A WELL-KNOWN academic swears at a journalist who has phoned him to ask for an interview – and then publicises the incident on his microblog, saying that he did it because he doesn’t agree with the liberal values of the media group the journalist works for… Sounds like the kind of thing you’d hear at the more right-wing end of the US talk radio spectrum? Well, welcome to China in late 2011.
The country may be festooned with slogans promoting “a harmonious society” but differences of opinion over social policy, history and even politics are increasingly visible. On one level it’s to be expected: the coming year marks the transition to a new generation of political leaders in China, something that hasn’t happened on this scale for a decade – and such periods tend to be marked by infighting over the direction of the country. But normally these debates take place behind closed doors (or perhaps opaque, if sometimes ornate, screens) at the higher levels of the political establishment.
This time round, several things seem to have changed. Society is maturing and people are, generally, better informed and more confident about expressing their own opinions. At the same time, China has become increasingly divided, not just economically, but also in terms of people’s experiences and attitudes – and their values. What’s more, the impact of these divisions has been amplified by the drastic expansion of the internet, and particularly of microblogs (three hundred million users in China by last month, and counting), which have sent information, and opinions, coursing through this once-closed society.
Indeed, it was not the first time that Kong Qingdong, the academic who cursed a journalist from Guangzhou’s Southern People Weekly, denouncing the publication as treacherous to China, has made headlines. The professor of Chinese literature from the prestigious Peking University has something of an ongoing feud with the Southern Media Group, which publishes the magazine and several other popular newspapers and publications: last year he suggested that citizens should sue the company for “besmirching” the Communist Party and “debasing the Chinese people.” Chinese journalists are “a major public nuisance,” he said, and if they were “all lined up and shot, I would feel heartache for not a single one of them.”
His forthright views have attracted particular attention since he is a seventy-third generation descendent of Confucius, the philosopher sage whose emphasis on propriety, respect and manners the Chinese government is seeking to invoke as it attempts to rebuild public morality, which has been shaken by ideological disillusionment and the onslaught of capitalism. The government even erected a statue to Confucius in Tiananmen Square this year, just across from Chairman Mao’s mausoleum – a fairly significant symbolic move in a country which, only a few decades ago, at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-seventies, launched a mass nationwide campaign to “criticise Confucius” and his legacy.
Yet this change of direction seems to have done little to produce the desired harmony. There have been calls for Professor Kong to resign from Peking University for conduct unbecoming. But he hardly seems to be alone. The official English-language newspaper, the Global Times, recently accused intellectuals and opinion leaders of “polarising” and “polluting” public discussion. “Ideological debates are dividing Chinese society now. It is worrying that people on different sides put walls and refuse to discuss their viewpoints calmly… The more furiously one speaks, the louder applause one wins… The criticism gets ugly at times,” it added, “mixing cynicism with personal abuse, or provoking a reaction through shocking statements or open threats.”
As if to prove the point, the media recently got in a lather over a female internet user reportedly offering to sleep with anyone who beat up a well-known conservative social commentator. A liberal academic, meanwhile, was much criticised after saying that he felt embarrassed to be Chinese and wished he had been born Japanese. From the other end of the spectrum, the microblogosphere was agog at pictures of a group of young people in the northern city of Taiyuan setting fire to copies of the Southern Media Group’s Southern Weekend and holding up slogans denouncing the paper for selling out to American interests and betraying China… Just a handful of people appear to have been involved, but the incident was a reminder of the new divergences in Chinese society – and of the potential for these to turn ugly.
The fact that it’s sections of the media that are coming in for particular conservative criticism is no coincidence. While the media remains ultimately under government control, it has diversified significantly since the 1990s, not least because it is now generally required to pay its own way through advertising and sales. It must attract readers, and this has caused a shift away from the old model of pure propaganda. Greater economic independence, combined with a diversifying society, has also led to a push for increased openness in terms of content. There are still many limits, but the media – reinforced by the internet – does now play a role in scrutinising society and, on occasions, exposing official corruption.
