In 2008, we discussed the 2008 protests by Chinese students overseas against foreign media coverage of the riots in Tibet and in support of the Peking Olympics. Subsequently, we published an article on them in The China Journal. Today, a former People’s Daily correspondent who covered the demonstrations in Paris at the time made a comment at a conference panel on China’s protection of its overseas interests that puts an interesting twist on the story.
He said that at the time, he and other journalists were eager to cover the demonstrations as breaking news, but no editor at People’s Daily or other Chinese media wanted to take the responsibility since they did not know how the Party’s Central Propaganda Department would react. After two days or so, with still no instructions from “above,” an editor finally took the risk. “If you do good work for it, the Propaganda Department won’t remember you, but if you make a mistake they will remember it forever,” the journalist said scornfully. In his view, the journalists were keen to take this opportunity to do propaganda work, but Propaganda Department officials are just interested in taking money, not in doing their work.
This account suggests, then, that the coverage of the protests in mainstream media and the wave of mainstream nationalism that it triggered was not ordered from above after some deliberation, but was essentially the outcome of journalists’ own actions, only retroactively validated by government permission.