Wednesday 31 October 2012


This is the second in a six-part series looking at the history of Chinese cinema. Each post will focus on one of the "six generations" which compromise the chronological basis for most histories of Chinese filmmaking - here is the first part.


In 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria in Northern China. The same year, the Kuomintang government implemented new censorship measures to assert government control over the ideological content of Chinese films.

Article 2 of the Film Inspection Law banned the screening of films that were deemed to "impugn the dignity of the Chinese race", "damage the culture of virtue and public order", "advocate superstitions" or otherwise violate KMT ideology.

Throughout the 'Nanjing Decade' (1928-37) Chiang Kai-shek sought to appease the Japanese forces, and filmmakers who tried to rouse audiences against the Japanese could find themselves at the sharp end of government censors.

Yet, by suppressing "superstitious" films, the KMT helped those who were trying to move Chinese cinema in a realist direction, away from kung fu films, ghost stories and recreations of traditional opera. This contributed to the first "golden age" of social realist cinema in China - the so-called New Cinema Movement of the 1930s - which is chronicled in Laikwan Pang's 'Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937'.

In September 1931, the newly-founded Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists' Association drew up a list of their major goals, including ones that pertained to film - what Pang calls "the first left-wing collective strategic involvement in cinema":

"Besides writing film scripts for, and sending our members to different film companies, we should also prepare funding to produce our own films. At the moment, in order to escape government censorship, our scripts should continue to reveal (rather than criticise directly) social problems... We should also organise a Film Research Group, bringing in progressive performers and technicians in order to establish a solid ground for the forthcoming Chinese left-wing cinema movement."

Ever since the right-wing of the KMT had tried to exterminate the Communists in Shanghai in 1927, the CPC had retreated from urban centres into the countryside, remote from the rapidly changing heartlands of Chinese film. Recent scholarship therefore suggests that the connections between the left-wing cinema movement and the CPC were more tenuous than was previously supposed.

One of the factors behind the movement was the crisis that befell Chinese cinema at the beginning of the start of the 1930s - the late 1920s had seen a rapid growth in the number of studios and move theatres, because it was seen as a commercial growth centre and a safe bet for investors.

But the occupation of Manchuria and political unrest damaged the Chinese economy and dampened audience demand. Given the high start-up costs in the industry, struggling producers felt they had no choice but to adapt to changing public tastes, and to seek out new audiences.

In the illustrious output of the New Cinema Movement, these two imperatives were combined - social realist films catered to the more sober concerns of moviegoers, whilst bold technical and aesthetic innovations were pursued in order to elevate the status of cinema as a "serious" artform in its own right.

As was mentioned in the previous post, traditional aesthetic assumptions shaped the reception of film as a medium in China. In particular, early films were criticised for seeming to combine the worst in Chinese opera and painting: classical Chinese paintings were viewed on scrolls, a section at a time, to give the impression that the viewer was moving through a continuous landscape. In this sense, China had "moving" pictures before the advent of film (a subject explored in more detail here).


But films based on traditional Chinese stories and plays were inevitably discrete, lapsing forward through time between acts and scenes. Early Chinese film critics tended to judge them as if they were paintings, and disapproved of the lack of continuity.

The left-wing filmmakers who wanted to use cinema to highlight pressing social issues - organised crime in the cities, governmental and warlord corruption, poverty, gender inequality - saw in the groundbreaking work of Soviet cinema the means to address cultural conservatism in film criticism and to get inside the heads of the masses and move them to act together: montage.

Two key groups were formed in the early 1930s - the Film Critics Group and the CPC-organised Film Group. The latter was a short-lived grouping of the remnants of the CPC's urban agents and cultural insiders - Pang argues it was "more a reaction to, or a product of, the left-wing film movement, than it was its cause" -  that operated underground, aiming to infiltrate cinema with Party propaganda.

By contrast, the Film Critics Group intended to create a public forum for debating cinematic theory and technique. It was active into the 1940s, importing Soviet films such as the works of Eisenstein, and translating theoretical works including Film Technique and Film Acting by V. I. Pudovkin.

Here is a picture of its author.

Pudovkin was one of the pioneers of using montage in Bolshevik cinema to stir his audience and instill proletarian virtues in them. He once wrote: "The foundation of film art is editing." As in China, this technique had emerged in response to a more prosaic concern - namely, the shortage of film available in Russia.

Yet it facilitated extraordinary bursts of imagination and creativity. Here is how Jonathan Jones describes Pudovkin's method in his obituary:

"Pudovkin theorised that actors on screen do not really act; it's their context that moves us - something established, through montage, by their relationship to exterior objects... 'The Mother' (1926) is full of shots of the Russian landscape. At first these seem almost random; only in the final march on the prison does the full power of the imagery hit home. As the mother and comrades march towards the prison [to free her son, imprisoned for anti-Tsarist activities], it's spring and the snow is starting to melt. Cut to an immense frozen river, its surface cracking, splitting. This is a piece of Marxist poetry. The river is history, flowing unstoppably, breaking out of the carapace of ice under which it has been trapped through the long tsarist winter. It's awesome, scary."

