Media

Lost at sea

A Guangdong newspaper falls foul of the Party line, as does a tycoon

ren zhiqiang

Cannon fodder: Ren

Located furthermost from the political capital of imperial China, Guangdong has traditionally been an area where China’s rulers have had least control. As such, the southern province has long been a cradle of more independent thought, and often a bolder media.

The English-language Canton Register newspaper launched in 1827, a full 20 years before Hong Kong became a British colony. When revolts swept the country at the start of the last century, Guangdong’s provincial capital Canton boasted dozens of publications calling for the end of imperial rule. Even the now Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post had revolutionary beginnings. The newspaper was co-founded in 1903 by Tse Tsan-tai, another Cantonese rebel seeking to overthrow the Qing Dynasty.

Given this proud tradition, it seems only appropriate that the Southern Metropolis Daily took the liberty of reporting a keynote speech by President Xi Jinping rather differently to other media outlets.

On February 19 the Chinese president visited the headquarters of the three leading Party mouthpieces: CCTV (a broadcaster), People’s Daily (a newspaper) and Xinhua (a news agency). In the evening he chaired a meeting with the editors at all the major media outlets. Front-page headlines then trumpeted a policy doctrine asserted by Xi: that Party-run media exists to serve the Communist Party.

State broadcaster CCTV certainly got the message, welcoming Xi to sit in the anchor’s chair of its news programme Xinwen Lianbo and revealing a special banner, reading: “CCTV’s surname is the Party. We are absolutely loyal. Please inspect us.”

In case the message had somehow been missed, the People’s Daily reminded its journalists that their key role is as “disseminators of the Party’s policies and propositions”.

“Guiding public opinion for the Party is crucial to the governance of the country,” the newspaper said.

The Southern Metropolis Daily put the same message on its front page too, with an appropriately supersized headline talking about the media pledging fealty. However, instead of running a photo of Xi alongside the story, a Shenzhen edition of the newspaper opted for the image of the burial (at sea) of renowned reformist Yuan Geng. The caption: “Soul returns to the sea”.

Sounds obscure? Yuan played a key role in establishing the Shekou industrial zone in the 1980s. But the beauty of the Chinese language leaves it open to ingenious interpretations. When read vertically, the front-page characters could suggest something along the lines of “Media pledging fealty to the Party have their souls sent to the sea”. (This is known technically as a ‘hidden head poem’ in which the first character of each verse combines to give a meaning entirely different from the poem itself.)

A photo of how the Guangdong newspaper had covered Xi’s lecture soon went viral on social media, albeit briefly. Soon all mentions were spiked by state censors and a day later Southern Metropolis Daily reported that the firm’s staff had pledged loyalty to the Party-led principles, following an internal meeting to study Xi’s latest speech.

The Southern Metropolis Daily is run by the Nanfang Daily Publishing Group. Its sister publication Southern Weekend drew international attention in 2013 after its staff staged a protest against a propaganda official’s rewrite of an editorial. (Other news portals then carried a seemingly mandatory Global Times editorial criticising Southern Weekend, but added disclaimers that they didn’t agree themselves with the viewpoints expressed.)

The latest case of newspaper disobedience culminated this week in the firing of Liu Yuxia, front page editor of Southern Metropolis Daily. A leaked internal document seen by the South China Morning Post explained that Liu had “seriously lacked political sensitivity” and complained that the front page had been subject to “malicious interpretation” by netizens and had resulted in the the “misguidance of public opinion”. (Wang Haijun, the paper’s deputy editor, was also given a “serious demerit”, as a consequence of being the ranking editor on duty during the front page’s publication on February 20).

Southern Metropolis was not the only dissenting voice. China’s answer to Donald Trump had also queried the campaign for media loyalty. Few Chinese businessmen rival Ren Zhiqiang when it comes to outspokenness and the property tycoon has been dubbed “Ren The Cannon” for his habit of making controversial comments (see WiC162 for his profile). His provocative opinions, many of which are directed towards the government, have earned him more than 50 million fans on various weibo platforms.

Ren has feuded with the state media in the past, calling CCTV “the dumbest pig on earth” in a post on weibo in 2014.

But The Cannon’s latest salvo backfired badly when he took issue with Xi’s remarks about the media’s responsibilities, claiming that newspapers owed their existence to the people who funded them, not their political masters.

“When did the people’s government change into the Party’s government?” he quipped in a since-deleted post. “Is [the media’s] money from the Party’s membership fee? Don’t use taxpayer money for things and then not provide them with services.”

Ren is the first weibo celebrity to openly challenge Xi on the media’s role, despite being a veteran Party member himself. And this week the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) ordered the closure of his social media accounts. “Cyberspace is not a lawless field and it should not be used to spread illegal information by anyone,” a spokesperson warned, adding that weibo celebrities should “shoulder their due social responsibilities and promote ‘positive energy’ actively”.

Since 2012 there has been a steady rollout of policies aimed at tightening control of the media, including social networks, films and books. “It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the Party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged,” China Daily said. “The nation’s media outlets are essential to political stability, and the leadership cannot afford to wait for them to catch up with the times.”

Yet Ren has won some unexpected sympathy from Hu Xijin, the editor of the normally bombastic Global Times. Hu offered an unlikely voice of support to Ren, decrying the narrowing space for public discussion. “China should open up more channels for criticism and suggestions and encourage constructive criticism… There also should be a certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism,” he proposed.

Wang Xiangwei of the South China Morning Post also wondered whether Ren will receive further punishment, such as being expelled from the Party.

“This case could prove a litmus test of how the leadership tolerates different opinions from Party members and the public as a whole,” he suggested.

Wang recalled a similar episode in 1998 when Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was visiting CCTV, the state broadcaster. When asked to write a few words for the journalists, he wrote “media watchdog and mouthpiece for the people”. The country’s then propaganda chief intervened and reminded Zhu that “it should be the mouthpiece of the Party”. Zhu replied: “I know that’s the view. But I’m not wrong”. (In fact, he revealed: “I spent an entire night thinking about what I should write. It made my blood pressure shoot up.”)

But perhaps financial incentives, rather than political punishment, have become a more effective means for the Party to keep the press in line. For instance, Xi Jinping’s administration has been encouraging state-run media firms to raise funds in the capital markets to expand into other cultural businesses. Southern Publishing and Media (SPM), another Guangdong-based media firm and the publisher of Time Weekly, went public last month in Shanghai. SPM’s shares surged more than 40% on the group’s debut and its market value stood at Rmb16 billion ($2.4 billion) this week.

KDNet, an online discussion platform operated by Nanfang Media (the publisher of Southern Metropolis Daily), also listed on the New Third Board, an over-the-counter bourse based in Beijing, last year. Nanfang Media may inject more of its assets into the new listing vehicle in the future, 21CN Business Herald has reported.“Two of the publishing giants in Guangdong province [SPM and Nanfang Media] have been active in the capital market. There will be more exciting stories to come,” 21CN predicted.

Quite how exciting is yet to be seen, however, especially if the subject matter is thought to deviate too far from the Party line.


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