television station's top editor, and the rest of the staff receives spoken instructions. For websites, with their faster-moving pace, the censors prefer to use a Chinese instant messaging system called RTX. The message typically ends with the request: ''Please delete.'

Chinese Media Opens Up Somewhat

These days people can say pretty much what they want; newspapers print articles about formally taboo subjects such a social unrest and industrial accidents; newsstands are filled with glossy sports, entertainment and fashion magazines; and reporters are instrumental in uncovering corruption scandals and covering up of mining disasters. On television reports about agricultural production and revolutionary martyrs have been replaced by shows about couples who in fall in love and honeymoon in Shanghai, people who pursue dreams of being singing idols and and young men who are not satisfied with a refrigerator and a TV and want more from life: an air conditioner, a Japanese motorcycle, musical door chimes and a rubber dinghy. The people who get in trouble are those who engage in organized opposition or report on subjects deemed off limits by the government.

The openness and tolerance often applies more to superficial matters than controversial political and social issues. While newspapers and magazines have been allowed to become racier and publish more of sports and entertainment articles the government has made it clear it will not often tolerate stories on sensitive political topic such as corruption, police brutality or political reforms.

In the past when bad things happened the government’s instinctive reaction was to deny the things happened and then blame and vilify the accusers. In recent years the government has come to realize this strategy has limited benefits---especially with the Internet and cell phones getting the word out whether the government likes it or not---and is often more open and responsive when bad things occur: admitting mistakes, accepting responsibility, minimizing cover ups and outlining concrete responses.

China is worried about its international reputation especially with the international media unrelenting its reportage of unsafe toys, tainted food, collapsed bridges, mining disasters, choking smog, slave-like working conditions and cancer towns. The Chinese government has hired the public relations experts Edelman and Ogilvy and Washington lobbyist Patton Boggs to help improve its image.

Sometimes a piece critical of the government is published and the Propaganda Department is chided for trying to censor it. The head of the Propaganda Department, for example, wanted to stop publication of the magazine Yanhuang Chunqui in 2007 for an article that said the “root cause” of China’s corruption and peasant unrest was the Communist’s party monopoly on power but was stopped by Chinese President Hu Jintao who said that debate on such issues was healthy and the magazine should be allowed to publish the article.

Changes in the Chinese Media

Christina Larson, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote on The Atlantic website: “ An interesting long-term question is how the role of Chinese journalists has lately evolved. Contrary to common stereotypes, the reporters themselves, as distinct from the system in which they find themselves, are hardly unblinking toadies.” [Source: Christina Larson, The Atlantic March 22, 2011]

“In the past, the government fully subsidized all newspapers in China, from trade papers like Farmers Daily and Tourism Daily, to mainstream local and national newspapers, to English-language title newspaper, China Daily. Propaganda in the purest sense, the newspapers were free to entirely ignore their readers' preferences or opinions, printing only directives from central authorities.”

“Then, about 10 years ago, in the midst of large-scale restructuring of many state-owned industries in China, Beijing took steps to partially wean papers from the government teat. A few new publications with private backing cropped up about this time, including the feisty news magazine Caijing. With less funding, some papers shrunk, but others opted “ for financial reasons “ to pay closer attention to what their readers wanted, hoping to sell more paid subscriptions and boost advertising.”

“Taking a more commercial approach in China has generally meant one of two things: more photos of semi-nude girls and sensationalized gossipy stories, or more insightful reporting and meaningful content.”

Media Coverage of the Sichuan Earthquake and How It Changed Reporting in China

On her friend covering the Sichuan Earthquake, Christina Larson wrote in The Atlantic: “At first, Yang told me, the government had issued notice to all newspapers not to send reporters to the quake site; this was similar to the policy after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, when domestic reporting on the quake's aftermath was all but nonexistent. Yet in 2008, "in mass, we went anyway." Many newspapers used the fact of Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to the region as an excuse to send staffers, claiming that they were covering him, not directly the quake's impact. "Once all those reporters were there, what could the government do? So that time, they let us be." [Source: Christina Larson, The Atlantic March 22, 2011]

“Yang was among those who rushed to the quake site. On the morning of May 12, he and his wife had just been married in a simple civil ceremony in Beijing (the lavish banquet was planned for later). That afternoon, he got an anxious call from his editor. Soon, he was on an early evening flight bound for Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. (That kind of drop-everything missionary zeal might sound familiar to ambitious reporters of any national stripe.)

“Over the next two weeks, Yang visited hospitals, makeshift shelters, and abandoned buildings. While he remained unscathed, some of his colleagues, traveling in areas where aftershocks sent boulders cascading down hillsides, returned home with neck braces and bandaged limbs.”

“Initially, the government told papers not to publish reports about poorly enforced construction standards “ the result of local corruption “ that had left school buildings especially vulnerable, resulting in the avoidable deaths of schoolchildren trapped beneath rubble. But the information spread anyway, at first through web sites. Once some facts came out, the government allowed a few reports to be published. But when citizen-led campaigns to seek redress began to gather steam, the censors clamped down again, on both the news coverage and the activists themselves.”

“Meanwhile, a colleague of Yang's had discovered that the central government had delayed in accepting aid from the Japanese government because of concerns that foreign aid workers would pass by secret weapons facilities hidden in the hills of Sichuan. Writing about that, which falls squarely in the forbidden category of "state secrets," was obviously off-limits.”

“When he returned home two weeks later, Yang told his wife he had been able to report more than he had expected, but much less than he would have liked. It was, to him, a sort of partial progress. He later had nightmares about collapsing schools.” "I think sometimes I want to change nationality to be a better journalist," he said.

Media Reforms and the Limits of Media Reforms in China

China's leaders have made countless speeches in recent years urging the country's state-run media to become more open and less reliant on state subsidies, as they respond to the growing availability of information online. "First China's leaders told the media to commercialise, which meant a drive to compete and professionalise. Now, weibo means the level of popular participation in the media is unprecedented," David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong said. [Source: AFP, September 8, 2011]

The rise of microblogging has also forced changes in the way traditional state-run media operate. Many newspapers were unusually critical of the government in the week that followed the July train accident - until Beijing's official propaganda department ordered them to stop.

And while authorities can still tell traditional media how to spin the news, Xiao said journalists were "increasingly putting otherwise censored materials online, on their blogs and then distributing them by weibo to the public". "The wisdom of the crowd will compete with the censors in a continuous battle that will play out over a long time," predicted Peking University journalism professor Hu Yong.

Image Sources: 1, 2) Landsberger Posters ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011

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