Here is that final scene from 'The Mother' (the full film is available here):

In 1928, Pudovkin co-authored, with Eisenstein, 'A Statement on Sound'. As a theoretical response to the inauguration of "talkies" in Hollywood, it strikes a cautiously optimistic note; sound is a positive development, as long as it is used to heighten, rather than cut against, the montage.

Sound, "exactly corresponding with the movement on the screen", interrupts the flow of the montage because the camera must linger:

"To use sound in this way will destroy the culture of montage, for every adhesion of sound to a visual montage piece increases its inertia as a montage piece, and increases the independence of its meaning...operating in the first place not on the montage pieces, but on their juxtaposition."

However, if it is used in a contrapuntal way, in "distinct nonsychronisation with the visual images", then it promises to solve the problem of subtitles acting as a drag on the flow of images.

For all their theoretical sophistication, these Russian filmmakers were technologically behind developments in Hollywood - but the Chinese were even further behind. Pang writes:

"Only after the commercial movie industry had become stable and had succeeded in attracting a larger number of spectators did other interested parties discover the power of cinema and begin to experiment with the medium. In Europe and the Soviet Union, this change took place in the 1910s and 1920s, and many artists and intellectuals began to participate in the making of and the theorisation about cinema; in China, the left-wing progressive cinematic movement did not take place until the 1930s."

Twin Sisters (1933)
Still, the 1930s isn't regarded as the first "golden age" of Chinese cinema for nothing. When Japan bombed Shanghai in 1932 (destroying, amongst other things, seven movie theatres and eight studios), the tone of the New Cinema Movement became increasingly critical of the KMT's weakness, though they still had to attack proxies to circumvent the censors.

An example of this is Zheng Zhengqiu's Twin Sisters (1933), which is ostensibly a critique of injustice under warlord rule, not KMT rule, but would have rung true with its disillusioned audience. Even so, according to Pang, Zheng fell on the liberal/moderate end of the reformist cinema scale: his films end with "reconciliation, not confrontation."

In response to the leftists, the modernist writer Liu Na'ou published an article in April 1933 called 'Questions about the depth of expression in Chinese cinema', which triggered a highly-publicised "Hard-cinema" vs. "Soft-cinema" debate. Liu criticised early leftist films for being overly functional and utilitarian, for saturating the characters and story with political messages. He argued, by analogy, that film was a soft element, and hence better suited to "soft" subjects, principally arts and entertainment.

But the industry's bias for sentimentality only served to provoke the left into new ways of marketing their message; of making it accessible, moving and entertaining at the same time.

In 1934 two seminal pictures in Chinese film history were released: The Goddess and New Woman. Both films featured Ruan Lingyu in their lead role, and she quickly became the most internationally famous Chinese film actress.

Here is The Goddess in its entirety. Ruan gives an mesmerising performance as an urban single mother forced into prostitution and sucked into the mafia underworld - it's a wonderful example of how much of an inner life can be communicated through silent film.


After Chiang Kai-shek officially declared war against Japan - the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) - filmmakers had greater freedom to use their medium to issue stirring patriotic appeals; not merely exposing Japanese oppression, but inciting audiences to rise against it, and heroising those who did.

It must be remembered that the mercurial political dynamics of this whole period make entirely clean-cut chronological categories redundant - for example, the patriotic Children of Troubled Times was released in 1935, and first featured the song that would become the national anthem of the PRC - 'March of the Volunteers':

When the KMT government retreated to the inland city of Chongqing, much of the film industry went with it. Only Shanghai remained, surrounded on all sides by the Japanese forces - hence this period is referred to as the "Solitary Island" period in Chinese film.

No history of second-generation Chinese cinema would be complete without Yuan Muzhi's Street Angel (1937), which falls on the other end of the spectrum from the more moderate morality plays of directors such as Zheng (Yuan actually joined the CPC in 1940, though his sympathies are abundantly clear throughout the film).

Stylistically, we can observe from the credits sequence alone the progress Chinese film has made over the previous decade: a cacophony of effervescent neon lighting, rapid cuts of the summits of tall city buildings, and even slumbering lions (reminiscent of the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin).

Symbolising the polarisation of social classes, the camera pans vertically downwards from the top of a skyscraper to the street-level, and then seems to continue, to subterranean depths - we are dealing with the social world of the urban underclass, whom one of the tragic characters describes at the end as "ants". 

We can see a kaleidoscope of international modernist influences at play in the jaunty angles of the crowds, the symbolic cut-aways (e.g. to explosions in a battlefield when a breeze through a window disrupts a domestic scene), and hallmarks of German Expressionism in the rapid dissolves and high-contrast lighting.

"It has even been described as a Chinese forerunner of Italian neo-realism. A canonised leftist film, it combines Hollywood and Soviet film techniques with traditional Chinese narrative arts."

It is a tragicomic tale of people denied medical care and legal justice because of their financial circumstances - and who ultimately find that they cannot defeat the system.
"Are you dejected? No! - we have to straight up." That is the response of Ruan Lingyu's long-suffering toymaker to her barrage of misfortune in Sun Yu's Little Toys (1933).

Ruan plays a widow who moved to the city to avoid skirmishes between rival warlords, but she ends up losing her children too, and faces impoverishment because her traditional craft production can't compete with the flashier foreign imports. Yet, as indicated, it has a more defiantly upbeat ending than Street Angel - the audience discovers her son survived, and is doing well, and Ruan's character does not abandon hope.

