It’s been thirty years since the Reform and Opening, and progress has promoted the development of technology. The coming of the internet age and the fast development of new media have taken traditional media by surprise. Forced by the times, traditional media have adopted reforms. The media’s core component – opinion pieces – also faces creative destruction. Ten years ago, ‘enlightenment discourse’, part of the grand narrative, influenced the development of opinion pieces. But in today’s period of reform, the effect of enlightenment discourse on opinion is diminishing. Today, we’re inviting Southern Metropolitan Daily commentator Zhang Tianpan to speak at the Fourth Academic Forum on Internet Public Communication: he considers that opinion pieces should shift their focus from advocacy to factual discussion, and from criticism to constructive contribution.
The development of opinion pieces, and their role in the development of ‘enlightenment discourse’, are closely correlated. Ten years ago, discussions about the enlightenment and commentaries full of grand words – like the Statue of Liberty brandishing its torch – became the highest wave of enlightenment discourse to hit China after the 80s. Ten years later, this form of discourse saw its marginal utility diminish, and it started to decline. With the rise of new media and self-media, there is not much space left for this kind of enlightenment discourse, and these broad opinion pieces have already been replaced by individual weibo streams, those known as ‘public intellectuals’ – and now, the term ‘public intellectual’ itself has become derogatory.
Today, as the social environment is entering a large transitional period of reform, advocating ‘enlightenment-style’ values hasn’t lost its meaning, but the influence of this kind of discourse is diluted. Enlightenment discourse (with significant words like freedom, democracy, human rights, universal values, fairness, justice, constitution, and others), just like what the government calls ‘reform’, has lost so much of its charm that some people have started to resent it. This also means that the rhetorical space for advocacy has become increasingly cramped. Of course, there are many reasons for this. On the one hand, there is increased public awareness: after ten years of advocacy, apart from those who still pretend to sleep, all who could wake up have woken up. On the other hand, words have been abused, some people have used these words without restraint, or deliberately sought trouble and stirred up the mud. Even more important is the pressure that the government put on these words, so that they have become a restricted zone.
But if we look at the situation from a broader angle, in this confused and hazy period of transition, every reform and every change of policy has become a complex game, with smokes and mirrors, or what we sometimes call ‘deep-sea reform’. And so the process of ‘reform’ itself has been side-lined by competing interests and balances, and these interests have diversified. Beside, this game of checks and balances and competing interests is not restricted to top-tier executives, but it has spread to every corner of society, and has entered every pore of the social fabric. This is the case with the College Entrance examination, for instance, not only is there an opposition between local families and officials, but also a conflict between local families and families from other provinces, and there are even diverging interests among families from other provinces, so confronted with this kind of situation, simply calling for equal education rights is just scratching the surface, and the problem is very difficult to solve.
Therefore, looking at opinion pieces against this background, we can see that we’re facing an urgent need for self-transformation, in order to restore the power of commentary and discussion. This involves large-scale self-initiated transformation that this kind of discourse must undergo, in line with changes in the media structure.
First, the flattering oily style of opinion pieces is already bankrupt. Today, whether it’s on weibo or WeChat, you can easily notice an elitist trend among opinion and comment, so this will require either a professionalisation of opinion writing, or increasingly high requirements in term of personal style; 而且各种平台的增多，更多专业人士的发声，让不深不浅、不专不一的评论写作者，变得毫无优势可言，外行话或价值先行的现象，比比皆是。
Second, today, apart from pieces that come with reverse values (like opinion pieces in the Global Times or the People’s Daily), the pieces themselves and their writers have already been hidden by the times. When we look back on the past year, how many good, enlightening opinion pieces can we remember reading?
Third, years of fighting between propaganda department censorship and commentary have completely overpowered opinion, they’ve been stuffed in corner, and now commentary has come to the edge of the cliff.
Therefore, in order to restore the authority of opinion, writers must no longer be allowed to just write behind closed doors and just sit pontificating: not only must commentators become social activists, but they have to become deeply involved in certain sectors. This involvement, as the most shallow result, will mean that opinion pieces become a form of news. When I say that opinion becomes news, I’m not talking about second hand news, or second rate news. Opinion actually produces news, and not just as an evaluation of the event or news, but it can be part of the news production process, and even be involved in the event itself. Taking my own work with the Southern Metropolitan Daily as an example, I have planned a series on ‘Spiritual matters and cultural transformation’, ‘new views’ and ‘grassroots design’. In fact, a few comments series have been planned along the news paradigm, and require their own planning and execution.
Furthermore, in order to impact on decision-making and policy, opinion writers can become a media think-tank. For instance, together with Professor Zeng and others, we have now set up the Anping Public fund, and I am now responsible for the ‘Anping Salon’, an attempt to create a joint platform for the non-profit, academic and media sectors, get involved in the events themselves, and finally influence decision making. I don’t come from a journalism major, but I studied sociology, so give more attention to social action, and in particular the power of turning discourse into social action (or even more, social movements).
Of course, this involvement in recreating power does not mean involvement such that neutrality and objectivity will be affected, but common sense and values must form the bottom line; the transition from words to action, the transition from criticism to constructive comment, from advocacy to intervention, in order to establish a new source of power for opinion discourse, otherwise, opinion will just increasingly become a ramble that the readers and public contemptuously ignore.