China's journalists remain idealistic despite challenging media space

8 November is Journalists’ Day in China, a day established 16 years ago to recognize the contributions of journalists to society. In recent years, however, China’s journalists, along with human rights lawyers and activists, have met with increasing harassment, intimidation and even the threat of detention from Chinese authorities.

Despite challenging conditions, China’s journalists remain idealistic about their profession, according to former Chinese broadcaster Su Yutong who left China after suffering harassment for making public the personal diary of former Chinese Premier Li Peng. She spoke to us from Germany where she is based and continues to maintain close relations with Chinese journalists back home: 

Germany-based Chinese journalist Su Yutong at the 2016 US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing in Washington, DC Germany-based Chinese journalist Su Yutong at the 2016 US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing in Washington, DC
Germany-based Chinese journalist Su Yutong (with hat) at the 2016 US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) hearing in Washington, DC

Ever since President Xi Jinping came to power, there has been a clear effort to impose control over the media. Several years ago, when I was still working as a journalist in China, media control was more covert. Officials from the propaganda department would telephone with instructions about what we could and could not report on. Sensitive topics like petitioners, government policies towards ethnic minorities, or controversial public incidents were off limits. But there was no large scale crackdown against journalists.

There has been a significant shift in how the media is controlled
Su Yutong, Chinese journalist

Starting in 2013 and 2014, there has been a significant shift in how the media is controlled and the authorities are using increasingly overt methods to suppress journalists. Many, like Liu Yongzhou and Liu Hu of the Guangdong-based newspaper, New Express, have been thrown into jail on trumped-up accusations of economic crimes or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Reporters face risks like these when they uncover the truth about some important matter in the course of their work by conducting interviews or carrying out research. 

Journalists no longer have the space to speak the truth

The space for journalists is also shrinking rapidly. Once-reputable Chinese newspapers like the Southern Metropolis Daily, the Beijing News, or the Beijing Times have had to change directions under the pressure and shift the emphasis of their reporting. Many newspapers have lost their initial vision and direction and been forced to become party mouthpieces. As a result, journalists have lost many platforms for speaking the truth. I personally know of many very good journalists who have retired from the industry. If one does not retreat, then one risks ending up in jail.

Many newspapers have been forced to become party mouthpieces
Su Yutong, Chinese journalist

Journalists I speak to feel incredibly stifled under the current circumstances, but they see no way to change the status quo. They see the case of the New Express, which went from publicly calling for the release of their journalists to admitting wrongdoing, or the protests by the Southern Metropolis Daily — these were short-lived and isolated and unable to change the larger environment. The current crackdown by the central government is in my opinion very effective. In the face of such powerful suppression, journalists’ relative lack of power is quite obvious.

Media control is thought control

Someone once said that the internet is God’s gift to the Chinese people, and it is precisely because of the internet that many ordinary Chinese now know much more than they did in the past. In the age of the internet, there are hundreds of thousands of “mass incidents” (a term used to officially describe large scale protests in China) every year, a significant increase over the past. The Chinese people are no longer so docile.

If a reporter were to now dig up and report the truth in the way that the Southern Metropolis Daily used to cover the news, readers would slowly come to see the true faces of their rulers. Those in power view the media as a potential threat to their authority, and this is, I believe, the fundamental reason why the Communist Party is cracking down on the media and restricting freedom of expression — to control the people’s thought. 

Crackdown on journalists only part of wider suppression

Prominent Chinese journalist and columnist Jia Jia

In my view 2008 is when the media environment started to undergo a significant shift. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the authorities carried out a mass detention of dissidents and imposed controls on information related to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. That same year, hundreds (of intellectuals and human rights activists) signed Charter 08, a proposal for political and legal reform in China. This was when the Chinese government realised that mass incidents were detrimental to them. Their methods of suppression, once covert, increasingly came out in the open.

Between 2008 and 2010, the case of the three “netizens” from Fujian province became a symbolic case of China’s citizens movement. When activists Wang Lihong, Zhu Chengzhi and Wu Gan led “netizens” onto the streets, the focus extended beyond this case to other “mass incidents”. Citizens not only took to the streets of Fuzhou in Fujian, but also in Beijing and other Chinese cities.

Journalists retain idealism in face of crackdown

Some Chinese journalists still retain their idealism, like prominent journalist and columnist Jia Jia. They are very resilient; they make use of the narrow space remaining to make a little bit of noise. Jia Jia was detained in March in connection with an open letter published on a website calling for President Xi Jinping to resign. Journalists like him still retain their idealism and their inner fire despite the suppression. What they lack is only the platforms or space needed to make their voices heard. Some of them are driven to self-publish, like Song Zhibiao, a former columnist at Southern Metropolis Daily who now publishes his articles through messaging app WeChat. Despite the current downward trend, well-known media personalities are probably biding their time and waiting for the next battlefield.