The row over editorial control last month at one of China’s most prominent newspapers briefly shoved the issue of press freedom out to center stage in China. Gathering outside the offices of Southern Weekly in Guangzhou after details emerged of the gutting of the paper’s New Year’s edition, protesters hoisted placards calling for freedom of the press and the abolishment of media controls.
The protests, which took place both online and offline, were completely unprecedented in a country where the very phrase “freedom of the press” remains rare and sensitive in the mainstream media, reserved for deprecatory remarks in state-run outlets about “so-called freedom of speech” in the West . One year ago, a prominent official journal ran a series of articles roundly attacking the idea of independent media, calling freedom of the press “a signboard the West uses to praise itself, and a club it uses to attack other countries” (Qiushi, January 6, 2012).
This time, outside the offices of Southern Weekly, the signboards were in the hands of ordinary Chinese—journalists, students, academics, lawyers, rights defenders and even migrant workers—as the message of defiance thundered across social media. In the city of Ningbo, 700 miles to the north of Guangzhou, citizens posted photos of themselves standing in front of the local party mouthpiece, the Ningbo Daily, holding signs that read “Rescind News Controls; [We Want] Freedom of the Press.”
The national drama had become a showdown between free speech and its enemies. An editorial from the official Global Times newspaper, which other newspapers were forced to publish under a Central Propaganda Department directive, scoffed at the idea of free media. Chinese media could not, the editorial said, become “political special zones” working by their own rules (Global Times, January 7).
Away from the volleys fired from either side and as newspaper brass haggled behind closed doors with provincial propaganda officials, this crisis was not really about the hope for a dazzling future of unfettered media against the injustice of news controls. It was, instead, about a negotiated return to the uneasy peace of the past, to an understanding about the way media should be controlled. The question was not censorship, yes or no; it was censorship how and on what terms.
If we understand the underlying causes of the Southern Weekly blowup, the incident tells an important story about how China’s news control regime has changed and intensified as the ruling Chinese Communist Party has struggled to maintain control over a society in transition. The brouhaha that followed the blow-up, of course, provides an important (and perhaps encouraging) picture of the growing limitations facing media control.
Dancing in Shackles
The 1980s began as an era of media reforms in China. Changes in the media were largely a reaction against the “falsehood, sensationalism and emptiness” of Cultural Revolution-era news and propaganda, which served the narrow and ultimately disastrous political schemes of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four. The official newspaper of China’s Communist Youth League, China Youth Daily, took the lead in the early 1980s, focusing on social issues of immediate concern to its readers and running more critical stories.
In 1987 media reform was given a higher profile in the larger political agenda as the party’s political report to the 13th National Congress spoke of “letting the people know and discuss the larger issues.” The report also brought the first formal affirmation of the media’s watchdog role—a mandate for media to conduct “supervision by public opinion” or “media monitoring of power” .
The unrest of 1989, culminating in the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing, brought media reform in China to a standstill. The liberal attitude toward the press encouraged by China’s pro-reform general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was singled out as one of the chief factors leading to the unrest. On May 6, 1989, Zhao Ziyang had said to his propaganda chiefs “Open things up a bit. Make the news more open. There’s no big danger in that. By facing the wishes of the people…we can only make things better.”
In the wake of the crackdown, Zhao was ousted as general secretary and sharply rebuked for his more tolerant press policies, which hard-liners felt had encouraged newspapers to voice solidarity with the demonstrators and had “guided matters in the wrong direction” (China Comment, June 1989). Six months later, this phrase became the heart of China’s new regime of press controls, as the new general secretary, Jiang Zemin, spoke of the need for strong “guidance of public opinion” (Guangming Daily, November 26, 2006).
Jiang Zemin’s policy of “guidance” marked a reassertion of press controls, which were seen as core to maintaining social and political stability. “Guidance” was enforced through daily orders and bans issued by the Central Propaganda Department and local propaganda offices. These missives essentially told editors what could and could not be covered. The principal mechanism of control, however, was fear. In order to avoid trouble, editors had to abide by the directives of the propaganda department and discipline themselves, maintaining “correct guidance.” Reports that crossed the line could result in the firing of an editor or in a publication’s suspension.
Despite the intensified atmosphere of control at the outset of the 1990s, broader changes in Chinese society and in the media were about to complicate the picture significantly.
