Archive for the ‘ Feature ’ Category

Not yet voice of the people

Not yet voice of the people

China’s media landscape has changed drastically in recent years in which the country’s rapid economic growth has had a major role to play. The reform and opening up and the subsequent relaxation of government regulations saw the birth of market-oriented media in China, after which even flagship Party newspapers began publishing profitable weeklies and dailies.

But still the future is pretty cloudy, says Qian Gang, former correspondent of the People’s Liberation Army Daily. Qian was a correspondent of the PLA Daily when the mass media were essentially a means to political ends.

Now a writer, and director of China Media Project of Journalism and Media Studies Centre in the University of Hong Kong, Qian says: “There is yet to appear an independent newspaper or broadcaster that I believe could become the mainstream media in China.” Looking at the potential of the mass media in China, Qian shows a clear preference for what he calls “public media”.

“Some say the Internet will change traditional news reporting but I am cautiously optimistic. As a matter of fact, I do not advocate separating traditional media from ‘new media’ because they are mutually interdependent.”

Qian concedes that the Internet, which connects millions of interactive Web users, has immense power in some aspects of reporting, especially when events are shared by great masses of people. “If the Internet had been as popular in 2003 as it is today, the SARS outbreak story would have become public much earlier, even though some officials still might have tried to resolve the crisis by working behind closed doors. But when exploring issues in greater depth, such as the vaccine scandal or mine accidents which require professional expertise or which take place ‘underground’, the traditional media are still the major source of news.”

The new media, especially the Internet, will expedite media reform in China, he says. Yet he remains doubtful about the future of the new media in mainstream journalism. In many ways, the first credible, independent news provider in China seems to be just round the corner. But in reality, there’s still a long way to go, because there is the question of ethics.

“In many cases, the media dangle ‘damaging’ reports in front of corporate executives or officials to force them into signing advertising contracts. The Chinese media, even those that have a strong sense of social responsibility, are still part of the peculiar marriage of commerce and politics.”

Qian distinguishes “public media” from political and commercial media. Public media, he says, is like the Public Broadcasting System in the US. The difference is that public media are similar to so-called “social enterprises”. Their purpose and mandates are distinct from those of the political and/or commercial media. The political media’s aim is to achieve political success for one party or another, whereas the commercial media seek profit to satisfy shareholders. A public media organization can be owned by the State but its purpose should be to serve the people.

Qian was the managing editor of Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend for several years. Reflecting on his experience with the influential newspaper, which built its reputation on investigative reports that routinely exposed social and political issues, he says political support was still key to the success of the paper.

In many countries, governments have newspapers and broadcasters serving their political ends. The Voice of America, which speaks for the US government, is one such example. This may not be such a good thing, he says. But then a totally market-oriented media environment could make newspapers and broadcasters go to the other extreme.

He cites Taiwan’s example, where the media are engaged in such a fierce competition to get advertisements that some of them have stooped down to publishing and airing trivial and sleazy stories to attract readers and viewers. The logic is simple: the more readers or viewers a media outlet has, the more ads it will get.

He says that even if public media get all or a substantial part of their funds from the government or official sources – tax revenue or from license fees – their non- profit motive will allow them to report objectively and fairly. This in itself will be a departure from the culture of publishing giants and broadcasting oligarchs.

In Germany, broadcasting councils comprising representatives from major organized social groups monitor the country’s public broadcasting network, ADR. These groups include labor and industrial bodies, and other organizations representing the general interests of the public.

Citing another example, he says Hong Kong’s sole public service media, Radio Television Hong Kong, is free to criticize the government even if it gets its funds from the government.

“Media reform in China still has a long way to go Public service media may have been a success in many countries. But where can we find a credible group that represents the interests of the public if we want to replicate its experience in China?”

Such is the power of advertising revenue that the media tend to turn a blind eye to the deeds of some powerful companies because they pay huge amounts in ad bills to newspapers and TV channels. It’s either money or politics that seems to be dictating terms to the media worldwide. No wonder, the future of public media appears to be pretty cloudy to Qian.

