The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears to be changing the strategy the state-run media use to report the news. Incidents that formerly would have been blacked out are now being reported on swiftly. Experts say the growth of the internet has forced the regime’s hand.
Cheng Xiaonong, Editor in Chief of the quarterly journal Modern China Studies commented on the state-run media’s new approach.
“With this new means they jump ahead to report on things. It is a new technique but the goal is the same—to manipulate people and thereby control the decisions they make,” he said.
An example of the new approach occurred on the afternoon of Feb. 25. Three Uighurs set themselves on fire inside their car on a busy Beijing street, apparently in protest. The regime’s mouthpiece, Xinhua, reported the incident within one and a half hours, and followed with another five updates. Such prompt reaction was rarely seen in the past.
A day later, in protest of his fruitless appeal about a financial scandal, a 75-year-old man climbed up a telecommunication tower close to Dazhongsi subway station in Beijing. Eight hours later he was brought down by fire fighters. All major media in Beijing reported the incident. In the past, such a report would have most likely been banned.
“The CCP realizes the traditional way no longer works—to force people to read what the CCP wants them to read.
“The Internet offers a counterbalance to the means to control people’s access to information,” said Cheng.
According to the Hong Kong newspaper, Mingpao, being the first to report incidents that are difficult to hide gives the regime the ability to swing opinion by creating the first impression of the incident.
Zhang Wei Guo, chief editor of Hong Kong Trend magazine and an expert on China’s media agreed.
“Because of the Internet the Chinese regime can no longer control the media like it used to. It needs to take the lead,” he said.
Zhang says the regime sees itself as wanting “to get the right to speak back from the Western media.”
When reports by foreign media leak into China through the internet, the state-run media’s early reports will have already provided a frame through which the news is viewed.
In the case of the Uighur’s self-immolation, Xinhua omitted many details, such as the protestors’ motivation and ethnic background, and emphasized the regime’s effort to rescue the wounded individuals. By not providing the information that the self-immolators were Uighurs and that their car had a Xinjiang license plate, the Xinhua report effectively depoliticized the incident.
In the case of the old man's protest up the telecommunications tower, the official report said the old man protested because of temporary insanity and emphasized how the firefighters risked their lives to save him. Again, the political context of his protest, the Chinese regime’s rampant corruption, was ignored.
According to Cheng, the response to the case of Yang Jia was a turning point for the regime’s approach to the media.
Yang was said on July 1, 2008, the anniversary of the founding of the CCP, to have killed six policemen in protest of abuse he had received at the hands of police. News of his actions became an internet sensation, and Yang became a kind of national hero and a symbol of resistance to oppression.
In the case of Yang, the state-run media’s slowness in reporting what happened allowed the narrative of Yang as someone protesting against abuse to gather momentum on the internet.
Cheng believes the state-run media’s new technique may prove more effective than the old attempts simply to censor the news.
“Some people who previously became frustrated with the state may now be won back—these people will think that things have changed,” said Cheng.
At the same time, the regime is working in more than one way to control what news reaches the mainland. “China has been trying to lobby Western media and reporters outside China, so that they will speak for the regime,” said Cheng.
Cheng sees the state-run media’s new approach as posing a challenge to independent media who report on China.
“The independent media have to do not just reporting but news analysis, so that people will know how much is distorted and not true. These media have to be very well informed about the situation in China, but also why it is the way it is,” Cheng said.