China Getting Wise To Media

China lawyer

The Chinese media response to yesterday’s Sichuan Province earthquake has been unexpected. When these sorts of things happened in the 80s or the 90s or even two years ago, there was a virtual media blackout.

Not true for this disaster.

Local newspapers were full of stories with precise details. On my television, four stations were broadcasting live footage of the damage and the relief efforts. This is a striking change from the past. As I was watching the coverage, CCTV 4 (central government owned and controlled) ran a story about the response of foreign governments to the disaster. Messages of condolence and offers for aid were published from four countries: Japan, the United States, France and Germany. No such messages were broadcast from Russia or India, two countries bordering on China who are in the best position to provide immediate assistance. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but I see it as a gesture from the central government to portray the four countries mentioned in a positive light after the recent wave of anti-western sentiment related to the Olympics torch relay.

I think it also bears mentioning that the English version of Wikipedia has been unblocked for the past several weeks. There has been no announcement of why this has occurred or for how long it will last. I assume the reason for this unblocking is that Wikipedia is now such a critical source of information that Beijing has determined denying its citizens access to it will just hurt China with little corresponding benefit. If I am correct about this, it should remain open indefinitely.

NOTE: The above is by Steve Dickinson, my law firm’s lead China lawyer, writing from Qingdao.

33 responses to “China Getting Wise To Media”

  1. Steve,
    Ironically, I was thinking the same thing about the accuracy and openness of the Xinhua reports. Perhaps China is not only getting wiser, but it is learning that it actually will get sympathy when it is open and honest about its problems. (unlike SARS) I can only hope that people’s sympathy in this incident will convince the folks in Beijing that openness and transparency is a good thing after all.

  2. I have also noted with interest that Wikipedia has been unblocked in China. My take was slightly different: I guessed that the reason it became acceptable might also have something to do with Chinese censorship systems getting ever-more sophisticated, meaning that just individual offending pages can be blocked.
    Given that Wikipedia content is user-defined, another argument for unblocking Wikipedia would be to allow the Chinese view to be represented. One of the major themes of the past month and a half has been the lack of common ground between the Chinese viewpoint and the ‘foreign’ viewpoint. I wonder if and when this will change.

  3. Here’s another perspective on why the block on Wiki seems to have been lifted. You might have noticed that a lot of blocks have been lifted of late, such as the long standing one on the BBC’s news website. Even the “permanent” ban on Youtube that was supposed to take effect early this year was dropped. Could it just be to appear more open during the Olympics? One insider has suggested to me that the IOC had been pressing for better access to Internet sites for sometime. It’ll be interesting to see if the blocks on certain websites return after the Games; just as we all expect the visa situation to also return to normal.

  4. @Steve – Are the ‘sensitive’ pages of Wikipedia still blocked? It is worth noting that with Wikipedia what people can read they can edit – I look forward to wikipedia taking on a somewhat more ‘correct’ aspect in the next few months!
    It is hard to see that the west can do much more for China than what is already being done, apart from the dispatch of international rescue teams it would seem that China is a country particularly well prepared for this kind of disaster (or at least its aftermath). At the very least it is good to see that messages of condolence have been relayed to the people. Hopefully the people who have been so shrill in their condemnation of ‘biased’ western media will note that the disaster is being covered sympathetically in the western press.
    When I lived in Taiwan I experienced more than one powerful earthquake, but I still cannot even imagine what it must have been like to be in a mainland Chinese city during one as powerful as this one. At 7.8 it is more than ten times more powerful than the 6.7 Richter-scale Northridge earthquake, and some 15 times more powerful than the biggest one I experience in Taiwan. One can only hope that economic development will allow the construction of safer building less prone to collapse – at the moment any Chinese city is a death-trap during such an earthquake.

  5. Always is a political angle from CLB. The country is just trying to help the people in Sichuan. You read too much into a time of national disaster.

  6. @Wang Chin
    Unfortunately, every country’s leaders have shown that no matter how great the crisis, or how trivial the moment, they are willing to play it as necessary.
    And I do mean every.
    Tony Blair’s wife just had her autobiography published, and in it she mentions that her husband deliberately and calculatedly informed the public of her aborted fetus in order to distract from the UK’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. This isn’t speculation; the Guardian had a direct quote lifted from her book, where she says she was lying there, bloody and in pain, while he manipulated the moment for political gain.
    So, this is what you can expect in the future, now that China has joined the premier league.

  7. @Wang Chin – It would seem that some people in the disaster zone are only looking at the political angle as well:
    Like it or not, there is going to be a definite political angle to this story. If it turns out that many buildings have collapsed as a result of sub-standard building materials having been used due to corruption on the part of officials people are going to want blood.
    After the 921 earthquake in Taiwan it was revealed that many buildings had collapsed due to illegal building practices, the failure of local officials to enforce regulations was exposed and many lost their positions – but only after thousands lost their lives. It seems that something similar may happen in this case.

