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The Tricky Business of Watching Chinese Media

For analysts of Chinese affairs abroad, the printed, online, radio and TV media in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in Chinese, English and other languages, remain a major source of information. The conventional wisdom is that virtually the entire media are functioning under the guidance of either the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the government led by it; the CCP Central Committee’s Publicity Department plays a pivotal role in this regard. As such, outside the PRC, the Chinese media are invariably being seen as reflecting the views of the CCP and the government.

It cannot be denied however that instances of very limited freedom, being enjoyed occasionally by the Chinese press are increasingly coming to notice. – Journals like ‘Cai Jing’, ‘Nanyang Zhoumo, Yan Huang Chun Qiu and scores of local newspapers, websites and blogs, are critical of the authorities sometimes on issues like corruption, nepotism, problems of peasants etc. Also, ideologically, Beijing is permitting neo-liberal, neo-left and even some ultra-Maoist scholars to express their views. In doing so, its motives seem to be using the available different viewpoints as possible inputs to ultimate policy making. As the party theoretical organ ‘Qiu Shi’ puts it, while ‘hundred flowers blossom’, the media must not cross the rubicon, by expressing any opinion challenging the rule of the communist party or affecting the unity and integrity of the country. A known example of ‘crossing the limit’ had been the journal ‘Strategy and Management’ which published (September 2004) an excessively independent article on North Korea. In response, the authorities closed down the journal (“Reporters without Borders”, 1 June 2005).

This writer started studying Chinese media more than four decades back and till today, have come across several reports, which are more concealing than revealing; I however do not mean that they reflect a general trend and feel that only on selected occasions such a phenomenon is being seen. Not surprisingly, China analysts world over per force are examining such dispatches by reading between the lines, examining the timing of publications, studying the significance of what has not been said and comparing the contents with earlier ones, all in an effort to draw certain meaningful conclusions, if possible. There is however a risk involved in following such techniques, as the likelihood of such analysts going wrong would always exist. On the other hand, Chinese experts at home, directly exposed to the system, are better equipped to understand the hidden meaning if any of Chinese media views. They may however prefer not to come out openly with their feelings out of fear of punishment by the authorities.

The following are case studies undertaken by me, aimed at examining the transparency or otherwise of Chinese media dispatches:

1) Shanghai Daily Wen Huibao (10 November 1965) carried an article entitled, “Criticism of Historical Drama- Hai Rui Dismissed from Office”, written by Yao Wenyuan, a member of the now disgraced ‘gang of four’. Not many were immediately aware of political implications of the article; the assessment that the drama was criticized as it made an allegorical attack on Chairman Mao for his dismissal of Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, and that the article gave a signal towards launch of cultural revolution, could come only subsequently. It is obvious that the article could not say certain things openly, as what was involved is a struggle for political power. 2) China Daily (1 November 2004) published an Op-Ed captioned, “US Strategy to be Blamed”, by Qian Qichen, considered Czar of Chinese foreign policy, right on the eve of US polling in which President Bush contested for second time. It was notable for its strident anti- US tone and expression of fears on a US encirclement of China. To the world’s dismay, the China Daily disowned the article next day and a PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied that Qian wrote any such article. It was natural that speculations then arose on leadership differences in Beijing on China’s US policy, but observers remain puzzled over the episode; the real reason still looks mysterious. How China finally played the issue diplomatically with the US is another matter. 3) A sharply worded comment in People’s Daily (1 September 2008), signaling China’s opposition to India’s getting waiver in the scheduled Vienna meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), said that the Indo-US nuclear deal is a major blow to India’s non-proliferation image. The article timed close to the voting at Vienna, coupled with China’s reported moves there to join the like minded countries that had reservations on India getting the waiver, gave an impression that Beijing will vote against India’s case at the NSG. What happened finally was China’s abstention from the voting; China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi stated that his nation did not try to block anything in Vienna and played a constructive role (Reuters, 2 October 2008). In such circumstances, how to interpret the opinions of the People’s Daily, becomes a key question. A probable reason could be that they could be representative of Chinese thinking based on principles, whereas at diplomatic levels, China felt the necessity to select a practical and safe option; regardless of such explanation, for the public opinion outside China, the Chinese stand on the issue remains puzzling. 4) What was the meaning of the Chinese media outbursts against India’s dispatch of additional troops to Arunachal Pradesh, noticed in the run up to the 13th India-China round of Special Representatives talks on the border issue (7-8 August 2009)? The Global Times (11 June 2009) described the troops dispatch as India’s “unwise military moves” and asked whether India can afford the consequences of a ‘potential confrontation’ with China. The People’s Daily’s comment (19 June 2009) on the same subject captioned ‘ a veiled threat or a good neighbor’, alleged that India seemed to be conspiring to create a picture of an immediate war with China. These two items, kept for the comments of readers for a long time, received substantial number of responses, most of them critical of India. Questions arise – what was the purpose behind the talk of ‘confrontation or war’ with India in the two articles? Was it meant to apply pressure on India during the border talks? The Chinese official comments have on the other hand been positive. Zhang Yan, the Chinese Ambassador to India has described the visit of the PRC Special Representative to India as successful and that ‘in-depth’ talks on the border issue could be held between the two sides (The Hindu, 12 October 2009). The remarks earlier (4 August 2009) of the PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson were also positive, though he made a mention about the ‘illegal’ McMahon line. Coming out clear is the apparent dichotomy between the treatments of the media and the government establishments in China on the border issue. The question as to how to interpret the same, continues to be valid. 5) An article in a Chinese website (8 August 2009), published at the time of Sino-Indian border talks, suggested that China should break up the Indian Union. It was reproduced around the same time by more than 20 websites/blogs in China. After protests from India, the concerned Chinese website subsequently inserted the name of an individual who wrote the article, along with a disclaimer that the writer did not represent its views; the website also claimed it has no connections with the government. The same was published in the website of Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS), India, which originally reported the Chinese website article. Also, in response to an Op-Ed carried by the Hindu Newspaper, Chennai, alleging factual inaccuracies in the CCCS article, a letter to the Editor was sent to the Hindu pointing out that the CCCS report did not connect the Chinese website with the PRC government and that in particular, it did not make any reference to the China Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a military think tank. The Hindu did not publish the rejoinder.

