Media scholar urges end to ban on cross-regional reporting

By David Bandurski — In last month’s issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, I wrote about how the CCP’s ban on extra-territorial reporting, the practice of media from one region reporting sensitive news about other local governments, was placing extraordinary pressure on hard news in China. I also discussed how the ban itself exposed a deeper change in media controls in China — the intensification of local controls and the overall “commercializing” of the propaganda apparatus.

At a recent session of the Yanshan Forum in Beijing, Chinese media scholar and former CMP fellow Zhang Jiang (展江) touched on these issues and others in a broader discussion of China’s unique brand of watchdog journalism, what is best and most accurately expressed as “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督).

The Yanshan Forum is a weekly public forum hosted by the law school at China University of Political Science and Law and Tencent, the operator of the popular Shenzhen-based website QQ.com.

zhangjiang-screenshot.jpg

[ABOVE: Screenshot of coverage of Zhan Jiang talk at QQ.com.]

In one sense, what I found most interesting about Zhan Jiang’s talk was the fact that it was available in the public domain, despite Zhan’s reasonably provocative statement about the CCP’s policy on cross-regional reporting. The forum’s co-sponsor, QQ.com, in fact played up Zhan’s comments about the need to eliminate restrictions on cross-regional reporting, with this pull-quote from the talk posted in bold right under the main headline:

“Why do we call for the cancellation of restrictions against cross-regional reporting? Because this resolution is of disadvantage to the central party. Local party officials have pressured the local media to death, so that all they can do is sing the party’s praises all day long, and media from other regions have at the same time been encircled, pursued, obstructed and intercepted.”

But Zhan Jiang’s open call for an end to restrictions on cross-regional reporting was, in my view, both the boldest and the most clear-headed statement in his wide-ranging talk. Aside, that is, from his always keen knowledge of the history and nature of Chinese watchdog journalism.

On a number of points — and I say this with an abundance of respect for his scholarship and expertise — Zhan’s optimism seemed to get the better of his judgement.

He makes a point, for example, about violence against journalists, saying that while reporters are often killed in places like Colombia or Mexico, “not one person has suffered bodily harm while carrying out investigations” in China. He cites the example of Wang Keqin, who, even with a hefty price on his head after his muckraking reports in Guizhou, was never harmed. But this, of course, is the very same Wang Keqin who was beaten on a recent reporting stint to Shandong.

Zhan also seems to misread recent changes (or alterations) to press policy. “Hu Jintao’s speech on June 20 at People’s Daily especially deserves reading,” he says. “That speech no longer places the emphasis on ‘guidance’, but emphasizes instead channelling (引导) and leading (疏导).”

This point does not stand up when one actually does scrutinize Hu Jintao’s speech.

Zhan seems to jump to the conclusion that Hu Jintao’s statements about the need for a “new pattern of public opinion guidance” and active reporting on disasters by state media must necessarily mean a relaxation of controls. They do not.

In fact, there is no meaningful distinction in Hu’s usage between “guidance,” or daoxiang (导向), and “channeling,” or yindao (引导). Both clearly drive home the notion of party media control from the outset in Point One:

1. [Media] must uphold the Party spirit, firmly grasping correct guidance of public opinion (正确舆论导向). Correct channeling of public opinion (舆论引导正确) benefits the party, the nation and the people; Incorrect channeling of public opinion wrongs the party, wrongs the nation and wrongs the people.

第一,必须坚持党性原则,牢牢把握正确舆论导向。舆论引导正确,利党利国利民;舆论引导错误,误党误国误民.

In our previous translation of this passage, which includes the so-called “three benefits and three wrongs” (三利, 三误) formula, we opted to translate both daoxiang and yindao as “guidance”:

1. [Media] must uphold the Party spirit, firmly grasping correct guidance of public opinion. Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the party, benefits the nation, and benefits the people. Incorrect guidance of public opinion wrongs the party, wrongs the nation, and wrongs the people.

How excited can we be about shaking up the terminology with the addition of “channeling” — if we insist on differentiating these translations — when the context clearly places both within the framework of media control?

The party is still determining here what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” That is the crux.

In all fairness, however, Zhan Jiang’s talk may be as much a vehicle for pushing changes in media policy as it is a platform for sober analysis. At those points where his analysis seems to hold up least, his point may in fact be advocacy.

On the issue of information openness, for example, Zhan once again praises the State Council’s Ordinance on Openness of Government Information, which took effect on May 1 last year. Zhan rightly points out that the ordinance changes the presumption about information from one of secrecy to one of openness. Indeed, the ordinance was hard won, having faced a great deal of internal opposition — so pushing gently in this direction with compliments may not be a bad tactic from an advocacy standpoint. This does not change the fact, however, that attempts by citizens to use the ordinance since it took effect have been fruitless.