The pace of economic reforms in China accelerated in 1992 following Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour.” By the mid-1990s changes also gripped the media. As China moved toward further integration with the global economy, there was a sense that Chinese media needed to become more self-sufficient so they could eventually stand up to foreign competitors (China Media Project, July 13, 2005).
By the end of the 1990s, China’s “media market”—the widespread use of this term was itself a sign of the times—was buzzing with a new generation of commercial newspapers and magazines. Most of these were commercial spin-offs of party-run newspapers. Unlike their party “mother papers” (mubao), which enjoyed state support, these “child papers” (zibao) relied entirely on revenue from advertising and circulation. They were still subject to propaganda “guidance,” of course, but they also had an obligation to their readers, and that proved a powerful incentive to push controls to their limit.
A lot of factors contributed to a new sense of restiveness and purpose in China’s media in the 1990s, including a growing sense of professionalism among journalists. But by the end of the 1990s, there were scores of Chinese media doing daring and sometimes groundbreaking work even within the prevailing atmosphere of control. This is what journalists in China have referred to as “dancing with shackles on” (China.com.cn, June 25, 2007).
The dance was possible because China’s media landscape had become far more diverse, and because China was socially, economically and politically more complex than ever before. Chinese editors and journalists became very adept at exploiting the gaps in China’s “guidance” regime. For example, it was extremely risky for a commercial newspaper in any given city—a spin-off of the local party paper run by city leaders—to break a local corruption story. Such a story probably would infuriate those party officials directly overhead, who had the paper’s political fate in their hands. The paper, however, could send its reporters into a neighboring province to uncover a succulent corruption story there, a practice known as “cross-regional reporting.”
The biggest advantage in the newspaper’s corner was the ex post facto nature of censorship itself. There were no propaganda flunkies going over drafts of news stories before they went to press. Prior bans and orders did delimit coverage, and the deterring threat of punishment for a story that flagrantly crossed the line was real; however, the territory in between seemed virtually boundless.
In the 1990s, Southern Weekly, the paper at the center of the recent row in China, was the undisputed master of exploiting the gaps. It constantly ran afoul of censors, and it was constantly disciplined. Nevertheless, it always dusted itself off and stepped back in the fray.
The rapid development of the internet in China after 1999 further tipped the scales in the favor of Chinese media. Major internet portal sites were prohibited from having their own reporting teams, but their role in distributing newspaper content across China made them a powerful force. Suddenly, local stories exposed by commercial media could reach national audiences. Propaganda officials constantly were playing catch-up, while commercial media and the internet were increasingly driving the agenda. It did not help that the party’s own faithful newspapers, such as the People’s Daily, were losing readership as they seemed increasingly distant from the lives of ordinary Chinese.
Changing the Rules of the Game
The changes that had been reshaping Chinese media for a decade culminated in the spring of 2003. In April and May 2003, just as China’s new top leader, Hu Jintao, was struggling to deal with the first major challenge of his term, the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Chinese media pushed harder than they ever had before. One of the biggest stories that spring was an investigative report from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily about the beating death of a young migrant worker, Sun Zhigang. The report was posted to China’s major internet news portals on the same day of its publication, turning national attention on the evils of China’s system of detention of repatriation of rural migrants. Legal scholars and other prominent academics weighed in on the Sun Zhigang case through, once again, commercial newspapers. One of the most influential editorials was by legal scholar Deng Zibin and was published in Southern Weekly .
Some Western observers thought at the time that Hu Jintao’s more open handling of the SARS epidemic might herald a more open approach to domestic media. It became clear by the end of summer 2003, however, that party leaders were not interested in revisiting the media’s role. In a series of meetings between June 13 and July 6, the Central Propaganda Department decided it would tighten media controls . Disciplinary action was taken against media that had been more outspoken in their coverage of SARS and other stories that year, including Caijing magazine, Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly.
The “media spring” of 2003 was a wake-up call for party leaders, exposing the growing challenges facing media control in China. Commercial media now were challenging the party’s dominance of the agenda in subtle but important ways.
