The Top 10 Media Incidents In China During 2009

(Southern Weekend)  The Top 10 Media Incidents In China During 2009.  By Fan Yijin.  December 25, 2009.

1.  World Media Summit showcases Chinese concepts about openness

On October 9, 2009, the World Media Summit took place in Beijing.  The summit was jointly sponsored by Xinhua, News Corp, Associated Press, Reuters, Tass, Kyodo, BBC, TIME Warner and Google and organized by Xinhua.  135 media organizations from more than 70 countries and regions plus more than 40 Chinese media organization leaders were present.  This was a summit meeting for the global media as well as new media.  The Summit explored the current state and future trends of global media.  China took the opportunity to showcase the evolutionary path of Chinese media.  Chinese president Hu Jintao addressed the summit and expressed the determination of China to reform its media.  He also promised to facilitate international media coverage in China.

Comment: For the Chinese people, the highlight of the summit was the showcasing of new communication ideas for China.  For example, the keywords that Hu Jintao used in his speech about how the government values, encourages and supports innovation in Chinese media were: close to reality, close to life, close to the people, creative ideas, creative contents, creative forms, creative methods, creative approaches, increased friendliness, attractiveness, touching.  The keywords on giving play to media functions were: bring honor to righteousness in society, conveying public opinion, leading hot social issues, assuaging public sentiments, conducting watchdog journalism, protecting the people's rights to know, participate, express and supervise, etc.  The fact that China was able to host such a conference and sit down together with the international media to discuss the issues of survival and development already shows that Chinese media are more open.  The speech by the Chinese leader also raises expectations by the world for media openness in China.

2. The state leaders interact online with netizens to bring in a new era of Internet politics

On the afternoon of March 28, 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao interacted online with netizens through the government's website.  He was also interviewed by the government's website and Xinhua together.  Wen Jiabao's presence drew more than 300,000 questions from netizens.  During the two hours online, Wen Jiabao answered 29 questions that involved education, healthcare, etc.  This online session was also broadcast live around the world over the Internet.  This is the first time that a Chinese state leader has entered a live broadcast studio to chat with netizens without any restrictions.  Wen Jiabao also revealed that he uses the Internet almost on a daily basis.  This was encouraging to many netizens.

Comment: This was another direct contact between a Chinese state leader after President Hu Jintao interacted with netizens on People's Net on June 20, 2008.  When officials gauge public opinion on the Internet, they can get authentic opinions from all sides for democratic supervision by the people.  As a result, their decisions will be better and their governance will be enhanced.  The presence of the state leaders on the Internet sets the model for local officials to engage in Internet politics as well.  On September 20, 2009, Guangdong province became the first to establish "Internet spokespersons" at government departments.  These "Internet spokespersons" will focus on economic development, especially in those departments which are involved in administrative and livelihood issues.  Across China, the government websites are getting better.  In certain places, the Internet has become the communication bridge between the government and the people.

3. The quick handling of the "Elude the Cat" incident was due to the consensus reached by public opinion, the media and the government.

Li Qiaoming was detained for illegally cutting down trees in Jinning county, Yunnan province.  He suffered an injury in the detention center and died four days later in a hospital on February 12, 2009.  The hospital report attributed the cause of death to "severe head injuries."  The local police explained that Li was playing "elude the cat" (that is, "hide-and-seek") with cellmates and ran into the wall.  The police's explanation (especially the term "elude the cat") became known all over the country as netizens were quite skeptical.  The government reacted quickly.  The Yunnan provincial public department organized an investigation team of netziens.  The Supreme Procuratorate also sent investigators down.  The final conclusion was that the detainee Li Qiaoming was beaten to death by his cellmates and the "elude the cat" game was just an excuse for the prison bullies to intimidate and abuse new detainees.

Comment: During this incident, the Yunnan provincial leaders and the publicity department deserve to be praised for their response to public opinion.  In the past, senior officials will only issue directives for subordinates to investigate.  In this case, they actively formed their own investigation.  With respect to the "quest for the truth," they reached an understanding with the media and the public.  We can see that the decision-makers had obtained their information directly from published media reports instead of information filtered upwards through the bureaucratic hierarchy.  Although the netizen investigation committee could not conduct an in-depth investigation themselves, their presence constituted an active force to create opinion pressure.  A consensus was reached among the people, the media and the government.  This avoided the drawn-out affairs like the "Tiger Zhou case" which was a long-running seesaw battle that drained social resources.

4. The media turned Deng Yuqiao from a position of weakness to a position of strength.

On May 13, 2009, the media reported the case of Deng Yuqiao based upon the police bulletin from Badong county, Hubei province.  The reports quoted certain details from the police report: The Badong county Yesanguan town Trade Development Department director Deng Guida and others went to the Xiongfeng Hotel's Dream City entertainment facility and demanded Deng Yuqiao to provide "special services."  When Deng Yuqiao refused, an argument ensued.  Deng Guida waved a wad of money and held Deng Yuqiao down twice on a sofa.  Deng Yuqiao then stabbed Deng Guida to death with a nail-cutting knife.  On May 18, the Badong county police presented the case on its website but some changes in the language: "special services" became "bathing assisted by a member of the opposite sex" and "held down" became "pushed into a sitting position."  So the voices of doubt became louder as public opinion tilted towards Deng Yuqiao's side.  The local government and the judiciary were in the middle of an opinion storm.  On June 16, the Badong county court heard the case of Deng Yuqiao and determined that she had intentionally injured other persons but that she was not to be punished due to diminished capacity.  So that was how this nationally known case ended.

Comment: This is one of those rare cases in which both the media and the public paid high degrees of attention.  Deng Yuqiao was just a hotel service worker and therefore in a traditional position of weakness.  But the high degrees of attention from the media and the people elevated her into a position of strength.  For this reason, some people are saying that this was a "judgment" via public opinion.  Actually, "public opinion influence" is not the same as "public opinion judgment."  The CCTV public opinion poll showed that 92% of respondents thought that Deng Yuqiao was exercising "proper self-defense" but the actual court judgment did not follow this majority opinion.  Of course, the strong public opinion must have had some influence on the case.  During the progress of the case, the explanations differed over time.  Perhaps the initial report was inaccurate and therefore a correction had to be made afterwards.  It is natural for people to become skeptical.  Public opinion supervision is a way of preventing interference by the judiciary and thus guaranteeing justice.  It is a normal society when the public exercise their supervision and the judiciary acts independently.

5.  The authoritative media lose their voices while the people of Qixian panicked over the cobalt leakage.

On June 7, 2009, the Limin Radiation Factory in Qixian completed the irradiation of agricultural products but there was a jam in the equipment and the Cobalt 60 radiation source could not be put back into storage.  Rumors became to spread.  On July 10, a post titled <Cobalt 60 leakage in Qixian> appeared on the Internet and got netizens very upset.  On July 12, the government called a press conference but it was too late.  The rumor was all over Qixian.  On July 17, several tens of thousands of Qixian residents jammed the streets to exit the city because of their fear of "radiation" and "explosions."  The local government had to send cadres to dissuade the people from leaving, post notices everywhere, run television announcements, send out SMS, etc.  The panic was staunched by a combination of traditional and new media.  It took a large-scale, high-cost publicity campaign to calm down this farce that should never have taken place to begin with.

Comment: Rumors are unavoidable.  In an information society, rumors travel even faster.  When the authoritative media go silent, rumors will hijack public opinion and bring destruction very rapidly.  It does not matter whether or not the relevant Qixian authorities admit that they were wrong to delay informing the public about the Cobalt 60 incident.  It is certain that the authoritative local media (including television, radio and newspapers) were missing for more than a month after the initial incident.  In the era of new media, the new media will reveal the information if the traditional media won't; the international media will reveal the information if the Chinese media won't.  When the authoritative information is absent, rumors fly everywhere.  This is the deepest lesson from the many emergency incidents such as the Shishou incident.  An emergency incident happens somewhere, the old journalism idea from the era of the planned economy is for the local government to "black out the news" or to postpone disclosure until it can no longer be covered up.  This will only put the local government in a passive position in which they cannot solve the problem which may blow up even further.  The local government ends up trying too hard and still being accused of "putting the lid on."  The Cobalt 60 incident a bitter pill for the Qixian government after the lesson of the Shishou incident.

6. The <Caijing> dilemma reflected a flaw in system design.

On November 10, the media reported the news that Hu Shuli was leaving <Caijing>.  Although Hu Shuli and the investors at <Caijing> expressed "mutual gratitude" towards each other after the split, the media were divided in their interpretations.  The "clash of ideas" was regarded as the top reason.  According to media reports, Hu Shuli and the investors (the China Stock Market Research Centre ("Joint Office")) reached an accord when <Caijing> was founded: Hu Shli would be personally responsible for all editorial work which the investors cannot interfere with.  Thus, the editorial and the business sides were separated.  Under these circumstances, <Caijing> was able to publish heavy-weight reports such as <The secret behind the funds>, <The trap of Yinguangxia>, <Who is manipulating Yi'an Technology?> and gained a sterling reputation.  Hu Shuli was even named by <Business Weekly> as the "most dangerous woman in China" for the financial industry.  According to media reports, the Joint Office which had promised not to interfere with editorial activities began to regularly screen articles since mid-July 2009.  Also, the Hu Shuli team paid a high degree of attention to its website.  In 2008, they set up the <Caijing> website.  According to media reports, Caixun Media did not provide enough support to turn it into a Bloomberg-like financial news agency and therefore the website suffered a quiet demise.  For this reason, some media think that the <Caijing> affair was due to a clash of ideas over journalistic practice as well as strategic planning.  But others say that it was a clash of interests because the investors and the management team held different views.

Comment:  Almost the entire reporting/editorial team at <Caijing> left with Hu Shuli.  This did not happen at the spur of a moment.  At newspapers, internal conflicts often occur because of ideas and/or interests.  So which is <Caijing>?  Is it one or the other or both, as well as other internal reasons?  This should be about "interests" first.  The investors obviously wanted the best interests, and they will take special action if their interests are not maximized.  It is natural for the business leader to protect his own interest as well as the interest of the entire enterprise.  Since everybody has their own interests, there has to be a point of balance which represents an advantageous compromise for both parties.  When conflicts arise, they can be solved through negotiations.  But the peace may not be sustainable as other issues arise one after another in a vicious cycle.  Therefore, it is essential to design a system that considers the interests of both sides.  Let us return to talk about ideas.  The ideas for a newspapers are also related to the design of a system for the interests.  Without ideas, you can't get a good newspaper and then everybody's interests are affected.  For the same reason, if the bottom line in publishing is not defined, the newspaper may be banned and that also affects everybody's interests.  Therefore, everybody will look for the point of balance in the reporting.  We can also talk abut the ideas for future development.  Do you consider the long-term developments, or the current interests?  How much long-term investment should be made?  These issues can be solved if they are tied in with everybody's interests.  Therefore, the design of the system for "interests" is very important.  Hu Shuli has left.  Will the next Hu Shuli also stay within the bounds?  No matter what, the <Caijing> affair may not be a good thing for the general situation.  But it certainly has a strong cautionary significance for the media and their investors.

7.  <Zhong Hua Xin Wen Bao> ceases publication: the market says so.

On August 28, 2009, the <Zhong Hua Xin Wen Bao> which is published by the Chinese National Journalists Association ceased publication.  This was the first national class newspaper to go out of business.  According to the statement from the <Zhong Hua Xin Wen Bao>, the reason was that "business was poor, the debts exceeded the assets greatly and normal publication was impossible."

The Chinese National Journalists Association practically has all the Chinese journalists as its members, but it was unable to support the publication of a newspaper itself.  This seems incredible.  But it is understandable if we consider the awkward positioning as well as the environment for industry newspapers under the reforms.  Chinese newspapers exist because of: (1) they are highly market-oriented and earn a lot of money, as in the case of the urban newspapers; (2) they are authoritative and supported by government resources, such as the party newspapers; (3) they are supported by big organizations, corporations or supervisory units; (4) they are industry newspapers with good reputations and supported by the industry, and they do not lose money in distribution and actually make money through advertising.  Some of these cases are normal and others are not so normal.  When the reforms have not gone far enough, it does not matter because they can all continue to survive.  As the reforms progress, it is less and less likely that protection from the supervisory department will continue.  Many industry leaders have sensed that the industry newspapers are not bringing in any advantages; in fact they are burdens that ought to be shed.  The long-term survival strategy should be to wean off the "protection" and enter the open market.

8. The Shanghai leaders respond to the "illegal taxi entrapment" case.

On October 14, 2009, 18-year-old Shanghai young male Sun Zhongjie gave a lift to a hitchhiker and was charged with "illegally operating a taxi service" by the traffic police department.  To prove his innocence, Sun cut off one of his fingers.  Yet the Pudong New District urban management traffic law enforcement bureau issued its investigation report to confirm that Sun Zhongjie was illegally running a taxi service.  "The facts are clear, the evidence is solid, the relevant laws are applicable, the process was proper and there was no issue of 'entrapment.'"  This conclusion enraged the media and the the netizens.  The national and local media entered the case, and joined the new media to form a loud and vociferous opinion attack.  The Shanghai government organized an investigation team consisting of People's Congress delegates, Communist Party Political Consultative Conference members and media reporters to conduct a new investigation.  The final conclusion was that "the original investigation was inaccurate, misleading and detrimental to the image of Shanghai/Pudong."

Comment: In the past, we often see that whenever a dispute over some law enforcement action arises, the case is closed after an investigation team issues its findings in spite of public skepticism.  Furthermore, the official response tends to consistent from top to bottom.  But in the "illegal taxi entrapment" case, the Shanghai senior leaders observed the widespread media and social skepticism about the initial investigation by their subordinates and took action to discover the truth themselves.  It is a best for the governance of the various levels of government/party about whether to respond actively or suppress media exposures of misdeeds by their subordinates.  If officials always protect their own, they won't rid themselves of the bad habits and they will only ruin the image of the government and let the conflicts escalate until they become irreconcilable to the detriment of social stability.  Only by actively receiving media and public opinion supervision can people be won over, crises be averted and better governance result.

9.  Public compassion/opinion brought justice for Zhang Haichao who "opened his chest for his lungs to be inspected".

The migrant laborer Zhang Haichao was extremely ill.  The Zhengzhou City Number 2 Hospital, the Henan Provincial Chest Hospital, the Beijing Xiehe Hospital and other hospital examined him and diagnosed him with "pneumoconiosis" (also known as "black lungs").  But the Zhengzhou City Occupational Disease Prevention and Cure Center (which was the legally designated facility) pronounced him with tuberculosis instead.  As a result, he was unable to receive his worker compensation for work-related illness.  The helpless 28-year-old Zhang Haichao had to take the extreme step against medical advice to get an open-chest operation at the Zhengzhou University Auxiliary Hospital and obtained proof that he had two "black lungs."  This tragic case of rights defense was reported in the media.  The Minister of Health, the Henan province party secretary and other senior leaders paid attention.  The Ministry of Health sent its own experts to join Henan experts to examine Zhang Haichao.  The final diagnosis was pneumoconiosis.  Zhang Haichao was ultimately able to receive worker compensation.

Comment: The open-chest operation to examine the lungs showed the hardship for socially vulnerable groups to defend their rights.  It also showed the powerful strength of the media in livelihood issues.  According to the relevant state occupational disease prevention/cure regulations, the diagnosis is to be made by the local occupation disease prevention/cure centers.  The diagnosis/confirmation have to supported by documentation from the employer.  Without the media attention, the open-chest operation may have come to no avail if the Zhengzhou City Occupation Disease Prevention and Cure Center chose to ignore it.  This reporting on this case was the classical story about livelihood issues.  This is about the survival, presence and future of the people in the light of the relevant state policies.  A patient like Zhang Haichao should have been treated with care and concern under the relevant state policies, but it did not happen.  This incident gave the media a useful idea: The media should take on problem-solving for the people as part of their reporting on livelihood issues.  This is the duty of the media as well as the realization of the "three closeness" (close to reality, close to life, close to the people) for the media.

10.  Public opinion supervision stood up for Wang Shuai

In April 2009, the young man from Lingbao (Henan) working in Shanghai made a post to the Tianya Forum about illegal land requisitioning in his hometown.  Lingbao police traveled to Shanghai to arrest and extradite him back home for "defaming the government and damaging the reputation of the government".  When the news came out, the public was outraged.  After eight days in detention, the police allowed Wang Shuai to be bailed out due to lack of evidence.  China Youth Daily and other media followed up on the case and challenged the Lingbao government's actions.  In the end, the local government apologized to Wang Shuai and paid him compensation while promising to respect public opinion supervision in the future.

Comment: The Lingbao government was guilty of illegally requisitioning land.  At first, they had no intention of dealing with the lawbreakers.  Instead, they punished netizens for "defaming the government" in order to protect the jobs of the lawbreakers.  This provoked the masses.  Wang Shuai was only exercising his civil right to supervise the government over the Internet.  Even if his opinions were not completely accurate, is there any reason to chase down a citizen?  A citizen has the right to know, participate, express and supervise.  It is normal to express different opinions about the performance of the government.  A citizen may not be fully informed about what the government is doing.  If he misspeaks, he gets pursued by the law.  So who dares to speak out from then on?  The local government should respect (or even be deferential to) the freedom of speech of the citizens.  They should learn how to legally and rationally cope with opinions that they dislike in this information age.  Using extreme language and citing inaccurate facts are not the same as malicious libel.