Zhan Jiang is also quite complimentary about what he presumes to be Hu Jintao’s open attitude toward media. He points to the period of relative openness in the immediate aftermath of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, conveniently disregarding the restrictions that followed soon after:

Hu Jintao has said that the Chinese government’s reporting of the disaster situation was not only well received by the vast majority of party cadres, but also earned the praise of the international community, marking the end of the era when the Western media would be branded as “scourges” (洪水猛兽/scavenging wild animals that emerge after floods) at the slightest provocation. Hu Jintao’s speech surpassed the level of the vast majority of officials.

But how do we square this professed openness with the extended campaign of “positive propaganda” that extended through the Olympics and beyond? As insiders generally attest, the focus in 2009 is on the “comprehensive control of negative news reports,” or quanmian kongfu (全面控负), not on a lighter touch. Looking back, it seems earthquake coverage no more marked a change in attitude on the media than did coverage of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was followed by a firestorm of disciplinary action against bolder media.

Hu Jintao’s June speech did mark a change. But this change was about a re-ordering of priorities within China’s media control regime, not about a relaxation of controls.

Zhan’s remark about the end of the age of the scapegoating of Western media hardly needs refutation. Western media were under attack by China’s state media all last month as suited the needs of China’s own official message on Tibet. Remember foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang’s snide comment about the YouTube clip that (probably) prompted the blocking of the video site in China?

“Maybe the Dalai Lama and his followers got some image-editing tips from some Western media,” he said.

We encourage those who read Chinese and have an interest in media developments in China to read the first three sections of the article at QQ, in which Zhan defines three types of “supervision by public opinion” and discusses the stages in the development of this form of monitoring up to 2003.

We pick up our translation further down in the talk, as Zhan concludes his discussion of watchdog reporting in China in 2003:

The most outstanding case in 2003 was the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case. The national influence of Southern Metropolis Daily can be directly linked to [its reporting of] the Sun Zhigang case. Southern Metropolis Daily was the first media [in China] to separate its news reports from its editorials. The headline of the news report on Sun Zhigang, “The Death of a University Student,” was not particularly emotive. But later came their editorials. Under the influence of overseas journalism concepts, our news process has increasingly accepted concepts of journalistic professionalism, including the separation of news and opinion. China’s media tradition is all about the primacy of opinion, but now newspapers rely principally on information, and they separate news and opinion.

At the same time, some media might select comparatively marginal topics for supervision by public opinion. For example, many people had died as a result of using the quintessentially Chinese medicine “Longdan Xiegan Wan” (龙胆泄肝丸). Xinhua News Agency reporter Zhu Yu (朱玉) reported on this problem, and even later criticized herself — How could I not have known about this sooner, before so many people were harmed? Supervision by public opinion was still in a very healthy state in the first half of 2004. The Weekly Quality Report (每周质量报告), [a program investigating harmful products], had been launched just as SARS was raging. The principal focus of the program was food products, as it was originally a cooperative venture with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. It did not deal with politics, concerned consumer interests and had the support of the government, so 2003 and 2004 were very good years [for the program].

Third Phase: September 2004, a ban is issued against cross-regional reporting and investigative reporting virtually comes to a stop

The third phase of [supervision of public opinion] began in September 2004, with the issuing of a document [from the Central Party Office] on September 18 (“9•18″) placing restrictions on media conducting reports across regional jurisdictions. After this document was released, investigative reports by media virtually came to a stop. It is said that local and regional governments made reports to central party leaders saying that media carrying out supervision in this way made it impossible to do their work. This is something we have heard, and it awaits corroboration. Since this time officials have encircled, pursued, obstructed and intercepted journalists in the field. For example, [former CMP fellow] Wang Keqin (王克勤) went to Henan to do a report on AIDS in Xingtai, and local authorities put the village under lockdown. Once Wang Keqin had finished his reporting, he found it very difficult to get out, and had to disguise himself as a peasant, placing his laptop in a gunnysack and sneaking out finally in a three-wheeled cart. The local peasants bowed down before him, pleading with him to report the truth. After his article came out, the local government [was unhappy and] made a report of the case to the central party.

But during this period, conversely, commentaries have been on the rise. Commentaries are not impacted by the cross-regional issue, and commentary writers are known often not by their real names but by their Web aliases, such as Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人) and Ten Years Chopping Wood (十年砍柴). I have not conducted quantitative research [in this area], but while the earliest group of commentary writers emerged from Chinese studies, they come now from all sorts of backgrounds, including economics, politics and law, etcetera, and the study of politics and law has had a growing influence on society . . .

