Tea Leaf Nation

Sound, Fury, and Hot Air

China’s annual legislative meeting becomes a vapid media circus.

HONG KONG — If a Martian had landed in the Chinese capital of Beijing in early March, he might wrongly conclude that China's fourth estate is an energetic and hard-hitting bunch busy keeping the country's officials on their toes and pulling back the curtain on China's highest legislative power. He would hear plenty of war stories, passed down from year to year, of provincial heads or ministers being cornered in bathrooms or elevators by extra-inquisitive journalists. He would see high-level government officials and representatives harried and exasperated by aggressive camera-and-recorder wielding reporters before the Great Hall of the People, the legislative building on the edge of Tiananmen Square.

The Two Sessions -- the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislative body, and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political consultation body -- drew to a close on March 13. For the past few years, the Two Sessions have been a carnival for reporters in China, especially those employed by China's normally docile state-owned media, who get to flex their journalistic muscles, deck out in their Sunday best (and maybe don a pair of Google Glass), and chase down a high-level minister or two, even if they are operating in an environment ultimately controlled by Communist Party authorities.

This year's Two Sessions were overshadowed by back-to-back tragedies: A knife attack in Kunming that claimed 29 lives and injured more than 140 on March 1, and the March 8 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines airplane that carried 153 Chinese nationals. Both incidents took public attention away from the Two Sessions and refocused the national conversation around public safety and terrorism.

Some representatives of the CPPCC, like Hong Kong kung-fu film star Jackie Chan, ex-NBA player Yao Ming, Nobel laureate Mo Yan, and other assorted performers and television personalities who comprise the CPPCC ranks, are celebrities in their own right, and used to legions of large cameras and pushy reporters. But government officials have had to learn to put on their game faces. At the 2010 Two Sessions, a provincial governor was so aggravated by a reporter's line of questioning that he forcibly grabbed her voice recorder, landing him in the doghouse of public opinion. Li was still promoted by the party two years later, but other officials have been careful to avoid losing their cool.

This year, the party boss of the western region of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, was besieged by dozens of journalists on March 6 after alleged separatists from Xinjiang carried out the terrorist attack in Kunming. Online videos show security guards helping Zhang slip away from rancorous reporters. One Taiwanese newspaper described the scene as a "riot." Zhang wore a smile even when reporters shoved microphones in his face and asked him sensitive questions about ethnic relations in Xinjiang.

Mayor Yuan Baocheng of the southern city Dongguan, the "sex capital of China," was also given the paparazzi treatment when dozens of reporters asked him about central authorities' recent high-profile crackdown on prostitution rings on his turf, and the suspected complicity of local police and government officials in allowing the industry to thrive. Yuan maintained an awkward grin and repeatedly said, "Thank you. You reporters work too hard," but did not answer any of their questions.

So what came of all the Chinese journalists' hard work? Rather insipid stuff. Top stories from the Two Sessions included discussions about the supposedly meager salaries of China's civil servants and the fact that China's top corruption czar, Wang Qishan, admitted to watching soapy Korean miniseries from time to time.

Foreign correspondents have not fared better in this year's Two Sessions. In 2012, a Reuters correspondent asked then-Premier Wen Jiabao about Bo Xilai, the powerful party boss of Chongqing, prompting a surprising answer from Wen that foreshadowed Bo's fall from grace only days later. By contrast, at this year's Two Sessions, foreign journalists complied with a request from the Chinese propaganda department to refrain from asking Prime Minister Li Keqiang about the Kunming attack, tensions in the western region of Tibet, or Zhou Yongkang, China's former security chief who is widely suspected to be under investigation for corruption. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reports that the foreign correspondents were under threat of being "blacklisted" in future events had they stepped out of line.

It's not surprising that the Two Sessions have become mere infotainment, instead of the genuine leadership powwow they purport to be. The NPC, after all, is frequently called a "rubber stamp" legislature, while the CPPCC is known among some as mere "window dressing." It's likely the media spectacle of the Two Sessions will remain just that: plenty of sound and fury for two weeks, ultimately signifying nothing.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Exclusive: Surprising Crackdown on China's Hottest Social Media Platform

WeChat's halcyon days as a media outlet may be numbered.

Welcome to the big leagues, WeChat.

For the past year, the mobile chat app WeChat, or Weixin in Chinese, has been the fresh new face in China's hyperactive social media, stealing millions of members -- not to mention mojo -- from its wounded-but-still-potent archrival, the Twitter-like Sina Weibo. WeChat, which boasts 271 million users, functions primarily as a home for private, friends-only chat groups, but it has also come to host more than two million "public accounts," on which media outlets, business owners, and anyone else wishing to share their views can push out articles to followers once per day. While many WeChat public accounts are affiliated with state-owned media, WeChat has also given rise to "self-media," or media startups comprising independent journalists and editors who have seized the opportunity to build new brand names and reach a new audience. They have done so free of the high-profile censorship crackdowns that have dogged Sina Weibo and its 280 million members -- until now.

