China’s rapid economic development has sparked considerable debate on the autonomy of its mass media, despite it often being seen as a lost cause on the issue of human rights, particularly freedom of speech. During the past few decades Chinese media has gone through a series of seemingly contradictory stages. Sometimes, censorship seems weaker and the press is given more space to operate, while other times government control tightens, straining media operations. Surprisingly, even though their views often diverge in numerous issues, journalists and academics seem to have reached a tacit agreement not to defy the government. Rather than continuing to see this as a form of cooperation or compromise, it might be worth looking into this phenomenon and the reasons and causes behind it.
In fact, the problems that the media industries of Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan currently face are considerably different. The West often argues that the main issue facing Mainland media is political danger, but this does not adequately cover the complicated situation of the media in Mainland China. Hong Kong-based media, on the other hand, is now facing the challenge of commercial pressure. And in Taiwan’s democratic society, commercialisation and non-professionalism have taken their toll on media independence and objectivity. Fortunately, independent journalism is emerging as a response to this. While the Mainland’s independent news industry is just now emerging, Hong Kong and Taiwan’s have already been developing for over ten years. Yet, the definition of ‘independent media’ is still not clear. The Western explanation, which usually describes independent media as ‘free from the influence of governments or corporate interests’, cannot be completely applied to the Chinese context. Avoiding all government or commercial influence is impossible in China. On the one hand, if media organisations hope to exist normally in an autocracy, both directly confronting government officials and trying to run away from the system will end up in failure. On the other hand, patriarchy and hierarchy are concepts deeply embedded in Chinese society, making the Western view of independent media unacceptable for many Chinese. Nevertheless, the ambitions and expectations of independent media are expanding, and these organisations are often inclined to cooperate with other interests. Journalists in China tend to see themselves as social heroes, and expect people to admire them and look to them for guidance. This, however, is not appropriate. These journalists, including the often praised founders of independent media organisations, are also looking for money and success, just like everyone else.
While China Current was being set up in Beijing, hoping to become a new member of the Mainland China independent media world, journalists in Hong Kong and Taiwan were trying to agree on an appropriate model of independent institution. The concept and ethics of professional journalism drafted by Western journalists – especially American – have shaken Chinese journalists’ ideas of how to do news. However, no agreement has yet been reached in China’s new media world regarding ‘independent journalism’, mostly because there is no authority, in either journalism or academia, able to influence both the press and the academic world. Most of the time, the moment disagreement between these two groups becomes more evident, academics are unable to influence the media due to their lack of media experience or contacts, and the media is, in turn, unable to influence the academic world for similar reasons. This weak structure creates a power and influence vacuum that is filled by government censorship, which both journalists and academics are too weak to resist. This way, the government is shaping the relationship between journalists and academics. The only way for these two groups to resist censorship is if they can agree on a concept of independent and professional media and join up against government interference.
Despite their divergent views on professional and independent journalism, journalists and academics have been held together to some extent by the common enemy that is government censorship. Their failure to reach an agreement on what independent journalism is, however, not always due to external interference, but due to their perception of themselves. Taking into account the different social status of journalists in the East and the West, it easy to understand why Chinese journalists have an extraordinary hero complex. First, they are paid a comparatively low salary, making it difficult for them to maintain a decent living standard. Besides, the reputation of journalists in China is not as high as the pressure they endure. These conditions push journalists to record social affairs with strong convictions of justice and fairness. Objectivity and neutrality are qualities highly valued by the majority of professional journalists in China. However, in the Mainland, mainstream academics and scholars often incur in self-censorship.
Academics who hold positions in Hong Kong, on the other hand, usually enjoy high income and benefits, and, in theory, a higher degree of freedom. But this also means that they sometimes cannot help but balance their attitudes and viewpoints with the ideas of the people who have supported them, giving in to the government and large enterprises. As a result, given a little external stress, the interior tensions of the system are greatly intensified. For the purpose of maintaining order and protecting their own interests, almost all professionals choose to give in, to end chaos and reach a reasonable solution, saving their energy to fight for more worthy causes in the future.
Since the emergence of what Hu Shi called an ‘independent spirit’ in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1990s, a new type of communication institution – self-styled as independent media – has appeared. Although this has not thrilled leading mainstream media, more and more readers are attracted to its way of reporting. It continues to report the hidden side of society and social conflicts, including mass movements and inequalities, attracting great praise from vulnerable groups. But, in the meantime, it also suffers the attacks of large corporations and the criticism of the conventional news industry and the academic world. Members of independent media institutions are mostly young university graduates trying to use their passion to expose the ignorance and hypocrisy of their critics. With time, their professional skills will be honed, and they will be able to formally contribute to the establishment of ‘citizen journalism’. These independent institutions are changing and repairing the structure and communication methods of the media industry. They have also become an essential part of society: by permeating political and cultural life, independent media enjoys broader rights, while to some extent challenging the deep-seated but unjust codes of social life.
Two good examples are Hong Kong Independent Media and Coolloud.org.tw. It is evident, however, that these two media organisations are still focusing on domestic issues, not on expanding their influence beyond the territory where they were originally founded. Besides China Current, there are numerous independent media organisations operating in different Mainland universities. Similar to independent local media outlets that stand out through partnerships and cooperation with leftist mainstream media, fundamental deficiencies in the form of a lack of indispensable basic rules and operating mechanisms are increasingly prominent among these independent media organisations. Once they are constrained by external obstruction, the fragility and weakness of these organisations is revealed. If these disperse institutions are not united, their formidable potential will never take shape.
It is the truth that a genuinely independent institution often prefers to rely on the principles of critical thinking and self-regulation. What we now need to consider is: firstly, is it important for independent journalists to strictly obey the orthodox requirements of professional journalists? Should the free establishment of independent institutions be restricted in the future? And in what ways does independent media contribute to a better civil society?
This article is first published on China Current’s print edition – The Story of China Current 2012-2013.by