In the most obvious sense, 2011 saw the reputation of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch hit a new low. At the height of the News International phone-hacking scandal, Murdoch felt compelled to put in an uncharacteristically humble and nigh on deferential appearance before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
It was also the year of the 'Arab Spring', much of the media coverage of which seemed to validate a recurring theme in Murdoch's proclaimed ideology - the notion that leaps forward in communications technologies have been a, if not the, driving force behind a new era of political protest which is striking a blow against the unchecked power of states (almost) everywhere.
One focus of citizen unrest that went largely untouched by the spirit of Tahrir Square was in China, where government paranoia about an imminent "Jasmine Revolution" proved to be unfounded. Although the tech-savvy can find ways around it, the Communist Party's so-called 'Great Firewall' seems to have succeeded in diluting the threat that advanced communications technologies tend to pose to claims by states to represent their entire respective nations.
In general, censorship of the media has been massively reduced in recent decades, but not when it comes to politically sensitive issues. As such, routine breaches of the 'Great Firewall' probably do not bother the Beijing leadership all that much - this means they can focus their resources on stemming the free flow of information where it matters to their core political interests (i.e. imported information about contentious events in China's past, online coordination of particular public protests, etc.).
And the satellite television sector in China - especially direct-to-home imports of foreign-originated programmes via satellite - remains heavily regulated (even if central government regulations are enforced to varying degrees by local authorities).
China has not had to open itself up wholesale to foreign broadcasting transnational corporations (TNC) in order to keep pace with global developments in ICT. Events have not unfolded as Murdoch had envisaged them when he first went to China in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s Li was the son of Hong Kong's richest billionaire, and STAR TV was his pet project.
Here is how Bruce Dover describes Li's vision for his station:
For Li's father, Li Ka-Shing, the fact that STAR TV was haemorrhaging profit provided a convenient reason for cutting it loose. Li Snr. had built useful friendships with senior figures in the Party, whose support was crucial in allowing STAR TV to operate inside the PRC at all. On the subject of political patronage and guanxi, Langdale writes: "East Asian governments favour cable, because they can regulate programming content on cable, whereas they are powerless to control foreign-originated satellite television. STAR TV needed to form state-sanctioned alliances to supply programming to national media companies."
In the early 1990s, those same elites now signalled that they wanted him to sever all ties with STAR TV:
Murdoch got a 64% stake when his main rival withdrew from the bidding process, once neither Li would give assurances of remaining involved with STAR TV in the medium-term. Such was the strength of Murdoch's conviction that history was on his side that he didn't feel the need for a local expert to advise him on region-specific matters.
This wasn't the first time that a foreigner had gone to China with a brisk self-confidence and a belief in the power of a medium to act as a catalyst for liberal democracy there.
Similar rhetoric greeted the arrival of Western newspaper businesses in China in the late nineteenth-century. And I think that the history of that period shows that the reality is a lot messier than the triumphalist picture suggests.
Ernest Major (1841-1908) was a British merchant in Shanghai who went on to become the manager of the Shenbaoguan publishing house. Shenbaoguan made history by using modern letter-press book printing in China on a commercial scale, as documented in Barbara Mittler's intriguing book, A Newspaper for China?: Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912.
At first, lithographic techniques had proved more popular than letter-press printing in China, and had facilitated the ubiquity of journals filled with reproduced images of exciting events.
In 1872 Shenbaoguan launched Shenbao, which quickly became the bestselling newspaper in Shanghai, and won a national reputation for being an "independent mouthpiece of the public voice."
Shenbao achieved a significance that went far beyond the limited access of its national distribution network, because of the anomalous political set-up in Shanghai:
As Mitler has shown, the proclaimed mission of the men and women behind Shenbao struck a tone not that dissimilar to Murdoch's professed philosophy - to create the effect of "electricity applied to matters of the mind":
Theirs was a boldly anti-elitist mission statement, which took aim at the extreme lack of official transparency in China as embodied in the "secret memorial system" which peaked in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty.
