Category Archives: media

“China State Media at Odds Over Myanmar Censorship Move”

If there’s anything I like more than seeing the propaganda machine trip itself up, I can’t think of it right now (via WSJ):

News on Monday that Myanmar had decided to end press censorship has prompted different takes from Chinese media outlets, as well as doubts from the online community that China will its own tight restrictions anytime soon.

The website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, covered the news in a fairly evenhanded way on Monday, going so far as to quote a local journalist in Rangoon saying, “this is a great day for all Myanmar journalists.”

The People’s Daily post marked the latest instance over the past two weeks in which the paper – which is often criticized online – met with public praise. It won accolades last week with a commentary that offered public support to the mother of a rape victim who was sent to a labor camp after pushing tougher punishment for the men who allegedly attacked her daughter.

The Global Times, a nationalist-leaning tabloid published by the People’s Daily, was less supportive. In an editorial on Tuesday, it said China should never follow Myanmar’s model.

“China’s reform process has been baptized and tested thousands of times, while Myanmar’s reform is just about to bud,” read the editorial. “We would be naïve and childish if we doubt ourselves because we, a well-grown tree, look different from a flower bud.”

“China has been on the track of liberalizing the press for a long time, and will go further in the future,” it read. “We should proceed based on the national situation, instead of being panicked and making backwards countries like Myanmar and Vietnam our totem.”

Many online wondered whether China, with its tight media controls, would follow. “It seems that only North Korea and us are left now,” one Weibo user observed. “When will this great day come to China’s journalists?” asked another.

Others sounded more skeptical. “May I ask, does Myanmar delete Weibo posts?” wrote Pan Shiyi, a prominent real-estate developer, on his verified Sina Weibo’s account, referring to China’s censors deleting unfavorable online posts — a practice that has become increasingly frequent as use of social media grows in the country.

Also, good quotes from Bill Bishop in another article:

Bishop says Beijing’s current policy of blocking any online material it deems objectionable does seem unsustainable, partly because it is increasingly unpopular with the Chinese public.

“If you are a participant on Chinese social media, you know censorship is going on, and it is regularly mocked and criticized quite vociferously.” says Bishop, who points out that the Chinese Internet was buzzing with conversation on the Burma issue.

“People on Weibo [social media site] were making unfavorable comparisons between China, Burma, and North Korea, and joking that North Korea would open up their media before China. I think that’s a bit extreme, but it just shows that people do know what’s going on and I think that kind of knowledge becomes very corrosive,” said Bishop.

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“On the Trail of Confiscated Copies of TIME in China”

Any fans of ridiculous bureaucracy battles should read this piece from the TIME magazine blog:

The note arrived in a nearly empty box sent to TIME’s Beijing Bureau. All copies of TIME Magazine’s May 14, 2012 issue with a cover entitled The People’s Republic of Scandal had been “safeguarded by customs.” Apparently, some customs officer had been entrusted with counting each confiscated copy ; there were, the receipt noted, 62 seized magazines. At the bottom of the customs document, there were five categories (with boxes to be ticked next to them) that described the possible fate of the seized magazines: 1. To be returned to sender 2. To be taxed 3. To be inspected 4. To be declared 5. To be dealt with. Our 62 magazines fell into the last category. They were being “dealt with.”

By whom had they been “dealt with?” And given that the customs receipt said we could contact the capital customs’ office within three months to retrieve the magazines, perhaps we could even get them back?

From that point ensued a surreal— and utterly common— exercise in Chinese bureaucratic futility. My colleague Jessie Jiang began working the phones. She first called the number on the receipt for the Beijing customs office. After many failed attempts to get someone to address TIME’s concerns, a customs official explained to Jessie that the magazines had probably been confiscated because of the “sensitive” nature of the issue. “As you know, China is very strict when it comes to ideology,” the customs officer told Jessie.

Beijing customs said they had no authority to allow the release of the magazines without a letter from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Press and Publication. But several representatives of that bureau said there were no employees there who dealt with such matters—and that they had never written a letter reversing a confiscation decision before. One of the officials told Jessie: “This is China. We don’t allow foreign magazines to be distributed.” (Which, given the number of foreign publications available at upmarket newsstands in Beijing, is obviously untrue.)

The exciting conclusion is on their blog- check it out.

