Mainland stage for media chiefs to ponder future
World media leaders will gather in Beijing today to launch the two-day World Media Summit, an event seen by many analysts as a chance for the central government to show off its 'soft power'.
They include News Corp head Rupert Murdoch, Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger and Associated Press president Thomas Curley.
A statement released by Xinhua, the summit organiser, said President Hu Jintao would deliver the keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the summit, during which representatives from about 130 media firms from more than 80 counties would discuss the challenges and opportunities brought by the rising popularity of the internet.
The summit comes as traditional media across the world, especially the newspaper industry, face severe challenges from online advertising, and many media conglomerates are either scaling back or rushing to find new ways to make profits.
The picture is totally different on the mainland, where the government has encouraged state-owned media giants such as Xinhua, China Central Television and People's Daily to expand globally with the help of state-controlled banks and financiers.
Li Congjun, head of Xinhua and executive director of the summit, said he approached the heads of 12 major news organisations during the Beijing Olympics last year, and they agreed to a meeting to exchange their views on the future for the media.
'Someone called the meeting 'the Olympic Games of the media'. I think it will be a landmark event in terms of offering a platform for global media conglomerates to exchange opinions,' Li told Xinhua.
Professor Xu Youyu , a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was apparent that the central government wanted to take the opportunity to change its image as an oppressor of media freedom. 'I think this is the kind of well-planned event for the Chinese government to offer some renewed promises while having its goal to expand its influence internationally heard,' he said.
On paper, the growth of the mainland's media sector has been impressive. In 1950, it had only 253 newspapers with a circulation of 2.53 million copies a day. The number of papers has since risen to about 2,000, with a circulation of about 200 million. The 65 radio and television stations of 1950 had grown to 2,000 by the end of last year.
But the central government has never allowed media freedom.
'China's media is now in its darkest moment, for the government has gradually tightened its control over the media ... rather than loosened it,' Xu said. 'Media are mostly still propaganda machines rather than a voice for social justice.'
The central government's propaganda department is also widely known for regularly issuing notices to mainland media telling them what they can and cannot report.
This control applies not only to the news media, but also in other ways. In July, during the ethnic riots in Xinjiang , cellphone and internet access was blocked - an act widely criticised as an invasion of people's basic rights.
Zhou Xiaozheng, professor of sociology at Renmin University, said many of his personal e-mails were automatically blocked by the state for vaguely defined 'public security' reasons. 'The problem in China's media industry is the lack of a rule of law. Everything is decided by a few officials on a case-by-case basis,' Zhou said.
The state has supposedly enlisted media experts and scholars to draft a media law since the late 1980s, but there are still no clear rules on the media's operation.
Both Xu and Zhou said the mainland's media internationalisation campaign was doomed to fail because propaganda had no place in societies where the free flow of information was a basic right.