Not that long ago, China was a distant world to most Westerners. Even as the developed world went through the revolution of televised news and constant communication, stories from the Middle Kingdom remained hard to find for a Western audience. Conversely, the Chinese knew little of what really happened in the West. The Internet has changed all that.
Now, news moving between China and the West is nearly instantaneous. A sensational story may first appear on a Chinese blog or be featured in a local newspaper, and it soon storms through the nation's social media networks, gets picked up by observers abroad and turns into an international hit.
The Internet is breaking down the lines between local news and global news, pushing Chinese media and Chinese stories into the international limelight -- and all at an astonishing pace.
That effect is providing new challenges, but also new opportunities, for media organizations in both the East and West.
Last Wednesday, the New York Times, which has a history of friction with the Chinese government, announced a decision to create a completely new online Chinese language edition. Other English language news services, such as the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, are already attuned to Chinese readers, previously setting up editions in Chinese.
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The Times chose to base its servers for the China site in the U.S. out of fear of being restrained by government censors. Only a third of the site will be composed of original reporting from China; most of the rest will come from translations of material already created by Times journalists in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Whatever the case, a short suspension of the Times' account on the Sina Weibo microblogging site only a day after already indicated the possibilities of trouble in the days to come. Some of the site's leading articles on Monday were about tensions between Beijing and the Hong Kong population, free speech for computers, a translation of a recent op-ed by Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman and criticism of Apple manufacturing practices in China.
The Times' own Christine Haughney described NYTimes Chinese as intended to draw readers from the country's growing middle class. But advertising on the site included such middle class selections as Cartier luxury watches, menswear from Salvatore Ferragamo and clothing from Bloomingdale's. The site's mantra to attract educated, affluent, global citizens -- (Italics added) -- also speaks to an interest in luxury advertising as much as reporting.
Haughney noted that many Western publishers have been expanding into China, drawn especially by the promise of luxury advertising aimed at the country's growing affluent class.
That makes the New York Times' new development seem much more in keeping with the general trend among Western companies: diving into China in order to seek out new business opportunities while markets at home languish.
The movement works both ways: While Western media expands in China, Chinese media outlets aim at the West. And they do so with the financial might of the Chinese state behind them -- as well as, some say, its political agenda.
Mark Mackinnon, a journalist for Canada's Globe and Mail, bemoaned the simultaneous rise of Chinese state-backed news services as the papers of the West contracted. Mackinnon's major problem -- that state news companies, representing Beijing's views, were outcompeting Western papers now increasingly desperate and relying on the paywall-- seemed to echo the decade-long complaints of U.S. and Western firms in countless other industries.
The concern about whether Chinese reporters and editors follow a strong set of journalistic standards is an important one. After all, though business and economic reporting is now more open than ever in the country, information about politics and inner-party intrigue remains largely opaque and strictly controlled.
When foreign sites latched onto the Bo Xilai scandal two months ago, stories included a wealth of unverified rumors on the disgraced party boss and analysis based on unsubstantiated views and allegations. Sites in China, on the other hand, were closely followed so that critical comments, rumors or new information could be screened and removed by censors.
Foreign news providers, with their tradition of journalistic integrity, will have to balance their predisposition to hunt after provocative stories with the need to thrive in a market where such tradition does not exist. One wonders what the new Chinese New York Times site would have done if the Bo Xilai scandal had broken after its China launch, rather than a few months before.
Some English-language media have already been criticized for how they have handled politically sensitive stories. Wang Xiangwei, the chief editor of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, or SCMP, a widely respected English-language paper in the territory, has received flak from other publications and nongovernmental organizations for downgrading a story about the death of dissident Li Wangyang to a brief.
Speaking to Agence France Presse on Monday, Wang noted that he never intended to downplay that story and try to exercise self-censorship. I totally reject the accusations made against me by the Wall Street Journal Asia saying I act as a censor. That is totally out of line and totally biased, said Wang.
Yet some stories may simply be too juicy to ignore -- and how the Chinese editions of Western media approach them may say a lot about where the relationship will go. A case in point: Later this year, the top members of the Chinese Communist Party will select the nine-member ruling council that will guide the country over the next 10 years. Xi Jinping, widely expected to be the next president replacing incumbent Hu Jintao, is largely an unknown in the West.
Depending on who you ask, that makes it either the most appropriate or inappropriate time to release information about his personal background and to investigate whether his power has helped him secure other advantages, such as monetary gains for himself or his family.
A story from Bloomberg last Friday, which did just the above, landed the company squarely within the sights of censors in China. Its website is now banned for Chinese IInternet users.