“Media didn’t change China. China changed media.”
Last Thursday, Shen Hao, the publisher and general manager of one of China’s most popular business publication, 21st Century Business Herald, was detained on allegations of extortion.
It’s not really news that China’s media industry has been plagued by corruption, where extortion in exchange for either glorifying stories or withholding negative stories is common. Since earlier this month, several employees of the publication’s website, 21cbh.com, had been arrested for extorting money from IPO companies by threatening to publish negative news.
But what on the surface seems like just another case of corruption may just as well mark the fall of liberal media in China, or, to be more specific, the fall of the popularity of liberal media among Chinese public.
Being a veteran of the influential Nanfang Media Group, a liberal and reformist media company based in Guangdong, Shen Hao is unquestionably one of the media titans in China. What he wrote and did has inspired a generation of liberal journalists in China. Just weeks before his detention, he wrote about the need to maintain journalistic integrity. “When I first started, Shen was literally ‘the God’ of reporting.” One journalist remembered.
Shen’s detention has sparked fierce debate on Chinese social media. Many media professionals who worked or are working under Nanfang Media Group argued that Shen’s detention is yet another proof of a serious flaw in China’s political system – no rule of law. “There was no notice or whatsoever before the police took him away. So far, among the 10 employees detained, only one was allowed to speak with a lawyer.” Some of his co-workers argued.
Some believed that the detention was political persecution under the disguise of extortion allegations. Some argued that “corruption is the original sin in China” and that “Shen is merely being Chinese.” “I feel lucky that I quit being a journalist a long time ago. Otherwise, being the guy I am who loves money and pretty women, I probably won’t be able to resist all the temptations.” One journalist-once-to-be commented.
Others, mostly outside the media industry, however, think those who justify the extortion case are being hypocrites. “The so-called liberal journalists are using one hand to write about democracy and rule of law, and the other to extort money from Chinese businesses.” One netizen angrily commented.
They argued that Shen, being the publisher and general manager, is very unlikely to be unaware of the systematic exertion in his publication: “Justify Shen’s action is no different from justifying official corruption.”
A bigger titan that falls in this case seems to be China’s liberal media, inspired largely by the Nanfang Media Group – “The people of Nanfang”, that’s how people call them.
For years, China’s public hailed Nanfang and its liberal views. Publications under Nanfang are known for open and sharp critiques of political and social events. Such style has won it millions of fans, but is also what gradually took away its charm in recent years.
10 years ago, when people hear the term “the people of Nanfang”, they thought about a group of daring media reformists with ideals. Now, many people think about a group of blind promoters of “democracy and universal values” who fault the government for everything, just like they consider pro-Beijing newspaper Global Times as a blind pusher of official lines.
This change in public attitude partly proves that government propaganda works – most Chinese do buy the argument that democracy may not be the best solution to China’s problems due to the country’s unique historical and cultural background. It also shows that the Chinese people are looking for a middle ground – they are tired of media that only praise the government, but they don’t like media that only criticize the government either. They want journalists to speak out of reason, not out of political ideology.
Just like how they commented on Shen’s case: “Extortion is extortion. Not every detention is political persecution, just like not every problem is caused by a flawed political system. The spin of honorable individual vs. evil government doesn’t always work.”
We don’t know yet whether the allegations are true or whether Shen will be formally charged. But just as one retired journalist said: “The golden age of liberal media in China is over.”