The Unignorable Influence of China’s Automobile Media

|China

Getting an accurate handle on the actual situation of China’s “market economy” is difficult. Particularly in the industrial and economic sectors which are pushing ahead reforms toward a market economy, a lot of time is taken up in bringing together all the forms of daily information based on the attributes of the Chinese market and continuing to scrutinize and analyze it. Nevertheless, by understanding the nature and background of such information and carrying out a sifting of information and sources of information, it is possible to obtain considerable hints on not only the trends in specialized business sectors, but also on the management strategies of enterprises. As below, I would like to consider the response of Japan and Japanese enterprises seen through the media, with a focus on the automobile industry.

The turning point for China’s automobile media came in the late 1990s. Regarding this, being a matter that corresponds to the growth in the automobile market, remarkable changes have occurred in all kinds of media organizations too. That is, China is deepening its market economy, the income levels of the public have risen along with economic growth, and media have become necessary to disseminate the new economic and industrial information. Now at the newspaper stands, etc., on the street, magazines and newspapers with photographs of the latest models and scoop headlines reign supreme. These not only simply stimulate consumers’ purchasing interest via the advertisements published with pictures by the manufacturers, but speediness of reporting, uniqueness, and regional character—in accordance with the needs of the readers created after prioritizing information which attracts the interest of readers—have come to be demanded.

The newspaper media hitherto, through the management contract system from 1981 on, had already been gradually becoming financially-independent entities, and along with the increase in circulation, the enlargement of income through advertising has progressed (the work of Kiyoshi Takai of Hokkaido University gives the full details concerning the transformation of the media). Other than this, newspapers also exist for information aimed internally issued by the government and business units, while in the automobile industry, the media in the switch to the private-sector demand, which was particularly influenced by the administrative reforms of 1997, are appearing on the scene in rapid succession. Business units and extra-governmental organizations which hold these governments as their superiors (semi-privatized through the administrative reforms), rather than analyzing the trends in specialized business sectors which have their own respective strong points, publish business newspapers (business pages) and magazines in parallel with the traditional newspapers of organs and economic newspapers, and, along with the carrying of advertisements, have ended up playing the role of information transmitting the facts of the trends. In addition, in each part of the country in the late 1990s the publication of emerging regional newspapers and evening newspapers, that came into existence one after another, carried advertisements with the main component being information on society and living, and articles on cars. This has increased greatly the number of copies printed as information corresponding to the interests of the public. Furthermore, as the internet spread, popular web portals, etc., as network media, have without exception set up automobile channels. These have edited reprinted and edited articles from newspapers and the official information originating from manufacturers, and further, have produced articles, employing the parties cooperating on material as “contracted-out reporters” domestically and abroad. In this way, each of the automobile media has created new news sources, and with the strengthening of the industry’s collaboration (the China Powerful Media Automobile Alliance) have begun to cover a variety of information.

Creating automobile industry articles are reporters whose responsibility is automobiles, and while there is no precise data on their number, the profession of specialist reporter has been established (more than 580 people in the tally of Beijing Media, an advertising company). For advantageous information which gives accurate indications with a sharp focus there are the comments that the elders (automobile “teachers”: masters) have made—people who moved to being reporters and commentators from originally being in, since the early stages of reform and opening, the administrative organs with responsibility for automobiles and major automobile manufacturers or who have built up careers in charge thereof at major newspapers. The reporters who follow after them (“car brothers”: older brothers or bosses), as pupils of such elders, have expanded the content of their own range of coverage and number of pages. In recent years, reporters in the automobile business who are over 30 have become mainstay personnel in each type of media, and it is said that for reporters in other businesses to build up the same kind of career takes more than ten years—that alone shows that the growth of the automobile market has been remarkable.

In the automobile media, with such leaders at its core the tendency in recent years is apparent of reporters becoming younger in age. This is related to the revolution in Chinese universities also. In the process of developing from a newspaper department (School of Journalism) that was established centered on Beijing’s main university from the mid to the late 1950s toward a media institute (Communication and Media) which was newly established at the national level around the middle of the 1990s, young people who specialize in the media have been turned out in great numbers. They not just stop at producing articles for the needs of the reader, including scoops on new products, introductions and descriptions of products and technology, test-drive reports, and product comparisons, but have also come to put into effect hearings related to specific user qualities and market sample surveys. Additionally, the commercialization of the media has unfurled into a fierce battle for copy at the level of the young reporters, and methods have also been adopted to report and collect news down to the production plants and sites of development and upgrading. Further still, if one were to mention it, with the spread of the internet, postings on websites and individual blogs, etc., that can reflect popular opinions have come into being, and the true voices from users and those who wish to make purchases have come to be widely posted directly. Today the material has come to be not only via the journalists’ association (Automotive Reporters’ Association) but transmitted as a diverse variety of information.

Nevertheless, in part there also exist paid reporters who write articles, receiving rewards and entertainment. In order that paid reporters write articles using a unilateral method and the one-sided viewpoint from the manufacturer’s side, in the final editing even if the person is equivalent to someone who has practical experience of the information, with things depending only on the professional morality of the reporters themselves, there is the question of to what degree they can maintain the verification, objectivity and neutrality of the information. This—including the types such as information where the facts have been distorted and exposés of other manufacturers—not only disrupts those participating in the market, but for enterprises too a massive influence on management and publicity strategies is predicted.

Regarding the targeted enterprises, there is no particular reason to refuse material from the media unless it involves secret information. In addition, for industry news a pre-publication review of the article by the regulatory authorities is basically not necessary, and the bad practice of information being reported in a completely unverified state has also occurred. Further, with the expansion of the internet, independent public opinion between users with similar ideas forms. These matters conceal a potential to proliferate, with calls via the media for boycotts, toward a warped public opinion, increasing a nationalism that includes a reflecting of the political situation of the moment—as Japanese manufacturers have previously experienced (recently around 2005) (for concrete examples refer to the writings of Hokkaido University’s Kohei Watanabe).

Based on such characteristic features of the media, it is necessary, in undertaking business in China, to consider daily what kinds of risks are envisaged. Even with past experience, a portion of Japan’s reports are unaware of the difference between political issues and the economic issues when risks arise, and Japanese enterprises that accepted these ended up in a situation of making mistakes in media measures. As for China, information with the stereotype treating it as a “unique country” has made the situation more severe, and, at least in the automobile industry, there have been directions adopted confusing the increase in consumer consciousness and the political situation. The true nature of the dissatisfaction toward Japanese manufacturers at that time lay in the lack of consideration for Chinese users and the poorness of the response when trouble occurred. In China, university-graduate white-collar employees have become the main purchasers of automobiles, and among them there is the raising of the observance of the law, their own rights, and consumer protection, and the eyes looking at products have been growing more exacting by the day. The Chinese government, even repeating the bashing of Japanese companies and products, acknowledges that it will gain no profit, but rather we Japanese have to be aware of the point of striving to undertake the improvement of Japan–China relations under the leadership of the private sector (even in the industrial economic sector, the intense postings on the internet are the subject of government control). In order not to give rise to this kind of wrong idea, it is important that enterprises, while deepening the linkages between the relevant market media and reporters, strengthen communication with local personnel along with gathering and analyzing detailed useful information, and in the area of publicity display a “cooperative stance” where the top management appear voluntarily.

[Translated by ERINA]