CMP fellow addresses causes of media corruption in China

By Jacky Lee – A noxious combination of state power, keen commercial competition and media mismanagement have spawned endemic corruption in China’s news media in recent years, Fudan University journalism professor Lu Ye (陆晔) told an audience at the University of Hong Kong Friday. While corruption occurs across the board, said Lu, it is particularly prevalent at government-run media, which can use the authority vested in them by administrative offices to extort money from local governments and private enterprises.

Professor Lu called this corruption “rent-seeking,” or quanli xunzu (权力寻租).


Lu’s talk, “Media Corruption in China,” was hosted by the China Media Project of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre, where Lu is currently a visiting fellow.

Stiffer competition, felt most keenly by government-run media, is another contributor to corruption, said Lu. While government funding has been progressively pulled from official media, they have not raised their market competitiveness or found their own audiences. “These publications cannot compete with commercial publications, and subsidies aren’t sufficient to ensure their survival in a market economy,” Lu said.

The way out for many of these media is abuse of their administrative power to force cash payments or advertising buys.

The problem of media corruption in China became international news in January this year with the beating death of Lan Chengzhang (兰成长), a reporter for China Trade News. The newspaper, published by the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), a national organization representing the economic and trade sectors in China, had hired Lan on a temporary basis. Lan was killed as he tried to extort money from an illegal coal mine in Shanxi by threatening to expose its operations.

As a newspaper backed by an official organization, China Trade News had sufficient authority and social status to twist the arms of local officials and businesses, Lu said.

Internal management mechanisms at media are also an important factor in media corruption, according to Lu. “This problem is less serious at larger and more newly-established publications that are commercially oriented. Larger publications generally have better income and management,” said Lu.

Lu said low pay in the media sector was a further problem, encouraging journalists to view “red envelopes” and other perks as routine and deserved.

Every year, journalism students at Fudan organize an academic seminar on media, but the press environment in China presents them with unique challenges as they try to get the word out, said Lu. Reporters express and interest in covering the event, but always want to know whether they the department will provide “transportation subsidies”, a code word for cash payments for participation.

Summing up her feelings about the issue of media corruption, Lu suggested resolving the issue would necessitate deeper institutional change. “I am quite pessimistic about the situation [of media corruption in China],” said Lu. “It’s something that can’t be resolved simply by improving management and ethical standards.”

3 Comments to “CMP fellow addresses causes of media corruption in China”

  1. David says:

    Professor Li,

    Thank you for your valuable comments.


  2. Li Ren says:

    I am sorry that I made a mistake about the retirement ages in China in my previous comment. The correct age is 60 for man, 55 for woman cadres, and 50 for woman workers.

  3. Li Ren says:

    Media corruption issue is an old age topic in new China which could be dated back to early 1990s. Two foundamental factors should be taken into account while discussing it.

    One, Chinese media are state-owned, or, they are state properties. You work for one a lifetime, but what on earth could you get while you retire at, say, 60 for women and 65 for men? No matter you are a chief editor or just a low rank reporter. It is completely another State-Owned Enterprise story. Many guys I talked to in the local media in Chongqing said like this, “Hey, I will grab as much as I can if I am on the post.” In the Lan Chengzhang case, he was indeed only a paw of that self-corrupted system, a guy at the system bottom. He could be kicked off at any time by his employer- China Trade Newspaper without any compensation. So he just did the same thing as other media bosses have been doing-getting as much as he could while he had the identity. The only difference is that he was nobody.

    Two, Chinese media are all branches of government. Xinhua News Agency is a branch of China’s State Council. Another powerful medium-People’s Daily is a branch of CPC. In China, when journalists from these so called mainstream media meet, they usually compare their bosses’ executive level with each other. So, although CCTV is more popular than Xinhua and People’s Daily in China, the latter would feel superior to the former because their bosses enjoy treatment of Ministers and boss of CCTV is only a vice one. You can tell this if those guys meet at the same table at a government banquet. This creates a very unique phenomenon. Many media staffs have unconsciously a sense of pursuit of political position rather than enthusiasm for journalism.

    So, power is money and money is everything. This is the philosophy of present Chinese media. This is why of media corruption here.

    Li Ren
    Associate Professor of Journalism
    Southwest University of Political Science and Law

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