Mei Yan, a former journalist and media executive, talks about how censorship shapes the news in China and how the media has changed since her father served as Mao’s propaganda chief.
Mei Yan has witnessed the changes to China’s media landscape as an insider and an outsider. Her father, Mei Yi, served as Mao Zedong’s propaganda chief and was responsible for making sure that Mao’s pronouncements were heard throughout the country.
Mei Yan herself became a journalist and executive at CNN, News Corp., and Viacom, where she was the managing director of MTV Networks Greater China and chief representative of Viacom Asia.
Despite ongoing censorship in Chinese media today, Mei Yan points to the positive changes she’s seen in China’s media sector—particularly China’s Internet-savvy readers, social media’s effects on transparency, and a new breed of Chinese journalists who view themselves as voices for the public.
Now a senior partner at Brunswick, a global business communications firm, Mei Yan draws on her media and management experience in her role advising Chinese and multinational companies on strategic communications issues. She answered our questions by email about the changes in China’s media landscape, censorship, the Chinese government’s soft power efforts, and Chinese companies and media outlets expanding overseas.
You have worked in the United States and China for international media organizations—including ITN, CNN, News Corp., and Viacom—both as a journalist and in management positions, which has given you a unique perspective on the Chinese media. How did you explain the Chinese media to your colleagues at international media outlets?
Mei Yan: Western media and their representatives misunderstand Chinese media. They think of it only as highly censored, very restrictive and rigid. This was certainly true in Mao’s time but China has changed tremendously since then. And along with the profound social change came a change in media. Chinese media today are more open, timelier and more critical than ever. Editorial and analytical capabilities have improved drastically. A new breed of journalists born and raised during the reform period, oftentimes educated in the West, has set new standards. They perceive themselves no longer as “government mouthpieces,” but rather as voices for the public and justice. And certainly social media has become an accelerator for social change—China is no exception to this trend. Instantaneous eye-witness reporting for example is common practice for many Chinese. Nevertheless, propaganda remains a key government priority and the leadership believes that media need to be managed tightly rather than kept on a long leash. Regulation, restrictions, and rules for journalists are here to stay.
How do you explain the Chinese media system, including media censorship, to people outside of China? What do people often misunderstand about the media and news censorship in China?
Mei Yan: The Chinese media system is largely determined by the dichotomy of two key constituents: the government and the people. To understand China’s media system, it is first and foremost important to remember that China is a one-party political system. A major part of the media, namely the state-owned outlets, are highly controlled and censored because they are serving as government mouthpieces to carry the party’s spirit and to communicate their policies. In the end, propaganda is believed to be in the communist party’s very best interest and censorship is a sharp weapon to serve and to protect this interest. And while they clearly have an agenda, the Chinese government suspects Western media to be also politically biased. It is also for this reason that I believe international media will continue to struggle to develop a stronger foothold in China and thus become more influential. On the other hand, Chinese readers are extremely Internet-savvy, and social media has already increased the overall transparency in the Chinese media landscape. Their push for less censorship will continue, but in China change will always happen incrementally. Chinese policymakers generally prefer taking small steps forward rather than changing too much at once which they believe would backfire.
What did you learn from your father’s experiences with the Chinese media?
Mei Yan: Certainly my father has shared lots of his experience with me but the media sector has changed a great deal since 60 years ago. Long gone are the revolutionary slogans and the glorified ideology. In his time, no Chinese dared to express their opinions. The risk of being made an outcast as a rightist or a counter-revolutionary was just too high. Today, journalists have the chance to think and write more freely; they have more room to maneuver, albeit less than in the West. Other things have never changed. Each afternoon between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. censors gather to review the 7 p.m. news on CCTV. Newspapers, especially the party papers at the national and provincial level, are under strict control to ensure unified messaging to the people. And while censorship has become subtler and more sophisticated, the invisible censor’s hand still determines which foreign news channel will be blacked out, which foreign reporter is deemed unwelcome, or which domestic news needs to be taken out. Self-censorship is second nature to all Chinese, and especially acute to all people working in government media sectors.
A Daily Beast article described how you tried to convince Chinese censors to allow more freedom in reporting by telling them about cover-ups gone wrong. How did this tactic work? Which stories captured their attention and which did not?