And yet it was this sort of against-the-odds optimism that made the Communists deeply suspicious of Sun's output - they considered it a gloss on problems that had societal roots. Films like Little Toys were thus condemned as romantic poetry that failed to directly criticise the KMT.

Unfortunately, Ruan's life story did not have a happy ending either: after being hounded by the press for a string of failed relationships, she committed suicide aged only 24. Thousands of her fans lined the streets for her funeral and she became immortalised as an icon of youth. (In 1992 she was portrayed by Maggie Cheung in a film about her life, Centre Stage, which is available here.)

One of the most important films of the late 1940s is The Spring River Flows East (1947), an epic 190mins two-part melodrama made by the renowned director Cai Chusheng and the documentarian Zheng Junli.

Cai Chusheng (1906-68)

Here we find a married couple torn apart by the Sino-Japanese war, following widely diverging trajectories. The film is notably critical of those who collaborated with the Japanese and try to avoid facing justice in peacetime (as represented by the collaborationist factory manager who escapes imprisonment through having political connections) - therefore, whilst not directly attacking the KMT, the film leaves its themes open to this wider interpretation.

The last second generation director I want to draw attenton to is Fei Mu.

Fei Mu (1906-51)

One of the last films to be released before the founding of the PRC, Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948) came first in 2005 in a vote by Hong Kong critics for the 100 greatest Chinese films.

Coming after the New Cinema and 'Solitary Island' periods, the film typical of a short-lived batch of so-called "heart films." It is focussed squarely on intimate personal relationships, with civil war politics relegated to the background. An unhappily married couple who have lost a fortune during the war wander around their delapidated family compound, avoiding each other. Spring is coming, but the husband is chilled by his wife's cold demeanour around him. A visitor arrives, a schoolfriend of the husband who turns out to have had a romance with the wife before the war, before she settled down.

It is differentiated from the earlier leftist films by form as much as content: gone are the swift-cut montages, replaced by lingering tracking shots - including a wonderful shot that passes through a hole in the courtyard wall to find the solitary husband; characters stare in different directions out of frame, but the viewer rarely gets to know what they are seeing. These are the hallmarks of neo-realism.

To reiterate the significance of China's second generation filmmakers, here is a quote from Alison W. Conner's article, 'Movie Justice: The Legal System in Pre-1949 China':

"These early films are of special interest because, unlike almost all post-1949 mainland Chinese movies, they were produced by commercial, not government-controlled, studios. Despite increased censorship and regulation after 1931, China's first and second generation of movie producers and screenwriters remained remarkably free... [National film censorship] committee members often defied Nationalist party directives and almost all movies were produced by commercial studios... Factional struggles within the government also reduced the effectiveness of their control."

Or, to quote from another essay:

"By the end of the 1940s, film was no longer seen as pure visual entertainment, nor as mere moral preaching; it was an art form in which the artists and the audience alike confronted and negotiated pressing social issues and imagined various solutions, be they revolutionary or conservative. It is this relatively free space of imagination and contestation that would be increasingly narrowed and eventually erased in the subsequent decades."

Only a few years later, Spring in a Small Town was banned by the new regime - the Communists had very different ideas about what purposes cinema should serve.

Friday 19 October 2012


'Sightings': the term used by Prof. Jonathan D. Spence to describe formative encounters of China by Westerners.

In the most obvious sense, 2011 saw the reputation of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch hit a new low. At the height of the News International phone-hacking scandal, Murdoch felt compelled to put in an uncharacteristically humble and nigh on deferential appearance before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.

It was also the year of the 'Arab Spring', much of the media coverage of which seemed to validate a recurring theme in Murdoch's proclaimed ideology - the notion that leaps forward in communications technologies have been a, if not the, driving force behind a new era of political protest which is striking a blow against the unchecked power of states (almost) everywhere.

One focus of citizen unrest that went largely untouched by the spirit of Tahrir Square was in China, where government paranoia about an imminent "Jasmine Revolution" proved to be unfounded. Although the tech-savvy can find ways around it, the Communist Party's so-called 'Great Firewall' seems to have succeeded in diluting the threat that advanced communications technologies tend to pose to claims by states to represent their entire respective nations.

In general, censorship of the media has been massively reduced in recent decades, but not when it comes to politically sensitive issues. As such, routine breaches of the 'Great Firewall' probably do not bother the Beijing leadership all that much - this means they can focus their resources on stemming the free flow of information where it matters to their core political interests (i.e. imported information about contentious events in China's past, online coordination of particular public protests, etc.).

And the satellite television sector in China - especially direct-to-home imports of foreign-originated programmes via satellite - remains heavily regulated (even if central government regulations are enforced to varying degrees by local authorities).

China has not had to open itself up wholesale to foreign broadcasting transnational corporations (TNC) in order to keep pace with global developments in ICT. Events have not unfolded as Murdoch had envisaged them when he first went to China in the 1980s.


The story of Murdoch in China has been documented in Bruce Dover's Rupert's Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife - which I have relied on extensively for writing this post.

