Recently we received a first-hand report from a community member in Hong Kong. We were asked to publish the piece and your comments are very welcome. Please join the debate on Facebook or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. By Xiaohe Chen.
News from Feb 11, 2015
Chinese people may not read People's Daily every day, but they must check on their weibo and wechat every 5 minutes. Especially for young people, social media, mainly log-on from mobile ends, have become their main source to gain information and knowledge.
According to reports from YiGuan International, over 686 million people are reaching the internet through mobile phones, with 62% of them are aged between 25 and 40. It was also the development of social media which brought broader space for Chinese public opinion. In the past two or three years, microblogs (Weibo) have even changed the agenda of the Chinese press. Weibo has become the main source of many newspaper front page stories. Journalists are always digging into tweets and quoting them in their stories.
A VIP group consisting of intellectuals, celebrities and business elites made Chinese public opinion a diversified field. But the prosperity ended when President Xi stepped in. China's media are facing perhaps the most serious challenge within nearly 10 years. Of course, in China, talking about the media environment is always very sensitive.
Today is no exception, but the story of the 2014 Summer Davos in Tianjin may better explain where the challenge comes from. Lu Wei, one of the top officials in control of China's ideology and political propaganda, made his debut at an international occasion by attending a session on Internet development. As the Chinese propaganda department has taken a very low profile for a long time, it has been always quite mysterious domestically and internationally.
His debut garnered high expectations. Chinese senior officials usually prefer to show their non-official face in international conference occasions. Lu Wei was no exception. At the session "the future of the Internet economy," participants besides Lu Wei included Qualcomm Chairman and CEO Paul Jacobs, a global mobile Communication systems Association General Anne Bouverot, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, and US presidential adviser, the National telecommunications and Information Administration Secretary Lawrence Stricklin.
Lu Wei not only displayed a rare proactive side from other Chinese officials and frequently interacted with the scene of the guests, his body language was also quite rich, attracting several laughs. Even participants on site privately evaluated him as "arrogant” or “over-confident". This impression came from his interaction with Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm Chairman and CEO. When a reporter asked Jacobs about the antitrust investigation suffered in China, Jacobs responded negatively: "I'm sorry, there is no comment." But Chinese ministerial official, who is not in the position of investigation or discourse relating issues, responded loudly with full confidence: “The Chinese government's open policy will not change, but at the same time we are also told that all businesses investing in China must abide by Chinese law. " He provocatively sent "congratulations" to Qualcomm by pointing out the numbers of how much money this transnational earned in China, which made foreign panelists pretty awkward on scene.
However, this story gained great applause from Chinese media. His nationalism and overconfident actions became headlines of all newspapers the next day. It is reasonable since Mr. Lu is their big brother in charge.
From Mr. Lu on, all media, websites and public opinion presenting platforms are centrally controlled.
No wonder when Mr. Lu made his next high-profile visit to Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg, despite his company's website Facebook being banned by GFW, still tried to cater to Mr. Lu by speaking Chinese. But what should be kept in mind by Mr. Zuckerberg is Lu's saying back at summer Davos: "I do not know if it is banned, but you came to China, so you must abide by Chinese laws." China took "rule of law" as national policy without any established press law and without any protection of freedom of speech, with more and more dissidents silenced through various measures including arrests or banned on social media.
The rise of this big figure is the mirror of Chinese mass media.
Paper media, especially financial media, has suffered a huge blow. Not only with the economic downturn but the impact of new media, traditional print media's advertising revenue has greatly reduced. Additionally, media has been one of the targets of Xi's anti-corruption movement. 21st century, with several high level members arrested and sued, is a perfect example. Traditionally, 21st century press is closely related to "the southern media", a symbol of democratic media.
Web media, from network to automobile media, are seemingly prosperous, but the scrutiny is more and more tight. Not only that those VIP used to be active on Weibo became weirdly quiet on weibo, but also leading intellectuals encountered various restrictions from institutions, including universities and think tanks, they worked for.
Fortunately, there is some optimistic sign that the internet still has China's most innovative sectors. However, fundamentally for this industry, openness and free flows of information, are set back seriously in recent days. Chinese authorities took further steps to block foreign values inflows than GFW. Excluding shutting down gmail service, they blocked all VPNs that could enroute to block sites. It is the authority vs. 686 million netizens.
Mass media in China has walked into a cold winter with turbulence inside and great uncertainty overall. But it is still not sure when spring comes around.