The Internet's Impact on China's Press

Internet chatrooms have changed the fundamental movement of news in China.

The Internet means different things to different people in different societies. To some, it provides an opportunity to make money; to others, it means freedom from press controls. For still others, the Internet is a public forum in which citizens of a closed society can discuss politics. In the past six years, the Internet has developed rapidly in China, as it has in the rest of the world. This poses new challenges to the country's press system and media policy.

With the flourishing of satellite TV, cable TV and the Internet, a new media environment has taken shape in China.

Official news outlets are being outnumbered by their non-governmental, commercial and overseas counterparts. The Internet is becoming a public medium for people with different ideas and viewpoints.

Multiple Sources of Information

For decades, Chinese media consisted of newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, broadcasting stations and TV stations under the control of propaganda authorities at all levels. Today, besides more than 2,000 newspapers, 900 TV stations and over 90 million cable TV users, there are 242,739 websites. These include news sites, professional information sites, corporate sites, institutional sites and personal homepages. More than 26.5 million Chinese Internet users, operating 10.2 million computers, spend at least one hour a day at web pages. Nearly 63.5% use the Internet to read news. Some 24% of adult users and 40% of young users visit overseas websites, including those based in Taiwan and the United States. These news outlets do not need to be approved by the Communist Party's propaganda departments.

In the past, the government easily controlled and even manipulated popular opinion by limiting the public to only official information source. Watching the "Evening News" (Xinwen Lianbo) on state-run CCTV (China Central Television) had been a national ritual at the family dinner table. Besides daily news coverage, the party and government depended on the program to put across their major propaganda campaigns and political mobilizations. But today, the program is losing audience share dramatically, particularly among young viewers who spend most of their time on the web, watching VCDs and cable TV.

In the days of single-source news, people had no way to verify the information they received. For a long time, the propaganda authorities effectively controlled the flow of information, news sources and information outlets. But in the Internet age, this media system is facing the challenge of news from multiple sources. Members of the public no longer rely on official information sources to form their opinions. Instead, when a big news event happens, people compare, analyze and balance the information they get from different sources. They form their own viewpoints after discounting what they consider biased information.

Control Obstruction

The Internet is developing with unprecedented speed. Its advance in China can be compared with the invention of paper by the Chinese 1,000 years ago. The Internet has brought the country into the age of global communications as well as the global village. Until a few years ago, Chinese authorities controlled the flow of news and information by jamming short-wave radio broadcasts and banning any individual from installing a satellite TV antenna.Anyone who wanted to own a fax machine must register it with the Telecommunications Ministry. Today, the rule about registering fax machines with a local government office is still there. But with the advent of the Internet, the Telecommunications Ministry has found its fax-machine controls outdated. The government strictly controls radio broadcasts through a frequency licensing system.But today people can start a webcast station or directly listen to webcasts via the Internet instead of on air frequencies.

The Internet has technically eliminated the last obstruction to a free flow of information. To stop the circulation of information on the Net is as futile as a child trying to block a bursting Yangtze River dam with his finger. The great wall that has blocked the free flow of news and information is now collapsing as more and more Chinese families gain access to the Internet. In today's China, the most effective way to stanch information flow would be to assign a policeman to every computer in the country.

Media Convergence

Newspapers, radio and TV are converging in the Internet world. How will this convergence and the growing number of Internet users affect traditional Chinese media concepts and official media policy?

Propaganda officials and media policy-makers in China could hardly imagine that mass media would develop at such a fast pace. Only two years ago, when a journalism school graduate chose an occupation, the options were simple: newspaper, magazine, radio or TV. But today, newspapers, radio and TV have become one on the Internet and multimedia platforms. The demarcation lines have disappeared. Readers of the Internet edition of the People's Daily can download audiovisual material. So in this sense, newspapers have entered the broadcast market. If you visit the home page of CCTV, you will find that it provides detailed text news and material for readers. So TV stations have also entered the newspaper market.

Under current policies, Chinese newspapers, TV stations, radio and news agencies must operate separately and under the control of various party and government organizations. The People's Daily, for example, cannot own a radio station, while a news agency, like Xinhua, is not allowed to own a TV station. Under this policy, the country only has one wire service ─ Xinhua. But tens of thousands of news websites are operating like mini-Xinhuas. They post a wide variety of stories, either gathered by their own Internet reporters or based on clippings from Chinese and foreign media (even though the government bans the use of Western wire stories on the web). Popular portals such as,,, and are functioning like quasi-news agencies.
Traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio and television) in China are characterized by the following features:
- Restricted by geographic region;
- Restricted audience numbers;
- Restricted by a licensing system;
- Restricted by the high cost of entering the market;
- Restricted by high delivery costs, as well as the unreliability of newspaper and magazine mailing;
- Restricted to one-way communication in which audiences are completely passive.

