China’s effort to choke dissent didn’t begin 25 years ago Wednesday with the Tiananmen Square massacre. But that’s when the modern-day paranoia began to set in, and it’s easy to trace a straight line from that day to the elaborate regime of digital censorship that exists today. (Mentions of the massacre or the protests beforehand are forbidden on China’s TV, newspapers, and internet.)
But if President Xi Jinping and his colleagues want to keep a lid on that bottle, they may face resistance from a surprising source: the nation’s budding journalists. By substantial numbers, students in some of China’s leading journalism schools oppose censorship, doubt the credibility of their domestic media, and don’t believe journalists should be members of the Communist Party.
These are among the results of a survey a colleague, Linjun Fan of Shantou University, and I conducted with the help of journalism teachers at several universities in China. Over 120 students from eight schools responded anonymously to the online survey. We polled students last fall, at a time when Chinese leaders were reasserting the primacy of Marxist education for working journalists — and were battling Bloomberg News and the New York Times over unflattering coverage. The survey came nearly a year after journalists at China’s Southern Weekly struck for three days to protest censorship.
Xi, who is now 15 months into his tenure, has tightened the reins steadily. Thousands, for instance, marched in the streets in Hong Kong to protest the erosion of press freedoms and the stabbing, in late February, of sacked Ming Pao Editor Kevin Lau. And Chinese who lost family members on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March decried their government’s blockage of news about the disaster.
But the president, perhaps worried about social stability in the face of bloody attacks by Muslim separatists as well as slowing economic growth, seems more intent than ever to keep Chinese media and outsiders on a short leash. He and his colleagues are restricting access to foreign news sources and muzzling critical reporting by Chinese journalists and outside media outlets alike. “I have been in this industry for 30 years. I would say this is the worst time,” Shirley Yam, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told The Wall Street Journal in February.
Lately, moves to suppress discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre have been especially aggressive. Authorities have detained such figures as human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and prominent journalist Gao Yu, according to Amnesty International. Others including Ding Zilin, spokesperson for the Tiananmen Mothers, have been placed under house arrest. “The 25th Tiananmen anniversary was a critical test for President Xi’s claims to be delivering greater openness. But Xi has opted for repression over reform,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
But journalism students in several schools across the country see things differently than the Party leaders do. Three-quarters of 108 students answering a question about censorship called for less of it in China. “The news media should not become a tool for political propaganda. It should be a social platform for citizens to monitor the government,” one said. Still others chimed in, “the average citizen and the public conscience should be allowed to speak” and “a more open media environment helps social justice.”
Some dissenters, however, apparently accept the idea that government oversight fosters accuracy and fulfills the Community Party view that media should serve the Party. One suggested censorship would ensure “authenticity and objectivity.” Others said: “censorship will curtail fabrication of news” and would “ensure the media shoulders a sense of responsibility.”
But the dominant view reflects the free-speech attitude of outstanding students I taught as a visiting professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication, in Beijing, in the fall of 2011. Some students resented the limits the state censors imposed. One, who had interned at a south China newspaper, told of how his editors rushed his investigation of factory life at Apple’s supplier, Foxconn, because they knew a clampdown was coming. (They published the piece just under the wire.)
Some of those students have gone on since to work for Chinese news outlets. Their views, like those of the reporters at Southern Weekly who in January 2013 protested the censorship of an editorial that urged political reform, could put them at odds with government overseers.
And the hostility to censorship among today’s undergrads and grad students, likewise, could presage more friction in the future. Unhappy as they are about censorship, some 61.5 percent of our survey respondents said they expect it to remain part of the Chinese media landscape and nearly half, 48.6 percent, said they expect more of it.
Their attitudes toward membership in the Chinese Communist Party mirrored their views on censorship. In all, 79 of 107 who responded to a question on the point said journalists should not join the Party. One said non-membership would be “more objective and fair,” while another said “journalists should remain independent.” Still another urged: “value neutrality.”
But, perhaps in a bow to the practicalities of getting ahead, nearly half – 46 out of 99 responding to another question – said they intended to join the Party. One answered, “It’s hard to remain objective if you join a political party. But the problem is, in China, it’s hard for you to work in the mainstream media if you are not a Party member.”
The students, still able to see Western media (some know how to circumnavigate the censor), put more faith in it than in the homegrown variety. Some 76.6 percent of the respondents said they believed most of what they read or saw in Western media, compared with just 48.7 percent who put stock in Chinese media. “Most Chinese state-owned media only report the good news,” one student explained. Another said: “no freedom.” A third noted: “very tight control and media is punished on a regular basis.”
Their skepticism of Chinese media was apparent too, when asked to say whether they believed more was true in foreign media than in Chinese state-owned media. Only 10 respondents out of 110, or 9.1 percent, said more is true in Chinese state media than in foreign media. Nearly half, 54, said more is true in foreign media than in Chinese media and 46, or 41.8 percent, said both are equally true.
For all their preference for Western media, the students fretted that both Chinese and foreign media have axes to grind. By roughly the same percentages – 91.8 percent and 89.1 percent, respectively – the vast majority said they believed both Chinese and foreign media sought to shape public opinion. They also gave both domestic and foreign media low marks on whether they are fair, balanced and thorough in their news coverage of China. Some 87.2 percent answered “no” to the question of whether Chinese media were fair, balanced and thorough, while 90.8 percent answered “no” to the same question about foreign media. “Foreign media do not understand China,” one said. Others added: “they are hostile toward China. They twist facts to tarnish China’s image” and “some foreign media deliberately distort the truth to smear China’s image.”
Still, they reflected a hunger for more critical reporting all around. Some 87.3 percent said they believe domestic media are not critical enough of China, while only 60 percent said they believe foreign media are too critical. Some of their responses to questions about fairness, balance and thoroughness were revealing on the point: “censorship has filtered out negative information,” “Chinese media are the mouthpiece of the government,” and “the truth in news comes from objectivity. Unfortunately, Chinese state-owned media aren’t capable of it.”
Chinese journalism teachers, many educated in West, might find the poll results intriguing. Party and government leaders may find them jarring. But for journalists and future journalists in China, such views among students can only be invigorating.
Weber, former chief of correspondents for BusinessWeek, teaches at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. He has written about China for National Journal and the Columbia Journalism Review.