In this essay I am going to critically discuss the effects of media liberalisation and deregulation in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Having spent over two years of my life living in both the mainland and Hong Kong, I hope to offer some interesting insights from my own experience as well as what I have learnt from background reading on the subject.
First I will look at the question of what media liberalisation means in the broadest terms before turning to media deregulation and how the two differ from one another. Then I will briefly look at China’s media in a historical context so as to provide a foundation for what is to follow and help put into perspective the ways in which the country’s media has experienced liberalisation and deregulation in recent years. I will also discuss exactly what the effects of these processes have been, sighting relevant examples where possible. Finally, I will consider the extent to which China’s media has really been liberalised and deregulated and what we can expect to see in the years and decades to come.
There is little doubt China has undergone a profound opening-up of its economy and society over the past 50 years, whether that be Mao Zedong’s 1958 proclamation of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ which saw the introduction of a new paradigm of agricultural and industrial production, or the economic reforms of 1978 implemented under Hua Gafeng (Donald, Keane & Hong, 2002, pp. 4-183). But in spite of this and the claims made in 2007 by Cai Wu, former head of the State Council Information Office (SCIO), that “the country will have a more open attitude toward the world and ensure better services for the media” (Jiao, 2007), has the Chinese media actually been reformed, liberalised and deregulated to the extent that one might expect?
Before we can consider these questions, it is necessary to look at precisely what is meant by the term ‘liberalisation’ and how it fits into current media theory. The concept of liberalisation has roots in social and economic policy. It can be broadly defined as “the removal of controls” with the goal of stimulating economic growth and encouraging a healthy economy (Choudary, 2008, p. 131). To give a relevant example, China liberalised many of its sectors in the 1990s (notably the financial and banking sectors), opening them up to foreign investment before joining the World Trade Organization in (WTO) in 2001 (Brandt & Rawski, 2008, p. 657). One of the condition’s for China’s entry into the WTO was that it “allow foreign investors to hold up to 49 percent of certain telecommunications companies, including Internet firms” (Head, 2001, p. 414). This move had a direct effect on China’s media sector and many experts believe it was “a sign marking an accelerated process of opening the domestic media market to international competition” (Zhan & Dimmick, 2005, p. 36).
This, then, was a pivotal moment in China’s recent history with regards to its policy towards the media sector and loosening of economic controls that directly affected it. The need for a ‘healthier’ market resulted in a liberalisation that is often characteristic of how media sectors are made more open by governments seeking to implement more competitive economic policies that, as we have seen already, are required to encourage growth and keep the markets healthy. Lyons (2005) points out that “the admittance into the World Trade Organisation was a benefit that outweighed the past reluctance towards foreign investment”. One obvious result of this is the compromise of allowing foreign investment in media companies that then also helps to promote pluralism of ideas and voices, even if not immediately obvious at first. This is an example of one effect that liberalisation has had in China and how it has come about since the 1978 reforms.
However, there is also another side to be considered. Whilst in theory media liberalisation in China encourages plurality of views, it could also be argued that in reality this is not the case. The concept of ‘cultural despotism’ whereby production and distribution of media content is controlled by the state, in this case the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has long been associated with the media situation in the country (Shaozhi, 1993) and remains much unchanged to this day, even in spite of the technological advancements brought about with the arrival of the new millennium. The idea can be explained more fully in these terms: “limits on people’s capacity to explain non-orthodox views in the media, or to register complaints against the paramount leadership of the CCP, illustrate the path dependency of China’s leaders, their allegiance to a Leninist media model, and their deep misgivings about democratic pluralism” (Donald, Keane & Hong, 2002, p. 12).
This, then, would seem to suggest that any benefits potentially gained from liberalisation of the media on the surface are apparently lost due to deep-rooted political and social values imposed on the masses by the CCP. Opening up media companies to foreign investment, whilst healthy for the markets and industry from an economic standpoint, may not translate into democratic-pluralism as we have come to expect it in the West in terms of views, voices and opinions freely expressed in the press. Monopolization of the vertical-chains of production and distribution by the state ensure that ultimately they are still in control of what is disseminated on a large scale.
I will now turn briefly to the concept of ‘deregulation’ which is often used to mean the same thing as liberalisation. At any rate, it is perhaps wise to think of deregulation and liberalisation as still being forms of regulation imposed by governments because they believe there is something to gain from lifting restrictions, whether it be economic, social or otherwise. Some media commentators believe that “the new ‘deregulation’ is regulation in disguise” (Silverstone, 1994,p. 90), hinting cynically that changes in government policy towards the media are sometimes more in name than contributing to any real improvements, especially when the removal of restrictions only result in more power being given to already-bloated corporations and media conglomerates that may very well abuse it.
