Two Views Of The Chinese Newspaper Industry

There are two articles in this post.  There is the view from the outside and then there is the view from the inside.  Looking at it from the outside, the macroeconomic figures are rosy for a budgeoning industry.  Looking at it from the inside, things are not going well at all, being exacerbated by the state control of media.  In the end, it is not the number of newspapers that counts -- it is the number of functional and viable newspapers that matters.

(Associated PressChina a Bright Spot for Paper Industry.  November 4, 2004.

China and India are the growth centers for the newspaper industry in Asia, which now accounts for 25 percent of global revenues behind the United States and Western Europe, an industry association said Thursday.

Few countries worldwide reported increased circulation in addition to more advertising, but China and India showed "significant gains in both areas," said Timothy Balding, director general of the World Association of Newspaper, or WAN.

Of the world's top 100 newspapers in terms of circulation, 66 are Asian, with Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun topping the list with 14,081,000 copies daily, Balding said at a meeting of regional newspaper executives.

Japan publishes 20 of the world's top 100 titles, followed by the United States with 18, and China and India with 16 apiece, according to research by WAN.

In terms of total combined circulation, however, the latter two nations have both surpassed Japan, China in 2000 and India last year, as Japan suffered declines.

"Despite the recent 'rationalization' of its press market and the closure of many (677) titles, China, together with India, stands out in the region for real growth in circulation terms," said Balding, who added that Japan still remains the region's major player despite an economic downturn.

WAN's survey found that Japan still accounts for 54 percent of all newspaper revenues in the region, with the Chinese and Korean markets taking 15 percent and 10 percent respectively.

China and India saw circulation increases over the last five years of 35.69 percent and 23.21 percent respectively, while the United States, Europe and Japan all showed negative growth. Advertising revenue jumped 87 percent in China over the last five years and 36 percent in India, also far ahead of the other areas.

"India is probably the most exciting newspaper market and that's why foreign companies are lining up to get involved in India," said Balding. He noted that laws restricting foreign shareholding had been eased, making joint ventures easier.

On sheer numbers alone, however, China is bound to be a powerhouse: "The figure are just so impressive: 2,100 newspapers in China, huge circulation growth, huge growth in advertising in newspapers," said Balding.

The World Association of Newspapers is a nonprofit group whose membership includes 72 national newspaper associations, individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 13 news agencies and 10 regional press organizations.

(New Century Net)  China's Third Evil Force: The News Media.  By Liang Zhi.


In China, the people have described the news media as the third evil force.  Some have even warned people to beware of "fire, robbery and newspaper reporters."  The first evil force refers to government organizations.  They abuse their power over the people.  The second evil force refers to the triad organizations on mainland China.  To list  the news media alongside the triad gangs is quite appropriate.  I was a reporter for about seven to eight years at a newspaper in western China, and I can summarize what I personally observed as follows: a fucking gangster newspaper!  In China, the news media shared the same characteristics as the other evil forces -- they appease those in power, they abuse the powerless people, they abet in the oppression of the weak and they prostitute themselves.  In the following, I will describe some of the things that I saw or heard during my many years in the newspaper business.

As everybody knows, there is no freedom of press in China.  Press workers like us receive many notices from the news control organizations either on a regular or irregular basis.  These notices usually come from the provincial news publishing bureau or the provincial propaganda department.  There are also national notices from the news publishing ministry or the national propaganda department.  They are sometimes issued in the form of formal documents, but many times they are just verbal orders from the leadership or else you have to figure it out yourself.  These notices share the quintessentially Chinese characteristics of being notices of "Do Not Publish."  Their scope are quite wide: anything that is believed to disrupt unity and the over situation follows into the "Do Not Publish" list.

For example, at my newspaper, prior to the 70th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, we received a notice from the newspaper publishing bureau: nothing critical must be published.  It was the same thing with the Sixteenth Chinese Communist Party Plenum last year.  Faced with these special notices, even our editor-in-chief smiled and said: "I am really embarrassed for our Party."  In the end, on the first day after the Sixteenth Plenum ended, all sorts of critical reports filled our newspapers.  This is enough to make someone laugh and cry at the same time.

Usually, the provincial propaganda department and the publishing bureau will hold meetings every several days with the editors-in-chief at various newspapers in order to communicate the spirit of reporting: within certain areas, they will say explicitly that certain events must not be reported.  Between 2001 and 2003, I recall clearly that the following items were not allowed to be reported:

(1) In 2001, there was a big mine explosion in the Shaanxi Province Hancheng City Xiayuguan Mine with more than 60 dead.  The local <<Chinese Commercial Newspaper>> published a report of several hundred words and caused strong reactions in the province.  The provincial propaganda department ordered all the newspapers not to report anymore.  Nevertheless, in spite of the cover-up effort by the Shaanxi province authorities, the news was still hot outside the province.

(2) In October 2002, there was a large dynamite explosion in Shaanxi Province Hungshan, with more than 80 casualties.  Publishing was banned.  When the incident could not be covered up, the newspapers were ordered to reprint the standard Xinhua reports.

(3) For the 9/11 incident, no commentary was permitted.  The newspapers were ordered to use the Xinhua reports.

(4) Nothing can be reported on petitioning by peasants or fees imposed on peasants.

(5) Nothing can be reported on petitioning by retired workers.

(6) In June 2002, several workers in a Shaanxi Province factory cut off the road in protest.  This was deemed to be unpublishable.

(7) When the stock market began to fall successively last year, several companies requested to be suspended from trading.  These could not be reported because of the fear of causing stock market turmoil.

(8) It was not permitted to publish about the Bank of China being prosecuted in the United States.

(9) The fake lottery case in Xian was not permitted to be published.  When the many lottery buyers got publicly angry, coverage was permitted.  But the coverage inside the province was significantly milder and less substantive than that outside the province.

There are more than one hundred specific topics in economics, society and culture that cannot be published about.

Within the Chinese news industry, there is a peculiar phenomenon: the sensitivity about Taiwan.  A certain newspaper published an advertisement: a certain product from a manufacturer is sold across the nation and there was a  map of the country.  Unfortunately, they forgot about Taiwan and this stirred the hornets' nest.  In the end, the inspectors rushed in and issued a warning to the newspaper after some detailed scrutiny of the situation at this newspaper.

Symmetric to the "Do Not Publish" list is the "Must Publish" list, which is another significant characteristic of Chinese news publishing.  Items such as the 7/1 Party Anniversary, the Olympics bid, the Sixteenth Plenum and other local activities must be assigned space in highly visible areas.

The Chinese media are said to the mouthpiece of the Party.  In principle, the newspapers are nationally owned.  In practice, the newspapers are divided into Party newspapers and non-Party newspapers.  The Party newspapers enjoy all sorts of privileges, including financial support and distribution advantages.  The non-Party newspaper must figure out their own financing and distribution.  Under these circumstances, those publishers must do everything possible to round up financial support, to get the distribution and sell advertisements.  The newspaper that I worked for belongs to the non-Party category.  That newspaper has worked with many business people over the years, and those business people were hoping to make some money through the newspaper.

There is a saying that "capitalists only look for short-term profits."  This is clear in the case of the Chinese newspaper industry.  To invest in a newspaper is a risky proposition because the ownership ultimately belongs to the state which may take the newspaper away at any time.  So the business people tend to take the short cut and thereby force the newspaper down an irreversible path.  Typically, the newspaper contents are gathered from various places such as the Internet because they don't have to pay for the rights; at the same time, they ruthlessly grab advertisements.  Inside an issue of a newspaper, there is not much news content because the ads take up 2/3 of the space.

A dysfunctional system under a dysfunctional management inevitably leads to dysfunctional workers.  Since the newspaper is run at the cheapest possible costs, the newspaper reporters can't even get minimum wages.  To subsist, the reporters must resort to selling advertisements and blackmailing people.  When some newspaper reporters go to work, they are like a pack of wild wolves who threaten and cajole people.  At our newspapers, there was an editor-in-chief named Zhang.  When he read a critical article written by a reporter, he would immediately seek out the subjects of the article and show them the article.  When the other party realizes what was up, some money would be offered and the editor-in-chief would suppress the article while ignoring the injustices reported therein.  He was giving up his conscience for a small financial gain.  Zhang would come back and tell the reporter that the article was not written well or ot else it did not meet the standard for publication.  What is the reporter to say?

There was a reporter who went directly to Shaanbei where a collapsed oil well killed many people.  He wanted to file a report, but the oil well owner did not want him to do so.  Obviously, money had to change hands for report not to appear.  

Another reporter in Shaannan had this way of making money: he would travel around just to spot problems.  When he sees land erosion due to deforestation, he would make records of the evidence.  Later, when the opportunity arises, he would go see the local government officials or responsible parties and threaten to report on the evidence.  Obviously, money had to change hands to suppress the report.

In China, enterprises (and especially private enterprises) are subject to exploitation by the government if they do not have their politically connected backers.  In addition, they are "monitored" by the media.  But the oversight done by the media is equivalent to a form of blackmail.  For example, the very popular Sanzhu Company did not have the money to pay off the coverage of the Hunan Changdei incident, and so the company collapsed under the attack of both the government and the media.  Afterwards, the general manager of Sanzhu said that if only they knew this was going to happen, they would have paid 100 million yuan to stave off the media.

The so-called monitoring or oversight by the media has caused enterprises to hate them and yet they are powerless against them.  That is why people tell each other to beware of "fire, robbery and newspaper reporters", with the media being the third evil force in China.