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“China Soft-Power Watch: the Yang Rui ‘Foreign Bitch’ Factor”

It’s hard to even explain how ridiculous this story is to someone who hasn’t spent hours in China watching Dialogue, perhaps the closest thing to a functional news discussion show the entire country has. It’s in English, which means the government cares less about it, and foreign guests are (relatively) free to challenge the government line on the issues of the day. Yang Rui is the host, a cultured-sounding guy who looks quite reasonable compared to the average CCTV on-air employee. After this rant, however, it’s hard to imagine him getting many self-respecting foreign guests in the future:

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

The ‘foreign bitch’ in this case is Melissa Chan, whose expulsion from China is one of the saddest stories for Chinese journalism in recent memory. Maybe Yang is just mad that a foreigner of Chinese ancestry and appearance has contributed far more to Chinese journalism than he ever will? James Fallows on the incident:

Many foreigners who have been on the show know the experience I had during my few appearances, early in my time in China. When you’re on the set before the show begins, there is a lot of light and non-dogmatic chat with the hosts and the other guest(s). But once the show begins, the tone often shifts, with an opening question from the host on the lines of: “To our guest James Fallows, I must ask: do you not agree that the United States is being unfair and unreasonable in the demands it is making of the Chinese government? Especially considering its many failures at home and its relative decline in standing in the world?” Then once the show is over, it’s light, easy, non-agitprop chat again.

The first time this happened to me, I was startled. But as soon as I thought about it I realized: this is the tightrope you walk inside a state-controlled news network. To the show’s credit, it allows the foreigners to reply in kind and and to challenge the terms of the question. And often it broadcasts the show live, with limited real-time control on what a guest might say. (On the other hand, since it’s in English, the audience inside China is limited.) I was on the show three or four times, usually during US-China meetings or controversies. I found the whole experience educational, as part of my ongoing “this is China” immersion, but eventually I decided this was not a sensible venue for me. I know that many foreigners in China have considered doing anthropological studies, or satiric novels, about the kind of “foreign experts” that CCTV is most comfortable having as frequent return visitors on the show.

On his Sina Weibo account, Dialogue host Yang Rui let loose with an anti-foreigner rant so extreme that on first reading I was sure it had to be a parody. Only it wasn’t. It’s as if you heard a Stephen Colbert “in character” riff on his show — and then suddenly realized he wasn’t kidding. To put it further in context, it’s as if a well-known figure whose trademark was urbane earnestness — again let’s say Ted Koppel, or Charlie Rose — let rip with a David Duke-style diatribe and evidently meant it.

Again, I thought at first this was an urbane Chinese cosmopolite, mocking nativist Chinese attitudes, Colbert-style. That it was serious is … worth reflection.

This is the man whose face China is using to present itself to the world… a virulent anti-foreigner racist? Cool! This whole thing is a soft-power train wreck.

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More Melissa Chan Fallout

Two more reactions to her expulsion from China, first from Rectified.Name:

Some might see it as a badge of honor to be the first foreign journalist in 15 years to be kicked out of China – and I suppose on some level, like Dan Schorr being included on Nixon’s Enemies List – it is. But for those journalists who remain, and the world at large who depend upon them to make sense of the rapid changes in China today, the decision is a chilling reminder that the government knows its attempts at managing China’s international image are flailing badly. Since 2008, when new regulations were announced – if not always followed – allowing greater freedom for international organizations to report from China, the government and its representatives have been barely tolerant of coverage they deemed damaging to their own national self-interest and self-image. In several cases, especially those involving the thugocracy which passes for ‘local administration’ in many areas of China today, that tolerance has crumbled into threats and acts of violence and intimidation against foreign journalists and their employees.

One question nobody seems able to answer though is: Why Melissa?

Certainly the timing wasn’t great. The government has had to deal with a number of embarrassing incidents in the past few weeks. Never a good time to apply for a visa. Melissa was also one of the most active correspondents in the foreign press corps. Never content to report “Dateline: Jianguomen,” she spent a large amount of her time in the field, often tweeting about another narrow escape from the forces of Public Insecurity or of being rousted from hotels in the middle of nowhere as she bravely covered stories few others would. It is also one thing to cover a story with a notebook and pen, quite another to do so with cameras, lights, and sound equipment. Officials hate reporters with notebooks, but the sight of a camera in the hands of a professional journalist will generally cause even the sternest cadre into a sudden involuntary fecal event.

