Zhang Wen: “Strong Authorities, Weak Media”

In this blog post, Zhang Wen calls on Chinese media to stand up for their rights when faced with unlawful hassle from authorities, going so far as to criticise journalists for being weak in the face of oppression.

Zhang’s post was inspired by a video of a journalist who eventually abandoned his live broadcast after being hassled while reporting on the explosion of a chemical factory in Nanjing. The video seems to have been harmonised from Youku, but here’s the Youtube version for those who can see it.


The explosion of a chemical plant in Nanjing city centre resulted in many casualties. When Jiangsu TV’s City Channel made a live broadcast from the scene, an official rumoured to be a provincial secretary came forward and asked “What work unit are you from? What’s your name? Who permitted you to broadcast live?”

Faced with this unanticipated questioning, the journalist was obviously somewhat panicked, but still tried to divert the topic, saying: “Xinhua are over there, go and ask them, OK?” The reply that came was “No no no, you, the provincial channel.” (The hidden meaning here is obvious: “If I can’t control Xinhua, then I can’t control you, either.”) The official then continued to demand the journalist’s work unit phone number.

It’s worth pointing out that the title of the live broadcast program was ‘Provincial and City Leaders Personally Conduct the Scene’ (this was the general idea, there may have been a slight difference in the wording). As far as Jiangsu TV’s City Channel was concerned, all they wanted to do was to broadcast the explosion scene to the viewers, and probably had no intention whatsoever to canvas public opinion.

Despite this, the journalist who suffered “menace” had no choice but to rapidly cut off the broadcast signal. After having watched the entire video, I only have one feeling: Officials “have the courage of their convictions”, media “feel the guilt of a thief”.

In Western society, media has been called “the fourth power”, and when compared to administrative, legislative and judicial powers, media isn’t at all frail. You could even say that it has the advantage. Media frequently expose the “poor records” of the foregoing three, criticising their failures to do their duty. But except for the ability to take the latter to court (generally unwinnable), [the foregoing three] have no other methods of retaliation, causing officials to be a little afraid of the media.

But in China, the situation is completely opposite. Officials are full of psychological superiority, especially over state-controlled media, who they basically treat as an underclass, yelling and bossing them about. Any media or journalist that has the gall to disobey will face all sorts of different punishment consequences: replacement of editors, firing of journalists, even discontinuation of printing.

From watching the video, you can feel that when the Jiangsu TV journalist faced interrogation, he was panic-stricken. The same panic happened to Economic Observer News journalist Qiu Ziming. For having exposed the “poor behaviour” of Kai En, a warrant was put out for his arrest by the local police (Suichang County Police Station).

Suichang County police station’s logic was similar to that of the Jiangsu official: who permitted you to report? The hidden meaning is the same: How dare you report something that isn’t beneficial to us?

The only difference is, Jiangsu TV is under the supervision of the Jiangsu provincial committee, and the Economic Observer News is in the domain of Suichang County, which lead to different results: the warrant for Qiu Ziming’s arrest was quickly repealed, whereas those responsible at Jiangsu TV may have met with disciplinary action.

A representative of the News Publishing Bureau declared its position today, saying that it continues to support the legal conduction of surveying of public opinion, and would not tolerate retaliatory attacks on journalists. This declaration is worth affirming, but a policy alone is not enough; it must be conscientiously safeguarded by law.

It’s very obvious, in the China of the present, attacks that meddle with journalists’ right to canvas public opinion and the carrying out of retaliatory attacks on journalists are inextricably linked with [civil] rights. Whether it be like the barefaced “arresting” and “capture” in Xifeng and Suichang, or like the implicit malevolence of officials in Jiangsu and Zhengzhou: who permitted you to broadcast live? Who are you speaking for?

When compared to those that come from the authorities, “retaliatory attacks” on media that come from companies and individuals are a small annoyance. These “retaliatory attacks” [from companies and individuals] can still be reported to authorities and taken to court, but there’s often no way to file a complaint about “retaliatory attacks” from authorities; there are no emergency channels to speak of. But now, there’s a trend that is making people more and more anxious, it’s that authorities are often reduced to being “local gods”, and media meet with a dual danger.

Because of this, if there is no legal protection, this fear among journalists will never be eliminated. Luckily, these days there exists the “collective effect” of the internet, good things are spread far and wide, and bad things are spread even further. This year’s “go to Beijing to capture a journalist” and today’s Suichang “journalist arrest”, both led to great opposition and critical voices on the internet, forcing the “troublemaking” authorities to quickly correct their mistakes.

Looking from the perspective of the recurrence of this type of event, simply correcting errors is insufficient, apologising is also not enough, we must investigate the abuse of the rights of the public, and deprive wrongdoers of their posts. Only then we can truly enact an effect of prevention through fear.

It’s obvious from the current situation that despite having been discussed for many years, how to go about defending the media’s right to report and protecting the personal safety of journalists is still a difficult problem that urgently needs cracking!


Following the Qiu Ziming case, where the Economic Observer continually fought against the warrant for Qiu’s arrest, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate has released a statement condemning the issuing of “low-quality or incorrect arrest warrants”, meaning that journalists may in future be less likely to be bullied into switching off their cameras.

0 thoughts on “Zhang Wen: “Strong Authorities, Weak Media””

  1. Zhang seems like a good guy. People who would trade freedom for safety deserve neither, right?

    To think that Taiwan went through the same thing. They fought for their freedom. Guys like Zhang read very much like a lot of Taiwanese journalists in 1930’s. History does repeat itself. But their government was not as rich and powerful like ours.

    The only way to fight terror is not to get terrorized. Zhang seems not terrorized. That’s good.

    Thanks a lot for the post, Alex!


  2. @Mia,
    Taiwan in the 30s was under Japanese rule, as far as I know. So any journalists that dared to dissent were probably just shot, as opposed to only getting beaten up or getting locked up for a few weeks. Which still sucks, mind you, but definitely preferable to getting shot.

    But yes, I agree with the central idea of the article. No society can advance without internal conflict, and only lopsided development can occur when there is too much of an advantage to one side, in this case, the corrupt officials. I wish the best of luck to the reporters.


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