Tag Archives: Media

TV Ads And Subtractions In China’s Cultural Reform

The ban on TV ads during dramas and films running longer than 45 minutes that China’s propaganda chiefs are imposing from January is aiming at the wrong target if the purpose is to bring the country’s increasingly money-grubbing media to heel. While TV advertising now accounts for three-fifths of China’s total advertising market, it is the rapid growth of digital media that is making China one of the fastest growing advertising markets in the world. MEC China, part of the WPP media agency empire, forecasts a 17% jump in ad expenditures to $63 billion next year, driven by companies trying to reach the online “Me Generation”.

For the past couple of years, the industry’s regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, has been snipping away at successful mass entertainment programs shown on the country’s proliferation of TV stations. It has restricted the time allowed for ads between and during programs, and leaned on broadcasters to show more culturally uplifting programming. As in many aspects of life, when it comes to cultural reform, a proxy for the desire to develop soft power around national cultural identity, the Party’s say-so is competing against more and more alternative voices. Hence the propaganda department’s attempts to guide market forces to impose the necessary drive for the promotion of the cultural values that it wants to see. However, though there will be some early disruption as TV ad campaigns for the new year have already been bought, the longer-term outcome is likely to be that money that would have gone to TV advertising will just move online rather than new culturally correct domestic programming will be created to keep it on TV, let alone fill the gaps created by its departure.

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Protest, Party And Propaganda

Given the authorities’ dousing of any inflammatory news about civil uprisings against long-standing leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, this Bystander is not surprised that the full fire hose of state propaganda and security was directed at the putative protests called in 13 Chinese cities this weekend. They were in any event damp squibs, seemingly occurring only in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou–if gatherings where police and onlookers believing a crowd was gathering because of the presence of a celebrity heavily outnumbers demonstrators can be called a protest. Even the arrests were in single figures.

It is no secret that the Party leadership has long been concerned about threats to its legitimacy to rule coming from the tens of thousands of protests that break out every year across the country. These are born of grievances over a myriad of local complaints about everything from corrupt officialdom to land disputes and environmental degradation. President Hu Jintao’s drive to create a harmonious society and to close the growing wealth gap in the country is an attempt to nip in the bud the potential civil unrest–and political groups–that could grow from all these.

So longstanding has been this concern that Beijing has already put in place the propaganda and security tools to control the information war. Like the telecoms and cable companies in the U.S. it understands that it is the sovereign of the Internet infrastructure that rules the Internet’s content. Within the Great Firewall, Google, Twitter and Facebook can’t help grass roots activists get around official censorship in China in the way they have facilitated in the Middle East with new software services such as Speak To Tweet. The companies aren’t present in China or in Google’s case, are heavily controlled. Local equivalents, particularly the microblog services, have patriotic obligations put upon them. Independent blogs and news sites get closed down in short order. An army of official posters and censors puts up pro-governement posts and takes down any deviating from the Party line. Mainstream media is overwhelming state run and, where not, expected to follow the guidance of Xinhua, especially when it comes to news reporting and commentary. The Politburo has reinforced the rules since Hosni Murbarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt earlier this month, and the Propaganda Department stepped up enforcement, including guidance to tone down reporting of any local incidents of disturbances.

This weekend, President Hu Jintao outlined eight points for strengthening the Party’s management over social order. The reemergence of the term social management indicates some sort of compromise, or stand-off, between the Party’s hardliners and reformers. Among the eight was one calling for tighter management over what is being said over the Internet, though Harmonious Hu also stressed the need to address the underlying problems causing the societal issues:

Further strengthen and improve controls on the information web, raising our level of control over virtual society, and perfecting our mechanisms for the channeling of public opinion online.

The goal is not anything as crude and easily criticized as shutting down the Internet or even to shut down the online conversation, but to cower and control it, with the hard and well practiced power of preemptive rounding up of dissidents providing the steel within the velvet glove.

Gene Sharp, the American nonagenarian academic who wrote the handbook on the non-violent overthrow of dictators, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a pamphlet that has been used by activists from Indonesia to Serbia to oust governments, but which, equally, provides a readymade excuse for any dictator that the U.S. is behind attempts to unseat them, argues that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern, and that regimes don’t fall until the people withhold that consent. The Party understands that and is determined not to let itself get pushed to anywhere near that point.

Beijing has got ahead of this in a way that no authoritarian ruler in the Middle East had even begun to think about until recently. In China, the outbreak of the unrest in the Middle East, and particularly the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, has sharpened Beijing’s need to be on top of its game. But it is one that it has been playing for a long time. Sharp’s argument for not taking the violent path to revolution is that that means taking on a regime’s best weapons. In many countries where social media have helped force regime change, the authorities were not just outgunned on the Internet, they didn’t know how to fight there or even that it was a theatre of war. It is far from clear that that is the case with China. We have even heard suggestions that the calls for his weekend’s protests were no more than an elaborate official fire drill.

Authoritarian regimes don’t fall because a few activists have read a pamphlet and put out a few Tweets. Conditions within a society have to be ripe. Uprisings to overthrow the Tsars in Russia failed in 1905-06 but succeeded in 1917; Murbarak was able to put down protests against his regime in 2006 but not this year. In both cases conditions on the ground had changed. We don’t believe conditions are ripe in China at this point to support a popular uprising that could overthrow the Party non-violently. We do believe the seeds for such conditions exist. Whether they flourish of wither is as much in the hands of the Party as it is in those of the people.

