“New nationalism” adds to the list of pressures facing China’s media

By Liu Jiaying and David Bandurski — Journalists in China already face countless challenges as they try to push the limits on news and editorial coverage — a rigorous system of press controls from the top, lateral pressure and intimidation from local governments, commercial pressures and dwindling resources for investigative reporting, the ever-present risk of libel in a savage judicial environment. The list goes on and on.

But a series of crucial events this year, including unrest in Tibet and China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, revealed an emerging challenge for journalists in China: the rise of “new nationalism,” or xin guojia zhuyi (新国家主义).

“New nationalism” and its impact on journalism in China was the topic of a talk on October 13 by CMP fellow Xiao Shu, an editorial writer for Southern Weekend newspaper and the author of several books, including The Truth About Liu Wencai.

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[ABOVE: Senior Straits Times journalist Ching Cheong addresses a question to CMP fellow Xiao Shu at this week's talk.]

“2008 was a peculiar year, which saw iconic commercial media like Southern Weekend plagued with attacks from new nationalism,” Xiao told a packed audience at the university’s Foundation Chamber. “The situation grew serious.”

The talk, “‘New Nationalism’ and China’s Media,” was hosted by the China Media Project of the Journalism & Media Studies Centre, where Xiao is currently a visiting fellow.

The “attacks” to which Xiao referred were criticisms launched on China’s internet and in its mainstream press this year against influential commercial newspapers that have become associated with a more independent brand of journalism in China even as state media controls persist. Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily, newspapers published in the comparatively open environment of China’s southern Guangdong province, are notable examples.

As Xiao explained, China’s “commercial” newspapers date back to the economic reform push of the early 1990s, and are a unique product of China’s old command system and economic and social change.

In other places in the world it is only natural for media to be private, and there is nothing at all exceptional about commercially driven media. But in China media operate under a dual system (双轨制), said Xiao, in which a powerful planned system is wedded with commercial forces. While Southern Weekend, for example, is “commercial” in the sense that it must support itself and fight for survival in the media marketplace, it is controlled and managed by a Communist Party newspaper, Nanfang Daily.

When the process of media commercialization began, the government’s primary impetus was to “remove fiscal burdens,” said Xiao. At the time, all media were state supported.

But commercial media also offered new opportunities for professional journalists who sought a more active role for media outside its traditional role as a “mouthpiece” of the party. Over time, said Xiao, commercial media began taking on a much more important role, preparing China’s transition to a civil society. Unlike the party papers — the traditional “mouthpieces” — from which they emanated, commercial newspapers increasingly became the voice of the people, reporting key public interest stories and relaying issues of popular concern to the leadership.

While China’s commercial media today are far from a Fourth Estate, they bear a social responsibility that is “weightier and more complex,” said Xiao.

“The commercial media have become an avenue of redress. They have become the engine pulling China’s civil society along,” he said.

Xiao cited the 2003 Sun Zhigang case and the 2007 Chongqing nail house as examples of commercial media driving news coverage and promoting change in public policy.

Commercial media have played an crucial role, said Xiao, in “wedging out a new public space in the cracks of personal rights” and pushing limited participation in public dialogue on a range of issues. And this has given citizens an important opportunity to learn how to discuss public affairs in a civil manner, to “become accustomed to debate.”

“Right now, online debate in our country takes the form of attack, because we have not yet had proper training and experience in the debate process,” Xiao said.

But as a younger generation emerges in China with a sense of entitlement and national pride, they are increasingly battling against more liberal voices in China’s media that push for social and political reform. Younger and more educated Chinese, those who have benefitted most from reforms, often resist change to the status quo, and often stridently.

This “new nationalism,” said Xiao, differs from its predecessor, a nationalism promoted by the Communist Party leadership under comprehensive state control. While young Chinese appreciate and benefit from changes in Chinese society, of which commercial media are an important part, they have come to resent calls for more liberal or universal values, such as freedom of speech and democracy, issued by bolder commercial media.

This year this “new nationalism” turned on commercial media with a new vengeance, said Xiao. This could be seen most readily in the controversy surrounding an April 3 essay by columnist Chang Ping (长平), “How To Find Out the Truth About Lhasa,” in which the Nandu Weekly deputy editor turned Chinese reasoning about bias on Tibet in the Western media on what he saw as unfair Chinese coverage.

Chang was branded a traitor by angry internet users, who also turned their anger on Nandu Weekly publisher Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper regarded by some as the leading proponent of “Western” ideas at the expense of China’s core interests.

The Chang Ping controversy, which others have called a “war on the liberal media,” put strong pressure on commercial media under the Nanfang Daily Group, including Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend, despite the fact that the controversial Chang Ping column had been written for the Chinese-language website of the Financial Times.

As Southern Metropolis Daily buckled under the weight of public opinion, news came that Chang Ping had been removed as deputy editor of Nandu Weekly. While this news was never substantiated — Chang remains with the publication and writes actively today — it reflected the very real pressure this current of “new nationalism” brought to bear not just on Chang’s views on Tibet, but on Southern Metropolis Daily and other commercial media as vehicles for more liberal debate on such issues.

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 17, 2008, 2:15pm HK]

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