Playboy Comes To China (Or Maybe Not)

This is about the international journey of a news meme.

(China Daily)  Hold the press.  By Cui Xiaohuo.  December 14, 2007.

Visitors to the Beijing Games may be able to buy Playboy and a raft of other limited publications as China mulls relaxing its controls for the Summer Olympics in line with international practice.

A visitor to Qingdao International Sailing Regatta, an Olympic test
event held in August in the coastal city of Qingdao,
checks out the latest paperbacks on offer.
[Courtesy of China National Publications Import and Export Corporation (CNPIEC)]

All pornographic material is prohibited on the mainland but a temporary exception could be made for the Games, according to the biggest importer of foreign publications in the country.  "Our law forbids Playboy and we should obey this, but we can't rule out the possibility that it might make its debut. There might be a demand for it (from athletes or visitors) during the Games," said Liang Jianrui, vice-president of China National Publications Import and Export Corporation, which will manage the nine magazine-selling kiosks sanctioned by Olympic organizers BOCOG during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Each kiosk will retail over 100 kinds of newspapers and magazines, including publications that are difficult to find in the capital like The New York Times, Newsweek and Britain's The Sun famous for its topless Page 3 models.  "We will provide most of the world's top-selling newspapers and magazines," said Liang.  While Playboy, the brainchild of Hugh Hefner that is known for its "tasteful" photos of buxom beauties, remains a highly controversial choice at the Olympic Village, there is a growing trend in China to experiment with magazines that were once deemed dangerous or unsanitary.

China's increasingly liberal political climate has seen sweeping changes hit the shelves of bookstores in the last 18 months, with a Chinese edition of edgy music journal Rolling Stone now deemed fit for the Chinese reading public.  Other foreign media, like The New York Times, usually costs twice as much in Beijing as it does in Hong Kong - because of high tax rate and shipping costs, and is often restricted to five-star hotels, international compounds and special foreign bookstores.

Many expatriates in the capital consider this one of the "cons" of living in the city.  "It is very inconvenient to buy foreign newspapers and magazines in Beijing," said South African Jeremy Goldkorn, a 12-year China resident who founded a popular English blog about the country.  "As a long-term resident of Beijing, I am already used to reading my favorite publications online, but even then, some foreign websites are inexplicably difficult to access."

Beijing is going all out on a PR offensive to show the world next summer that it is an international city and is ready to bend the rules to give visitors a more comfortable stay.  In addition to implementing a citywide clean-up campaign involving taxi-drivers and social etiquette lessons, it is ramping up English learning across the city, recruiting an unprecedented number of volunteers for the Games and doing its utmost to sanitize the environment and food hygiene levels in the city.  The relaxation of curbs on magazines and newspapers follows Olympic protocol. Previous host cities like Athens, Sydney and Atlanta were also asked to ensure journalists and athletes had access to all leading international publications.

The move is also in line with a growing appetite among the Chinese public for foreign, and especially original, material, including novels.  The final installment of the bestselling Harry Potter series, for example, sold 50,000 copies on its first print here despite a high retail price of 200 yuan per hardback copy.  "This trend of releasing more foreign material stems purely from demand," said Liang.  "Before China opened up, expatriates were so eager to read their newspapers and books in Beijing that China made exceptions by opening foreign bookstores.  Nowadays, Chinese bookstores sell foreign books."

The good news for athletes, tourists and journalists during the 2008 Olympics is that they will be able to find many of their favorite paperbacks at downtown bookstores, while also being able to catch up on the latest news from the nine designated kiosks only hours after publications like the Financial Times are printed in Hong Kong.  Popular Asian newspapers such as Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Singapore's The Strait Times and France's L'Équipe will also be available, said Liang.

The kiosks got a pre-run this August at the Olympic co-host city of Qingdao when it staged the Qingdao International Sailing Regatta, an Olympic test event.  Liang said his company is also talking with leading newspapers including The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times to keep down retail costs and make sure the papers arrive in a timely manner. These two dailies do not have access to printing presses in Hong Kong and must be flown from the United States to Beijing.  "Our newsstands will respond to the practical needs of visitors during the Games," said Liang. "We plan to release a list of what's going to be available next April or May, but it may not be the final list."

Six of the nine kiosks will be located in the media area for accredited and non-accredited journalists, he said. The biggest one, with a floor space of 68 sq m, will sit in the International Broadcasting Center.  Athletes and coaches will have access to their favorite reads at the Olympic Village, while another store at the Olympic Green will cater to international and domestic spectators.  The newsstands will be updated every three hours from 9 am to 6 pm, Jiao Guoying, president of the company, told local media recently.

