Monday, July 30, 2007

Lessons from Bogus Journalism

The latest report from Reuters concerning the authenticity of a news report about steamed buns sold by street vendors in China that were actually made from cardboard may provide some useful insights into the underlying nature of the world of work in China today. Consider the lead for the article:

Chinese state television has begun sacking contract staff after a bogus news report about toxic dumplings that drew international alarm and angered propaganda chiefs, newspapers reported on Monday.

Next, let us move to that this actually means in substance:

Propaganda officials are now seeking tighter control on the mammoth, multi-channel national broadcaster by sacking masses of contract and informal staff, according to Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong paper under mainland control.

A staff member told the paper that after the scandal, the ruling Communist Party's propaganda department and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television had demanded that media "carry out resolute self-examination and self-correction".

"CCTV [China Central Television, which ran the bun story] is following the demand and has begun dismissing employees," the employee said. "Those with ability can stay, those that aren't qualified must all be dismissed."

Reflecting its status as an arm of state, CCTV has a limited number of formal staff positions authorized by the government. But as channels and the chase for ratings and advertising revenue have expanded, the broadcaster has taken on many hundreds of contract and informal staff.

"These irregular staff are huge in number -- about as many as there are formal staff," commented the Yangcheng Evening News, a state-run paper in Guangdong province, which also reported the dismissals.

Let us begin with what appears to be official language about "resolute self-examination and self-correction." This strikes me as a significant reminder that, whatever moves China may be making towards the accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of global opportunities, the language of Communist ideology still provides the bedrock of the culture. However, because words can never be more the signifiers, there remains the question of how sound that bedrock is. On the one hand this language could be a reminder of the sort of punitive measures exacted in the days of Mao, which would make it a not-particularly-veiled threat that those measures still prevail and can be invoked again. On the other hand, to continue the geological metaphor, that threat may be as hollow as bedrock that has had all the fluid (water or oil) sucked out of its pore spaces, sitting there just waiting to collapse into a sinkhole. My point is that, while Mao could be absolutely ruthless in making sure that there was no gulf between word and deed, the contemporary pragmatism of today's Chinese leaders no longer appears to exercise such ruthlessness. Even the imposition of capital punishment as a sentence for negligent oversight may have been more a symbol of threat, rather than a warning that such measures would be the norm for future acts.

Then there is the matter of just how "self-correction" is being administered, getting rid of the contract workers. Like just about every business in the industrialized world, CCTV now depends heavily on contract labor. However, while free market businesses engaged contractors as a cost-cutting measure, CCTV does it in response to that government authority that makes an ad hoc determination of the number and types of full-time staff positions that the business can sustain. Putting this another way, while the Los Angeles Times may have to rely on contract reporters because their owners keep requiring them to cut their staff numbers (presumably to satisfy the needs of shareholders), CCTV has traded the problem of satisfying shareholders for the problem of satisfying government bureaucrats who may or may not care about the quality of their "product."

In other words the "story behind the story" is actually about a growing emergence of a major confrontation between Communist ideology and the Chinese media business, which, on the one hand, is supposed to be a vital propaganda arm for the ideology but, on the other hand, is also trying to think of itself as a business. What are the consequences likely to be? The Reuters story closes with one perspective:

But staff were also skeptical about how deep and lasting the cuts would be. One CCTV worker said many dismissed staff were likely to be re-employed because many programs could not be made without them.

This is that question of the soundness of the bedrock. The world the Internet has made is one that does not support hollow gestures very well because it is so good at exposing them for how hollow they really are. If, indeed, the ideological bedrock is no longer strong, then the Chinese leaders will have to find new ways to exercise authority. In the absence of authority recognized as valid, all of China could turn into another Deadwood; and that will bring consequences that none of us will want to face.

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