Himalayan divide

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January 17, 2016 12:10 AM

A rare comparison between India and China in the same breath, this anthology of essays on media is a welcome one

Media at Work in China and India is all about the changing dynamics of media in both countries, with essays by distinguished journalists, media practitioners and scholars in China, India and the West, offering the long and short of structures, practices and practitioners in political orders as vastly different as India and China.

The essays introduce the reader to the dramatically unfolding landscape, where traditional media—such as television and print—faces the onslaught of a Net-savvy generation. In fact, the pressure of profit explains why media is ‘flogged’ to the lowest common denominator—catchy bylines, ‘half-clad’ people, racy advertisements and pacey content.

Of course, there stand the much-vaunted ‘systemic differences’ between India and China (which are valid; India is known for its rich, vibrant and textured loud voices that are hard to drown out). But increasingly, despite the yawning gap in what media can and can’t say in both countries, media operations in both are increasingly underscored, more or less, by a similar bottomline: profit, advertising, sales and ratings.

In China, there is the long hand of the Big Brother—the party-state, generally viewed with much suspicion. In India, control uncharacteristically stems from fat business houses that own media operations and whose aim is to not preach nationalism, morality or ideology, but to make profit. Simplistically, things are different and yet not very different. ‘Manufacturing consent’, as philosopher Noam Chomsky warned us, comes either in the form of the party-state or business houses/politicians on both sides of the Himalayas. That said, the plurality of India provides a check and balance. What is less appreciated about China is the rise of netizens, the 30-odd years of ‘reforms and open door’ and the virtual ‘retreat of the state’ from the personal sphere of the individual, which has clearly placed limits of control.

In India, we are no strangers to television channels’ ‘breaking news’, sneaky advertisements and, often, regressive family sagas (that is what sells, we are told). Nalin Mehta tells us the disturbing, ignored truth: the “three kinds of people” who have invested in news channels in the past decade in India are not the literati, but the new glitterati of “politicians, real estate, chit fund, money market companies and large corporations”, which have been the bastion of families. Robin Jeffrey takes us to newspaper ownership in India. Until now, 10 of India’s most read dailies (as of 2012) are controlled by families and none is a fully public company owned by shareholders. This includes old stalwart The Times of India (TOI), which has, in the recent past, upped its circulation with “relentless and ruthless marketing and cricket-and-filmstar coverage”. What redeems it is Ronojoy Sen’s exposition on TOI hands in the 20th century—those who kept an interest in the neighbourhood, including China. These were men of steel such as Bertram Lenox Simpson (who wrote under the pen name of Putnam Weale and lived in China) and the larger-than-life editor of TOI, Frank Moraes (father of poet Dom Moraes), who not only visited south China in 1945, but also met Chiang Kai-shek, the then leader of the country, who headed the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and moved to Taiwan after the revolution.

What is interesting is the math on China—the fact that media in China is a ‘sunrise industry’, with the revenue of the entertainment and media industry approximating $133 billion in 2014. Li Yang’s essay tells us that, in 2013, China had 2,000 newspapers, 9,000 magazines, 1,000 radio stations and 200 TV stations (2,900 channels). Television and its contents have changed, too, in China. For those in the know, shows such as Super Girl, If You Are the One and Voice of China are guaranteed to give Communists in West Bengal a minor heart attack. It is also, as seasoned American journalist Thomas Friedman told us several years ago, getting to be a flat world. Many Chinese, scholar Ying Zhu tells us, now watch shows equally popular in India such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and House of Cards.

What is disconcerting is that while good old Doordarshan (DD) languishes in the past, China’s “socialists with Chinese characteristics” are whistling away to the hearts of the English, Spanish, French and Russian by extending the reach of media via Xinhua and CCTV. Of course, the minor consolation is that Bollywood and yoga accomplish this for free. Danny Geevarghese, who works with CCTV, dispels the illusion that CCTV has more autonomy than is appreciated. He also explains that India is “not a priority for CCTV News” (the reader may agree this is mutual).

In India, China still does not ring a bell—remember the gaffe on DD when President Xi Jinping was referred to as ‘Eleven’ Jinping? Despite the thaw in relations in 1988, there stands a Himalayan gap between China and India.Most average citizens in both countries would find it difficult to name the leader of the other.

Journalist Subhomoy Bhattacharjee laments India’s inability to “report on Asia, and especially on China”, hobbled by the unfortunate fact of a “handful of commentators”, which is true. Bhattacharjee articulates this ugly truth in the hope that this will be addressed, and kudos to that. Yet another journalist, Ananth Krishnan, attests to an external affairs ministry slow on the take to refute wrong reports about China. Journalist Simon Long jumps in to take a long view of both sides, why “blunders are grist to the mill of the many Indian and Chinese officials”, which stem from misconceptions and wrong perceptions. These are valid sentiments, as India and China have to negotiate the other in the neighbourhood—China has muscle for sure, but it cannot wish away India’s moral weight.

What is the world of a Chinese journalist like? John Zhou paints the portrait of a journalist at work, reflecting on a progressive daily, the Southern Metropolis Daily, which has covered touchy topics such as deaths in custody and black jails. He, interestingly, suggests that the future looks pessimistic for such out-of-the-box journalism. In stark contrast, Anshuman Tiwari, who unveiled the scam at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, sounds upbeat for the path ahead.

There are interesting essays, such as Tang Lu’s observations about slogans and leaders in China and India at the grassroots level. China’s slogans are mostly about development (she forgot to mention the sneaky paeans to the party). But generally speaking, India’s slogans/posters/billboards are political cheers, a festschrift of the Congress to the Congress, the BJP to the BJP. This is unlike China, where slogans have a larger purpose, both good and occasionally not. In India, during the Emergency years (1975-1977), billboards espousing the 20-point programme (social ‘goods’) were the only ones allowed, but that was possible because democracy was suspended.

There is Srinjoy Chowdhary on how difficult and problematic it is to gather ‘inside’ stories about China. John Jirlik sheds light on the CCTV-Reuters relationship. Scholar Ming Xia reflects on protests, censorship and the clampdown on media following the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. The contrast between China and India is there to see, as journalist Anup Kumar reflects on the Uttarakhand disaster (flash floods that came to be called the Himalayan tsunami) of 2013—how, despite India being an open democracy, warnings and advisories were ignored, and how several regional newspapers agreed not to report on the scale of the tragedy. The new landscape of social media in India—like SMSGupShup (using mobile phones, as Internet penetration in India is lower compared to China) vis-a-vis China’s social media such as WeChat (China’s WhatsApp) and Weibo (a microblog) by Jonathan Benney and Nimmi Rangaswamy—shows that information access in both countries is changing.

All reads well, but does the book fly? Well, almost. It is born out of several workshops (just so you know the reason for the glitch). Clearly, a lot of fine work has gone into the maps. The essays are uneven—some fly, some clearly don’t, some scholarly (70 notes on page 325) and some not at all. Krishnan’s essay is murdered by the curious case of the jumbled up pages. Ironically, the book mirrors a variant of what the essayists bemoan—the fog of distrust. They could as well bemoan the fog of resource crunch in producing the book.

A comparative book on India and China in the same breath hardly ever makes an appearance. Given the drought, there is little doubt that when a book does, it is greatly welcome. This book thus hangs with its destiny—both a blessing and a bane. There are great expectations to meet, and then there is the inevitable burden of the unmet and the unrealised.

The writer is a Singapore-based sinologist and adjunct fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. She is also the author of Finding India in China

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