“It’s the Sun wot won it,” crowed Rupert Murdoch’s most popular tabloid The Sun, when John Major narrowly beat Neil Kinnock in the British general election of 1992. Famously, an election-day headline in the newspaper had warned: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
Whether China’s own print media could claim to be similarly influential is up for discussion, especially as online news and social media sites steal an ever-greater share of the national audience.
Nonetheless, how both the traditional press and its online rivals will fare under Xi Jinping’s new government has also become a matter for debate this month, after weeks of apparently conflicting messages.
The Christmas period started out with a series of articles about the leadership that suggested a more active role for the state newspapers. Many sought to portray the new team as having a more human touch than its predecessor, with the coverage soon being heralded for its greater focus on their personal lives. The articles had “resounded both at home and overseas, online and offline,” China Youth Daily suggested, incorporating “photos from their lives as rarely seen, personal biographies as rarely seen, family information as rarely seen and life details as rarely seen”.
A lot rarely seen, then.
Even Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping’s wife (see WiC173) featured, although it was still Peng’s spouse who was the main attraction. “Her husband is at once a distinguished person and an ordinary person,” Xinhua assured its readers. “He enjoys eating home cooking from Shaanxi and Shandong, and when he gets together with friends he will drink and be lively with them… sometimes he’ll watch sports programming on TV late at night.”
The message that Xi was a man-of-the-people type was clear enough. The People’s Daily even devoted some of its weibo account to pictures of Xi in relaxed mode in earlier days, riding his bike or pushing his father along in a wheelchair. Other supportive stories followed in late December (“Xi Jinping Visits Poor Families in Hebei: Dinner Is Just Four Dishes and One Soup, No Alcohol” was one headline).
There was a parallel push in the profiles of future premier Li Keqiang (“a man who puts people first”), as well as a hat tip to new Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan, who likes to tell colleagues to “get down to earth” whenever he gets the chance.
But human touch or not, the opportunity to discuss the family lives of China’s new elite was soon being restricted online, with many user comments about the series deleted. And the leadership’s media makeover also coincided with a crackdown on the web as a whole. Internet authorities have been making further efforts to curtail anonymous commentary on the web. The Financial Times reported on new requirements designed to force those signing up with companies like Sina or China Mobile to register their national identity numbers.
Unsurprisingly, most of the state media chose to present this in a positive light, often as an effort to respond to public frustration at the widespread commercial spamming of mobile phones and email accounts.
Some state newspaper editorials grasped the nettle more firmly, agreeing that unnamed rumour-mongers and troublemakers were another key target.
“For a massive platform comprising 538 million web users and more than a billion mobile users, it is impossible to rely on self-discipline alone to achieve regulation and order and to eliminate every single person with ulterior motives or every doer of mischief,” the People’s Daily acknowledged.
How effective is the new campaign likely to be? Adam Minter, writing for Bloomberg, says that the registration rules seem to apply mostly to new accounts, leaving many existing users less affected. There is also debate on how account holders will be linked to the comments that they make (for example, the government has previously demanded real name registration for Sina Weibo contributors, but with limited apparent impact). Nor is there any final word on when the mandate will take effect, only an acknowledgement that the legislation remains subject to “further deliberation and revisions”.
Still, as Minter noted, netizens are annoyed. Some were soon drawing dark comparisons between the quest for online transparency and the foot-dragging on proposals to create a public register of assets held by government officials. And certainly, the suspicion is that many of China’s more venal apparatchiks will be delighted with any changes that dissuade online whistleblowers from exposing corrupt or negligent behaviour. Minter reported one such warning from Duan Wanjin, a lawyer from Xi’an, who predicted that netizens must now think twice about campaigning against the worst of the excesses. “In the future, if citizens want to report wrongdoers online, they’ll have to handle themselves like suicide bombers, dying but succeeding for a righteous cause,” he suggested gloomily.
This all sits a little awkwardly with the new era of openness and approachability being touted by the cheerleaders for the new Politburo team. And so too could a developing spat at Southern Weekend, after the newspaper’s editorial team in Guangzhou responded fiercely to what it sees as unacceptable interference from local regulators.
The row started when an editorial on New Year’s Day was redrafted by propaganda officials without the newspaper’s consent. Apparently, the propagandists weren’t keen on some of the content, especially a focus on the “dream of constitutionalism” to empower the country’s citizens. “Only thus will we be able to build a strong and free nation,” the original had concluded, before it was watered down.
A similar line was taken by a journal called Yanhuang Chunqiu last week, arguing that the Party’s failure to abide by the constitution was contributing to political instability. Last Friday, the magazine’s website was shut down after officials said that it had failed to update its registration. But Southern Weekend journalists showed few signs of going so quietly, releasing two statements online condemning the action as “crude” interference.
Initially, the targets for the protestors have been local, especially Tuo Zhen, the propaganda head for Guangdong, whose team rewrote the Southern Weekend editorial. “It is our view that in this era in which hope is necessary, he is obliterating hope; in this era in which equality is yearned for, his actions are haughty and condescending; in this era of growing open-mindedness, his actions are foolish and careless; in this era that cares for learning and refinement, his actions are crude and thoughtless,” fumed the signatories to one of the letters.
Despite immediate efforts to remove mentions of the row from weibo postings and internet searches, the dispute is already something of a cause célèbre nationwide, drawing in messages of support from lawyers, academics, celebrities and film stars. Li Chengpeng is one of a number of bloggers with millions of followers who has also spoken up. “We don’t need tall buildings, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth,” Li urged. “We don’t need the second highest GDP in the world, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth. We don’t need a fleet of aircraft carriers, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth.”
Actress Yao Chen – who has 30 million followers on Sina Weibo – even quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn to show her support. “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” the country’s most followed blogger tweeted to her audience.
The editors of some of China’s largest news sites also rallied in support, albeit in more covert fashion. One example: when apparently unconnected headlines on a Sina news page were read vertically, the message “Go Southern Weekend!” loomed large. (Confusingly the newspaper’s Chinese name can be translated into English as either Southern Weekend or Southern Weekly. In recent days Western media has used both.)
The brouhaha also points to the challenges ahead for Xi, particularly in unleashing expectations of a reform agenda that he may be neither able nor inclined to deliver. Throughout his career his stance has been deliberately ambiguous, so as to appeal to support across the political spectrum. But as a result there is already disagreement on how best to read the mood behind the new internet registration rules, as well as what Xi himself might think about the confrontation at Southern Weekend.
Could he really be more of a conservative at heart, despite the attempt to portray him as a new breed of leader attuned to the public mood? Or should we take the current events as the final spasm of the old order, as Xi and his team begin to take over?
The speculation follows a period in which Xi appeared to call for greater respect for the often ignored constitution, as well as a wider role for the media in countering corruption.
Adding to the confusion was an escalation of hostilities at Southern Weekend on Monday, with a strike from sections of its editorial department, a demonstration outside its offices and the addition of hundreds more signatures to an online petition condemning the lack of media freedom.
There were also online reports suggesting that the editor of the Beijing News, a Southern Weekend sister paper, had resigned after being pressured to publish an editorial blaming the dispute on “external hostile forces”.
Since then, a compromise seems to have been reached in Guangdong, with staff agreeing to return to work after being assured that propaganda officials will no longer directly censor content prior to publication, even though other longstanding controls remain in place.
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