Skip to main content

Censorship row reveals tolerant side of China's new leadership

By Doug Young, Special for CNN
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 0643 GMT (1443 HKT)
A protester calls for greater media freedom outside the headquarters of Nanfang Media Group in Guangzhou on Jan. 9.
A protester calls for greater media freedom outside the headquarters of Nanfang Media Group in Guangzhou on Jan. 9.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Young: Handling of Southern Weekly row demonstrated tolerant side of new leadership
  • Traditional, newer media can serve as tools for achieving goals in China's modernization
  • The fight against corruption in China is at the top of the list for incoming leader, Xi Jinping
  • Young: Media has also emerged as an important tool for combating other social problems

Editor's note: Doug Young teaches financial journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai and is the author of The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China published by John Wiley & Sons. He also writes daily on his blog, Young's China Business Blog, commenting on the latest developments in China's fast-moving corporate scene.

Shanghai, China (CNN) -- China's traditional iron-handed approach to the media has taken a surprise turn of tolerance with Beijing's soft handling of a recent dispute with local reporters, in what could well become a more open attitude toward the media under the incoming administration of presumed new President Xi Jinping.

The new openness is being driven in large part by pragmatism, as the government realizes that both traditional and newer media can serve as powerful tools for achieving many of its goals in the country's modernization.

The recent conflict between reporters at the progressive Southern Weekly and local propaganda officials over a censorship incident left many guessing how the government would respond to the first clash of its kind in China for more than 20 years. The result was a surprisingly mild approach, including mediation by a high-level government official and a vague promise for less censorship in the future.

Read: Censorship protest a test for China

The unusually tolerant tack could well reflect a new attitude by Xi and other incoming leaders set to take control of China for the next decade, all of whom have come to realize the media can serve many important functions beyond its traditional role as a propaganda machine.

At the top of Xi's list is the fight against corruption, a problem he has mentioned frequently since taking the helm of the Communist Party last year. The party has tried to tackle the problem for years using its own internal investigations, but progress was slow until recently due to protection many officials received through their own sprawling networks of internal relationships, known locally as guanxi.

Censorship clash in China
Journalists in China stage rare protest
China censors NY Times after Wen story
2012: Fighting the great firewall

Read: Corruption as China's top priority

All that began to change in the last two years with the rapid rise of social media, most notably the Twitter-like microblogs known as Weibo that are now a pervasive part of the Chinese Internet landscape and count hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese among their users. Those social media have become an important weapon for exposing corruption, allowing thousands of ordinary citizens to pool their resources and build cases against officials they suspect of using their influence for personal gain.

This increasingly sophisticated machine was on prominent display last year in a case involving Yang Dacai, a local official in northwestern Shaanxi province who infuriated the online community by smiling at the site of a horrific accident scene. Netizens quickly turned their outrage into an online investigation, and uncovered photos of him wearing several luxury watches he could hardly afford on his government salary. As a result, the government ultimately opened an investigation into the matter and Yang was sacked from his posts.

In addition to its role in battling corruption, the media has also emerged as an important tool for combating and addressing many of the other social problems that China is facing in its rapid modernization. Barely a week goes by without a report on the latest national food safety scandal or case of illegal pollution in both traditional and social media, with such reports often followed by government investigations.

Beijing leaders have also discovered that the media can also be an important vehicle for improving communication between the government and general public -- something that was a low priority in previous eras when officials only cared about pleasing their higher-up party bosses.

Following a Beijing directive in late 2011, most local government agencies and other organizations have all established microblog accounts, which they use to keep the public informed about their latest activities and seek feedback on upcoming plans. Such input has become a valuable way to temper traditional public mistrust toward the government, which historically didn't make much effort to include the public in any of its internal discussions.

Lastly, the government has also discovered that media, especially social media, can be an effective tool in gauging public opinion on everything from broader national topics like inflation down to very local issues like land redevelopment. Such feedback was difficult to get in the past due to interference by local officials, who tried to filter out or downplay anything with negative overtones and play things up to their own advantage. As a result, central government officials often received incomplete pictures of what was happening in their own country.

With all of these valuable roles to play, the media has become an increasingly important part of Beijing's strategy in executing many of its top priorities.

The government also realizes that a certain degree of openness is critical to letting the media perform many of those roles, which may explain its relatively tolerant approach in the recent Southern Weekly conflict. Such tolerance is likely to continue under Xi's administration, helping to shift more power towards a field of increasingly emboldened reporters at both traditional and new media and away from their traditional propaganda masters.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Doug Young.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 0257 GMT (1057 HKT)
Despite the Chinese leadership's austerity measures the country's biggest car show opened to much buzz.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0930 GMT (1730 HKT)
CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief, Jaime FlorCruz, remembers when a phone call from a student alerted him to the Tiananmen Square protest
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
CNN's Brian Stelter talks with CCTV correspondent Jim Spellman on how the Chinese media has covered MH370's mystery.
China's economy has bested many others in just the past 10 years.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 0602 GMT (1402 HKT)
In China, users of the "Life Black Box" website can set up final farewells to their friends in case they suddenly die.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 0532 GMT (1332 HKT)
A recent university study claims Chinese micro-blogging activity might not be as vibrant as expected.
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Chinese art has been fetching some serious cash -- here's how we can elbow into the market
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 0251 GMT (1051 HKT)
A Shanghainese collector paid $36 million for this tiny cup decorated with chickens.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 0657 GMT (1457 HKT)
Ben Richardson on corruption in China: a veil of secrecy shrouds the links between power and wealth.
China's economy is slowing and growth in 2014 could fall short of the government's official target, according to a CNNMoney survey of economists.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is the first foreigner to visit the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 0126 GMT (0926 HKT)
If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 caused a rift in China-Malaysia relations, the two countries appear to have put it behind them.
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 0517 GMT (1317 HKT)
Martin Jacques argues that in the twenty-first century, China will challenge our perception of what it is to be modern.
A new survey of university students in China shows where they most want to work. What are the dream employers for Chinese students?
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
What are President Xi Jinping's greatest goals as he visits the EU headquarters in Brussels?
Last year, thousands of Chinese tourists flocked to Yellowstone National Park to view the mountains, the buffalo and Old Faithful.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
A senior Bloomberg News journalist quit his role earlier this month, saying the "mishandling" by his bosses of a story critical of China was behind his departure.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
"The aim is to let [families of MH370 passengers] express anger while keeping them restrained," says a Chinese official.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
U.S. President Barack Obama's secret weapon in China? Michelle.
ADVERTISEMENT