In 1984 Rupert Murdoch was interviewed for Fortune. It described Murdoch and his archetypical consumer in these terms:

"Very much for the small business and the small man. [...] This Murdochian little guy is a pragmatist, not a moral or intellectual conservative. He is typically anti-union and pro-market, likes a strong defence and strong leaders, and enjoys seeing the high and mighty taken down a few pegs. He's deeply suspicious of the power of pointy-headed bureaucrats, whether they reside in Washington, Brussels or Beijing."

It is as good a precis of Murdoch's guiding vision of the world as I can think of.
A year later, he visited China for the first time. It was a boom time for entrepreneurial reformers, and he later told dinner party guests that he hadn't met a single communist during his stay - the CPC, he said, was, beneath the ideological wrapping, the world's largest chambers of commerce.

In 1989 he launched Sky TV. Here is an advert that depicts the spirit of the "Murdochian little guy" from another angle.

Shortly after the launch, News Corp was plunged into financial difficulties. Having purchased his British rival to form BSkyB, Murdoch entered into a torrid period of renegotiating the many short-term debts he'd accrued in this and other acquisitions (which included the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's best-selling daily).

Having rebounded from these travails, Murdoch returned to China in April 1993 to get a stake in the profitable magazine market (state-run publications faced budget cutbacks, creating market opportunities to be seized).

But he had his true epiphany inside his hotel room, where he found, to his surprise, that he could watch a five-channel English-language service through a station called STAR TV (Satellite TV for the Asian Region).

This fascinated and perplexed Murdoch because foreign-originated satellite TV was effectively prohibited in China, and STAR TV was being transmitted from Hong Kong. In fact, the government tolerated it in hotels and southern/coastal areas frequented by tourists and foreign businessmen, but they didn't want it to be available to inland provinces.

They had to settle for the state monopoly provider of news and entertainment - CCTV (China Central TV).

Sensing unforetold commercial opportunities just around the corner, Murdoch made a bid for STAR TV almost straight away. At that time, 380m Chinese households owned television sets, which represented a 250% increase over the previous decade - it was nearly three-quarters of the potential satellite TV market in East Asia.

The men who sold Murdoch his 65% share in STAR TV also thought his timing was perfect, but for very different reasons.

Murdoch did this because he had seen something more fundamental behind what was on his hotel room TV screen. What the Beijing leadership regarded as a limited and pragmatic compromise in order to support their policy agenda of "reform and opening-up"- which they believed would deliver economic growth and strengthen their authority - he saw as indicative of cracks in the Party-state model that would only grow wider over time, and topple the status quo in China, as it was already doing so everywhere else.

The driving force was technology, and the need of all governments to keep pace with ever accelerating progress in ICT in order to remain competitive in the global economy. Murdoch believed that, because of complementarities in new communications technologies, governments would be forced to surrender more power and control than they might otherwise wish to. Seen in this light, the CPC's inability to impose top-down control over satellite TV, once they had decided to let it in a little bit, symbolised the course on which they were now set - they would need to give up de facto control over satellite TV in order to benefit from related computer technologies. 

This was by no means seen as a problem particular to China - as John V. Langdale has written in his article, 'East Asian Broadcasting Industries: Global, Regional, and National Perspectives':

"Broadcasting by satellite is challenging the control of governments over their broadcasting industries... Overspill of broadcasting signals from a neighbouring country's communications satellite may pose a greater perceived threat to national sovereignty than those from Western TNCs. The Korean government has complained in the past about the overspills of signals from Japanese domestic satellites."

He said as much in a speech he delivered in September 1993 in London's Whitehall Palace - a speech later described as "probably the costliest ever uttered by an individual."  

"Advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes: Fax machines enable dissidents to bypass state-controlled print media; direct-dial telephone makes it difficult for a state to control interpersonal voice communication; and satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels… the extraordinary living standards produced by free-enterprise capitalism cannot be kept secret."

This was a similar vision of technologically-driven democratisation to that which was held by STAR TV's previous owner, Richard Li.

In the early 1990s Li was the son of Hong Kong's richest billionaire, and STAR TV was his pet project.

Here is how Bruce Dover describes Li's vision for his station:

"He was convinced that the collapse of the former Soviet Union was a sure sign that communism would soon fail everywhere and national borders would dissolve, thereby allowing him to circumvent the government monopolies that controlled TV throughout Asia by beaming programmes directly to viewers... Li's plans envisaged millions of Asians rushing out to sign up to the new satellite service."

But Li had not predicted what actually happened: Chinese viewers, in the hundreds of thousands, pirating the unencrypted signal and redistributing it to neighbours for a profit. In response, he tried to leverage the potentially massive black market audience to attract advertisers, but he couldn't escape the fact that, "there was, in fact, no means of measuring the audience at all. The figures were at best brave assumptions."

For Li's father, Li Ka-Shing, the fact that STAR TV was haemorrhaging profit provided a convenient reason for cutting it loose. Li Snr. had built useful friendships with senior figures in the Party, whose support was crucial in allowing STAR TV to operate inside the PRC at all. On the subject of political patronage and guanxi, Langdale writes: "East Asian governments favour cable, because they can regulate programming content on cable, whereas they are powerless to control foreign-originated satellite television. STAR TV needed to form state-sanctioned alliances to supply programming to national media companies."

