Southern Weekend, China, and the bubble
I don’t consider myself a China expert by any means, but I do feel like I’ve been around long enough to begin seeing some trends. One is the “story of the day’, which comes around every 20-45 days or so and galvanizes the media, China watchers, and progressive Chinese citizens in the hopes of real change.
Before I dive into this, some perspective: In another lifetime I served as a legislative reporter for a Vancouver-based radio station. Before being moved to the capital city and taking up residence into the bowels of the legislature (the ‘dungeon’, as us hacks called it), I was given a pep talk by the news director: “Don’t become part of the fish bowl,” he said, encouraging me to avoid big scrums where all the other correspondents poked their microphones into the faces of politicians. He wanted me to avoid falling into the trap where reporters think something is important because other reporters think it’s important, and then everybody ends up covering the same thing.
It’s natural for a reporter to fear missing something; it can feel shameful to have a story appear in multiple newspapers but not your own when you were there to cover it, too. I was fortunate to have the news director I did, as he assured me he wanted me going after original stories and leaving the ‘topic of the day’ to the wire services and competitors.
It was sage advice. Since then, I’ve seen the fish bowl effect in nearly all places where there is a concentrated grouping of journalists covering a single topic with limited information. The recently-concluded NHL lockout is a case-in-point, and sometimes the foreign correspondent and pundit community in China (myself included) can fall into the same trap. When we eat, breathe, and live China news each day, we can easily overstate a story’s importance or miss stories that are worthy of attention for fear of missing what everybody else is talking about. Simply stated, we can lose perspective.
This brings me to the controversy surrounding Southern Weekend in Guangzhou, which is dominating China social media and news channels. Indeed, it is a big story: journalists at the paper have gone on strike to protest censorship by Guangdong party propagandist Tuo Zhen (details here, if you haven’t been following along). The idea of Chinese journalists standing up for the right to report freely is a great story, and if I were running a newspaper I’d want something on it. The question is this: are we overstating the significance of the strike and/or misrepresenting what it’s about?
I bring this up because this isn’t the first time there’s been turmoil at Southern Weekend, or with news organizations in China. It’s merely the latest. Secondly, are the journalists at the paper really making a principled stand for free speech and denouncing censorship? Josh Chin and Brian Spegele wrote what I feel is a key point, in the very last two paragraphs of their summary of the incident for the Wall Street Journal:
Some journalists affiliated with Southern Weekly have portrayed the protests as targeting Mr. Tuo rather than the political system as a whole.
“Tuo set up a prepublication censorship system that Guangzhou didn’t have previously. There was censorship before, but it wasn’t institutionalized,” said Xiao Shu, a former senior commentator at the newspaper. “If Tuo steps down, everyone wins. Southern Weekly wins, and so does the party.”
That is a very important point which changes the nature of the story – which many people believe is a principled stand against censorship – as it’s being presented by other organizations. Several stories have also noted several popular Chinese celebrities have posted their support of Southern Weekend staff on their Sina Weibo accounts. But as many should know by now, posting an image pledging support is equal to somebody posting a poppy on their Twitter avatar: yes, it’s a show of support, but it’s in the most passive way possible and is not an indication of football-sized crowds about to descend on the cenotaph for the laying of the wreath. The context here seems to be missing.
The root cause of this, and the blowout coverage of the Southern Weekend story, is the fish bowl effect. If we take a few steps back, let’s look at only some of the other China stories which surfaced in the past year (this is not an exhaustive list, obviously):
- Crackdown on VPNs in China
- Leadership change / NPC
- Senkaku / Diaoyu dispute
- Scarborough Shoal dispute
- Bo Xilai / Neil Heywood / Wang Lijun
- Hong Kong “locust’ sentiment against Mainland Chinese
- Wukan elections
The verdict remains out on VPNs, although judging by the amount of participation on Twitter by those in Mainland China I assume there are workarounds.
The leadership change was promoted with much hyperbole as an immensely important event held amid turmoil and infighting in the party, yet it was completed without much fanfare. (As an aside: this reminded me of US elections in which party leaders and pundits proclaim: “This is the most important election of our lifetime”. It seems all elections and leadership changes are the “most important” until the next one comes along.)
Some believed war was on the horizon with Japan or the Philippines over territorial disputes, but yet again nothing has come to pass (although, in fairness, China does continue to pester the Japanese over the Senkaku, so the final chapter here remains to be written).
Hong Kongers continue to have negative sentiment towards their Mainland counterparts, but talking about it now (even in Hong Kong) seems almost passe. Beijing never punished the city like some expected, either; in fact, the border has tightened up and fewer Mainlanders have been allowed to visit since CY Leung was “elected” last spring.
Participatory democracy in Wukan has struggled, and hasn’t proven to be a harbinger for greater democratic rights across Guangdong, let alone China.
The point is these stories (save the Bo Xilai / Neil Heywood / Wang Lijun story, which likely had a material impact on the leadership transition last year) are popular and “the-most-important-thing” for a few days or weeks, then fade away to be replaced by the next big thing. At no time do we get perspective about larger trends, nor are we shown how these individual incidents fit into a much larger timeline of societal change (or no change).
Perhaps after having lived in Greater China for 9 years (a mere blip compared to others, I humbly note), I’m becoming sadly apathetic when these stories appear; I’ve been hopeful, I thought I’ve seen change coming, the media tells us these are important events that could ‘change China’, yet they rarely – if ever – do. What we have is a big echo chamber of China news in newspapers, on television, websites, Twitter, and Facebook with little context.
This post isn’t meant to disparage reporters in any way; I was one, and in some ways still consider myself one. I understand the pressure they are under, and modern news cycles don’t allow for much introspection. But as China news consumers (and pundits), perhaps stepping out of the fish bowl for a while would help us gain a bit more perspective on what matters, what may actually lead to change, and what likely won’t.
I fear the protest at Southern Weekend will just be the next example; a great story for a while until it fizzles out and becomes nothing more than an infrequently-viewed Wikipedia page. I hope I’m wrong.