Mei Yan: Generally, I tried to convince them implicitly by sharing my experience in covering breaking news in other countries and letting them make their own comparison. But referring to failed cover-ups certainly helped to make the case. One particularly strong example was the cover-up of SARS when media regulators extensively discussed how a potential catastrophe of this scale could be covered up rather than to use media to inform the public. In the aftermath, the mayor of Beijing at that time, Meng Xuenong, was sacked—a clear message that resonates very well even with strong believers in censorship. A lot has changed since then. Where it was once forbidden to mention natural disasters, they are now reported live and direct. The speed and transparency in assessing the damage and casualty was absolutely unthinkable in the past.
How has the Chinese media landscape changed over the course of your career? How have social changes in China influenced how the media there covers news?
Mei Yan: Generally, I see the changes in China at large and the changes in Chinese media as two sides of one coin. The reform period gave more space to media, which gradually changed the mindset of readers. Through the Internet and social media, ordinary citizens turned into self-made reporters and pushed the boundary for social change further. Overall, in China, as in the United States, the Internet was the single most important disruptor of the media industry over the time of my career. But the disruption in China was even larger both due to the high penetration rate and the early stage of development of other media. Today, Chinese consumers can choose from an unprecedented variety of sources. And the while the news flow was previously purely top-down, i.e. government-driven, the Internet has enabled readers to state their opinions more freely and connect with each other more easily than before.
Chinese state-run news outlets—including the China Daily and CCTV—have been expanding overseas, including right here in Washington. If you sat down with the executives running these organizations, what advice would you give them about operating a media company outside of China?
Mei Yan: The increasing number of state-owned media running overseas bureaus in places like Washington and New York, as well as in Mexico City or Nairobi, is a clear sign of China’s effort to exert soft power. These bureaus are by far not only sourcing international content but are meant to offer the world a China-centered view of current affairs as well. My advice to their leaders was to rely on local journalists as much as possible, pretty much like Al Jazeera did. This certainly comes at the risk of losing employees when they are no longer willing to accept political interference but in my eyes the added credibility carries far greater weight.
What are your thoughts on the Chinese government’s soft power efforts so far? And do you think these efforts affect Chinese companies that set up operations overseas?
Mei Yan: Initially, the Chinese government thought they could use hard power to promote soft power. This approach was doomed to fail. Soft power is something that is within each and every human being. Something that money can’t buy. It takes time to change perceptions. And it took the Chinese government time to understand that. China is still a very young superpower. The last 35 years which marked its comeback to this status is a very short period compared to thousands of years of history. This being said, I don’t think that the soft power has a significant impact on Chinese companies intending to go abroad. On the other hand, these companies can grow China’s soft power if they act accordingly. Brunswick helps lots of Chinese MNCs to bridge the cultural gap they face when expanding overseas.
What are some of the challenges Chinese companies that want to expand overseas face when communicating and executing their expansion plans?
Mei Yan: Unfortunately, many Chinese companies which expand overseas are actually not ready to do so. Expansion often is merely a unilateral wish that is pushed downwards through the ranks and executed insufficiently. In other cases, expansion follows a political marching order but again lacks in research and preparation. Without doing their homework, Chinese companies then go abroad with little knowledge about local cultures and customs. And once they recognize all the landmines it’s almost too late. Naturally, communication plays a key role in this process. Brunswick helps them identify landmines and provides advice for the company to have a more secure and informed start up. Clearly this needs deep knowledge of the target country and the company’s sector. As much as I am a China expert, leveraging Brunswick’s international team of senior advisors with local expertise is a matter of course to us when we advise clients going abroad.
What part of your media experience has been most helpful when advising companies—both multinationals in China and Chinese companies abroad—in your role at Brunswick?
Mei Yan: In my transition from a news reporter to a senior executive of international media organizations operating in China and later to an advisory role, the one thing that never changed was my willingness to roll up my sleeves and jump into the trenches together with my comrades. In other words, as a journalist I have learned on the one hand not to be scared of landmines and to maintain level-headedness and on the other hand, to identify potential danger and to avoid a head-on clash. At the end of the day that was my job. This unbiased approach is essential to being a trusted and senior advisor. My background in journalism also helps me in seeing our clients holistically rather than as an isolated entity.
What Chinese news outlets or websites should foreign executives follow to better understand China? How should foreign executives evaluate the stories they read in the Chinese media?
Mei Yan: By now, foreign executives can choose from a variety of Chinese news outlets. Xinhua, People’s Daily, CCTV, Caijing, Caixin, and South China Morning Post all have English-language websites and generally offer quality content. To understand China, I would recommend reading both state-owned and private outlets, and being always aware of the ownership and the potential agenda of each source. At the same time, they should not only rely on Chinese sources. International media like the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal—despite recent difficulties of some of their correspondents in China—remain vitally important to gain a balanced view of China.