A few days ago, an assistant working for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong emailed me an inquiry, asking for my thoughts on the Weng’an story. They were working on a story about the significance of citizen bloggers like Zola, and were interested in my input.
Unfortunately, the version they finally went to press with is simply wrong. I usually am more politic on this blog, but I feel entitled to judge this article, especially after they asked me for my opinion. The title and introductory paragraph from the article tell you all you really need to know about the rest:
Chinese Bloggers Score a Victory Against the Government
Firings Indicate Growing Power; Exploits of ‘Zola’
Aggressive Chinese bloggers make an art of challenging Chinese government propaganda. This week, they can claim a victory.
That change in stance appears to be a direct result of pressure brought by journalists and Chinese bloggers such as Zhou Shuguang, a self-styled “personal news station,” who didn’t allow the issue to drop, posting to the Internet unofficial reports along with photos and pleas from the family of the dead youth.
.. what follows is an article focused on the exploits of Zola.
My thoughts on the Weng’an aren’t a secret; we’ve been discussing these topics for the past week. I thought the government had seriously slipped up in letting local Guizhou media/conservative editors dictate the media coverage, first. This early coverage provided a very sanitized view of the story, in which the rioters were described as either organized criminals or their victims, while local officials were diligently trying to clean up and bring the criminals to justice.
But I thought there were also signs of great progress; a government open to international journalists, that paid attention to online comments, and that tried to influence media not through control, but by providing information as quickly as possible. And the real blogger of note here is not Zola (while I appreciate his scanned petitions, which we translated here)… but rather wuhanpin, who was able to tell us Shi Zongyuan was reading from internet commentary and condemning local officials on the very first day he was in Weng’an. There was no change of heart from Shi, only in the official media portrayal of Shi.
Zola has played a critical role in past incidents, and arguably “aggressive Chinese bloggers” have forced China into making the reforms we’re seeing today. But he’s not the story in Weng’an; his presence didn’t make a difference to the final outcome of this story. Phoenix TV and several HK stations, the Associated Press, Southern Metropolis, Caijing all had reporters on the ground nosing around, writing candid stories and interviews. Frankly, I think that should be the story. Painting this as a battle of “bloggers versus government” is simply wrong and misleading.
Even though the Wall Street Journal didn’t particular agree with my opinions, this “aggressive Chinese blogger” will still share his take:
I think it’s a very interesting story. There are two aspects of this that I think are interesting.
First, If you can read Chinese, you might be interested in David Peng’s take here: http://david.pengfamily.net/?p=418
If you can’t, I’ll give you a brief summary. He talks about this being the “Hu Jintao model” for dealing with crisis. The primary steps are:
– immediately issue authoritative information,
– raise responsiveness,
– increase transparency,
– and by doing all of these things, firmly assert the government’s role as being the primary distributor of news and views. (Sort of an inadequate translation… but you probably get the idea.)
I’d summarize this as just saying that Hu Jintao’s government has a better understanding of the modern “news cycle” than ever before.
If you take a look at what happened in the early days of this incident, the usual activist groups in Hong Kong quickly jumped out with press releases. The Falun Gong-associated newspapers overseas (Epoch Times) followed up with their usual, ahem, urgency on stories such as these. The *tone* of these stories quickly dominated both the Chinese and Western media: girl raped/killed by government-affiliated thugs, innocent relatives abused, and finally, mass uprising.
We now know these versions are at best slightly exaggerated, and at worst outright lies. But in the past, these stories would’ve been left unchallenged for… weeks? maybe even months… as the government struggled to come up with a sanitized, “official” story. And you can’t wait weeks or months; the public (both inside and outside of China) doesn’t have a memory that long.
So, within hours of the story breaking, Xinhua was asserting itself as an authoritative source. Even though the first paragraphs were sparse on detail (and probably generated by the Weng’an county propaganda office), they at least made it clear Beijing had something to say on the issue. And one day after that, we had early reports about Shi Zongyuan arriving in Weng’an. And even as other press impressively were given latitude to investigate the story (including Zola/AP/Hong Kong reporters), Beijing arranged a comprehensive press conference. etc, etc, etc. Credible or not, the sheer volume of details and candid talk from the press conference means nothing Zola or the Epoch Times can come up with would completely drown them out.
There’s been no room left for any *group* outside of Beijing to “control” the tone of this conversation. We are still left to debate the facts of the case, and many are still skeptical of the government’s version on the details… but at least Beijing is now firmly inserted into the story.
I think the second “interesting aspect” is what we talked about on our blog; I’m speaking of the very candid, very harsh analysis of the local government developed after about 3-4 days after the event. In doing so, it’s making clear that “saving face” is no longer the only priority, that “official protecting official” is no longer the standard way of doing business.
I’m still critical of the timing; I believe for the state media to be credible, it has to reflect the attitude of the masses… which right now tends to be skeptical of local governments first, and “evil forces” second. So, I think even the initial story from Xinhua should have taken a different tone: “How could this have happened? How did local government fail so completely that the people were so angry?”
As far as Zola goes… mmm, I don’t know. I think his effectiveness has been somewhat compromised by the government’s new openness. In one of his blog entries, he talks about going back to somewhere (Chengdu?) after leaving Weng’an, and meeting with reporters from Southern Metropolis and Caijing over dinner. They asked him for the phone number for the victim’s father; he wasn’t too anxious to share it (not that he refused)… and the reporters just shrugged and said, that’s okay, they have other ways of getting it.
The petition that he scanned was actually mailed (I assume by HK groups?) to a number of different sources, apparently. Fang Zhouzi, who is based in the US, talks on his New Threads site about having received an identical copy days before Zola published it.
I hope that helps! Thanks for reading, and always let me know if I or anyone else on the blog can be of any service.
Just realized you asked a question that I didn’t answer about China’s non-mainstream media.
Well, the best example (which I hope you’ll mention) is the private blog report that Shi Zongyuan read straight from harshly critical Internet comments as he met with local officials in Weng’an. There’s a photo of him holding a piece of paper that looks like its printed straight from Internet Explorer.
The tone of (surprisingly open) online discussions at Xinhua and Strong Country was very, very negative. Probably running 99%-1% in favor of those who didn’t remotely believe the “government version” (in actuality the county verson).
Coming these two facts, I’d assume this might have pushed the government in being harsher towards the county government.
Okay, I got that out of my system. This is probably the last post I’ll write on the Weng’an topic.