IT WOULD SEEM at first glance that Chinese media enjoy an abundance of good fortune. With the world’s largest consumer population, they have a market of nearly limitless potential. When it comes to breaking news stories, no other country on earth can match China. The choices are simply endless.
This week, media have pounced on news of the death of spiritual guru Wang Lin (王林), who before his shameful fall from grace in 2015 was sought after by political leaders and entertainment stars alike. The news that Wang Lin “died suddenly of illness” (因病突逝) on February 10 in a hospital in Jiangxi, reported in Chinese state media, has naturally prompted a great deal of speculation. With its indefinite whiff of scandal but safe distance from real political sensitivities, this is the perfect puff story, something that can be endlessly talked about — like the cases of disgraced former CCTV news anchor Rui Chenggang (芮成钢), exiled billionaire Guo Wengui (郭文贵), or tigers devouring people.
In what should be an era of golden opportunity, the preponderance of stories like these points to the malaise suffered by Chinese media, which have been forced to abdicate any more meaningful role.
In democratic societies, the media are sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate.” They serve as a check on power, they monitor the political and social environment, and they record history. But in China, where media do not enjoy such independence, serving as a check on power is an impossible dream. There is no such thing as the media monitoring the political environment. Even monitoring the natural environment — such things as air quality — is a difficult proposition. And history? Well, today’s politics is tomorrow’s history, so if the lion’s share of politics can’t be talked about how can we talk about recording history?
China’s media have long been characterized by the Chinese Communist Party as “mouthpieces,” or hou she (喉舌) — the “throat and tongue” of the leadership. According to the political ideas set down by Vladimir Lenin, the proper role of media is to serve as the disseminators of the Party’s policies, to be political cheerleaders and organizers of the masses. In the era of economic reforms in China, this foundation never shifted, and yet, there were important adaptations that brought a toning down of the media’s mouthpiece role.
In the 1990s, we had the “theory of guidance” (导向论), emphasizing that the mainstream media —always meaning in China the Party media — should give top priority to correct political guidance in their reporting while market-oriented media enjoyed a degree of latitude, especially in areas of coverage that had little to do with politics.
By around 2002, we had the “theory of closeness” (贴近论). This was the idea that all media, even Party media, should strive to be more palatable to their audiences, that they should do their utmost to remain “close to life, close to the masses and close to the grassroots.” This entailed the idea still that the media were political tools cut off from the lives of ordinary people. But this was at least the stirring of a looser mindset focused on consumable and more effective propaganda.
More recently, at the start of the Xi Jinping era, there was talk again of media “moving at the grassroots, transforming work attitudes, and changing writing styles,” an elaborate way of saying that traditional Party newspapers should strive to be competitive against commercial media and newly-emerging social media. Very quickly, however, the talk changed again, and we heard about the urgency of “media being surnamed Party,” which essentially laid fresh emphasis on the old “mouthpiece theory” of the media. But now, rather than applying more exclusively to Party news outfits that, as we say, “eat the emperor’s grain,” this theory was broadened to assert strict control over commercial newspapers and websites, and over all types of content, including commentaries and even advertisements.
In China today there are basically three types of newspapers:
1) The various Party newspapers from the center all the way down to local Party committees, like the People’s Daily, Beijing Daily, Shanghai’s Liberation Daily and Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily.
2) The industry newspapers run by various government ministries and commissions, like China Education Daily, China Women’s News, China Petrochemical News, and China Insurance News.
3) The metropolitan and evening newspapers in various locales across the country that rely on advertising and circulation to survive, and which, though operated through the Party newspaper system, can be less political in nature, doing more social and entertainment news.
In the era before the dawn of social media, commercial newspapers had a huge lead in the competition over traditional Party newspapers. They were able to win over readers and advertisers, and their circulations developed rapidly. As the internet became more and more prevalent, the assumption was that things would become equally tough for Party and commercial newspapers. In fact, Party newspapers, which benefitted from state subsidies and policies of forced circulation (in which state enterprises and other companies, for example, were pressed to take out subscriptions), were more insulated from the shock that came with the internet boom. Commercial newspapers were the hardest hit. And now some, like the Beijing Times and Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, are already closing up shop.
Unable to speak up under strict political and economic pressures, Chinese media stuck somewhere in the middle these days, talking without substance about changes in housing prices, or about remote international issues.
They don’t speak about power, nor do they dare talk about rights — whether the political rights of the citizen, such as the right to vote, or the economic rights of the taxpayer. The only arenas of relative safety left to them are finance, economics, and of course entertainment.
Beyond that, there are outfits like the Global Times, a commercial spin-off of the Party’s official People’s Daily, which inspire nationalist fervor by kicking up a stink over international issues, and which find a ready audience among those readers who, to quote a running joke, “remain loyal though doomed to eat gutter oil.” These readers cannot dream of defending their own rights and interests, but they can at least fantasize about China’s rise to great nation status as a kind of psychic payback.
So this is where we are today. The people of China, and the media of China, are unwilling and unable to discuss domestic politics. They feed instead on the vagaries of international affairs. They can’t get enough of Donald Trump, Shinzō Abe or Park Geun-hye, or of the disfunction of the Philippines.
Finance. Entertainment. International news. Together they constitute the glory of the China’s media, and together they mark its shame.
This column was translated from the Chinese original, which appeared at Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily News.