In the context of the media, deregulation can be described as “the process of diminishing intervention by the state into media organizations; the government delegates greater authority over programming, personnel, and business decisions to lower levels in the broadcast and print administrative hierarchy” (Shirk, 2011). I now wish to briefly examine China’s media in a historical context before moving onto specific examples of how the effects of liberalisation and deregulation have been played out in the country using specific case studies and examples.
With the end of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) there was a desire to set right certain wrongs of the past in terms of journalistic practice and a longing for a return to the ideals of ‘seeking truth from facts’. Although the media and press would still be controlled by the state, it was to be “promoted as instruments of economic and cultural construction, with a new stress placed on business information and entertainment” (Zhao, 1998, p. 34). With the arrival of the 1980s, more independence in journalism was advocated by the likes of the People’s Daily Liu Binyan (Shirk, 2011, p. 80). Media ventures attracted more and more investors and between 2001-2004 the market for print advertising grew by well over 100 percent. Intellectual property rights also saw a dramatic improvement in the late-1990s and all of these conditions, along with government cooperation and a rapid expansion of the economy around the same time, meant that there was now a greater push and incentive than ever before in favour of reform and deregulation of the media market. Journalism, particularly in the form of reports on business and financial stories, thrived in this new environment that was so “conducive to the expansion of capital markets” (ibid).
China enjoyed a period of relatively relaxed media regulation under Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s, though the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 undid this trend and put to rest hopes for further deregulation until nearly 10 years later and well into the late-1990s under Jiang Zemin. More recently, with the rise of the Internet and the measures of mass-censorship that are being undertaken by the Hu Jintao government, regulations have once again been tightened, certainly for the online media but also for the media industry in general (Southerland, 2007). This has lead to the organisation Reporters Without Borders claiming in their 2009 annual Press Freedom Index that the Chinese government holds “the sorry distinction of leading the world in repression of the Internet” and in 2010 ranked it 168 out of 178 countries (UNHCR, 2009).
In spite of this, there is an increasing move to the commercialization of China’s press and this is a trend that has been going on for the past few decades, with ever more deregulation being offered in profitable media markets such as entertainment, sports and finance (Bennett, 2011). This has been a liberalising process for the media as the state is less able to control financially independent outlets than was the case in the past, resulting in more media autonomy and increased market competition that is directly linked to quality journalism. Similar independence has been found in the talk radio format which has seen the transition from a single government radio station operating in regions such as the Shanghai Municipal some years ago to the well over 100 stations that exist today. This has also seen the lessening of predictable pro-state propaganda material in the medium and a wider choice between views for listeners tuning in.
The move away from heavy subsidising of state media has meant that revenue has had to be found through commercial means, i.e. advertising (Zhao, 1998). As such, this has resulted in a more diversified media due to the fact that advertisers are essentially customers that must be sold an attractive package and may be potentially put of if they regard the station as merely a ‘mouthpiece’ of the party-state. In some ways, therefore, this deregulation has meant that broadcast stations, for example, must offer more programmes that people want to see in order to attract larger audiences that can be packaged and sold on to advertisers. It is clear that “behind this policy lay an economic imperative: to transform the state media from a loss-making drain on government finances into a globally competitive industry. To attract advertisers and consumers, even Beijing’s most hidebound apparatchiks realised the media must be allowed to offer better fare than official propaganda and deathly dull speeches” (Economist, 2005). Competition is encouraged between media outlets even though ultimately the state defines what type of content is allowed; there are financial rewards/bonuses for journalists that are sympathetic to the government’s ideals or views (Esarey, 2005, p. 37–83). So even within this apparent deregulation of media subsidising in favour of creating more competition in the market there is still guaranteed bias to the CCP’s ideology and worldview due to incentives offered to journalists ‘under the table’ so to speak, even if the picture painted by official government policy seems to suggest a far more open and fair system of income and revenue-generation almost entirely through advertising.
In spite of China’s appalling record of jailing journalists (42 in 2004) and the ‘Internet-policing’ that it carries out, since Deng Xiaoping came to power and over the last few decades, as has already been mentioned, it could be argued that there has been an overall climate of more open media content that has accompanied the social and economic reforms. Talking on the subject of newspaper reporting at a visit to the People’s Daily offices in 2008, President Hu Jintao stressed the need for accuracy and objectivity with no room for “tardiness, deception, incompleteness or distortion” (Moore, 2008). Unfortunately, powerful institutions in China such as the Central Propaganda Department and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, still seek to curb liberalisation of the media wherever possible, and Beijing continues to limit any reports that may paint a negative picture of government policies, etc. (An & An, 2008).
