The Chinese Press in the Spotlight

By Timothy Weston

In recent weeks, the Chinese press has struggled to cover a series of major and difficult stories. Moreover the Chinese press itself is being watched and critiqued by the Western world with intensity and curiosity. What we are seeing in the Chinese press now is a world in transition and flux.

First was the Chinese press’ discussion of the Tibetan demonstrations, its virtual refusal to acknowledge the validity of any foreign criticism, and its exposure of a reflexive, threatening, and brittle nationalism, especially among some Chinese youth. However, that was followed by its honest and educational reporting during the hand foot mouth crisis in Anhui in April and May, and then, of course, came the biblical earthquake of May 12. The earthquake may well have shot fissures into the long stalemated relationship between the Chinese media and the Chinese Party-State. In the West, the earthquake—in large part because of the way the Chinese media reported it—opened up another Chinese face, one that, following on several months of largely negative coverage, can be loved. The news stories about the earthquake have been truly moving. It appears that the Olympics will not be the “It’s Legit to Hate China Games,” after all, and that is a good thing.

The Chinese government encouraged full coverage of the natural disaster domestically and around the world (very different from the kind of “anti-coverage” it promotes in response to most human-caused disasters, such as mine collapses, about which I have written). The coverage in Shanghai on CCTV starting the day of the earthquake itself was much like it might be in the United States: the reporters wore resolved looks, humanized by a sense that they, too, were stricken by the sadness of the story. For what I saw, it seemed the network was truly trying to calm people, to be informative and to be caring. The loops on the videotapes from the earthquake zone that first night were tight. Not many images had come out yet, so the coverage was especially numbing. It reminded me of American disaster news coverage—such as of Hurricane Katrina-- which panders to our prurient interests by showing us searing and horrific images of what most of us fortunately will never experience personally. Somehow, though, in China this amount of information—tragic though it was—felt like a healthy thing. Most important, it felt open and thorough.

After watching the first few days of the earthquake coverage on Chinese TV, I returned to the United States on May 14. During the flight home I had a strange experience that made me think more about Chinese press liberalism and public relations. This involved the recent, special issue of National Geographic on China that came out last month. I had taken that issue with me to China, started reading it, and found myself pulled in by Leslie Chang’s (who has recently contributed to The China Beat) story on middle class anxiety and stress in China. I wanted to read more, but before having a chance to do so I gave my copy of the magazine to an interested Chinese friend. So later, as I prepared to board my flight home at the sleek and modern Pudong International Airport in Shanghai just two days after the earthquake and the astounding openness of the early coverage, I bought a replacement copy of the special issue to read on the plane.

I was probably four hours from Shanghai and six from California, when I came to a couple places in the magazine that had very thick pages, which I realized were actually several pages stuck together. They didn’t just pull apart with a hissing static sound. They were really stuck together, with glue. They had been censored. I wondered, why was someone or some agency in China directing people to put glue stick X marks on certain stories in the special issue of National Geographic? Why were they trying to block people from viewing those stories? And why, of all things, people who read the magazine in English? What was it that we English readers should not see either? In any case, I found the clumsy attempt at censorship annoying and old school.

Of course, I wanted to read those sections of the magazine now more than ever. To my surprise, I was able to pull the pages (grudgingly) apart, to see what I was not supposed to see, though some strips of paper tore off at the ends of key explanatory sentences I wanted to read. Yet, the question for me after prying the pages apart was what in the world was anyone doing censoring those things in particular? After discovering what the censors had tried to prevent me from seeing, I couldn’t sustain feelings of anger. Instead, I was puzzled. The stakes seemed so minor.

The first pages that had been glued together were 44-45. After working for a few minutes to pull them apart, I have to admit that I was disappointed. They contained a country map of China. I saw nothing on those pages that could in any way be deemed new or sensitive. The lines of the glue stick X mark were unmistakable and the map was badly damaged by my efforts to get access to what had been denied me, but had this been a mistake? Had the censor not been paying attention to what he or she was doing? The next thing I was not supposed to view was a short piece entitled “Mao Now” (pages 100-101). At least this had to do with a political figure. Yet it is hard to see why the few pop-culture images of Mao Zedong reproduced there or the accompanying commentary were deemed sensitive. One need only spend a few days in China to see equally irreverent images of one sort or another. This really did not seem like dangerous stuff.

