Xi and the media: strange bedfellows

By William A. Babcock


China’s 19th Party Congress has concluded. As expected, Xi Jinping was confirmed for a second five-year term.

But just as his re-election was expected, China’s media coverage of the event was predictable. Not only was China Daily News’ English-language coverage of the Conference predictably positive, but all other media here, including CCTV, carried only “good news” reports of the event. Any critical analysis was not available.

And not only was political news coming from the Middle Kingdom glowing with praise for Xi and his leadership, but the ability of Chinese people to access foreign news — never easy on a good day — was severely limited as the government shut down access to nearly all virtual private networks, or VPNs, a technology creating safe and encrypted connections over a less secure network, such as the Internet.

New York Times and Wall Street Journal access is always all but blocked in China and their coverage of the Conference also was unavailable in China. Conference coverage was available in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times newspapers and in New Yorker magazine.

President Xi is a graduate of Peking University, China’s Harvard, Yale and Stanford universities rolled into one. As a student during the turbulent times of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, leading Western Sinologists had early predicted he would have a more flexible, liberalizing influence on China when he became president. That prediction did not materialize, especially when it came to any hopes of his freeing up China’s media and opening up his nation to news of the outside world, especially the West.

Too, there has been concern in Beijing that this nation might have its own Arab Spring, which, especially during sensitive times surrounding a Party Congress, has led to greater fortification of the great internet wall of China and thus greater limits on access to international news and information. Even encouraging Chinese students and academics here and in the U.S. to write about such media censorship is nearly impossible given their fear — usually justifiable — of retaliation from Beijing.

China has for centuries been influenced by Confucian harmony, a cultural and political focus on considering what might be the greater good for the nation. In contrast, the U.S. focus has been on freedom, stemming from America’s breaking away from English rule. Unfortunately, an overzealous desire for harmony justifies media censorship. By the same token, unlimited media freedom results in harmful, debilitating sensationalism.

One can only hope that with increased business dealings between the U.S. and China, including the latest news of Tesla’s plan to build electric cars in Shanghai, Xi might see that China would be truly more secure and harmonious were its media more free, and technological walls might eventually recede into history, as has its own Great Wall – a 2,000-year-old structure never all that effective in turning back outsiders.

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