A commercial power play or another blow to press freedom?
On Sunday, China's official news agency Xinhua issued a new set of directives on the distribution of foreign news in China that reinforces its traditional role as gatekeeper and propaganda arm. That role includes filtering news and pictures from international news agencies, which are forbidden from selling their content direct to Chinese media outlets. Foreign news reports that "undermine national unity" or disrupt "economic and social order," among other catch-all categories, will not be distributed.
The move comes as the country's official media begin to feel the heat from globalization, a development that so far has seen China among its chief financial beneficiaries. But growing competition from international news and media services boosts fears in Beijing that the government could lose control – and the state media lose out.
The Xinhua directives on news distribution include penalties for outlets that use unauthorized foreign news, as well as the power to suspend services from foreign agencies selling content directly to Chinese media.
What this means for China's over 2,000 newspapers and thousands of magazines and other publications is unclear. Many already rely on Xinhua, founded in 1931 as the Red China News Agency, for much of their political content, and take a lead from its line on sensitive topics, such as natural disasters or events in Taiwan. Xinhua has long insisted on its monopoly on official news, even as the rise of new-media outlets has weakened its grip on public debate, for example by translating foreign reports.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman denied Tuesday that the new rules were restrictive. "This law is meant to organize the distribution of foreign news in China," Qin Gang told a briefing, according to Bloomberg. "It is meant to protect the interests of Chinese citizens and foreign news agencies."
Media-freedom advocates say the directives chill the climate for frank reporting in China and contradict assurances from Beijing of looser controls ahead of the 2008 Olympic games. A European Union official told reporters after a summit with Asian leaders held in Finland that the measures were a "very negative development." In a statement, Reporters Without Borders said: "Xinhua is establishing itself as a predator of both free enterprise and freedom of information."
The reference to free enterprise, which has replaced communism as China's economic driver, is telling. In many ways, say analysts, Xinhua is simply doing what any flailing incumbent tries to do in a tough market: put one over its rivals. It may fear that Chinese media executives would prefer to deal direct with foreign-news agencies, leaving it out in the cold, and wants to protect a monopoly.
Most lucrative of all is China's booming financial-services industry, which has an increasing appetite for real-time global news and data. Since 1996, companies in China have been allowed to buy dedicated terminals from Bloomberg and other financial news providers, bypassing Xinhua, which runs its own financial-news service. This right may now be in jeopardy.
Critics say this points up the conflict of interests between Xinhua as state regulator and content provider.
"Economically, Xinhua will benefit from these rules. Politically, it's also a very efficient way to control (the media), as Xinhua will only send out what it sees fit," says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at Berkeley University. "China is more connected to the world and part of the global economy, but in the media, there's more and more government control."
In recent months, China has provided plenty of ammunition for critics. Two prominent local reporters for foreign media organizations were sentenced to jail terms last month in secret trials that sent a chilling message to independent-minded journalists. Another cause for concern: a draft law on news reporting on deadly disasters, such as mining accidents, that would fine errant news outlets.
Government officials have said their aim is to prevent distorted reporting that could undermine the "harmonious society" that is the current buzzword of the communist party leadership. "The government wants to see the commercialization of the media, but it has concerns about the spread of 'fake news,'" says Dong Guanpeng, associate dean of journalism and communications at Tsinghua University.
Analysts and media insiders say it's an open question as to how effectively Xinhua can corral the flow of general news and information, particularly on international stories where foreign agencies have the edge.
Local TV stations have in recent years begun to air footage from Reuters, Associated Press, and other foreign media companies, in violation of existing rules. In April, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television warned stations they should only run reports from state-run China Central Television.
But that hasn't stopped the practice, said a media-studies professor in Beijing, who declined to be named. "On the one hand, the government wants to control international news reporting more strictly, but on the other, domestic media really want their own international reports because they think this programming will attract an audience," he says.
Even harder to regulate is the Internet, though China runs a sophisticated filtering system that US companies such as Google and Yahoo have been criticized for incorporating into their local products. Chinese news portals freely mix and match stories and pictures from domestic and foreign sources, often without permission, to the frustration of foreign news agencies that are forbidden to sell directly.
Savvy print journalists will continue to access alternative sources of information to balance what the government says, but the new rules will force them to further censor their own copy, argues Mr. Xiao. "For regular readers, the new controls will be effective, they will lower the scope of what they read, especially on international news," he says.