How China's censors are losing control

Andy Ho

The mass media in China are widely regarded as loyal propaganda machines for the Communist Party. But sometimes even these mouthpieces do not say what their political masters want to hear.

Over the past two decades the number of newspapers in the mainland has mushroomed from about 200 before the open door policy in 1978 to more than 2,000 now.

Although the communists are known for their tight control of the media, the rapid expansion of the news trade has apparently made effective monitoring of its output increasingly difficult.

The Journalistic Front, Beijing's official journalism magazine, offered in its April edition a glimpse of how some media organisations have ventured out of bounds in the eyes of the authorities.

In a commentary signed by Guang Mei, the monthly lashed out at the lack of political discipline shown by a presenter on a phone-in show aired by an unnamed radio station in southern China.

A caller who claimed to be an aviator for the People's Liberation Army had revealed on air information about malpractices at an air force training institute.

He was allowed to give details about his complaints without interruption from the show's host.

'As a result it has given rise to undesirable influences among the audience,' the writer admonished. 'This can only be regarded as a political mistake.' Instead of encouraging the people to expose bureaucratic misconduct in the hope of eliminating it, the correct party line insists on nipping complaints in the bud.

The authorities are apparently also concerned about the rise of sensationalism in the press.

The examples cited in the journal ranged from an inventor supposedly turning water into oil to a qigong master predicting the failure of a satellite launch.

Officials are also worried about screaming headlines above stories about killers, sex maniacs and other criminals on the loose.

The press are supposed to play down stories such as bank robberies, murders of party officials and singers evading taxes, lest they project a negative image of an unstable society.

Offbeat features on three-legged ducks or Siamese ox twins are also listed as undesirable.

Even the current affairs programme, Focal Point Interviews, produced by the China Central Television under the control of the Central Broadcasting Administration, was criticised.

The media's pursuit for ratings, the journal insists, should not be at the expense of the psychological well-being of the people.

The proliferation of news reports without specifying the source of the information has also been identified as evidence pointing to the decline of journalistic standards in China.

Another Chinese media critic, Peng Chaocheng, has noted that even some of the more authoritative media tend to carry stories without explaining where their stories come from. He said the phenomenon had resulted in hearsay being printed as news, thus undermining the media's credibility.

In a rare praise of the Western media, he suggested Chinese journalists could learn from the West.

He cited stories printed in the Reference News, which contains reprints of dispatches from foreign publications and wire services which are compiled by Xinhua (the New China News Agency) for party cadres, as evidence of why Western journalistic practices had their merits.

A casual survey of 22 stories showed that all had stated their original source of information.

As members of the 'national team', he contended, editors and reporters in high-level news organisations should specify the source of their stories so as to compete with the international media. Over the past couple of years, the propaganda authorities have spent considerable time and energy clamping down on what has been referred to as 'compensated news'.

The term is a euphemism for journalists taking bribes to publicise commercial ventures.

The mainland government has recently issued several directives trying to stamp out the practice.

The latest stipulates that those caught will lose the right to promotion throughout their journalistic career. The latest calls for those in the media to adopt a correct political attitude can be traced back to Jiang Zemin's visit to the PLA Daily last September.

Quoting Mao Zedong , he said: 'Journalistic work should be left to politicians.' What he meant was that the mass media could be trusted to neither scholars nor business people. Instead, it should be left only to those with an acute political sense of how to advance the party line. Reams of commentaries have subsequently been written to elaborate on the party chief's remarks.

'There are comrades without an elementary knowledge of politics, and this brings them to entertain absurd ideas, such as the idea that we live in a time where critical journalism remains a necessity,' Mao once told his followers.

Chairman Mao has been dead more than 20 years, but his dogmatic doctrines appear to be very much alive. Despite the rising educational standard of the people and the growing sophistication of the news media, the people are still looked on by the authorities as being unfit to choose what they should watch, hear and read.

But unlike Mao's day, it might take a lot more than memoranda and orthodox commentaries to convince the media to forget about market pressure and just heed the party's instructions.