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Revolt In Egypt. Who Knew?

Two days of street protests in Egypt calling for the ousting of President Hosni Murbarak are proving troubling for Beijing’s propaganda meisters. They follow a similar popular revolt in Tunisia that overthrew the government. Our man in London reports that the situation in Egypt is dominating the news broadcasts there. Ditto in the U.S., according to our man in New York. Not so in China, where reports of  thousands of people taking to the streets in the country’s three most important cities in a popular uprising against a dictatorial and repressive government, and one in which the army has for the most part stood benignly by, have been scant, to say the least.  A search for Egypt on the Sina microblogging service returns the information that “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown”. Hear no evil, see no evil, do no evil?

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Google, Hacked, Takes A Rare Public Stand

Google, market cap $143 billion, vs China, nominal GDP of $4.6 trillion (2008) at current exchange rates. Not exactly an even match up. Yet David is taking on Goliath, not that Google is used to playing the David role.

The American search media company says it might pull out of China after it discovered that in December the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists had been breached, albeit at a low level. In a blog post, Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond said that “we have discovered that at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses–including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors–have been similarly targeted.”  In a separate post Google, which runs a distant second in the 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) China search market to Baidu’s 60%, added that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results” on its Chinese search engine, as the government requires, a practice it had engaged in since 2006 to obtain its Chinese license despite its “Do No Evil” self-image.

Google is not alone among foreign companies in bowing to Beijing’s wishes over matters the government considers sensitive (although it has stopped short of directly accusing the government of being behind the Gmail attack). And it will likely meet with government officials in the near future to discuss whether it will be allowed to offer an uncensored Chinese search engine. It is also embroiled in a copyright dispute over including Chinese authors in its Google Books project. But it may be better positioned than most to take a high-profile stand that will benefit it more in the places where it makes its money, and it may also be gambling on Beijing not wanting to be seen to be drumming one of the world’s best-known multinationals out of the country.

Update: a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday that “China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to law” and that the “government administers the Internet according to law and we have explicit stipulations over what content can be spread on the Internet”.

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China’s World Service, An Al-Jazeera Of Its Own

Modeling a proposed 24-hour cable news channel on Al-Jazeera is bound to be taken the wrong way in the U.S. and set false expectations elsewhere. But that is the model that Beijing reportedly has at the heart of a 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) investment in its three main state media, Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily, expanding their services to give China a global media voice commensurate with its emerging superpower status.

Beyond the 24-hour cable channel, CCTV will add Arabic and Russian language services to the Mandarin, English, French and Spanish ones it already has, and from May the People’s Daily will publish an English-language version of its tabloid Global Times.

The expansion comes when Western commercial media are scaling down their own international coverage so there is a vacuum to fill. Beijing’s plan calls for more reporters, more bureaux and more outlets, but not necessarily more freedom to report. China’s press has increasingly been feeling if only occasionally pressing the edges of the envelope within which it operates, but three organziations getting the money are still state-run media in a country where propaganda is a term, as Variety puts it, “used without negative connotations”.

The primary task, though, is to present China to the world, not the other way round. The melamine tainted milk and other recent food and product safety scandals have shown Beijing that it needs to do more in that regard, and is a further sign of the country’s confidence in stepping out into the world on its own terms.

And those terms must be true, because we’ll have seen them on TV.

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Beijing Reins In Quake Press Coverage

This Bystander has noted before the potential political fault line that quake-collapsed schools may be. Now the FT is reporting that the government has instructed domestic media to rein in coverage of the schools that collapsed during last month’s devastating earthquake.

A notice was sent to media outlets across the country late last week, following a spate of reports about the collapses that killed thousands of students. Their parents blame sub-standard construction and government negligence, if not corruption, especially in areas where schools were the only structures to fail catastrophically.

The press has bumped up against a limit of its new-found freedom. The question is whether it will knock it over, especially if the grieving and aggrieved parents don’t go away.

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Shoddily-Built School Collapses Test Beijing’s Openness

An FT report that some parents of children killed in a school collapse in the Sichuan earthquake are considering legal action against local officials they believe responsible for sub-standard construction highlights the growing point of protest in what has otherwise being a “good” disaster response for the authorities.

The school in question, a middle school in Juyuan, is not the only one in Sichuan to have been shaken to the ground. Nigh on 5,000 schoolchildren perished in the quake, creating a potentially powerful lobby of angry parents.

Investigations into shoddy construction standards are already underway across the province. The education ministry has promised “severe” punishment for any offenders found; the chief justice of the Supreme court has called for lower courts to crack down on any earthquake related corruption. No doubt guilty parties will be found, if more among local than central government officials.

State media has given unprecedented, if carefully managed, coverage to the disaster. The images have been of heroic effort and extensive mourning, but they can’t completely mask the fact that schools and houses have collapsed where party and government buildings still stand. Yet questions of responsibility are absent. Even on the internet, vociferous in its criticism of foreign governments over Tibet, only the faintest of concerns about construction standards are being voiced, or at least in the posting let stand.

The school building affair will prove an interesting test of how much openness is really being permitted, and, for Beijing, a measure of how much it dare safely allow.

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