In a democratic society, a free and unhindered press is referred to as the “fourth power” for the role it plays in monitoring the execution of power, overseeing the environment, and recording history. However, it’s a very different situation in China.
China is home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments. The already limited space for investigative journalism and online commentary shrank in 2016, continuing a trend of ideological tightening since Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Censorship of news and Internet content related to the the CCP, China’s financial system, and environmental pollution increased as the economy slowed and smog intensified, adding to the topics’ political sensitivity.
Chai Jing, a well-known broadcaster from CCTV, made a documentary in 2015 called Under The Dome, which combined a personal, heart-tugging narrative, investigative reporting, and explanatory skills to dissect the reasons for the dire air pollution that plagues Chinese cities. The online documentary went viral in China, with more than 150 million viewers in the first days after Chai posted it online. But in three weeks, it went from Internet sensation to being blocked by government censors.
As today’s events become tomorrow’s history, how can we trust that history will be accurately recorded when so many issues, both political and social, cannot be openly discussed in China?
The authorities in China not only monitor the state-run press, they also keep a close eye on all internal media sources, including social media, online commentary, and even advertising. The government also limits access to foreign news by restricting rebroadcasting and the use of satellite receivers, by jamming shortwave broadcasts, and by blocking websites.
Chinese newspapers are divided into major three categories:
- State-run newspapers and digital media outlets, which operate under tight Communist Party control, from central to local.
- Professional trade newspapers sponsored by various trade or social organizations, such as The Educational Post, Chinese Women’s Post, and The China Petrochemical Post.
- Commercial newspapers, such as metro posts, night posts, and other commercial newspapers that focus upon social issues, lifestyle, and entertainment.
State-run media entities employ compulsory subscription schemes and receive larger subsidies to maintain circulation. Subscriptions to professional trade newspapers have also remained relatively steady. These newspapers are non-political and tend to be self-sustaining, as they have their own loyal readership and are often supported financially by their respective organizations.
Commercial newspapers once controlled the market share of newspaper circulation, but as the digital age advanced, readership fell off dramatically. Commercial publications, such as Beijing’s Jinghua Times, were forced to close due to reduced readership and escalating costs. Even though the newspaper respected the CCP’s authority and avoided reporting on politics, it did not receive any government support in the form of subsidies to help offset its financial difficulties.
The commercial newspapers and network media organizations that remain are just a shadow of their former selves when investigative journalists routinely captured the headlines with stories of official corruption and tainted vaccines.
Today, commercial newspapers can only play in the narrow space that’s been allotted to them by the CCP through direct censorship and by creating a culture in which journalists do not dare to speak freely. The result of these controls is that commercial newspapers as a progressive force have been effectively neutralized over the past few years in China.
While a few journalistic stalwarts remain, the model of journalism that produced hard-hitting investigative reporting in commercial newspapers and network media organizations is increasingly losing out to a format whose most prominent feature is sunny headlines about government work and the daily activities of CCP members.
Translated by Cecilia and edited by Kathy McWilliams.