Social media fills vacuum left by China’s ‘hollowed out’ press

Photo via Pixabay.

In videos shot earlier this month, Chinese human rights lawyer Xie Yang stands before the court, looking thinner than before his two-year detainment, but otherwise healthy. It’s the last leg of his trial, and now, along with his guilty plea, Xie must make several statements, starting with a denial of foreign news reports—decried as “fake news” by China’s state media—that he was tortured by government officials.

Next comes the taped confession, in which he issues a warning addressed to his fellow lawyers, but that will soon be viewed by millions on the social media site Weibo. “We should give up using contact with foreign media and independent media to hype sensitive news events, attack judicial institutions, and smear the image of the nation’s party organs while handling cases,” he recites.

Released by the Chinese government, the videos were just the latest strike in an ongoing battle swirling around media and free speech in China, which was recently ranked the fifth-worst country in Reporters without Borders’ annual press freedom index.

In an interview with state TV, human rights lawyer Xie Yang confesses to colluding with Western media.

 

That’s largely thanks to President Xi Jinping, whose clampdown on free speech has included increased restrictions on domestic media, stepped-up censorship across the board, and draconian punishments for anyone—journalist or civilian—who steps out of line. That campaign has taken on new urgency ahead of a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle this fall, when Xi is expected to consolidate his power.

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But for all Xi’s efforts, there’s one variable that could thwart his careful calculations: social media, which, in the vacuum left by China’s decimated press, has created surprising openings for debate, foreign influence, and even citizen reporting. And as several recent incidents have shown, those openings are prompting some Chinese netizens to rethink the roles of both domestic and foreign media.

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That could be bad news for the Chinese government, which has worked hard to delegitimize Western publications by painting them as enemies of the state, or worse, ideologues. The latter was the thrust of an editorial Monday by the state-run newspaper Global Times, which called a recent New York Times report that China had killed or imprisoned over a dozen CIA sources in China “a purely fabricated story, most likely a piece of American-style imagination based on ideology.” The piece went on to jeer that the journalists involved had likely watched too many Mission Impossible movies, before criticizing America’s “moral narcissism.”

For the most part, efforts like these have worked, which is why it was so surprising when, earlier this spring, a viral video transformed an NPR reporter into China’s latest social media darling.

It all started at the Two Sessions, which is what China calls the annual parallel meetings of its dual legislative bodies. It was there, in the midst of an unremarkable press conference, that NPR’s Beijing correspondent, Anthony Kuhn, was filmed asking Chinese officials about one of Xi’s signature projects, which aims to create a “mega-city” by combining Beijing and surrounding areas.

In the clip, Kuhn pointedly asks about compensation for merchants who’ve been displaced by the project, and questions whether it will truly be able to help Beijing’s rural poor. It’s a tense moment—and then comes the punchline. Having delivered his question in fluent Mandarin, Kuhn decides to reclaim the mic and do his own English translation, interrupting the interpreter and prompting a ripple of surprised laughter.

NPR Beijing Correspondent Anthony Kuhn questions Chinese officials at the Two Sessions.

 

At highly scripted events like the Two Sessions, any break with protocol is reason to take notice, and in this case, Chinese netizens were more than happy to comply. Within several days, a video of the encounter had gone viral on Weibo, racking up more than five million views and 3,000 comments.

Even now, Kuhn—who later quipped that he couldn’t make his reporting go viral if he injected it with smallpox—remains bewildered.

“It never would have occurred to me in a million years that people would have found something out of the ordinary,” he says.

According to Jonathan Kaiman, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, part of what made the clip noteworthy was the unnervingly direct nature of Kuhn’s question, which struck an embarrassing contrast with the softball questions being lobbed by the Chinese reporters around him. “There’s a certain irony in that a Western journalist is asking what seems like a very obvious question about a very obvious social issue to a group of officials that many of his Chinese counterparts probably don’t have either the strength of conviction or the professional standing to address,” he says.

That irony didn’t go unnoticed by commenters on Weibo. “This is a question our own reporters should be asking,” one person wrote, in a sentiment echoed again and again.

Another commenter had greater sympathy for Chinese journalists. “I’m guessing that it isn’t that our reporters aren’t thinking about these questions, it’s that they don’t dare ask them,” it read. “This foreign journalist is a spokesman for China’s lowliest people. A foreigner who’s come so far to China, who even more so than China’s own official media, is connected with Chinese people’s real lives.”

It was exactly the kind of conversation the government was likely hoping to avoid around this time—at least based on a series of slick Web videos released in the run-up to the Two Sessions featuring prominent Chinese reporters praising the Communist Party and rejecting the notion that they’ve been “brainwashed.”

This foreign journalist is a spokesman for China’s lowliest people. A foreigner who’s come so far to China, who even more so than China’s own official media, is connected with Chinese people’s real lives.”

