In China there there are vast amounts of people online, the Government has control but social media is changing politics. That’s the consensus view but in this article, LSE’s Bingchun Meng tackles what she sees as some of the misunderstandings about the state of China Media.
Recently the Open Society Foundation published an extensive reporton the state of digital media in China. This is the latest outcome of their Mapping Digital Media project that covers 60 countries. The Executive Summary of the report reiterates many familiar statements about Chinese media, including the central role of the government, the impressive growth of Internet and mobile phone usage, the empowerment of Chinese netizens via new technologies such as weibo (microblog), the tension between state control and media commercialization, and so on. The main report, however, contains more nuanced information about media digitisation in China. In this article I will make some important points that were not only omitted in the Executive Summary but also frequently glossed over by pundits commenting on Chinese media.
First, although the authoritarian state is commonly perceived as the omnipresent force looming over the media and communication landscape in China, the state is far from being a monolithic entity. This is made clear in section 5 of the report, which discusses the conflict between the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MII) over various issues, including spectrum allocation and the regulation of digital television.
As the report suggests, ‘SARFT has a stranglehold over radio and television media management and control. It will use the public nature of the broadcast industry as an excuse to deny the telecoms industry entry on to its turf’ (p.88). The turf war between different government ministries has been intensified by the convergence of communication technology, which blurs the boudnary between platform, service provider and content provider.
What the report fails to acknowledge though, is that aside from the pragamatic concerns of government agencies, the battle over media control is closely linked to political struggles within the Communist Party.
The recent Bo Xilai incident, for example, is a powerful reminder of the contentious elite politics going on at the highest level. The factions within the ruling Party in China are highly indicative of the social contestation that the different elite groups are trying to appease and reconcile. Hence it was not surprising that the Maoist website Utopia was shut down shortly after the dismissal of Bo, while Chongqing Satellite TV immediately restored commericials that were banned under Bo’s governance.
Second, any claim of the empowering potential of digital technologies has to be assessed against the reality of digital divide and the urban middle-class bias of media industries. 513 million Internet users is an impressive number, but the 800 million people who do not have access to the Internet is the real majority in China.
More importantly, the non-Internet users ‘rely almost exclusively on television for their information and entertainment’ (p.6), yet the ever expanding media marketisation has resulted in a strong urban bias in televison production. It is true that commercial media has undermined the control of the Party-state, but the profit-seeking orientation also creates new hierarchies and exclusions based on the differentiation of purchasing power.
The marginalisation of the lower social classes, as the report also points out, ‘is aggravated by issues related to the affordability of digital technology and levels of education’ (p.31). Over the years, the gap between Internet penetration rate in urban and rural areas has been widening, with the rural penetration rate (20 percent) only about one third of the urban level (56 percent). Among the internet users, only 37.1 percent actively post on the Internet or leave comments on posts.
In other words, ‘the current Internet voices belong to only some 10 percent of the Chinese people’ that are mainly composed of young, highly educated, urban population (p.56). As much as Weibo offers fascinating insights into the political engagement of Chinese netizens, one should always be careful in making claims about public opinion based on online discourses.
On the other hand, state-operated media outlets such as CCTV are negotiating between propaganda obligations and the increasingly intense market competition, yet they rarely view themselves being accountable to the viewing public. The quote from the famous CCTV anchor Cui Yongyuan is telling, “If our television is public television, then it is the world’s most dirty public television; if our TV stations are commercial television, then it is the world’s worst commercial television” (p.45).Third, the combined force of commercialisation and authoritarian control has led to the deficit of public service in China’s media digitisation. In several chapters, the report lamented on the decline of quality content across multiple platforms, including print media, commercial websites, and television. Being afraid of political repercussions, commercial media generally shy away from ‘sensitive topics’ while doing anything they could to improve their popularity. Promoting entertainment value and consumerism has proven to be not only lucrative but also politically safe.
Some might expect digital technology to reconfigure the ‘old’ power structure. Yet two pieces of evidence mentioned by the report are worth contemplating in relation to the subject. One is the complete lack of public consultation on important policy issues such as spectrum allocation and digital switch-over, and the other is the findings of a recent study on Chinese Internet censorship, which indicates that “posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored”, rather “the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilisation, regardless of content” (pp 73-74).
Such is the cautionary tale about the development of digital media in China. One does wonder though, how much of this is really unique of the world’s largest authoritairan country and how much of it also resonates with reality in the democratic world.
This article was also published on the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog.