Li Datong in Apple Daily

Li Datong was formerly the editor of the Freezing Point supplement in China Youth Daily.  The following translation is an opinion piece in Hong Kong's Apple Daily on August 1, 2006 (backup of original Chinese-language copy in simplified characters is here).

[in translation]  Chinese Media Breaking Off The Controls

Effective control of media has a pre-condition: the majority of the controlled lack other sources of information and also consent to the ideology promulgated by the controllers.  This condition has basically been lost in China today.

After 1949, the Chinese Communists produced a group of "expert theorists" and writers for their ideology.  Whenever there is even the tiniest hint of any political movement, these people serve to write large numbers of critical essays involving "Marxism" and "Mao Zedong thought" that were misleading and deceptive.  It is hard to find these types of people in China today.  Anything written according to those worn-out and ossified doctrines will be scorned and laughed at.  Actually, the control of ideology by the Communist Propaganda Department can only be sustained by brute force.  This type of control can only serve to comfort and delude oneself in the face of the masses who are roaring in laughter.

The other pre-condition for media control is that the news producers themselves believe that "news is propaganda."  These types of people are hard to find nowadays.  I joined China Youth Daily in 1979 and therefore experienced the entire reform process.  Our generation of journalists broke away from the traditional notions of journalism.  After us, another four or five generations have come in.  They are influenced by western theories of journalism from the start.  In journalism education at Chinese universities today, western journalism is being taught as the "model."  It can be said that the Chinese journalists have the same professional values and views as their international colleagues.  This is the fundamental reason why there are more and more genuine news and commentary within Chinese media today.

Market pressure is another factor why Chinese media are forced to change.  Among Chinese media, only People's Daily, Guangming Daily, Economic Daily and a few others are still directly subsidized by budgetary allocations within the government.  The billions in operating expenses for CCTV are mostly derived from advertising revenues and the direct subsidies are negligible and only symbolic.  The ability of a media organization to survive and protect the wages and benefits of its employees depends on its reception in the marketplace.

Compared to the tight control of political information, information about leisure, entertainment, sports and alike is widespread.  The authorities believe that these are "harmless" with respect to their regime and therefore impose no controls.  This imbalance caused the Chinese media to tend towards vulgarity.  Yet the market is not equivalent to vulgarity.  Sooner of later, the readers will only spend money to buy the newspapers that help them to live and represent their voices.  Actually, many "metropolis newspapers" that became popular through entertainment news are now actively moving to assume the role of opinion supervision and monitoring.  In terms of public influence, the popular saying is: "The mainstream media are marginalized while the marginal media are mainstream."  This is a vivid description of the situation in Chinese media.

Within this same administrative system, Southern Metropolis Daily's reporting on the Sun Zhiguang case caused the State Council to rescind the detention law; Caijing's continuous and detailed reporting on SARS allowed the Chinese people to learn the truth; China Youth Daily's Freezing Point's publication of the essays of Lung Ying-tai informed the mainland people about the progress of the democratization of Taiwan; there are also large numbers of reports on the truth in disasters, criticisms about injustice in the administration of the law, doubts about policies from the perspective of the people, reporting the people defending their rights in accordance with the law, and so on.

This shows the epochal progress of Chinese media.  If the control is intensified, this only proves that the Chinese media are increasing their influence on society.  This progress is slow and bumpy and represents gradual reform within the system.  This reform is the necessary path by which China becomes a country with "freedom of press."

There is an old Chinese saying: "If you have the Way, you will receive much help; if you lose the Way, you will receive little help."  What is "the Way"?  It is the popular will.  Without popular support, the seemingly strong news control will collapse like the Berlin Wall sooner or later.