After the ban on cross-regional reporting, many reporters could do nothing, particularly media like Southern Metropolis Daily. At the time, one deputy editor from Henan Commercial Daily conducted watchdog journalism a bit to aggressively, and he fell afoul of one of his classmates in the provincial propaganda department. As a result he opted for early retirement. He later moved on to another media in Henan and started undertaking watchdog journalism there, but now he has moved to Hainan, and he says there is no longer any way for him to continue living and working in Zhengzhou [Henan]. His is an example of failure. Yes, officials were subjected to supervision, but as for the agent of supervision, his whole sphere of existence was impacted negatively as a result. Only major central media can carry out investigations of a cross-regional nature anymore, for example China Economic Times [which is published by the Development Research Center of the State Council] and China Youth Daily [which is published by the Communist Youth League]. China Youth Daily is a newspaper steeped in the intra-party democratic tradition, a tradition built by Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). The atmosphere within the newspaper is very relaxed, and no-one calls the chief editor by his title, but all address him instead by name. I’ve heard that when one chief editor subsequently came on, he asked why no-one ever came to the airport to greet him [when his flight came in]. In 2006, China Youth Daily reported the Wang Yanong (王亚忱) case, which was quite a successful instance of supervision of government officials.

Why do we call for the cancellation of restrictions against cross-regional reporting? Because this resolution is of disadvantage to the central party. Local party officials have pressured the local media to death, so that all they can do is sing the party’s praises all day long, and media from other regions have at the same time been encircled, pursued, obstructed and intercepted. I can give you one example [however]. Last year, Southern Weekend resumed its extra-territorial reporting and reported on the case of the “toughest nursery school” in Guangrao County (广饶县), Shandong Province. This nursery school covered 150 mu of land (24.7 acres), about the same size as this university campus, but the truth was that while the site had been approved as a nursery school, they had built the largest shoe wholesaling market in northern China.

In the economic sector, the media still had a bit of space in 2005. The Weekly Quality Report (每周质量报告) slowly got into food safety and essentially conducted investigations into famous local products in local areas [all over China] — ham sausages, Dezhou roasted chicken, etc. One program revealed that Jinhua Ham was manufactured with dichlorophos, but this report had an impact no one could have guessed. On this case, the program had done quite successfully. There was one scene I remember quite well, in which a peasant had a burning cigarette clinched in his teeth, the ashes just about to fall, and as he stepped on a ham said right into the camera: “I just came out of the toilet.” I’ve heard about people who set down their bowls of food as they reached this point in the program and tossed out any ham they had in the house. This program created a lot of discussion, and many said the show was harmful to the economy, every week destroying a famous Chinese brand, even things perhaps quintessentially Chinese.

Finally in 2005, an episode was cancelled. At the time a foreign reporter called me up to ask what was going on. Later, I called up the producer and asked whether the program had been stopped by a technical issue. In fact, he said, it was not a technical issue. For that episode they had been preparing a piece on Harbin sausage. The program is still around today, but it has been transformed into something entirely different — “Consumer Academy,” it is called, a show about how to cook . . .

The individual cases I’ve just mentioned are to a certain degree the unfortunate results of the suppression of watchdog journalism. Facing a difficult climate, apart from China Youth Daily and Xinhua News Agency, both of which can conduct supervision by public opinion, Caijing magazine does not face restrictions on the practice. At the same time, commentaries have continued to rise, discussing all sorts of important issues. Commentary writers are more and more diversified, including intellectuals, judges, lawyers, etc, but there are very few women among commentary writers, just two or three, very different to what we see overseas, where many women have received Pulitzer Prizes. Southern Metropolis Daily‘s commentary section has been rather strong, and Southern Weekend‘s has not been shabby either. In recent years television has fallen behind, owing in part to its weakness in the area of commentary. CCTV 2 does have Mabin Reads the Headlines, which consists mostly of the reading of opinion pieces, and now there is a program called News Observer that isn’t too bad.

But some people are concerned that while [hard news] reporting faces pressure, the prospering of commentaries can only be a false prospering. Commentaries must rely, after all, on news reports, and if news reports are under pressure, how can commentaries prosper? I find this concern is unwarranted, because the Internet provides a richness of information and has become a new source of information . . . Even if news reporting does face restrictions, commentaries should be able to continue to develop and prosper.

