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Chinese state media walk a tightrope in coverage

Dictators toppled! London burning! United States broke!

On second thought, scratch the exclamation points. Except maybe for the bit about London burning.

So far, 2011 has been a challenging year for the Chinese media on the news front, not to mention the existential one, as they walk a fine line to satisfy both their political masters and an increasingly savvy public with growing access to honest news reporting on the Internet.

Perhaps not since the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has there been as much international news so inherently threatening to the Chinese Communist Party. The strongmen with whom they did business in the Middle East are losing their jobs — and nearly their heads. The U.S. debt crisis threatened more than $1 trillion of China’s overseas investments.

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(The London riots were a happier occasion for the press here. The state media had a good chuckle reporting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to restrict social media after evidence emerged that rioters had used BlackBerrys to communicate.)

In the past, China media followed a simple formula for covering international events: If bad things were happening in richer, developed countries, the story got big play. They especially relished the chance to showcase the messier side of democracy, with large, unflattering photographs whenever legislators in Taiwan or South Korea engaged in fisticuffs.

Anything that threatened Beijing’s diplomatic interests was ignored as much as possible.

This year, the news proved too big to tune out. Not that the state media didn’t try: At the outset, they downplayed the revolt against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, portraying protesters as hooligans and looters and praising Mubarak’s efforts to “maintain stability.”

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Up until 24 hours before Mubarak resigned, the Cairo correspondent of China’s CCTV was declaring on air that CNN and BBC were wrong and that Mubarak would survive.

By the time it was Moammar Kadafi’s turn, notwithstanding China’s economic ties to Libya, CCTV journalists were out in the trenches with the rest of the international press corps witnessing and reporting the regime’s collapse.

“The Chinese press has been transformed in the last few years from a propaganda organ to covering real news. They are adopting the same techniques and standards as the Western press,” said Li Datong, a retired editor of the China Youth Daily’s magazine supplement and ordinarily a vehement critic of the state media.

The Chinese government is making a big investment in its overseas media operations. Whereas American broadcasters are retrenching, CCTV recently opened bureaus in Moscow and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, giving it more than 50 around the world. Both CCTV and the official New China News Agency are expanding English-language operations with the hope of putting Beijing’s spin on the world’s news.

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“It is a huge soft-power push. They’ve got a lot of money and they’re putting it into coverage,” said David Moser, an American academic working in Beijing and a former advisor to CCTV.

Still, the state media ultimately report to the Communist Party, and the intervention of censors is at times embarrassingly apparent. The CCTV reporter in Libya, Shi Kewei, was cut off by an anchor during a live report in mid-August as he talked about Kadafi’s unpopularity.

“In general, the Chinese media’s coverage is better when it is not about China, and it is improving,” said Zhan Jiang, head of the journalism school at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “But you still see problems. You might see some very good objective coverage, and suddenly there is a directive from above and it turns into a one-sided propaganda piece.”

The popular uprisings in the Middle East were particularly unnerving for the Communist Party, which has pointed to the Arab countries to validate the model of one-party rule. Apparently fearing that the Chinese people might be inspired by the scenes from Cairo, censors at one point even blocked Internet searches of the word “Egypt.” (In fact, Internet activists did try to launch sympathy demonstrations under the banner “Jasmine Revolution,” but the effort was quickly stamped out.)

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“The claim that democracy will lead to chaos, turmoil, pain and suffering is one of their bedrock arguments,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at UC Riverside. “They play on that fear.”

Global Times, the newspaper closest to the Communist Party, with a famously nationalistic opinion page, has had a field day with recent events.

“A series of shocking incidents in Western countries, downgrading of U.S. credit rating, deteriorating European sovereign debt crisis, Norway’s gun-shooting tragedy, large-scale street turmoil in the U.K., all show that the West is experiencing a deep systematic crisis under the heavy impact of the international financial crisis,” read an editorial in Friday’s paper. “Defects of the West’s economic and political systems have been fully exposed.”

The catch has been how to scold the United States for its profligate spending (“irresponsible” and “immoral” were among adjectives used by the People’s Daily) without going so far as to make it look as though the Beijing government had squandered the national wealth investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. Much of the coverage revolved around the 5,700 yuan — $893 — owed to each Chinese man, woman and child by the United States.

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“It’s been good for them to have a legitimate issue for which they are taken seriously,” said Robert Kuhn, an American investment banker and author of “How Chinese Leaders Think.” “Then again, they know they can get the blame for investing in lousy assets.”

Moser, the former CCTV advisor, said, “Sometimes the coverage veered toward gloating. ‘This is what you get for being a cowboy, hegemonist.’ There was a certain schadenfreude.

“But at the same time the analysis of American politics was quite sophisticated on the talk shows. It got to the point where even taxi drivers in Beijing were able to discuss the debt crisis intelligently.”

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.


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