  8. Is China allowing foreign rescue teams ? I read from some Chinese media that China is not “entertaining” foreign teams.

  9. Steve,
    On the coverage of responses from foreign governments, my take is that you probably have read too much into that particular CCTV-4 report, though admittedly I’m not 100% sure.

  10. Sorry, I meant to keep my comments in one post, but somehow ended up splitting it into two.
    Anyway, I checked and found 5 announcements so far on the Chinese foreign ministry website (, and at least two stories from Xinhua providing details on the responses from various foreign governments.
    It appears the responses are reported with no special order other than the time of receival.
    Japan, the US, and Germany are indeed among the first batch as you reported. But I didn’t find France until the fourth. Russia, along with Slovenia, UN, and Turkey, is actually among the first batch.
    As for India, I stand to be corrected, but interestingly I haven’t seen any response from that country being reported yet…

  11. China has pushed back on international helps in terms of personnel, because logistically roads, etc. are still blocked and no way to get these people in. China can definitely use some technical expertise and equipment. Hate to say it – Caterpillar does great at times like this.
    There was a lot of study done in China regarding their media’s coverage of the initial SARS outbreak. Maybe their openess now is a lesson from that? The winter storm crisis few months ago, China’s media was very open too.
    Lets hope the Chinese also take notice of the outpouring of support from the International community – including the West.
    Russia has sent condolences. Below is a list of countries/regions offerred aid thus far:

  12. Steve, When we lived (apart, that is) in Taiwan in 1976, the Tangshan earthquake had leveled that city on the mainland, causing a loss in life in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million souls. China, still with bamboo curtain securely shut, refused aid from many quarters. Those on Taiwan were flabbergasted at the refusal, as were those abroad. China in 2008 has made the Great Leap Forward. Her openness about this heart-wrenching disaster and willingness to project to the Chinese public of 1.3 billion the generosity of other countries who extend helping hands and condolences speaks volumes about the positive direction in which she is headed.
    China has no interest in closing doors, either to the world or to her own masses. The leadership is not just playing its own China card. It knows that the information revolution is steamrolling ahead, and that hundreds of millions of Chinese have access to worldwide data. Survival of the Party and successful national development are jointly moving in a relatively enlightened direction, all things considered.

  13. Can you guys get to wikipedia today? I cannot without a proxy. Would be ironic if they closed it up just now….
    Also, Dan never says that he think that wikipedia’s (at least until previous) unblocking had anything to do with the earthquake. Of course it didn’t. It seems to me to be mentioned as part of a larger trend of openness. But I’m in the “it’s temporary” camp.

  14. I’ve been unable to access wikipedia today or yesterday. While Steve’s prediction is well-thought, the reality is the GFW functions irrationally and it is impossible to predict when and what will be blocked, though I do think its safe to say that during August, wikipedia will not be blocked.

  15. I read recently on a pro Palestinian site called Electronic Intifada that certain people in Israel were trying to plant some professional “editors” into Wikipedia without the Wikipedia’s administrators knowing about it (but they were -at least temporarily- found out) so as to “rewrite” Palestinian-Israeli history in terms that would be more favorable to Israel and more detrimental to the Palestinians.
    These fifth column (or would it be sixth column?) “volunteer editors” would start by writing or editing other more neutral topics and articles – so as to not arouse suspicion – but would then gradually start to edit the target articles. Or was this all instead a Palestinian seventh column who wrote such a slanderous Electronic Intifada article about the poor Israelis?
    Given the relative skills and resources of the respective sides in this particular case I would tend to think it was much more likely to have been a sixth column rather than a seventh one.
    But I am getting more and more worried about all of these possible left and right and up and down columns. And so although it’s probably about equally true that Israeli propaganda is also much more experienced and effective and superior than even Chinese propaganda, should we all be watching out for this sort of thing to also start to happen with respect to -say some favorite Chinese topics and issues such as the three T’s? (Tibet, Tien an Men, Taiwan)
    And what about possible right wing American deep thinking think-tanks rewrites of the whole history and process and context of the Chinese Communist revolution , which because it was run by a bunch of Commies, could only have been an abysmal failure and a brutal brutality across the board? (with a minimum of 350 million people having been killed just by Mao single handedly in only the few years of the cultural revolution) (and if you think I am joking please just check out some of the relevant sites)
    The free and open sourced wicked Wikipedia is just great for non-controversial non-political topics but I am always just a little bit wary whenever reading about any topic that anyone (or someone) might wish to re-interpret one way or another. And there are of course also some fairly inconsequential academic topics over which there still is disagreement and that end up getting “fairly freely” interpreted by much lesser fifth columns, from whatever sides of the argument.
    And so should we all go back to reading only the more “objective” Encyclopaedia Britannica instead? But could someone please then also do a real good Wikipedia or Britannica article about precisely what “objective” means and precisely how to spot it…as well as how to spot its nefarious socially constructed post-modernist opposite and its assorted wolves in sheep’s clothing?

