China’s Anti-Blogging Strategy: Tell the Truth, and Fast

New America Media, News Analysis, Xujun Eberlein Posted: Jul 29, 2009

Two seemingly unrelated but notable events took place on July 24th in China. In the morning, the official news agency Xinhua published an article titled "Ten Suggestions for Local Governments on How to Respond to Internet Opinion." In a commanding tone, the article argued that local governments should release information early, "reporting facts fast, reporting causes with caution." Crisis management is actually "crisis communication management," it asserted. It cites that the "open government information regulations" require "being open as the principle, not being open as an exception."

The call to "tell the truth and tell it fast" coming from a government mouthpiece surprised some Chinese dissidents who have long been protesting the government’s strict media control. An active dissident on Twitter dismissed the article as "just some journalist's opinion," even though the official tone of the article suggests a high-level policy command disguised as an opinion piece, which is not unusual in China.

As if it were a test of the government's new media policy, that same day, violence erupted in Tonghua, Jilin. Thousands of workers of the Tonghua Steel Corp protested a private takeover of their company, which had a 50-year history of state ownership. The steel factory had already suffered a failed privatization attempt from the same company. It was recovering from that and last year's financial crisis, when the renewed and expanded ownership was announced. Angry workers beat to death the new general manager appointed by the private company, Jianlong of Beijing, on his first day at work. The workers gradually dispersed only after the Jilin provincial government announced its on-the-site decision to have the private company withdraw from Tonghua Steel's business. Some Chinese netizens called the event "the first workers movement since 1949" – the year Communist rule in China began.

As a test of the new media policy, it seems to have failed. For three days, China's media kept totally silent on the shocking incident. Not even independent newspapers such as Caijing said a word. On every commercial Web portal, posts and discussions on the Tonghua riot were quickly deleted. The Western media first learned the news from a Hong Kong human rights group and reported the incident briefly on July 25.

Meanwhile, Chinese bloggers acted faster than the government's media controllers, and one detailed eye-witness account ended up on overseas Chinese Web sites and was circulated around the world. It could no longer be deleted. (An English translation of this account can be found on the Hong Kong-based ESWN, one of the most popular China blogs.) So far no Western media outlet has cited this far more informative account, whose content seems to be verified by various sources, including the government's own belated reporting.

China's media waited until July 27 to react. Curiously, this time English reporting led the way. The first article this reporter found was published on China Daily's English Web site, titled "Manager Killed in Plant Riot." This was followed by Chinese-language reports in several major newspapers. (Small publications may have been waiting to see which direction the wind was blowing.) While the Chinese media did not follow the aforementioned policy advice to "tell the truth fast," they nonetheless acted according to the second part of it, i.e., "report causes with caution." The articles were terse and dry reports with little analysis.

To be fair, for government-controlled media with a reputation for directing public opinion and suppressing real journalism, the attempt to "tell the truth" should be viewed as progress. The problem, however, is that the policy suggestions treat telling the truth as a tactic rather than a principle. The authors apparently have not forgotten Mao's famous teaching, "Policy and tactics are the life of the Party."

On Monday afternoon, the Jilin provincial government issued a press release defending its failed effort to privatize Tonghua Steel. It called the takeover plan "carefully researched" and its implementation "legal," while using customary language to accuse "a small number of individuals of agitating others who didn't know the truth" and starting the riot.

Though the Tonghua riot appears to be anti-privatization, Internet accounts of the incident indicate that the primary cause of the workers' resentment was income polarization and crony capitalism. The general manager who was beaten to death, Chen Guojun, was said to have an annual salary of 3 million yuan; in comparison, a Tonghua steel worker's salary may be as low as 200 yuan per month. Meanwhile, the Jilin government's alliance with the private company Jianlong was seen as an attempt to sell out the workers and fill the pockets of the rich and powerful. The owner of Jianlong is said to have deep family connections with high-level government officials.

Whether or not the Tonghua workers' accusations of "collusion between government and rich businessmen" is true, crony capitalism is an acute reality in China that has been addressed by many scholars, notably Tsinghua University's sociology professors Sun Liping and Qin Hui. An MIT economist, Yasheng Huang, also discussed it in his recent book, “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the state.” An American journalist, Philip Pan, vividly described such realities in his book “Out of Mao's Shadow.” The institutional cause of China's crony capitalism is the lack of checks on power. Without political reform, the great achievements of China's economic reforms might one day be destroyed by social upheavals caused by wealth polarization.

The media policy prescribed by the Xinhua article, even if it were followed, does not address this problem. While quick reporting might quell the escalation of netizen outrage, it does not help the steelworkers. These stalwart symbols of labor’s contribution to Communist China point at the necessity of new reform, not new tactics.

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