The last two off-limits sections made a bit more sense. The two-page map of China on pages 126-127 depicting the country’s ethnic minorities—where they live and how many of each there are—focuses on a subject that, owing to the recent demonstrations in Tibet, may be deemed “sensitive.” Still, it is hard to see why a map that simply illustrates China’s ethnic diversity (which, one would think, is a good thing to make known) without any accompanying commentary should be considered offensive. Only the last glued pages made any sense to me; the short entry entitled “Cutting off Dissent” that appears on pages 128-129 deals with an obviously political and sensitive subject. There is delicious irony in the fact that my pages on the suppression of dissent and censorship contain a bold X mark and are difficult to read. It would be a good image to show in a lecture on censorship.

But all in all, pretty tame stuff. Was this censorship really worth the effort, and if so, according to whom? Who actually glued the pages together? At what level was the decision to censor those pages made? Were those deciders the same people who are allowing more press openness now during the ongoing earthquake coverage? If so, they seem to have shifted direction very fast. If not, is the press opening the earthquake space on its own, with other muscle?

Would I have run into the same thing if I had instead bought the magazine at the new Beijing airport, or the one in Canton? Fresh from viewing the open coverage of the earthquake on Chinese TV, I realized this is a moment of incredible possibility in China, one when greater press openness is emerging around a natural disaster, but also one that feels like it could close down again at any moment, especially after the Olympics. And if the next disaster should be human caused, perhaps in a way that implicates the political leadership itself, the frightened and rather arbitrary logic of the page gluers may once more prevail.


Mutant Jedi said...


But, as you indicate, clumsy. An English magazine in an international airport censored with a glue stick lacks a bit of nuance. :)

I wonder if it was vandalism rather than censorship.

Anyhow, your question about the fragility of the "new openness" is a good one. However, it isn't necessarily that new. The Tibet thing is framed by the Earthquake in May and the snows in Jan/Feb.

I was in Beijing during the snow crisis and was impressed by the response of the people and the government. I also watched on CCTV the same sort of discussion about how the West isn't getting it. The complaint on the tube was that the West was looking for the story (riot) to break out at anytime - almost like circling vultures.

2008 isn't over yet.
I'm optimistic about China.
It is going to be an interesting year.

Changston said...

Actually, I was sincerely hoping that this would be the “It’s Legit to Hate China Games.” In the wake of the "nationalism with racist characteristics" in reaction to Western coverage of Tibet, it becomes more evident to me that the willing blindness of Chinese culture needs to be killed off. With the reported increase in anti-Westerner sentiment before the quake, I anticipated a lot of visitors coming back from China honestly realizing that it is an authoritarian state and that the masses are ignorant of how browbeaten their media is. Now, there will be appropriate sympathy for the people of the tragedy, but it will obscure the harsher realities of censorship in China.

Megha said...

I also find it strange that the map depicting China's ethnic minorities was censored because I saw a similar map in January on a wall in the Shanghai Museum. But I think your analysis-- that the topic has probably become sensitive in light of the Tibet protests-- is probably spot on.

Kevin Carrico said...

I had an identical experience in Shanghai when Newsweek featured a story on Zhao Ziyang's death. In that case, the offending image was a memorial in Hong Kong with signs bearing such hypersensitive phrases as "平凡六四。" I tried returning to the store and discussing the presence of these strange glued-together pages with the clerks, yet not very surprisingly found that no one was eager to dive into that conversation with me; lots of silence and staring into space.

carry anne said...

The way I see it, the CCP has a reason why it does everything. I think fundamentally it is run on fear and self interest/preservation so whatever it has to do to fool people and make itself seem legitimate, it will do.

The Chinese society is bubbling over with controversy right now and the party knows it. It knows that if it doesn't play good, the people will explode and call the party on its injustice, so it has been forced to make concessions. Just like all the concessions it has made, it has made them at times when it's power was under threat.

In a sense it actually does work like a democracy. It does depend on the peoples support because it claims to be for the people so it has to play the game, but fundamentally it is not for the people, it is for itself. It does not earn it's legitimacy. It fakes it. It makes it up and twists things so it appears to be 'great glorious and correct' .It messes with peoples standards and ideals so as to seem forgivable and acceptable. It lives on lies. Media freedom and CCP cannot coexist, thats what I think, and thats what the CCP knows and fears.

Nice blog, I appreciate it.

Harry said...


