Media business

ZT Online and China's media "system"

JDM071227zhengtu.jpg
Shi Yuzhu and his lucrative MMORPG.

The Southern Weekly article on ZT Online, "The System," began to attract attention online even before it was pulled from portals and news websites.

Some readers saw the article as a return to form for the newspaper, while others suspected that it may have been a soft ad bought by Shi Yuzhu's Giant Interactive, the company that runs ZT Online. Giant is currently is working with Southern Weekly on an Olympics-related project.

If it was an ad, then trying to wipe it from the Internet was a neat bit of manipulation: bloggers reacted to what they saw as Giant throwing its weight around by reposting the article in full.

Below are some reactions to "The System" from Chinese bloggers, starting with one blogger's justification for reposting the entire article:

"The System" in Southern Weekly and "the system" in the Chinese media

by maomy / Oh My Media

On 20 December, 2007, Southern Weekly published the lengthy special report, The System that described in depth a shocking story that took place in the online game ZT Online. This was the best, most detailed, most fascinating piece of online gaming journalism I have read in recent years—it was neither a dusty sermon on morality nor a careless broadside of criticism, much less a toadying puff piece. You'll almost certainly fall into deep thought after reading it: millions of people immersed in a land that connects the virtual with the real—what sort of cultural atmosphere is it, what form do the people's actions and thoughts take? What effect does all of this have on so-called real life? Domination, mind manipulation, and desire—such things that rule the virtual and real worlds, when Shi Yuzhu's "Giant Interactive" IPOed in the US, when the mass media was praising yet another fairytale of wealth, can we still permit other voices?

I read the entire text and my first impression was "scary"—particularly the scene of the gamers' mass protests described in the article, where they were screened by the system and even sent to a virtual "Gulag Archipelago." Apparently, the main writer, Cao Yunwu, is a post-80s gamer—that explains it! This is no traditional "balanced" piece of news; it is a special report that stakes a position but speaks the truth as well as possible. It may even be a bit inflammatory, but I like this kind of controlled passion.

If you say that what Cao Yunwu presents to us is the horror of the "system" in this "online giant," then what the report itself encountered sends a chill through the heart of the "system" of the Chinese media. Or is the "system" itself to be feared, or is there perhaps some manipulator, interest group, or powerful elite hidden behind the "system"?

I was fortunate enough to read The System when it was reposted on a board of a BBS I frequent, but I was astonished to discover that the document was being scrubbed off the Internet. On Southern Weekly's own website, not only are you unable to find the article in the HTML version of its 20 December, 2007, page, but even in the PDFs provided by the newspaper, "by chance" the two pages are missing (see image).

But just a few days before, Southern Weekly's "Fortune" column ran a report on Shi Yuzhu that grabbed the last fleeting prestige of Giant Interactive's IPO and did its best the play up his capabilities. This article naturally sits unscathed on the webpage for that day, with HTML and PDF versions both present (see image). And if you do a web search, the results cover the pages. In the eyes of industry professionals, does this count as a successful PR puff piece?

On the well-known Chinese gaming BBS, someone mentioned the disappearance of The System, too.

Why is this? It's almost certainly the manipulation of that "invisible hand," doing PR, "harmonizing." As the sensible Guan Jun pointed out, the very composition and publication of this article was already an expression of "wisdom and bravery":

No doubt Shi Yuzhu won't be too pleased when he reads this article. His company just started a cooperative campaign with Southern Weekly, called "Olympic Journey" (奥运征途), sponsoring the paper's visits to former Olympic host cities. On that journey, if it's not dollars, then it's euros—the expenses are not insignificant. The consequences of Shi's displeasure, in my own estimation, will be the flash of a sword, a crack-crack, and the "secKill" of that partnership.

OK, so I've always thought that as the Chinese media becomes commercialized and market-driven, going from kneeling before power to kneeling before money is a natural transition that's as easy as turning over your hand. To any Chinese young person with even a bit of education, news censorship and Internet filtering is not journalism, but when money so easily manipulates a newspaper (and one that's been called China's most stubborn and strong-willed, at that) and BBSs, when "Giant" Naobaijin marketing carries all before it, shouldn't we take a minute to think about responsibility in the "system," in the people behind the "system," and even in ourselves?

