China has unveiled some big reforms for the economy and outlined plans to gradually ease long-criticized social policies in its recently released Communist Party report on reform. But, the changes the party has in mind for the country’s media suggest China has no plans of loosening its grip on journalists or ending the country’s tight control of information anytime soon.
Only a small portion of China’s new report on reform was dedicated to issues related to the media. In it, the party talks about the need to perfect its systems for guiding public opinion and the handling of sudden online breaking incidents.
The report also talks about the importance of "watchdog journalism" and the role it plays in weeding out corrupt government officials.
Doug Young is an associate professor of journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University and author of the Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China. He said the goals outlined in the reform report highlight the party’s ongoing effort and desire to "get their hands" around social media.
“It’s sort of a two-pronged thing,” Young said. “They want to control it, but they want to let it be an effective tool for uncovering corruption and government mismanagement.”
The report also talks about the need to not only promote the integration and development of traditional and new media, but to exert more control over new media as well.
Government still in charge
Li Datong, a former journalist who was fired from a state media organization for his views says he sees nothing new in the plans.
“The party keeps the power on the media through editors, editors are the ones in charge of information control,” Li said. “Now it might be more difficult to completely cover up news, but in fact it is still easy for government departments to cover up their own information.”
Li says what is needed is more government openness about its affairs. On that front, there may be some hope for progress. According to the report, state-owned enterprises will be required to be more open in reporting of their budgets and finances. Government departments are also ordered to be more open in their affairs.
Chang Ping, a well-known Chinese journalist and commentator said that under the current system there is no possibility of the media being independent.
“The media has to be independent from the party and its political power,” Chang said. “This is something that many people in the media are fighting for, for their own space. But the party keeps opposing such views and strangling opportunities.”
One individual who is doing just that, fighting for more space, is investigative journalist Luo Changping. Luo, the deputy editor-in-chief for China’s Caijing Magazine, has exposed several cases of official graft, including the country’s former energy chief Liu Tienan.
In an interview this week with China’s Southern Weekly newspaper, Luo says that in addition to the challenges brought on by new media, journalists in China are facing a tightening political environment, and the temptation to publish false stories for money.
But Luo is optimistic that despite the challenges, China’s media will continue to become more professional. He also told the newspaper that his "China Dream" is that everyone be allowed more freedom of expression.
In recent months, China’s media have been facing a credibility crisis following the problematic case of journalist Chen Yongzhou. Chen was detained over a series of critical reports he wrote about a state-owned company. And before he even went to trial, Chen confessed on state-run television that he had accepted bribes for making up stories about the company.
Some have argued that China’s journalists need more ethics training and that the case highlights a need for tighter scrutiny of the editing process. But others were not that convinced.
Li Datong said it is difficult to even believe the case is true.
“The police arrests him and then on CCTV you tell what crimes, no evidence, no legal base. This is all a farce,” Li said. “But I also have to say that this type of degeneration in media are many, extortion happens, sometimes is the media organization sometimes it is the journalist.”
Chang Ping said the problem really traces back to journalists' lack of independence.
“They are used by companies as well as by the government. It is very difficult to have corruption cases within the propaganda department, this is because they are the organ of censorship, so this corruption is not revealed. Our society is corrupt, and the fact that there is corruption in the media just highlights the severity of the problem.”
Even so, China announced plans recently that it would train some 250,000 journalists on issues such as ethics and the Marxist view on journalism as well as how to prevent rumor spreading. At the end of the course journalists will be given a test before they can renew their work credentials.