China’s malformed media sphere

From July 2 to July 3, the residents of the city of Shifang in China’s western Sichuan province staged protests to oppose a molybdenum-cooper project they feared would poison their community. The protests were marked by fierce conflict, and the government exercised strict controls over news reporting. Meanwhile, one side of the net was left open for social media — and chatter about Shifang was lively on platforms like Sina Weibo.

Websites and print media are tightly controlled

I have previously used the term “Control 2.0″ to describe the way information and news controls have evolved in China over the past few years. Since President Hu Jintao articulated a new set of media policies in 2008, authorities at various levels in China have often used online official state media like People’s Daily Online and Xinhua Online to report sudden-breaking incidents at the earliest moment possible (第一时间). The idea is to seize the opportunity, and the power, to set the agenda.

This practice, which in Hu Jintao’s 2008 formulation is called “channeling public opinion,” or yindao yulun (引导舆论), has sometimes been informally called “grabbing the megaphone” (抢喇叭).

In the early stages of the Shifang incident, these two aforementioned websites jumped into action. On the afternoon of July 2, they related an open letter from the Shifang city government announcing that a so-called “mass incident”, or quntixing shijian (群体性事件), had occurred. Later in the evening they cited a notice from the Shifang government saying that local police had “used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse over-excited crowds.”

This was the earliest and most important official news on the story, and it was re-posted by scores of websites. But media were quickly muzzled by a ban from the Central Propaganda Department.


[ABOVE: An image shared through Chinese social media this month shows riot police gathering in the streets of Shifang.]

On the afternoon of July 3, the local government in Shifang suddenly announced that the molybdenum-copper project would be terminated. Xinhua Online and People’s Daily Online did not run this important bit of news — quite different from what we saw with the Dalian PX protests in August last year, when official media did report news of the suspension of that PX project. Instead, these official news sites simply relayed bits of information from the local government in Shifang.

What’s more, reports on Shifang from the previous few days were suddenly removed from the web. Commercial internet portals sat on their hands. The Shifang story could not be found in prominent sections of these sites, and no special aggregation pages were put together, as is often done for major news stories.

Newspapers, television and other traditional media were all silent. The official People’s Daily newspaper and China Central Television, central Party media that were relatively vocal over the high-speed rail collision in July 2011, the Dalian PX protests in August 2011 (reporting the suspension of the project, not the protests themselves) and the Wukan incident last fall, said not a word about Shifang.

Searching the WiseNews database of Chinese language newspapers, I found that on July 3, among hundreds of mainland papers, only Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post and the Global Times, a spin-off of the People’s Daily, made any mention of the protests in Shifang.

On July 4, a small number of newspapers reported the termination of the molybdenum-copper project in Shifang, most in the securities section (the project concerned the fortunes of the listed company Sichuan Hongda Co. Ltd.). But no mention was made of the protests.

An editorial on the July 4 edition of China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Youth League, alluded to the Shifang incident, but didn’t even mention the city by name. The editorial was called, “There Are Some Things You Cannot Pretend Not to See” (有些事,无法假装看不见):

. . . There are no words in the print media, no images on television. . . Sometimes the boisterous diversity and confusion of the Weibo entirely constitutes a different world of public opinion from those traditional media that pretend not to see in the face of objective truth. And here, sometimes, one can sense also two entirely different China’s.

Newspapers and news websites could not “take to the highway”, reporting directly on Shifang. But they did try taking the back roads. On July 3 and 4 a number of newspapers and more than 200 websites reported that the Shifang incident had pushed a sudden rise in the stock of a certain biotech company — because the Capsaicin manufactured by the company was used in the production of tear gas.

Weibo becomes the chief communication channel

In the midst of the Shifang incident, Chinese microblogs became a boisterous place. Unlike the case with the Wukan incident last year, in which “Wukan” became a sensitive keyword, the term “Shifang” was left alone. Posts about the Shifang incident were not entirely restricted, and search functions on the Sina Weibo platform were not shut down.


[ABOVE: An image shared through Chinese social media this month shows a protester in Shifang kneeling before a line of riot police.]