In the early 1990s, those same elites now signalled that they wanted him to sever all ties with STAR TV:

"The Beijing leadership, which had given tacit agreement to the launch of the satellite service, felt they'd been betrayed by Richard Li. The young Li, it seems, had indicated in his discussions with authorities, that the satellite footprint would cover just the southern coastal areas of China... When STAR TV commenced broadcasting, the national security services were outraged to learn that the signal covered the entire country, and that anyone with enough money to purchase a cheap receiver dish could capture and redistribute "Spiritually Polluting" content."

Murdoch got a 64% stake when his main rival withdrew from the bidding process, once neither Li would give assurances of remaining involved with STAR TV in the medium-term. Such was the strength of Murdoch's conviction that history was on his side that he didn't feel the need for a local expert to advise him on region-specific matters.

"[Murdoch] built an empire on an ability to peer into the future and see opportunities on the media landscape that his rivals could not - or, if they could, they were too timid to exploit them... He remained convinced that in the same way that he had challenged the status quo in Australia, Britain and the US, his influence, money and charm would enable him to gain access to the living rooms of China."

This wasn't the first time that a foreigner had gone to China with a brisk self-confidence and a belief in the power of a medium to act as a catalyst for liberal democracy there.

Similar rhetoric greeted the arrival of Western newspaper businesses in China in the late nineteenth-century. And I think that the history of that period shows that the reality is a lot messier than the triumphalist picture suggests.


Ernest Major (1841-1908) was a British merchant in Shanghai who went on to become the manager of the Shenbaoguan publishing house. Shenbaoguan made history by using modern letter-press book printing in China on a commercial scale, as documented in Barbara Mittler's intriguing book, A Newspaper for China?: Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai's News Media, 1872-1912.

At first, lithographic techniques had proved more popular than letter-press printing in China, and had facilitated the ubiquity of journals filled with reproduced images of exciting events.

In 1872 Shenbaoguan launched Shenbao, which quickly became the bestselling newspaper in Shanghai, and won a national reputation for being an "independent mouthpiece of the public voice."

Shenbao achieved a significance that went far beyond the limited access of its national distribution network, because of the anomalous political set-up in Shanghai:

"The International Settlement in Shanghai did not fall under Qing jurisdiction. It was governed by the Municipal Council, a body made up of unpaid members elected by the landowning segment of the Shanghai population, responsible neither to the members' respective national consulates or embassies nor to the Chinese government. Therefore, no state entity had a real regulatory impact on the Shanghai press. Paradoxically perhaps, the Shenbao, operating within a public sphere characterised by extremely rigid circumscription, was one of the world's most independent papers at that time."

As Mitler has shown, the proclaimed mission of the men and women behind Shenbao struck a tone not that dissimilar to Murdoch's professed philosophy - to create the effect of "electricity applied to matters of the mind":

"An editorial stated that the main reason for founding the paper was to provide both rich and poor everywhere in China with news and thus to remedy a situation in which only the court was receiving sufficient information."

Theirs was a boldly anti-elitist mission statement, which took aim at the extreme lack of official transparency in China as embodied in the "secret memorial system" which peaked in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty.

They also stood in opposition to a more traditional style of Chinese journalism, as described by Chang-tai Hung in Resistance in Modern China, 1937-45:

"Under the old tradition of "literati discussing politics" (wenren lunzheng), of which Liang Qichao and Huang Yuansheng were two of the best-known practitioners, it had indeed been common practice to intermingle news reporting and commentary. In this, both Liang and Huang closely resembled their counterparts in eighteenth-century Europe, where journalism was very much an adjunct of politics. These men's semiclassical and semicolloquial style, however, was comprehensible only to the literate few."

Here is an illustration from an edition of Shenbao that depicts how they saw their role in society - as two-way telegraph wires mediating between rulers and ruled.

In the past, Chinese journalists were regarded as "kings without crowns" (wumian huangdi) who, through the medium of the Beijing court gazettes (jingbao),  "parroted official policies and used journalism as a mere tool, a stepping stone on the path to officialdom."

But the editors of Shenbao pledged to educate the masses on the state of the world, to use down-to-earth vernacular language - "newly-fashioned prose" (xin wenti) - in place of the flowery, inaccessible language of the educated elite, and to promote national political renewal by providing a platform for public criticism of those in power.

Despite this sometimes confrontational tone, Mittler asserts that the Beijing leadership adopted a generally pragmatic approach to the arrival of the modern press, often moreso than the governing bodies in the Treaty Ports themselves:

"It is important to see that already in the earliest period of Western-style newspapers in China, both the people and the state believed in the power of the press and that the state never faught against it but instead made use of it... [P]ress restrictions actually came more likely from the British than from the Chinese side. It was the British who did not want to allow too much freedom for these publications, fearing difficulties for themselves. The continued inactivity of the Chinese government in formulating a press law, it turns out, was not by chance but by deliberation."

Contrary to Murdoch's variety of technological determinism, the arrival of a new communications technology did not generate a universal and irresistible pressure for representative democracy and the free market. What actually happened was far more strange, but also far more human.

