Chinese newspapers, like many other state institutions, are facing difficulties created by the contradictions of a socialist market economy. But while other state-owned companies are largely free to pursue market principles, newspapers are forced to cope with making a product which conforms to state guidelines.
In China, like in all communist countries, newspapers are used to serve the party. The Chinese Communist Party's People's Daily is also known as 'the tongue and throat of the Party'. It is China's most important newspaper and it reflects the current trends and moods within the leadership. In the 1980s, when the political focus shifted from 'class struggle' to 'economic construction', more freedom was given to newspapers. The general secretary of the CCP, Hu Yaobang, pointed out at the time that the press should propagate the Party's achievements for 80 per cent of coverage, while allowing 20 per cent for criticism.
The Chinese press has known moments of almost complete openness – notably in May 1989 and after Deng Xiaoping's famed trip to southern China where he called upon the people to "open their minds". Newspapers such as Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekly) became popular by reporting on real problems in society. For example, it covered a war between a drug lord and the armed police in Yunnan province, sympathised with children going to the cities to beg and spoke up for a painter who was being harassed by the police.
More and more, newspapers and magazines followed the example of Nanfang Zhoumo by investigating stories and exposing the wrongdoings of party commissars or local bullies.
However, criticism was never allowed to impinge on Deng Xiaoping's Four Basic Principles – Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, leadership of the Party, dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist road. Too much criticism invariably leads to a change of editor or the complete closure of the publication. Last year, the president of Beijing Youth Daily was sacked after his newspaper reported a poisoning case that caused sales to fall at a state drinks company. By the end of the 1980s, severe restrictions were again put on journals and editors; the freedom enjoyed by newspapers and magazines before 1989 has not been recovered.
At the beginning of the Deng era, prospects looked promising for China's newspapers. Only some 200 publications had survived the Cultural Revolution, but encouraged by the new 'open door' policy, many provinces, cities, work units and mass organisations started their own titles.
The Newspaper Index 1997 lists more than 5,000 newspapers and magazines covering daily general news and specialised topics. Titles vary from Hainan Daily to Urumqi Legal Daily, from Journal of Drama and Film to World of Psychology. Car fanatics can choose from Auto Fan, China Automotive News, Beijing and Shanghai Automotive News or subscribe to the magazine of one of the car factories. Nature lovers have an even bigger choice: Tropical Seas, Education on Natural Environment, Forest Science or Northern Garden Art to name just a few environmental publications.
The diversity of titles now resembles the choice available in the West. One reason for their emergence is the growing popularity with advertisers, which welcome the distinctive readership profiles. There are newspapers and magazines on topics such as weaponry, calligraphy, Confucius, foreign railroads, cigarettes, science fiction or tea. Mr Bao Fang, director of Epoch (Beijing) Advertising, says advertisers are increasingly attracted to specialist magazines, such as in clothing or fashion. "Almost any industrial branch has a magazine focusing on its products," he adds. "You only have to choose."
English language newspapers include China Daily, 21st Century and Beijing Weekly. The Xinjiang Daily is published in Uighur, Kazakh as well as Chinese, while the languages of other national minorities being used in regional newspapers include Tibetan, Mongolian and Korean.
The Newspaper Index only lists publications to which foreigners can subscribe. In addition, there are many 'internal newspapers'. The best known such publication is Reference News which reprints dispatches and articles from foreign news organisations.
Although Reference News carries the word 'internal', it is for sale on the streets in almost all big cities. More elusive are the thousands of internal publications of various state organisations. The People's Daily runs the top-secret Neibu Canyue (Reference Review), which covers more open discussions on political and economic issues. The Xinhua News Agency has many internals, including Cankao Yaowen (Frontpage Reference) and Cankao Ziliao (Reference Material). Top leaders have access to restricted publications, most prominently Nei Can (Internal Reference) for Central Committee members.
Extensive closures planned
Ming Pao reported last April that a large scale consolidation is being carried out in the publishing world: newspapers and periodicals with a circulation below 20,000 will be closed. More dramatically, 80 per cent of the estimated 20,000 internal publications will be abolished. 4'he State Press and Publications Administration is also planning to merge newspapers with similar content, such as legal dailies.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the state has cut subsidies to many publications, leaving newspapers largely responsible for their own profits and losses. Hardest hit were the more serious dailies such as People's Daily, which saw its circulation dwindle to some three million from seven million at the end of the 1970s. With a maximum advertising content set at 15 per cent, its options are limited although it is to come back with plans to open a southern edition after the Hong Kong handover.
People's Daily is not the only newspaper to suffer from taking a conservative editorial line. Enlightenment Daily is one of a number of publications that merely print commentaries by state leaders, along with important speeches and page-long articles on theoretical aspects of Marxism.
More frivolous magazines such as Trends Gentleman and Youth and no-nonsense economic publications like China Industry and Commercial Times or Special Economic Zone News are winning a growing market share. These titles better reflect the concerns and interests of the general public. In the words of one editor: "You can now write about what you want, as long as you don't go against the major policies of the state. You can write about the defects of the economy, 'sure. You can write about corruption. But you cannot sit down and promote the independence of Taiwan or that the Dalai Lama should head an independent Tibet."
Reliance on advertising
Newspapers have become inured to operating under differing levels of state control. Equally dispiriting is the fact that, as employees of state-owned entities, they earn wages far below those of private entrepreneurs. This makes them susceptible to corruption. State media have complained that some journalists threaten to write negative stories about an official or a state-owned enterprise unless they receive money. Many companies now complain that it is difficult to get journalists interested in, for instance, the opening of a new joint venture. While the practice is outlawed, foreign companies routinely give presents in the form of pens, watches, ashtrays or a red envelope with some banknotes when they host a press conference.
"Why would we go if we are not compensated?" asks one journalist. "A press conference is a way to get some additional salary."
Newspapers are getting more and more dependent on advertising. According to Zhu Xinmin, secretary general of the People's Daily, US$8bn is expected to be spent on advertisements in Chinese newspapers this year. This will more than compensate for the decreasing subsidies, although some readers complain that sometimes an entire front page is devoted to a single advertisement.
For many newspapers, advertisements have become crucial to survival. At the beginning of the 1990s, state subsidies started to be phased out. "The money derived from subscriptions is almost nothing," says Mr GG Chen, spokesperson for the China International Advertising Corporation. "It costs a few mao to buy one; if you take a subscription it's even cheaper. For an average newspaper, subscription income is maybe just enough to cover the printing costs. The rest – machines, transport, material, salaries, maintenance – has to be covered by income from advertisements."
Television is the most popular medium for advertisers, but newspapers are also used extensively. One drawback in all Chinese media is the difficulty of securing a specific place or slot. "Place is very limited and every newspaper has its own rules," according to Bao Fang of Epoch. It is a question of first come, first served – unless someone comes up with a better offer.
Bao Fang says it is imperative to check whether daily newspapers are being sold to individuals, either by subscription or bought at newsstands. The high level of individual readership of a title such as Beijing Evening News makes it attractive to advertisers, he says.
By contrast, fewer people buy, or subscribe to a title such as Beijing Daily which is distributed free to work units. For such daily titles, whether they are local or national, Bao Fang says they are only a useful medium, "if you have products that are relevant to various state organisations".
Chen believes it is still useful to advertise in newspapers subscribed to by the work units, citing the Jingji Ribao (Economic Daily), Cankao Bao (Economic Reference and Reference News. He says individual subscription to titles is limited, with most people preferring to buy newspapers or magazines from street vendors.