So the rush for goldmine that’s China hasn’t really ebbed despite its weakening economy and expected slower growth this year – and the country’s countless failings, from the perspective of the western world at least. A recent proof of this is the New York Times’ launch this week of a Chinese language website, targeting the country’s “growing number of educated, affluent, global citizens”.
This is understandable though given China’s now huge middle class and their hefty savings and growing standards of living, as well as spending appetite. International brands have for many years now been drooling over revenue potential from that market.
Still, it came as a surprise to many, knowing how strict the Times’ journalism standards are and how the Chinese government stringently regulates and monitors the local media – including the online medium.
The country’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, but it’s widely known how its law is peppered with media regulations that use vague language, allowing it to circumvent the constitutional provision. To rein in the online medium, the government released in 2010 a white paper on the internet, which requires all internet users including foreign organisations and people in the country to follow Chinese laws and regulations.
But having been covering China for a long time now, the Times would know well what it’s getting into. It has been growing its coverage of the country, with stories of the Bo Xilai scandal and blind dissident Chen Guangcheng’s escape from house arrest this year often landing top spots at least on its web version. Its foreign editor expressed hope that the Chinese government would be receptive to the Chinese website despite having occasionally blocked certain contents from nytimes.com.
He said that the website is not tailored to the demands of the Chinese government, adding: “We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing”.
I don’t think the Chinese government really welcomes such developments given its rigorous policy of secrecy, especially on party and government affairs. While it knows that it can’t completely keep foreign media organisations away, it is adamant in its stance that all media, local or otherwise, should follow its rules and regulations. And it’s even more adamant that foreign media should keep off party and government affairs. Just as important, or even more important, is its policy to keep the media from inciting its citizens to rebellion against the ruling party.
Sometimes a media organisation doesn’t even have to violate rules or incite rebellion to get whipped by the government. In 2009, UK newspaper the Guardian launched an experiment with community translation site Yeeyan for the publication of selected Guardian stories in Chinese. The Chinese authorities shut it down several months after without bothering to give any explanation.
The Times itself started on what many observers considered a bumpy side: two of its social media accounts in China (on Sina Weibo and Sohu microblogging sites) were reportedly suspended for several hours.
More than the political importance of covering China, it is the country’s continuous economic rise and clout (the IMF expects it to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2016. Really soon.) that has attracted international media organisations like the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and now the Times to target mainly educated middle class Chinese readers. There are always potential advertisers wanting to reach and capture segments of the lucrative Chinese market. The Times’ new Chinese website, for one, had sealed advertising deals with Bloomingdale’s, Salvatore Ferragamo and Cartier prior to its launch.
Let’s see where this venture takes the Times – and whether it will suffer the fate of the Guardian or that of the FT and the WSJ. I’d like to believe it will be the latter given its reputation and well regarded standards of journalism. But the FT and the WSJ mainly cover financial and business news, which are less regulated by the government. The Times will have to play by China’s rules and tread carefully while keeping within its standards. The Chinese government will surely be keeping an eye on it knowing how the Times’ guards its journalistic independence and integrity. At the same time, I think the newspaper’s reputation and wide following will serve it well – the Chinese government knows that readers and observers across countries will also keep an eye on how it will behave toward this development.
What makes this move important and worth watching is that it may mark a turning point in how the Chinese government handles or responds to the ever growing world and media attention on China. As it plays a bigger role in global affairs and moves to become the world’s biggest economy, more eyes will definitely be on it. It’s worth watching how it will unravel itself under keen and high-profile attention.
Filed in: bahay kubo