Media in China: a new flavor of the same old shit

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Around Chinese New Year, Beijing TV aired the fatal wrecks at an improperly marked road construction barrier that popped up too fast for the reflexes of nighttime drivers. Beijing TV deviated from the usual single-source interview and invented details typical among local reporters who lack research skills. The TV reporter interviewed spooked live drivers, family members of dead drivers and local road maintenance managers claiming no responsibility for a project that the report said was clearly under their watch.
Why, then, would a graduate journalism student say two years ago no way am I working as a reporter. And why another student from the same department would say the same this year. Both don't want to support an industry in which "you can't say what you want." Reporters with five-year contracts at China Daily, an English-language paper geared toward foreign readers, said the same when they wanted out like prisoners after two years, so bad that some left the country.
Unless they cover sports, entertainment or something apolitical four days out of five, these guys are right. Beijing TV had just added another new dollop to a consistent but thin mass media icing carefully sculpted in the late Jiang Zemin and early Hu Jintao eras to deceive bored or restless viewers into thinking the media is opening up, that it looks after common interests such as road safety, that the increasingly privatized press is still worth a dime or two, all in a period of fascination with foreign ideas spread via Internet and weariness of authoritarian rule.
But because now more than ever the Communist Party is losing its grip on society's sympathies, the state bakes the underlying cake with the same controlled formula of strategic hype and omissions we all know from the height of its experiment with communism 40 or 50 years ago. The State Council Information Office still tells the media what to ignore, what to play up and what to take only from Xinhua News Agency, the official government voice. Just ask people upset about their demolished homes about the failure of their protests outside the heavily guarded China Central TV offices for a spot on the evening news. Those conversations at China Daily often took place after midnight, when the whole sub-editing and production staff would do nothing but talk or play MS Windows solitaire while waiting for Xinhua to send them something for a hole on the front page.
Since audiences are used to that formula flavor, media control goes farther than desperate attempts to create a new "ism" to explain away corruptionism, nepotism and back-door favoritism, which now cut into almost everyone's life, from who gets a scholarship to who can afford a home. Audiences are so used to believing the essence of uncontested news reports that they can't imagine any other truth. These misunderstandings stoke false pride in a less and less confident China and false impressions of people outside China, sustaining the we-Chinese you-foreigners dichotomy that upholds the ideology of modern China and sharpens an ominous nationalistic edge to what otherwise would be garden-variety pride and stereotypes. Last month, on a 30-minute trip across Beijing, a taxi driver got on my case about racism on the United States. I explained it was still there but not on the law books and that civil rights movement didn't end in vain. Han Chinese think the Uyghur Muslims in west China are dirty criminals, and the government buys into it by restricting where they live, study and work, I offered. They're all terrorists, she said. Categorically. Look past your TV set once in a while, I suggested. Occasionally foreigners in China get caught up in this for hours at a dinner when friends drag along bored but helplessly bigoted family members or other third parties. Between slurps of soup: So why do you all carry guns and ignore your aging relatives?
It's easy to see why. Every day media pick on the Communist Party's archenemies to rekindle everyday people's damper and damper distrust of Taiwanese leaders, anything about Japan and most U.S. institutions, social and political, so everyday people look away from everyday problems like the sudden state-ordered demolition of their homes. As a Japanese foreign correspondent in Beijing said, the media are slashing away at old enemies, and setting back friendly relations abroad, to unify Chinese people behind a government that doesn't work for them. As Mao Zedong the great unifier said, blame the foreigners for anything possible. SARS came from Thailand because the patient did, Xinhua hinted in an April 2003 story about the International Labor Organization official Pekka Aro, who died from the disease in Beijing after flying up from Bangkok. In the second week of May 2004, when two women in Dalian heard the sounds of noisy sex in a flat near theirs, they asked the man inside to quiet down. He came out and beat the crap out of both, according to the Beijing Times, which ran a story and photos of a woman's bruises. The aggressor was Japanese. Moral of story: Chinese were victims of the Japanese in World War II, and again this month. See how nothing changes? Two years ago, an English-language weekly for Chinese students removed a line from a wire story about deaths in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to head off any "sympathy for America," an editor explained. In late April and early May 2004, China Central TV has covered as much of the U.S. army's abuse of Iraqi prisoners as CNN. Look, evil America. Miss that? We'll show you again in 10 minutes.
Another editor at the English-language weekly joked with Chinese co-workers that U.S. Army learned from China how to beat up prisoners. No one laughed. No one understood. OUR prisons? OUR country, they have learned, never mistreats people, especially not foreigners. (Surprise, arrests and deportations of foreign correspondents are not covered; nor are joint venture scams where the foreign partner loses bank; nor was China's murderous involvement in Cambodia.) OUR country has an amazingly complex language, according to a Jinan radio station that reminded listeners that it takes two brain hemispheres to speak Chinese, up from one required for foreign languages. WE built OUR own manned space program in just 11 years, faster than the United States did, China Central TV said after OUR first astronaut circled the earth in October 2003. The space capsule looks like it came from the former Soviet Union. Funny coincidence. (After his return the astronaut gave interviews only to Chinese media, not foreign correspondents.) Answering public fears about China's social degeneration, papers blare news about new laws to stop everything from spitting to real estate fraud. Did someone say enforcement is lax in China?
Media's new market focus does serve readers an increase in practical news for the ism-free age of free-for-all self-advancement. Sections of Beijing papers are dedicated to the hot topics of real estate or private cars. Entire special editions cover job searches. But when an issue concerns government, it's not in the paper. Anyone living in Beijing knows the obscured road barrier shown on TV has plenty of company. A tacky rainbow arch spanning the road near the Beijing International Hotel arcs down so sharply on either side it could mow off the head of any bicycle rider too dazed to see it coming. How about it, BTV? It's OK to criticize county officials, an editor from that channel once told me. So we can stick cameras in the faces of negligent road crews in the suburbs, but not downtown, where the rainbow arc, traffic jams enhanced by road-hogging construction projects that earn money for city hall through contract kickbacks and the hundreds of homes wrecked over the screaming heads of uncompensated residents are part of grand designs of well-connected Party officials. As Chinese, WE should trust them and feel proud.

by Ralph Jennings