And some of the most commercialised media organisations – notably those in Guangdong, where the experiments with economic reform began – have gone furthest, sometimes extending their criticisms to aspects of the political system itself, or challenging the official line on sensitive social issues or even controversial historical issues. Southern Media is considered to be among the main advocates of such liberal values, frequently quoting or publishing columns by socially liberal academics and commentators. The government has taken action against the group on a number of occasions, with editors frequently being sacked or demoted; in one well-publicised case, two senior staff were jailed, ostensibly for financial irregularities. Yet, so far, the dissenting views have continued to appear, sometimes spurred by seemingly contradictory official pronouncements that praise the media’s scrutiny of government.
THIS year, when greater caution might have been expected in the run-up to the reshuffle of the Communist Party leadership (always a tense time in China), liberal sections of the media have, if anything, become more vocal. Southern People Weekly, for example, stepped out of line by publishing a cover story on Mikhail Gorbachev, a man widely seen by China’s leaders as a traitor to communist rule for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union; despite editors being disciplined, the same media group was at it again last month, with another of its magazines publishing a story that not only included a photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi (a figure viewed with much suspicion by Chinese conservatives), but also described the country’s new president, Thein Sein, as “Burma’s Gorbachev.”
The same magazine also ran an in-depth feature on the growing prevalence of closed-circuit television cameras in Chinese cities, raising similar civil liberties issues to those a liberal Western magazine might have highlighted. And in recent months Chinese media outlets have also published critical articles on subjects including the government’s new push to develop China’s cultural industries, bad urban planning and management, unreliable pollution statistics, and the over-commercialisation of the education system.
It may be that those expressing critical views are simply not willing to have them stifled any longer – and also that the media outlets concerned are staking a claim for greater freedom of expression in the future. With a general feeling of uncertainty about the direction China will take under the new leadership (which is expected to be a coalition representing several different interest groups and factions within the Communist Party), there’s a sense that such freedoms as do exist may need defending – and potentially that more may be up for grabs.
The authorities, though, seem to be doing their best to stamp out this latter impression, with a string of recent directives apparently aimed at bringing the media and internet a little more into line. Not only have they launched a new campaign to reduce the number of reality shows and talent contests that have come to dominate Chinese TV, and another to reduce the quantity of advertising inserted into programs (which some viewers will welcome), but the authorities also recently called the heads of China’s biggest internet companies together and effectively made them pledge to reduce the number of “rumours” on the internet – an effort which may make it harder for internet users to post critical reports about, for example, local government abuses. Journalists, meanwhile, face new requirements to have more sources for their stories – which may make it harder to run stories by whistleblowers.
And if that weren’t enough, the authorities have recently appointed a new head of China’s national television station, CCTV. Hu Zhanfan was transferred from the Enlightenment Daily, a generally party-line newspaper aimed at intellectuals but read by few, and soon found himself being denounced on the internet for comments he made earlier this year, in which he said that the role of journalists is “to be a good mouthpiece” for the Communist Party. Hu had warned a meeting of journalists that “a number of news workers have not defined their own role in terms of the propaganda work of the Party, but rather have defined themselves as journalism professionals, and this is a fundamentally erroneous role definition.” Consequently, he said, “strengthening education in the Marxist View of Journalism” was “a matter of extreme urgency.” (Thanks to the excellent China Media Project at Hong Kong University for the translation.)
Some internet users, in the spirit of extreme criticism mentioned above, went so far as to compare Hu to the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels – though some observers pointed out he was not unusually conservative and was simply doing his job to echo the party line. Either way, Hu is in charge not only of CCTV, but also, ultimately, of that organisation’s push to expand its international role as one of three big state media organisations that have received some $9 billion to enhance China’s media presence, and its image, around the world.
It’s a reminder of the tension China faces between pressures for greater openness and pressures for greater control. And these look set to continue: as one outspoken and ratings-boosting participant in a Chinese reality show put it recently, people are ready to hear “the truth… They’re tired of what they see and what they hear being two different things.” There has even been an ebb and flow of liberal and conservative commentaries in the main party newspaper, the People’s Daily. The coming year looks set to see further battles, as more people become willing to weigh into the debate and China’s government grapples for ways to deal with the greater openness, and the greater polarisation, it has unleashed. •
Duncan Hewitt, a Shanghai-based journalist who writes for Newsweek and other publications, is the author of Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China. He writes each month for Inside Story.