Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 13

By Arnold Zeitlin

The SARS panic in China has subsided and the disease itself appears to be in remission. So too is the earnest hope that the widespread coverage of the epidemic in the Chinese news media heralded a new era of openness.

Among some commentators there was optimism that the widespread but brief reporting by the Chinese news media about SARS–which came only when the party and government had lifted restrictions–was evidence of a liberation of the news media. It was not.

In fact, the ease with which the party and government turned the news media on and off reflects the real bottom line in China–the news media is a tool of the party and will remain so as long as the party is supreme. Despite real evidence of reform in many other sectors in China, reform of the news media will come last, if the media is ever to be reformed at all.

“The external openness of the Chinese media during SARS was just a political trick of the government, used to upgrade their ruling reputation, [it was] in no case a sign of real openness,” says an angry, sacked editor who shall otherwise remain unidentified. “When you are trying to understand what happens in China, you’d better see through the tricks and find out the real intention of the rulers.”

Other observers have often been of at least two minds about the effect of SARS on the news media, as is illustrated by the Washington Post. In mid-June Beijing correspondent John Pomfret labeled the Chinese news media “increasingly spirited.” Three days later, the Post had this to say:

“As Hanoi, Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto battled outbreaks, and infected people started showing up in other parts of Asia and across Europe and North America, it became clear that the biggest failing in the response to SARS was China’s secrecy about the outbreak. The coverup robbed the world of at least three months during which public health measures could have snuffed out the disease in the southern province where it emerged in November.”


After a semester of teaching journalism at a university in Guangzhou, I returned to the United States in January totally oblivious, as were my colleagues, to the fact that an epidemic was already raging in Guangdong province.

In fact, stories had appeared in the official Guangzhou press as early as January, according to the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission. It cited one headline as typical of the news media approach: “The Appearance of an Unknown Virus in He Yuan is a Rumor.”

A brief text message sent to mobile phones at about noon on February 8 swept through Guangzhou, the Washington Post has since reported.

“There is a fatal flu in Guangzhou,” it read. This same message was resent 40 million times that day, 41 million times the next day and 45 million times on Feb. 10, according to Southern Weekend. The Post called the messages “an unprecedented challenge to the state’s monopoly on information.” But editors claimed that the provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, an engineer trained in the repressive environment of North Korea, continued to impose a ban on news media reporting about the disease.

The story hit Guangzhou’s popular, hard-hitting daily tabloid, the Nan Fang Metropolitan News, on February 11. It reported that there were up to 9,000 SARS cases. The same day, the Guangzhou Daily reported that the virus had infected 305 people and that five had died. Sources told the Washington Post that the Guangzhou Daily had defied Zhang’s blackout because permission to publish the news came directly from Huang Huahua, the provincial governor and an ally of President Hu Jintao. By contrast, Zhang is loyal to Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, the Post reported.

The same day, the director general of the Guangdong board of health admitted at a news conference that a virulent strain of non-airborne pneumonia was sweeping the province, but maintained that it was under control. He said “it was fine not to tell the public” because he was not legally required to do so.

The website of the People’s Daily, the major party mouthpiece, emphasized in a brief item on February 12 that all was under control. That story was later cited by Chinese authorities as evidence that the Chinese news media DID cover the story. But it was not the full story.

Following the February 11 news conference, Hu reportedly ordered that Guangdong’s media be allowed to report about the virus. What followed was a week long open period for the media in Guangdong province. Reports questioned the government’s handling of the outbreak. The weekly 21st Century World Herald devoted eight pages of one edition to the topic. A month later, the newspaper was suspended and its editor was fired after running articles critical of the government.

Zhang’s propaganda bureau, fearing for “stability,” reimposed the media ban February 23 and kept it in place for more than a month. With the March 5 opening of the National People’s Congress, the central government banned all negative news reports.

The next day, the Nan Fang Metropolitan News contradicted the government line that the virus was under control in Guangdong. The piece enraged Zhang, who forced the paper to pull its reporter from Beijing and threatened to shut the paper down, media sources told the Washington Post.

When the World Health Organization issued its first global warning about the virus on March 15, while the congress was still in session, the central Propaganda Ministry ordered China’s media not to report the warning.


