Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Free market media

Free market generates (some) media freedom

By James Borton -

China's free-market economy is generating unprecedented but not unlimited press freedoms, and there's momentum. As Beijing embraces a market economy, its proliferating news media too are becoming privatized, more commercial, combative and fiercely competitive. This gives rise to some of the best investigative journalism that truly sheds light and serves the people, and some of the worst sensationalism.

Hu Shuli, the crusading editor of Caijing magazine, China's high-profile, successful business publication, recently returned from Qatar, where she joined 120 Middle Eastern and Western journalists in a program called "Changing Media Perceptions: Professionalism and Cultural Diversity". There was plenty of jousting, as well as thoughtful discussion and debate on the media's role, duties and responsibilities. The issue of the role of media has gained traction in the past few years, sparked by the globalization of information reflected in the emergence of "new" media. And China, where the media used to be totally subservient, has taken on a more activist role.

With increased deadlines, the twice-monthly publication Caijing (the name means "finance and business") is soon to become a newsweekly, in which young breathless staffers, including two foreigners, write their articles and fact-check in preparation for the next issue. They work in untidy cubicles, in the same Beijing office building as Dow Jones.

Caijing and other Chinese media understand all too well that the development of the country's media industry is not a smooth process. Political policy fluctuations and cycles of repression and censorship have been the norm over the past two decades.

Never mind, China watchers know that with the rapid shift to a market economy, the Middle Kingdom's state-owned enterprises have been stained with almost inevitable corruption and scandal. No wonder the peripatetic editor has gleefully remarked, "In China there is more news than journalists." Caijing's crusade against corruption and its unstinting journalistic enterprise has netted Hu the moniker, "the most dangerous woman in China". (Repeated efforts to interview Hu were unsuccessful, as her staff said she was too busy.)

The central government's decentralization policies have dictated that the news media commercialize, since state subsidies have been dramatically curbed. The resulting news-media privatization and commercialization have forced China's information gatekeepers to distinguish themselves from keen competition. A proliferation of news media has brought higher standards of compelling reporting in the form of investigative articles, exposes of environmental degradation and also has yielded, at the other end of the spectrum, some of the worst offenses in sensational media coverage, reminiscent of British, US and other tabloids.

Some of these media developments were examined by Ashley Esarey, PhD candidate in the political science department at Columbia University, who interviewed scores of Chinese publishers and journalists. His research confirms that one of the major results of China's decentralization policies is an explosion in the number of news media, in the value of media advertising revenues, in competition for advertising revenue, and in newly found freedom of media companies to report the news - as opposed to party propaganda pablum.

"Caijing is well known for relatively objective reporting on key events in China - not merely for economic reporting," Esarey said in a recent online interview with Asia Times Online. "Its editors are successful because they stay ahead of censors by printing stories that are off the Propaganda Department's radar screen. They have a strong sense of professionalism and an obligation to report the news, but not at any cost. Because the magazine is a profitable commercial venture, its operators want to remain viable and therefore must follow the explicit wishes of the [Communist] Party concerning content."

Media leaders an elite, educated crew

Hu Shuli is one of a small elite of Chinese journalists, strengthened by a Chinese orthodox media education: she graduated from People's University of China, majoring in journalism and classic Western journalism training, and earned a master of communication degree from Stanford University.

All Chinese journalists generally graduate from college and many have bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism. New reporters are mandated to receive a license from the Chinese General Administration of Press and Publications or the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television. However, the protocol for securing the coveted license involves undergoing political indoctrination and a party examination in order to be employed in the state-controlled media.

China's media policy shapers are caught in a quandary in the ongoing dialogue that somehow permits new media and conventional media to report critically on business abuses, for example, and no longer adopt the People's Daily propaganda reporting model. For Caijing this relaxation of media guidelines has translated into a paid circulation base of more than 85,000 readers. This is a remarkable achievement given that the magazine's newsstand price remains at a premium of US$1 a copy, while the average annual income for a farmer remains around $100 and that of an urban resident the equivalent of $1,000 a year.