  16. @ Todd L. Platek, above
    I tend to agree with you but I would be interested in any clarification or elaboration you could provide of “all things considered” at the end of your post.

  17. I think Beijing is hoping the international community refocuses its attention through the lens of compassion for China’s quake victims, instead of the lens of compassion for Tibet’s crackdown victims. Though the number of people killed, injured and missing in China is certainly larger, the same compassionate outflow of photographs and stories from Tibet would have been appropriate in covering that (ongoing) suffering. None were forthcoming, however, for obvious reasons. I mourn the quake victims along with everyone else, but can’t help but note the contrast.

  18. @Steve
    Excellent post! I was thinking about the same thing myself. Not only about the earthquake, but even moreso about the recent outbreak of hand, foot, and mouth disease. Had these events occurred even four or five years ago, I doubt they would have received much media coverage at all, other than the obligatory “The Situation is Under Control” public service announcement. While China still has a long way to go towards media transparency, they are certainly moving in the right direction.

  19. Robert,
    We’d need to sit down to a few beers, a long dinner and a cigar or pipe in order to clarify or elaborate. Suffice it to say here, for sound-bite purposes, that thousands of years of feudalism don’t fade away in just a couple of generations.

  20. @ Todd
    Many thanks for the reply. And I certainly wouldn’t mind if it were somehow possible to have a long dinner -particularly if it were Chinese- to talk such things over. Grey-haired knowledgeable interlocutors tend to be few and far between.
    Though I have to tell you that I have given up both beer and cigars and pipes and all related, at about the same time that China started to “kick” feudalism.
    But I think you now have already adequately answered my question. You were referring to the thousands of years of feudalism and to China’s history. Which I agree is indispensable to understanding modern China.
    So what you said now makes perfect sense. Otherwise “all things considered” also could have meant “considering all” which I am sure you would agree is “pretty difficult” even for the most capacious and circumlocutious of minds, let alone my very “normal” one!
    Again muchas gracias

  21. What did I say?
    Municipal construction in China in subject to incredible levels of corruption in China, maybe the central government will start to take it more seriously after this quake.

  22. Todd,
    If there were any doubts about either your grey British hair or your gray American hair (and that’s something I am not 100% sure about) “when you and Steve lived apart in 1976 in Taiwan” certainly gave it away.
    I am assuming that your own Mom and Dad would not have “set you loose” to create all sorts of trouble in Taiwan at age three; and since 2008-1976 = 32 plus say another say 22-32 just so that you could afford the plane or boat ticket over there or have finished up at least a first degree, would make you 54-64 which unless you are touching up your hair a bit once in a while as I am, would definitely give you that “whiter shade of pale” look somewhere, somehow.
    But even if you had tried to pretend you were 25 -and I can’t imagine why you would want to engage in such a devious and also self-deprecating deception-…(and I hope all the undoubtedly very intelligent web 2.0 “youngsters” out there will forgive me for this “joke”) your second paragraph also sounds far too wise and long term of a perspective sort of a statement for anyone focused mainly on current events to come up with…
    Fernand Braudel a great French Historian who wrote a great book called “Histoire de Civilisations”….(also available in English) explains his “theory” (which I think is a reality) that one can look at three “interactive” “durations or temporal components of history.
    The history of the very short term or of events (l”histoire evenementielle in French) which represents the froth and ripples on top of the sea and is most day to day journalism. The history of the mid-term (l’histoire des periodes, in French) which represents the small and bigger waves and periods such as romanticism or the industrial revolution. And l’histoire de la longue duree which represents el Nino and the deeper longer term currents of civilizations that tend to be imperceptible but are out there just the same.
    I think your own second paragraph remark fits somewhere in between the latter two types of histories….(and in particular after you clarified what you meant by “all considered”) and what is happening or not happening with the Olympics and Tibet fits under the first…
    But it’s also true that many events make up a period and many periods make up a civilization and that each of these three (arbitrary) divisions always affect the other two.
    Have I been clear enough? I certainly hope so and so very best regards and all the best to a fellow gray / grey haired traveler!