It did help to foster a sense of urgency; that the world was moving ahead and that China, struggling to keep pace with modern times, faced an existential crisis as a nation.

But that very sense of urgency, rather than leading to an uninhibited embrace of modernity, contributed to a habit of looking back into the past for solutions, to default settings and ready-made frameworks. The public intellectuals who, in this manner, appealed to a lost 'Golden Age' managed to reconcile it with their admiration for the modern West by claiming that the roots of what they most admired lay in China's ancient past.

Mittler describes how this process of reasoning worked, in the case of a 1902 editorial:

"Innovations that are acknowledged as imitations of foreign models often trigger the impulse to find an indigenous source... The foreign "tradition" of the free press was matched with elements from an idealised tradition in Chinese thought, a tradition that...was associated with the sage's legitimate withdrawal from political life under a bad ruler and...that [the ruler's] mandate could be withdrawn if the ruler lost popular support by neglecting communications with the people.

"A 1902 editorial makes an even stronger claim. Although "the making of newspapers has been transmitted by Westerners to Chinese lands", the connection between ruler and ruled provided by the newspaper "was not engendered in Western countries" but in China instead... There was a strong tendency to domesticate it for Chinese use and Chinese understanding, for only thus - so it must have appeared to China's newspaper makers - could it be an effective agent of change."

Such was the cultural shock of Western technological superiority that China's first generation of "modern" journalists believed they could only give hope to their countrymen by "discovering" China's historical contribution to the principles underpinning the social application of modern technology.

For instance, while certain of Liang Qichao's statements bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Murdoch's - "Although public opinion arises from many sources, the most powerful among the organs that produces it are newspapers" - he also believed in a strong, paternalist state, which he believed would only be possible if a free press could restore to rulers the self-confidence they had possessed in the past - "In the West, where there is freedom of the press, those who are responsible do not need to fear that anything could be obstructed from them or held back from them."

Ultimately, this scholarly elite lost its monopoly on the "road of speech" (yanlu) as newspapers gave a voice to increasing numbers of professional journalists from a variety of backgrounds. Yet, indirectly, they ensured those voices would bear a striking familiarity, by preserving and reinforcing a model of the conscientious public intellectual based on an archetype that went back to the origins of the Imperial state - the central role of the literati as being to speak truth to power, even publicly challenging the ruler's will, if his will is out of sync with the welfare of the community.

By internalising this belief that they were the literati for a new era, many of the new journalists also perpetuated the deep ambiguity in that old formula - should journalists only provide platforms for "the people" to speak to their leaders directly (e.g. through letters pages) or should the reporters proclaim "the people's" will on their behalf?

"Dowsing the flames of public opinion."
It was an irresolveable ambiguity in the attitude of the press towards the public that was also inseparable from the model of the venerable remonstrator, and throughout the Republican era it limited China's modern press as an agent of change, rather than as a respondent and occasional instrument. On many subjects that Shenbao had pioneered as advocates - "the 'new citizen' (xinmin), bicycles and railways, new ways of birth control and of disaster management, women's education, the abolition of prostitution, and the formation of a parliament" - its editorials took a less sympathetic view of its readers advocating in the streets.

Mittler concludes that:

"The Chinese-language newspaper...became sinified to the point that it was not much different from common literary, scholarly, or even official publications. By employing all these methods, it became trusted, persuasive and attractive... [R]ather than instigating change, the medium was more often instigated to change itself. In most cases...the newspaper usually jumped aboard a bandwagon that was already rolling.

"Rather than changing the Chinese consciousness and creating a new identity, the foreign medium itself changed under the pressure of a strong and already existent Chinese identity. The modifications in the alien medium show the influence of readers on journalists rather than the opposite... If the press had the potential to be powerful, it was only by negation... Newspapers created the context, but they did not provide the text of change and revolution."

It was a professional ethos that was intensified by the Japanese invasion and subsequent civil war. As Chang-tai has documented, the intensely patriotic spirit fostered by these conflicts saw Chinese journalists blurring the boundaries between factual reportage and opinion once more.
"The road to an independent press in modern China was a twisted and painful one. Although young journalists started out by attempting to break the traditional bond between the press and politics and establish their occupation as a respected field, when their country came under attack they realized that they were Chinese first, and journalists second... To remain independent of political interest was in any event almost impossible at this time of national struggle against an invasion and continued strife between the Nationalists and the Communists."


In the 1980s, television occasionally reflected the debate that was raging between conservatives and reformers in the upper echelons of the Party, and there is no better example of this than River Elegy (Heshang).

River Elegy is an iconoclastic and broadly (but by no means unambiguously) pro-Western six-part documentary series that was intended to depict, as one review puts it:

"[T]he essence of Chinese history, to determine why China failed to create a modern industrial civilisation while the West and Japan succeeded, and to show the Chinese the way to further reforms. [...] The filmmakers explicitly use the Yellow River as a metaphor for China's long "feudal" era... [T]he question before China is how to break out of cyclical history."

Often ponderous and densely allegorical, it is still a fascinating cultural artifact of its time. It was only ever broadcast twice on CCTV in 1988, which was made possible by reformist leaders like Zhao Ziyang having allies in the propaganda and censorship bureaus, but it was promptly banned thereafter.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult these days to find subtitled versions online, but I managed to find the first episode with English translation:

After 1989, there was no possibility of the Party tolerating such a programme. Murdoch later claimed that it had not even occurred to him that the Chinese government might feel they were being singled out in his description of "advances in the technology of telecommunications" as an "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere."

