Chinese Media Offers Controlled Coverage of Hu Visit
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JEFFREY BROWN: It was one of the few unscripted moments in a tightly choreographed event.
WANG WENYI, Protester of Chinese President: Hu Jintao, stop persecuting the Falun Gong!
JEFFREY BROWN: A lone protester shouted at China’s president, Hu Jintao, as he spoke yesterday on the White House South Lawn. The protester, Wang Wenyi, gained entry to the event with press credentials from a publication of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which is banned in China.
She was later charged with “harassing, intimidating or threatening a foreign official,” a misdemeanor. Her disruption was seen all across the world except in one place: China.
The Chinese government exercises a strong and sophisticated control over what its people read, see and hear. That point was driven home yesterday by an anchor for CNN.
CNN ANCHOR: The Chinese government has blocked CNN’s signal on the occasions where we broadcast pictures of that heckler. Those pictures were initially broadcast live during the speech that happened on the White House lawn with President Hu and President Bush…
JEFFREY BROWN: CNN’s signal into China is monitored by government authorities, as is that of the BBC World service. On an international broadcast from Chinese state television, the incident never happened.
CHINESE STATE TV ANCHOR: President Hu Jintao received a warm welcome on his arrival at the White House. He was greeted with a 21-gun salute and full military parade being staged.
JEFFREY BROWN: Official Chinese news agencies reported extensively on the trip, but no mention was made of the protester.
China has also constructed an elaborate surveillance apparatus for the Internet, dubbed by opponents “The Great Firewall.” It monitors online activity and blocks Web sites dealing with any topics deemed subversive by the Chinese authorities.
Journalists in China work under onerous restraints. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group, 32 reporters are jailed in China. Among them: Shi Tao, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets abroad. He had e-mailed the official state guidelines for coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen democracy movement in 2004.
Also being held, Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times. Charges of violating national security against Zhao were dropped a month ago, but he has not yet been released and remains under investigation.
JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we get two views. Orville Schell is an author and journalist who has written extensively on China. He’s dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
And Hongying Wang is associate professor of political science at Syracuse University. She’s currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, where she’s focusing on the development of institutions in China. And welcome to both of you. HONGYING WANG: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Orville Schell, starting with you, you’ve been monitoring the coverage in China of President Hu’s trip. Are you surprised by what’s been left out?
ORVILLE SCHELL, Journalism Dean, University of California, Berkeley: No, I think, you know, the agenda for China really was to have President Hu arrive in Washington, have a very respectful and glorious reception. And anything that might mar that, in terms of the way it was broadcast or conveyed back home, it was not welcome to the story that China wished to tell of this presidential trip.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was the media message that did go out?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, I think it was very much driven by pictures. I think what was wanted was not so much decisions on any major policy issue, but those images of Hu Jintao in the White House standing next to President Bush, and standing next to the Boeing officials, wearing a Boeing hat, and with Bill Gates.
And then I think, most importantly, the military honor guard, the 21-gun salute, all the appurtenances, which China really does crave as a way of legitimizing its own leadership, because in certain ways the bandwidth of legitimacy for Chinese leadership is rather narrow now. It has to do predominantly with the economy.
But, in terms of other sort of reinforcing elements, this is best had, I think, by gaining sanction abroad from leaders who are from those countries that truly are of consequence.
JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wang, what do you think? When we refer to the Chinese media, what are we talking about? Are these all government-controlled organizations?
HONGYING WANG: The Chinese media in the last 25 years has become very diversified. But in the political realm, you’re still pretty much talking about government-controlled voices, whether the media you’re talking about is television — especially television — radio, or newspapers, when it comes to political reporting, everything is strictly controlled by the government.
JEFFREY BROWN: So President Hu’s visit would be tightly controlled…
HONGYING WANG: Absolutely.
JEFFREY BROWN: … in terms of everything that’s seen? And all the gaffes, and the hecklers that we saw here, there’s no chance to get that through?
HONGYING WANG: Yes, right. Chinese’s media has become, as I said, diversified, and you actually can see a big difference between the coverage of major political issues. Politically sensitive issues, events, especially important visits like this, are completely controlled, you know, what can be covered, what should be left out, what sort of questions Chinese journalists could ask…
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you mean — I’m sorry — do you mean literally controlled, as in sort of scripted ahead of time, “Here’s what will be done and here’s what goes out”?
