February 23, 2014
A few years down the road, when we look back on the recent Dongguan anti-prostitution crackdown (东莞扫黄) during the Chinese New Year holidays, we will perhaps realize that it was a monumental turning point in the evolution of Chinese politics. In my own view, it marks the first time that China’s official media lost their long-held ability to shape political narrative. For the first time, the people’s opinion has crushed the official spin.
Over the course of the event, the Chinese authorities revealed their loss of confidence in the legitimacy of their political power, as well as their anxiety over losing the hearts and minds of the people. Most importantly, it raises doubts in them as to whether they will be able to maintain their, heretofore, firm control over Chinese public opinion.
A Rare Faceoff
It all happened when CCTV aired a covert investigation of hotels in Dongguan, Guangdong (广东东莞市), in what seems to me an utterly accidental news event. When I watched the broadcast around midday on February 9, I sensed that it would spill over to become a significant event. That afternoon I wrote a commentary for a website, taking the position that CCTV should not have used hidden cameras in its reporting, nor should it have passed moral judgment in practicing journalism. Some Weibo pundits also criticized the reporting for its unsoundness.
By that evening, Chinese netizens on Weibo and Weixin (WeChat) began posting and re-posting threads with statements like: “Don’t cry Dongguan,” “Dongguan, stand strong,” “Tonight we are all Dongguanians.” It is important to note that these encouragements were lifted from statements by the state media after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Cloning CCTV’s own slogans to counter CCTV’s Dongguan coverage, or more precisely, to counter the state’s ideological narrative represented by CCTV, one cannot help but experience an acute sense of absurdity.
The next day, commentaries from the more market-oriented media outlets and websites* all came out, lopsidedly, to voice objection to CCTV’s exposure of the sex trade in Dongguan. This onslaught against CCTV continued until that evening when censorship finally kicked in.
In other words, from February 9th to the evening of the 10th, for a day and half, the public opinion trended completely contrary to CCTV’s expectations, and it marked a “window of control vacuum” rarely seen in the stated-controlled Chinese media.
Just as extraordinarily, it lasted some 36 hours during which CCTV set up a topic but was unable to shepherd it to its desired destination. Instead, CCTV itself became the target of relentless ridicule. CCTV thought it had chosen the safest topic, but instead, it detonated a powder keg.
On the evening of February 10, the CCP Central Propaganda Department issued an order to “all media outlets everywhere” that prohibited any deviation from CCTV. From the order, you can tell the authorities were in the highest possible dudgeon about the netizens’ near unanimous support for Dongguan. No one has dared so publicly, and so unequivocally, to support the legalization of prostitution, nor has a CCTV report ever been so scathingly assaulted. “As a general rule,” one widespread post reads, “those who sell their souls look down on those who sell their flesh.”
But, I think what infuriated the propaganda authorities the most is this: They are losing control over public opinion in China.
A crisis is pending. The events of that evening can be examined in two parts.
Contrarian for the Sake of Being Contrarian
First, how has CCTV become the target of public outrage?
It is true that CCTV has always been regarded as the mouthpiece of the official ideology and mainstream public opinion. But in 1992, riding on what has been known as the “second opening-up and reform,” CCTV established several news shows such as “Oriental Horizon” (《东方时空》), and was the first among Chinese TV networks to set up a news commentary department. For years afterwards, CCTV enjoyed unparalleled prestige in Chinese journalism, a gift of the market-oriented reform. The former Premier Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) applauded it for being “the people’s mouthpiece.”
As a commercialized TV network, CCTV needs viewers’ support and recognition to have higher ratings and to compete with other networks. At the same time, it is a propaganda machine that submits to the orders of the authorities and assumes the role of dogmatizing the population. Over the course of the market-oriented reforms, its second role was more or less cloaked by its first role, not to mention that many of its programs do not carry ideological baggage at all.
After Hu Jintao proposed the “Harmonious Society,” the stability-maintenance mode of speech gradually supplanted the market-oriented expressions from 1992 onward. Stability maintenance became the number one goal and development the second. Correspondingly, CCTV had to play its role as the “hit man” of stability maintenance in public opinion sphere, taking on more and more of the characteristics of a propaganda machine and overriding its characteristics of being a commercial network.
For example, in the campaign against Google [in 2010], CCTV went as far as fabricating sources to denigrate Google. In its coverage of Japan in general, CCTV incited anti-Japanese nationalist sentiments, provoking the ire of netizens. Examples abound.
In this light, Chinese netizens’ “pro-Dongguan and anti-CCTV” sentiment is a manifestation of their fierce hostility toward CCTV’s egregious propaganda churns in recent years. The degree of their discontent is such that, for them, everything CCTV says is false. To a large degree, they are being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian: if you say it is false, we will insist that it is true; if you say prostitution is illegal, we say that sex trade should be legalized.