But they did - especially the Premier, Li Peng, who had been instrumental in declaring Martial Law and suppressing the Tiananmen Square protests four years earlier (he was incensed by Murdoch's references to fax machines, which were essential to the students' organisation). He described the speech as "a premeditated and calculated threat to Chinese sovereignty."
As Li saw it, China's standing on the world stage would be tarnished by that event for many years, and the critical mistake the Politburo had made was not to have sent in the tanks, but to have allowed in so many foreign TV news networks who then beamed the iconic images around the world. They had been invited to cover Gorbachev's historic visit to China, which coincided with the first protests.

Now, Li told a special Politburo meeting convened to discuss the handover of STAR TV, Murdoch was trying to promote his own anti-Big Government agenda by allowing households across China to watch their government stifling dissent from their living rooms. He personally signed a decree banning the distribution, installation and use of private satellite dishes anywhere in China.
In response, Murdoch embarked on a decade-long diplomatic mission to woo the CPC and get the "landing rights" he so eagerly sought.

It started less than a year after the Banqueting House speech, when he dropped BBC World from STAR TV's four-channel repertoire after the CPC condemned a BBC documentary that had criticised Mao (it was replaced with Mandarin-language movies). As the Public Security Bureau were tasked with confiscating an estimated 500,000 satellite dishes, Murdoch made widely-publicised remarks about the Dalai Lama being "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes."

Murdoch also underwrote web development for the state-owned People's Daily, even though he'd invested $2bn in purchasing STAR TV and it was losing $2m a week. According to Dover, he poured $60m into a venture of President Jiang Zemin's son. And he sold his stake in the South China Morning Post, which was one of the world's most profitable newspapers, but was sometimes scathing in its criticism of the Beijing leadership.

In 1998, he spiked the memoirs of Chris Patten, East and West, which was to be published by News Corp's book subsidiary, HarperCollins, and contained critical remarks on Beijing's attitude towards civil liberties in Hong Kong. He claimed that the book simply wasn't good enough, but the BBC reported that Patten's editor had told Murdoch that he thought it was excellent.

Patten did not disagree with Murdoch's argument about technology and political pluralism; he just accuses him of naivete and hypocrisy:

"As economies grow up and become part of the global economy, they will be subject to pressires that push them in the direction of greater pluralism. Technology, as I have argued, has the same effect - a point memorably made by Rupert Murdoch...subsequently he [Murdoch] reacted unambiguously to objections from Peking by booting the BBC from his satellite channels. Open markets, information technology and modern communications - pace Mr. Murdoch - reinforce a process that occurs as economies mature and develop, shifting from quantity to quality growth."

Here he is at the Leveson Inquiry, discussing the wrangle over publication:

Jonathan Mirsky started as a China correspondent for the Times in 1993, yet, within a few years, he had become deeply disillusioned with the degree of Murdoch's interference in his work. Here is how he describes it in the New York Review of Books:

"It was obvious to all of us: Murdoch was deeply involved in China, and our business and Beijing news pages reflected this... By late 1996, my dispatches were often spiked, and a deskman once said to me down the phone, "I don’t know why you bother." The Times correspondent in Beijing wrote anodyne stories (usually reporting what the official spokesmen had said at their press conferences, or what the English-language official press was saying), and invited the government official who oversaw the foreign press for bowling and drinks."

And Dover writes:

"It is doubtful whether Murdoch would be able to hold both in his hand - a successful Chinese business empire, which requires a certain amount of acquiescence to the wishes of its rulers, and a newspaper which places its journalistic integrity above all else, including its own business interests."

Meanwhile, Murdoch attracted opprobrium from concerned governments elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.

The Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad accused him of acting from political motives, since the business case for his involvement in China seemed to make no sense - not only was he suffering losses there, but the level of deference he exhibited for Beijing was evidently hurting his company's reputation in the U.S., Britain and Australia. STAR TV was only allowed to broadcast in Malaysia by agreeing to censorship by state-sanctioned TV companies; at that time, all foreign-originated satellite TV in Malaysia was subject to a one-hour delay.

But in the early 2000s, if only briefly, it seemed as if Murdoch's efforts had paid off. In 2003 STAR was permitted to sell programming for cable systems in the coastal province of Guangdong.

Then it all went wrong. Murdoch had succeeded in conquering other media landscapes by an aggressive strategy of exploiting legal grey areas and a concurrent charm offensive aimed at politicians and regulators. But in China, such loopholes were not meant to be opportunities, but implicit warnings of politically-sensitive subjects. As Dover writes, Murdoch's attempt to use his Guangdong rights as a launch-pad backfired:

"When the company tried to expand its distribution by the back door, using the remote Qinghai province as a base and exploiting a regulatory loophole to circumvent a ban on domestic cable-television owners carrying foreign broadcasters, the government reacted swiftly. The Chinese propaganda department forced Star TV to close down the operation. The Qinghai fiasco, News Corporation staff estimate, cost Star TV $30m-60m."