(China Daily 07/15/2010 page9)

Weighing wages on the scales of progress

Hong Kong businessman Peter Lam used to run a toy factory in Dongguan, an important industrial city in neighboring Guangdong province that is a foreign capital magnet. After 10 years’ dedication to the business he is familiar with, Lam nevertheless decided to quit, as he found it was no longer easy to find cheap labor.

“It was tough,” said Lam. “Competition was fierce and my profit margin was diminishing. The pool of low-cost labor shrank so fast that I could no longer recruit enough eligible workers at the wages I used to pay.”

While some small businesses are struggling with a labor shortage, big factories are under mounting wage inflation pressure, after the breakout of several walkouts on the mainland.

Weighing wages on the scales of progress

Japan’s Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, last Thursday confirmed production has resumed after the company agreed to discuss wage increases with workers who went on strike at an assembly plant in Tianjin two days earlier.

It followed disruptions in the production of another Japanese automaker, Honda, which has agreed to raise wages 24 percent for workers at a parts plant in Foshan, Guangdong, after all its mainland production halted due to pay-related walkouts.

The world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, Foxconn Technology Group, even doubled every employee’s basic salary after a spate of worker suicides in its Shenzhen factories, which triggered public outrage regarding the mainland’s “sweatshop” conditions.

“Factories on the mainland can no longer avoid rising labor costs, as wage increases, particularly among the long underpaid groups, are both urgent and necessary,” Simon Zhao, director of the International Center for China Development Studies at the University of Hong Kong, told China Daily.

The enormous labor pool out there, according to Zhao, has long stifled wages on the mainland, which has resulted in significant disprities between wage progress and economic growth.

Official figures show that mainland urban residents’ disposable income grew at an average 7.2 percent per year since economic reform began three decades ago, and rural residents’ income grew by 7.1 percent, both lower than the average GDP growth rate of 8-11 percent since 2001, while tax revenues have been growing at a rate of above 20 percent in recent years.

Minimum wages across the nation have also risen slowly. Guangdong province is an instructive example: As of May 1 and after several adjustments over time, the minimum monthly wage was only 1,030 yuan in Guangzhou, 920 yuan in Dongguan, and 810 yuan in Shantou.

Shanghai adjusted upward its minimum wage by 16.7 percent this April, the highest on the mainland currently, which nevertheless stands at merely 1,120 yuan per month.

Zhao said his research, which comprises comparative studies of labor income across similar professions in different countries, showed that mainland workers are also paid at low-levels compared with their counterparts in other developing countries.

“Mainland skilled workers are paid only 5 percent of what American workers receive, about half of what workers in Indonesia and Malaysia earn, and only slightly more than what Vietnamese workers are paid,” said Zhao.

Zhao said temporary difficulties in some factories will be inevitable as rising labor costs will further eat into their thin profit margins. But he believes wage inflation “will not necessarily put them to an end,” as “those with advanced technologies and high productivities will have the bargaining power to transfer the costs to the buyers.”

“Edging out these cheap-labor-dependent low-end businesses is a good thing for the economy in the long run, which also protects the benefits of the mainland workers,” Zhao added.

Pansy Yau, deputy chief economist of the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council (HKTDC) holds a similar view. Yau said a survey carried out by the council indicates that the mainland’s competitiveness as a production base will not be hampered by wage inflation, as its advantages are not due to price alone.

“Despite rising production costs, the mainland’s share of manufactured exports in world trade continues to increase, from 4.7 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2008, which emphasized that the competitiveness of the mainland as a production base is not linked to prices alone,” Yau said, adding that the mainland’s well-established industrial clusters, highly efficient and skilled labor force and infrastructure systems are able to offset the disadvantage of rising costs associated with wage increases.

The survey, which interviewed over 4,500 manufactures across the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region, also indicated that over 53 percent of respondents in the second quarter of this year said they can pass at least part of the rising labor costs to overseas buyers. Only 43 percent showed the same confidence in the first quarter.

“The PRD region went from a surplus to a shortage of workers over the years – currently a 50 percent shortfall in experienced workers. A higher wage is necessary to ensure the labor supply in the region,” HKTDC’s senior economist Billy Wong observed, as he commented on the survey.

“The mainland definitely needs to transform the economic model from relying on low-cost labor to developing higher value-added and sophisticated products,” said Wong.

China Daily

(HK Edition 06/24/2010 page3)