What’s the best way to work out how well the Chinese economy is doing? It’s probably not a good idea to rely too much on the official GDP figures, which even Premier Li Keqiang learned to treat with scepticism some years ago. Others have deliberated more over subsets in the data, such as the purchasing managers indices. But now they have a new gauge for growth: controls on the domestic media.
This wasn’t the intention when the government started clamping down on reports about China’s economic health a few months ago. It had hoped that more positive news would boost confidence in the economy. Instead, it seems to be doing the opposite by fuelling concerns about a hard landing.
The government has pushed for more positive reporting before (notably in 2015 when the stock market was in freefall). But this time there are concerns that the controls could be permanent – and as strict as they are with reporting on politics.
In September the New York Times was the first to talk about a directive banning articles on the following subjects: economic slowdown; the dangers of local government debt; the impact of the trade war (a term, which no longer allowed at all); the signs of deteriorating consumer confidence; the risks of stagflation; and hot button issues emphasising the difficulties of people’s lives.
The same day the censor released another notice instructing media outlets to delete any commentary bad mouthing the economy. In late September NetEase Financial, a business news portal, was also shut by regulators, possibly over its coverage of government tax policy (see WiC425).
Since then, the broader theme has been picked up by a number of Western media outlets. They have come to the same conclusion: that controls are getting stricter and that where the economy is concerned, this is making many ordinary citizens more worried, not less.
As one social media commentator in the Financial Times argued: “Suppressing bad news doesn’t make it go away. It simply blinds policymakers so they make increasingly ill-informed decisions.”
The government is also trying to rein in the zimeiti. This ‘self-published media’ has grown exponentially since WeChat’s launch (we profiled the sector in WiC413; it was a zimeiti that broke the Fan Bingbing tax scandal, one of the biggest scoops of the year).
On one level the authorities have similar concerns to media watchdogs in the West. What is society’s answer to individuals or organisations that seek to gain – financially or otherwise – from spreading information that might be mere rumour or deliberately false?
One recent response from Chinese regulators was to shut down 10,000 zimeiti accounts (as of mid-November), jail miscreants and publish articles about limiting media chaos. The People’s Daily highlighted one of the more notorious incidents in May, when a zimeiti called Ergen Shitang reported lurid details about the rape and murder of an air stewardess by a man working from the Didi Chuxing taxi platform The tone of the reporting generated a wave of revulsion, prompting the group which owned the channel to shut it down. Likewise in October, two bloggers were jailed for spreading false rumours that Yili’s chairman had been detained on corruption charges (see WiC431). The dairy group subsequently said the bloggers’ source was a former chairman who had been jailed for embezzlement.
And yet as the historian GM Trevelyan once said, the key is not to “study the facts but the person who is writing them”. A Harvard University report in 2016 noted how the Chinese government pays bloggers to post hundreds of millions of social media comments each year, and Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Net report has highlighted the rise of “digital authoritarianism”, concluding that China is exporting its censorship-and-surveillance model to other countries.
Domestically the clampdown is putting huge pressure on the industry too. Earlier this month, former People’s Daily editor Hu Xin leapt to her death from the newspaper’s headquarters. “Depression is very common in the media because of the amount of fakery we have to write gets to us psychologically,” another local journalist told Radio Free Asia.
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