With this in mind, I have to break an Internet custom and not simply quote and link to the complete article: I will repost it in its entirety, because you don't know when the article you quoted from and liked to will vanish. The full-text repost will at least remain on my own independent blog and reach 500+ readers—not all that many—through RSS.


Zhao Er, a tech blogger, felt that Southern Weekly had missed the point of online gaming:

Does Southern Weekly not understand online gaming? Or is it manufacturing buzz for ZT Online? On Christmas Even when my friends gathered together, one of them asked me if ZT Online was fun. I answered, I've never played it, so I don't know if it's fun or not. On Christmas night, another friend asked me what the wars in Giant Online were like, and whether its PVP system had any advantages. All of this was kicked up by Southern Weekly's article "The System."
...
Southern Weekly doesn't understand gamers. Not all gamers dream of becoming heroes or faction leaders or kings. Many gamers are actually just interested in things they cannot find outside of the game, things like friendship and quiet. A long-time gamer can find in the game not just killing, but many other things as well. The game is merely a platform. If you say that the game is harmful, then the victims bear some of the responsibility.

I was once obsessed with games like 1000 Years and Legend, and during that time of infatuation with online gaming, I really did spend lots of time and money on them, but I still feel that Southern Weekly's article has a few problems, because it's not only Shi Yuzhu's game that's like that—they're all basically like that. Is it only because Shi Yuzhu's famous enough that writing about him will be controversial? Or did they accept an advertising fee from him?

From what transpired, lots of people who've never played ZT Online before are now interested in Shi Yuzhu's game.

Blogger Hecaitou addressed the suggestion that because people were now talking about ZT Online, it must have been bought and paid for:

After Southern Weekly published "The System," I noticed lots of people saying, "Southern Weekly's returned from the dead." At the same time, I also saw many people saying, "I never knew what ZT Online was before, and after reading that article I want to give it a try." Some people even believe that the article was a soft ad that ZT Online placed in Southern Weekly, and indeed, some of my friends said that they'd decided to download it and give it a go because of the article.

I don't think that these friends are singing a different tune from mine; no matter how horrific an anti-drug or anti-AIDS propaganda poster is drawn, there will always be someone who wants a needle after seeing it, or who removes a condom. This is because people are naturally curious, because this curiosity creates innumerable wonders, but also because this curiosity leads countless people onward like a moth drawn to a flame. Someone might ask me, Hecaitou, what's the point of doing that? If you earnestly repost that article, and what is obtained in the end is that sort of outcome, then won't you be sorry?

Why would I be sorry? The Age of the Decline of the Dharma that the Buddha spoke of is the present day; people are extremely clever but lack wisdom. Human thinking has become cunning in the extreme, and can presuppose all kinds of possibilities, sensing potential danger in any affair. Seeing a soft ad in the ZT Online article is an expression of this kind of cleverness; why should I feel sorrow for human evolution?

Hecaitou goes on to make the point that the second try is the one that's important; after curiosity is satisfied, will people return to the game?

Mai Tian, an internet entrepreneur, felt that the true value of the article was in the writing:

My own evaluation of "The System" is that were it not for the fact that the article discusses online gaming, a relatively specialized topic for a small audience, then it would occupy a position in Southern Weekly history alongside the famous "There's always a feeling that brings tears to our eyes" report from back in the day. That is to say, "The System" is not aimed specifically at Shi Yuzhu—it's not even discussing online gaming: "The System" only uses online gaming as subject matter to make a more profound point. "The System" actually is an Internet version of 1984—"the system" is actually "Big Brother."

And finally, Milk Pig offers the following use for the deleted article, in the spirit of ZT Online's "RMB gaming":

If I were Shi Yuzhu, I wouldn't simply pay for deleted posts: I'd buy up Southern Weekly's "The System" article and offer it for sale in the system. For 1,000 yuan you could buy one click to read it online; for 10,000 yuan you could download and save it, and for 100,000 yuan you could repost it and replace "staff reporter" with your own name.

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