On March 13, users visiting some of the highest profile WeChat public accounts -- including individuals like legal scholar Xu Xin, self-media like Consensus Net and Elephant Magazine, and the WeChat presence of one of the accounts affiliated with Caixin, one of China's top finance and political news outlets -- found the accounts had been deleted with no apparent forewarning. Visitors attempting to access those accounts receive a message that the given account "has been repeatedly reported," and upon investigation has been shown to be "in violation of the rules, and all of its functions have been deleted." The message advises users to stop following the accounts.

Wen Yunchao, an outspoken Chinese blogger and media analyst based in New York, says several dozen WeChat accounts have been deleted. He told Foreign Policy that the accounts span subject matter, including "law, history, and culture."

The vast majority of those targeted for deletion are politically liberal. The website of Beijing-based Consensus Net features articles on democracy among other topics. Elephant Magazine's content, still available on other web platforms, includes irreverent articles like one asking why China's top leaders like the late Chairman Mao Zedong and former President Jiang Zemin wore their pants so high. For its part, Caixin is known to harbor liberal DNA and push the envelope of what's considered allowable reporting, although it's skilled at staying on the safe side of authorities' invisible red line. (Not every blocked account stood on the same side of the political spectrum: The WeChat presence of the prominent conservative Maoist website Utopia also got the axe.)

Bloggers now banned from WeChat have taken to Weibo to vent their displeasure. Xu asked, "Which of my articles was sensitive? Which law did I violate? And why didn't I have a chance to answer the charges?" One Beijing-based user who described herself as an e-commerce professional commented that WeChat has "imposed its own law on people who are powerless to resist." Beijing-based reporter Li Hualiang wrote that self-media, until recently such a promising platform, "is an edifice built on sand."

In a statement to Hong Kong-based media group iFeng, a spokesperson for Chinese web giant Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, claimed Tencent took the action "to safeguard the user experience." The statement continued that as a public platform, WeChat "strictly prohibits" what it called "malicious marketing," as well as pornography, violence, and "political rumors." In language redolent of government propaganda, the company averred that it "strikes hard" at such content "as soon as it is discovered." When reached for comment, a Tencent spokesperson stated, "As part of the commitment to providing quality user experience on Weixin in China, we continually review and take measures on suspicious cases of spam, violent, pornographic and illegal content." The spokesperson added, "We also welcome users to report to us online or through our 24-hour hotline."

Although users have rightly complained the deletions came with "absolutely no forewarning," recent domestic media coverage contains what, at least in retrospect, look like omens. On Feb. 23, Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily's website syndicated a story discussing the problem of plagiarism on the WeChat platform. Then on March 10, Sina news portal ran a story bemoaning the proclivity of self-media to spread misinformation, particularly about the Beijing-bound Malaysian airliner that went missing on March 8 with 153 Chinese nationals on board, among others passengers. The article fumed, "apart from still having no information about the flight, what is making families mentally and physically exhausted are the Internet rumors."

Wen said, "It's very possible that this is the first action taken by the small working group on Internet security headed by [Chinese President] Xi Jinping." That group, with a broad portfolio including cybersecurity, Internet culture, and Internet politics, met for the first time on Feb. 27. Wen added that the scale of the crackdown surprised him, making him believe it was done on orders from the Chinese government and was not  a prophylactic action driven by the company. The government "waits for a new medium to gain a certain level of influence and then they crack down," he said.  

In fact, WeChat has never shown itself to be a fan of public accounts, despite the function's popularity. In August 2013, in the name of reducing spam, WeChat collapsed all media accounts into one "subscription folder," meaning that users had to go to a single access point to view them, and limited the number of push notification from such accounts to once a day. Previously, users who subscribed to many public accounts would see notifications of new articles along side by side with updates from friends within their private circles.

Even before this latest move, WeChat has never been free from censorship. Analysis of messages on WeChat has revealed that the platform is closely monitored by censors. From time to time, specific articles are also blocked on WeChat. One self-media account attaches a warning on all its articles that it may later become unviewable because the information it contains is "too fascinating." But a wholesale deletion of public accounts is unheard of. Those enticed by WeChat's latent promise as an outlet for independent media are now wondering whether they had simply enjoyed a false spring.

This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Tencent.

Bethany Allen, Yiqin Fu, and Alexa Olesen contributed reporting.

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