HONGYING WANG: Oh, I’m sure there is room for flexibility as events unfold. But in general, what is the tone for this visit? What message do we want to send, both in terms of reaching the American public and reaching the overseas Chinese community and reaching domestic Chinese public? That is all very much script, I think, from the very beginning, even though the details could change over time.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dean Schell, do you have something to add on that, on how this is presented and how these journalists actually do their job, and whether, in fact, when we use the word “journalist,” is it the same term the way we think of it?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, journalists in China really don’t have the sort of theoretical basis which underpins very highly evolved notion of their independence. And they’re not protected by law.
There was a movement in the late ’80s to pass a press law, which would have given some codification to the rights of journalists to be watchdogs and to be protected when they engaged in investigative reporting, but that failed.
And so, in a sense, the sort of true north on the journalistic compass is still the old Maoist dictum that the press must be the megaphone of the party.
And so, before a big effort such as a presidential trip, usually the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party will send down, on almost a daily basis, a propaganda advisory, which is a kind of a command that goes down to all media outlets saying, you know, what is to be avoided, what is to be emphasized, what the themes are.
And, indeed, on the presidential plane, there were only three of the major official media outlets allowed — CCTV, the new China news agency, and the People’s Daily — which means that the more marginal, sort of peripheral media outlets have a really hard time getting into the heart of the matter and getting the kind of access that they would need to cover a story like this well.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Professor Wang, you said that the Chinese media has been diversifying over time. In what way is the market having an impact at all? What kind of areas is there real competition and less control?
HONGYING WANG: I think, as Professor Schell mentions, in the mid- to late-1980s, there was a period of liberalization, and then Tiananmen happened. And since then — or, actually, for a few years after that, everything was tightly controlled.
But since ’92, the government decided that: We’re only going to control a few very important things, including the media, certain sections of the media that covers politically sensitive issues. In terms of entertainment, social issues, novels, you know, celebrities’ lives, all those things have become very liberalized.
So people now can read pretty sensational stories in Chinese press, including, you know, over 9,000 magazines, over 2,000 newspapers, including evening papers, sort of supplement papers, and so on. They are less strictly controlled in that area.
And I think the government simply recognizes it can’t control everything; it will just control a few very important things. The rest can go.
JEFFREY BROWN: When the line is crossed, Dean Schell — and one case I wanted to bring up is one we brought up in our set-up, the case of the researcher for The New York Times. When the line is crossed, clearly there are sanctions, including jail. Tell us about that case.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, the case of The New York Times researcher, Chinese cannot be reporters for foreign news outlets, so they can only be researchers, which is what Zhao Yan was.
And he, it was accused, of leaking information when Jiang Zemin was about to step down from the Central Military Commission. This was the former president. And he was accused of violating national security and imprisoned without charges for a long time.
And then the charges were curiously withdrawn; it was expected he might be released. He wasn’t. And now there is talk of charges being reinstated.
But I think what probably happened in that case, that he did offend someone high up, and that means that a case usually becomes political. And then sort of the normal due process, which might be put into effect for a lower case, really doesn’t operate.
So it’s a way of, in Chinese parlance, of, you know, killing the chicken to scare the monkey. You make an example out of one person, in terms of reminding everybody there are limits, there are boundaries, and it’s best not to cross them.
And then, from there on in, you may not need to do as much, because people will be careful on their own to not violate, you know, these sort of expanding, contracting boundary lines of what is acceptable. And they do change from time to time, and you have to be very careful to know exactly where they are, lest you run afoul of a transgression.
JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Wang, in the minute we have left here, as you look ahead, are you hopeful about changes in the Chinese media or is it still an open question?
HONGYING WANG: I think it will be one of the last things to go. The traditional two methods of…
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the last things to go, in terms of controls?
HONGYING WANG: … to go, in terms of things being loosened up. Yes, because traditionally the Communist Party has exercised control through basically two means: organization and ideology. Control of ideology is very much a function of the control of the media. So that will not be something that gets liberalized very quickly. It’s too central to the regime’s concern of its survival.
JEFFREY BROWN: Dean Schell, last word from you. Are you hopeful, or do you think everything is still open to question?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, it is a paradox. The market is really opening things up. On the other hand, I think the party has a tradition of control, and they’re very fearful of releasing sort of too much tension and having a runaway situation which would maybe spin China into some sort of a chaotic situation that would be beyond their means to deal with. So that’s the fear of the media, as a vector of too much bad news.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Orville Schell, Hongying Wang, thank you both very much.
HONGYING WANG: Thank you.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Pleasure.