I remember an anecdote Melissa once told a group of my students. She said that when she first arrived, the Ministry folks were all smiles, figuring that any network which plays Osama bin Laden’s mix tapes must be alright. Six months later the same ministry folks complained to her that she was just as bad as CNN and the BBC. She replied, “Thank you?”

And from Chovanec:

Melissa is a friend of mine, who has interviewed me for several of her reports, most notably her pathbreaking report on the “ghost city” of Ordos, and her follow-up two years later. Although I know she’s disappointed to leave, I told her that being expelled was sort of like China’s version of the Pulitzer Prize — tangible recognition that the work she was doing was important and powerful enough to strike a very high-level nerve.

If you only have time to watch one video, check out Melissa’s recent report (in March 2012) on China’s secret “black jails.” It will give you an idea of the kind of courageous reporting she has been doing, and I suspect it was one of the things that got her kicked out of the country. I also suspect that her story, in January, interviewing farmers who knew Xi Jinping as a sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution, was one more thing that helped wear out her welcome. While there was nothing really negative about it — in fact, it was quite complimentary — it trespassed over strict (and rather paranoid) rules barring anyone from discussing any aspect of the biography or personality of China’s next leader.

Just a guess, but somehow I’m pretty sure that kicking Chan out won’t help the tone of China coverage. Hopefully we’ll see a few other journalists going for China Pulitzers of their own in the days and years to come.

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“Chinese netizens celebrate “Tweet Deletion Festival”

From Shanghaiist, the Chinese reaction to World Press Freedom Day:

Yesterday I sent out a few tweets on Tencent Weibo, and this morning when I woke up, I found I could not log into my account anymore. It just so happens that today is World Press Freedom Day. Time to celebrate.
-Murong Xuecun

It’s World Press Freedom Day, but in just one morning, I’ve already received five tweet deletion notices on Sina Weibo. Today in history: The United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day in a decision on 20 Dec 1993. Weibo is supposed to be a free media, and on this World Press Freedom Day, any tweet regarding Chen Guangcheng is deleted. What press freedom is there to speak of?
-Liu Xiaoyuan

For the world, today is World Press Freedom Day. For China, today is World Press Freedom Day。 But because the media in China is way too free, the two different days are different. Hearty congratulations to China for being ranked 187th among the 197 countries for press freedom by Freedom House. We actually managed to beat North Korea.
-Ran Yunfei

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“Journalism with Chinese Characteristics”

A somewhat funny piece, in a sad kind of way, from a former Global Times writer showed up in The Asia Sentinel today:

I was the first foreigner hired by the publication, which has since earned a reputation for scathing denunciations of pretty much anything not connected to the Communist Party and for occasional calls to arms against the west, regarded as imperialistic hegemonists.

Months before it began printing, I was interviewed and hired by the marmot-bangs bewigged Global Times editor in chief, Hu Xijin, after answering three questions:

“Are you a friend of China?”
“What is your opinion about Tibet?”
“Should China have Western-style democracy?”

That was the bulk of my interview. No questions about journalism per se, or my previous experience as a copy editor and reporter at China Daily, Shenzhen Daily, The Standard in Hong Kong and many more years in the US at daily papers, most of which are now sadly defunct.

It quickly became clear to me though that Hu’s new model wasn’t going to be as progressive as he’d initially led me and others later to believe. It was, of course, journalism with Chinese characteristics.

Although I was presented as an “expert” and asked to train and critique reporters, give several presentations on subjects such as interviewing, feature stories, and hard news stories there were moments when I wondered “What the f**k was I thinking?”

This became glaringly apparent one afternoon when I had been told to give a lecture on Western news style. Prepared with notes and a Power Point presentation, I showed up in the appointed room on time only to find it empty.

After waiting 10 minutes I began seeking one of the few English-speaking Global Times-China staff and asked if she knew where the new troops were.

“They are attending a lecture on the history of the PLA!” I was told brightly. My lecture was never rescheduled as other more “relevant” training, such as the history of the Chinese Communist Party began to amp up.

One of Zhang’s brilliant front page story assignments was one on McDonald’s offering cut rate coupons because “foreigners love McDonald’s.”

Never mind that I had never met a foreigner outside of an embassy who reads Global Times. “Mr Zhang, just go to a Chinese McDonald’s – like the one across the street — and see who the majority of the customers are,” I suggested. But he stuck to it and the result sucked, of course, though it made the front page. Great free advertising for McDonald’s, though.

