China's Media Revolution

A display of rings attracts the attention of flag-waving participants at a Beijing walkathon celebrating in advance of the Olympics on April 26, 2008. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Beijing Olympics Series
Co-sponsored by Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations

NEW YORK - The changing role of media in Chinese society was the topic of discussion at the Asia Society panel "China's Media Revolution." The Tibet protests and Sichuan earthquake in spring 2008 and the upcoming Olympics have all served as catalysts for this change, and provided context for this conversation. The panelists addressed the monumental obstacles facing the Chinese government in August as it prepares to host nearly 30,000 domestic and international journalists.

A diverse group of young journalists joined moderator Orville Schell onstage. Austin Ramzy, a Time magazine Beijing correspondent, discussed his recent reporting from the epicenter of May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan. Ramzy noted the stark contrast between the open reporting about the quake and the intense pressure applied to foreign journalists to prevent coverage of the Tibetan protests in March. According to Ramzy, many Chinese are wary that negative stories by foreign journalists will stir up protest ahead of the Games in August.

Sports Illustrated features writer Nicole Nazzaro has been following the Beijing Olympics story since China was awarded the Games in 2001. She argued that the intense pride Chinese people feel about hosting the Olympic Games shouldn't be misconstrued as nationalism. "[People] said things to me like, 'we're so proud of China.' But it didn't feel political at all, it felt very much like they were just so happy to be part of an international community," said Nazzaro. "People said... ‘Will you be back in 2008... Bring your mother, bring your sister, bring your brother, bring them all'!"

China's role in the international community is increasingly felt online, and the role of new media as a platform for civil society was a major theme of the discussion. Access to the Internet and mobile phone technology like Twitter has driven much of China's cutting-edge journalism online. Blogger and Harvard University Nieman Fellow Michael Anti stated, "Bloggers [have] become an extension of free journalism.... Freedom is a kind of addiction. We have a freedom addiction."

The panelists agreed that the current media situation in China shouldn't be compared to the events surrounding the June 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Rather than conflict between civil society groups and the government, the mood leading up to the Games is one of intense patriotism tinged with nationalism.

"'New Patriotism' happened just after the Tibetan and the earthquake [stories]," Anti remarked. "We call them ‘Rally around the flag' because you push even civil society to the authorities' side.... All the Chinese think, ‘OK, China is great'."

Ramzy concurred that the Chinese people stand behind their nation's ability to host a successful Olympics, but also noted that the challenge for the government then becomes not letting that public sentiment develop into out-of-control nationalism.

Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 7 min.)