Puzzling Contradictions of China's Internet Journalism
A journalist who has worked in China says that ‘the Internet has strengthened the power of the central government, not undermined it.’
Look at the Chinese news media through Western eyes, and the view can be depressing. What dominates most of the West's news coverage about Chinese journalists are stories about reporters being brought into court and incarcerated and censorship of new media that appears to constrain rather than enlarge the realm of free speech in China. Fortunately, this perspective offers a limited view of the revolutionary changes China's news media are experiencing. In China, as in so many places throughout the world, the key propulsion for the enormous change is the Internet. That the pace of change doesn't match expectations of the digital vanguard, which predicted that authoritarian regimes would fall like autumn leaves, does not mean that the Internet in China is not profoundly reshaping its media terrain.
When I settled at the East China Normal University in Shanghai in the summer of 1994 to prepare myself for a stay as a foreign correspondent in China, my most important communication tool was my bicycle. The Internet was unknown. To send a fax abroad would cost $15 for the first page, and mobile phones were also outrageously expensive. Chinese news media only brought forth boring propaganda. With a hundred other foreign students I shared two phone lines to the world outside Shanghai, and that was only if the moody telephone operator was not just enjoying her lunch, her lengthy afternoon nap, or just busy talking to another colleague. Conversations, she told us, should be held in Chinese or English, so she could improve her own language skills. If you spoke another language she would turn up her radio so loudly that any conversation would be impossible.
International newspapers were delivered—wrapped in brown bags so nobody else could read them—two to three days after they'd appeared elsewhere in the world. For this delivery, I was charged an outrageous surcharge by the government department with a monopoly of importing foreign newspapers. The one Reuters correspondent in town had just purchased a direct computer connection to the Shanghai stock exchange, so he didn't need to spend hours in transport. The device did not work.
The main source of information—and entertainment—for us was the rumor machine. Just like the Chinese students, I learned the art of picking up rumors and passing them on. With ample ways to get these rumors confirmed, corroborated or denied, passing them on was the most interesting activity at the campus. Fact checking would kill almost any good rumor, so people didn't do that, even when they could. One rumor being spread around at campus—true in this case—was that I was a journalist. After a few weeks at the campus I was approached by a Chinese student who said he had heard the rumor. I confirmed the story.
"Then you must be interested in meeting a real dissident," he said.
I was. In those post-Tiananmen years dissent was the most important subject for my foreign colleagues in Beijing. Shanghai's economic changes were in a very early stage and offered few interesting angles. Political activists in Shanghai mostly bought a one-way ticket to Beijing to pursue their activities in the capital. So I gladly agreed to meet our local dissident.
He was a rather young assistant professor in Chinese literature. At the massive student demonstrations in Shanghai in 1989 he had been one of the leaders. Unlike Beijing, Shanghai—where the demonstrations ended without violence—officials only rounded up the leaders of the unrest a few years after 1989. My assistant professor was jailed for some time and had returned to his old campus a few years earlier where he now taught literature in what seemed a dead-end job. He was loved by his students, since he read sexually explicit poems from the classics and was famous for an endless string of affairs with female students.
After a short handshake he exploded in a 30-minute exposé, denouncing the government, attacking its human rights record, lack of openness and democracy, almost without taking a breath. He did not often have this kind of opportunity to unburden himself of his beliefs and feelings in front of a foreign journalist. "Was this what you expected?" he asked me with a smile when he had finished.
He let me ask some questions. I discovered that day just how isolated my Shanghai dissident was. Few people at the university, apart from his students, dared to talk to him about anything more than the weather. There was no network he belonged to. Apart from some direct family members, he was not supported by anybody. He was as isolated, well, as isolated as I was on my bicycle riding around the city and probably like others among the 1.3 billion Chinese.
An Internet Hoax in China
Move the clock 12 years ahead, to 2006. More than 125 million Chinese are online. That is less than 10 percent of its total population, but in the larger cities the percentage exceeds half of all households. More than 500 million mobile phone numbers have been issued, and each year billions of short messages are being exchanged. China is at the brink of yet another communication revolution as the third generation mobile phones will allow wireless broadband access, a move that might likely double the number of people with broadband Internet access in five to 10 years time.
