Central Reform Leading Group Approves Media Convergence Plan

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On Monday 18 August, the Central Leading Group for the Comprehensive Deepening of Reform – established in the wake of the 18th Party Congress – met for the 4th time. Among the documents it approved is a programme to integrate different media sectors, the “Guiding Opinions for the Converged Development of Traditional Media and New Media” (关于推动传统媒体和新兴媒体融合发展的指导意见). As is common with this kind of document, these Guiding Opinions have not been published. However, Xinhua today published a short summary of some of the main points:

The “Opinions” point out that integrating news media resources and promoting the converged development of traditional media and new media is an important task in implementing the Centre’s deployment concerning comprehensively deepening reform and moving reform and innovation in the propaganda and cultural sphere forward, and is an important measure to adapt to the profound changes in the media structure and improve the communication strength, credibility, influence and public opinion guidance ability of mainstream media. Converged development ensures that our mainstream media can scientifically use advanced communications technology, strengthen information production and service capacities, even better communicate the voice of the Party and the government, and satisfy the popular masses’ information demands even better.

The “Opinions” point out that in promoting converged media development, we must abide by the laws of news communication and the development laws of new media, strengthen Internet thinking, persist in the correct orientation and public opinion guidance, persist in comprehensive planning and coordination, persist in innovative development, persist in integrated development, and persist in using advanced technology as support.

The “Opinions” point out that, to promote converged media development, we must put technological construction and content construction in an equally important position, we must comply with the mobilization, social mediatization and audiovisualization trends of Internet communications, vigorously use big data, cloud computing and other such new technologies, develop mobile clients, mobile websites and other such new applications and new business models to incessantly raise technological development levels, use new technology to lead the converged development of media, and drive the transformation and improvement of media. At the same time, we must adapt to the communications characteristics of new media, strengthen content construction, innovate newsgathering and editing workflows, optimize information services, and win the development superiority through content superiority.

The “Opinions” point out that, to promote converged media development, we must act according to the demands of moving matters forward vigorously, scientific development, standardized management, and guaranteeing orientations, promote the profound integration of traditional media and new media in areas such as content, channels platforms, operations and management, strive to forge a batch of new-type mainstream media with diverse forms, advanced methods and competitiveness, build a number of new-type media groups having strong force, communication strength, credibility and influence, and shape a three-dimensional, diverse and modernized communications system with converged development. We must grasp convergence with one hand and management with one hand, and guarantee that converged development proceeds in the correct direction from beginning to end.

Media convergence – the ability to access different forms of content through various channels and gadgets – has gained in priority after its inclusion in the Decision on reform that was taken at last year’s 3rd Plenum. In April, Central Propaganda Department director Liu Qibao published a long essay on the topic, while Xinhua released a first annual report on the converged development of China’s new media a few weeks ago.

This convergence policy is a direct consequence of the growth of China’s social media and the development of technology. Throughout the early 2000s, China’s traditional propaganda outlets remained preoccupied with classical media forms, including print and broadcasting, while paying less attention to developing Internet-specific technologies and approaches. But the rapid price drop of smartphones and the expansion of mobile broadband meant that fewer and fewer audiences obtained their information through legacy channels. Furthermore, these new platforms enabled netizens not only to obtain, but also to generate information. This fostered the successive proliferation of Weibo and WeChat, platforms where the government’s voice was relatively absent. Weibo came to public prominence through its role in events such as the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, leading some observers to openly speculate that the Party would no longer be able to control and contain the spread of information.

The Party recognised the impact of social media and the difficulty that it faced in maintaining dominance in the sphere of public opinion, and particularly since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, launched a succession of policy initiatives and campaigns to tame the autonomy of online media and mobilise it for its own purpose. It went after Weibo first: a well-publicised campaigns against “Big Vs” – online celebrities and opinion leaders not affiliated with the state – curtailed political discourse on the platform, chasing many influential voices to the comparatively much more private environment of WeChat. Simultaneously, local governments and departments were encouraged to set up their own Weibo accounts, in order to more closely engage with their populations. More recently, WeChat came into the spotlight: in March, a number of popular public accounts were blocked, while recent new regulations impose real name obligations for all users, and a licensing process for public accounts.

Having largely eliminated the autonomous public voices that Weibo and WeChat rendered possible, this convergence programme now seems aimed to reconstruct public discourse in the Party’s image. This is a multi-pronged initiative, which encompasses news and current affairs, but also central and local government-society communications. The convergence programme seems mainly oriented towards the former, as the propaganda leadership aims to re-establish dominance in the area of news and current affairs, with its traditional content providers – People’s Daily, CCTV and Xinhua – in the lead. These outlets are encouraged to develop interactive and audiovisual content, such as the cartoon about China’s leadership selection process that garnered quite a bit of attention last year, and to create mobile client apps and websites to present their content to audiences in a more attractive manner. The objective: to render a picture of normality that is subconsciously accepted by China’s population, without having to resort to overt indoctrination. As a People’s Daily editorial put yesterday:

Media communication work essentially is the work of creating people’s thoughts. Invisible propaganda is the most brilliant communication. Coercion is ineffective, only by bringing life as the spring breeze and rain, by silently watering everything is it possible to reach people’s hearts.

It is not yet clear how this initiative is supposed to be realised in practice, and the published announcements remain vague in their descriptions of policy measures and specific objectives. It is purported that convergence will result in “a batch of new-type, competitive mainstream media with diverse forms and advanced methods, a number of new media groups that are strong in power, dissemination strength, credibility and influence, and a modern communication system that is three-dimensional and diverse, with converged development”. To this end, reports indicate that the leadership will rely on the expertise in the generation of correct content of traditional media enterprises, as well as the capabilities that private technology and media companies have built up in developing marketshare and creating attractive products for users. In other words, there seems to be a growing recognition that the Party and state do not need to be in charge of the entire value chain, as long as they are able to intelligently use solutions developed elsewhere for their own purposes.

There are indications that this will lead to an approach not too dissimilar to the tack taken to attract foreign technology over the past decades: allowing private players access to profitable markets under conditions where they have to cooperate with state-owned enterprises, for instance in the form of joint ventures. In his April article, Liu Qibao indicated that it would be more efficient for the administration to use existing smartphone technology, social media platforms and app stores, rather than invent its own, which possibly implies greater efforts to co-opt China’s Internet giants into the state-directed system.  The People’s Daily quotes  Yu Guoming, a professor of journalism at Renmin University of China:

Concerning the convergence between the networks of the future and communication media, Yu Guoming said that in the future, mergers between websites and traditional media will become necessary. There are three main points for future development. The first is good content, this is the strong suit of traditional media; the second is technological support, the third is insights into users, traditional media themselves have insufficient insight into the market, and Internet companies are extremely strong, they are the most able to develop the market through big data and many other such methods.

In any case, share prices of state media enterprises have gone up considerably. This is not strange, given the fact that this announcement effectively means that more investment will be poured into central media enterprises, and they will be given privileged positions in important developing information-based markets. One previous example is the People’s Daily Public Sentiment Monitoring Office, which now dominates the highly lucrative market for reports on public opinion. Similar possibilities for other companies are tantalising prospects for investors. For citizens, it signals yet another advance for a technocratic regime that uncannily resembles Huxley’s imagination.

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