Why Chinese media are talking about Tiananmen

June 6

A Chinese paramilitary soldier stands guard under a portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong as tourists pass by in front of the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the deadly 1989 Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Andrea Jones-Rooy is an assistant professor for global China studies at New York University Shanghai.

The Chinese media censorship of the June 4, 1989, events in Tiananmen Square is one of the most prominent and enduring examples of government information control in history.  Yet, a Thursday article in The Washington Post reports that, surprisingly, after 25 years of suppression, the government has actually made several small mentions of the events.  Why would the government do this?  More broadly, just how much control of the media does the Chinese government still maintain?

My research sheds some light on both of these questions.  My work, including my dissertation and a paper, argue that because China currently operates in a complex and increasingly open media environment, they are no longer able to censor any event they wish.  The larger the event, the more likely the public is to find out about it — be it from the Internet and social media, foreigners within China with access to international news, or friends and family abroad.  Specifically, I posit that when China chooses whether or not to report on an international event in the national media, they trade off between legitimacy and credibility.

The logic centers on two key incentives faced by the Chinese leadership.  The first is that the more politically risky an event is that takes place (for example, a pro-democracy protest), the less likely the Chinese government should want to publish it in the national news.  This is the desire to maintain legitimacy — the idea that the government is not just good, but necessary, for the success of China.

On the other hand, the larger, or more of interest the event (for example, an event involving Taiwan or Japan), the more likely information about this event will spread around China, even if the government censors it.  Thus, to maintain some credibility, the government cannot simply block everything that is sensitive.

Thus, while we might expect a negative relationship between political riskiness and likelihood of news about it in the state-run media, this negative relationship is attenuated as potential public interest in the event increases.  As events get larger, we should see the Chinese government exhibit willingness to publish potentially politically risky events in the news.

The figure below describes my theoretical predictions.  Event “prominence” is its size, or potential interest to the Chinese public.  “Indirect Reporting” refers to a tactic I have discovered the government uses quite frequently — if something politically risky happens, the government may report on it but focus on an auxiliary event that is closely related.  For example, during the Arab Spring, the government published many articles about the events in Libya, but the focus was on the rescue of Chinese nationals who had been living there, as well as on condemning the United States for its involvement.

Indirect reporting can also simply involve giving bare bones descriptions of something that took place, without providing much detail.  For example, when the terrorist attack took place in Tiananmen last October, the news mentioned it, but not for more than a few sentences.  This was the case in print, online and in television news.  The graph indicates that the types of events that would not be reported on at all are only very small, very risky events.

china1

My empirical research supports these predictions.  For the past several years, including my dissertation, I have conducted statistical, archival, and content analysis research on the coverage of international events in the state-run media since 1949.  My most recent paper examines when the Chinese government reports on international security crises (measured from the International Crisis Behavior Database) in the People’s Daily, the most prominent state-run print and online newspaper in China since 1990.  I measure the number and type of mentions of crisis actors in the online and print news during the lead-up to the crisis and the crisis itself (I use a method developed by Matthew Baum’s 2004 work on the U.S. media to measure this).

I then surveyed China scholars and experts to code each event in terms of how politically liable and how prominent the event would be in the eyes of the Chinese government.  At the time of the survey, the interviewees did not know my agenda and made assessments based on their own expertise about China.

Finally, I conducted statistical analysis of the events.  Did liability and prominence influence the likelihood that China mentioned international crises?  My key result, summarized in the figure below, suggests that the interaction of the two do play a role in China’s decision to publish politically sensitive events.


The line in the figure above represents the effect of event prominence on how likely the People’s Daily is to mention an international crisis as the political liability of that crisis increases.  The 0-2 scale is continuous and simply reflects increasing political liability — from 0 (not at all politically risky) to 2 (very politically risky).  As the political liability of an event increases, the effect of prominence on whether or not the government mentions a crisis increases.  The more risky an event, the more its size affects the government’s calculation over whether to publish the event.  This is consistent with the theory — the riskier the event, the more it matters whether it’s big or not.

Interestingly, at low levels of liability, prominence doesn’t seem to play a role — and in fact at low levels it seems the government just publishes whatever it wants.  Thus, for “safe” events, it’s back to our old assumptions about the Chinese media — here, they can publish whatever soft or “fluff” pieces they wish.

China is in a unique position in history: It has the tools to control vast quantities of information, yet it is operating in a globalized world where the Internet and social media make any secret hard to keep. My work suggests that the bigger the event, the more likely China’s hand will now be forced in publishing news about it.  Thus, even though the Chinese government might prefer no discussion of Tiananmen, it is quietly, tacitly, allowing some conversation around the edges, as long as that conversation is pitched the right way.

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