The Shishou riots and the uncertain future of Control 2.0

By David Bandurski — Not so long ago, the suppression of any and all information about mass incidents in China was a matter of virtual certainty. But Chinese officials have surprised over the past year. They have often been right on top of strikes, riots and opinion storms. And crisis management has been, at least on the surface, more about press conferences and press releases, and less about police muscle.

At CMP, we have used the term Control 2.0 to talk about an emerging new order of information management and control in China, something more nuanced and clever, and something altogether more Hu Jintao.

But the government’s handling of the recent situation in Shishou, Hubei province, raises serious questions about whether Hu Jintao’s policy of first reporting is actually drawing support among the leadership.

There were more explicit rumblings of Control 2.0 in early 2007, when Hu talked about “using” the Internet more actively to more effectively achieve “guidance of public opinion.” But in June 2008, when Hu spoke in a pivotal address at People’s Daily of a “new pattern of public opinion guidance” for the information age, the framework of Control 2.0 was more clearly drawn [MORE on "guidance" and "channeling"].

Hu’s policy of “grabbing the initiative” in news coverage of sudden-breaking events, including mass incidents, has been stretching its wings ever since the riots in Weng’an, Guizhou province, one year ago. We have had since then: Menglian in Yunnan (孟连事件), Longnan in Gansu (甘肃陇南), Jishou in Hunan (湖南吉首非法集资事件), taxi strikes in a number of areas, a primitive armed conflict in Dongfang, Hainan (海南东方械斗事件), and incidents in Ningxia’s Haiyuan (海南东方械斗事件) and Jiangxi’s Nankang (江西南康事件).

In all of these cases, we have seen must faster response on the part of the government, which has moved to release limited information quickly through official media, such as Xinhua News Agency. Is this openness? Or as a correspondent of the Telegraph recently asked: “Is this because media restrictions have been lifted, allowing news of riots to spread . . . ?

No. And a thousand times, no.

For news stories that are especially sensitive politically — like that surrounding the verdict in the Yang Jia case, the corruption case against former Shanxi governor Yu Youjun (于幼军), and the more recent corruption case against Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng (许宗衡) — media controls are as strict, or stricter, than ever. And controls are also more nuanced than ever. Many so-called “negative reports” are handled by limiting coverage, even at People’s Daily and CCTV, to news bulletin style releases from Xinhua News Agency, and in-depth reporting is strictly controlled.

Media controls this year are tighter even than in 2008, owing especially to the 20th anniversary of June 4 and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the P.R.C.

So we have to see these overtures of “transparency” within the context of tightening control.

To understand what kind of “transparency” we are looking at, in fact, we would do well to return to the words of Jiang Zemin, the policy author of “guidance of public opinion,” on that very subject. It was Jiang Zemin who said after June 4, 1989: “There are things that should be transparent, or must be transparent; there other things that cannot be made transparent right away; then there are those things that must not be made transparent.”

Is that clear?

The difference with Control 2.0 is that the party is moving from a defensive position, as passive controllers and censors, to a more active position. That is to say, they are now on the offensive.

Control 2.0 is control that makes a shrewdly realistic assessment of China’s new information environment — the result of the Internet, predominantly — and recognizes there are some events that cannot be entirely controlled. So the core of Control 2.0 is reporting at the first possible moment those news events that cannot be concealed, getting the government’s official explanation and version of the facts out first. This preempts other media, including international media.

By getting the information out, officials can get the “peripheral media” (especially influential portal news sites, but also commercial newspapers) to work for them. These media feed off of the original Xinhua reports, amplifying their effect. Those same reports, with only slight permutations in many cases, become AFP, Reuters and AP reports. Finally, using those methods that create the smallest stir, you kill the information it is most critical to keep under wraps, keeping rabble-rousing professional media away, and punishing those media that “don’t listen.”

BUT. In the recent Shishou incident, Xinhua News Agency did not report the news at the first available moment, and it was five days before Hubei provincial leaders relayed the news that “the incident had been calmed.”

This handling of the incident has drawn some criticism from the same official media, including People’s Daily, that have been drumming home Hu’s point about “taking the initiative” in news reporting, the Control 2.0 mantra. People’s Daily wrote back on June 25 that:

Weng’an was a seminal moment for the government’s new approach to information control and the handling of important news events. Guizhou’s top leader, Shi Zongyuan (石宗源), said during this year’s meeting of the National People’s Congress that a policy of information transparency had been the key to calming down the crisis at Weng’an.

As in the case of Weng’an, the Shishou mass incident originated with a death under suspicious circumstances, in which the explanation provided by police did not satisfy the family members of the victim and the general public.

The problem was that the authorities did not work fast or effective enough in getting out “the government’s point of view.” Meanwhile, posts in Internet forums multiplied.

The People’s Daily piece concluded by repeating Hu Jintao’s gospel of media control:

In the age of the Web, everyone can potentially be a source of information and a wellspring of opinion. It is as though everyone has a microphone before them. This has raised the bar on the need for public opinion channeling. Faced with sudden-breaking issues, it is not sufficient for the government and mainstream [official] media to release information. They must also move quickly to understand the pulse of new information emerging on the Internet, reacting quickly to public doubts. This requires that governments, and especially propaganda offices, be equipped with the ability to rapidly and accurately compile and analyze public opinion.

Now we are hearing from media insiders that orders have come down from the propaganda department telling news media not to report critically on the handling of the Shishou incident.

Is it possible that the Shishou incident signals the weakness of Hu Jintao’s bold new media control strategy, a reticence at even the highest levels about the wisdom of opening things up at all — even when the ultimate objective is control?

The response to Shishou, and the reversion to traditional information control tactics in its aftermath, could suggest a reassertion of the old “guidance.”

