As the protests surrounding Southern Weekend continue in Guangdong, the Global Times has published a strongly-worded commentary, denouncing the calls for change of media governance. As often, it leaves much to be desired in terms of logics and consistency, but the tone is clear: this incident will not lead to any substantive change in media governance.
First, the Global Times claims that, according to the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly (which has allegedly been taken over by higher-level management), everything is based on a mistake, and that, whatever else, the “revised version” of the New Year’s message which started everything, did not originate in the Guangdong Propaganda Department.
Then, GT moves on to lambast those calling for press freedom online and in the streets. It says that a lot of the Weibo hubbub is being created by ex-employess of Southern Weekend, as well as people who have no formal relationship with the newspaper at all. Although it is already quite vague why a formal relationship with the newspaper in question should be a condition for voicing an opinion, GT continues to point the gun at its own foot by then referring to “Chen Guangcheng, in the faraway United States” as the latest supporter of this incoherent rabble, conveniently forgetting that this is not necessarily someone with a very bad reputation in Chinese public opinion.
After the character assassination, GT gets down to the issues: it states that, while current demands are ostensibly aimed at concrete persons and matters, there is an ulterior motive behind all of this. Again, this is standard fare in Chinese official communication, and is a result of the typical doubletruth in authoritarian regimes. The thing that counts is the “big picture” (daju 大局), and day-to-day concrete facts that may harm this picture are to be “harmonized”: they are said to be “inaccurate” (in other words: people lie) or have ulterior motives (in other words: people want to destroy the big project over something small). This argument is then followed on by the official claimed truth in the next paragraphs: press reform must be in step with social reform. After the 18th Party Congress, there is a political determination to press on with reform, but a “free press” will not be part of it. The press “is not a special political zone”.
If you have lost count of the soft power own goals by now, the op-ed then claims that even in the West, mainstream media will not oppose governments. Clearly, this writer has never seen Fox News or Jeremy Paxman, or Have I Got News For You, for that matter. The article continues with a warning: those who think they are defending Chinese media must think twice, for in reality, they are burying it alive. The scope for news freedom has opened, but in step with the will of the Party. There is no social basis for further openness, as people want their lives to develop economically, and don’t want upheaval. It points to the robustness of China’s polity, by saying that every self-immolation, every protest or every rumour could be the start of something alarming in society in unrest, but that this is certainly not the case. If that is true, however, I don’t see why the Chinese government would still need to spend more on internal security than on defence, firefighters are stationed permanently on Tiananmen Square, or why allegations such as these are reacted to with such alacrity.
If we look at the larger picture: it is clear that the Southern Weekend affair, together with the new Internet Decision and other Internet regulations, the closing of the website of another magazine, “Yanhuang Chunqiu”, and now this editorial, show that the new leadership, like the old leadership, seems to be willing in no way to open up the public sphere for a more pluralist and diverse discussion. This was already clear from the 2011 Central Committee Decision on cultural reform, the 12th Five Year Plans for the development of culture and the Internet, and is unsurprising in terms of the foundation of power of the current regime. The continuity of the CCP is built on control, but also on being able to get buy-in from specific social groups. The Party’s control over the commanding heights of the economy and society allows it to extract resources which are used to co-opt certain sections of the population and provide them with a vested interest in the status quo. Equally, the materialist gains that come from being a CCP official may play a considerable role in maintaining loyalty. Nonetheless, corruption is still portrayed in Party language as a problem of morally unsound individuals which must be solved by education and occasional campaigns, rather than being caused by basic incentives for officials, which must be solved by things such as independent oversight, formal separation of powers and, indeed, a free media calling for the true implementation of China’s Constitution, the commitments made by its political leaders to the population.
One last matter: the words that the Global Times uses to talk about the incident and how to deal with it (fengbo “disturbance”, and pingxi “put down”) are the same terms that were used to refer to the 1989 protests. A subtle hint, perhaps?
Comment: Southern Weekend “Letter to Readers” Really Makes One Think Deeply
The official “Southern Weekend” Weibo issued a “letter to the readers”, of which the complete text is as follows: “The New Year message that was published in the special New Year edition of this newspaper on 3 January has been composed by the editors of this newspaper in coordination with the special theme of ‘pursuing dreams’, the introductory remarks on the cover of the special edition were drafted by a responsible person of this newspapers, related online hearsay is untrue. Because of hurrying timing, there has been carelessness in work, and mistakes exist in the text, we apologise to the broad readers for this.”
