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Media in China

Matthias von Hein (ot)May 14, 2008

With about 360 TV stations and more than 10,000 newspapers and magazines, China's media market is one of superlatives. China is also the country that imprisons more journalists than any other.

CCTV is China's largest broadcasterImage: DW

As with the compass and gun powder, the Chinese were also pioneers in the field of the press. The first newspaper in the world was published about 1,000 years ago in China. With a daily run of several thousand copies, the highly censored paper was the official mouthpiece of the Song Dynasty.

This tradition is reflected today by China's national broadcaster CCTV and its main nightly news program. The first three reports normally deal with state and party head Hu Jintao. The fourth one is advising the nation about what Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has done for the well-being of the country. Only after this appraisal of the activities of the state leadership does additional news follow.

Government propaganda at 7

At 7:00 p.m., the nightly news jingle can not only be heard solely on CCTV but also on China's provincial stations who are obliged to simultaneously air the program. This arrangement falls under the idea of "leading public opinion," a key concept in the Chinese media system.

Olympische Fackel in San Francisco, Proteste
Chinese reporting on the recent Olympic torch relay was highly controlledImage: AP

But China's media does not solely serve the cause of ideological indoctrination as the so-called "socialism with Chinese characteristics" has caused inconsistencies in many areas. Even though the content is strongly controlled and is subject to strict censorship regarding political content, the stations nevertheless operate commercially and are mostly focused on turning their own profit.

China's advertising market is the largest in Asia and the third largest in the word. In 2005, about $30 billion (19 billion euros) were spent on advertising in China, an increase of 18 percent in comparison to the previous year. With its 15 nationwide channels, CCTV reaches around 95 percent of all Chinese and hauls in a considerable share in the profit from ads. Prime time slots alone were worth about $850 million in 2007.

State financing too expensive

What is seen as merciless commercialization today began some 15 years ago. Until the 1990s mass media were financed by the state, explained Beijing media scientist Cao Peixing.

The Chinese government considers all mass media as propaganda organs, according to Cao Peixing. But in the 90s these revolutionary ideals were regarded as antiquated. The state did not want to give up political control but was willing to experiment a little.

Most stations quickly learned their lesson regarding the free market. The old-fashioned reporting of official statements is now considered passe. Viewers and listeners are courted and new shows and programs opened in order to offer even more opportunities to advertisers. In addition to breathtaking growth, China's broadcast market reveals a paradox: diversity coupled with tight central control.

Political interests before economic success

Bdt Der chinesische Präsident Hu Jintao hat die olympische Fackel
The upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing will be another test of China's mediaImage: AP

This control is even felt by sports reporters, said Zhou Junjun, a radio reporter in Shanghai, who added that he will not touch negative news about the favorite team or favorite athlete of a local party leader. Even economic interests, which are of overriding importance in China, have led to censorship, explained Zhou.

"Even if a show is liked by listeners and successful, if views in opposition to government opinion are advanced, it can under no circumstances be aired," he said.

The central committee of the Communist Party in Beijing continually sends out a constant stream of orders and propaganda to media companies all over the country. These orders instruct media companies on which topics are desired and which are not.

In the beginning of 2007 a list of anniversaries that should not be mentioned were announced. Included in this list was the anniversary of the October revolution of 1917, the start of the Japanese War in 1937 and the anniversary of the campaign against law dissenters in 1957.

Hidden censorship instructions

Because it is embarrassing to the authorities if such directives become known to the West, they are lately increasingly communicated by telephone leaving no proof, according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Should a journalist offend the directives of authorities, they have a vast array of instruments at their disposal ranging from warnings and suspension to prison sentences. On the RSF ranking of press and media freedom, China sits at number 163 -- only five countries fare worse.