All the News that’s thought Fit to Print

PRESIDENT’S COLUMN: Colin Chapman, who recently returned from China, contributed a short analysis of Chinese media ata meeting of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Victoria on June 5

The media is all controlled in China, right?  That’s a question, not a statement, and the answer is not as simple as you might think.

As an old cold warrior, I made interesting trips to the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries as the BBC’s economics correspondent and experienced first hand some of the many problems faced by media in authoritarian countries, as well as reading the daily BBC Monitoring of the Communist press.  And I’d been to China before as a visiting lecturer.

But on this visit there was a big difference. All is not open and free of censorship of course – but then it must be said all is not that open and free here, and it will get much worse if the Gillard government’s proposals on media shortly going to Cabinet – get through the Parliament.

But that’s another story – back to China.

If you were to ask premier Wen Jiabao about what newspapers  in China are allowed to do he’d probably say something like “All the News that’s fit to print” – the front page banner of the excellent  New York Times in a place where press freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment  of the United States Constitution .

Of course the question is who decides what’s fit to print, apart from editors, and in China’s case there are various mechanisms and bureaucracies, employing thousands of people.  But essentially it is the Communist Party, which is seldom seen and not often heard. Criticism of the Party is a definite ‘No’, but that is very different from criticism of government activities, or government departments, of which there is a great deal in newspapers, on the radio – and even more on the internet and in social media.  I’ll come back to the internet in a moment.

So reading the Chinese press is not the dismal experience it was in the days of Chairman Mao – you can learn a lot. On our study tour I looked forward to reading the China Daily and the Shanghai Daily over breakfast – and of course there were hundreds of Chinese newspapers we did not see – but what was obvious from the many Chinese we rubbed up against was that they were not badly informed, and many seemed to have at least as good an idea of world affairs as the man from Moonee Ponds.

Just to give you a taste of the kind of things reported – the trial of the top tax inspector in Beijing for embezzling more than half a billion dollars he was convicted and sentenced to death; the story of how three couples in the eastern city of Nanjing got divorced so their children could qualify for a place in a kindergarten; an op ed piece on G20 urging leaders, including China’s, to be more pragmatic; a new national inspection regime of all buses and coaches nationwide after a spate of accidents; new rules aimed at balancing workers rights with enterprises needing to make money; an article on the benefit of cloud computing; a story about how five journalists in Shanghai had been beaten up in a month; new tough measures against pilfering in supermarkets; a new push to privatize  seniors’ health care; the race to build greener homes; a list ranking the top universities and colleges; an increase in the number of sex harassment cops on the streets; a public criticism of the government by the Quandong party chief. The list goes on. As interesting to a foreigner as the Sydney Morning Herald or The Age, I suggest.

Of course I’m not suggesting All the News is published. Apart from censoring criticism of the Party, much is left out.  The failures of the One Child Policy – particularly the rising abortion rate of women who find their unborn child is a girl – does not get much publicity. It is quite difficult to find out exactly when precisely the upcoming Peoples Congress will take place – where Hu Jintao will hand over the presidency – and the more important job of party secretary – to a younger man. There are no signs of an agenda for this – or other important political meetings. We don’t know when the disgraced Bo Xilai will face trial.

And then there is the most important media in China – the internet. There’s no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube. This – and repeated reports of how the authorities frequently shut down some websites – might have you believe that the Chinese people are not on-line.

Nothing could be further from the truth. First internet access is widely available, at reasonable rates. China is actually the world’s largest social media market. It’s just a bit different from what we know here.

At the last count, there were 513 million internet users in China – that’s more than double the number in the United States of 245 million, those numbers from McKinsey. And more than 300 million Chinese use social networks and blogs. – that’s roughly equivalent to the combined population of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Britain. In addition, China’s online users spend more than 40 percent of their time online on social media. China has its own forms of social media – their Twitter equivalent was on the go 18 months before the US, and many use it to tell people about articles in papers like the New York Times is widespread. There’s a Chinese equivalent to Facebook, Weibo.

The explosive growth in social media shows no sign of abating – and makes it difficult for the government to censor it – unlike traditional media, for which a license is required.

But the Beijing government does use software and thousands of police to keep a watch on the more contentious sites and the people that use them.

But, to counter this, the Hong Kong University’s China Media Project has developed advanced software called Weiboscope to track down examples of government censorship, and analyses this on its web site. Hong Kong’s press is also very free and critical – despite having been 15 years under Chinese rule.

Also there are hundreds of social networks – many of them localized. That’s one reason it is so popular. Many access it by mobile phones – there are over 100 million mobile phone users in China.

As you’d expect advertisers love it, and are much more innovative than Australian companies in their use of it. Estee Lauder, for example, launched a 40-episode drama for its Clinique brand on social media. It can be watched each day on a dedicated web site, which also plays out to mobile phones, and to screens in buses and trains. It has been watched 21 million times – and Clinique’s sales have Xilai risen sharply.  The Chinese are indeed leading the world in internet marketing.

And just to conclude, the Chinese are inveterate travelers. Maybe instead of wasting its money on old media campaigns likely the eminently forgettable “Where the Bloody Hell are you?”, perhaps Tourism Australia should look at using video on China’s social networks to promote our country. Thank you.


Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in New South Wales


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