InvestmentsMay 30 2013

Book Review: The Party Line

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It is probably no surprise to hear that the Chinese political machine manipulates the media in China to suit its own ends in an effort to convey its preferred version of events. What is quite fascinating is to learn just how thorough that controls is and how it has interpreted major landmarks in recent Chinese history.

It is a wonder the author, Doug Young, an associate professor of journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, has been able to be so frank about the view from the inside. Perhaps key has been his dual life, living for much of the time in the US and working for Reuters. Still he is able to give us a remarkably vivid insight into the workings of the machine.

The numerous examples given in this book, starting with the Cultural Revolution and running through the visit of President Nixon in 1972, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Sars and the Beijing Olympics, make clear that what matters to the Communist Party is the image that it wants to project, not reporting the actual detail of events. The media is the voice of the party, “regulated” by the Propaganda Ministry.

What is intriguing is not so much the Byzantine bureaucracy that ensures compliance, something we can only imagine, but the subtle ways that the Party’s own self-image has changed. The book leads us to interpret these nuances which can be detected in the way events are reported – or not. The “learning as you go” approach is also apparent such as in the phases of honesty surrounding the Sichuan earthquake when it became expedient to demonstrate official compassion.

It is understandably almost impossible to push back against the tide of proud patriotism, as I discovered in a small way when dispatched to Beijing in the run up to that most choreographed of Olympics to explain how London 2012 would be the “greenest games” ever. But this wish to control comes up against some powerful undercurrents in a modern internet connected age. Perhaps it is the Party’s struggle with Google that is the most telling. There are apparently over 60 laws pertaining to the internet, many firewalls and 20 government departments with oversight of the web, focusing especially on news sites (otherwise known as “foreign propaganda”). This feels very defensive, not the proactive stance of Mao, but the pointer for some titanic struggles to come.