In China, the media are the mouthpiece of the Party.  This relationship meant that the media and the government share the same bed.  The government and the media have reached an understanding in many places -- when the media break the law, the government will ignore it.  Within the media, there is also another kind of understanding: complaints against the media will not be reported by anyone anywhere.

Violation of labor rights is a common thing in China.  According the Labor Law of China, a contract between the employer and the workers is required upon hiring.  Based upon my personal knowledge, virtually no newspaper worker in my city has a contract.  

Again, according the Labor Law of China, the employer cannot pay wages that are less than the local minimum standard wage.  Yet, at newspapers, the reporters often get paid less than the minimum wage.  Thus, the reporters call themselves "news civilian laborers."

In my city, reporters do not have any of the three benefits -- unemployment insurance, retirement pension or medical insurance.  Reporters don't even get the basic wages.  At newspapers, it is common for the employers to be behind on wage payments.  At <<XX Commercial Press>>, there were many instances of owed wages, including one case of as long as half a  year which is still unpaid at this time.  Another newspaper published an employment ad that said: "Several thousand yuan per month, although it would do not be surprising if there is fewer than a hundred yuan per month."  Actually, no worker at this newspaper receives thousands of yuan per month; in fact, some receive even less than a few dozen yuan per month.

Against this exploitation of the labor rights, the workers cannot even complain to anyone . At <<XX Commercial Press>>, the workers complained to the Labor Department about the owed wages.  But the officials said, "You reporters are in the business of helping others to collect their back wages.  How come you want your own wages now?"  When I went to the Labor Department to ask about the minimum wages, I was told: "We don't deal with the media.  We don't dare to."

There is a nice saying about reporters: "We rise earlier than the chickens, we work harder than the cows, we eat worse than the pigs, we get paid less than common laborers.  It seems that we are better than anyone else, but we are actually worse."  Such are the conditions for our Chinese reporters, especially those who work for private enterprises.

There are many newspapers in China, perhaps more than 10,000 of them.  There are several hundred newspapers in my city, so the competition is keen.  Many newspapers last less than one year.  When the newspaper starts business, they hire people; when they close, people are let go.  The newspapers simply are not concerned about the livelihood of their workers.

When a newspaper shuts down, the unemployed personnel will have to go back into the job market.  This creates a situation in which there is a surplus of editors and reporters.  Certain unscrupulous newspapers have the opportunity to behave even worse than ever.  Some newspapers in my city hire about a dozen people each year, with a new hire each month on the average.  Does this newspaper really need people?  No, it is only trying to save money.  When the new person is hired, he/she is put on probation without pay.  Even if they are paid, the wages are low due to the labor surplus.

Newspapers in China form an evil force.  Towards both the inside and outside, the newspapers act just like gangsters, hooligans and hoodlums.

This is a very pessimistic reading of the newspaper industry in China.  I should point out that "not all crows under heaven are black" as there are some serious and earnest journalism being professionally practiced in China.  I will offer the example of Lu Yuegang and the Chinese Youth Daily (see previous post).

(Strait Times via Asia Pacific Media Network)  Fake journalists 'extorting money from wrongdoers'.  November 18, 2004.

Some illegal newspapers and magazines in China are deploying bogus journalists to extort money from wrongdoers, who would willingly pay up than risk prosecution from exposes, a report has said.

Most of these publications are registered outside mainland China and have their headquarters in Hong Kong or Beijing, Ming Pao Daily News reported yesterday, citing Oriental Outlook, a news weekly published by the official Xinhua news agency.

In a lengthy investigative report, Oriental Outlook said that these illegal media groups were able to start operating just by paying 50,000 yuan (S$9,900) to buy names for their offices and agencies.

They would then recruit so-called journalists and deploy them to carry out extortions armed with threats to write 'exposes' or pen 'internal reports' on their victims, who were often people in dishonest trades.

The report said that one of these illegal publications, Jingshi Zhuankan, managed to rake in one million yuan within six months. It even invested in a luxury sedan to drive its journalists around.

In one case in November last year, Jingshi Zhuankan's journalists, based in east China's Jiangxi province, visited a steel factory in Jian city and took pictures of the plant's operations. The report did not say what the pictures showed.

The group used the pictures to blackmail the factory manager, who agreed to pay 12,000 yuan in exchange for the roll of film, the report said.

Subsequent police inquiries showed that the journalists had carried out extortions at 18 steel plants in the province between November last year and January this year.  Claiming to be reporters or investigators, they threatened to expose the illegal operations or fine the companies.

Within three months, Jingshi Zhuankan reporters had collected 220,600 yuan in cash and 16 cartons of cigarettes, and were given free food, lodging and holidays valued at more than 12,000 yuan.