Clearing the Air

Facing a mixed picture for China’s economy and other nagging issues, the government is going on the offensive, pushing out “authoritative” official information to give society “an expectation of stability.”

For weeks now, cities across China have been shrouded in hazardous clouds of haze. It’s an issue that hits people where it counts. Can their kids breathe normally at school? Is smog knocking precious years off their life expectancy?

Ineffectual promises to tackle air pollution, settling layer upon layer over the past decade, have worn the public’s patience thin. Even the staunchly loyal Global Times, a spinoff of the Party’s official People’s Daily, warned recently that “heavy smog has also been corroding the government’s credibility.”

Cut through the smog problem and a slew of others wait behind: signs of economic stagnation; persisting currency weakness; stock market softness.

In the midst of these uncertainties, Chinese leaders are pushing to clear up their messaging and consolidate their hold on information. In an executive meeting of the State Council on January 4, Premier Li Keqiang offered hints of tremors underfoot as he instructed the heads of government ministries, according to a widely-shared report by The Beijing News, to “offer timely and active responses to the concerns of the public, giving society an expectation of stability.”

The day after the meeting, Premier Li reportedly issued written instructions urging departments to “make their voices heard in a timely and active manner” on issues such as air pollution, “being practical and realistic in explaining the situation.”

According to state media reports, it was from Li’s remarks on January 4 that a new column on the Chinese government website called Ministerial Voices was “expeditiously born.”

Ministerial Voices, a new column on the Chinese government website featuring the latest gripping press releases and transcripts from State Council departments.

Ministerial Voices is apparently intended as a fast-tracking — by the glacial standards of Chinese government disclosure— of the release of prepared transcripts from press conferences. Shortly after Chinese Finance Minister Xu Shaoshi closed his press conference on January 10, offering “the latest ‘authoritative reading’ on China’s economy,” a transcript of the event was made available through the new column.

But this is so far the first and only rapid response. The previous entry on Ministerial Voices was a prepared transcript, posted on January 7, of the January 6 press conference by Chen Jining, China’s environmental minister, on the vexing pollution issue. And despite the wave of official media plugs this week for Ministerial Voices as a “fast lane” for government communication with the masses, it’s worth noting that the Chen Jining transcript posted to the column came in fact from the official WeChat account of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. By the standards of the social media age, in other words, Ministerial Voices was light years behind the curve.

Over the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party has grappled uneasily and with the lightning speed of information on the mobile internet. The task of controlling public opinion was complicated for much of this period by a relatively diverse media landscape in which hundreds of commercial newspapers and magazines competed to a certain extent to report relevant news.

In June 2008, after China lost control of a string of damaging domestic and international stories, President Hu Jintao outlined a new approach that encouraged the reporting of breaking news stories with trusted state media taking the lead. The strategy, “public opinion channeling,” was commonly dubbed “grabbing the megaphone.” But the advent of microblogs in 2009 tossed a wrench into Hu Jintao’s plan.

Since coming to power in late 2012, President Xi Jinping has accomplished what his predecessor could not. He has aggressively constrained social media. He has brought propaganda broadsheets and commercial tabloids alike to heel, stressing the need to “love, protect and serve the Party.” Last July, he redoubled restrictions on the reporting of original news by commercial internet sites.

Timing has also been in Xi Jinping’s favor. His strategy to control and consolidate the Party’s message is rolling out just as the so-called “metropolitan,” or dushilei (都市类), media in China — those that have typically pushed the envelope, kindling stories that then blaze across the internet— face a painful transition.

We are witnessing the tail end of the revolution in commercial media publishing that began in the mid-1990s. And over the next few years, we can expect to see the Party capitalizing on the golden opportunity to consolidate its hold on the media landscape in China as traditional newspapers and magazines fall by the wayside.

In the most recent example of consolidation underway, Xinhua News Agency reported this week that it would, with approval from the State Council, merge three major state-run economic media — Shanghai Securities News (上海证券报), China Securities Journal (中国证券报) and the Economic Information Daily (经济参考报) — to create a new financial news unit called China Fortune Media Group.

According to Xinhua, the aim of the merger, which has been in the works for several years, is to “put into practice the central leadership’s arrangements on the deepening of cultural system reforms, and to raise the impact of mainstream media in the arena of financial and economic information.”

A Xinhua News Agency notice announces the merger of three major state-run financial publications under the Xinhua banner in order to create “a modern financial news group.”

Note that “mainstream media” here refers to Party and state-run media and their role as framers of dominant opinion in China, and is not interchangeable with dominant notions in the West about the mainstream media, or MSM.

The final edition of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post runs on December 31, 2016.

This merger, then, is about consolidating the message and about more efficient use of resources.

Traditional media brands will continue to merge and evaporate. January 1 this year brought the quiet end of two newspapers that were giants of the commercial media era, Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post — the paper that broke the poison milk scandal back in 2008 — and the Beijing Times, a tabloid spin-off of the People’s Daily. The Oriental Morning Post will be folded into The Paper, the digital platform launched in July 2014 (and visited ceremoniously shortly after by then chief of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei).

These closures will not be the last. Digital destruction is the zeitgeist of the Chinese media space today. In its final message, the Oriental Morning Post insisted this was not farewell, but full steam ahead: “Today, we do not say goodbye, because our publication is adapting to serve our audience in another form — from an ink-fragrant newspaper to full-fledged online communication.”

The million-dollar question, for those who feel nostalgic about the heyday of Chinese print journalism more than a decade ago, is what sort of creation will come in the wake of extinction.

Will there be room for voices that surprise us? Will there be room for real and substantive reporting on issues ranging from air pollution to the economy?

Or, when China’s leaders have finally cleared the air, will we be left with only Ministerial Voices?