Tea Leaf Nation

China, Grounded

As missing airliner continues to baffle, China confronts the limits of its power.

China's President Xi Jinping can't sleep, its Premier Li Keqiang pines for a "thread of hope," and the country's mainstream media stands flatfooted. As the mystery of Malaysian airliner MH370, which disappeared while bound for Beijing carrying 153 Chinese passengers and 74 others, continues into its tenth day, Chinese authorities are keen to be seeing as doing something -- anything -- to find the missing plane.

But the Chinese government, and the thousands of Chinese journalists watching the story unfold, are running up against geographic, technological, and political realities. The Boeing 777, last reported cruising high above the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam on March 8, may have crashed somewhere in the Indian or Pacific oceans, making it unlikely that the plane's whereabouts will be discovered soon. Beijing knows the cost of appearing impotent when its citizens face danger abroad. When expatriates in violence-wracked Libya faced attacks in February 2011, China's government moved quickly and successfully to evacuate what state media said were more than 35,000 Chinese nationals. By contrast, in 2012 and 2013, several Chinese miners were killed and more than a hundred were arrested in Ghana, angering Internet users, many of whom grumbled that Beijing had done little to help.

Beijing seems determined to avoid that outcome this time, even if it has to labor to maintain the appearance of activity. On March 11, Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily ran an article headlined "Xi Jinping Makes Late-Night Phone Call to Consular Affairs to Inquire About Developments." The article noted that on March 9, Xi had personally dialed the Chinese foreign ministry to "understand the latest developments" and to "urge an all-out search effort." For his part, Li averred in a March 14 article in the same publication that authorities would "never give up" so long as there was "a thread of hope" that the passengers were alive. And a March 16 article in Xinhua, China's largest state-run news agency, insisted that "China is pushing Malaysia to try harder in its search."

Although China's state-controlled media has kicked into high gear -- there's been no dearth of headlines and official tweets about the missing plane -- the grinding sounds are audible. By the admission of some of its practitioners, Chinese press has seemed unable to do more than pass on official accounts of events, some of which Malaysian authorities have later been forced to retract. On March 8, the evening the plane was discovered missing, members of the Chinese media could not even agree whether it was ethically responsible to interview families of the missing passengers, who were gathered in the Lidu hotel in Beijing. State-run China Central Television helplessly wrote on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, that "the Chinese side hopes the Malaysian side raises the degree of transparency of information disclosure." Meanwhile, almost all of the breaking news --- including the fact that data shows the plane was in the air for hours after its last reported position and its flight path veered far off course -- has come via Western sources.

Chinese outlets are asking themselves, and each other, why they haven't been able to do more. In a March 17 opinion piece on the Sina news portal titled "Why Chinese Media Lost the Malaysian Airliner News War," Chinese reporter Xu Jingbo mocked China's state-controlled media for being a "pampered princess" instead of a "hustling street vendor" with the necessary tenacity, technical expertise, and connections to break serious news. Xu wrote that Chinese media neglected the possibility the plane's disappearance was a terrorist act, either because "they couldn't do it" or because "they didn't dare to," as writing about it would have required approval from government authorities.

A slightly more forgiving opinion piece published that same day in respected financial news outlet Caijing argued that Chinese media's hands were tied because of the same power dynamics that likely bedevil Chinese authorities. The article argued that Chinese reporters' ability to garner exclusives rested on with whom "the party in power" -- in this case Malaysia -- selects to share breaking news, which in turn depends on whether the recipient can share that information with the outside world. That question, the article wrote, ultimately traces back to a Catch-22: Chinese media is too closely managed to build experience with deep reportage, but the lack of such experience gives authorities yet another pretext to continue tightly managing it.

Malaysian authorities have certainly given China ample room for angst. The New York Times reported on March 16 that a series of errors, delays, and obfuscations by the Malaysian government and military has hampered the search process. Chinese social media, which provides the best available public indicator of citizen sentiment, has not shown a proclivity to forgive. An online short comic series shared over 50,000 times on Weibo depicts a haggard boss (China) defenestrating a lazy employee (Malaysia) after he gives lackadaisical answers at a meeting about MH370 also attended by well-prepped Vietnamese and U.S. avatars. (In an introduction, the artist calls the Malaysians a "pig troupe.") A phrase combining the character for Malaysia with a popular Internet curse word became a Weibo hashtag and been used more than 400,000 times.

But ire at Malaysia won't quell the discontent also brewing against China's own, hopelessly compromised public voices. In his March 17 article, Xu questioned why Chinese media is only parroting government quotes while "chasing behind the asses" of major U.S. and U.K. outlets like CNN, Reuters, and The New York Times. One widely circulated Weibo quote complained that rather than doing its own legwork, Chinese media has "re-tweeted a week's worth of news." China certainly harbors ambitions to bestride the globe. But the deeply vexing case of the missing 777 helps illuminate how far it still has to go.

Bethany Allen and Xiaoran Zhang contributed reporting.

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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."

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