They also stood in opposition to a more traditional style of Chinese journalism, as described by Chang-tai Hung in Resistance in Modern China, 1937-45:
Here is an illustration from an edition of Shenbao that depicts how they saw their role in society - as two-way telegraph wires mediating between rulers and ruled.
In the past, Chinese journalists were regarded as "kings without crowns" (wumian huangdi) who, through the medium of the Beijing court gazettes (jingbao), "parroted official policies and used journalism as a mere tool, a stepping stone on the path to officialdom."
But the editors of Shenbao pledged to educate the masses on the state of the world, to use down-to-earth vernacular language - "newly-fashioned prose" (xin wenti) - in place of the flowery, inaccessible language of the educated elite, and to promote national political renewal by providing a platform for public criticism of those in power.
Despite this sometimes confrontational tone, Mittler asserts that the Beijing leadership adopted a generally pragmatic approach to the arrival of the modern press, often moreso than the governing bodies in the Treaty Ports themselves:
Contrary to Murdoch's variety of technological determinism, the arrival of a new communications technology did not generate a universal and irresistible pressure for representative democracy and the free market. What actually happened was far more strange, but also far more human.
It did help to foster a sense of urgency; that the world was moving ahead and that China, struggling to keep pace with modern times, faced an existential crisis as a nation.
Such was the cultural shock of Western technological superiority that China's first generation of "modern" journalists believed they could only give hope to their countrymen by "discovering" China's historical contribution to the principles underpinning the social application of modern technology.
For instance, while certain of Liang Qichao's statements bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Murdoch's - "Although public opinion arises from many sources, the most powerful among the organs that produces it are newspapers" - he also believed in a strong, paternalist state, which he believed would only be possible if a free press could restore to rulers the self-confidence they had possessed in the past - "In the West, where there is freedom of the press, those who are responsible do not need to fear that anything could be obstructed from them or held back from them."
By internalising this belief that they were the literati for a new era, many of the new journalists also perpetuated the deep ambiguity in that old formula - should journalists only provide platforms for "the people" to speak to their leaders directly (e.g. through letters pages) or should the reporters proclaim "the people's" will on their behalf?
|"Dowsing the flames of public opinion."|
Mittler concludes that:
It was a professional ethos that was intensified by the Japanese invasion and subsequent civil war. As Chang-tai has documented, the intensely patriotic spirit fostered by these conflicts saw Chinese journalists blurring the boundaries between factual reportage and opinion once more.
In the 1980s, television occasionally reflected the debate that was raging between conservatives and reformers in the upper echelons of the Party, and there is no better example of this than River Elegy (Heshang).
River Elegy is an iconoclastic and broadly (but by no means unambiguously) pro-Western six-part documentary series that was intended to depict, as one review puts it:
Often ponderous and densely allegorical, it is still a fascinating cultural artifact of its time. It was only ever broadcast twice on CCTV in 1988, which was made possible by reformist leaders like Zhao Ziyang having allies in the propaganda and censorship bureaus, but it was promptly banned thereafter.
This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult these days to find subtitled versions online, but I managed to find the first episode with English translation:
After 1989, there was no possibility of the Party tolerating such a programme. Murdoch later claimed that it had not even occurred to him that the Chinese government might feel they were being singled out in his description of "advances in the technology of telecommunications" as an "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere."
As Li saw it, China's standing on the world stage would be tarnished by that event for many years, and the critical mistake the Politburo had made was not to have sent in the tanks, but to have allowed in so many foreign TV news networks who then beamed the iconic images around the world. They had been invited to cover Gorbachev's historic visit to China, which coincided with the first protests.
In response, Murdoch embarked on a decade-long diplomatic mission to woo the CPC and get the "landing rights" he so eagerly sought.
It started less than a year after the Banqueting House speech, when he dropped BBC World from STAR TV's four-channel repertoire after the CPC condemned a BBC documentary that had criticised Mao (it was replaced with Mandarin-language movies). As the Public Security Bureau were tasked with confiscating an estimated 500,000 satellite dishes, Murdoch made widely-publicised remarks about the Dalai Lama being "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes."
