Friday, January 11, 2013

Pay No Attention to That Totalitarian State Behind The Curtain!

The world watches as China's journalists start chafing under the yolk of party censorship… and The Party wishes they weren't

We laowai tend to get into a lather whenever any kind of protest movement in China picks up steam, or whenever something going on here starts to penetrate into the front pages of the major dailies in the west or into the A block on nightly newscasts.

As such, the China expat Twittersphere has been all abuzz this week with the now well-documented goings-on down in Guangzhou at the offices of The Southern Weekly. I won’t re-hash what's been happening in this space since there has been excellent, extensive and exhaustive coverage of the events elsewhere (check out this, this and this for great summaries), but suffice to say, posts have flying around from every corner- from overseas looky-loos, local expats, pundits and journalists, including a friend, Jonah Kessel, who was on the ground on Wednesday documenting the fairly quiet gathering for The New York Times.

But yesterday things got more riveting when the police finally decided to get involved and put an end to the protests. Mark Mackinnon, the Beijing-based correspondent for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, was on the edge of the crowd as the cops closed in and he sent out a series of updates to Twitter, letting people know what was going on in near real time.

When the police moved in, he was able to post photos, documenting the arrests.

What makes his posts even more remarkable is that the police knew that he was there and didn't remove him from the scene or prevent him from reporting. Just before things got serious he posted these notes about getting stopped by security officials.

With texting, social media, VPNs and e-mail-based photo sharing services available to everybody, it's very, very difficult for the government here to keep a lid on anything that happens, whether it be a small protest or a train derailment. And it's next to impossible to do it if a western reporter happens to be there. Short of arresting and expelling all western journalists, the Chinese government just has to deal with incidents like this getting out into the public sphere. And that's a very new phenomenon for them.

Keeping up apperances

One thing that westerns need to keep in mind whenever they read about how secretive the government is and the lack of press freedom (especially when they read about people protesting against press independence), is that the concept of "face", or a positive public image, is very, very important to Chinese people culturally. Maintaining good "face" helps one's social status. It's a big reason why nouveau riche Chinese are so luxury label obsessed.

This idea of "face" translates upward. If the government has a good image, then, by extension, the whole country has a good image. How things appear is just as important here as facts behind the scenes. Sometimes it's even more important. (Check out these comments that Jackie Chan made to the Chinese media yesterday for a great example of how this works.)

So if this is true, and if strict government control over the flow of information is not only the norm but a cultural and political imperative, then reporting like this week's, and the kind that's been going on for the past year, has got to be particularly galling to the country's ruling elite.

Example after example can be seen where the Powers That Be have let slide Chinese citizens' exposure and criticisms of the corrupt practices of local officials. There are historical and cultural precedents for tolerating this kind of venting. It's an obvious move by the central government (as it was by the governments of dynasties past) to give the people an outlet through which to channel their anger and frustrations. When a local official is then sacked or prosecuted, the higher authorities in Beijing look like competent heroes looking out for the little guy instead of the corrupt enablers that they are.

But when chatter starts to touch on the practices and predilections of the highest level officials and/or leaders of the most powerful political cadres, the talk is snuffed out in short order via censorship, or "Harmonization", on online forums and traditional media blackouts. Good "face" is maintained.

Enter the foreign press. While they’ve been doing a good job for several years, it's in the last 9 months that Beijing-based western correspondents have begun to not only shine, but to start making the people at the top extremely uncomfortable.

2012 saw more major websites banned and more journalists expelled than at any time in recent memory. Al Jazeera was first when its correspondent, Melissa Chan, got expelled for undisclosed reasons (though many believe that her reporting on China's notorious "Black Prisons", combined with a critical Al Jazeera documentary on Chinese labor camps are what did her in), and the company has not been allowed to send in a replacement reporter since. Bloomberg was next when its website was blocked from servers in China in retaliation for its expose on the wealth of incoming President Xi Jinping. Next up was the New York Times, who just 2 months after launching their Chinese-language site, saw their website blocked for the first time since 2001 after they published an exhaustive report on the riches gained b the family of outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Blocking websites will only get you so far. More and more Chinese can easily get around the blocks. (China was Facebook's #1 country in terms of growth last year, even though the site is banned.) Domestic social media sites are censored, but not in real time and not completely.

The bottom line is that you simply can’t be the #2 economy on the planet (soon to be #1) and NOT allow an international press presence. Information is currency in today's world and if there's a lack of a data flow then people simply won’t do business with you. China's leaders know this.

So what to do? As of right now the Chinese government's policies towards press freedom and freedom of speech in general has got them looking like Tom Thumb sticking various fingers in a leaky dyke. Unauthorized information comes out fast and furious these days and it's nigh impossible to stop it.

Be careful what you wish for

What we're seeing are the consequences of a shift in media policy that began back in 2000-2001. China was bidding for the Olympic Games and they were making conscious decisions to open up more. The New York Times was unblocked in China and more reporters were allowed in and given greater and greater freedom to move around and report on what they saw.

Bidding for the Games in the first place (and the World Expo in 2010) was seen as China's "coming out" party. Domestically it was a source of pride and a marker in history. This would be the point when China stepped back onto the world stage and reclaimed its role as a central power after almost 200 years of living in the shadow of the west.

China got all that it wanted. Beijing became a veritable hive of foreign bureaus from every conceivable media outlet (The Hollywood Reporter even had a bureau here for a while). The world sat up and started paying attention. In a big way. After the Olympics, China emerged as one of the few bright spots when the world financial crisis happened, shining the spotlight even brighter on what was happening here, as people all over the world gazed with envy at their success and searched for things that they could emulate in their own countries.

This intense attention has only grown as the press has become more emboldened here and the government's reactions to what we in the west would consider normal reporting on the levers of power have seemed so overboard as to be laughable. Instead of preserving "face" their reactions are making them lose it.

So what next?

China can not simply imprison or expel everybody who writes unflattering things. And western journalists can not sit idly by and let things go unreported because, unlike their Chinese colleagues, they not only have an outlet for reporting what they see, but they have an imperative (i.e. demanding editors and a ravenous-for-news public). Too many people have access to too many avenues of communication for that to be feasible. And western reporters have found many willing sources of information. People will talk to them (though not at the highest levels). Weibo conversations can not be censored fast enough before they are captured and re-printed on sites outside of China.

The Chinese government craved the spotlight. It wanted to showcase all of its accomplishments, of which it has many to be proud of. But what the leadership was either unprepared for, or simply did not imagine would happen, is that the spotlight that is now on them has started to expose the seedy underbelly of their operations.

Up until recently they've been fighting back in the way that they always have, by exerting more and more control. The new administration isn’t quite installed yet, and even when it is, most of the members of the Standing Committee will be old hands left over from the previous cadre, but I would not be surprised if over the next year or two you start to see some loosening of the reigns. I think that China will focus more on internal information controls and worry less about what foreign reporters are doing. As a younger generation moves up within the party's ranks, a generation who has grown up fully exposed to the west, you'll even start to see a more sophisticated media strategy evolve- one that doesn’t depend so much on the crude bludgeon of walled-off websites and expelling journalists.