According to my own searches, between July 1 and July 4 (at around 8pm), there were around 5.25 million posts on Sina Weibo containing “Shifang”. Of these about 400,000 included images and close to 10,000 included video. The vast majority of these had to do directly with the Shifang protests. Searching the exact same period last year, I found that there were only 300 posts in total containing “Shifang” on Sina Weibo.

We can break the Shifang posts on Weibo into the following numbers:

ORIGINAL POSTS WITH IMAGES
July 2: 155
July 3: 11,674
July 4: 3,296

ORIGINAL POSTS WITH VIDEO
July 2: 8
July 3: 194
July 4: 92

Original materials provided by people on the scene sketched out the general picture of what was happening in Shifang. The millions of reposts and comments on Sina Weibo from across the country were based on these materials. And many of the pictures and video on Weibo were picked up and used by Hong Kong and international media.

In fact, a decent portion of the image files shared on Sina Weibo were text shared in image form. Owing to limits in the character length of microblog posts — and of course also to restrictions on content on websites — many longer accounts or comments about Shifang were shared as images. These included essays on Shifang by well-known writers and commentators such as Han Han (韩寒), Li Chengpeng (李承鹏), Xiao Shu (笑蜀), Wuyuesanren (五岳散人) and the legal scholar Xiao Han (萧瀚).

Writers like Han Han and Li Chengpeng are well versed in the art of online communication, and they are also quite sensitive to popular moods. They often respond quickly to stories like Shifang with strong satirical writing that frames the issue and draws a wide readership.

On Shifang, Han Han had this to say in a piece called, “The Liberation of Shifang” (什邡的释放):

If the local government used tear gas on the people, this in fact is sufficient to reveal them for the tyrants they are.”

And in a piece called, “The Strange Mission: An Open Letter to the Shifang Government Leaders” (奇怪的使命——给什邡市各级领导的一封信), Li Chengpeng criticize the development approach of local leaders:

“This is about taking the interests of four to five-hundred thousand people and exchanging them for the interests of four or five. It’s about a task that takes 50 years into a five-year term of office.”

According to my numbers, as of 9:30pm on July 4, Han Han’s essay, which was posted on July 3, had been shared 298,173 times on Sina Weibo.

Another interesting aspect of the role of Weibo in the Shifang incident was the sudden popularity of two accounts in particular. The first, on Sina Weibo, was called “Vital Shifang” (活力什邡). The second, on Tencent’s Weibo platform, was called “Shifang Announcements” (什邡发布). These are both, according to verification by their respective platforms, official microblogs operated by the information office of the Shifang government (什邡市政府新闻办公室).

Each of these official Weibo account made around 20 posts through the duration of the Shifang incident. In fact, the People’s Daily Online report of July 2, which reported the stand-off between Shifang residents and police, cited information from “Vital Shifang”.

At around 9am on July 3, “Vital Shifang” posted a notice from local police sending out a warning to those who “are inciting, planning or otherwise organizing illegal gatherings, demonstrations, protests by means of the internet, mobile phone messages and others methods.”


[ABOVE: The official Shifang government Weibo "Vital Shifang" posts a notice on July 3 warning members of the public not to incite illegal gatherings and protests.]

Later that same day as the government relented, videos of a speech by Shifang’s Party secretary and a text-as-image file announcing the termination of the molybdenum-copper project were shared on both “Vital Shifang” and “Shifang Announcements.” On average these posts were shared around 10,000 times, and at the height some posts were shared as much as 40,000 times.

Official police Weibo should also be noted. A number of special police who took part in the “stability preservation actions” (维稳行动) to quell the protests posted details from the scene, even providing explanations and voicing anger.

This is something we have never seen before. Since 2009, social media have developed rapidly in China. Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo have both said they already have more than 300,000 million registered users on their platforms. In the case of the Shifang incident, China’s news media as a whole were under overbearing pressure, and only social media could serve as a channel for sharing information.

Of course, Weibo cannot escape the reach of China’s censors. Most posts attacking the government were deleted from the platforms. One of my own posts decrying the senselessness of information controls was deleted after being shared just over 2,000 times.