The incident of the Southern Weekend’s New Year message “being changed” has spread on the Internet in recent days, there were Southern Weekend editors who stated that the article that appeared in the newspaper was issued by the Guangdong Provincial Committee Propaganda Department. Yesterday evening, this official Weibo from Southern Weekend clarified the cause of the affair, the true situation is completely different from the version that has circulated on the Internet in the past few days. Furthermore, based on the Global Times’ understanding through its own independent channels, the so-called “changed version” has, in fact, not been written by the Guangdong Provincial Committee propaganda department.
But in recent days, there were again people on Weibo who posted a letter signed by a number of staff of Southern Weekend which opposes Southern Weekend’s official Weibo, it seems as if the situation has not yet completely calmed down, and it seems as if division have emerged within Southern Weekend.
The disturbance at Southern Weekend has fermented in the past few days, but if we look at it in detail, among the most energetic people disseminating this on the Internet, apart from some people who work at Southern Weekend at present, many have already left “Southern Weekend” or have no relation to speak of with this news group, there are also some active Weibo personalities. In reality, they are very scattered, and are linked together through the Internet. Their newest supporter is Chen Guangcheng from the faraway United States.
The requirements these people put forward are very sharp, on the surface, they are aimed at concrete people and matters, in reality, anyone can see that their spearhead is aimed at the overall structure related to the media.
Regardless of whether these people want it or not, there is common knowledge that is: under the reality of China’s society and politics today, that sort of “free media” that these people yearn for in their hearts, cannot exist. The development of all Chinese media can only be mutually corresponding with China’s greater reality, media reform must be a part of China’s overall reform, the media can absolutely not become China’s “political special region”.
All Chinese media have some of their own unique details, but when disturbances, such as with “Southern Weekend”, arise, their greater alignment in the end can absolutely not be a “mishap”. Its result certainly will display the determination of Chinese politics after the 18th Party Congress, and there will be no uncertainty.
Even in the West, mainstream media will not choose to openly oppose the government. Someone doing this in China, will certainly be a bigger loser. There have always been some outside personalities who attempted to promote a few Chinese media to engage in dissent, they are burying these media alive.
In recent days, some letters of protest inscribed as “Southern Weekend editorial department” have circulated on Weibo, but none of them have been issued through the “Southern Weekend” official Weibo. Taking yesterday evening’s statement on the official “Southern Weekend” Weibo as reference, the entire incident looks as if the first phase of the overall incident has been fabricated by the diffusers. This should, in fact, not happen.
Some outside people want to see disturbance, if there are media that openly oppose the present system, this may be a lot more “good viewing” than in the Shifang or Qidong environmental protection mass incidents. If there is a media company that truly acts like this, and does it successfully, then matters will really be too interesting, and can give these people too much political daydreams.
But this can only be an illusion. One important reason for this is that, today’s China basically has no social basis to support acting like this, the whole society’s true attention is to run the economy and develop the people’s livelihood, society does not hope that their future path of the country is variable, ruining their tranquil lives.
In a truly unrestive society, if someone incinerates themselves, some small clique protests, or even rumours are written online, it is hard to say whether it becomes an alarming beginning. But the real China develops vigorously and reforms incessantly, that China where “something big is going to happen” has been written out and thought out by some people who happened together on Weibo.
News needs incessant reform, but there is something that cannot be changed: China is a “package”, Chinese news and Chinese politics must be coordinated and interacting at the macro-level, the elastic space for Chinese news has incessantly expanded in recent years, and Weibo has been added to this. At the same time, the elastic space in Chinese politics has expanded at the same pace. But China’s news will not be able to march ahead alone in a way that politics cannot bear during the same period.
We should vigorously and boldly realize self-reform, we must at the same time have sufficient wisdom and concentration to control self-reform, ensure that news is the most dynamic part of the overall reform of China, and does not come apart or separate from it. Otherwise, we will make reckless moves, will only get half the result with twice the effort, and even damage the larger picture of China’s progress.
I hope that all people who like “Southern Weekend” cooperate in putting down the disturbance, and do not force a Chinese newspaper to play a role of opposition that it will not be able to bear, no matter what.