Economist Feb 20th 2016
“As China’s Economic Picture Turns Uglier, Beijing Applies Airbrush”
EDWARD WONG and NEIL GOUGH FEB. 25, 2016
accessed FEB 25, 2016
l Mankind has entered the second decade of the 21th century. Yet, both the democratic Japan and the undemocratic China are tightening control of the media. What has happened? Is it that mankind has retrogressed? Or, under the total interest of a country and its people, media ought to be controlled?
FOR a decade, millions of Japanese have tuned in to watch Ichiro Furutachi, the salty presenter of a popular evening news show, TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station”. But next month Mr Furutachi will be gone. He is one of three heavyweight presenters leaving prime-time shows on relatively liberal channels. It is no coincidence that all are, by Japanese standards, robust critics of the government.
Last year another anchor, Shigetada Kishii, used his news slot on TBS, a rival channel, to question the legality of bills passed to expand the nation’s military role overseas. The questioning was nothing less than what most constitutional scholars were also doing—and in private senior officials themselves acknowledge the unconstitutionality of the legislation, even as they justify it on the ground that Japan is in a risky neighbourhood and needs better security. But Mr Kishii’s on-air fulminations prompted a group of conservatives to take out newspaper advertisements accusing him of violating broadcasters’ mandated impartiality. TBS now says he will quit. The company denies this has anything to do with the adverts, but few believe that.
The third case is at NHK, the country’s giant public-service broadcaster. It has yanked one of its more popular anchors off the air. Hiroko Kuniya has helmed an investigative programme, “Close-up Gendai”, for two decades. NHK has not said why she is leaving, but colleagues blame her departure on an interview last year with Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman and closest adviser to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.
Mr Suga is known for running a tight ship and for demanding advance notice of questions from journalists. In the interview Ms Kuniya had the temerity to probe him on the possibility that the new security legislation might embroil Japan in other countries’ wars. By the standards of spittle-flecked clashes with politicians on British or American television, the encounter was tame. But Japanese television journalists rarely play hardball with politicians. Mr Suga’s handlers were incensed.
It all shows how little tolerance the government has for criticism, says Makoto Sataka, a commentator and colleague of Mr Kishii’s. He points out that one of Mr Abe’s first moves after he returned to power in 2012 was to appoint conservative allies to NHK’s board. Katsuto Momii, the broadcaster’s new president, wasted little time in asserting that NHK’s role was to reflect government policy. What is unprecedented today, says Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned talking head, is the growing public intimidation of journalists. On February 9th the communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, threatened to close television stations that flouted rules on political impartiality. Ms Takaichi was responding to a question about the departure of the three anchors.
Political pressure on the press is not new. The mainstream media (the five main newspapers are affiliated with the principal private television stations) are rarely analytical or adversarial, being temperamentally and commercially inclined to reflect the establishment view. Indeed the chumminess is extreme. In January Mr Abe again dined with the country’s top media executives at the offices of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s biggest-circulation newspaper. Nine years ago, when Mr Abe resigned from his first term as prime minister, the paper’s kingpin, Tsuneo Watanabe, brokered the appointment of his successor, Yasuo Fukuda. Mr Watanabe then attempted to forge a coalition between ruling party and opposition. Oh, but his paper forgot to alert readers to all these goings-on. The media today, says Michael Cucek of Temple University in Tokyo, has “no concept of conflict of interest.”
It has all contributed to an alarming slide since 2011 in Japan’s standing in world rankings of media freedom. Mr Koga expects a further fall this year. He ran afoul of the government during his stint as a caustic anti-Abe commentator on “Hodo Station”. On air last year he claimed that his contract was being terminated because of pressure from the prime minister’s office. His aim, Mr Koga insists, was to rally the media against government interference. Yet TV Asahi apologised and promised tighter controls over guests. Now Mr Furutachi is quitting too. The government is playing chicken with the media, Mr Furutachi says, and winning.
