At a media conference last week in Bangkok, Thailand, sponsored by the East-West Center of Honolulu, several starkly different visions of that landscape emerged. Some were optimistic, some pessimistic and some predicted that the future of news and media in China will be drastically different from anything seen before.
Among those speaking to the conference of journalists and researchers was a leading Chinese media reformer, a Hong Kong newspaper baron, a pioneer of the Chinese blogging revolution and several journalists tasked with reporting on the Olympic games.
There was considerable optimism about China and press freedoms. Some suggested that internal reform in China will eventually do away with overbearing state control of the media.
Others said that new media, or the “blogosphere,” make the debate over state control or interference irrelevant as consumers find other ways to get their news and information.
Journalists headed to the Olympics said they fear China’s preoccupation with making the games an absolute success will lead to aggressive but ultimately futile attempts to control what is reported.
Among those who spoke were Chee Ying “Jimmy” Lai, the ebullient and blunt founder and chairman of Hong Kong’s Next Media, Ltd., publisher of the popular Chinese daily Apple; media reformer and editor Li Datong; and new media entrepreneur Isaac Mao, co-founder of the Social Brain Foundation of China and CNBlog, the earliest website focused on grassroots publishing in China.
Lai told the conference that the success of his publications rests on their ability to abandon old ways of storytelling and communicating. Critics say his publications are “sensational,” a charge Lai readily accepts.
Sensationalism, Lai said, means telling stories in human terms.
“Newspapers are sentimental and emotional products,” Lai said. “It’s not the news, it is the emotion behind the story that counts.”
Without that emotion, Lai argued, journalism in China or anywhere else is doomed to become irrelevant.
“Media is about life,” he said. “Life is about drama. Drama is about pain, fear, happiness – all of that. The media has to reflect that. People need media not because they need news, but because they need shared sentiment.”
In China, the biggest human drama on the horizon is the Olympics. Lai said his Hong Kong publications will indeed send reporters to the games, but as “tourists.” They cannot get media credentials because his papers have been steadfastly critical of the Chinese government’s hand in internal Hong Kong affairs, Lai said.
Two journalists who will be at the Olympics with credentials are Francesco Liello, China correspondent for La Gazetta dello Sport of Italy and the first reporter credentialed for the games, and Gary Swanson, a journalist-in-residence at the University of Northern Colorado and a consultant to NBC News, which will cover the games.
They are concerned.
Liello, who has already been arrested once for attempting to do a story on alleged doping of young Chinese athletes, worries that overzealous authorities might ruin what otherwise promises to be a spectacular event.
Such over-sensitivity can become self-defeating, Liello said.
“There is always criticism of the Olympics,” he said. “In Atlanta, it was the influence of Coca-Cola and other commercial interests. In Athens, it was that the venues were not ready.
“But China is not accepting any criticism. It is behaving like the old system when Mao was there.”
Swanson said Chinese authorities will simply have to accept that the America media, particularly NBC, which will have saturation coverage, will want to report more than fun and games.
“A lot of us will be looking for feature and human interest stories,” he said.
But hard news will also be on the agenda.
Whether the authorities like it or not, news will look for (stories about) terrorism, doping, pollution, corruption, prostitution, overpopulation, politics, human rights, Taiwan and Tibet, Swanson said.
“News is going to want to know about all that,” he said.
But while foreign journalists worry about themselves and their Chinese colleagues having the freedom to report, a leading Chinese journalist said, the outlook is far from being all bad.
Li Datong, a senior editor for the influential China Youth Daily and for decades a press reform champion within China (he has more than once lost his post because of his activities), said the picture is far from grim.
State control and interference remains a serious factor, Li said, but top-down authority is no match for the myriad forces of openness. ”Even with (continued) strict control by China’s government, the development of democracy in Chinese media is irreversible,” Li said.
“The national propaganda system (of state control) has been destroyed,” he contended. Some of those at the conference thought Li was being a bit too sunny. But he has the credentials to look on the rosy side if he wishes.
In 1989, Li was stripped of his position on China Youth Daily after he led a group of more than 1,000 reporters to meet with central leadership about press reform. After five years out in the cold, Li returned and soon launched Bing Dian (Freezing Point) weekly, which probed deeply into controversial contemporary topics.
In 2006, Freezing Point was shut down and Li lost his chief editor post.
But from his current senior editor position, he remains upbeat about the long-term future of media freedom in China. Part of it stems from the growth of lively, profitable local – or “city” – newspapers and magazines that are usurping the state-controlled media in the minds of the public and even among many media leaders, he said. The Internet, which cannot be totally suppressed, is another factor.
The media also benefits from an overall move toward greater democratization and civil freedoms in China, as well as the coming Olympics, which will – temporarily at least – usher in a new era of press freedom, Li noted.
State control won’t go away quickly or easily, Li said, but it is eroding. And, interestingly, the opening up is happening more quickly at the central government level than at local levels, where party bosses still can maintain iron control.
But at least one conference participant said the debate over state control is irrelevant.
The future of news and communication in China rests in the blogosphere, said blogger and Internet pioneer Isaac Mao.
While the entire world will change as blogging connects and informs people in new ways, Mao said, the impact will particularly be vivid in China. That’s because rather than attempting to reform or change existing media institutions, which still are largely state controlled, China’s 145 million bloggers simply go around the old media and find their audience a different way, he said.
The catchphrase is “collective intelligence on the click of creation,” Mao said. In other words, the impact of a multiplicity of bloggers watching, reading and responding to each other is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Mao cited a number of lively examples where change occurred because “government failed to control the media space.”
One example: Authorities and the established media went wild when a rural farmer came up with what he claimed was a photograph of a rare Chinese tiger, thought to be extinct. Headlines were generated and awards were bestowed.
But then one lonely blogger posted the thought that the photograph might be fake, a computer manipulation. He wasn’t sure, but shortly thousands of other bloggers weighed in, some of them even demonstrating how the fake could be produced.
Finally, a blogger posted that the image of the tiger appeared to have come from a calendar he had tacked to his wall. The ruse was exposed.
“The truth came through millions of bloggers. No one told the whole truth. This is collective intelligence,” Mao said.
For more on how the blogosphere has trumped the traditional media, go to: www.isaacmao.com
For more on the Bangkok media conference, click here to view the East West Center’s conference blog.
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