But the World Wide Web has brought to China sharply contrasting conditions:

- Unlimited audience numbers;
- No need for licenses to launch electronic publications;
- Low costs to enter the Internet: a computer, a modem and a phone line;
- Not restricted to a single region or country, news and information on the Internet travel to all users worldwide at the same speed;
- The Internet has opened a system of two-way communication ─ in stark contrast with China's longstanding, indoctrination-oriented propaganda system.

For decades, both for political and technological reasons, the Chinese media have never been a forum for public discussion and debate. But the advent of chatrooms via Internet technology has provided the Chinese people with a channel for the free flow of information. Its chief characteristics:

1) People can provide information anonymously;
2) An equal opportunity for participants to speak their minds;
3) Topics for discussion are unlimited and cannot be preset;
4) Internet users are both readers and publishers;
5) An ability to give users what they want, instead of what the government thinks they want;
6) The airing of information that traditional media dare not publish;
7) Censors' inability to keep pace with the online media.

As a result:

- Chatrooms in China have aired ideas and debates that simply aren't accessible through traditional media;
- The reader-interest-based content makes the agenda-setting function more consumer-driven than government-driven;
- People's attitudes are being shaped by information from chatrooms rather than from the official media.

Reconstructing Agenda

For Chinese, the Internet has opened the door to a free flow of information. Internet chatrooms have provided Chinese with an unlimited space to exchange information freely and anonymously. They have been described as dianzi dazibao, or electronic versions of the big-character posters that were the most efficient means of mobilizing public opinion during the Cultural Revolution.

As a popular part of Chinese online media, chatrooms are posing a big threat to the government-controlled press by revising and reconstructing its agenda. Agenda-setting theory holds that the mass media determine what is important by leading newscasts with a particular story or printing it on page one. When news gatekeepers no longer consider an item of importance, they allow it to slip off the public agenda. For decades, China's mass media effectively set agendas for propaganda purposes. But with so many news outlets in the age of globalization, people's media behavior is influenced by the so-called selective processes. People have developed many ways of revising and reconstructing the agenda set by the official press.

For example, the People's Daily launched Strong Nation Forum to give its readers a chance to react to the news and vent their emotions. But most Chinese have used this system not only to discuss the news, but also to post news stories unreported in the official media. Such media behavior has made audiences pay attention to issues ignored by the official press, making hidden agendas transparent.

As a result, the list of issues for discussion and debate in cyberspace are reconstructed topics selected from both the Chinese and the Western media.

During the recent US-China plane-collision incident, our research found how Chinese public opinion is shaped in the Internet age. Our study analyzed all related news reports, editorials and other articles that appeared in the People's Daily between April 2 and April 30.

Chatrooms have changed the fundamental movement of news in China. The official press has always wanted the Chinese people to have the "right" information and perspective. But the authorities are losing the battle to control information and free expression on the Internet. Chinese websites have displayed a liveliness not found in the traditional media. The Internet is changing China, throwing the country open to ideas and debates that simply aren't accessible through traditional media. But in their eagerness to develop the Net, China's top leaders appear willing to tolerate a certain amount of frankness that would otherwise be stamped out. The Internet has become a powerful and popular channel for both the government and ordinary Chinese to hear and to be heard.

Soft Power

If the people of one country does not trust their own national media, they will turn to the international press, including that of the country which is in conflict with theirs. Setting the agenda for another nation through media and the Internet has become a "soft power" in international politics. The global media and foreign media could influence any country's agenda-setting. The more trust the press gains with users, the more effectively it will set agendas. China's official press cannot expect that its chosen topics will become the chief public concerns. In the age of globalization, if the Chinese do not start press reform soon, the Western media will eventually set the public agenda for China.

The people and public opinion are important elements in a society and in a political system. For decades, popular opinion in China has been under the strict control of the party and the government. But today, agendas are being set through the Internet. The Net is transferring the national concerns of the Chinese to a global level. That makes China part of a globalised community, whose agenda has been under the control and manipulation of the global media.

■Li Xiguang
Center for International
Communications Studies,
TsinghuaUniversity, China

(Keynote speech at Asia-Pacific Journalists Meeting, 2001)