Hu, 51 and seasoned in China's propaganda/journalism disputes, understands the government media policy since she previously worked for more than a decade as a reporter for the Worker's Daily. She generously compensates her more than 40 staffers for their long hours and professionalism.

Caijing, a genuinely gutsy publication, was established in 1998 by Wang Boming, the son of a former deputy minister, who previously created China's stock markets and was responsible for the early launch of Securities Market Weekly, which was published for a retail and institutional market and reached a paid circulation of almost a million readers. His corporation, the Stock Exchange Media Council (SEMC), has realized 20-30% growth each year in revenues, so it's no surprise that Wang's publications reflect China's new media transformation.

"In the past, the Chinese media were either official or semi-official; however, today market-driven media have become China's fastest-growing information sources, as well as some of the more prosperous companies," editor Hu said of the media's role, in a speech to the China Business Summit in Shanghai last year.

The Chinese news media are the official voice of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), transmitting its political will to the people. Ninety-eight percent of Chinese households, or almost 1.167 billion Chinese out of a total 1.3 billion, watch broadcasts beamed by more than 1,600 television stations. Millions more read 2,137 daily and weekly newspapers.

New political reforms mean bolder journalism

With the Middle Kingdom's political landscape ushering in even newer reforms, the media seem to be willing to take bolder actions, which sometimes place editors and reporters in jail or under house arrest at the very least. The questions remain: Are the laws and policies securely in place to allow China's new media to continue their march toward independence, adopt stringent investigative-reporting standards and offer critical commentary? Can China's new news media create a public debate and present options for resolving the country's pressing social, economic and political problems? To what extent are ethical and professional standards being pursued and taught at China's journalism programs?

In the 1980s, leader Deng Xiaoping's motto, "seek truth from facts", set the tone for all kinds of reportage. This year's lively discourse among Beijing's policy shapers has become intense because of the changing communication environment in China. The advent of new technologies and media convergence are generating new opportunities for people to get more connected in the information society. Press systems are opening up, allowing for more creativity, more choices and access to information critical to the demands of development. This was evident last year in China during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak and in the response of the online Chinese media and brazen bloggers.

The media were very tightly controlled in China during the SARS epidemic until mid-April 2003 when Caijing found a discrepancy between the information on the epidemic released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the central government. (This revelation came after Time magazine's article on the SARS victims hidden in Beijing military hospitals.) Caijing gambled successfully that the CCP could not continue to suppress news on the epidemic once it got on the Internet, and it decided to prepare the cover story "The Beijing files", claims communications Professor Joseph Chan from Chinese University in Hong Kong.

Few dispute that Caijing is a pioneer in professional journalism and is a model for emulation, generating new competition. According to a newly released policy white paper commissioned by the International Committee of American Business Media, Chinese authorities have closed down almost 700 periodicals because of new policy shifts, ending "command subscriptions" and transferring party control to publishing companies.

Despite the considerable restrictions on the news media, the role of the Chinese press has changed from a CCP propaganda conduit to a provider of news for emerging middle-class consumers. Even Chinese web portals have encouraged competition among news organizations. News often appears on the Internet either exclusively or before it is disseminated by mainstream traditional print and broadcast media.

"What is unique in China is that the news Internet websites have become primary sources of news," wrote Caijing editor Hu Shuli in Journalism Asia, published by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila. "If we want to find out what happened recently in China, we would log on to news websites such as Sina. The major websites such as Sina, Sohu, Netease, especially Sina, own almost all the copyrights for traditional media news broadcasting, and have thus become the leading news websites with an extremely large news platform."

While publishing and other media may still be considered ideologically sensitive, some enterprising Chinese publishers know that a pragmatic brand of self-censorship (knowing how far to push the envelope), coupled with major media initiatives, proliferating media and morphing communication technology, may very well set them free for a short march to commercial growth and press liberalization.

James Borton is a freelance journalist and director of Asia Pacific Projects for Foreign Affairs. He can be reached at


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