"As Dr Deng put it, China is attempting to make transitions in a few scores of years that took the West hundreds of years. This is true in media, as in many other things."Adding to this has been the phenomenon of Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter (Twitter itself, along with Facebook, is blocked in China, but there are a number of local equivalents). On Weibo, citizen journalists are active, often commenting on and even giving the lie to government propaganda. The combined effect has been that the party was losing its ability to use media as a tool of government and to set the agenda. Something had to change. As in our own country, it isn't all sunny in China's commercial media world. For a start (and this may send a chill through the ranks of those recently made redundant from our main mastheads), journalists on some of the commercial papers in the mid 1990s were paid as little as 300 yuan (about A$45) a month in salary, with other income depending on the number of news stories finished each month, with a minimum of one story a day. Meanwhile in a party newspaper in 1995, a reporter needed to write only three stories per month for a high and stable salary. This meant that long-form journalism, or journalism that took in-depth research, was not possible in most of the commercial outlets. Journalists regarded as high calibre generally worked for the state subsidised media -- which meant of course they were otherwise restrained. Journalists were caught between commercialisation and control. A recent Weibo post revealed that Xu Huaiqian, senior editor with the People's Daily, killed himself earlier this year allegedly due to chronic depression. He once wrote that one of the major difficulties in his capacity as an editor was: "What I dare to think, I dare not to write; what I dare to write, I cannot find a place that dares to publish it." Zoushuangai, as the government describes it, urges a return to what we in Australia might call "real news"; that is, news of concern to the public. Journalists working in the official media have been encouraged to increase investigative reporting, to get out and interview people, and to boldly pursue the truth. For the first time, "beat" reporters, with contacts in industry and local government, are emerging. Weibo is a potent part of this mix.The research team of which Dr Deng is part has found that as of August 2012, the official government organ People's Daily had 600 items a week of news that reflected this policy. The official television network, CCTV, has produced 217 items. The prose style is changing too, with feature articles beginning to -- so far as I can tell -- more closely resemble the traditions of literary journalism that we practice in the west, with a "hook" to engage the reader and evocative rather than propagandistic prose. Examples Dr Deng showed to the research round table included news about the problems of rural doctors who had to travel long distances through hazardous conditions to treat villagers, and perilous journeys children in Xinjiang had to make to get to school. Nothing is simple. As Dr Deng put it, China is attempting to make transitions in a few scores of years that took the West hundreds of years. This is true in media, as in many other things. Nor should we assume this is a simple story of China becoming more Western. China invented paper, and the printing press. It has its own traditions, and will find its own way forward. Dr Deng told us that in the Chinese context, media governance is not about how to govern or control the news media, but about how to govern the country through the media. Perhaps the most significant thing that has changed in Chinese media is that for the first time there is an overlap between what we might think of as journalistic standards and ideals, the demands of the market and the needs of the government. All require content to be relevant, interesting and, as Dr Deng put it, "somewhat truthful". He says there is a new spirit and "celebratory ambience" among the journalists, including at state subsidised media such as The People's Daily. The research project continues to track the progress and impact of zouzhuangai. I suspect the question of whether it is merely more sophisticated propaganda or a move towards a different set of imperatives for journalism in China is one that has not been definitely answered in the mind of the authorities, let alone in the minds of practitioners. Dr Deng referred to one obvious problem: what are the limits? Or as he put it: "What if journalists touch the red line?" There are of course many things the authorities will not allow, and the potential for conflict between journalistic ideals and government interests is immense. How will these conflicts be managed under the new policy? There will surely be limits. The problem is that in this experiment with greater freedom, nobody quite knows what they are. In our own domestic debate about journalism, the idea of government-sponsored experiments with media freedom is almost a contradiction in terms. True independence, in the arguments of people such as Kim Williams, equates to and arises from commercial strength. He talked about the primacy of the consumers, and the discipline that is imposed on news organisations which must compete for their attention. Yet, though he does not admit it, at a time when the business model for much of the Western news media is under strain, we may need to think through new ways of safeguarding the integrity of journalism, outside large and powerful companies. Consumers, of course, are also citizens. It will be interesting to watch how China navigates the interface between those different roles. *Declaration: I had a role in helping to organise and host the AN Smith Lecture, at which Williams spoke. Thanks for Dr Deng for the information on which this article is based.
Chinese activate ‘zoushuangai’ media: will it free the press?
The Chinese media landscape is changing, exciting and worrying local journalists. Is the firm hand of government control easing as proprietors are told to embrace commercialism and Western practice?