Doug Young, former chief correspondent for Chinese business at Reuters, teaches in Shanghai at the Fudan University School of Journalism and is the author of The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China. The Party Line provides a historical primer on the Chinese media apparatus, explaining its inner workings and revealing the complex networking influencing its reporting. Young spoke with the Gate about the Chinese media’s government obligations, its coverage of the Kunming train station stabbings, and its future.
The Gate: The intelligence collecting apparatus within the media remains an obstacle to liberalization. Under what circumstances do you imagine the Chinese media will achieve “Western” freedom? Can you expand on the “debate and soul searching” you deem necessary for such a liberalizing transformation?
Doug Young: The intelligence gathering role of the media is growing less and less pronounced, especially in this day of advanced communications where the central government has many more sophisticated tools at its disposal to gather intelligence. Under the older system, all media were, like you say, servants of the government and one of their roles was to help collect information. Nowadays that role is largely gone, and so is the other major role, which was to act as a mouthpiece for the party’s agenda. Media still can’t write stories that go directly against the government agenda, but these days they have a lot more room to report and write stories that they think will be of interest to the public from a commercial perspective. The government is putting lots of pressure on the media to be self-supporting, and that means writing stories that people want to read in formats they like, including new media formats like those for cell phones and tablet PCs. All that said, I doubt the media will be able to achieve what you call “Western freedom” anytime soon. Anything openly critical of the party or any of its major objectives will be considered off limits for the foreseeable future. Any “debate and soul searching” you mention will have to come from the party, not the media.
Gate: In Party Line, you write that words in quotation marks imply ridicule in China. After the Kunming stabbings, the US media reported on the incident with “terrorist” in quotes and received huge backlash in both the Chinese media and blogosphere. Speaking from your experience in journalism in both countries, what does the US media have to learn from the event? How well do you think the US media understands the Chinese media?
Young: I remember the Kunming attack and the reluctance of Western media to formally call the perpetrators “terrorists.” There was actually a similar debate when I worked at Reuters right after 9/11, and Reuters took the stance that we as reporters couldn’t call the 9/11 attackers “terrorists” in our articles. Their argument was that one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter. Still, I did find the Western use of quotation marks, or reluctance to call the perpetrators terrorists, somewhat amusing, as they were effectively playing the same game as the Chinese. China loves to play that kind of game, but it’s not too appreciative when others play by its rulebook. That was quite apparent when Vietnam successfully fanned anti-Chinese sentiment earlier this year after a territorial dispute flared up, and the ensuing riots resulted in huge damage to Chinese property and even some deaths. China often does similar things when it clashes with Japan, though the results in the Vietnam case were a bit more extreme. As to your question of how well US media understand China, I think the answer is probably not very well. They tend to see the Chinese media as one monolithic complex that’s essentially a propaganda tool of Beijing. While that view is somewhat true, the actual situation is far more nuanced. There are many individual stakeholders at each Chinese media, and there’s a constant tug of war going on between all parties to control and shape the messages that come out.
Gate: The past year has seen major instability in Xinjiang, the stabbing in Kunming, and protests in Hong Kong. Would any of the three add value to the case studies of your book? Have new opinion-dictating strategies emerged?
Young: Coverage of the stabbing in Kunming here was relatively one-sided, though the Western media didn’t really challenge the Chinese version of events too much, because most of the facts were probably basically correct. I think the most interesting of the three cases you mentioned in terms of media coverage was the protests in Hong Kong. In that instance, the media coverage in the West was completely different from what you saw in China. Rather than repeat the many differences, here’s a link to a commentary I wrote for CNN on the subject, which goes into many of the “media tactics” that China used to try and spin the story in a way that would evoke sympathy for its position from average Chinese people.
Gate: Your closing reads quite optimistically. Do you find that other professors and journalists share your optimism? Do Chinese nationals and expatriates have different projections for the future of the Chinese media?
Young: Don’t forget that I wrote that closing around March 2012, and much has changed since then. I think many people, myself included, were quite optimistic at that time due to the incoming presidency of Xi Jinping. There was also an incident around that time at Southern Media Group that led many to believe the government might take a more lenient stance towards the media. But since then, Xi has shown that a more open media isn’t one of his top priorities, and instead he’s more interested in cracking down on corruption and broadening economic reforms. The corruption crackdown in particular has been bad for the media, since many media are engaged in a wide range of corrupt practices, from extorting money in exchange for withholding negative stories, to accepting bribes in exchange for positive stories. Right now I think that most people, Chinese or Western, aren’t very optimistic about prospects for a more open media in the near-term.
The image featured in this article is courtesy of the Hong Kong University Journal of Media Studies Center.