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Dancing in shackles

China has long been criticized for its limits on press freedom; one journalist, He Qinglian, has even described Chinese journalists as “dancing in shackles.” In the collection of essays, Changing Media, Changing China, China experts weigh in on the state of Chinese journalism today and discuss the transformation it has undergone in recent years. In this excerpt from the book, editor Susan L. Shirk sheds some light on the factors that have brought about these changes.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the structure of Chinese media changed. Newspapers, magazines, and television stations received cuts in their government subsidies and were driven to enter the market and to earn revenue. In 1979 they were permitted to sell advertising, and in 1983 they were allowed to retain the profits from the sale of ads. Because people were eager for information and businesses wanted to advertise their products, profits were good and the number of publications grew rapidly. As Qian Gang and David Bandurski note in chapter 2, the commercialization of the media accelerated after 2000 as the government sought to strengthen Chinese media organizations to withstand competition from foreign media companies.

By 2005, China published more than two thousand newspapers and nine thousand magazines. In 2003, the CCP eliminated mandatory subscriptions to official newspapers and ended subsidies to all but a few such papers in every province. Even nationally circulated, official papers like People’s Daily, Guangming Daily, and Economics Daily are now sold at retail stalls and compete for audiences. According to their editors, Guangming Daily sells itself as “a spiritual homeland for intellectuals”; Economics Daily markets its timely economic reports; and the People’s Daily promotes its authoritativeness.

About a dozen commercial newspapers with national circulations of over 1 million readers are printed in multiple locations throughout the country. The southern province Guangdong is the headquarters of the cutting-edge commercial media, with three newspaper groups fiercely competing for audiences. Nanjing now has five newspapers competing for the evening readership. People buy the new tabloids and magazines on the newsstands and read them at home in the evening.

Though almost all of these commercial publications are part of media groups led by party or government newspapers, they look and sound completely different. In contrast to the stilted and formulaic language of official publications, the language of the commercial press is lively and colloquial. Because of this difference in style, people are more apt to believe that the content of commercial media is true. Daniela Stockmann‘s research shows that consumers seek out commercial publications because they consider them more credible than their counterparts from the official media. According to her research, even in Beijing, which has a particularly large proportion of government employees, only about 36 percent of residents read official papers such as the People’s Daily; the rest read only semiofficial or commercialized papers.

Advertisers and many of the commercial media groups target young and middle-aged urbanites who are well-educated, affluent consumers. But publications also seek to differentiate themselves and appeal to specific audiences. The Guangdong-based publications use domestic muckraking to attract a business-oriented, cosmopolitan audience. Because they push the limits on domestic political reporting — their editors are fired and replaced frequently — they have built an audience of liberal-minded readers outside Guangdong Province. According to its editors, Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), published by the Nanfang Daily group under the Guangdong Communist Party Committee, considered one of the most critical and politically influential commercial newspapers, has a larger news bureau and greater circulation in politically charged Beijing than it does in southern China. The Communist Youth League‘s popular national newspaper, China Youth Journal, has been a commercial success because it appeals to China’s yuppies, the style-conscious younger generation with money to spend. The national foreign affairs newspaper, Global Times, tries to attract the same demographic by its often sensational nationalistic reporting of international affairs, as I discuss in chapter 10.

Media based out of Shanghai, the journalistic capital of China before the communist victory in 1949, are comparatively “very dull and quiet,” according to Chinese media critics. The cause they cite is that the city’s government has been slow to relinquish control. Shanghai audiences prefer Southern Weekend, Global Times, and Nanjing’s Yangtze Evening News to Shanghai-based papers, and Hunan television to their local stations.

Journalists now think of themselves as professionals instead of as agents of the government. Along with all the other changes referred to above, this role change began in the late 1970s. Chinese journalists started to travel, study abroad, and encounter “real” journalists. The crusading former editor in chief of the magazine Caijing (Finance and Economy) and author of chapter 3, Hu Shuli, recalls that before commercialization, “the news media were regarded as a government organization rather than a watchdog, and those who worked with news organizations sounded more like officials than professional journalists. [But] our teachers…encouraged us to pursue careers as professional journalists.” Media organizations now compete for the best young talent, and outstanding journalists have been able to bid up their salaries by changing jobs frequently. Newspapers and magazines are also recruiting  and offering high salaries to bloggers who have attracted large followings. Yet most journalists still receive low base salaries and are paid by the article, which makes them susceptible to corruption. Corruption ranges from small transportation subsidies and “honoraria” provided to reporters for coverage of government and corporate news conferences to outright corporate bribery for positive reporting and extortion of corporations by journalists threatening to write damaging exposés (see chapter 3). Establishing professional journalistic ethics is as difficult in China’s Wild West version of early capitalism as it was in other countries at a similar stage of development.

Some journalists also have crossed over to political advocacy. In one unprecedented collective act, the national Economic Observer and twelve regional newspapers in March 2010 published a sharply worded joint editorial calling on China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, to abolish the system of household residential permits (hukou) that forces migrants from the countryside to live as second-class citizens in the cities. The authorities banned dissemination and discussion of the editorial but only after it had received wide distribution. At the legislative session, government leaders proposed some reforms of the hukou system, but not its abolition as demanded by the editorial.

Susan L. Shirk is Director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, and Professor at UC-San Diego. A leading authority on China, she has written numerous books, including China: Fragile Superpower (2008) and articles that have appeared in the Washington Post, Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

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