As China’s Economic Picture Turns Uglier, Beijing Applies Airbrush
BEIJING — This month, Chinese banking officials omitted currency data from closely watched economic reports.
Just weeks earlier, Chinese regulators fined a journalist $23,000 for reposting a message that said a big securities firm had told elite clients to sell stock.
Before that, officials pressed two companies to stop releasing early results from a survey of Chinese factories that often moved markets.
Chinese leaders are taking increasingly bold steps to stop rising pessimism about turbulent markets and the slowing of the country’s growth. As financial and economic troubles threaten to undermine confidence in the Communist Party, Beijing is tightening the flow of economic information and even criminalizing commentary that officials believe could hurt stocks or the currency.
The effort to control the economic narrative plays into a wide-reaching strategy by President Xi Jinping to solidify support at a time when doubts are swirling about his ability to manage the tumult. The government moved to bolster confidence on Saturday by ousting its top securities regulator, who had been widely accused of contributing to the stock market turmoil. Mr. Xi is also putting pressure on the Chinese media to focus on positive news that reflects well on the party.
But the tightly scripted story makes it ever more difficult to get information needed to gauge the extent of the country’s slowdown, analysts say. “Data disappears when it becomes negative,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, which analyzes the Chinese economy.
The party’s attitude has raised further questions among executives and economists over whether Chinese policy makers know how to manage a quasi-market economy, the second-largest economy in the world, after that of the United States.
Economists have long cast some doubt on Chinese official figures, which show a huge economy that somehow manages to avoid the peaks and valleys that other countries regularly report. In recent years, China made efforts to improve that data by releasing more information more frequently, among other measures. It also gave its financial media greater freedom, even as censors kept a tight leash on political discourse.
But the party now sees reports of economic turbulence as a potential threat. The same goes for data.
“Many economic indicators are on a downward trend in China, and economic data has become quite sensitive nowadays,” said Yuan Gangming, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s Center for China in the World Economy.
The restrictions illustrate the Chinese government’s competing priorities, said Leland R. Miller, president of China Beige Book International, which surveys Chinese companies. “The environment is getting tougher and tougher to operate in,” he said, though he added that his company had not been told to rein in its activities.
“We are going to continue to see crackdowns on people telling a different story than what Beijing wants to hear,” Mr. Miller said. “At the same time, Beijing appears to be conflicted on this issue, because it recognizes that without independent gauges, commercial relations and foreign direct investment will suffer, due to growing skepticism over official data.”
Last September, Markit Economics, a British company, and Caixin Media, based in Beijing, stopped publishing preliminary results from a monthly survey of purchasing managers at Chinese factories. The preliminary results, which came a few days before the two firms and the government separately released complete numbers, often affected markets. As a result, officials at China’s statistics bureau objected to the early release, according to people with knowledge of the official order.
A spokeswoman for Markit declined to comment, while Caixin representatives did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a very influential economic indicator, and it’s highly cited overseas,” said Mr. Yuan, the researcher at Tsinghua. “Given the international worry over the Chinese economy, I had a sense last August that the Caixin indicator wouldn’t really last long, because its publishing in mainland China had touched high-tension lines.”
In January data released last week, the Chinese central bank omitted or hid one key number and altered the parameters of another that gave insight into what the central and commercial banks were doing to prop up the country’s currency.
Both sets of numbers, which show commercial banks’ foreign exchange purchase positions, appeared last year in the central bank’s monthly announcements. The central bank, the People’s Bank of China, did not answer a request for comment.
China’s central bank and national statistics bureau “are constantly changing, redefining, introducing and excluding statistics, and I don’t think it is by accident,” said Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Peking University HSBC Business School.
The National Bureau of Statistics did not return requests seeking comment.
