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Rachel Lu

Will China’s New Leadership Loosen Its Grip on Mainstream Media?

The Beijing headquarters of China Central Television. (Expectmohr/Flickr)

For regular viewers of China Central Television (CCTV) who have grown used to its formulaic propaganda, the past week has brought refreshing changes to its news coverage, and China’s astute online commentators are openly wondering–could this be a bellwether for reforms under China’s new leadership?

A popular joke summarizes the usual CCTV news coverage in three parts: Our leaders are busy, our people are happy, and foreigners live in complete misery. News items considered negative or sensitive are usually censored to present a “harmonious society.”

With the rise of social media in China, “negative” news emerges on a regular basis on the Internet because censors have trouble keeping up with the speed and reach of the powerful new medium. However, since censors still have full control over traditional Party mouthpieces like CCTV, any liberalization of CCTV’s news coverage is seen by many as a sign of approval from the top.

Some of the recent stories covered by CCTV include the case of Ren Jianyu, a young man sent to hard labor for Internet speech, the illegal detention of petitioners in Yunnan, the case of a man who resisted forceful demolition of his property, and the fact that Vietnam now requires its officials to publicize their asset holdings.

Most of these stories broke on China’s social media, and some were subsequently picked up by local newspapers. However, the coverage by CCTV is seen as significant because it is the official national channel that carries the Party’s message to its rank and file, as well as ordinary citizens, in every corner of China.

Signs of things to come?

@贪玩砍脸 wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, “CCTV’s recent news reports discussed what is usually considered ‘negative news’ and the coverage was quite sharp and deep. The 7 p.m. newscast even reported on public opinion on the Internet. Media is the Party’s mouthpiece, so this is a sign of new policies under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.” Noting the popularity of social media, @逆来顺兽 added, ”Seems like CCTV’s newscast wants to compete with Weibo for ratings!”

@圆圈媛媛 agreed, “I’ve noticed the change in the editorial selection and coverage of news items on official media. Maybe it’s opportunistic, but it is indeed a good thing.” @ice_and_fire was hopeful that this heralds more to come: “A “New Deal” under Xi and Li, new policies  for CCTV. I’m waiting for the day that controls over Internet speech would be relaxed too.”

Not so fast

Others are less impressed. @李小飞 cautioned, “Note that some of these reports are targeting local governments, so another interpretation is that the power of the local governments have grown and the power struggle between central and local governments has intensified.” @贺延光 cited previous signs of liberalization that never amounted to much: “Need to wait and see. In 2003 [when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao first took power], two top officials were fired over the SARS fiasco and CCTV reported on a Chinese navy submarine disaster.”

@yenlee remembered that high hopes for reform in Hu and Wen’s early days were gradually extinguished over the years, writing in English, “The same speaking Hu Wen New Deal was told us in the before ten years , we must stop so trust CCP Party . It`s a trap. [Sic]”

@海洋律师 was also pessimistic, “Recently the reports on CCTV and major newspapers are quite bold, and some think that’s a positive sign. I don’t really agree. Looking back, they often put out smoke screens before they do something and see how the public reacts. If the reaction is what they like, they will continue, but if the reaction is not to the taste of the decision-makers, they will tighten up immediately! And who knows who will get into trouble in the process. Let’s wait and see!”

Words of caution and history lessons have not dampened hopes of some Internet users. @Ly2046RQ wrote with enthusiasm, ”I salute a ‘New China’ and the thriving new leadership. The Xi and Li leadership will bring us a different China. Believe, if we can only believe, that China will no longer be covered by a dark cloud in the near future, and instead thrives as a bamboo shoot after the rain. I believe I can see it. I believe it!” @同样的心123 was also hopeful, “A little spark of hope! Please don’t let it go out in the wind.”

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.