After the economic reform in the late 1970s, the Chinese government was unable to support the media despite the rapidly growing demand and evolving technologies. The new decentralized economic system was also too weak as a great portion of the national wealth was lost due to frauds and theft, and the remaining capital was transferred abroad. Financial independence was something completely new for the Chinese media; the faced with the constant necessity for stable sources of income. Advertising was the first available solution. Besides, it was widely supported by the government. Because of a rapid growth of advertising, the media became a reliable source of income rather than means of persuasion.
Financial self-reliance also meant much more independence in journalistic investigation. Chinese media, both newspapers and TV channels, showed great enthusiasm about the new, ‘completely honest’ type of journalism. It is well respected in professional circles, as a study conducted in 2002 showed that most Chinese journalists admired investigations most because they reflect what people truly think and care about. Indeed, those media were attracting quite diverse public – peasants and migrant workers were the regular readers. What was more important, they were major contributors – their ‘tales of exploitation, expropriation, and corruption constituted a great portion of the material for journalistic investigations (Burgh, 2015, p. 101). Government’s economic reform with its negative consequences (especially on the local level) contributed to the development and popularity of investigative journalism.
One of the obvious negative consequences of commercialization was the great power of advertising. As soon as publishers realized that there is no better way to raise funds, while domestic and foreign companies discovered its great potential, advertisements increased the size of published material almost twice. Some newspapers could even provide their front pages for rent for those businesses that could afford it. Commercial dictatorship partly replaced state dictatorship. However, the constant development of means of communication (like social media) creates a new type of informational democracy in China.
This story is an example of a trend known as ‘news extortion.’ Because of too close business relationships between media and enterprises, the former became dependent on investments and advertising contracts provided by the latter. The competition (especially in the local markets where financial sources are limited) is tough between news media. Some of them could create a controversial story about a potential investor and then threaten the company to release it unless the investor accepts an “advertising contract” and pay compensation for journalists. Not only media could be fully responsible for extortion. If the story is actually real, businesses can make an offer that is hard to refuse – either to the chief editor or directly to the journalists who conducted the investigation. Centralized newspapers and radio-stations are believed to be more reliable in this connection then the local ones since they are still supported and controlled by the government.
Such practice evolved from the common practice of long-standing partnership between newspapers and businesses. One particular example is a contract between Sichuan Sports News and a local musical instrument manufacturer. The media had been established with its investment on the condition that they would “jointly run the newspaper and explore business opportunities in sporting goods and culture” (Zhao, 1998, p. 65). However, such practice sometimes does not work, even if the business involved has great resources and influence. A businessman from Shanxi gained exclusive rights to distribute dangerous vaccines after paying 3.8 million Yan to the Shanxi Center for Disease Control. After an investigation conducted by China Economic Times, its chief editor was released of his post. Though the outcome was unfavorable for him, it improved newspaper’s reputation significantly and provoked a widespread concern (Burgh, 2015, p. 104).