From 2004 onward, China’s leaders pushed actively to reassert control and reverse the gains made by commercial media. In 2005, a central-level party document effectively banned the practice of cross-regional reporting (Boston Globe, January 13). While the ban has not been enforced to the letter—under the right set of circumstances, media still can and do report cross-regionally—the document was a strong deterrent to all but the boldest media.
Also in 2005, the Central Propaganda Department began placing propaganda officials directly in positions of power at major newspapers (New Statesman, October 17, 2012). This marked a worrying turn. “Guidance” no longer relied on a combination of prior directives and ex post facto discipline; propaganda officials on the inside could now enforce guidance ahead of publication.
Enough is Enough
The recent row at Southern Weekly marked the cresting of tensions within Chinese media over tightening media controls in recent years, including rigorous pre-publication censorship. The direct cause of the incident was overbearing intervention by Guangdong provincial propaganda leaders in the special New Year’s edition of the paper. Essentially, propaganda leaders went over the heads of the editors responsible for the edition—even after they had fought to finalize the issue through several rounds of changes—and not only made further changes but also added their own “introduction” to the front page. Adding insult to injury, that introduction contained seriously factual errors.
This crisis at Southern Weekly had in fact been brewing for months. In May 2012, the deputy director of Guangdong’s provincial propaganda department, Yang Jian, was appointed party secretary of the Nanfang Daily Group, the media group that publishes Southern Weekly and other leading publications, including Southern Metropolis Daily (China Media Project, May 3, 2012). This move marked the first time in the group’s history that an insider who appreciated and defended the group’s tradition of strong reporting had not held this post. In another worrying move, Tuo Zhen, a hard-line press official from Beijing, was appointed director of Guangdong’s provincial propaganda department. His job was to bring the province’s restive newspapers to heel ahead of the Party’s 18th National Congress last November.
These changes established a strict system of prior censorship at Southern Weekly and other publication’s in the group. In the midst of the row at Southern Weekly, which erupted on January 1, journalists at the paper revealed through Chinese social media that censors had killed more than 1,000 stories since the changeover in leadership in 2012. Qian Gang, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project and a former top editor at Southern Weekly, called the degree of intervention at the paper “astounding” (China Media Project, January 11).
The imperious intrusion of propaganda leaders over the paper’s New Year’s edition was more than staff were willing to endure. What followed was an unprecedented campaign of open resistance that drew nationwide support and prompted provincial leaders to sit down in negotiations with newspaper staff.
We know now that part of the agreement struck between staff and leaders was the re-affirmation of a principle that has long held in China: that it is ultimately the Chinese Communist Party that calls the shots in the media. To some, that compromise may sound like a craven acceptance of defeat against public calls for freedom of speech in China. It is foolish to insist—as some have in the aftermath of the showdown—that Chinese journalists be held up against a revolutionary standard as though they must be open enemies of the system before they deserve our respect as professionals.
Chinese journalists should be judged on the merits of their work, and it is a fact that they have made important strides over the past two decades despite insistent and ever-changing controls. As to how Chinese media perform in the wake of the Southern Weekly incident, we will have to wait and see. The incident, however, did mark the latest change in the ongoing saga of media change versus media control. It sent a message to propaganda leaders that there are limits to how robust controls can be. It also demonstrated how unpopular controls on information are with an increasingly savvy and connected public.
Looking at the role social media had in shaping the Southern Weekly incident, analysts have a glimpse of the next major battleground in this ongoing saga. Since 2005, tightening media controls have relied upon secrecy about the control process. Today, as social media connect the manufacturers of the news to their audiences in real time, control itself is increasingly exposed. Just as SARS, Sun Zhigang and the “media spring” confronted Hu Jintao at the outset of his administration in 2003, Xi Jinping now faces his own test: what are the possibilities and limitations of information control in a growing and changing China?
- For example, “Jiexia xifang ‘xinwen ziyou’ de zhexiubu [Tearing Off the Loincloth of Western ‘Freedom of the Press’],” Jiangxi Daily, July 30, 2011.
- Political Report to the 13th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, October 25, 1987, available online https://cpc.people.com.cn/GB/64162/64168/64566/65447/4526369.html.
- Qian Gang and David Bandurski, “China’s Emerging Public Sphere,” in Susan Shirk ed., Changing Media, Changing China, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 63.
- David Bandurski and Martin Hala, Investigative Journalism in China, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010, p. 158.