This writer holds his view that nothing can be printed or published in China without the knowledge of the Party/Government there and that any failure on the part of the authorities in taking notice of media contents including in web posts, is unthinkable. Can any newspaper, website or blog in China get away from the clutches of the authorities if they challenge the authority of the CCP or question the unity and integrity of the country? The answer is a clear ‘No’. I have seen arguments coming from China that the article in question had been appearing in Chinese blogs since 2006. I ask following questions – what is the explanation for the article (only blog for the Chinese) continuing to appear, as late as August 2009, simultaneously in a number of web posts? How the government, which has introduced tough regulations stipulating registration of all websites/blogs with it, did not notice such posts, under circulation for about three years already, challenging the declared policy of China towards India? What action was taken by Beijing against the so-called bloggers (called Xinlang or Queen Park Cruiser)? Are the Chinese security agencies so inefficient that they could not identify and take action against these so-called ‘anonymous’ bloggers.

Interestingly, the Chinese web posts did not single out India only. Vietnam’s case is another example. Hanoi lodged a protest (August 2008) with Beijing at government levels against an article in Sina.Com and a few other Chinese websites, which disclosed a plan for China’s 31-day invasion of Vietnam involving 310,000 troops sweeping into the latter from Yunnan and Guangxi and by blocking of sea-lanes in South China Sea. Vietnamese foreign office reportedly summoned Chinese diplomats in Hanoi twice to protest against the reported plan. According to the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Beijing was asked by Hanoi to prevent appearance of such articles.

Another instance concerns South Korea. At the time of Olympics last year, a South Korea-China media row erupted after a Chinese website alleged that in the view of Koreans, Confucius was not Chinese, but a Korean. Also, the South Korean media are annoyed at the media campaign in China in progress since 2003, claiming that Koguryo, the 1300-year old Korean kingdom (existed in the present day North Korea- Manchuria region), was historically under China. For South Korean media, the campaign has hurt the Korean national pride .In particular, they have not taken kindly a ceremony organized by Chinese academics this year to mark the discovery of an unknown stretch of Great Wall in Dandong, close to the North Korean border; their criticism was that the discovery implied an extension of Chinese historical boundary to the ancient Koguryo.

The Chinese media have alleged that the media in India have over-reacted to an obscure web post in China. Any hyping is of course not correct, but the Chinese media should realize that the suggestion in the concerned web post for ‘splitting India’ has been unprecedented and atrocious enough to invite the Indian media’s wrath. They should also ponder over the Vietnamese reaction mentioned above. Is Hanoi’s response both at diplomatic and media levels to Chinese website articles also an over reaction? The basic question is that why the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to articles /blogs carried in the registered websites in the PRC, which the foreign governments and public find most objectionable. I feel puzzled when some Chinese media comments argue that such web posts reflect China’s ‘democracy’ – defending the indefensible indeed!

6) Another puzzling aspect relates to the non-publication so far of the full text of the CCP chief Hu Jintao’s Work Report submitted at the recently held party plenum; such practices had been followed in the past also. Why such secrecy? The plenum also kept everybody guessing on the expected reshuffle of personnel. Wang Changjiang, Director General, Central Party School, while answering a question as to why Xi Jinping, the politburo standing committee member, was not elected as Vice-Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission, disclosed that personnel reshuffle was not in the agenda of the plenum. Though this somewhat put at rest speculations on the political future of Xi Jinping, widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao in 2012 as CCP General Secretary, a question still persists outside China on whether there was a lack of consensus among the leaders during the plenum on reshuffles in the run up to the next party congress in 2012.

The ‘Economist’ on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of founding the PRC, has said that the world accepts China as a great nation, but China is not behaving like one; that was in the context of human right and other issues, but there is no doubt that media openness is equally another condition for judging China’s greatness; if that condition is fulfilled, the outside world can interpret Chinese pronouncements correctly, leading to a better understanding of China abroad. But, will Beijing move quickly towards media openness? The answer is ‘No’. As long as the ruling party feels that press freedom could be detrimental to its hegemony over Chinese politics, no fundamental change in the PRC’s media policy can be expected. .

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,

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