Shortly afterwards, News Corp sold its controlling stakes in three of its Chinese TV channels, and China's broadcast regulator banned foreign stations from purchasing domestic channels.

In spite of his failure in China, Murdoch remains firm in the beliefs he outlined twenty years ago. In 2008 he delivered the Boyer Lectures on the theme of 'A Golden Age of Freedom'. He argues that:

"Elitists are almost dismissive of the very words 'middle class' because the fashionable have ersatz contempt for middle class values and taste, yet our country is built on an egalitarian ideal, a sense that we are all middle class and that to be otherwise is to be unacceptably arrogant... By 2025, about 520 million Chinese should reach the upper middle class. These people want the same things we do; good housing, a first-rate education for their children, and so on, and meeting this demand will be the story of our century... When the poor are given access to the global economy they build a better life for their families and a brighter future for their countries. And when they are successful they become something else; middle class."

Here he is being interviewed by Charlie Rose. The most relevant section is about 23 mins in, where he says that the Politburo are more comfortable now that STAR TV is back in Hong Kong hands (but also insists that any obstacles on the path to China's political and economic convergence with the West are only temporary expedients, as the CPC maintains social stability amidst change).

Back when he was still seeking an audience with China's then-premier Zhu Rongji, Murdoch told a publisher's conference in Tokyo:

"China has proved the sceptics, including myself, wrong, by not shunning new information technologies, but embracing them. ...Advances in telecommunications contribute to the "universalization" of cultural interests and lifestyles. However, nations retain their own social and moral values that the media must take into account. China is a distinctive market with distinctive social and moral values that Western companies must learn to abide by."

His words clearly echo the sentiments of Ernest Major and the first generation of China's modern press publishers and journalists - they had adapted the style and the layout of their newspapers to suit Chinese tastes and values, in order that they would catch on more quickly.

It had always been their purpose to change Chinese society: they looked into China's past only to link it to the achievements of Western industrial civilisation in the present, because they feared the Chinese masses would otherwise lapse into a fatalistic acceptance of their plight.

But what they effected was a revival of older notions about the role of the educated literati as the representatives of the masses, a notion that is quasi-democratic at best. And, more or less detached from any grassroots political movements, the new medium often appears as much a brake as a spur to social transformation.

Similarly, Murdoch believed that it would only be a matter of time before China's government would be forced to compromise on censorship of foreign media by the demands of the global economy. His entire "adventure" in China was one enormous gamble that China's rulers also acknowledged this as an inevitability, so that he could recoup his losses with a first-mover advantage when the great opening came - yet because of his narrow and deterministic view of politics, it never seemed to occur to him that his presence in China might actually be helping the regime to postpone fundamental reform.

Phoenix TV logo

That is one possible implication of what Dover says in his last chapter:
"The Beijing leadership, by effectively out-manouevering Murdoch and keeping him at bay for such a period, have bought time for the nation's own media to mature and develop. China's myriad TV broadcasters have evolved, merging, modernising and cloning themselves into powerful, financially strong corporations which will prove no easy pushover for the big Western media companies."

One such Chinese company is Phoenix TV, which is based in Hong Kong. Murdoch purchased a 40% stake in Phoenix (and sold it in 2005), which has allowed it to benefit from access to the capital and expertise of News Corporation.

Phoenix owns rights to distribute its programming via cable on the mainland and it is effectively restricted to hotels, yet it has grown into an influential and populist news channel, ripe for piracy.

One of the secrets of its success is its CEO and founder Liu Changle, who has the credentials to "test the boundaries of possibility in Chinese television" as a former PRC insider. As Langdale remarked in his earlier article: "Some deregulation and privatisation of broadcasting industries has taken place, although groups closely aligned with the state often control privatised firms."

In an article for the Business Spectator, Dover writes:

"The advent of the Murdoch-funded Phoenix Chinese Channel provided an enormous catalyst for change in China’s television industry. Because it was a general entertainment Mandarin-language channel it presented Chinese viewers for the first time a true comparison to the staid, dour programming of the national broadcaster, CCTV. It astounded its audience, which was limited but highly influential, with innovative programming, computer generated graphics and slick presentation skills... It might well have been low brow, populist programming modelled on the success of the Fox cable network in the US, but it proved that Chinese television audience taste was little different from the rest of the Western world."

Summarising the impact of the modern-style press a century earlier, Mittler writes: "The newspaper carried the illusion of power because those at the top and the bottom of society assumed its potency: the reading public believed newspapers represented authority while the authorities presumed that it spoke for the people." 

And, according to Christopher Reed's Gutenberg in Shanghai:

"Western technologies were selectively appropriated by the Chinese rather than unilaterally imposed on them... China's printing industry was not dependent on imported Western materials. It was ultimately successful only when it could rely on domestically produced machines and supplies."

Perhaps the lesson of these two periods is that advocates of far-reaching change can easily fall into the trap of believing that some new technology for communication will buy them time; that if the supporters and opponents of reform could just use the new medium to signal their commitments and their resolve, that a reasonable solution will soon present itself as self-evidently the way forward.

And this solution can then be implemented in an orderly fashion, without the need for violence, or even (perhaps) any mass political action at all.