Review: Censors are still China’s newsmakers

February 1, 2013

By Katrina Hamlin

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

China’s censorship system is in good working order. Despite recent protests and the advent of new media, the country’s propaganda machine is far from broken. As a new book makes clear, the news is made by the state and for the state.

Much of “The Party Line”, by veteran correspondent Doug Young, will not be news to regular China-watchers. They know very well that the domestic media remain tightly controlled. They read and see the fixed line every day, after all. Nonetheless, the book shows just how the state makes and breaks the news. Young reveals the inner workings of the machine and the full scope of its impact.

“The Party Line” should dampen the expectations of many outside observers that the new generation of leaders will soon relax the current restrictions, which leave China languishing at 173rd place on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 Press Freedom Index. A recent rebellion of journalists against the censor at one publication, Southern Weekly, was successful. Young’s book provides a sober reminder of what reformers are up against. The censorship system is a well-oiled machine, and its role in the Communist Party of China’s government runs far deeper than the headlines.

The system he describes is bureaucratic, well-orchestrated and ultimately effective. An anonymous telephone call provides editors with updates on new no-nos. Bland bullet points confirm the latest blacklist. Diktats trickle down through the ranks. Eventually every journalist learns what to say and when, and what not to say, ever. More unsettling, the book shows how the media and the censors move in tandem. The editors and journalists censor themselves, so the Communist Party official doesn’t always have to bother to make the anonymous call or reach for the red pen.

The state’s influence is not limited to censorship. Young explains that surveillance is also critical. Reporters for the state media agency Xinhua do not only gather information for the public. They also report to the government; they are expected to write “internal reports”. The description of this dual responsibility is fascinating.

Young provides a compelling account of how the system works, and a pertinent warning not to underestimate the government’s Publicity Department. But “The Party Line” is not comprehensive. There are no chapters on either new media or commercial forces, so Young does not discuss the pressing question of how the decades-old comprehensive system of censorship and surveillance will evolve in the era of digital media. It looks like the censors are slowly learning how to stifle controversial chatter on weibo, hugely popular microblogging platforms – though users can still run rings around them for now. There are also signs that officials are using social media and other online material as sources of information, but it’s not yet clear how the new data-gathering will be integrated into traditional methods of internal control. 

Profitability hardly features in Young’s account, an absence which reflects Chinese reality. While media elsewhere wrestle with the revenue patterns of the digital age, Xinhua, China Daily and the rest can lean on Big Brother for extra pocket money. Non-commercial focus decreases the motivation for China’s big titles to devise winning strategies for their own market, let alone overseas ventures and listings. That would hinder attempts to establish a more independent media even if there was ever a chance to move away from state control and ownership.

Young’s book is good, but it is already out of date. The Southern Weekly ruckus is not the only example of what might be a weakening of the State’s information monopoly. Most non-Chinese observers will hope that Young is too confident in the government’s ability to keep the people ill-informed.

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