China’s media change: talking with Angela Merkel

Li Datong
6 September 2007

One day towards the end of August, I received a surprise call from the German embassy in Beijing telling me that Chancellor Angela Merkel would be visiting China, and that one item on her agenda would be a meeting with people who worked in the Chinese news media. The chancellor wanted to find out about the current state of - and recent changes in - Chinese journalism. "Would you be interested in attending the meeting?", asked the embassy official. "Of course", I replied. After all, who would turn down such an opportunity?

On the morning of 28 August, I met with three colleagues at the entrance to Merkel's hotel. Before we had arrived, we had been speculating that security at the hotel would surely be extremely tight, and wondered how many security checks we would have to go through. We would at least be scanned with a metal detector, like at an airport, and perhaps even our cameras would be taken apart and inspected, we mused. To our surprise, when we arrived at the hotel, we found the lobby was alive with hustle and bustle. People were to-ing and fro-ing as usual, and there did not seem to be any extra security at all. We even had time for a leisurely coffee.

At the appointed time, we were led by two embassy officials to the lift, and went straight up to the chancellor's presidential suite without any security checks whatsoever. The meeting was to take place, not in a conference room as we had supposed, but in the living area of the suite, where eight or nine chairs were arranged around a circular table. It impressed us all greatly that the arrangements for meeting the German chancellor were just the same as for meeting any "normal" person.

A generational shift

However, we were not there just to make idle chat, and knew that we had one precious hour in which to brief the chancellor fully and honestly on the state of the Chinese media. Chancellor Merkel is different from other western leaders in that she lived in the former East Germany for thirty-five years, and has personal experience of the politics of Soviet-style communism in the cold-war era. This meant we did not need to waste any time talking about the special characteristics of this system of government.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point" (12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

"What China's new property law means" (21 March 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform" (16 May 2007)

"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary" (13 June 2007)

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Hong Kong's one-legged return" (11 July 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

China is special, however, in that it is similar neither to the stultified regimes of North Korea and Cuba, nor to the Soviet Union and east-central European countries, which underwent such huge overnight transformations. China is still changing step-by-step - at times almost imperceptibly. My colleagues and I have been here all this time, and in the last thirty years have participated in, and pushed forward these changes.

These transformations are both representative of the era in which we live, and unstoppable. We briefly told Chancellor Merkel about the following six changes:

* A vital prerequisite regarding information-control no longer exists in China. This is that effective control of the media is only possible under the condition that those being controlled come to agree with the propaganda of the controllers, because they have no access to any other sources of information

After they came to power in 1949, the authorities fostered a group of "theoretical experts" and writers, the most famous of which were Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Hu Qiaomu. There were also numerous others of varying levels of recognition. Their function was to write "commentaries" on political changes, whether spontaneously or under orders. Since there were no other sources of information with which to compare these commentaries, they were highly effective in misleading and cheating people.

It would be extremely difficult for such a situation to arise in China today. The public derides anything containing outdated, rigid dogma. In reality, brute power is now the only tool left with which the government can control the media. It has to issue their directives at face-to-face meetings, or over the phone, because they are afraid of leaving behind written records of instructions. The only real function of this kind of control is self-comfort for the authorities. The public is laughing in their faces.

* Media workers have lost their credulity. A precondition for control of the media in China has been that news workers should believe in the principles that (as a matter of value as well as fact) "news is propaganda" and "news is the voice of the party". These days, virtually no one in the media believes this. News workers of my generation have, since their first days on the job, been reflecting on the history of the Chinese media after 1949. We have seen how throughout all the political campaigns that have ravaged China - from the anti-rightist movement, to the great leap forward, to the cultural revolution - the media was always a willing accomplice at the forefront of events. The more perceptive among the older generation of news workers learnt painful lessons from these experiences, and urged that "we should no longer tell lies".

After much independent reading, Chinese news workers had by the mid-1980s freed themselves from the imprisonment of traditional ideas of what news should be. We started to firmly reject hollow propaganda and strove to work by the principles of true journalism. Since then, four or five generations of young journalists have entered the profession, and these youngsters have been steeped from an early age in these globally accepted principles.

In the journalism departments of Chinese universities, the values and techniques as well as the principles of journalism are being taught. Outstanding examples of foreign journalism are held up as models, and there is a widespread attitude of professionalism. When dealing with information from government departments, the media no longer looks at it in terms of its effect on the public, but in terms of which social groups benefit. Investigative journalism aiming to reveal truths from behind the scenes has also taken off, and several pieces which compare favourably with the work of the best journalists in other countries have been produced. It can be said that Chinese journalists now share common professional values with their colleagues from across the world. This is an important development.

