Tea Leaf Nation

China's New Media Species, Now Endangered?

'Self-media' pushed the boundaries of censorship -- then came under attack.

Michelle Song, 24, studies international relations at Beijing's prestigious Peking University and lives in a dormitory, so she doesn't watch television regularly and doesn't subscribe to newspapers. But this has not hampered her ability to keep up with the headlines: Like many Chinese, Song uses her smart phone to forage for breaking news. Over the past year, she's increasingly come to rely on a new tool: WeChat, a social messaging app owned by Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings Ltd that was launched in January, 2011. The free download has quickly become a leading news source for many web-savvy Chinese. "It's definitely better than just having traditional media," said Song, who agreed to be quoted only under her English name. Not only is there "more information," but WeChat offers her "more in-depth material and more diverse viewpoints."

WeChat's emergence as a news-sharing tool has much to do with its reputation as a place where people can easily transmit sensitive content that can't be seen elsewhere because of China's tight news and Internet censorship. WeChat has proved to be an ideal environment for so-called "self-media": news feeds on a wide variety of topics that are created, or at least collated by, individuals and small groups with no media organization to fund them -- or censor them. This emerging environment was shaken Thursday by the sudden shutdown of dozens of WeChat news feeds, a move that many interpreted as an attempt to rein in the platform's freewheeling spirit. (A Tencent spokesperson told Foreign Policy that the company was continually working to limit "spam, violent, pornographic and illegal content," even though most of the targeted feeds focused on politics.)

The culling of so many accounts, melodramatically dubbed the "WeChat Massacre" by some Chinese media, was chilling -- but it wasn't fatal. By Friday, one of the blocked feeds, produced by corruption-busting reporter Luo Changping and with a following of 245,000 users, was already up and running again. More than anything, the crackdown and the immediate public outcry that followed -- some netizens posted sobbing emoticons -- underscored just how relevant and influential WeChat's news-sharing function has become, and how hungry Chinese readers are for self-media.

Self-media's reader appeal goes beyond content. The WeChat experience provides a frisson that other platforms lack, a thrill redolent of Prohibition-era speakeasies when would-be drinkers needed to know a code to get in the door. Because WeChat doesn't provide a directory of news feeds, most become popular via word-of-mouth. For users, happening upon quality feeds enforces a feeling that a user is in the know. After following an account, a user gets a welcome message and once-daily updates. Instead of being a disadvantage, this rationing creates a rare bit of anticipation in an on-demand world. 

Arguably the most appealing function is a loophole that effectively allows circumvention of Internet censorship. When Luo wrote on Feb. 22 about the crackdown on personal secretaries linked to former security czar Zhou Yongkang, whose name is a forbidden term online, Luo sent subscribers an audio message introducing the topic without explicitly mentioning Zhou's name. Luo instructed users keen to know more to reply with the keyword "secretary." Readers who responded got an automatic reply containing the article about the corruption investigation, a piece that probably would not have lasted long elsewhere on the Chinese web. 

The sense of intimacy is mutual. Song Zhibiao is an editorial writer for the outspoken Southern Metropolis Daily and he also runs Old News Commentary, a personal WeChat feed that has about 12,000 followers. Just before midnight on March 13, the day that news of the WeChat crackdown broke, Song sent a message to his followers requesting they reply with the keyword sihuo, meaning "Life or Death." That got back a meditation on the push-pull nature of the Chinese Internet and Song's own bleak assessment of what lies ahead. "The future of the Internet is certainly dark, but for a long time it has been creating a false sense of hope," he wrote.

It was a heartfelt post, more personal than the pieces Mr. Song writes for his employer. This is what he likes so much about the medium. "You might have 60,000 readers if you publish through a newspaper, but you're not able to have effective interaction" with them, Song said by telephone from the southern megalopolis of Guangzhou, where he lives. "On WeChat, you might only have 10,000 followers but you have a much stronger connection." In other words, WeChat is "smaller, but it has more value." 

Song also likes that his WeChat readers, unlike the readers of his Paper Tiger blog, which focuses on media analysis, send him cash donations. It's far from enough to quit his day job, he says, but he will occasionally receive payments from fans as high as $80. Most self-media accounts include instructions for how to contribute. Others make money by putting advertisements in their news feeds. The financial incentive has helped spur the growth of new accounts and motivated content producers to attract readers and keep them happy. 

On Friday, Beijing-based dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu posted an essay arguing that with each successive crackdown on Internet content in China over the past 20 years, netizens have not withdrawn, but simply sought out new platforms. "As someone put it jokingly, they were like swarms of locusts in search of an oasis to settle," Mo wrote

Some now imagine the next oasis to be self-media smartphone apps. Xu Danei, a columnist for the Financial Times, recently launched the Xu Danei Tabloid app for iPhone, iPad, and Android. The service costs about $1 per month for a once-a-day feed. Xu said by phone from Beijing that it brought him $4,900 last month. That may explain why when fans noticed Xu's WeChat account among those blocked this week, he appeared to take it in stride. "Show support," he wrote on Weibo. "Download the app. Ha ha."

Getty Images

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.

Getty Images