Chinese Bloggers, Podcasters and Webcasters
Strictly speaking, that was the title of a blog post by Michael Anti. Actually, I am only interested in the blogger part of it. In the following, I have taken some of Anti's comments and presented them differently. So he gets the credit for the inspiration, but the blame for any misstatement is mine.
I will do a general comparative analysis of the United States, Hong Kong and China. Here I am specifically interested in the areas of current news and commentary. Thus, I am not dealing with entertainment, astrology, or the other stuff.
In the United States, there are the mainstream media and then there is the non-mainstream blogging culture. Mainstream media are represented by newspapers (such as New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc), magazines (such as Time, Newsweek, etc), television (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, etc) and radio (Rush Limbaugh, Air America, NPR, etc). In the blogging culture, there are individual bloggers (such as Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds (InstaPundit), Atrios, etc) and there are some group blogs (such as Daily Kos, Little Green Footballs, etc).
What happens with a breaking event such as hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans? The mainstream media reporters are out there doing as best as they can, and their commentators reflect on them. The bloggers scour far and wide for news reports and bring the most salient ones to the attention of their readers. Then, finally, there may emerge a new set of no-name bloggers or civilian reporters who turn into major sources because they happened to be at the scene and had the means of transmitting that exclusive information. These civilian reporters may have no formal journalism training, and they may be just tourists or technical workers. The value of their contribution is simply what they are seeing or hearing at the scene. For anyone who is interested in learning as much as possible, both mainstream and non-mainstream media are important nowadays. If anything, to my mind, non-mainstream media would seem to be even more informative these days in the United States. On a busy day, Daily Kos can get near to 1 million visitors and that gives them a better reach than most local newspapers.
In Hong Kong, the mainstream media are represented by newspapers (such as Apple Daily, Ming Pao, Sing Tao, Oriental Daily, The Sun, South China Morning Post, The Standard, etc), magazines (such as Next Magazine, East Week, Yazhou Zhoukan, Ming Pao Monthly, etc), radio (such as RTHK and Commercial Radio) and television (TVB, ATV, BBC, CNN, etc). Given the way things are, the newspapers are the primary source of information, and the newspapers and radio are the primary channels of commentary. As for non-mainstream media, with due respect, they don't mean much at this time. Although there are Internet bulletin board systems, forums and blogs, they reflect but do not impact public trends and opinions. There is simply nothing in Hong Kong that comes remotely close to Daily Kos either in size, breadth of coverage, acceptance or influence. There are only some alternative or independent media, but they do not replace mainstream media.
The reason why Hong Kong cannot be like the United States is the size of the place. The United States is a vast country with many local media. When hurricane Katrina hit, most people are not familiar with the local media in that part of the country. It is easier to let the bloggers scan and filter the information. By comparison, Hong Kong is small and most newpapers cover more or less the same news events. If you've seen one, you've seen them all and there is little that bloggers can add, at least not consistently.
In China, the mainstream media is represented by newspapers, magazines and television. The Internet portals (such as Sina.com, Sohu.com and Netease.com) are not allowed to gather their own news, so they carry the mainstream media reports and offer the space for readers to comment. [Technically, there are some exemptions: if a portal is owned by a newspaper (e.g. Longhoo.Net is owned by Nanjing Daily), it can in fact conduct its own journalism.] Although the Chinese BSPs (blogging service providers) claim to have millions of users, the number of significant bloggers on current news and commentary is tiny. Instead, it is the BBS's (bulletin boards systems) and forums that attract those who are interested in reading and commenting on current news.
The Chinese situation is turning out very differently, and the reason can be traced to a central fact: no true freedom of press. What appears as news in mainstream media is usually formulaic and subject to official censorship and unofficial self-censorship. The obituary of Zhao Ziyang was the same 59 words everywhere. Not one word could be added, deleted or modified. China is a vast country and it has 1.3 billion people. There may be tens of thousands of newspapers at various geographical levels (i.e. national, regional, provincial, municipal, city, county, town, district, village), but on the major national events, you will find only the Xinhua copy. If you read one newspaper, you've read them all. In that sense, China is closer to Hong Kong than the United States. How is a blogger going to lead you to different perspectives unless he/she does so himself/herself?
Within the Chinese mainstream media, there are quality workers with good ideas and opinions. However, they are often not permitted to articulate those ideas within the mainstream media. They can write something up, but it may be killed for reasons that are either opaque or seemingly wrong. They do not necessarily want to yell "Down with XXX" or "Vindicate YYY" because XXX will not fall down and YYY will not be vindicated on account of some more sloganeering. They only want to ask 'simple' questions such as, "Why are mining disaster victims and their families being kept away from the press?" or some such.
With the arrival of the Internet, bulletin board systems proliferated and these mainstream media workers gravitated to those forums (such as Yannan, Xici Hutong, Tianya Club, etc) in which they can express and exchange their ideas and opinions with like-minded people. Again, they are not advocating to topple the government, but they are just relating how they were kept away from the mining disaster victims or some such. As such, they don't even have to ask any questions, because the answer will be all too obvious. All the while, they continue to work at mainstream media organizations, but their spare time is for them to use.
This created a unique situation. In the United States or Hong Kong, mainstream media workers mostly treat the non-mainstream media with mistrust, contempt and jealousy. In China, the non-mainstream media sector (related to current news and commentary) is in fact dominated by the mainstream media workers in exile on their spare time. Can a true civilian reporter participate? If you are a famous civilian writer at these BBS's and forums, chances are that you will be quickly hired to write for the mainstream media (although you can't always write what you want). So the Chinese non-mainstream media scene on current news and commentary is dominated by the media elite who are continuing to build their authority and reputation, in the manner of American and Hong Kong mainstream opinion columnists.
Here is an example of what is being done. The journalist from Nanfang Weekend was sent to cover a flash flood in Heilongjiang province in which more than one hundred children drowned. He duly filed his report, and was disappointed to hear that it was 'killed' (or, KP in current terminology). So he posted that report on the Internet: The Shalan Flash Flood - The Unpublished Report. On top of that, he also published his field notes The Shalan Flash Flood - Field Notes, in which he told about all the other things that he encountered but were excluded from his written report because they would never have been passed. This journalist is anonymous in theory, but everybody knows who he is and idolizes him for doing it.
For those people who are studying Chinese blogging, it means that there is not much point in looking at individual bloggers. Instead, you should be identifying and looking at the major bulletin board systems and forums. You will have to spend some time reading everything to figure out who the major influencers are.
What happens with a major breaking event? For example, on this day, the hot Internet topics are the death sentence for migrant laborer Wang Binyu and the elections at Taishi Village. You won't find too much of that in mainstream media. The Taishi Village story would be tightly controlled, so you may only see the short official Xinhua version in every single newspaper (actually, after almost two months, there are two and exactly two noteworthy articles in the mainstream media, one in the Southern Metroplis Daily and the other in People's Daily). You do not go to the bloggers either. Instead, you go to BBS's/forums such as Yannan, Tianya Club, and others like them, and you may find dozens of long comments.
You should not feel sad for the Chinese journalists, for here is the best part -- just give China a few more years and they will have the best media worker culture, better than Hong Kong and United States. This is what is called an unintended consequence.
By the way, this is not to say that Chinese bloggers are totally insignificant and negligible. I remind you that this post was inspired by a blog post in China.