Normally, the government needn’t have worried. The Chinese public is by and large loyal to state outlets and suspicious of the foreign press, says Rory Truex, an assistant professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, who recently surveyed public attitudes toward different kinds of news media.

“I was surprised at how often they would say things like, foreign media is just trying to hurt China and criticize China and make it chaotic,” Truex says. “So foreign media is viewed as one of these hostile foreign forces that we see so often cited in Chinese official media.”

Loyalty to state media has helped keep public criticism of censorship at bay, though recent events have tested that tolerance. In November, the National People’s Congress approved a new cybersecurity law that prohibits online activity aimed at “overthrowing the socialist system,” and requires companies to enforce censorship and provide aid to government investigations. Earlier this month, China passed another law requiring companies to obtain government licenses in order to publish, share, or edit news.

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In the meantime, censorship of Western media has continued to expand, with decisions to block Pinterest and limit access to foreign children’s books drawing widespread complaints on Weibo.

It’s become enough of an issue that, in closed-door debates, some delegates at the Two Sessions reportedly argued for relaxing internet censorship, according to the South China Morning Post. The central government, however, has maintained the same response: that media control is essential for maintaining social and political stability amid the country’s breakneck growth.

That rationale has found plenty of defenders, both in and outside the political sphere. But in the wake of China’s ever-shrinking press freedom, some netizens are losing patience. That’s in part because they’ve had to watch gains made over the past two decades steadily disappear under Xi’s reign.

While the government has always maintained a tight grip over the media, a period of openness beginning in the 1990s launched a generation of promising reporters, while the advent of social media introduced the novel concept of citizen journalism. Over the past year, however, multiple writers have lamented what appears to be the slow death of China’s once-flourishing tradition of investigative journalism.

“It has become increasingly clear that much of the experience the journalism profession in China has gained since the 1990s is being hollowed out,” writes China media expert David Bandurski in a recent piece.

That’s prompted some netizens to take matters into their own hands, as happened last month, when news spread on social media about a 14-year-old boy in the city of Luzhou who was found dead outside of his school dormitory. Photos of the boy’s body, featuring heavy bruising and broken bones, along with alleged sightings of him being attacked, led many to speculate he’d been beaten to death. But both school and city officials quickly ruled the boy’s death a suicide, amid speculation that his alleged attackers had connections with local higher-ups.

The incident, which started out as a local scandal, quickly went national, with commenters across China blasting the local government for corruption, mainstream media for its lack of coverage, and censors for deleting social media comments on the incident. Within days, protests erupted on the streets of Luzhou, and state media reported that four netizens had been arrested for “rumor mongering.”

 

A widely circulated photo of Zhao Xin, a 14-year-old boy in Sichuan whose death sparked protests in streets.

 

It wasn’t long before the social media outrage began overtaking mainstream news, including official coverage of Xi’s inaugural visit to meet President Trump. “Bump me to the top! For the Luzhou middle school student’s murder case,” read a Weibo comment posted under a state media livestream from Mar-a-Lago.

Similar comments soon invaded other national news posts, as the Luzhou case continued to trend across social media. One of the most shared posts on the topic came from popular TV show host Cui Yongyuan. “I just want to prompt the local government to think about why your credibility is so weak,” he wrote. “And to ask the mainstream media, why is it that when you should make your voice heard, you don’t? Is your silence helping the government, or adding to the chaos?”

The comment, which was shared over 10,000 times, struck a chord with Weibo users, who praised Cui’s courage and empathy.

“Now we can add you to the list of people who dare to speak the truth,” wrote one commenter. “So many people just fear bringing troubles to themselves.”

While the Chinese public has traditionally been tolerant of limits on free speech, both the Luzhou incident and Kuhn’s viral video point to a growing hunger for figures who are willing to speak truth to power. It remains to be seen whether that concept will be able to make the jump from an individual to an institutional level, but the reaction to Kuhn’s video shows that Western journalism could provide a source of inspiration—if, that is, its reputation as an enemy of China can be overcome.

Kuhn’s 15 minutes of fame may have created a crack in the wall that stands between China and Western media, though he says it also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what foreign reporters and doing and why. “I guess what this tells me is, Chinese people really don’t quite understand what our role is and what we do here,” he says.

One thing that people did seem to understand was that in that moment, Kuhn had brought something authentic to the table. Shortly after the press conference ended, he says, a stream of Chinese reporters began to approach him, all offering the same comment—that his question was very jiediqi.

“I guess you can translate it as ‘channeled earth energy’,” he says. “One way to interpret that was I was channeling the discontent of the lower classes. That’s one way of understanding their comment.”

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Liz Tung is a freelance journalist based in New York. She has written for The Atlantic, The Economist, and Time Out Beijing.