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20 December 2012

Academic Predicts China’s Censors Will Loosen the Gag

Doug Young speaking at the JMSC’s Shum Reading Room last week has said that censorship will continue to decline under China’s new leadership.

China’s strict censorship of the media will ease somewhat under the incoming leadership, a journalism professor at Fudan University predicts.

The Chinese government will adopt more liberal censorship policies because it has reached a level where it feels comfortable with its ability to control what happens in social media, according to Doug Young,  the former head of the Reuters news agency’s China office.  Young is the author of a book about the media in China, “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China”.

“When social media first started, the Chinese government had a lot of doubts about what it was, what it could do, and what they could do to stop it. So they took drastic actions like blocking Facebook, and requiring users to register with their real names [to discourage criticism]”, Young said. “Now, they are not so worried. They’re no longer enforcing real-name registration and (are) letting the media develop on its own a little bit”.

Young spoke to faculty and students at the JMSC on Friday, December 7.

He said Beijing has discovered that social media can serve purposes other than those of the traditional Chinese media, which primarily showcase the Communist Party’s leaders and their accomplishments.

Social media will be increasingly used to keep the public informed, gauge public opinion, encourage political participation, and to track various social problems that have developed as a result of China’s rapid and uneven economic growth, Young predicted.

“Everyone is wondering whether China is going to become more open or closed with all these new leaders led by Xi Jingping”, Young said. “But since social media is driving the government’s approach to all media in China, you can look at the signs to see what might happen over the next 10 years. I think it will be a relatively good time”.

Chinese social networking services have sprung up to fill the void that was left when Beijing blocked Facebook and Twitter in 2009,  and have been allowed to develop with relatively little restriction.

Beijing is more comfortable with web sites  like Sina Weibo that are based in China, Young said, because they are subject to Chinese laws and policies that require them to remove any content that the government finds objectionable.  Domestic companies that do not comply can easily be punished with fines,  or by having their business licenses revoked.

“At the end of the day it is all about control”, he said. “As long as Beijing feels like it is in control of the situation, and can stop things if they don’t like what’s happening, then they don’t mind if media has some room to move on its own”.

In September, social media reflected public outrage at Yang Dacai, head of the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Work Safety. Yang had been photographed smiling while inspecting a traffic accident in Yanan that left 36 people dead. Shock at his apparent callousness led to the examination of other photographs of him through social media, revealing that he wore at least 13 different watches that looked too expensive for him to afford on his salary.  The public outcry on social media resulted in Yang being fired. 

The audience at JMSC’s Shum Reading Room last Friday.

“Why was such a sensitive case involving a government official allowed to play out in the media?” Young said. “Probably because he was only a local official.  But the central government knows that corruption is a problem and they are beginning to see social media as one possible way to solve it”.

Reports have begun to appear in the official Chinese media praising social media as a good way for the government to keep people informed and an effective tool for better government. Every government agency has been ordered to set up a social media account to communicate with the public.

The government still censors stories and on-line chatter about incidents like the 2011 train collision that killed over 30 people in the city of Wenzhou.  That incident reflected negatively on Beijing, since building the world’s largest high-speed rail network was a high-priority government project, and any mention of the crash is still quickly removed by the censors.

“Over time there may be a gradual tolerance for reporting on high levels of corruption”, said Young. “But the government could still decide to push back and stop it if it decides something is not okay. The higher up criticism gets, the more it can undermine public confidence”.

Young, who has lived and worked in China for 15 years, blogs daily at Young’s China Business Blog.