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Making Sense of China’s New Media Environment

By James F. Paradise

The Chinese media environment, in the popular imagination, is one of the least free in the world. Reporters are constrained from expressing what they truly believe, the government lords it over the industry with policy directives and draconian regulations, and the dissemination of foreign information on the Chinese mainland is severely circumscribed. In important respects, the popular view is correct. Reporters are inhibited in what they can report, the Chinese government does retain control over the industry through various regulations on media ownership, media content and media licensing and the government does stem the foreign flow of information, through everything from controls on the Internet to jamming of short-wave radio broadcasts. In 2003, China ranked 173 in Freedom House’s 2004 report of 193 countries for press freedom, tied with Congo, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Tunisia. In the prior year, Committee to Protect Journalists said that China was “the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the fourth year in a row.”

Citing these facts, however, may  obscure the more important story about China’s media environment - media change. Through a combination of government initiative and unintended consequences of  economic reform, the Chinese media environment is being transformed to one in which state-employed media managers have more autonomy in making decisions, the images and ideas to which Chinese are exposed are increasing and a greater role for private capital is being carved out. The new media environment is one of lively radio talk shows, less inhibited press coverage, live television broadcasts, greater importation of foreign media products and the growth of advertising.

To make sense of these changes, and to understand exactly what the changes are, a number of books are available. Two of the best for basic factual information about the Chinese media scene are 2003-2004 China Media Yearbook & Directory, published by consultant and market research company CMM Intelligence Ltd. (www.cmmintelligence.com) and China’s Media and Entertainment Law (Volume 1), produced by TransAsia Lawyers (www.transasialawyers.com). These two books will be of interest to media professionals, academics , journalists, government officials and anyone interested in China’s media industry.

2003-2004 China Media Yearbook & Directory is a treasure trove of information about China’s television, radio, film, Internet, print, advertising and media-related consumer goods sectors. By far, the most amount of information is on the television sector, which may reflect major business opportunities in this area. Here there is a roundup of recent developments in the area of policies and regulations, a discussion of Chinese television groups, information on foreign satellite channels and broadcast network infrastructure, and remarks on television content and industry events and awards. The book also contains statistics for different segments of the Chinese media industry, providing, for example, a ranking of top television programs by ratings and  top TV channels by market share in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Around half of  the 310-page book is a directory of information on media and technology events, regulatory bodies, media associations and institutions, media groups, Chinese broadcasters, foreign satellite television companies, production and distribution businesses, broadcast equipment manufacturers, film studios, newspapers and magazines. The book is worth its weight in gold for the address and contact information alone. There is also a useful section on laws and regulations.

One message I got from the book is that there are now more opportunities for foreign media companies in the Chinese market. In the area of television, for example, the book states, “Chinese authorities are becoming more experimental in the kinds of foreign broadcasting influence they let in. For example, it would have been unthinkable a few years ago for a foreign controlled 24 hour Chinese language news channel to be let into China in any form.” Now there are many foreign companies broadcasting to the Chinese mainland, including CNBC Asia and Bloomberg TV. There are also opportunities for foreign companies in areas such as the retail distribution sector for books, newspapers and magazines.

As this is intended to be an annual publication, it would be nice if future editions included more specific information on how China’s membership in the World Trade Organization affects its media environment. I’d also like to learn more about China’s media conglomerates, not just who they are (of which there is an abundance of information in the book), but why they were created and what implications their existence has for foreign companies. Were they set up, for example, only to withstand foreign competition? Or does their existence imply opportunities for new collaboration with foreign companies? Finally, it would be nice if there were even more statistical information.

China’s Media & Entertainment Law provides, as its name suggests, information on the regulations governing Chinese media industries - television, film, audiovisual products, publishing and advertising. Along with the regulations themselves, both in English and Chinese, there is discussion of them as well as historical, current and forward –looking information. Here is one of their judgments about the TV industry that seems sound:

“With China now a member of the WTO and its economy becoming more integrated with the rest of the world, it would be surprising if the strict censorship rules are not relaxed ten years from now.” 

This book is undoubtedly the standard reference work for information of Chinese media regulations. It is one in a series of works by TransAsia Lawyers, which also include China’s IT & Telecoms Legislation (2003), China’s IT Policy & Legislation (2001) and China’s Internet Policy & Legislation (1999). Though some of the regulations can be downloaded from the Internet, this work is worth owning for its convenience, its translations, and its commentary. Written in a no-nonsense legal tone, the book informs us about so many important topics, for example, Sino-foreign co-production in the television and film industries, the import of foreign publications and the establishment of cross-national joint ventures in the advertising industry. Often there is nut-and-bolts information about applications to file, information to submit and so on. The book also contains a list of media-related terms in Chinese and their English language equivalents, a section that could be made even more useful with pinyin transliterations of the Chinese characters for those doing business or research in mainland China.  

One important message from the book is that Chinese regulations are often “highly complex and frequently ambiguous,” a situation, the authors say, that develops out of the conflict between “the desire to maintain censorship and the need to accommodate further industry development.” Also complicating the situation are disagreements among regulatory authorities because of new technologies and sometimes inconsistencies between local and national legislation, the authors say. 

The development of China’s media industry is not likely to be an entirely smooth process. Policy oscillations and cycles of repression have characterized developments over the last several decades. Yet the movement has been toward greater openness, and that seems likely to continue. A reduction of government subsidies to state-owned media enterprises and the emergence of a commercial mindset among media managers are undercutting government control and contributing to the development of a quasi-independent media. The government still maintains enormous control over the media, but the “propaganda state model” no longer seems suitable to describe what is happening in China. New forms of ownership are emerging, more private money flowing into the industry and the bargaining power of media managers, even though they may be state employees, is increasing. As China goes ahead with its economic reform activities and becomes further integrated into the international market economy, and as new technologies, such as mobile phones and the Internet are used more widely, media liberalization seems likely to continue.

James F. Paradise is a graduate student in the Political Science Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was formerly a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires and United Press International in Tokyo, Japan. 
















































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