Mediapolicy.org: China’s Digital Evolution

(This blog post was originally published at the Open Society Foundation’s Mediapolicy.org)

The Chinese Communist Party may have completed its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, but the future of media in China remains as unclear as the rest of China’s political and economic future.

Since Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s top leader last week, a close reading of the freshly-brewed political tea leaves favors gradual, messy evolution over any sudden Internet-led revolution. Those who prefer to read research reports instead of tea leaves will draw similar conclusions after reading OSF’s recently-published Mapping Digital Media China report – even though it was completed well before the leadership transition. According to the report’s authors, the emergence over the past decade of a “vibrant online civil society” in China provides grounds for optimism in the long run. Yet this vibrant online world will continue to coexist with a “sophisticated party-state propaganda and control system” whose grip on broadcast media, licensing of digital services, spectrum allocation, and professional news content production shows few signs of loosening.

Indeed, analysis of last week’s 18th Communist Party Conference indicates an intention to maintain as firm a grip as possible. In a thorough examination of the of the new CCP Standing Committee, Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, pointed out that key liberals in the Politburo, particularly Li Yuanchao who is known to support liberal intellectual demands for rule of law and greater government accountability, were not promoted to the Standing Committee as expected. Cheng concludes that “China’s much-needed political reform may be delayed.” And without political reform, meaningful media reform is unlikely.

Chinese proponents of free expression and media reform are also disheartened by the elevation of Liu Yunshan, head of the propaganda department, known as a faithful enforcer of party discipline on the media. His efforts to bring the Internet to heel have included a licensing system for online service providers and a requirement that microbloggers register their accounts with their real names and ID numbers. As dissident writer and former journalist Dai Qing recently lamented to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper: “Liu’s appointment has reduced our hopes that citizens will be allowed to monitor their government and spread information freely over the next decade.”

Yet online social media – particularly the home-grown microblogging services known in Chinese as “weibo” – are nonetheless forcing more transparency and accountability upon Chinese bureaucrats and news media. Despite strict controls on news media coverage of the party congress, combined with elaborate attempts by social media companies to block the most edgy words and phrases from their services, netizens nonetheless managed to analyze and criticize the proceedings on Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s Twitter-like social media platforms. Government offices at all levels now recognize the need to engage with the public on weibo: According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency there were over 51,000 government micro-blog accounts by the end of September.

The authors of the MDM China report place these developments in a broader, more sobering media context. They cite government survey data indicating that roughly 30 percent of the internet-using population – about 10 percent of the nation’s total population – actively participate in online discussions or post their own opinions and observations online. The report also reminds us that the majority of Chinese people have yet to use the internet at all: “the internet is still beyond the reach of 800 million Chinese who rely almost exclusively on television for their information and entertainment, in particular the mammoth state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).”

China’s news organizations – particularly the more commercially-oriented ones serving local and regional markets – like news organizations everywhere, are working hard to innovate through creative use of digital technologies. However their ability to conduct independent investigative journalism, and actually publish or broadcast these investigations in their newspapers or on television, is severely constrained by strong party and government controls. Individual journalists have been able to use blogs and microblogs as an alternative distribution channel for some news and information, though the result is that news organizations do not directly benefit from their staff’s most cutting-edge investigative talents. Meanwhile, websites that are not part of government-approved news organizations are not allowed to conduct original news reporting – although online media companies are constantly seeking ways to subtly get around the strict rules about who can report news under what circumstances, particularly on local stories.

When it comes to television – which remains the most important and powerful form of media for the majority of Chinese – the government naturally controls the switchover process from analog signal to digital. It also controls which companies are allowed to participate in the provision of bundled internet, voice, and digital TV services – as well as who is allowed to create what sorts of content disseminated through these services. The same of course goes for mobile services of all kinds. When it comes to allocation of spectrum, politics “plays a decisive role in spectrum allocation policies.” There is no notion of “public service media” independent of party and state which “view themselves as the overseers of the public interest.” Yet there is no process by which the bureaucracy – often a patchwork of different agencies and departments – determines the broader public interest as they go about creating and enforcing rules and regulations.

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  • Media literacy. With “hundreds of millions of people with little knowledge or understanding of how the media are used and how they might use the media,” greater media literacy education for all ages would “help educate people to participate in public life so that the opportunities which digitization brings can be more widely enjoyed.”
  • Relaxation of government and party controls on media. This would make it more possible for journalists to carry out independent, investigative journalism that would hold authorities accountable to the public interest.
  • Constrain local government abuse of power over media. The central government should take “measures to end the pattern of violent retribution, harassment and victimization meted out to journalists or whistleblowers by local offcials angered by critical media coverage.”
  • Passage of a press law. This would be consistent with existing national policy of governance based on rule of law. A specific press law “can help prohibit administrative control and interference in the media.”
  • Official tolerance and support for press freedom organizations. Such organizations would “defend press freedom and the independence of media from the government and help address a crisis of ethics in the profession.”
  • Independent public service media. A “non-commercial, non-profit, public radio and television system” would help to “guarantee the dissemination of education, science, health, and other content to feed an information-hungry populace.”
  • Better coordination and stakeholder collaboration on the digital switch-over process. There is currently no clear process for mediating different bureaucratic, economic, commercial, and public interests. The report argues that “there should be the means for collaboration between industry players, especially broadcasting companies and mobile operators. Close collaboration between the principal stakeholders— the government, regulators, broadcasters, transmission providers, receiver manufacturers and retailers, and consumer representatives—is essential.”

The results of this month’s leadership transition provide little reason to expect that these things will happen in the near or even medium term. In the long run, however, the report’s authors remain hopeful. The internet, they write, “cannot change China’s political life in a dramatic way. It can, however, enhance the existing social capital, so that social forces that are operating independently of the state can have a chance to grow and prosper.”

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