On March 8, 2006 I woke up on another continent, in Brussels, and checked my e-mail and RSS-reader. The mailing list of Global Voices, a project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, let me know that the government's Internet authorities had possibly closed down three Weblogs, written by Chinese journalists, who use them to circulate stories they cannot get published in the heavily censored traditional media.
A string of e-mails emerged a few hours after the blogs disappeared. While I made an entry on my own blog, others did the same, and soon news of this event raced around the globe. Reuters and the BBC started to file stories later that day. Reporters Sans Frontiéres in Paris, an NGO focusing on press freedom, issued an angry press release denouncing Chinese censorship on the Internet.
But before I went to bed, the blogs reappeared on the Internet. It turned out that these Chinese journalists played a practical joke on the Western news media, as they later told us, misusing what they regard as the Western obsession with censorship on the Internet in China. Only later did they learn that such humor is not appreciated when it crosses cultural boundaries. But from my perspective, a prescient event had taken place in these 24 hours, for the episode offered a snapshot of the Internet's powerful position in China.
The Internet affects not only how journalists are able to collect and distribute their information, but also the ways in which media function. Even editors, like Li Datong of Freezing Point, who was removed by party authorities from his job in part because of a critical internal memo he wrote and published on the Internet (before it was censored), remain optimistic. (Not only did Li Datong lose his editor's position, but also Freezing Point was closed—then reopened—by Communist party officials.) According to journalist Philip J. Cunningham who wrote in Nieman Reports (Summer 2006) after meeting with Li Datong, this Chinese journalist believes that "China's press is freer than ever while paradoxically it remains as under control as ever. One way to illustrate this is an expanding balloon marked by a design that gets bigger as the balloon gets bigger."
In its early days the Internet was seen—mistakenly in my opinion—as a tool that could undermine the sitting powers and change the political situation in China. My sense now is that the opposite is the case: The Internet has strengthened the power of the central government, not undermined it. I say this because for the first time in China's history the central government has a popular and relatively easy means of eavesdropping on what is happening and being said in their country.
From its first discussions about the Internet in the early 1990's, China's bureaucracy has been heavily divided about this new media tool. Departments focused on economic development saw the need to invest heavily in the rollout of the Internet. Without this online technology, China would not be able to develop economically, they argued. In the end, the central government supported their position, despite fierce opposition from the more security-oriented departments, which viewed their task as keeping a lid on the societal tensions. This job, as they saw it, would be heavily challenged by the Internet.
This internal power struggle still plays a critical role in the exchanges among competing bureaucracies. And a basic knowledge of this power struggle is necessary to better understand the often conflicting signals that arise out of China—on one hand, journalists are jailed while, on the other hand, a sense of personal freedom seems rapidly to be emerging. What might be difficult for us in the West to comprehend, but which I've come to understand after years of living and working in China, is that when Chinese citizens engage with the Internet they do so not in fear of what the government might learn, but knowing that what they are doing offers them a powerful new way to reach the government.
The central government, and more and more provincial governments, monitor closely what is happening on the Internet. They do this to control its content, but also to listen carefully to the increasingly powerful voice of their online citizens. In this way the Chinese Internet fits very well into the long-standing tradition of other media by acting as a negotiation tool between the state and its citizens. Unlike Western media, China's media have never been and are not perceived by its audiences as an independent constituency.
The Chinese government regards the Internet, as it does other media, as a way to relate to its citizens. Too much censorship would serve only to cripple the very useful function of the Internet for the government. Like other media channels, the Internet is more often seen as an extension of the government than as a meeting place for opposition. Chinese Internet users are neither amazed nor shocked that their government tries to control these new media just as they've controlled forms of media that have come before. Rather, they tend to see this control as an inherent part of their reality—and most of them would rather look for ways to deal with it than have their energy consumed by opposing it.
The hoax in March reminded us of how we tend to rush to judgment when what we think is happening fits conveniently into our worldview. But nothing is quite so straightforward in China when it comes to the interaction of new media and old politics. For those trying to understand what journalism's future might be like in China, the ones who bring a willingness to look beyond where Western eyes usually look are most likely to unearth the story.
Fons Tuinstra, a former foreign correspondent, is a Shanghai-based Internet entrepreneur and consultant focusing on new and old media, the Internet, telecom and China-related policy issues.