Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January issue of Journal of Democracy. With permission, we edited his piece, originally published in iSunAffair Weekend on Thursday, to reflect later developments. A more detailed account of the event itself can be found in this Foreign Policy article by Annie Zhang that I translated. –Yaxue
The predicament of Party-owned but commercialized media outlets in China
China does not have private media. Most of China’s media groups are subordinates of CCP Committees on different levels. The Party’s newspapers often look ugly, and their content unappealing, if not repulsive, without any market potential. They have always depended on forced subscriptions and state treasury subsidies for subsistence. As China “reformed,” the Party’s media organizations established and published subsidiary media outlets that answered the market demand and, at the same time, infused blood back into their parent papers. The system has embraced such a model, because it not only alleviates the financial burden of the state in supporting large media organizations, it also ensures that these organizations would benefit from the rapid economic growth without the Party losing control over mass communication.
In a very real sense, commercialized media outlets (CMO) in China, such as the Southern Weekend, are mere money trees of the Party-controlled news organizations.
Indeed, the Party has kept the leash on CMOs tight due to the singular significance of the press in any given society. Generally, leadership positions of these CMOs are appointed by parent newspapers as gatekeepers. On top of that, the Party’s propaganda department makes direct intervention regarding the content, as well as personnel matters, through phone calls, post-publication reviews, and other forms of supervision.
However, market-based operation has its own laws. Even though they are structurally still part of the system, journalists at CMO s have grown to have their own value judgment and interest placement, as they immerse in the market and become financially independent. It is inevitable that they should grow increasingly at odds with the management from the Party’s propaganda organs.
The propaganda department’s invasive grip over the publication hurts the market interest of these CMOs, and offends the professional dignity of journalists at CMOs. Resentment runs deep and wide, but it has been largely suppressed for fear of the Party’s wrath, because after all, a CMO owes its very existence to the Party and can be shut down anytime.
Rebellion at the Southern Weekend
The Southern Weekend is one of the earliest CMOs in China, thanks to its geographic advantage in Guangdong, frontline of China’s “reform and open-up.” Peaking around the turn of century, and widely regarded as a harbinger of freedom and reform, it has been cherished by both liberals outside the system and reformists inside the system. As a result, it has gained huge commercial success over the years (according to SW’s official website, it currently enjoys a distribution of over 1.7 million copies, prints in 19 cities, and grows at 15% annually).
The Southern Weekend has a clear liberal leaning that can be summed up as: Recognition of the importance of a market economy, globalization and rule of law; warmth toward individual rights, universal values, and political reform. There is nothing extraordinary about such a stand, it should be said, and it does not even exceed the Party’s official narrative, let alone step over red boundaries. There was a time when this narrative was promoted by the Party itself to respond to the demands of new social classes so that the system may extend its life by attuning itself to societal changes.
For example, as China develops rapidly, the emergent social groups are making more demands on rights and interest. The combination of market, globalization and information revolution has given these new groups a certain level of resources and means to challenge the existing system. This is manifested in more and more rights defending and struggles against injustices, also in stronger and stronger online voices for change.
For its continuous advocacy for change, the Southern Media Group—to which SW is a part—has come to be seen as a force alien to the stability-maintenance efforts of the system and must be re-shuffled and suppressed. And the Southern Weekend no doubt is a prime target, not to mention that, over the years, former Southern Weekend journalists have become the most sought-after journalists, and they have brought certain mindset to new media outlets and online media platforms across China.
In “The Virus of Censorship” published in New Statesman last fall, former editor-in-chief of the Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报, a sister publication of Southern Weekend) Mr. Cheng Yizhong (程益中) wrote that censorship tightening and personnel reshuffling have gone on for several years already, climaxing in parachuting Yang Jian(杨健), deputy propaganda chief of Guangdong province, to be the Party secretary of the Southern Media Group prior to the Party’s 18th Congress. Apart from top leadership appointments, censorship measures that have been implemented include appointing censors to be members of editorial committees, planting followers and informers among journalists, pre-publication topic selection and content review, and etc. Since last spring when Tuo Zhen (庹震) was appointed the Party’s propaganda chief in Guangdong in the spring of 2012, the pre-publication censorship at the Southern Weekend has worsened significantly.
During last week’s row, the SW revealed that, in 2012 alone, at least 1,034 of their stories were either killed, cancelled or rewritten by orders from the propaganda department. For a weekly that publishes average 40-50 stories per issue, it means that half of its stories suffer the ax of censorship. The anger that must have been building up over time finally erupted around the New Year of 2013.
Future is elsewhere
Over the past week or so, the editors and journalists demanded for Tuo Zhen’s resignation and an investigation of the “truth” behind the procedural breach regarding its New Year’s special edition and New Year’s message. They issued open letters; they organized a signature campaign; and they even threatened a strike. Public support for them stormed on to Weibo.
By Tuesday and Wednesday though, there were signs that an internal split had occurred, conservatives among them had gained the upper hands, and the idea of a strike had faded away quietly. By Thursday it was over as the latest issue came out without giving any explanation about what deals had been made.
This means only one thing: the Propaganda Department has won, and the Southern Weekend’s revolt has failed. Without any rights or independence to speak of, the Southern Weekend will surely face a purge. Frankly, from the moment that agreement was reached (whatever it was), the fate of the liberal weekly was sealed.
As a matter of fact, the structural quandary of CMOs decides that journalists at these organizations are extremely unlikely to take unified, collective actions against censorship. A CMO is a hybrid whose upper body is the rigid system and lower body the fluid market. Within the same newspaper, you have the publisher, the editor-in-chief, and the editorial committee parachuted in by the party on the one hand, and you also have what is called “migrant workers” in journalism on the other. The former could hardly be expected to rise against the system because they are part of the system and their interests are rooted in it. If some of them do as in this week’s event, they easily concede. As for the migrant journalists, while there are fewer strings holding them back, they would not want to make sacrifices for something that they don’t have a sense of belonging.
There is a winner though in the Southern Weekend episode, and that’s the hundreds of ordinary citizens from all walks of life who took their actions to the street. Furthermore, the street protesters made appeals different from that of the SW journalists who, throughout the event, stated consistently in their string of open letters the desire to voice and solve their discontent within the confinement of the system, even using expressions such as “fully respect the Party’s control over the media.” For the first time over the last 24 years, we saw banners and slogans calling for “freedom of expression,” “constitutional democracy,” “lift ban on freedom of the press,” “abolish censorship” and more. For several days it was like a joyful festival outside the Southern Media Group compound, and those young and beautiful faces have impressed me deeply and given me hope.
All too soon, the first major event in 2013 was over. My sense is that those action takers need to project their voices in more places and elsewhere in order to realize their goals. As Mr. Liu Xiaobo said it before, a free China will only be born from people outside the system.