GT’s comatose-appearing ad sales staff was a whole nother story. None spoke English or had a clue as to how to promote the paper. They spent most of their time playing online games and snoozing at their desks rather than pounding the polluted Beijing pavements for ads.

Given that the English-language edition of Global Times was specifically designed with foreign readers in mind, you can imagine that conditions in newspapers aimed at the domestic audiences are likely even less journalistically sound. No wonder people in China increasingly trust rumors over anything and everything else.

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Bo Xilai Humiliation Celebration Station

Whether or not he’s out of politics forever, this certainly does seem to be a pretty big derail for Bo’s career. From WaPo:

The report made no mention of whether Bo also lost his position on the Party central committee and Politburo in Beijing.

The report came one day after Prime Minister Wen Jiabao used a press conference to publicly rebuke Bo for a Feb 6 scandal that saw the former Chongqing police chief seek refuge for 24 hours at the American consulate in Chengdu.

“This is an earthquake before the 18th Party Congress,” said Wu Jiaxiang, a Chinese scholar. He called the dismissal Thursday the end of just one power struggle over the seats on the next Standing Committee.

According to Chinese media reports, Li Yuanchao, head of the Communist Party’s secretive and powerful organization department which controls personnel and staffing, traveled personally to Chongqing Thursday to announce the decision on Bo’s sacking to local officials there.

From The Useless Tree, on whether or not this is the end of the facade of unity that has been an obsession of the Chinese government since Tiananmen:

For those of us who were around in 1989, one of the key factors that fueled the massive demonstrations that year was the split at the very top of the Chinese political hierarchy, a difference of opinion on how to deal with the students in Tiananmen Square. Roughly, Zhao Ziyang seemed to be seeking some sort of compromise, while Li Peng took a harder line. That difference ultimately led to the failure of the first deployment of military power in May and the eventual downfall of Zhao. Since then it appears that everyone at the top of the political order, especially the Politburo, learned the same lesson: if they let internal differences spill out into the public they could face another crisis of 1989 proportions.

The fix might be in for Zhang: he takes over this duty for now (running the massive conglomerate of Chongqing, for which he seems unsuited), and in return he will move up to the Standing Committee later this fall. And, by some calculations, that might preserve a certain balance among various factions at the top (“Pincelings” v. Communist Youth League veterans v. regional interests, etc.).

And yet… the abruptness and publicity of Bo’s fall might open the door to new, more divisive, political tactics at the top. And if that happens, the lessons of 1989 may go by the wayside.

And still another possibility: Bo’s fall is limited and the broader political damage thus contained. Thus far, he has lost his leadership positions in Chongqing. He is still a member of the Politburo. Although it seems less likely now that he will be promoted to the highest leadership level of the Standing Committee, it may be the case that he does not fall any further politically. Maybe he remains on the Politburo and gains some other sort of position, not as prominent as the leader of Chongqing, but neither as low as some prefecture in Qinghai.

From the CSM:

His prospects had been dimmed since bloggers revealed five weeks ago – in posts supported by photographs – that Bo’s hand-picked police chief and right-hand man, Wang Lijun, had been escorted by police away from the US consulate in Chengdu.

Whether he went to the consulate seeking asylum or for another purpose has not been disclosed. But rather than blacking out all news of the scandal, local and national officials fed it, announcing first that Mr. Wang was undergoing “vacation style medical treatment” and then revealing that Wang had spent a whole night at the consulate and was under investigation.

President Hu Jintao was widely reported last week as describing Wang as a “traitor,” which bode ill for his mentor, and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao banged the last nail into Bo’s coffin with some blunt criticism of his political rival at a press conference – an extremely unusual public assault on a fellow leader.

Finally, the China Media Project has a post about how the news has spread in China:

In wire copy so austere it seemed to supply the epitaph for the political saga of the charismatic “princeling” Bo Xilai (薄熙来), China’s Xinhua News Agency reported today that Bo would no longer serve as the top leader of Chongqing.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether mainstream Chinese media will attempt deeper coverage of Bo Xilai and the Wang Lijun incident — or for that matter, the Cultural Revolution, given Wen Jiabao’s remarks yesterday.

Until then, the discussion will have to happen on Chinese social media, where for most of the day “Bo Xilai” has been one of the top-trending topics.

But as everyone is pouncing on this story as an illustration of internal Party struggles over the future and the 18th Party Congress, let’s not forget that it is also about the past. Bo Xilai has symbolized nostalgia over the Maoist era, and many on China’s left have been supportive of this.

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