Sometimes it seems that the Chinese government is its own worst enemy when it comes to understanding how to successfully implement media liberalising and deregulating policies. As one commentator put it, “reform often proceeds in fits and starts in China” (Economist, 2005); there is progress for a time and then there is tremendous back-tracking over old problems. The move to give the state-run Xinhua News Agency power to censor the news of foreign agencies is typical of extreme policy decisions that seem counter-productive to the demand for growth of a deregulated media market. As of 2007, Xinhua “retains the right to censor materials disseminated by any foreign news agency in China” (Glasser, 2006, p. 104).
From all this, then, one could argue that the real deregulation of the Chinese media is yet to come. Journalists operating in China are still far more restricted than their Western cousins and must still abide by rules that aren’t always clearly laid out in government policy. Historical events such as the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 as well as technological advancements have all brought with them more problems than solutions for an open media in China. There is a relaxing of regulations for a while, what you may call a period of liberalisation, but then there is a tightening once again that makes it very hard to know precisely where the media stand in the country. Even if in the past there were deregulatory policies put into place, as we have seen from the withdrawal of subsidies from the broadcast sector, there are more often than not grey areas where there remain more uncertainties and it is unclear precisely what is going on behind closed doors. Journalists still live in threat of imprisonment and, even worse, in threat of physical harm whilst others take payments from officials to toe the line. Shirk (2011) commented that “gradual media deregulation created broad grey areas where opportunities for freer coverage existed beside potential risks – even traps”. Much media content is still examined on a case by case basis, what one commentator called ‘playing on the white line of the ping-pong table” (Hughes, 2002).
In China it is very hard to decide on exactly what the effects of liberalisation and deregulation of the media sector have been except from in the broadest possible terms and with a historical context to help analyse a larger window of time than may be usually needed. This may be characteristic of other developing countries too. The famous Chinese scholar of news believed that “newspapers should put the interests of the people above everything else and be run accordingly… When a communist society is attained, even the party will be eliminated. Yet the people are permanent, they live forever!” (cited in Zhao, 1998, p. 38).
To bring this essay to a conclusion, it is apparent that there has been a gradual opening up of the media since the Cultural Revolution. Many leaders have come and gone, television and the Internet have dominated the media scene but newspapers also continue to flourish in third-world countries such as China. Attempts on behalf of the CCP continue to be met with ever more resistance and slowly but surely more deregulation will have to be implemented if social unrest is to be avoided. If not, we may see similar events to those of 1989 in the years to come. There needs to be a continued push towards more openly legal regulation and further strengthening of economic incentives for media business and owners to operate in China. This must be achieved by relaxing laws and allowing a greater degree of freedom and liberalisation, both in terms of content as well as a move away from state-monopolisation to oligopoly of the print and distribution chains involved in the production of media (as has been mentioned with reference to ‘cultural despotism’). These effects have been realised to a certain extent so far but by no means enough. Journalists are still forced into self-censorship because of uncertainties that remain in the state of the media and attempts at deregulation that have left ‘grey areas’.
Examples such as the English language China Daily’s open criticism of government actions after detaining petitioners in a mental institution in 2008 (Qian, 2008) is seen as a sign of progress towards less government control of the media and even toleration for criticism in certain situations (AFP, 2008) resulting in more editorial freedom for some newspapers in the country and capital.
The extent of liberalisation, however, is still certainly limited to slight relaxations of otherwise strict regulations such as the change since 1994 that has meant the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television has stopped pre-screening news programmes before they are aired. Citizens have taken advantage of the sharp growth of the Internet to explore the possibilities of citizen journalism, even if those efforts are erased by the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’, also known as the ‘Kung Fu Net’ among bloggers in China (Scotton & Hachten, 2010, p. 31) and this looks like a trend set to continue for the foreseeable future. One would have to argue that when and where deregulation is implemented it has a positive effect on the Chinese society and its people, allowing more freedom of expression in the media, but the effect has similarly been one of retaliation on part of the government when that liberalisation has more powerful effects than they had anticipated and certain content is seen as a threat to the one-party system.
It is my hope that in this essay I have succeeded in my attempt to critically discuss some of the effects of media liberalisation and deregulation in the People’s Republic of China and that I have illustrated ideas clearly with the use of examples and in historical contexts where helpful.
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