Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua recently announced plans to consolidate four existing state media companies—China Securities Journal, Economic Information Daily, Shanghai Securities News and Xinhua Publishing House—with a fifth soon-to-launch company, creating what is to be called the China Fortune Media Corporation Group.
Some reports have framed the news as relevant on a global scale. Business Insider, for instance, wrote “China wants more control over its story—specifically the story of its economy—being told around the world, in similar fashion to how RT acts to spread Russia’s viewpoint across the globe.”
But while the consolidation is undoubtedly about message control, Jonathan Hassid, an assistant professor at Iowa State, says the move is about domestic communications more than international. And, he added, it’s hardly surprising.
“The Chinese government has been pushing media consolidation for at least the last 15 years,” Hassid—also the author of Pressing Back: The Struggle for Control over China’s Journalists, which investigated journalistic resistance to government demands and censorship in China—explained, “the Chinese government wants to get these smaller players to consolidate because it’s easier to manage content.”
Hassid doesn’t mean “manage” in an administrative sense; content is controlled by the state in order to support and promote the Chinese Communist Party.
In fact, while the trend of consolidation is longstanding, President Xi Jinping has noticeably ramped up media control since taking office. “Since 2013, the Chinese Communist Party has moved to reassert its dominance over the message,” David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project, a website that documents and analyzes the process of media reform in China, wrote last year.
As Bandurski summarized, “Not only has General Secretary Xi Jinping, using the strongest language in decades, re-staked the CCP’s longstanding claim to media control…he has also moved aggressively against influential Weibo users, effectively muzzled the more outspoken commercial press, and placed himself at the helm of a powerful new Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs.”
Just last year, Jinping visited three media companies—Xinhau being one of them—and reiterated their requirement to party loyalty. “All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” he decreed.
Still, while Jinping has been explicit about the role and loyalty required of media, Hassid did add that censorship in China is unusual because it’s not always explicit. And, unlike censorship in the Soviet Union, for instance, it’s not carried out by a central group.
“Most censorship in China is self-censorship,” he said. “People think there’s this big government body that censors things. But it’s much more clever. Reporters involved will get in trouble days, weeks later. No one knows when the axe is going to fall. The rules are so deliberately unclear, most journalists step well back from any sensitive topic.”
Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter at @alyssaoursler.