Ms. Stevenson-Yang, of J Capital Research, said she and her colleagues had seen growing discrepancies in official data in the last two years in a variety of sectors, including retail, shipping and steel production. She said a colleague had once called a Chinese cement factory to ask for production data, and a factory employee had thought the researcher was calling from a government-affiliated research association. The employee told the researcher that the factory had already changed its numbers twice and would rather not do it again, so the researcher could choose any number that fit.
“When you go around and meet state-owned industry people, everybody laughs at the national statistics, so I don’t know why foreigners believe them,” Ms. Stevenson-Yang said.
Capital Economics, a London research firm, said in a recent report that problems with China’s statistical system “go beyond those found in an emerging economy. The biggest is that the G.D.P. growth rate is politically sensitive, which makes it more likely to suffer manipulation.” The firm does its own growth-rate estimate for China’s gross domestic product, which it put at 4.3 percent last year.
China’s online monitors have intensified their policing of chatter about markets. “The People’s Bank has gone crazy,” read one recent post that was later deleted, referring to the central bank. Another deleted post said: “One mistake after another. All assets are gone.”
Last June, Liu Qintao, a journalist for a newspaper in Shandong Province, posted in an online forum a message he had seen about Dongguan Securities, a Chinese brokerage firm. The post said Dongguan Securities had warned “V.I.P. investors” about coming risks and had urged them to sell.
The next day, Dongguan Securities said none of its employees had issued the warning. Chinese stock markets began crashing two weeks later.
On Jan. 8, more than six months after he posted the message, officials fined Mr. Liu $23,000 on a charge of having spread fabricated information. Mr. Liu said in an interview that he was being made a scapegoat and was appealing the fine.
“I didn’t fabricate the message,” he said. “Why would I do that? Who would make up things like that? All I did was copy and paste it.”
The China Securities Regulatory Commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Jon R. Carnes, founder of Eos Funds, a firm best known for bets that Chinese stock prices will fall, said China is in the midst of a down cycle in a long-running ebb and flow of public information. In 2012, a researcher for the fund, Kun Huang, was put in prison for two years for gathering information that led Eos Funds to bet against a Chinese mining company.
Last summer, Mr. Carnes said, China started to make it more difficult to gain access to online information about companies. “In general, over time, the trend has been positive and improving, but since last summer, we did see another step backward,” he said.
“I’m optimistic and feel over all that the long-term trend is still improving,” he added. “But this is an unfortunate setback.”
但是分析人士表示，照本宣科的报道使得人们比以往任何时候都更难以获得衡量该国经济放缓程度所需的信息。“当数据变得不利时，它就会消失，”分析中国经济的美奇金投资咨询公司(J Capital Research)共同创始人杨思安(Anne Stevenson-Yang)说。
“很多经济指标都在下滑，很多经济数据现在变得很敏感，”清华大学中国与世界经济研究中心(Tsinghua University’s Center for China in the World Economy)的研究人员袁钢明(Yuan Gangming)说。
这些限制说明了中国政府在政策重点上左右为难，调研中国企业的中国褐皮书国际(China Beige Book International)总裁利兰·R·米勒(Leland R. Miller)说。他说，“经营环境变得越来越艰难。”不过他又补充道，他的公司还没有接到约束其营业活动的指令。
去年9月，英国公司Markit Economics和总部设在北京的财新传媒(Caixin Media)，停止发布每月一度的采购经理人指数的初步结果。这项初步结果会在两家公司与政府分别发布完整数字前几天出炉，往往会对市场造成影响。据了解官方指令的人透露，中国统计局官员因此反对提前发布。
伊奥斯基金(Eos Funds)创始人乔恩·R·卡内斯(Jon R. Carnes)称，中国正处在一个漫长的公共信息起伏循环的下跌周期中。该公司以看空中国股市而闻名。2012年，该基金会的研究员黄崑被判两年有期徒刑，原因是他为该基金搜集信息，并促使其做空中国一家矿产公司。
黄安伟自北京、Neil Gough自香港报道。Mia Li、Owen Guo自北京对本文有研究贡献。