* There have been fundamental changes in the levels of influence wielded by different sections of the press. Party newspapers no longer dominate. In the mid-1980, in the big cities, local papers emerged whose focus was decided by the market. These were the first papers aimed at specific audiences in specific cities. The most important characteristic of these papers was that the content was decided by what the audience wanted to read. Lacking government funding, these papers' survival, and the pay and social welfare of their staff, depended on their market popularity.

Twenty years on, China's city newspapers are full of vitality. They are far in advance of the traditional, established newspapers both in terms of circulation and advertising revenue. They also report on issues far outside their own geographical region, and have become the Chinese public's main source of information. In contrast to this, the circulations of the traditional centrally-published party newspapers are falling every year, and their influence is waning. They cannot cover there own costs, and make losses year after year. If it were not for compulsory subscriptions and government funding, they would probably have closed down by now. The current situation can be summed up in the phrase: "mainstream media has become marginalised, and marginal media has become the mainstream".

* The influence of the internet. Since the middle of the 1990s, the internet has expanded explosively in China. In only ten years, 130 million users have come online, which places China second only to the US in numbers of users. There are also 20 million individual blogs, with about a million relatively active. In theory, every blog has the potential to become a news outlet. For the traditional media, the internet has the potential to make any tiny local story into a national sensation overnight. Small, bitty stories can be seized upon by the professional media and turned into important news stories.

An example of this is the story of the Chongqing nail house which started out as just a few photos on a personal blog, and ended up as global news. Stories or essays that cannot be published in the professional media can almost all be posted on the internet. When stories appear on the internet, they often attract tens of thousands of comments from those online, rapidly forming public opinion - an intangible force that the authorities cannot ignore. The internet has already caused massive changes in the Chinese media, and in society at large, and its influence will continue to grow.

* The Chinese media is beginning to become an outlet for public opinion. The media has two functions, as everyone knows: to publish news, and to publish opinion. Between 1949 and the mid-1990s, the Chinese media published no opinion pieces. The editorials and commentaries that were published were basically outlining government ideas and policies - the opinion was the opinion of the party. However, since the mid-1990s, the Chinese media has begun to break free of this model. The national media no longer just repeat the ideas expressed in People's Daily editorials, and have begun to publish comparatively independent opinion columns.

This has developed to the point where there are now special opinion pages, which are often the most important parts of the paper, with the largest readerships. There are usually timely responses to national events, trends, policies and speeches from government leaders. These include pieces from columnists at the newspapers, along with offerings from academic experts and vox- pops. Usually, a variety of opinions are expressed, some of which even oppose the authorities. It is precisely the interactions of these different opinions which gives rise to public opinion, educates the public, and enables people to have more respect for differing viewpoints.

* National leaders and some officials are beginning to change their views on the media. In an article published in People's Daily on 27 February 2007, China's premier Wen Jiabao said: "democracy, the rule of law, freedom, human rights, equality, and mutual respect are not exclusively capitalist values. They have come about as the result of the gradual advance of history. They are common human values." This means that China is no exception. Ten years ago this would still have been considered "bourgeois liberalism".

A spokesman for the ministry of public security recently published an article entitled "Allowing the Media to Speak Will not Cause the Sky to Fall in". In it he wrote: "Whether you like it or not, and whether you agree with it or not, accountability to public opinion as expressed by the media, is a tool that complies with the spirit of the constitution. It is vital in allowing the public to express its wishes, and in promoting the strategy of governance according to the law." This represents the opinion of a considerable number of modern officials. In building on it, steps such as removing limits on foreign reporters, and the passing of laws on freedom of information, will have lasting positive effects on the environment in which the media work.

A humane authority

In the process of moving away from a totalitarian system, these changes are inevitable. There will be successes, and there will be setbacks, and many games of cat-and-mouse between the media and the authorities. Sometimes these conflicts will be fierce and will bubble to the surface, as was the case when Freezing Point was closed down in 2006, attracting the attention of the global media (see "The story of Freezing Point", 12 September 2006). But if we choose only to take notice of the setbacks, then we will lose hope for the future of the Chinese media. In fact, the ice is slowing thawing and beginning to crack, and the demands of the Chinese people for democracy and freedom will be increasingly exposed.

During our 28 August meeting, Chancellor Merkel constantly asked questions. She even asked us whether she could pass on some of our comments to Wu Bangguo, head of the National People' s Congress. That evening on the news I saw Merkel had urged Wu to establish laws for the Chinese media as soon as possible. This is what Chinese journalists really need - a legal basis on which to carry out their work.

The German leader - who has been for two years running declared by Forbes magazine the most powerful woman in the world - was extremely approachable, and happily had her photograph taken with us at the end of the meeting. It really was an unforgettable occasion.

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