A fascinating paradox of the Chinese news media is that it is moving toward greater freedom of expression even as the party and government tighten control over it. The Chinese masses are probably better informed about their own country, and about the world, than at any time in five millenniums of Chinese history. The central government is readying legislation that will make it easier for foreign interests to invest in the highly profitable news media sector.

A peculiar example of this same paradox is Caijing, a Beijing-based bi-monthly financial and business journal that has won a justified reputation for aggressive reporting on financial wrong-doing in China. The magazine is the creation of an equally aggressive and high minded journalist, Hu Shuli, whose training included a fellowship at Stanford University. As editor of Caijing she has been continually expanding the boundaries of what a Chinese publication can cover.

Hu first published a section on SARS in the February 20 edition of Caijing, and thought that was the end of the story. However, in late March, her new reporter for Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Haili Cao, a graduate of the journalism program at the University of California at Berkeley, reported for work in Hong Kong and alerted her editor to the fact that people in Hong Kong were wearing masks to avoid SARS.

Hu Shuli has said she organized three groups of reporters to work on the SARS story for an issue that appeared on April 20. That was the day that Zhang Wenkang, the central government health minister, and Meng Xuenong, the Beijing mayor, were fired after being blamed for suppressing the scope of the SARS outbreak. Beginning on that day the leadership unleashed the news media to report the story and to mobilize public opinion to accept the often draconian methods used to fight SARS.

In a recent speech before an American Chamber of Commerce audience, Hu said:

“I do not want to minimize the difficulties facing those of us who are trying to establish an independent media in China, as we still face real pressure and interference from the government….

“In balance, I remain optimistic about the possibilities open for development of the media’s watchdog role in China. Establishing the media as a watchdog is possible, if for no other reason than the fact that most authorities are beginning to recognize its necessity for economic development. The market system in China will certainly falter without it.

“I read a story from an American newspaper which criticized China’s media for being only ‘patriotic’ in its coverage of SARS….I can voice serious disagreement with such a simplified accusation….On the whole, Chinese journalists have tried their best to cover the crisis–digging into the truth, reflecting the available lessons and…warning the population….”

“The situation in the Chinese media is more than being controlled,” she wrote to me in mid-June during an exchange about Caijing’s SARS coverage. “The whole story is much more complex, with both positive and negative sides. Actually, westerners find it hard to understand, except for the old explanation, either censorship or control….”


Four days after she wrote that message, authorities barred the June 20 issue of Caijing from newsstands, although subscribers received their copies through the mail. The magazine insisted in a statement: “We can assure everyone that our publishing operations continue normally, and we are not under any government restriction.”

The ban on Caijing was an example of the crackdowns that were imposed as the Chinese news media was opened to wider SARS coverage. Zhang Dongming, a former official of the propaganda department in Guangdong, which orchestrated the news media crackdowns, was installed as editor of Southern Weekend. With a circulation of 1.3 million, it is the country’s largest weekly and is often chastised for covering issues that make the leadership uncomfortable. Before the new editor arrived the paper was threatened with closure.

Firings occurred at the Beijing Youth Daily, another paper aggressively reporting what the leadership deemed to be “negative” news. Earlier in June, Beijng Xinbao was closed after it ran an essay that listed the country’s largely rubber-stamp legislature as among “China’s Seven Disgusting Things.” Earlier, the newspaper had been admonished for giving too much play to the firing of the health minister and the Beijing mayor. Propaganda officials have warned Chinese reporters against contacting foreign journalists. But some have told their foreign counterparts that the party, after a hiatus of several months, has resumed issuing lists of topics that are off limits for coverage.

The U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China concluded:

“The spread of SARS and its global health and economic impact should serve as a warning to the PRC government that while its current system of restrictions on freedom of expression may be helpful in maintaining the stability of its authority in the short term, it also serves to blind it to matters that have a profound impact on the well being of the people it governs, as well as everyone with whom they interact.” This warning is nothing new.

Arnold Zeitlin, a former correspondent and executive with The Associated Press and United Press International, was director for three years of the Freedom Forum Asian Center in Hong Kong until it closed last December 31.

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