Fourth Phase: 2007 to April 2008/The influence of the Internet grows

In the last phase [I discussed], the media faced numerous hardships and difficulties. A number of top editors at newspapers were removed, and some newspapers were shut down or stopped publishing. But things took a turn for the better in 2007. The government too recognized that while supervision by public opinion was not a magic bullet, doing without it was of great disadvantage . . . In this phase, people slowly came to recognize that supervision was still necessary, but should be taken a bit more easy. Some media that had been disciplined began conducting cross-regional reporting once again — stories in Henan, or in Hebei, so long as one’s own officials said nothing you could begin to do it. The situation we saw was a kind of relaxation. In addition, I think personally that the Internet is the richest media in China permitted by the government. Rich in what way? On the one hand, various opinions and viewpoints and a degree of information can be revealed and expressed. On the other hand, blogs have to a degree developed into personal newspapers of a sort. In our country, individuals cannot start up media, but blogs are essentially individual newspapers . . .

Another mark of progress has been the State Council’s active promotion of the Ordinance on Disclosure of Government Information. The debut of the Ordinance on Disclosure of Government Information is right now changing our political landscape, from the [emphasis upon] preserving secrecy to openness to the greatest extent possible. What is the basic principle behind openness of government information? The idea that openness is normal, and that secrecy is the exception. At the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao made a point of raising the question of the “four rights” (四权), and his report spoke also of the need to strengthen supervision by public opinion. Over the last 20 years, all official reports [to the party congresses] have raised the issue of strengthening supervision by public opinion. None have ever spoken of putting an end to supervision by public opinion. And there is even an ordinance of the Chinese Communist Party that includes in Part Four a Section 8 called “Supervision by Public Opinion.”

There were a number of cases in 2007 that were highly influential, including the Shanxi brick kiln case, on which Hu Jintao issued instructions. While it is true that the case now is that if leaders do not issue instructions things sometimes do not get attention, we believe that this is an interim as China makes the transition from autocracy to rule of law. In 2007, Caijing‘s first cover story was “Whose Luneng?”, revealing how a private entrepreneur purchased Luneng, valued at tens of billions of yuan, for just several billion yuan in a merger deal . . . This report did not create quite the stir of the brick kiln case, but as Caijing followed the story the merger was eventually dissolved . . .

Still, the pressures media now face come from a number of areas. Sanlu and Mengniu, for example, were major advertisers [so media were cautious about reporting negatively on them ahead of the poisonous milk scandal]. But I still believe China’s journalists are relatively safe, and not one person has faced harm while carrying out an investigation. In country’s like Columbia and Mexico journalists are often murdered . . .

At the same time, the influence of the Internet grows larger and larger. In 2007 and 2008, television was essentially replaced by the third form of supervision by public opinion.

Fifth Phase/After May 2008

The next phase [of watchdog journalism] began in May of 2008. Hu Jintao’s speech on June 20 at People’s Daily especially deserves reading. That speech no longer places the emphasis on ‘guidance’, but emphasizes instead channelling (引导) and leading (疏导). After the Sichuan earthquake, a number of local officials wanted to suppress the media and the Sichuan government was opposed to media reporting of such issues as [the collapse of] school buildings. But Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took an open attitude toward media, particularly media from outside Sichuan. Hu Jintao has said that the Chinese government’s reporting of the disaster situation was not only well received by the vast majority of party cadres, but also earned the praise of the international community, marking the end of the era when the Western media would be branded as “scourges” (洪水猛兽/scavenging wild animals that emerge after floods) at the slightest provocation. Hu Jintao’s speech surpassed the level of the vast majority of officials.

[In concluding sections, Zhan Jiang turns to the emerging role of the Internet in supervision by public opinion.]

[Posted by David Bandurski, April 9, 2009, 12:51am HK]

4 Comments to “Media scholar urges end to ban on cross-regional reporting”

  1. [...] That was in what many Chinese journalists see as a golden age, when an increasingly gutsy press began to root out scandals and abuses. But in 2004, the authorities responded with tough restrictions on media organisations reporting from areas where they are not based. Though the restrictions are widely ignored, journalists say they have allowed officials to impede investigations and stamp down on the burgeonin…. [...]

  2. [...] That was in what many Chinese journalists see as a golden age, when an increasingly gutsy press began to root out scandals and abuses. But in 2004, the authorities responded with tough restrictions on media organisations reporting from areas where they are not based. Though the restrictions are widely ignored, journalists say they have allowed officials to impede investigations and stamp down on the burgeonin…. [...]

  3. Someone thinks this story is fantastic

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it.

  4. [...] at a forum in Beijing, when media scholar Zhan Jiang called for the government to repeal its ban on cross-territory reporting, saying [...]

Leave a Comment