Li Chengpeng arrived in Shifang on July 3, and his report, “A Case of the Lucifer Effect: A Little Investigation of Shifang” (一次路西法效应实验——什邡小调查), is one of just a few reports we have from the scene. The report, which documents police brutality in Shifang, was shared rapidly on Weibo. I posted an image version of the report that was re-posted 854 times within 50 minutes before being deleted. Other pieces to be completely killed on social media, like Li Chengpeng’s, were legal scholar Xiao Han’s “Open Letter to Police Who Used Violence in the Shifang Incident” (致什邡事件中施暴警察的一封公开信) and Wuyuesanren’s “Shifang: Dread, After Violence Fails” (什邡,对暴力失效的恐惧).

What tyranny fears most is professionalism

Some web users used the phrase “covering one’s ears while stealing a bell” (掩耳盗铃) — like the English “burying one’s head in the sand” — to describe information controls on the Shifang incident. The authorities strangled traditional media and mainstream news websites, but the flow of information was not entirely stopped thanks to Weibo.

There’s no denying that Weibo users of all stripes have pushed to open up new space for expression. But in the case of the Shifang incident, what we saw is best described as “license” (特许).

Some have suggested that this more “open” approach to social media was quite intentional. In the run-up to the 18th National Congress it is critical for the leadership to be on guard against popular animosity toward the government. On the other hand, they must ensure tensions have an outlet lest they erupt into more destabilizing conflict.

Others have read Shifang differently. They say that what we see in the case of Shifang are different political factions struggling behind the scenes, with different ideas about how incidents like this should be handled.

It’s hard to favor either reading without more evidence. But I believe what we have in this case is still a method of “kill and use” (打杀和利用). Compared to the high-speed rail collision and Dalian PX protests last summer, we are seeing a definite and serious retreat by mainstream media (including both Party and commercial media). Sure, controls on Weibo have relaxed this time around — as compared, for example, to the Wukan incident last year.

But on social media, the general tone is one of emotional unburdening — and facts and analysis are seriously wanting. What we are seeing in fact is an unhealthy form of communication emerging under a malformed system of controls.

The basic role of the media is to provide information and to present viewpoints. Professional journalism celebrates and pursues the idea that media, as instruments that serve the public (公器), must provide accurate information and offer diverse points of view. In this era of emerging social media, these values, far from being archaic, are more timely and valuable than ever.

In the case of numerous sudden-breaking events in China in recent years, we have seen seasoned professional journalists active on both traditional media and social media, working together across various platforms. The high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou last year was a good example of this. Harnessing the power of social media, experienced investigative reporters have become like tigers with wings. They have an entirely new means of investigation at their fingertips. And at the same time social media give them a new means to reach mass audiences.

But this is not what authorities in China have hoped for. And in the Shifang incident we can see the way traditional media and experienced professional journalists have been completely tied down. Journalists were prevented from going to the scene, which meant every vessel and vein of real reporting that might have fed both traditional and new media was closed off.

As the Shifang incident crested and fell, the public was treated to two days of information fast-food. They watched scenes of chaos and conflict. They listened to clamors of anger against the local government. They saw the government forced to back down in defeat. But through it all there was an utter dearth of real reporting, and a serious deficiency of cool-headed analysis.

What exactly was the cause of this incident? Exactly what kind of project was this “molybdenum-copper” project? Who was responsible for the original environmental impact assessment? Why was this conflict so fierce? Were the tactics used by police — this was apparently the first time stun grenades have been used in such an incident — illegal or not? Are there any lingering legal issues stemming from the government’s hasty announcement in the face of public resistance that a project already contracted will be stopped? If this potentially polluting project will not be located in Shifang, where then will it be located? How should we deal with these ever-more-frequent “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) environmental protests in China?

None of these issues have been explored. The public deserves serious reporting by professional media, but under the current system this is impossible.

News controls in China have long stood at odds with China’s constitution, but over the past decade, these controls have also taken on a strong flavor of political opportunism. This is a system that does not tolerate freedom of expression and has little tolerance for professional journalism. After all, only professional journalism can ensure the information is independent, responsible and based in fact, not manipulated by any power. Only professional journalism can challenge the scourges of corruption and misrule.

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