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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists
5. Censorship at Work: The Newsroom in China
The state has weaned the media from subsidies and pushed outlets to rely on advertising revenue, all while keeping control over news content through financial incentives, administrative measures, and the threat of punishment.
Publishing and broadcasting have been growth industries in China. Since 1979, when the sale of advertisements in state-controlled newspapers became legal, the media industry has undergone a dramatic commercial reform. In 2006, advertising revenue in China shot up 22 percent, to 386.6 billion yuan (US$51 billion), as income from newspaper and especially television and magazine advertising grew dramatically, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Even as Chinese authorities have shut down hundreds of television stations and newspapers for publishing internal news, offending the Communist Party’s propaganda authorities, or violating the byzantine rules governing the media, the overall trend of growth over nearly three decades is unmistakable.
The state has weaned the media from subsidies and pushed outlets to rely on advertising revenue, all while keeping control over news content through financial incentives, administrative measures, and the threat of punishment. Since Hu Jintao became president in 2003, journalists say, these restrictions have become more stringent.
Though the Chinese constitution protects freedom of the press, speech, and expression, there are institutional barriers to the free distribution of news in China. All news outlets must be authorized by the State Council and must comply with specific media regulations guarding almost every aspect of operation: hiring and training practices, amount of registered capital, location of premises, ties to any sponsoring state agency, and number of news bureaus.
By law, a journalist must hold a governmentissued press card, which requires a minimum junior college education. The card must be renewed every five years and can be revoked for failing to “respect and follow government-issued laws, regulations, and professional journalist ethics.”
Regulations for operating broadcast, print, and Internet news outlets also list broad categories of unacceptable content, including anything that “disrupts the social order or undermines social stability” or is “detrimental to social morality or to the finer cultural traditions of the nation.” Outlets that violate regulations can be punished with fines or shutdowns. By law, all news outlets must be affiliated with a state entity, but the degree of direct party oversight, the level of financial pressure, and the influence of reporters and editors vary across regions and types of media. National state-controlled media such as the Xinhua News Agency, Guangming Daily, People’s Daily, and China Central Television, for instance, enjoy the backing of the central party leadership, and are known to do critical reporting at the local level even as they praise the Beijing elite. Print and Internet media tend to have more leeway than broadcast news outlets. Authorities in Shanghai have a reputation for tolerating little politi-cal criticism from the city’s media, while those in Guangzhou preside over an aggressively commercial press. Liberal management can make a difference, as can the kinds of topics that a news outlet focuses on; because of the official desire to promote commercial growth and foreign investment, financial reporting is given a wider berth by propaganda authorities and media owners.
For a successful example of a market-oriented news outlet, look no further than Caijing. A financial magazine based in Beijing, it has grown under the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Hu Shuli into a publication with a solid reputation for well-researched journalism. Its reports on SARS, avian influenza, pharmaceutical scams, corruption, and other crucial issues have won it an affluent readership and wide admiration.
Yang Daming, Caijing’s deputy editor-in-chief, attributes the magazine’s success to its coming of age during a time of market reform in China, when professional reporting on financial news became both necessary and commercially viable. In addition, Yang notes that Caijing has avoided one pitfall that traps other media outlets competing for advertising revenue. “From the beginning, there has been a clear line between editorial and advertising at Caijing,” Yang said. “The advertising department is in a separate building. They give us the independence we need to work.”
The profitability of the magazine also gives it leverage in its inevitable tussles with authorities. Caijing is owned by the SEEC Media Group, a firm with mainly commercial interests, and is under the oversight of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC), an official organization that describes its political aims, in part, as “to hold high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping’s theory.” When two articles in the March 2007 issue—one of them about controversial legislation to protect private property—alarmed propaganda officials, the ACFIC acted. The issue was pulled from the printer, but Caijing journalists succeeded in revising the copy and publishing the work the next week.
For chief editors, though, miscalculating official reaction carries significant risk. No case illustrates this more clearly than the crackdown at Nanfang Dushi Bao in 2004. Cheng Yizhong, a young party member who was appointed to bring in profits, led the newspaper as it investigated the death in police custody of college graduate Sun Zhigang. The newspaper’s powerful reporting resonated with the public, forcing the government to make nationwide changes in detention policies. Yet the very same reporting caused the newspaper itself to come under investigation. Cheng was subsequently held in police custody for five months, and two of his colleagues were sentenced to prison terms of several years on corruption charges.
