Media and Advertising

China media: A sting in the tail of the Year of the Rooster

The last month has been a foul time for the news media in China.

Just before New Year's Eve, the editor-in-chief of pluckier-than-most newspaper The Beijing News was sacked, apparently on orders from above — the powers that be were not amused by some of the newspaper's investigative reports.

In the last week has come another piece of bad news: Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily was ordered to stop publishing, for the same reason. In Freezing Point's case, the shutdown was triggered, or blamed on, by the publishing an article by Yuan Weishi about history textbooks, in which the author points out that Chinese school history textbooks are full of inaccuracies and omissions. For the whole story about the shutdown of Freezing Point, please see ESWN's translation of an open letter by editor-in-chief Li Datong, called A public protest against the illegal stoppage of the Freezing Point weekly magazine.

The situation seems bleak, does it not? There has been a pre-Spring Festival crackdown on some of China's most lively newspapers, and the message from above is very clear: toe the Party line, if you can figure out what it is, or be prepared to have your newspaper shut down.

But observing the clampdown on offically-sanctioned newspapers is only part of the news media story in China, and in some ways it is the least interesting part of the story.

Closures of newspapers and magazines are nothing new. Your correspondent has worked as an editor at two different publications that were shut down in 2000 and 2001. Anyone who has worked in the media industry in China is familiar with the mafia-like manner in which publlications are taken over, shut down, or stifled. And it is not always because of political considerations: money and disputes between cooperative parties are often the real reason behind publication closures.

Yet as we enter the Year of the Dog, things are very different than they were even a year ago. The Internet has proved itself a far superior medium for spreading information than any newspaper or magazine can hope to be, and Chinese journalists, editors and writers are taking full advantage of it. After the purges at The Beijing News and Freezing Point, perhaps it is not worth fighting for editorial freedom in the traditional media: it is so easy to shut down a print publication and so expensive to keep one going. But once a piece of writing is on the Chinese Internet, it's out there: people copy and paste it into emails and onto forums and blogs, Google and even Baidu keep copies in their 'cache' sections, and if it's interesting, ESWN will probably translate it into English and keep a copy of the Chinese original on his server.

The very fact that so much has been written about the closure of Freezing Point, the take over of The Beijing News and the troubles in various villages in southern China is testament to the fact that while the old media in China remain firmly under the thumb of the Man, anyone who wants to get a message out using the new media has a myriad of tools to work with. And unless the Man wants to shut down the Internet completely, those tools are not in his power to control.

Happy New Year! Keep your spiritis up comrades: the Year of the Dog is going to be a good one.

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