After the Wenzhou Censorship Directive: “a Wide-Spread Sense of Depression”

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP, online) on Sunday, China’s propaganda department’s (referred to as publicity department) directive or statement reads as follows:

After the serious rail traffic accident on July 23, overseas and domestic public opinions have become increasingly complicated. All local media, including newspapers, magazines and websites, must rapidly cool down the reports of the incident.

[You] are not allowed to publish any reports or commentaries, except positive news or information released by the authorities.

According to Singapore’s Morning News online (联合早报网), the directive read

In view of the particularly major 7-23 Ningbo-Taizhou-Wenzhou Railway line accident, popular sentiment within and without our borders tends to become complicated, and media in all regions, including their subsidiary papers and news websites, must rapidly cool down their coverage concerning the accident. Apart from positive information, and information about the situation issued by the authorized departments, no news  and no commentaries must be published.

“鉴于7.23甬温线特别重大铁路交通事故,境内外舆情趋于复杂,各地方媒体包括子报子刊及所属新闻网站对事故相关报道要迅速降温,除正面报道和权威部门发布的动态消息外,不再做任何报道,不发任何评论.

According to the SCMP report, the directive was issued to newspaper and internet editors at 9 p.m. on Friday. Newspapers compelled to scrap several of their originally drafted pages were the China Business Journal (中国经营报), the 21st Century Business Herald (21世纪经济报导), and the Beijing News (新京报). Even Xinhua had to warn its media subscribers not to use one of its investigative reports. A number of papers reportedly defied the directive.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (which isn’t itself immediately affected by the directive, given the special administrative region’s basic law of its own) wrote in a statement on Saturday that it was appalled by the orders from the propaganda bureau and stated categorically that

Premier Wen Jiabao on July 28 when visiting the scene said that “investigation into the accident should be open, transparent and monitored by the public and that the process should be timely, and based on accurate information.”

[…]

Hong Kong is the only place in China that enjoys freedom of the press. We urge the Hong Kong media to stick to their job of reporting the truth, accurately and without prejudice so that the whole world will know what is going on.  It is all the more important as Hong Kong is now building its part of this high-speed rail to link up with the mainland system.  We must ensure that the system is transparently safe.

‘There was a wide-spread sentiment of depression (哀鸿遍野) on Weibo, writes Morning News. A number of newspaper editors explained their decisions there. A CCTV producer has reportedly been suspended for criticizing the ministry of railways (央视制片人因批评铁道部遭停职).

A Beijing News editor explained that after insisting and compromising (坚持又坚持、妥协又妥协) time and again, the remaining four pages have also been harmonized (被和谐). There was no other way; we had to take the rice bowls of more than two-thousand Beijing News employees into consideration (没办法,我们要为2000多个新京报员工的饭碗考虑).

The Weibo quotes in the Morning News report read like a who-is-who of the Chinese press; one editor after another seemed to voice his or her feelings.

On July 27, the Global Times, a state-owned window-speech paper in English, wrote that

[t]he train crash tragedy in Wenzhou has drawn more social reflection than most major accidents. Nowadays, almost all public events raise serious questions, but in the face of these, authorities often react reluctantly and ambiguously.  […] It is foreseeable that Chinese authorities and other relevant organizations will continue to suffer from this public crisis and that their clumsy performances when facing the public will become more obvious. This will damage China’s image and waste China’s political resources.

The SCMP wrote on Saturday that

[t]he media ban, imposed in an attempt to suppress the public’s anger, is likely to backfire by causing further frustration.

But most China watchers seem to overestimate the politbureau’s sensitivity. When there seems to be a need to choose between openness and thought control, thought control will carry the day. The matter wasn’t really decided on Friday (or anytime after the train crash). On principal, the pertaining decision was most probably made by the the Fifth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Central Committee, in October last year, and some time prior to that, Wen Jiabao, chief state councillor and member of the politbureau’s standing committee, had probably lost a struggle for reforms of our political system.

(Politically)  reformist officials may be allowed to wiggle forth for a few days, once in a while. But that has been the rule for centuries, at least. It may be tempting to forget who actually rules China, but that’s something foreigners are more prone to than Chinese people. “The sea that carries the ship of state” may heave a sigh, but it is long-suffering.

