John Gittings

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"Journalism in China Today"

China in Focus (Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, UK), Winter 2001

Journalists one meets in China these days say they are trying to extend the limits of what is permissible, but some are less satisfied than others. Those who resumed or started their career soon after the Cultural Revolution see a huge improvement since then. "I would never have been allowed to talk to a foreigner like I am doing now - or else I would have had to report the conversation," says one veteran commentator in Shanghai. "Censorship is not a problem now," says another senior editor, "just so long as we don't criticise the Communist Party, or mention the Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama!" The younger generation of journalists are more likely to compare the state of the Chinese press with that of the West rather than with China's own past. "Our papers are full of empty talk, jargon and prejudice," says one of them, restlessly seeking a writing post with more opportunities for expression. "The government does not allow us enough leeway to explore such issues as laying-off workers, family violence, woman trafficking, generation gap, and the urban groups that are being marginalized in the cities." Good writing on all these subjects can actually be found if one knows where to look for it: sometimes the authorities may even encourage a wave of reporting on a sensitive subject like the traffic in women and children, to allay public concern and demonstrate that action is being taken.

Investigative Journalism

A small number of newspapers have acquired a reputation for investigative reporting which also helps to boost their circulation. More critical writing, including theoretical argument which implicitly criticises the Party, can often be found on websites, especially those which republish work from academic circles where dissenting argument is more likely to be tolerated. Finally, open criticism of the Party both from "right" (liberal) and "left" (neoMaoist) perspectives is quite frequently aired on popular web discussion groups, though the most outspoken contributions will be spiked by website monitors. It remains a patchy field, in which the mood relaxes and then tightens (as of late summer 2001 it had tightened) and where editors who "go too far" may be demoted and publications may be censured and websites may be closed down.

The current issue of the Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) which I have before me as I write, may serve as an example. This is by far the most popular outlet for investigative journalism in China: although published in Guangzhou, it appears on almost every newsstand in cities throughout the country. It has sailed close to the wind on several occasions, and in April 2001 several senior editors were removed or disciplined and the paper received a severe warning. The moves against it were reported in the western press at the time as amounting to a "death sentence" on the paper. Nevertheless, the issue on my desk (25 October) contains at least three pieces of serious journalism which would be unlikely to appear elsewhere - or if they did would be toned down.

(a) The front page splash is headlined "Will growing Chinese soya beans infringe American 'rights'?" It is a detailed critique of the US agribusiness Monsanto's attempts to secure a broad species patent based upon work it has done with a wild soya bean originating from South China. The article, based on briefings from Greenpeace and Chinese environmentalists, is sensitive at this time because China is about to enter the World Trade Organisation to a fanfare of self-congratulation: Monsanto's case against Chinese growers, the article warns, will be strengthened by the application of "WTO rules."

(b) An inside full-page expose of illegal timber felling in a county in southwest Hunan reveals how strict government restrictions have been regularly flouted for the past ten years. It makes it clear that this is being done with the complicity of the local forestry bureau. While Beijing in principle approves of such exposes, this comes at an awkward time when it is being officially claimed that the logging restrictions (tightened up in the past three years) are now working very well.

(c) A short but devastating piece, with grim pictures, takes the reader into a privately-owned Shaanxi goldmine where poor peasants sell their labour to work without masks in filthy conditions where several have already died. The reporter who wrote the article as a worker in order to obtain first-hand information: Chinese journalists who investigate abuses of this kind may be beaten or harassed if their identities are discovered. Implicitly, the article raises a serious question again about the laxity of government controls. Several thousand miners are believed to die every year across the country through accidents, mostly in small mines owned by local governments or privately, in spite of frequent claims that these have been closed down.

Social Scandals

Media investigations have played an important role in bringing to light three recent major social scandals, although all have been subject to significant harassment. A very small number of newspapers reported the scandal of contaminated blood in Henan province, in which commercial blood collectors with the backing of the provincial health department "recycled" blood among peasant donors with the result that entire communities have been infected with HIV/AIDS. After a school in Jiangxi blew up with the loss of more than forty lives, local newspapers reported claims by parents that the children had been forced to assemble fireworks in class. In the third case, the People's Daily website (although not the print newspaper) exposed an attempted cover up of the death of more than one 'hundred miners at the Nandan disaster in Guangxi. In all three cases, the initial news reports by Chinese journalists - who risked their jobs to get the story - triggered follow-ups in the international press. The stories were officially denied and foreign journalists attempting to follow them up on the ground were subject to arrest. Nevertheless exposure of the Aids scandal has now led to official acknowledgement at the national level that the problem of contaminated blood is severe. New regulations have been introduced to ban child labour in schools, and another of many periodic attempts is being made to clean up the mining industry

Ethical Journalism

In spite of restrictions and frustrations, many young Chinese journalists now have a strong ethical view of their work, and are in place to take advantage of any future relaxation. (To give a balanced picture, it must be noted that there is also a great deal of unethical journalism, particularly in the financial and consumer fields where business interests may simply buy favourable coverage.) Commercial reasons are already driving sections of the media in a more open direction: the Southern Weekend is owned by the Guangdong provincial Communist Party but it is also a money-maker. Longer established Party newspapers are as deadly dull as ever and are shunned by local readers, but they are unlikely to continue to enjoy full subsidy indefinitely.


Television is more uniformly orthodox, except for occasional critical items in one or two magazine programmes. Here the financial factor works in favour of conformity since it is the most popular medium for advertising regardless of content. Even so, it was noticeable that on the night of September 11, some provincial channels shifted to live coverage through foreign satellite feeds of the terrorist attacks in the US while the central TV channels took longer to react. One conclusion is clear: an item which appears in the Chinese press can no longer be assumed to have full official backing. The time when foreign journalists could write that "Beijing says." is past. Now we must cite the actual source - whether it is the Chinese Youth Daily, or the Southern Weekend, or the People's Daily and judge its weight accordingly. Like everything else in China, the media is in a state of transition and there are good journalists waiting to take Mao's advice to "seize the hour" - whenever it comes.