Why Were the Propaganda Authorities So Infuriated?
The authorities saw the onslaught against CCTV with their own eyes and were enraged. This can be confirmed by the bans and instructions they issued that, in turn, were posted on Weibo or Twitter by journalists working in state media outlets. Furthermore, the wind changed abruptly by the morning of February 11. Many market-oriented media outlets that had been making fun of CCTV the day before came out in an about-face, censuring supporters of Dongguan in an abrasiveness rarely seen in recent years.
Meanwhile, media outlets directly controlled by the propaganda authorities, such as The People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, etc., used considerable page layout or air time to levy a torrent of moral criticism against Weibo pundits as well as ordinary netizens for their support of Dongguan, calling them hypocrites. The People’s Daily, in particularly vulgar language that no respectable paper would use, said, “Do your parents know that you support prostitution?”
All of a sudden, discordance fell, and an inundation of anti-prostitution coverage and commentaries filled the papers and air.
This shows how badly the propaganda authorities wanted to score a decisive victory, following “the window of control vacuum,” over the people’s “improper expressions.” They wanted to make the state media do everything they could to prove that they had not lost control over public opinion; that prostitution is illegal and it is wrong to support it; that CCTV is right and you are wrong; and that CCTV cannot be criticized, but you must be.
This is not just about lending support to CCTV. It is really about proving itself, just like a bedridden patient who pops himself up to show his visitors that his condition is not as bad as they think.
Such anxiety has existed ever since internet forums came into existence. But due to long-held confidence in their own control of public expressions, the Chinese government tolerated the development of the Internet and, subsequently, Web 2.0. Later, Weibo greatly increased this anxiety.
New media have since been competing with the state media for setting the public agenda, and the new media are having the upper hand. The counterattack by the state media, above all, was about fighting for control of public opinion.
Another Round, another Defeat for the State Media
While the state media concentrated their power on attacking people’s morality, on Weibo, honest discussions about prostitution were unfolding. Many netizens took part in a serious debate about the decriminalization of the sex trade, the relations between sexual desire and the dim side of human nature, feminist interpretations of body and emotions, the upgrade of Dongguan’s industrialization, the sex industry in developed countries, etc.
I must say that the state media lost again in this round, because, while the people were debating real issues, the state media were still busy crusading against artificial problems. Here again, the people set the agenda and led it.
To be sure, the second round of confrontation between the state media and social media over the last few days is not a confrontation per se, because the two had already parted ways. The populace was not interested in the lofty subject of morality; the state media had no intention of discussing the real issues of Dongguan in good faith.
Who came out better is instantly clear.
In the future, this kind of tug-of-war will continue to occur, even more frequently. It is hard to say whether the people will win again like they did this time. It will depend on the topics, the values of each side, and so forth.
All of the above are only some of the superficial secrets of this behemoth empire.
Actually, the people have not actively sought the state media out and fought for control of public opinion with it. Many incidents were merely battles of right and wrong, a resistance to distortion of facts out of intellectual honesty and respect, not a conscious fight to dominate the narrative.
However, exactly such intellectual honesty and respect can be perceived by the regime as a threat to the control of public opinion. This has to do with a totalitarian government’s fear of things like truth, a topic that I will not get into here.
Division of public opinion and people’s deep-seated discontent give the regime tremendous anxiety about its own life and death. For an organization that was founded on public opinion like the Chinese Communist Party, control of it has to be an exclusive domain where no one else is allowed a license. Everyone around it and close to it, is an enemy.
Fury and violence on the part of the regime can often come from the inability to accept its powerlessness and lack of confidence. Once they strike, they tend to strike with excessive force.
For the Chinese authorities, the Dongguan episode is a profound lesson. But, who knows, perhaps they thought they had scored a victory and are now enjoying it in lightheadedness.
Perhaps they really believe that they are marching from one victory to another.
*In China, there is no independent media; the so-called market-oriented media outlets are also state-owned but are given a longer leash by the propaganda authorities. –The editor
Jia Jia (贾葭) is a Beijing-based journalist and columnist who has worked for Oriental Outlook (《瞭望东方周刊》), iFeng Weekly (《凤凰周刊》) and GQ Chinese. For years he has been writing columns for the Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》), Beijing News (《新京报》) and Vista (《看天下》). You can read his blog at Tencent Dajia blog.
A Farewell to CCTV — Some True Words for This Era, by Wang Qinglei
Also by Jia Jia:
Chinese Dream: To Become the Father of an American
(Translation by Yaqiu Wang, Sophie Jin and Eric Lee)