In addition to the specific orders, journalists understand they have to stay away from stories about the military, ethnic conflict, and religion (particularly Falun Gong and underground churches), along with articles on the inner workings of the party and, to a lesser extent, the government. Savvy journalists carry their own internal compasses for issues like these. They openly admit that self-censorship is just as stringent a master as the Central Propaganda Department.
The penalties for crossing the censors’ line are mostly administrative. Serious infractions are noted in a journalist’s employment record. Seeing a pattern of controversial reports, propaganda authorities may close down a publication or “reorganize” its personnel. These are not uncommon practices: Each year, several highprofile publications disappear, or have offending staff demoted and shuttled off to publications where they can have less impact. In early 2007, Huang Liangtian, editor-in-chief of the Beijing-based magazine Baixing (Ordinary People), was removed from his post after the publication ran one too many news reports about corruption and official land grabs. His magazine was reconfigured as a cultural affairs publication, carrying reprints of innocuous material and no original news reports. Huang was transferred to a position at Agricultural Products Weekly, taking much of the staff with him.
Another example: In June 2007, after the Chengdu Evening News published a small classified ad in support of “the strong mothers of 6/4 victims”—referring to the events of June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square, a subject that is strictly off-limits to the Chinese media—the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief and two others on the editorial staff were fired, according to news reports. Sources at the newspaper told reporters that the young staff members simply had no idea what “6/4” referred to, a plausible explanation since reporting on the 1989 military crackdown has been officially suppressed.
The impact of such a system is clear. Most reporters with the Nanfang Daily Group are better paid than their colleagues elsewhere in the country, and they can better afford to lose some income when editors spike their stories for political or business-related reasons, or by orders of propaganda authorities. It is no coincidence that Nanfang’s newspapers, like the profitable and well-paying Caijing, have developed a reputation for aggressive news coverage. But for reporters at provincial newspapers, who can expect to earn less than 50 yuan (US$6.60) per article, loss of income can be devastating. Journalists at these news outlets have an extra incentive to avoid work that might anger propaganda authorities.
Another defining feature of the payment system is the ratings scale. At many publications, there is no set payment for an article; instead, internal committees rate each article to determine how much the reporter will be paid. An article’s rating is sometimes determined by its popularity, but is more often decided on its political merits.
In August 2005, Li Datong, who was then editor-in-chief of the China Youth Daily supplement Freezing Point, created a stir when he wrote a furious memo to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Li Erliang, excoriating a newly proposed ratings system. Under this system, 50 points would be awarded to articles with the highest readership, and up to 300 points would be awarded to those praised by officials. Party or government criticism would lead to deductions. Though it was posted on the newspaper’s internal network, the memo quickly found its way online.
“No matter how strongly readers praise an article, if it makes some official unhappy, and receives a couple sentences of ‘criticism,’ then not only is all your labor for naught, but the prestige of the paper is for naught, and it goes without saying that the opinion of the readers is worth less than a fart,” Li wrote, according to The Washington Post’s translation of the memo.
“Under this arbitrary and meaningless arrangement, what sane journalist would choose to write public interest reports?” Li asked.
Li won the battle, and the proposed ratings system at China Youth Daily was scrapped. (Li survived as Freezing Point editor only a few more months before being demoted for publishing a controversial essay on Chinese history.) But across China, similar systems are the norm, and investigative journalism in particular suffers under them. With a good chance of attracting the negative attention of businesspeople or officials, exposés are likely to be rejected by propaganda authorities. Add the time commitment of researching and investigating each report, and the economics of investigative reporting becomes bleak.
While editorials at Nanfang Dushi Bao, China Youth Daily, and other newspapers have continued to break new ground, media observers note that, partly as a result of these commercial pressures, investigative reporting remains limited to a small number of journalists sporadically taking on projects at a handful of major newspapers.
Zhou Kai, a reporter at China Youth Daily, gave a devastating online account of his frustrations in pursuing an investigative piece. When Zhou published an essay on counterfeit medicine, he recounted, a reader in northern China’s Shandong province called him with a real-life example. The reader’s mother was on the brink of death after doctors gave her a counterfeit medication intravenously.
