Motivational spanking shows effects of China’s one-party rule

Official mainland media is under orders to glorify contemporary Marxism while at the same time providing news that attracts more readers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 1:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2016, 1:16pm

One media outlet wryly called it “motivational spanking”. The People’s Daily, which broke the story, called it “shocking”.

Smartphone video footage obtained by the People’s Daily showed bank employees being physical disciplined by an outside consultant to Rural Commercial Bank in the city of Changzhi. The consultant can be seen berating a group of allegedly underperforming employees on a stage; then, after yelling at them to “get your butts ready,” he administers a paddling.

An interesting aspect to this affair is that the secret video recording was uploaded by the country’s leading “mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party” newspaper. Is this a mouthpiece’s job – to spread the news that really dumb things occur in China’s corporate culture?

Hardly. This is about money. Sensational news sells papers and attracts digital page views.

China’s media is strictly regulated and censored, yet is also expected to respond to market conditions – to be profitable and not completely dependent on the state for support.

Such has been the case since the 1990s when, as part of country’s sweeping economic reforms, the government decreased subsidies for media. “This, in turn, forced media agencies to operate as commercial enterprises as they had to depend on advertising and circulation in order to survive,” Sheila Coronel, an administrator at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York, wrote in a 2009 World Bank-sponsored book.

The surprising result – for a while – was a burst of investigative reporting in China, with television and print media aggressively probing to uncover cases of corruption, crime and pollution violations.

“Although the targets of the investigations were low- and mid-level officials, the new reporting represents a radical change from the past,” wrote Coronel, a former investigative journalist in the Philippines.

Of course, debates on sensitive political issues or negative coverage of Party elites was never allowed in China. Still, the tolerance for some muckraking and investigative reporting perhaps demonstrated an evolving self-confidence during the “economic miracle” phase.

Unfortunately, the screws have retightened and the risks of investigative reporting have risen under the current Party leadership. Starting in 2014, a number of mainstream print journalists have been fired or even jailed for unauthorised investigative reports; in the past it was only the dissident journalists that faced such pressures.

Unlike politics in China, coverage of economic and financial matters was always more frank and free. But now even this area is increasingly off limits. After last year’s stock market crash, one reporter had to conduct a TV confession as punishment for writing up a negative outlook on stocks. Strategists at banks and elsewhere have been told not to produce bearish economic reports.

Despite the crackdown on investigative journalism, some of China’s top leaders still do not seem satisfied.

This is a narrative that reflects the infantalising effects of authoritarianism

Earlier this month, the country’s propaganda department was publicly criticised because of a dearth of news stories on the virtues of “Chinese-style Marxism”. The censure came from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the body which is orchestrating the country’s anti-corruption campaign.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. At one level China’s official media is under orders to produce more puff pieces on the glories of contemporary Marxism; at another level comes the challenge of commercial viability.

Under these circumstances, we should not be surprised to see the official press jumping at any chance to run sensational video footage that does not directly criticise the Party. One day it might be a video of a fat and cuddly panda doing something overwhelming cute; another day something horrific, like an escalator rider getting sucked in to her to death.

But censors – watch those comment sections.

Consider the implications of the “spanking consultant” video. Ultimately, this is a narrative that reflects the infantalising effects of authoritarianism.

A society that cannot countenance free and open discussion – even on next year’s GDP targets? A society asked to support a sweeping anti-corruption campaign – yet citizens are individually prohibited from playing a watchdog role in public accountability? A society expected to believe, like dumb children, that those increasingly frequent TV confessions are not coerced?

This is a society being infantalised. It’s no surprise that someone, somewhere thought he could give the children a spanking.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial journalist