What the Mainland Media Say

How China's state-run press played key role in creating stock market bubble

Media played cheerleader for share buying ahead of the slump and urged public not to sell when prices tumbled

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2015, 3:03pm

The mainland has never drawn a clear line over its choice between a Stalinist command economy - regulated by government - and a free market economy, despite three decades of market-oriented reform.

This can be seen by the nature of its fledging stock market - which has many nicknames including a "political market", "policy market", and "government-regulated market" - the recent stock-market slump and the critical role state-run media have played in the whole saga over the past year.

From the middle of 2014, major media outlets, particularly the People's Daily, the ruling party's mouthpiece, as well as the Xinhua news agency and securities journals run by the state regulator the China Securities Regulatory Commission, began a campaign to churn out countless commentaries and news analyses on the wisdom and patriotism of buying shares.

They made all the right noises, telling investors about "an inevitable bull market".

They forecast that the "state-bull", "policy bull" and "reform bull" would last for "a 30-year golden period" that could see it "shoot up to as high as 10,000 points".

The campaign seemed to have paid off initially when the market jumped to its peak on June 12 after a 150 per cent gain in only eight months, with policymakers hoping a stock market frenzy would help it achieve its main policy goals of boosting growth amid an economic slowdown.

However, the market finally defied the party's call and made a sudden U-turn in mid June, with a precipitous crash that wiped out more than one third of share values in only a few weeks.

In response, the government - fearful that a further market slump would cause risk to the country's financial and banking system and spark social unrest - has done everything it could to stop the slide, launching a rescue campaign in late June.

To the surprise of many foreign investors and liberal economists, the package included suspending initial public offerings, creating a market stabilisation fund, ordering state firms to buy shares, stopping main shareholders from selling, and even telling investors not to panic .

Since then, state media has once again geared up its campaign to defend the government's intervention and promote market confidence.

"The Chinese stock market will bottom out," was the headline in a Xinhua commentary last week.

The People's Daily urged "rationality and calm" and said the "fragile market sentiment will be reversed".

China watchers know very well that state media are too powerful to ignore: if nothing else, reports and commentaries reflecting the will of the political leadership will sway investor psychology and can turn a rout into a rally - or vice versa.

Instead of concentrating on reform to introduce market rules, the government is now focused more on market outcomes.

It's likely that China's political leaders will succeed in pushing up stock prices - at least in the short term - in view of the resources at their disposal.

However, the on-going battle suggests merely that in this Communist Party-ruled nation, the party state outweighs market capitalism and political power outweighs market forces, which will end up as a losing game for everyone - the market, investors and also the government.

The market collapse is a major political setback for the current leadership and their reform programme because it has challenged the government's credibility and commitment to reform; the leaders pledged to allow market forces to play a "decisive role" in the allocation of resources in a historic document released at a party plenum in late 2013.

Yet what would be even worse is if the political failure over the stock market ended up causing it to become even more politicised in the future.