We’ll have to keep watching.

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 29, 2009, 8:09pm HK]

13 Comments to “The Shishou riots and the uncertain future of Control 2.0”

  1. Christoph says:

    “With the reason for the official’s removal being given as lack of action in getting the information out – and its effects – it would seem to be a strong signal that Control 2.0 has not been abandoned. It appears that if you aren’t getting on board with President Hu’s media agenda you might not be around for too long.”
    Yeah but the center stays out of the media game now in order to avoid blame. When the thing is done it can play the misbehaving local official card.

  2. Christoph says:

    Thanks for the (as usual) careful observations.
    I guess one factor that the People’s Daily did indeed not come out with a story on Shishou as it did in the case of Longnan last year, is the lesson learned from Longnan. The People’s Daily verdict on Longnan was exposed as (at least partly) blunt lies or omission of vital facts when the leaked pictures of police brutalizing protesters and throwing stones went viral on the Chinese internet the same day that People’s Daily published its verdict (http://www.zonaeuropa.com/20081122_1.htm). This put the center in a very bad position.
    The problem with taking the initiative in an area which is a mine field for a one-party state is probably that it can go wrong. In any case the propaganda department guys must have some headaches these days. ;)

  3. Dan says:

    An interesting follow up to the Shishou riots, on July 25 Xinhua reported that the municipal Party chief in Shishou was sacked. Reason given, “Shishou officials did not act until after about 80 hours of silence, fueling rampant rumors which resulted in an unrest when angry locals obstructed two streets, burnt the hotel and smashed several vehicles.”

    With the reason for the official’s removal being given as lack of action in getting the information out – and its effects – it would seem to be a strong signal that Control 2.0 has not been abandoned. It appears that if you aren’t getting on board with President Hu’s media agenda you might not be around for too long.

  4. AtticTroll says:

    I was struck by the apparent openness in the official Chinese media coverage of the incidents in Xinjiang. Thank you for putting this in the context of Control 2.0. I still wonder if this could be a step forward — immediate response is probably better than nothing at all and there is always a chance that the ‘real’ story (or a ‘realer’ version of it) will get past censors as they hastily try to ‘take the initiative’.

  5. [...] of China learning from Iran’s experience. But, as David Bandurski of the China Media Project wrote last month, before the violence in Urumqi, China’s government seems to have been learning how to deal [...]

  6. [...] allora passare alla fase del controllo 2.0: informazione parzialmente libera, almeno rispetto al passato, ma rispettando le esigenze del [...]

  7. [...] allora passare alla fase del controllo 2.0: informazione parzialmente libera, almeno rispetto al passato, ma rispettando le esigenze del [...]

  8. [...] Lede blog). Tthough some might view the new openness as an outgrowth of the darker side of the Control 2.0 theory put forth by the excellent David Bandurski at China Media Project (h/t this very good post from Evan Osnos), I’ve been here long enough [...]

  9. billy says:

    David, do you regard Control 2.0 as China-specific, or somehow uniquely nefarious?

    Personally, I think there’s a strong case to be made that China is simply learning lessons from the real experts in news management… the US government and lobbying industries.

  10. RMCulter says:

    I seriously doubt that if there were real elections the communist party would be show the door as it were. First and foremost there’s no other viable alternative political party. If the party were to let other political parties develop it could be decades before a national party could establish itself if at all. Furthermore, the communist party is very disciplined, controlling a vast network of people and can mobilize quickly in terms of elections. Simple fact is they’ve brought tremendous growth and people won’t just vote them out for unknown alternative political parties.

    Lastly I agree whole-heartly with your last statement, except they don’t envy just in private but quite openly in public, especially online. The problem though is they might want a vote except they don’t trust others with one. Village elections show how willingly people will sell their vote for a few dollars and why not? Ordinary people feel a few dollar helps them address their immediate concerns more than a vote can and their right. Until social-economic levels are brought in-sync ordinary Chinese people might want the vote however it doesn’t mean they believe the entire country is ready for it.

  11. Fawaway observer says:

    The official media report 140 deaths, the count rising, in the Xinjiang protests. Yet lack of details suggests the government may be exaggerating the toll as a way of portraying the protest as more violent than it actually was.

  12. [...] China Media Project: Hong Kong University’s David Bandurski describes what he calls “Control 2.0,” the Chinese government’s new approach to controlling information about crises like the Urumqi protests/riots. Instead of blocking information about such incidents entirely, the government is now trying to “control the story,” allowing media outlets to report the official version of events. This lets the government influence the story without generating (as much of) a credibility gap. At the same time, cracking down on Internet access helps stop non-government-approved information from seeping out. It seems to be working — the early Western news reports on events in Urumqi were based heavily on Xinhua releases. (h/t Evan Osnos) [...]

  13. Ken McManus says:

    Control is control. It may be managed in a more sophisticated fashion, but managed it certainly is. As a professional journalist from the West who has been observing China for six years, I’ve noticed basically two “windows” in which the real news gets out before it’s “managed”. For traditional media, it’s usually about a week before the hammer comes down. Even during the Sichuan earthquake, some transparency in reporting was allowed for a while, until the controversy over the “tofu schools” came up. From that point, nothing more was allowed. On the Internet, it tends to be about three hours before news that the leadership doesn’t want reported is ordered deleted by the portals. And why? The leadership talks about “social stability”, but all that means is the status quo of absolute control. Of course Western-style democracy is evil in their eyes; if there were real elections with viable choices, the Communist Party would eventually be shown the door. Talk to ordinary Chinese people: they’ll admit privately how much they envy the West’s ability to choose their own leaders.

Leave a Comment