Called Up: How China Censors Its Burgeoning Media

By Ortolani, Alex | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Called Up: How China Censors Its Burgeoning Media


Ortolani, Alex, Michigan Quarterly Review


In late 2005, Chinese reporter Luo Changping began a series of articles about the beating and death of a businessman in Hebei province and the subsequent government cover up. He was reporting for the Beijing News, a daily that styles itself after the New York Times. In response to his work, the newspaper got a call from a propaganda official demanding Luo write an apology letter for criticizing government officials. In Chinese, this is called dian mingza, literally meaning to "call somebody's name," or as one reporter translated it, to be "called up." The incident didn't surprise Luo.

"There are two skills a Chinese journalist needs to know," he said through a translator in a Western-style pizza joint in Beijing. "One is the basics of journalism. The other is how to write an apology letter." In May 2006, Luo wrote another controversial story. Again, he got summoned. This time, an apology wasn't enough. "I got sacked," he said.

Losing your job for reporting the news is one of many ways China's government controls media coverage. Through such tactics, the state ensures that while newspapers, magazines, radio, and television are able to take part in China's booming economy, there is at least some control over content.

In China, it's no secret that propaganda departments around the country keep an eye on what gets printed, said, and shown to the public. The system has emerged over time. In 1949, when Mao Zedong came to power, all news outlets became the "tongue and throat" of the state. Their role, at the start, was to write about the greatness of the working classes, unite the masses through the party's message, and help create a utopia on earth. These goals were quickly undermined. In the late 1960s, the press was used to cover up the failings of the Great Leap Forward, which killed millions due to famine-related causes. In the 1970s, the propaganda machine fostered the chaos caused by the Cultural Revolution, in which friends turned on friends, family members on family, and thousands more lost their lives.

As reform has swept through China in the past three decades, this system of media control-never airtight to begin with-has gone through massive transformation. From a handful of state-run newspapers and magazines in the late 1970s, China now has, by some estimates, over two thousand newspapers, more than nine thousand magazines, some one thousand radio stations, and around twenty-nine hundred television channels. Consumers have access to everything from local news to sports to watchdog reports uncovering government corruption. Many of these media organizations are still owned and run by the government but now have sections as varied as opinion editorials and restaurant listings. Others are privately owned, and, though subject to government regulation, are pulling in major advertising revenue, subscriptions, viewers, and listeners.

To media experts such as Shi Anbin, an associate professor at China's Tsinghua University, this change is a good sign. In an interview in Beijing last year, Shi said he has been at conferences with government officials designed to help them be more open with the media. Among his students at Tsinghua, he said, more and more are interested in "fly on the wall" investigative journalism. Many of his course books come from the U.S. and address issues that are "pertinent to the current media situation in China." Because of these factors, Shi gets rankled when the Western press attacks China's news coverage. He believes Westerners should give China's media sector time to reform. "It's two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward," he said. "It's not like Mao-style or Deng-style. It's Hu-style, which is much more negotiative . . . if you live in China, you will understand this-reform, yes, but not too much, not too radical."

Critics are less forgiving. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the media sectors are relatively free, groups of journalists constantly criticize what they see as their backward neighbors on the mainland.

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