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Related
» Chinese Citizens should tolerate Censorship, March 26, 2011

Updates/Related
» “Economic Observer ignored the directive”, NY Times, Aug 1, 2011

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15 Responses to “After the Wenzhou Censorship Directive: “a Wide-Spread Sense of Depression””

  1. The Wenzhou train accident from now on will be reported with “great love in the face of great disaster” as the main theme. Don’t question, don’t expand, don’t associate, and don’t repost [about the matter] on individual/personal microblogs! Appropriate service [charity/volunteer] information may be provided during television programs, but be careful of the atmosphere created by music selection! – 温州动车事故从现在起以“大灾面前有大爱”为主题报道,不质疑,不展开,不联想,个人微博也不要转发!节目中可提供相应服务信息,音乐注意氛围!

    According to ChinaSmack, quoting from Liba, a Chinese website and forum, this was reportedly an earlier directive Chinese journalists received on July 24 – the one quoted above has been the third, according to earlier reports, Tai De.

    One of the comments on Liba says “The whole world is laughing at us.” I’m wondering if the world isn’t rather looking on and getting scared.
    For sure, what I can hear on Chinese radio is very much in line with those directives. What I heard on China Radio International’s Chinese service (Window on China) was all GDP, presented by an announcer whose voice was flipping over with optimism and happiness. Switched it off very quickly, and while the Chinese media can’t slow down, I think I can do so myself, for the coming three days or so.

    As you said, it’s depressing, and I don’t want to immerse myself in that depression. It’s foreseeable that the reverse side of it in China will become nationalist anger, once again. Safe way to vent ones feelings there, even if that’s no “great love in the face of disaster”.

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  2. Reapplying the domestic fear factor might not be so easy as in the past. Social media laughter and ridicule are powerful political tools.

    You can almost write this script now without any reference to domestic Chinese and overseas news reports. I would have thought that Propaganda Dept would have had a bit more tactical sense, given the magnitude of the story. But no.

    Wen appears to be an empty vessel playing out a contrition role till the 2012 leadership team is installed.

    Even if Beijing manages to shut down this story, you can bet the farm that another similar middle class and equally news worthy event is just waiting round the corner.

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  3. It’s just my entrenched view of China, KT, and as you know, it’s humane that views tend to perpetuate themselves. Knowing that, I think you won’t take offense when I say that I find your view naive, too simple.
    Every Communist must grasp the truth: Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, Mao Zedong wrote.
    Compared to those times, the CCP has developed its tactical sense indeed – the propaganda department, too. But the barrel of the gun is still the last resort. The PLA is a civil-war army, even if it would like to be the country’s army instead.

    I don’t want to understate the sense of professional integrity that the editors quoted by Morning News have shown – it’s probably more than what you would find among many editors in Germany – and other Western countries. But expect no sustained civil disobedience beyond what we have seen before. Luan would be (almost) everyones greatest fear.

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  4. Yeah, there’s basically two ways of looking at this:

    1) The reported directives are cooked – given the sources this isn’t totally unlikely – and the fading of this story from the news is natural.

    2) The reported directives are real, it’s just that they were ignored by editors for as long as they could get away with it.

    These reports lean heavily towards option two. And yes, I do think that coming up next will be some largely manufactured ‘incident’ involving a foreign country.

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  5. I felt that I could write these directives myself, Foarp, just by reading and listening to what is actually online and on the air. Others may still be much better “cooks” than what I am.

    I wrote about “alleged directives” yesterday for exactly that reason, but the anger and bitterness within the chatter now is too authentic for me to continue to consider the possibility that that stuff could be made up.

    It’s also pretty much in line with what the CCP defined in fall of last year. The politbureau is flexible in detail, but not in its policies. In their books, the train crash was embarrassing. A disaster it was not – rather a glitch.

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  6. Still, I don’t think everything from CDT can be taken at face value. It’s not as bad as Epoch Times (still peddling those garbage stories about people quitting the CCP en masse out of agreement with the 9 criticisms) but it does occasionally print stories which are a bit too perfect.

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  7. Nothing from anywhere can be taken as face value, Foarp. But then, my view isn’t exclusively, and actually not even frequently, based on CDT coverage, but mostly on sources written by and in Chinese, including Singapore’s fairly trusted zaobao.com (unfortunately, their online articles are usually short-lived, and I’m keeping snapshots when referring to their reports).

    I don’t think that so many reactions would be cooked, and journalist peers in Hong Kong and Singapore will have talked with one or another of the mainland editors and news people personally.

    Btw, even a remote comparison between CDT and the Epoch Times (or China Daily, for that matter, seems to be unfair to me.

    Waiting for a new post on your blog, btw. Anything in the pipeline?

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