  23. Events that have not had a direct political angle, such as this tragedy, have long been accurately covered by the Chinese media, albeit with fewer graphic images and video.
    Anyway in Europe who thinks that China has some “catching up to do” in terms of fair and impartial media coverage should read up on Mad Cow Disease and Chernobyl.
    In France at the height of MCD paranoia, butchers all boasted “100% French Beef”… a trip to the UK, however, and British Butchers were pushing “100% British Beef”.
    As for Chernobyl, we now know that the radioactive cloud drifted across France as the government assured us that it had stopped at the border. Farmers were crossing the border to sell their produce in France that they couldn’t sell 100km away!
    In short, anyone who believes that western media games are any different from those in China is deluded – the only difference in my eyes is that the Chinese media don’t waste their time bashing the West.

  24. While the distinction between the relative “openess” or “opaqueness” of the Chinese media is obviously important, such a distinction may somewhat miss the point of the Chinese media.
    If one watches Chinese CCTV coverage of the earthquake relief effort in China, one tends to get the impression of a mass movement from the kinds of slogans that are being used, etc. What is interesting is that rather than being portrayed as a purely humanitarian effort (as it is portrayed in the foreign media), in China the relief effort (mass movement) is portrayed as “love of the nation”, and “love of the Chinese race”. The theme is love, but it appears not to be love of humanity as a whole. Perhaps, I’m reading too much into this? In any case, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the Chinese media in the next few days.

  25. I agree with Mr. Jazzwhistle (or maybe Monsieur Jazzwhistle?) above that anyone who believes the Western media doesn’t play all sorts of mind games is deluded. But I am not sure I would agree that they are the same sorts of games played by the Chinese media, or for that matter by the old media of the U.S.S.R. (“Pravda” which by its very name seemed to want to enshrine the authentic truths of George Orwell)
    In my own opinion the mind games played by the Western media are far more insidious and difficult to discern and decipher and avoid being influenced by, than those played by the old standard /traditional propaganda systems.
    Moreover the subtle deceptions, emphases, colorings, moods, and styles involved in “opinion formation” act over both short and longer time periods and happen seamlessly because a set of incentives at both individual and organizational levels operate on journalists and news organizations without even the need for so called “conspiracy” theories to dictate content, emphasis or style.
    These modern propaganda systems are true marvels and jewels of mind control and they are so splendidly effective that most people are not even aware that they have had their opinions “shaped” by these folks. (that is, that they’ve brainwashed)
    I consider Fox channel the example par excellence. It is a more poisonous instrument of propaganda than CCTV which when it lies tends to lie more by simple omissions or commission of errors and therefore is easier to catch out by anyone who has access to alternative information.
    Such deceptions tend to be at a fairly simplistic level -though not all- and are easier to catch than the unendingly proclaimed kind of “fair and balanced” “we report you decide” “no spin zone” that is, only high spin zone, of Fox channel. And if one then takes Fox as just one element of an overall diversified system of news and propaganda
    the result is even worse. Because just when one starts to think Fox is mainly doing brainwashing and one then shifts over to “the more reasonable” CNN “to start get the relevant facts” and then one “takes the average” then one is truly captured.
    Mad Cow Disease and Chernobyl are both matters that ultimately yield (or can yield) to scientific analysis and facts and any wrong opinions eventually can be corrected. But if one has been subtly influenced to believe that Barak Obama is a danger to the United States. or is “Un-American” without even knowing why, that’s far worse since it also is not easily provable or disprovable one way or the other. And once such views are formed they may consciously or unconsciously persist for a very long time. And of course it’s only necessary that they persist until after the elections.

  26. @Jazzwhistle: “he only difference in my eyes is that the Chinese media don’t waste their time bashing the West”
    Mate, have you even read the Chinese media? Pretty much everything from DVD piracy to Taiwanese separatism is blamed on the west, and every third edition in the trashier press will have speculation about a possible war with the US.

  27. I’ve not convinced. I tend to think that the coverage of the earthquake contrasted with the coverage of other recent events just confirms that there is no underlying principle governing the Chinese media other than what suits the interests of China at that point in time, as assessed by the government.
    I wonder how an earthquake in T1bet would have been portrayed…

  28. “I wonder how an earthquake in T1bet would have been portrayed…”:
    The love of the Chinese people helping their Chinese compratiots, of course. It’s almost guaranteed that Chinese media would provide almost as much coverage, especially considering the areas hit by the Wenchuan earthquake are pretty much T1betan anyway (well, almost – the T1betan minority population in the area is high). It would clearly work to China’s advantage to spin an earthquake in Tibet as a unifying factor for the nation – as it might well have proved to be, as in the case of the Tsunami’s effect on Indonesian Government-Aceh Rebels relations.

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