On Friday, the Chinese government announced it was dropping its case against jailed New York Times researcher, Zhao Yan. His imprisonment points to the essential conflict of Chinese journalism: communist leaders trying to navigate global free markets without surrendering to the free market of ideas. Bob talks to David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.
BOB GARFIEND: The excesses of poorly-trained sensationalists may be a problem, but David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project, says it's a problem that pales next to the essential conflict of Chinese journalism, communist leaders trying to navigate global free markets without surrendering to the free market of ideas. He joins me now. David, welcome to OTM.
DAVID BANDURSKI: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, it seems as if the Chinese central government, the party, has given the press a much longer leash in the past few years, lots of muckraking in local papers and so forth. But then periodically the same authorities yank the leash to the choking point.
DAVID BANDURSKI: The point is that, yes, the media are on a leash, and sometimes the media can actually be used as kind of attack dog. There's a term in Chinese, "supervision by public opinion." In some cases, this can actually be newspaper reporters going and reporting corruption at a local level. So it can function as kind of an arm, in that case of the state, where the higher level officials want to monitor what's going on in the provinces. Under this banner of so-called "supervision by public opinion," you also get journalism that resembles very closely what we call watchdog journalism in the West, and a lot of reporters doing this envision themselves as independent reporters and they really care about truth and about civic responsibility. So I think it's interesting to look at this watchdog journalism because you see under it both the best and the worst of Chinese journalism.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, in fact, we just spoke to the dean of Beijing's Tsinghua University about the very subject of watchdog journalism. But he also said that the press as a whole is losing credibility with Chinese citizens, he says, because it's so sensational and irresponsible and fixated on splashy headlines. Is he just an apologist, or is he right?
DAVID BANDURSKI: We are seeing commercialized media, but the real problem is that this commercialization has been encouraged by the party because they want to develop the media as an industry, and we now call it an industry, and that's changed even in the last seven or eight years. But it's still state-controlled. There are no independent media in China, and that, I think, is precisely the problem. We have this tension between the state function of the media, the mouthpiece. It also has a market function in China in that it's making money, competing for advertising. But it doesn't have yet a social function, and that's kind of where the battleground is. One of the examples that is probably something that Li Xiguang is talking about is this phenomenon called news extortion. And what this means is you sometimes get a newspaper reporter who will go and do an expose on, let's say, a meat-packing factory, and he'll write up his expose, he'll give it to his editor and the editor will pass it to the head of this company and then give him a phone call and say, “what are we going to do about this?” And if the head of this meat-packing company cares about his business, generally he'll say, “okay, we'll take out an ad contract.”
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that extortion thing is an alarming anecdote. On any level, are things out of control?
DAVID BANDURSKI: If you do a search on "news extortion," you will come up on any given day, practically, you'll come up with material. Sometimes they're lone reporters or pretending to be reporters and go out and try to extort money from companies. There are examples like that. But I'll give you another example, and that's the Hunan AIDS crisis, when the world discovered that there was this AIDS epidemic in rural China, and a lot of foreign newspapers actually got credit for breaking the story. But it began when one young reporter was riding a train – Don Gi Chung [sp?] is his name – in the countryside in Hunan, and he met some farmers who were heading to Beijing to be diagnosed with this mystery disease that they had, and he published an expose about this. That piece was not published in Hunan because the local government was opposed to this story getting out, because the reason for this epidemic was the donation of blood and the re-transfusion of blood. So this report was actually published in a province in Western China by one of these new commercial newspapers. Obviously, this newspaper had a commercial interest in running a piece like this. This is a great story about an inept government, about a health issue that's really relevant to everyone in China, so there was commercial interest on the newspaper's part printing the story. But there's a real interest on the part of the individual reporter in just getting the story, because he feels that this is his responsibility as a reporter.
BOB GARFIELD: So we always seem to come back to the paradox of contemporary China – an authoritarian regime trading in the free market, embracing some western principles and trampling on others. But how do you sustain a partial tyranny? At some point, isn't this mutt bound to break free of the leash altogether?
DAVID BANDURSKI: That's the million-dollar question. There are a number of scenarios. The one I would hope for would be the development of a number of independent media in China, you know, under the Chinese constitution, which formally grants freedom of speech, but it's completely nominal. It obviously has no effect, because China is still autocratic. But that's what I would hope for. What I fear is the determination of the Party to maintain state control, even as they encourage commercialization. They want to open up the media and give it this tabloid look, that it's attractive to the people, but it's just kind of an extreme makeover. You know, behind it you still have a state-controlled media. So that's kind of the worst-case scenario.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, David, thank you very much.
DAVID BANDURSKI: Certainly.
BOB GARFIELD: David Bandurski is a researcher associate at the China Media Project. He spoke to us from Hong Kong. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, how the dolphin ate the whale and how that relates to a newspaper buy-out. This is On the Media from NPR.