Guangdong head of party propaganda, Tuo Zhen, probably did not see weeklong protests on Guangzhou’s streets coming when he rewrote the Southern Weekly New Year’s editorial in early January. What was originally a piece calling for respect of constitutional rights became a toast to the Chinese Communist Party. The hundreds of protesters who gathered in front of the Nanfang Media Group offices not only have brought the discourse of political liberalisation in China to the fore. The Southern Weekly incident also makes one wonder if Chinese media firms’ efforts to expand internationally will ever be repaid unless Beijing loosens its grip on news vetting and censorship.
The CCP’s reaction to the Guangzhou protests was surprising. The government showed a glimpse of acquiescence when it decided to ease censorship on Southern Weekly to end demonstrations as soon as possible. According to the paper’s internal chat group, Southern Weekly will no longer require CCP’s approval on reporting topics nor propaganda officials’ examination of copy before going to press. The government’s keenness to solve the situation quickly with concessions to the newspaper, to ensure Southern Weekly published its second 2013 number promptly and the fact that protesting journalists remained unscathed, are not only signs of a new administration wanting to minimise hiccups in an already scandal-ridden party. They also underscore the CCP’s awareness of its quavering legitimacy amongst an ever more dissatisfied public calling for a reform of China’s political system. Testament to this discontent is the ascent of a pro-reform, investigative publication such as Southern Weekly as well as the mixed nature of protesters who took to Guangzhou streets. They were not journalists alone. Microblogging websites played a key, ripple effect in getting civilians as well as intellectuals involved in the demonstrations.
Incidents like Southern Weekly’s are also making it hard for Chinese national media champions to build trust and a name abroad. China Central Television has so far been the pioneer in domestic media companies’ global expansion. But despite offering its service in six languages and CCTV’s ambitious development plans in the US, Africa and other 19 smaller reporter stations across the globe, the firm has yet to truly crack foreign markets. CCTV’s domestic following remains unparalleled and its colossal advertising revenue (a record $2.6bn in 2012) still supports heavy investment abroad. But the foreign audience knows CCTV remains the Chinese government’s mouthpiece. Unless the CCP stops imposing examination of all copy from Beijing and vetting of stories to report (approximately 50% of CCTV stories are chosen by its headquarters), international audiences and potential foreign staff will continue to fend off the Chinese media giant and stifle the realisation of its copious investments abroad.
The Southern Weekly scandal has highlighted two key issues troubling the CCP at the moment. The immediate, populous Guangzhou protests emphasised the public’s waning tolerance towards the state’s arbitrary censorship impositions – a real blow to the CCP’s legitimacy at home, threatened further by social media’s pivotal role in mass mobilisation. The Southern Weekly incident was also a clear example of why a media titan with no funding issues like CCTV still fails to establish itself abroad. After decades spent as a foreign direct investment recipient, boosting its outward FDI is key in getting China out of the middle income bracket with a more sophisticated economic development path. If China is committed to give its best firms the chance to expand abroad, then it has to give them the means to do so. In the media sector, this will require taking propaganda officials off newspapers’ and broadcasters’ backs.