Friday 26 October 2012

Media in China: A Work in Progress

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“Social media is a relatively new and ever changing topic in China” were the opening words of Professor Guo Ke, Dean of the Public Opinion Research Centre of Shanghai University, at the IPREX 2012 Asia/ Pacific Fall Meeting in Shanghai. China and social media are phrases one might think do not necessarily go hand in hand.

The feeling one gets from visiting China is that the economically liberal communist state is now forcibly having to adapt to an ever changing world; as Professor Ke put it, “kids these days are born Microsoft proficient”. The internet is just too accessible in today’s world to not allow the populace some kind of internet freedom, the extent of which remains ambiguous. The talk was of a social revolution taking place in China.

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is allowing access to social media does show its willingness to modernise and be more liberal, particularly considering that 30 years ago a negative news story wasn’t even allowed to be published in the press. A lot has changed since then, not least the changes to the printed press.

Susan Shirk, the University of California’s Institute Director of Global Conflict and Cooperation, made the observation that before this mass reform, China had no journalism as we know it, only propaganda. As with any totalitarian regime, this one, centralised form of media can alienate the ruling elite from the masses. The people of China were certainly no different and began to crave information from credible sources. The adoption of a free press in China began in the 1980s when the CCP cut state funding of media and opened it up to the free market. This led to the creation of various new media outlets including Southern Weekend, a commercial spin-off of the Guandong Province’s official Nanfang Daily and the Beijing Youth Daily, a commercial spin-off of the government controlled Beijing Daily.

The subsequent circulation figures from 1993 to 2003 of the Beijing Daily tell the story of the Chinese people’s yearning to hear from more credible sources. Print figures for the older publication plummeted by 27% to just 380,000 copies while over the same period the Beijing Youth Daily tripled its daily print run from 231,000 to 600,000. Chinese people wanted credible independent news and their newspaper choice was striking evidence. But the recent phone hacking scandal at News International, as well as the French paparazzo snapping topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge at a private residence, begs the question: is there really such a thing as a fully free and credible media anywhere in the world?

Zhongguo Xinwen Chuban Tongji Ziliao Huiban,
published by the China Statistical Press (Beijing)
The rise of the internet is key to appreciating the uptake of a freer press in China, leading to the proliferation of social media and micro-blogging activity. The reductions in the control of the print press showed the CCP’s willingness to free up the media; however the implications of the vastly modernising world, and press, mean the CCP will have to liberalise even more. Increasingly liberal policies were not the only reasons the Chinese government opened up the internet; the government saw the importance the internet would have on economic development. The government has actively and successfully supported e-commerce projects and the country has produced many successful internet and media companies, many of which are listed internationally. Opening up the internet to the Chinese public has certainly had its benefits for the Party. China still experiences disagreements with some of the large Western media and tech organisations, Google being the obvious example, which are actually losing money in China. However, overwhelmingly the CCP has used the capabilities of the internet to great effect. Social media is a slightly different phenomenon to the internet as a whole.

Tracking social change

The micro bloggersphere in China presents more of a conundrum to the CCP. Sites such as Weibo are excellent tools for the young and educated classes to connect and vent any grievances they might have against the system, but could this eventually lead to civil unrest and pose a potential threat to the authorities? The answer, for now, would have to be no. As Professor Ke highlighted during his talk to IPREX members, the government monitors these sites very stringently and it can see exactly what is being said, by whom and it can sieve the influential bloggers from the sheep. In actual fact, the use of micro-blogging in China can be seen as beneficial to the Party.

When one looks back at history, all political movements which lead to successful revolutions began with groups within the intelligentsia meeting in bars and coffee houses to listen to charismatic speakers. In a country the size of China, physical meetings would be almost impossible to keep tabs on while posts on popular websites are far easier to track. Through the monitoring of social media, the CPP can precisely identify potential trouble makers and take the necessary action keeping CPP firmly in control. It has also been suggested that allowing Chinese citizens to vent their frustrations on the internet is the CCP’s equivalent of giving citizens the vote. In a democratic country, if you do not agree with the ruling party you will principally let them know when you enter the ballot box. This is something that does not exist in China, so discussing grievances on the internet is really the closest thing the Chinese people have to a vote.

The Party also takes advantage of the populist nature of social media. The CCP can plant propaganda, for example anti US and Japanese slogans, leading to an increase in nationalistic pride and further cementing its power.

Ultimately sites such as Weibo and Renren will lead to social advantages primarily because they place pressure on the government to make policies more diversified and lead to further reform.


One of the interesting areas where social media in China completely differs to social media in the West is the fact that in general, Renren and Weibo in China are not yet used by businesses. This is understandable because social media is now well established in the West while in China it is at a much earlier stage of its evolution. Professor Ke was unable to provide a single example of a company that uses Weibo for business purposes but is convinced that this would start to happen soon. One IPREX delegate asked Mr Ke if he thought Facebook and Twitter would ever be opened up to the Chinese public; he felt that it would not, however given the vast changes that have taken place in China in the last 30 years, I would be inclined to say that one day they will be open, after all it was not that long ago that CNN and the BBC were banned, but can now quite easily be watched.

Media in China is certainly changing, with reporting now more balanced and less about keeping the ruling Party in power. Social media is giving Chinese citizens a voice and more influence over policy, and as Professor Ke assured IPREX members, Chinese business will begin to use social media for marketing and customer services purposes, they just need a bit more time.

Jamie Hooper

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