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Marketing Nationalism in China

Explanations abound for the fevered anti-Japanese protests that broke out across China last month. From the Chinese perspective, of course, the blame falls on the Japanese government for its reluctance to apologize for the crimes Japan committed in WW II. But the Chinese media also played an ignominious role, publishing slanted articles on Japan that helped to fan the fire.

Nationalism has been a prominent element in Chinese media in recent years. Strident articles critical of the United States, Japan, and Taiwan appear with increasing frequency and receive ever more prominent placement. Many see the government’s hand behind this trend, but focusing on official influence risks overlooking how market pressures have pushed China’s media in this direction.

Before China began opening its economy in 1978, all newspapers and magazines were “Party newspapers” and “Party magazines.” Media bosses were appointed and controlled by the government. Journalists and editors were, in effect, government officials.

Needless to say, all operating costs were born by the Communist Party and the state, and nobody was much concerned about making money. The main concern was not attracting readers, listeners, and viewers, but avoiding political mistakes.