Media

Hold the front page

Fancy buying shares in the Party’s media arm?

Is it bad news for social media?

Although it is unquestionably a challenge to find something fresh to say about China’s annual parliamentary meeting – the National People’s Congress – the Wall Street Journal neverthless wondered whether the state-run People’s Daily might have done a little more with its front page last year. The problem? It was virtually identical to the year before.

Indeed the front page indicated that March 14 was a veritable Groundhog Day. In both 2010 and 2011 that day’s front page featured headlines almost exactly the same as one another. As were the sub-headings, the photos and the lists of the top officials in attendance…

It was all so repetitive that a (more creative) citizen put both pages up side-by-side on a web forum for a game of spot-the-difference. His post was swiftly deleted by censors.

In contrast to that deliberate déjà vu, the People’s Daily starts 2012 in a state of relative excitement, with confirmation last week that its online arm will float on Shanghai’s stock exchange. Analysts say the plan is for its People.cn division to use the $85 million of IPO proceeds to compete with domestic rivals like Sina and Sohu, which went public years ago in the US. (The websites of Xinhua and broadcaster CCTV are also mooting listings too.)

The Economic Observer was typical of a cautious response from the rest of the domestic media, talking up People.cn’s political backing but wondering whether it could survive as a standalone commercial venture.

The news comes at a time in which CCTV is also announcing a major new investment, in its case the launch of new programming operations in Nairobi and Washington. Nairobi is already up-and-running, and 60 journalists based in the US capital will start broadcasting in a few weeks.

The push is to give the Chinese media more of a voice internationally, where it regularly feels stymied by the Western press. The Chinese leadership is unabashed about the objectives: “cultural security” was a leading topic at the most recent gathering of the Party’s powerful Central Committee last October and President Hu Jintao was back on message at the start of January, reminding readers of Party journal Seeking Truth that the country was fighting a “cultural war”.

Rather less pithily, Hu summarised: “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”

The Western media has been more abrupt in its response: that China has little chance of shaping the debate overseas in the same way that it does at home, no matter what it spends on overseas bureaus.

But in fact, Beijing’s media drive is more than a foreign foray. Another concern is that traditional print and television has been losing too much ground at home, and needs to regain some of its pulling power with the domestic audience.

Here the challenge has come from more vibrant commercial TV and (especially) the social media.

The authorities want to be heard above the hubbub. Many think this is behind a push from media regulator SARFT to cut some of the more raucous provincial channels down to size (see WiC108, 123 and 131), with a goal of reinforcing central stations like CCTV, which suffers from a reputation for staidness by comparison (see WiC132). Similarly, moves to impose real name registration for weibo may have been prompted by the role of microblogs as major news sources for events like the Wuhan rail crash, Dalian’s industrial spill, and the social unrest in the southern village of Wukan.

In late December a series of new regulations were announced (by outlets like CCTV and Xinhua, appropriately enough) that require Twitter-like weibo providers such as Sina, Tencent and NetEase to keep their users’ IDs on file.

The premise is that this means that rumour-mongers can be held responsible for anything they tweet. But analysts also say that the move is likely to slow the rapid growth in the popularity of weibo, which reached 250 million users at the end of last year.


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