Just by reading one magazine with several pages glued together and then come out a conclusion about Chinese government censorship. Did you see your logic error here? In nowadays China, you can pretty much have the well known foreign magazines mailed to your front door (Of course not those nasty magazines).

Please don’t make the facts work for your conclusion that you have already made in your mind.

In general for China or other developing country, the most important thing is making progress. The China CCP is also changing and making progress. Almost certain someone may not live to see Chinese society bubbling up. What a hatred!

Timothy Weston said...

Many thanks to those who have commented on my essay, "The Chinese Press in the Spotlight." Knowing that people are reading The China Beat is a good feeling and I welcome the feedback. I would like to respond to the various comments on my essay with the following: First, I emphatically do not think it is a good thing to hate China nor do I think that China deserves to be hated. Hatred and blind rage will not solve the problems in China anymore than they will solve the problems in the United States or other parts of the world. China has changed a great deal over the past two decades. The pace of the change there is extraordinary and awe-inspiring. China is more free and more information is available there today than at any time since I first started to visit the country on a regular basis over twenty years ago. Second, I think it is important to continue to critique China, and to criticize it, when appropriate. No country, no government, and no nationality is above being criticized. That goes for my own country as well as for all others.

Peanut Butter said...

>It appears that the Olympics will not be the “It’s Legit to Hate China Games,” after all, and that is a good thing.

No no, I'm afraid you've got it all wrong, actually that's a very bad thing.

carryanne said...


I think what you say about the progress in human rights is not what you think... The CCP has terrorized people in China don't you know? Terror revolutions randomly persecuting with brutal violence anyone the CCP does not want around. This has led to a culture of people adjusting their thoughts to the CCPs every whim.

Teachers teach crap to students because they know the CCP is a global power and who will keep them safe if they speak truth? That is a major major issue. It's the same in North Korea. If a thousand people gather and do a demonstration begging for help and exposing the regimes atrocities, will anyone help them? No, they will pay the consequences of rebelling.

Parents dare not teach their children the truth for fear they get caught speaking it and believing in it. People in China no longer think in terms of right and wrong, true or lie, just or unjust, they think in terms of GDP, and what;s good for the stability of the CCP, they confound love for the country with love for the CCP, since they can only think and speak what they are allowed to. Wake up, the CCP human rights violations have been extremely effective to the point where maintenance is lower now, the culture is formed, people know the line and they sell their souls when they wake up every morning with various excuses, or because they were just raised up that way and genuinely do not know they are living in a cage.

Do you think that you have the info on the laogai in China? Do you know how many Falun Gong are arrested and tortured? Do you know how many reporters know they are lying to everyone for cash? Do you know the torture methods used on dissidents? Do you know about organ harvesting? Don't you think the party is criminal? And don't you think that using all means to block information about this is severely endangering the people? Do you know the extent of the party's manipulation of international leadership and organizations in order to keep the lie going, to not expose the crimes, to keep dissidents in torture cells so that everyone can going on repeating how everything is getting better? Speak for yourselves, do not speak for the people who know the real truth, it is not getting better, it is more hidden.

Stephan said...

I think its a big mistake to use offensive, aggressive language when trying to educate Chinese about the deficiencies in their media and government. We must support the Chinese in their overwhelmingly rapid growth and maturation. It is a difficult process made even more challenging by its accelerated pace. The best thing us foreigners can teach Chinese is the power of independent critical thought. Chinese are just as capable of morality and reason as anyone else, they just have to be given the tools to critically examine the information they are given. Though Chinese understand that in a country of 1.3 billion, progress inevitably disrupts, they would protest against things like 1.25 million Beijing residents being forcibly expelled from their homes with little to no compensation to make way for Olympic construction. It would be terrible to put the average Chinese person on the defensive and have China collectively recoil into a reactionary defensive posture that doesn't accept any of our criticism or suggestions because we've been aggressive instead of engaging and encouraging. It's incumbent on us to be mature, considerate, compassionate and helpful, angry shrieks and hateful conjecture may well have disastrous influences.

hq said...

a june 4th post on the wsj blog offers more info on glued pages in national geographic's special china issue


Anonymous said...

There is a tendency to attribute everything to the top leadership/government of China. More often than not it's the responsibility of lower-level/local operatives, who don't have a lot of subltty and sophistication, and who for fear of making mistakes and jeopadizing their careers, tend to overact in things like censorship.