Zhou went after the story. In the course of writing a 7,000-word investigative piece, he interviewed the deputy director of the municipal food and drug administration in the provincial town of Laiyang, who brought along a representative from the party’s local propaganda department. When Zhou returned to Beijing, he was informed by his boss that the newspaper had decided to do a joint project with Laiyang officials on “One Hundred Great Counties.” He was advised to file his investigative report as an “internal reference”—distributed only to those officials with high-level security clearance.
Even as he posted his account of censorship in April 2007, Zhou couldn’t help thinking his career would suffer. “As I write this essay, I am wondering how many people I am going to offend. Will I be able to work at the newspaper anymore? Will I be allowed to write news reports? Will I ever get a good rating for my reports? Will I ever get a good rating for job performance? Will I ever be rated excellent again?”
His judgment of his bosses’ actions was equally direct: They were simply responding to the pressures
of the media market when they accepted an offer from the officials in Laiyang, Zhou said. “The newspaper
… needs money to satisfy its workers,” he wrote. “If the state won’t provide the money, the newspaper has
to earn money on its own. It needs advertisements, it needs marketing, it needs distribution, and it is that
At the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xinhua’s foreign bureaus, celebrated on May 31, 2007, Central Propaganda Department Director Liu Yunshan extolled Xinhua for the special role it plays both within China and abroad.
“As a state news agency, Xinhua is in a pivotal position in the party’s news and propaganda work,” said Liu, according to a Xinhua report. “In the last 60 years, Xinhua has earnestly carried out the party’s line, principle, and policy; has actively carried out propaganda abroad making use of its overseas organ; has endeavored to create an objective and friendly international public opinion environment; and has made important contributions to pressing ahead China’s revolution, socialist construction, and reform and opening up.”
Liu encouraged Xinhua to maintain its role as a disseminator of propaganda overseas: “It should forcefully propagandize China’s policy and advocacy of adhering to scientific development, harmonious development, and peaceful development; should fully present China’s brand new outlook of economic development, social progress, ethnic solidarity, and the people living and working in peace and contentment; should fully reflect the Chinese people’s good wish to pursue world harmony and to promote peace of mankind; and should create an image of China as being civilized, just, democratic, and progressive.”
To make this happen, Xinhua hires recent college graduates who undergo an ideological training session of several weeks before they begin work. Departmental leaders introduce them to the structure, function, and discipline of the Xinhua model of reporting, and even offer training on how to protect national secrets. “In a word, we’re expected to be brainwashed,” said one Xinhua editor, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.
Xinhua employs thousands of people in its domestic and international bureaus. Reporters are viewed as government employees and enjoy special access to officials at the local level. Agency managers, from department directors to top editors, enjoy all the privileges of the ruling elite. Xinhua’s president, Tian Congming, operates at the ministerial level and is a member of the party’s Central Committee. In this role, he undertakes diplomatic missions abroad and hosts foreign delegations in Beijing; in 2006 and 2007, he met separately with representatives of state news agencies from North Korea, Venezuela, and Cambodia to promote “bilateral cooperation.”
In the newsroom, Xinhua reporters enjoy enviable access, but their reporting is slowed by the agency’s prepublication censorship system. As in many news organizations, dispatches must flow through headquarters for review before release. But at Xinhua, stories that deal with the party’s upper leadership must also go to the Central Office of the party’s Central Committee and the State Council Office for approval. Particularly sensitive stories are sent to Xinhua’s chief editorial office or, on occasion, to the president of the agency for a final decision, according to CPJ sources. Because it is the flagship, Xinhua receives special and direct attention from the Central Propaganda Department in the form of orders to suppress or to cover specific news. These directives can be contradictory and are often confounding, Xinhua staffers say, in some cases instructing journalists to report a story they were ordered to stay away from just hours earlier.
While authorities effectively keep unwanted news from reaching mass audiences, journalists know they can troll the Web for hidden treasures. Thus, they say, the scope of news and commentary has broadened over nearly three decades of commercial reform and information revolution.
That the government’s system of media control has effectively stayed the same is a source of optimism for some journalists.
“The media management system is like a balloon,” said media critic Li. “Thirty years ago, there wasn’t much for the balloon to hold. But over the years it has been expanding and expanding with the Internet—new ideas, more reporting. But the framework hasn’t changed.”
Li pauses, then grins: “Pop!”