Q. With China opening up to economic reforms in the 1980s, has the role of the media changed?
A. On the one hand we can say the role of the media has changed greatly, on the other hand, the media has changed little. The new media provides different kinds of services and for the young generation, media use has changed due to smart phones and mobile terminal facilities.
From the perspective of the traditional media, mostly the government controlled media, like the CCTV (China Central Television Station), the People’s Daily, the GuangMing Daily etc, the role played by them has changed little. Firstly, they are still the main channels of the Communist Party and the government. Secondly, they are the tools of the government and the governing party to arouse public awareness.
Even government controlled media have changed in response to the advent of the web related media. The web pages of The People’s Daily, the largest official newspaper and the CCTV, the almost official TV station include discussions that have originated from the mini blogs, which are very popular in China. Sometime, they also use new terms or words, which are only used in cyberspace. In this sense they have certainly changed.
Q. Has the media that has been traditionally supported by the Communist Party come under economic pressure with the opening up of the markets?
The traditional media continues to be completely controlled and fully supported by the government and this has been the case since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. From the middle of the 1990s, maybe from the beginning of the 21 century, the pressure on the government controlled media has increased for many reasons. One big struggle has been to face the popularity of the social media among the young generation.
This has greatly undermined the government controlled media’s abilities to stand up to the market. Within 10 years, many local government controlled media have gradually died. Some very powerful central government controlled media, like The People’s Daily and the CCTV are also forced to give more consideration to questions of profitability. They are coming out with new issues of tabloids, to give more coverage to commercials and advertisements. They are also making their programmes more vulgar to draw viewers.
This has meant more controlling guidelines from the government and more regulation, particularly of the state media. We have cautiously welcomed the government’s new attitude towards the media because on the one hand we worry about the dirty content in the media and on the other, I and other scholars also think about freedom of the media and freedom of speech.
Q. Has the ownership structure in the media changed? Who controls print and electronic media?
TV stations, publishing houses, newspapers and magazines are still controlled by the state-owned companies but, as I said, the way they run their business is quite different now. It is still very difficult for private companies to have their own newspapers and magazines or journals. Though individuals and private companies cannot have TV stations and publishing houses, it does not mean they have no impact on their content. Actually, they not only invest money for advertising, they also invest in making the programmes. Private companies also produce different audio and video programs and broadcast them on the internet.
Q. The new media is playing a major role in several parts of the world including China. What has been its impact?
It has provided individuals access to different kinds of information, ideas and opinions which may not be welcomed by the Communist Party and the government.
Secondly, the new media has forced the government as well as the Communist Party to rewrite laws, adjust their policies and specific activities in various ways to meet the requirements of the outside world, mainly the critics in EU and the United State in the name of fulfilling international human rights standards and domestically responding to the demands of individuals and civil society.
For example, in 2008, the Chinese government introduced an administrative order, Ordinance on Governmental Information Disclosure that has been in practice by local governments for several years. Very important is the fact that the first national human rights action plan also emphasises people’s right to access information. Also documents of the Communist Party clearly say that the state has the responsibility to ensure people’s right to know, right to participation, right to expression and the right to supervise the government.
Also journalists, lawyers and scholars use the internet to promote ideas and discussions on democratic theories and practices of other countries. Following the high speed railway accident that resulted in more than 30 deaths (two trains crashed in July 2011), there were heated debates regarding the development of the economy and the safety of the passengers. Also, the imprisonment of defense lawyer Li Zhuang caused a major hue and cry and a nation-wide debate about the situation of lawyers in China and ways to protect them so that they can perform their legal duties.
What is also happening due to the internet is that individuals post almost any kind of information, participate in public discussion on different public matters, policies, abuse of administrative powers and in some cases, have succeeded in punishing corrupt officials. In this sense, the new media also plays the role of facilitating the government and civil society to communicate with each other and exchange ideas. With over half billion internet users, over 1/3 billion broadband users and cell phones users, the new media has the great potential.
Q. Is any media banned in China?
Yes, definitely. China has a legal system to control the media and several local newspapers and magazines were banned for legal and political reasons. Before July 5, 2009 Facebook, YouTube and twitter, together with the "Chinese Twitter" named Fanfou and Digu were accessible in China. But these websites were being used by criminals and became a platform to seek, receive and import illegal and harmful information that could greatly undermine public security. Because of this, Fanfou and Digu were banned for over a year, and Facebook and Youtube are still unavailable in China. There are many websites that are banned because they show pornography.
Among scholars and activists there are heated discussions about the filtering and blocking of the Internet. Many, including me, argue that these measures violate people’s right to access information and freedom of expression.