Censorship and China's Media Scene: What Marketers Need to Know

Protests at Southern China Newspaper Mark Latest Development in Fast-Changing Landscape

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A controversy over intrusive government censorship at a Chinese newspaper with an independent streak last week raised questions about the status of media controls in the country. Though there is little direct correlation between government censorship and marketing, brands should consider how related fallout may impact communication strategies.

"Is there any threat to Weibo as a medium in this situation? Weibo's not the cause of these problems but it's propagating some of these issues," said an executive in China who specializes in digital marketing, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic. "Worst case: Is it going to be shut down?"

The executive noted that's unlikely because Sina, parent company of the biggest Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo, operates in line with government policy. If Beijing ordered the internet giant to tighten controls and crack down on content, it would. Censorship in China typically starts with media owners, who pro-actively self-censor to avoid falling afoul of regulators.

Celebrity endorsement is popular in China, but marketers must be prepared if a brand ambassador becomes entangled in a politically sensitive issue. That's exactly what happened last week when Yao Chen, an actress with 32.8 million Sina Weibo followers, quoted Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to express her support for the newspaper journalists. "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world," she said.

Journalists at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou had staged a rare protest against censorship, after a New Year editorial urging political reform was changed into a piece praising the Communist Party. A days-long stand-off ended when the government agreed to loosen certain censorship controls. Analysts said the wave of public support for the journalists was a significant milestone in developing an open media in China.

Ms. Yao is the face of Tourism New Zealand in China, and even got married in the picturesque resort town of Queenstown last year. Since she began endorsing New Zealand in 2011, the number of Chinese visitors to the country has surged. Ms. Yao has also endorsed brands including L'Oreal and Adidas.

Tourism New Zealand said it had no comment on whether Ms. Yao's comment would affect her ability to promote the country or affect perceptions of the brand in China.

China is installing a new generation of leaders in March, and incoming President Xi Jinping has been hailed by some as a reformer. This has raised hopes of more open media in China, though one expert warned there's no basis for those expectations.

"It's impossible to say what kind of leader Xi Jinping is going to be and whether he's going to reform [media]. Nobody has any idea," said David Bandurski, a researcher with University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "The wise position is to wait and see."

Last year, TV regulators restricted popular genres such as dating, variety and talent shows as part of a crackdown on "overly entertaining" programming. They also banned commercials during dramas, one of the most popular formats in China. No explanation was given for the rules and ad prices soared as supplies decreased overnight.

Media agency executives say the fast-changing media landscape in China is a common topic of conversation with their clients.

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