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Feb. 11, 2014, 10 a.m.

From Nieman Reports: Weibo and WeChat have brought a degree — a degree — of freedom to Chinese political discourse

“Lacking a free marketplace of ideas, China does not have the ability to renew itself or ensure long-term competitiveness. The prerequisite to creating such a marketplace is to smash the monopoly of information held by the state.”

Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and online. There’s a lot of great reading in there on a variety of subjects, but the primary focus is on the state of journalism in China, with a number of terrific reports from both Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents posted there.

This week, we’ll be sharing excerpts from some of those stories that would be of the most interest to Nieman Lab readers. Here, Luo Changping, a former deputy editor of Caijing Magazine and winner of Transparency International’s Integrity Award in 2013, writes about how platforms like Weibo and WeChat are breaking the government’s information monopoly.

nieman-reports-winter-2014-coverAs the profitability of traditional Chinese media plummets, journalists are increasingly beginning to transform themselves, with the acceptance of bribes for writing positive stories becoming more and more common among news outlets. Social media have displaced print and broadcast to dominate the Chinese news industry. Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and micromessaging service WeChat have brought a degree of freedom of speech and freedom of association, emphatically replacing the stringently regulated traditional media and becoming the main battleground of social discourse.

Sociologist Max Weber defined power as the ability to compel obedience, even against the wills of others. Some may suggest that power is the same as brute force, but this is incorrect; a ruler can achieve complete dominion without violence, simply by controlling the flow of information. The Chinese government’s monopoly on power can be represented by four objects: a gun, money, handcuffs and a pen. The gun and handcuffs show domination by force, while the pen and cash symbolize the rule of information. At times, all four elements may work in combination. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may still be in firm possession of the gun, handcuffs and money, but the Chinese people themselves are increasingly wielding the pen.

Information about the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood — for which Gu Kailai, wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, was convicted, while Bo himself remains under investigation for corruption — emanated entirely from sources other than traditional media. This was an important turning point. As the case of Bo Xilai shows, the gathering, dissemination, collation and analysis of news now takes place through processes completely different from those of traditional media, repeatedly breaching existing limitations on free speech in the process. In a desert of information, it is essential to gather information and professional knowledge through the Internet, piecing together a picture of each sensitive incident like a mosaic.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     Feb. 11, 2014, 10 a.m.
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