BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. China's first manned space flight had one-sixth of the world's population celebrating this week, but the space program created a dilemma that seems to sum up China's struggle with modernity--and media. The Chinese government's penchant for secrecy is no secret, and a project involving advanced rocket technology and the People's Liberation Army would seem especially sensitive. At the same time, the government is eager to tout the country's technological advances, both to foreigners who might want to pay to launch satellites, and to a Chinese public gripped by an enthusiasm for space that might seem quaint to Russians or Americans. This tension between the desire for secrecy and national pride was of course reflected in the Chinese media. At the 11th hour the government decided not to broadcast the liftoff live-- but half an hour after the launch, the video was all over state media, and now that the astronaut has landed safely, the country is awash in exultant coverage. Orville Schell is the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and has written extensively on Asia. Orville, welcome back to the show.
ORVILLE SCHELL: How are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good. So you'd think this would be something to celebrate, wouldn't you? Why did the Chinese government want to keep a lid on the news?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think it's important to remember that in 1995 they did have a live feed of a rocket that went up and blew up right on the air. So I think even though they were incredibly excited about this and initially could hardly resist the idea of people all across the country and all around the world watching it live, prudence dictated that they do a delayed tape broadcast instead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But I'm reminded about what we talked about last spring when the Chinese government was criticized for imposing a media blackout during the early stages of the SARS epidemic. As a result of that blackout, the virus spread further and wider than it needed to. Did China's decision to wait until the launch reflect the same desire on the part of the government to control the government's public image, or did they learn anything from the SARS experience?
ORVILLE SCHELL: I think they did learn something, but in this case, with the space launch, I think they thought there was really no down side to delaying it, and not that much up side to doing it live. They could get almost as much bang for their buck by controlling it, and that's what they did. This is a longstanding tradition in any Leninist society. The media is never spontaneous. No one is ever trusted to go live, because they might say something that can't be retrieved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But there was some awfully uncharacteristic backing-and-forthing on this media campaign. They had a big splash leading up to, and then called the blackout seemingly at the last minute.
ORVILLE SCHELL: There is a word in Chinese called [CHINESE WORD], and it literally means hot, but it also means a kind of fever that gets generated over some fad or event, and there was a truly, a real fever building, and it's still going on in China. In fact, on Monday the People's Daily had an editorial, and they said that this was a symbol of the state's comprehensive national strength. So they kind of got carried away initially, and then they thought better of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well the, the Chinese National Space Administration tried to keep secret its list of candidates for the mission. A newspaper in Hong Kong actually released the identity of the lead contender of the government blackout. Did that paper get into trouble?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, no because Hong Kong has papers that are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and they're curious because they operate, of course, within the commercial media marketplace of Hong Kong, but they often have inside information, and of course they always have a nice slathering of propaganda. But they sometimes are allowed to break things for the outside world which the party wants broken but which they don't actually think Chinese themselves need to know or should know at that exact moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But don't you think that that information gets back into China from Hong Kong really fast?
ORVILLE SCHELL:Well, to some degree it does, because the world is all hooked up via the internet and many other modes of communication, but not on a mass basis, and, and this is the whole secret of the way China controls the media and the internet -- that it understands that a very small percentage of people will find ways to get information, and they accept that. But what they manage to control and really want to control is the mass consumption of news, and as long as they can do that, they don't worry that much about minor leaks in the balloon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So what you're saying is that China knows well how to handle its own population, but it doesn't quite know what to do with the rest of the world which it increasingly needs.
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well this is true. They, they actually have a kind of a two-track system. If you go to a big hotel in China, you can get CNN and Fox News. If you're in a, a foreign company, you get free access to the internet, and there are many ways that you can get around the firewall. So they do treat outsiders and the outside world in a different way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We are seeing changes in how China is dealing with the flow of information though, for instance we hear that China is going to allow the media in some limited way to cover the proceedings of the politburo meetings. That's never happened before. Is something going on?
ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, China is always teetering on the edge of a little more political reform. The party, too, is seeking new ways to gain legitimacy, because no one elected them. They understand that they are in a new kind of a world where they can't simply be isolated and have their pictures published in the People's Daily and still curry the kind of support that they need to survive as a one-party system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Orville, thanks a lot.
ORVILLE SCHELL: It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Orville Schell is Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His most recent book is Mandate of Heaven, which explores how capitalism and popular culture are changing the face of China.