Murdoch also underwrote web development for the state-owned People's Daily, even though he'd invested $2bn in purchasing STAR TV and it was losing $2m a week. According to Dover, he poured $60m into a venture of President Jiang Zemin's son. And he sold his stake in the South China Morning Post, which was one of the world's most profitable newspapers, but was sometimes scathing in its criticism of the Beijing leadership.
the BBC reported that Patten's editor had told Murdoch that he thought it was excellent.
Patten did not disagree with Murdoch's argument about technology and political pluralism; he just accuses him of naivete and hypocrisy:
Here he is at the Leveson Inquiry, discussing the wrangle over publication:
Jonathan Mirsky started as a China correspondent for the Times in 1993, yet, within a few years, he had become deeply disillusioned with the degree of Murdoch's interference in his work. Here is how he describes it in the New York Review of Books:
Meanwhile, Murdoch attracted opprobrium from concerned governments elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.
The Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad accused him of acting from political motives, since the business case for his involvement in China seemed to make no sense - not only was he suffering losses there, but the level of deference he exhibited for Beijing was evidently hurting his company's reputation in the U.S., Britain and Australia. STAR TV was only allowed to broadcast in Malaysia by agreeing to censorship by state-sanctioned TV companies; at that time, all foreign-originated satellite TV in Malaysia was subject to a one-hour delay.
But in the early 2000s, if only briefly, it seemed as if Murdoch's efforts had paid off. In 2003 STAR was permitted to sell programming for cable systems in the coastal province of Guangdong.
Shortly afterwards, News Corp sold its controlling stakes in three of its Chinese TV channels, and China's broadcast regulator banned foreign stations from purchasing domestic channels.
In spite of his failure in China, Murdoch remains firm in the beliefs he outlined twenty years ago. In 2008 he delivered the Boyer Lectures on the theme of 'A Golden Age of Freedom'. He argues that:
Here he is being interviewed by Charlie Rose. The most relevant section is about 23 mins in, where he says that the Politburo are more comfortable now that STAR TV is back in Hong Kong hands (but also insists that any obstacles on the path to China's political and economic convergence with the West are only temporary expedients, as the CPC maintains social stability amidst change).
Back when he was still seeking an audience with China's then-premier Zhu Rongji, Murdoch told a publisher's conference in Tokyo:
His words clearly echo the sentiments of Ernest Major and the first generation of China's modern press publishers and journalists - they had adapted the style and the layout of their newspapers to suit Chinese tastes and values, in order that they would catch on more quickly.
But what they effected was a revival of older notions about the role of the educated literati as the representatives of the masses, a notion that is quasi-democratic at best. And, more or less detached from any grassroots political movements, the new medium often appears as much a brake as a spur to social transformation.
Similarly, Murdoch believed that it would only be a matter of time before China's government would be forced to compromise on censorship of foreign media by the demands of the global economy. His entire "adventure" in China was one enormous gamble that China's rulers also acknowledged this as an inevitability, so that he could recoup his losses with a first-mover advantage when the great opening came - yet because of his narrow and deterministic view of politics, it never seemed to occur to him that his presence in China might actually be helping the regime to postpone fundamental reform.
|Phoenix TV logo|
One such Chinese company is Phoenix TV, which is based in Hong Kong. Murdoch purchased a 40% stake in Phoenix (and sold it in 2005), which has allowed it to benefit from access to the capital and expertise of News Corporation.
Phoenix owns rights to distribute its programming via cable on the mainland and it is effectively restricted to hotels, yet it has grown into an influential and populist news channel, ripe for piracy.
In an article for the Business Spectator, Dover writes:
Perhaps the lesson of these two periods is that advocates of far-reaching change can easily fall into the trap of believing that some new technology for communication will buy them time; that if the supporters and opponents of reform could just use the new medium to signal their commitments and their resolve, that a reasonable solution will soon present itself as self-evidently the way forward.
And this solution can then be implemented in an orderly fashion, without the need for violence, or even (perhaps) any mass political action at all.