To the outside world, this guide may have appeared irrelevant. After all, weren’t we “told” that media in China is the sole mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and where “truthiness by propaganda” was the norm?
But no. In fact, if you’re in town and happen to pick up a paper or get online, you’d find an incredible amount of diversity in views expressed on the media networks. The era when a Maoist doctrine was “reliably” relayed by the CCP’s “two key papers + one key magazine” has now gone for good. And there’s English-language press available in many forms: either “reliable officialspeak” or increasingly, more papers from overseas. But of course you have the most powerful weapon of them all: the Internet. We’ll take a look at how you get the news and stay informed in China in this As-Is Guide.
Important: Remember that despite the media liberalisation, much of the Internet in China is still censored. If you want “the real deal”, it’s probably best if you get yourself a VPN before you land in China (a paying service works the best).
NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES
The nation’s most “noted” (official) paper remains only major currency if you work in a department or organ related to the Chinese government — the People’s Daily (人民日报) is available at just about all newsstands, but incredibly few commoners pick up the paper. Most shun it in favour of “younger” variants. There is incredibly uncensored coverage of the wider world (in Chinese) from a paper almost universally ignored by the outside world: Reference Daily, or Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息).
Having said that, most of us will need something in English. Here, you’ve a choice between the national (“reliable”) China Daily, the “less official” (but still at times nationalistic) Global Times, and local papers in major metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Magazines from the official sources in China are available as well, especially in major cities; however, do note that their content may appear to be a little on the “drab” or “too-official” side.
Newspapers and magazines from places outside of mainland China are available in major hotels (all international hotel chains, as well as many local 5-star hotels and a handful of other hotels, with the likeliness increased the more stars a hotel has in ratings). However, be aware of any missing pages, as sometimes, some are cut short of their content — the “official excuse” is “in accordance with national laws and regulations”.
RADIO AND TELEVISION
Chinese law restricts the offering of non-mainland TV to hotels (3 stars and above), official residences of foreigners, and communities with a visible foreign population. This also includes diplomatic compounds. Foreign radio channels might also end up jammed in most cases. In this case your real best bet is via the Internet.
Local radio and TV, once predictably drab, is now incredibly diverse, with talk shows, entertainment programmes, a sprinkling of news shows, and more and more, political discussions, although it’s predictable which way officially-approved voices will lean! Chinese Central Television also broadcasts in English, French, Arabic, and a host of other languages.
For independent voices, try the Internet. For “other” voices you are “used to” (such as the BBC, CNN International, etc), either try hotels, expat-rich parts of town, or, as is always the case, go online.
Phoenix TV is mostly a Chinese-language TV network which is not government-owned, although it tends to be pro-Beijing, which might be of interest to some China watchers. The network broadcasts out of Hong Kong, but is largely ignored inside the Special Administrative Region (it, however, also has a Cantonese-language channel).
You will find the most diverse views from, of course, the Internet.
Without a VPN to cross the Great Firewall, you can view approximately 70%-80% of the sizeable world news players. Blocked are a few, including the Chinese-language version of BBC, as well as the New York Times, and media the Chinese authorities deem a problem. For full access, try using a VPN, ideally one you got from overseas. If you cannot get a VPN, the closest place to the mainland to get one is in Hong Kong, Macao, or Taiwan, or if you’re in northeastern China, South Korea or Japan. Pay services work the best.
Even without a VPN, Internet media remains lively, as you can tune into the conversation on local social media networks such as Weibo and WeChat. Discourse is rarely tamed apart from “seriously political” content. For English-language translations of key news story, or comments in English, check out our Guanxi lists for the best.
If you are in China for any “serious” amount of time, get an account on WeChat, as it is not just an IM tool, but is also used to send news to users.