Media Control in the Wake of the Earthquake

Three days later, Ai Weiwei’s blog is still silent. ChinaGeeks has confirmed that there was a brief update a few days ago that was quickly harmonized, entitled “Let Me Sleep a Bit Longer, Mom, I’m Tired”, which contained some updates and personal anecdotes about some of the students Ai’s project is attempting to memorialize. It’s gone now, of course (we may translate all or part of it at a future date), but the real question is why is it gone.

To that end, Alice Poon has translated an interesting article about media control following the earthquake. The entire article is very worth reading, but here’s a sample:

Everybody could see that in the initial stages of the quake relief process, news reporting was open, including reporting on collapsed schools. At that time, the Party’s mouthpieces like Xinhua and People Daily also joined in the effort. The authorities acted as if they had the intention to go to the root of the problem. There are three reasons that can explain the morphing from loose oversight, to tighter control, to outright banning. First, the shoddy school construction reports have involved more and more officials who should be held accountable. Many officials who had worked in the quake-related areas were promoted to higher ranks. The reports apparently were detrimental to their careers. So the labyrinth of power began to flex its muscle and officials were protecting each other. To that end, they decided to oppose the Central authority’s wish to investigate the problems. Second, the collapsed school issue has galvanized ‘rights’ activists into action. Third, the shoddy school reports have touched the most sensitive nerve of the authorities – Sichuan education department cadre Lin Qiang declined to be an Olympics torch bearer because of the collapsed schools, saying that ‘the truth is more important than personal honor’, and Southern Weekend’s interview with him was widely circulated on the Internet.

Mainland China’s control of the media is no different from that in the past. It is the context of control that has changed. Apart from methods and means, the target and degree of control are also changing – what should be controlled, what need not be controlled, what should be tightly controlled, what can be relaxed. Control in the past was focused on ideology. The Party’s propaganda department used to base its action on Marxism Leninism and Maoism in its effort to rein in the media. Then ideology began to fade out, the Central authority began to weaken, and local authorities and interest groups began to gain power. The current type of control is motivated by pragmatic political benefits. Local officials and interest groups often are the black hand behind the Propaganda Department when they want to suppress the media. The most serious crimes that they can accuse the media of include ‘causing damage to the country’s interests’ and ‘destabilizing society’. This is why although reporting on the Sichuan earthquake was much more timely and transparent than during the Tangshan earthquake, yet reporting on collapsed schools has been banned. Reporting on collapsed schools has revealed one dark corner of corrupt officialdom.

The revelation that corrupt officials are behind the control, or at least one reason for the censorship, should surprise more or less no one, in or outside China. In fact, opinion polls have consistently shown that Chinese people are most critical of their government when discussing corruption, and one wonders if there isn’t, perhaps, a solution to this.

Low-level officials are always going to try to save their necks, especially when they’re guilty of something terrible, like OK-ing and overseeing the building of shoddy schools that resulted in thousands of deaths. As the article above points out, media control and propaganda are a valuable tool for this neck-saving, but people everywhere are aware that the media is being controlled. It seems that perhaps the central government might actually solidify their power and increase support among the people if it were to crack down on this kind of “propaganda” rather than tacitly support it by ignoring it. So why haven’t they? Among other reasons, that kind of thing could backfire, especially if the newly-freed journalists find trails of corruption that lead all the way to Beijing (they almost certainly would).

The tragedy, as always, is that the dead students — and the citizens striving to preserve their memory — are stuck in the middle, trapped by self-serving bureaucrats and public servants whose actions won’t hold up well if exposed to the light of truth.

When all of this ends, will anyone remember the number of students killed? Will Ai Weiwei be able to preserve their names, or will that be snatched away, too, for ‘causing damage to the country’s interests’ and ‘destabilizing society’?

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0 thoughts on “Media Control in the Wake of the Earthquake”

  1. Sina’s deletions are strange in that the service preserves user posting activity in 最新动态 listings. If you have a Sina login, you can see a list of all of Ai’s posts on his Space profile (and use the title/short excerpt to search for cached or reposted copies). He’s actually been updating at least a couple times a day (usually a candle shot, a short article, and one or more reposts of deleted material).

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  2. On the bottom left of Ai’s sina blog, link section(链接),there is one link called citizen investigation(公民调查)that direct me to a Google Group that includes all the deleted articles and names.

    I am wondering if there is a way to access it in China, proxy or anyother means? or is this some kind of escaped fish?

    The other thing is, by the time I post this comment, 13:40 Beijign Time, 22 May 2009, posts 现实是你哪里也不能去 and 我再睡会嘛,妈妈,我很困, deleted by Sina are still on Ai’s Sohu blog
    http://sohuaiweiwei.blog.sohu.com/
    现实是你哪里也不能去 is also on Ai’s Netease blog
    http://aiweiwei1957.blog.163.com/blog/static/115615448200942204852452/
    by the time I am writing this.

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  3. I think you underestimated the central government’s ability to control the journalists.

    Even if the highest leadership allows the media to investigate the cases, I believe they can cap that on the local level. They can instruct only a handful of media outlets such as the China Youth Daily to do it, and when the reporters uncover something that could be traced up to Zhongnanhai, they can swoop in and gag them.

    But I also truly believe that such an investigation (by internal investigators) is going on or has finished and they know the local officials and money-grabbing constructors who were responsible for the buildings. In China’s bureaucratic world, you have a whole parallel intelligence system for “nei can” (内参). It’s just the public will never know.

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  4. Sure, they have an internal investigation going on. It’s just once they follow the trail past Wenchuan and into Beijing, it’ll suddenly go cold. Because everyone’s got to make nice and everyone’s got to have a future. Honestly, you really think that the right people, the ones who should be charged with negligence, will in fact be charged? It’ll be some mid-level or low-level official who gets the buck, no one important who probably actually provided funding or his signature.

    I have to say, to be a journalist in China, and to likely know that your foreign counterparts actually contribute to society by propagating truths without alteration and perversion, must be one of the worst jobs. To wake up every morning and have to say to yourself: “Today, I’m going to sacrifice my integrity, yet again. I will betray the values of journalists everywhere, because if I don’t, the only end for me is in front of the muzzle of a gun,” sounds like it may save your life, but utterly destroy your spirit.

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