On a newsstand at the University of International Business and Economics in north Beijing, several copies of a pink Financial Times stick out from behind piles of Chinese publications.  The second-hand newspaper costs only 4 yuan (50 US cents), a fraction of its retail price in Europe, but is a must-read for finance majors at the college.  Yet the fact it is even here at all is a mystery to many.  "A man delivers the papers to me, but I'm not exactly sure where they come from," said Han, a vendor at the school who refused to disclose her full name.  A man who used to sell second-hand magazines during his college days told China Daily on condition of anonymity that he persuaded airport staff at Beijing Capital International Airport to collect used foreign magazines from the cabins of international flights, before carrying them to universities and crowded English schools like New Oriental in the capital.

As foreign publications, both in print and online, are still few and far between in China, used copies from "smugglers" like this form one of the limited channels for Chinese to (literally) get their hands on material that is easily available overseas.  "When Time magazine published its Person of the Year edition last December, featuring a mirror reflecting the reader herself, I was eager to get one," said Wu Yun, a senior student of Beijing Foreign Studies University.  "It took me over a month to get one copy but in the end I did it," she told China Daily.

Used periodicals like Time, The Economist and National Geographic, which are brought to the Chinese mainland from Hong Kong, are also among the best sellers, said vendors around Wu's school.  One vender there said he sold about 50 to 60 copies every month.  Readers of foreign publications in China include students, scholars and office workers with some foreign-language skills.

During weekends, reading rooms for foreign-language periodicals are usually packed at the National Library of China near Zhongguancun, where more than 10,000 foreign periodicals are available.  "I asked for leave from my company to come here and read foreign periodicals like I.D., Innovation, Design and Mono," said a woman surnamed He, an industrial designer in her late 20s and a fine arts enthusiast.  "Not many Chinese design companies can afford to subscribe to all these magazines," she said. "But they are really useful."  Luo Huan, a 30-year-old librarian at the library, said that nowadays Chinese readers want to know more about what is going on in the world of international science, law and social affairs.

Many Chinese frequently read foreign publications online, using portals, search engines, proxies and RSS feeds. The Chinese websites of some western media have also experienced a growing readership on the Chinese mainland.  "Reading more global publications certainly broadens the mind," said Chen Lidan, a media expert at Beijing-based Renmin University. "But right now few people do that in China." 

"The driving force behind foreign publications in China comes from the coalition of the market and the policy. Policy follows demand," said Liang Jianrui, vice-president of China National Publications Import and Export Corporation.  "I often bought second-hand magazines at school. But since I left, I can rarely find them," said Han Mingbing, a college graduate who now works at a tourism company in Beijing.  "If the latest edition of Time was available around the corner, I would snap it up no matter how much it cost," he said.

(Deutsche Welle)  "The Lifting Of The Ban On Playboy" was actually an export story that was re-imported.  January 11, 2008.

[in translation]

On December 30, 2007, Deutsche Welle (Chinese service) translated an article by the Beijing correspondent of ARD.  Our editor added the title: "Reporting accurately on the Beijing Olympics: Are you ready?"

This report was then carried by various Chinese media.  At first, Xinhua Net and others used similar titles.  Later on, almost all the titles became "Playboy and others allowed to go on sale during the Olympics." Suddenly, this became a big story on the Chinese Internet and it has not abated even now.  For this report, our reporter Googled "Playboy"+"Olympics" in Chinese (actually, the reporter used the simplified Chinese character version of USA-based and found more than 290,000 entries.  This was almost as hot as the German scholar Kubin's earlier assertion that Chinese literature is rubbish.  At Baidu, Playboy is a filtered keyword and so it is impossible to search there.

The latest China Global Times report said: "The Deutsche Welle website report was like the detonation of a heavy-weight bomb that drew the attention of the Chinese people.  Even though the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee denied this news, thousands of netizens were still drawn to discuss the issue of whether to lift the ban on Playboy.  The votes for the pro- and con- sides oscillated back and forth."

But then doubts began to be raised.  First the US-based Qiaobao and then China-based Southern Daily made inquiries with the relevant organizations.  The Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee issued a denial.  The China National Publications Import and Export Corporation person told Qiaobao that they were not aware of this.  So many of the Chinese reports said: "Fortunately, when the websites published the story, they almost all stated that the true source of the story was the Deutsche Welle website."  So they are finally sourcing their stories (Note: Many other Deutsche Welle stories are republished in China without sourcing).

This Deutsche Welle reporter spoke to the Beijing correspondent for ARD, and she said that she read about it from the German newspaper Der Welt.  In turn, Der Welt got the information from the English-language website China Daily.  This reporter then went to the China Daily website and found the report titled 'Hold the press' which was written by Cui Xiaohuo and published on December 14, 2007.

China Publications Import and Export Corporation told China Daily that they will be in charge of nine kiosks near the Olympic venues during the period of the Olympics.  This has been approved by the Olympics Organizing Committee.  Each kiosk will retail over 100 kinds of newspapers and magazines, including publications that are difficult to find like The New York Times, Newsweek and Britain's The Sun famous for its topless Page 3 models.  China Publications Import and Export Corporation vice-president Liang Jianrui told China Daily:  "We will provide most of the world's top-selling newspapers and magazines."  Liang also distinctly mentioned Playboy this way: "Our law forbids Playboy and we should obey this, but we can't rule out the possibility that it might make its debut (in China). There might be a demand for it."

China Daily also published a map that showed the locations of the nine kiosks.  Eight of them are in Beijing and the other one is in Qingdao.

The German newspaper Der Welt translated this commentary in China Daily: "There is no doubt that the need exists."  The report in Der Welt opened up with this paragraph: "This world-famous men's magazine has been banned in China for five years (50 years?).  But now this symbol of 'rotten American capitalism' will be sold in the People's Republic of China."  The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung also reported on this affair.  Other western nations also reported on this affair.

It was clear that neither the China Daily nor the other famous western media drew any attention from the Chinese public through their reports.  The reason is obvious: they did not write in Chinese.  It took the Deutsche Welle Chinese-language report to raise the storm.  So after all this time, it turns out that this story was exported and then re-imported for internal consumption.

The Beijing correspondent of Deutsche Welle interviewed the principal Liang Jianrui by telephone on January 11.  Liang Jianrui denied that he ever told the China Daily reporter that "Playboy will be allowed to go on sale during the Olympics" or anything along that line.  "I did not make such a statement to China Daily."  As to why China could show the positions of the nine kiosks in Beijing and Qingdao so accurately, Liang is unsure.  But Liang acknowledged that he had given an interview to China.  But he does not know how China Daily got to write that report and why there was such wide discrepancies between them now.

He said that he was unaware that the spate of recent news stories about "Playboy and other magazines will be allowed to go on sale during the Olympics" was actually sourced to him, and he had not read that particular issue of China Daily.  As for the question whether Playboy will go on sale during the Olympics, Liang Jianrui declined to provide a direct answer to this reporter.  He only said that he has to read the relevant China Daily report before continuing with any interviews.

How did a story get exported and then re-imported but such that the maker of the exported product is now denying the veracity?  According to the background of China Daily as an official newspaper, their reporter is unlikely to make up a piece of fake news.  The China National Publications Import and Export Corporation is a state organization that is unlikely to speak to the press without authorization.  So is it the case that China Daily distorted what Liang Jianrui meant, or that the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation inadvertently disclosed something which should not have been released to the public?  This is still a mystery at this time.

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung report, the following paragraph appeared: "In a memorandum to the Olympics Organizing Committee, it was noted that they should be providing a wide selection of news media during the Olympics.  The same request was issued for the previous Olympics in Athens, Sydney and Atlanta." The unpublicized report by the US-based Qiaobao mentioned, "According to an employee at the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation, this does not imply that one can buy these newspapers and magazines everywhere." This employee also said, "It is possible now to obtain a subscription to The Sun (UK) if specific readers have the need."

In the illustrative map published in China Daily, there were nine kiosks.  Six of these are close to the National Stadium.  There are three in the Olympics media village, one each in the Main Press Center, the Olympics Village and the International Broadcasting Center.  Another one is at the Huabei Hotel, which will accommodate unregistered journalists.  The one in Qingdao city is also located in the media center.  It would seem that apart from the one kiosk at the Olympic Green, all the other kiosks are in places for journalists and athletes.

The other issue is why this story was published in the English-language China Daily first while the Chinese-language media had to wait for the opportunity to import this story from the outside?  Obviously, the goal of this story is to inform the outside world.  Meanwhile, it was better that this story not be known inside China.  It had been an accident that this story was "re-imported."  Mr. Liang also made the unfortunate choice of using Playboy as illustration.  He may not have anticipated the magnitude of the impact, or else he would have used another example.

There is another issue which the Chinese media are exploring.  Why are so many Chinese people and media interested in this matter?  In an essay published in Guangming Net, someone criticized the Chinese people for being "peeping toms" and even invoked the concept of "woman-peeping."  The Global Times invited some experts to give their views.  Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu said, "The discussion about Playboy has been elevated to the level of whether western 'sex culture' is acceptable." "The Chinese people has a dualistic approach towards sex."  The official policy is sternly and emphatically against, whereas the masses are tolerant and laissez-faire.

The China Daily report says that China is becoming more relaxed in the related policies.  But the editing of <Lust, Caution> and the banning of <Lost in Beijing> clearly showed that things are becoming more severe.  Perhaps this is still dualistic: It is immaterial when the people debate over some minor affair; but when it is a major affair, then it poses risks to China.  At the present, Playboy has become a major affair.  Perhaps when the Olympics arrive, everything will be available in China -- with the sole exception of Playboy!