To block or not to block: do Chinese audiences actually want access to foreign media?

Western media often falsely assume Chinese locals are desperate for news from foreign outlets. shutterstock.com

International reporting on China is dominated by stories of the Chinese government’s propensity to block access to a number of foreign online media outlets, search engines and social media forums.

There are two untested assumptions in these stories. Firstly, that Chinese people are desperate for news and views from outside China. Secondly, that many Chinese would automatically identify with the views expressed in the international media.

Foreign reporting and the Chinese government

Stories like this are bad news for the Chinese government, given that in recent years it has been pulling out all stops to spruce up its international image as an open and transparent society. Nowadays soft power, public diplomacy and Chinese media ‘going out’ are not just policy buzz words, but also translate into concrete political projects costing billions of dollars.

Ironically, however, while stories of media censorship are clearly to China’s disadvantage, the decision to block or restrict access to certain foreign media may actually be driven more by paranoia than by an accurate understanding of the consequences of doing otherwise. If so, is such paranoia really warranted? And is the risky trade-off it involves – maintaining stability domestically but getting bad press overseas – ultimately profitable politically?

What would happen, for example, if domestic audiences in China were allowed to use YouTube, Twitter and Facebook? While the thought may fill the authorities with dread, there is in fact not much evidence to suggest that things would be drastically different from now – apart from the obvious spectacular reconfiguration of these services that the potentially vast Chinese market would likely require.

As a matter of fact, it has been reported recently that Facebook, Twitter and various other ‘sensitive’ sites will soon be accessible within the Free Trade Zone of Shanghai in order to make foreigners ‘feel at home’.

Are the locals really missing out?

While a small percentage of individuals may feel restricted by not having access to these sites, most Chinese locals seem to feel little desire to be exposed to Western information media.

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case. To start, China has developed a profusion of its own media forms, content and practices. These cater to a very wide diversity of audiences, are available across the same range of technological platforms as Western media, and provide a similar volume of choices as media-heavy societies in the West.

Indeed, under the regulatory eye of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, diversity of content is not only desirable but is also – and more importantly – an essential tool in the state’s pursuit of social stability and political legitimacy. A natural consequence of the media fulfilling these multiple roles is that, in most cases, there is something for everyone.

Of course, an important caveat to this diversity argument is that diversity of all kinds is encouraged only so long as it does not challenge the legitimacy of the Party. While ordinary people’s desire to access independent and alternative information is undeniable, particularly when the corruption of senior Chinese political figures is involved, the reality is that the majority of Chinese people seem to feel no urgent need to access political content from foreign sources.

The Chinese have access to their own social networking sites, such as Twitter equivalent, Weibo κύριαsity via Flickr

Like their Western counterparts, they freely use social media to access and share information on matters that are close to their everyday lives – where to eat, what to buy, the latest gossip.

But for these purposes, China’s own leading social networking sites such as renren and douban are more useful than Facebook; Weibo works just as well as Twitter, and the Chinese are more likely to find the videos they want from youku and tudou than from YouTube.

This does not mean that the Chinese lack democratic aspirations, nor that they are parochial in their view of the world. It simply means that people spend more time addressing everyday issues, needs and desires than they spend questioning the fundamentals of the political system they happen to live in.

In this respect, the Chinese are not too different from people anywhere else. So it should not be surprising that they pay more attention to television shows advising how to avoid unsafe food, than they do to issues impinging on China’s prospects for democracy.

A natural and healthy curiosity

Finally, it is important to point out that when there is censorship in domestic news (SARS, Wenzhou train crash, etc.), audiences in China are naturally interested in what the foreign media has to say. But it is somewhat naïve to assume that the Chinese are at always at odds with their own government. As China watchers such as Linda Jacobson have observed, although Chinese audiences have a healthy scepticism towards propaganda on domestic issues, they are usually happy to accept the authorities’ interpretations of international affairs.

Additionally, it must be remembered that decades of nationalist education have borne spectacular results. On a wide range of issues, especially those involving China’s sovereignty and territorial issues, domestic audiences’ nationalist sentiments often trump their desire to read dispassionate and disinterested reporting in the foreign media – imagining, for a moment, that such things exist.

To be sure, for both individuals and society as a whole, restricting citizens’ access to information and limiting their freedom of speech and expression has serious and far-reaching implications, no matter where it happens. Just ask Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. One must never lose sight of this important point.

But this should not obscure the great discrepancy between how Chinese people actually relate to foreign media in real life, and how they are imagined to relate to foreign media – both by foreigners, and by the Chinese authorities themselves.