Marketing Nationalism in China [Archives:2005/848/Business & Economy]

June 6 2005

By Liu Xiaobiao
Explanations abound for the fevered anti-Japanese protests that broke out across China last month. From the Chinese perspective, of course, the blame falls on the Japanese government for its reluctance to apologize for the crimes Japan committed in WW II. But the Chinese media also played an ignominious role, publishing slanted articles on Japan that helped to fan the fire.

Nationalism has been a prominent element in Chinese media in recent years. Strident articles critical of the United States, Japan, and Taiwan appear with increasing frequency and receive ever more prominent placement. Many see the government's hand behind this trend, but focusing on official influence risks overlooking how market pressures have pushed China's media in this direction.

Before China began opening its economy in 1978, all newspapers and magazines were “Party newspapers” and “Party magazines.” Media bosses were appointed and controlled by the government. Journalists and editors were, in effect, government officials.

Needless to say, all operating costs were born by the Communist Party and the state, and nobody was much concerned about making money. The main concern was not attracting readers, listeners, and viewers, but avoiding political mistakes.

For newspapers and magazines, circulation was guaranteed by the government, which urged people to “study the Party newspapers” and forced work units to buy them. Radio and TV enjoyed the same built-in audience. In the 30 years following the establishment of the People's Republic of China, no media outlet ran even a single commercial advertisement.

As Deng Xiaoping's reforms evolved, and especially after Deng's “tour of the South” in 1992, when he signaled permission for high-speed marketization of the economy, China's media changed beyond recognition.

Whereas in 1978 there were only 186 newspapers and a handful of magazines and broadcast outlets, today China has roughly 2,200 newspapers, 9,000 magazines, 1,000 radio stations, and 420 TV stations, plus a growing proliferation of cable TV outlets. Most of these outlets no longer receive full financial support from the government and must rely on advertising revenue to survive and grow.

What topics do consumers most care about? One is government corruption. As economic inequities and social conflict in China have grown more acute, ordinary people have become increasingly angry. In these circumstances, many on the business side of the Chinese media regard critical reports on crime and official corruption as a powerful weapon in the fight for greater market share and profitability.

Owing to great sensitivity about stories that cast China's leadership in a bad light, these popular reports are frequently banned, editors are fired, and media outlets that publish or broadcast them are often punished. In some cases, they are shut down.

Prevented from criticizing the country's leaders and reporting fully and objectively on domestic affairs, China's media often finds it expedient to turn its critical gaze outwards. This is politically safe, since, in one sense, to criticize the outside world, especially countries such as Japan and the US, is to praise China's government.

It is also profitable. Even as China's position in the world continues to rise and its people become more self-confident, China's history of weakness before the Western powers and Japan sustains a “victim culture” that leaves most Chinese sensitive to any foreign challenge. Publishing jingoistic, anti-foreign articles plays to national sensitivities that always simmer, and thus can easily be brought to a boil, with obvious benefits for the bottom line.

A personal anecdote serves to illustrate how the market, as much as government censorship by the Department of Propaganda and the Press and Publications Administration, is often responsible for this type of editorial decision.

A few years ago, the editors of a Beijing-based weekly with which I am acquainted were deadlocked over which article to put on their front page. The choice was between a minor story critical of Taiwan and a larger piece about a domestic issue of potentially historic significance. Unable to get his staff to reach a consensus, the chief executive decided to ask the newspaper's distributor for his opinion. The distributor had not graduated from high school, but he knew readers' tastes well. “Condemn Taiwan, of course,” he said. The chief executive issued his order accordingly.

While reports that cater to the sometimes virulent nationalist sentiments of readers, viewers, and listeners can succeed in garnering a larger market share – as in any other capitalist country – they can also mislead. The media may make money, but as the recent anti-Japan protests suggests, an excess of such market-driven jingoism can damage a nation's interests and international standing. As the old Chinese expression goes, qihu, nanxia: “Once one gets on the back of a tiger, it is hard to get off.”

Liu Xiaobiao is a Visiting Scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley.