The Permeable Membrane: Why Beijing Fears the Media

The Silicon Hutong Suite
Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Amazed at how the Christmas Fairy appears to have upchucked on Japan
1132 hrs.

Proving once again the value of a subscription to The Wall Street Journal, Geoff Fowler and Jason Dean have written a superb AWSJ front-pager on why China’s leaders are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the rapidly improving quality of investigative journalism in China. Cut free of the government teat, newspapers are actually having to attract readers by the quality of their copy, and many publications have built powerful reputations and loyal readership by unleashing their smartest journalists to do exposes on nefarious business practices and government corruption. The government was happy to have reporters playing this role – it served to support broader policy objectives, and it kept China’s ace reporters out of more sensitive issues.

It used to be that foreigners were the only reporters who were really good at this sort of thing, leading to the regime of regulations and enforcement that today still dog the heels of accredited international journalists. A small but growing group of locals have gotten good enough at it, though, that they are finding themselves operating under a similarly restrictive regime.

There are two points that this brings up that Geoff and Jason didn’t get a chance to cover, and are worth bringing up. I could go into them more deeply, but in short, the membrane is no more.

There was once an impermeable membrane between the foreign media and local media – what was written in the foreign press reached only foreigners in China and overseas audiences, and what was written in China stayed in China. No more. Foreign news became broadly available in China via the Internet and via local papers repeating stories discovered on the Internet, but also via a small group of internally developed publications that inform the leaders of China’s government organs and SOEs.

International wire services and specialty sites like ChinaTechNews have recently built large local staffs in China who scour the local press for stories of interest, do some checking and analysis, and pass those stories onto global audiences. So what is written by Chinese media not only moves locals, it moves international markets and perception of China.

In short, the lines between foreign and local media, at least in terms of editorial coverage, are disappearing. For that reason, we can expect in the coming months to see growing government discussion about – and regulation of – the way journalists operate in China.

What this means is that the government will find it more and more difficult to play local and foreign media outlets against each other. When the locals and the foreigners make common cause on to limit the severity of the new regulatory regime, that will be a signal that media as an industry in China is turning a very critical corner.