Media

Toeing the Party line

China’s journalists are going through tough times

Heaven Cannot Abide Weak Women

Stars of the newspaper drama

The TV series Heaven Cannot Abide Weak Women tells the story of a female journalist at a regional newspaper. It begins in the present day with the surprise announcement that an editor is being questioned by China’s anti-graft investigators. The man’s deputy, Zheng, a journalist played by Hai Qing, is appointed as the new editorial boss. The action then rewinds 15 years to Zheng’s start in the media as an intern.

In fact, that period is now regarded as perhaps the heyday for regional newspapers, when more market-oriented publications such as Southern Metropolis Daily and Huaxi Metropolis Daily began to proliferate, with a keener focus on investigative journalism than on peddling the latest political propaganda.

“The late 1990s to the early 2000s is considered the golden age of reporting in China,” ThePaper.cn recalls.

The golden era for Chinese papers didn’t last long, however. The rise of the internet (and more recently of smartphones) has generated savage competition from digital media. And more recently, journalists have come under more direct pressure themselves, leading some to look back fondly on the earlier period portrayed in Heaven Cannot Abide Weak Women.

“This is a love letter to all newspaper journalists,” a television critic lamented in the Beijing Times. “A true story on a group of people forgotten by the present day.”

Heaven Cannot Abide Weak Women was delayed from its original scheduling in March, fuelling speculation that it was having problems getting approval from the media regulators. That wouldn’t be a surprise as the political pressure on the Chinese media has been mounting since the start of the year, when President Xi Jinping met with editors from the major news outlets and reasserted the policy doctrine that the state media exists to serve the Communist Party.

Making his point emphatically, Xi told them that the media “must be surnamed Party” and must “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party”.

The harder line has been contentious, earning disapproving comment from senior cadres such as the outspoken real estate developer Ren Zhiqiang (see WiC315).

Nonetheless, Xi is demanding a more disciplined approach and his allies took things a step further late last month when they openly criticised the Party’s leading propaganda unit for poor performance as well.

Following a two-month investigation, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) posted a statement on its website saying that the Central Propaganda Department “lacked depth in its research into developing contemporary Chinese Marxism”.

The CCDI is the key body tasked with fighting graft but it seemed happy to offer a wider appraisal in this case, attacking the propaganda team for not being forceful enough in “coordinating ideological and political work at universities” and blaming it for failing “to implement the principle of the Party managing the media” on the internet.

WiC readers may recall another rift that leaked into the public domain recently, when the State Council’s website published articles that seemed to be challenging the official line on the direction of economic policy (see WiC325).

Tensions about China’s economic prospects are being felt in the wider press, where financial reporters have come under pressure. According to CBN, the People’s Bank of China has been threatening to take legal action against media outlets that publish “untrue” reports on the foreign exchange market that lead to selling pressure on the renminbi.

The strain for some members of the press has been such that a wave of senior journalists have committed suicide. Zhu Tiezhi, the deputy editor of Qiushi, a top Party-run journal, was found dead in his office last week, “apparently after becoming depressed over growing infighting between government reformists and conservatives,” Caixin Weekly has reported.

Jin Bo, the 34 year-old deputy editor of Tianya, one of the most popular internet forums in China, also collapsed and died last week. A report by China.org.cn, a news portal under State Council management, said that Jin is at least the 10th media professional to die this year, although the website blamed long working hours and irregular diets for the untimely deaths in the industry.

As China’s traditional press loses what’s left of its bite, the country’s citizens seem increasingly likely to turn to social media for their news and opinion. Hence last weekend the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s main internet regulator, warned that online publishers must check with official sources when using information from social media.

In a statement, it said that websites are “strictly forbidden” from spreading news reports without specifying their source. “It is forbidden to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts,” it added.

The South China Morning Post reports that the instruction came a few days after Xu Lin, formerly deputy head of the organisation, replaced his former boss as the top gatekeeper of Chinese internet affairs. “Xu is regarded as one of President Xi Jinping’s key supporters,” the Hong Kong-based (and Alibaba-owned) newspaper suggests.

Aside from ideology, China’s traditional media is under siege from technology as well. The latest commercial threat is a smartphone app called Zhaojizhe, or Find a Journalist, which is positioning itself as the “Uber of the public relations world”, says ThePaper.cn.

Zhaojizhe works as a marketplace for advertorials. It works with 1,000 journalists (and rising), arranging for articles to be written and published in any of 3,000 media outlets it has deals with.

Described as a “sharing economy for content creation” the model is going to blur the lines further between reporting and commercial content. But in the current circumstances it may mean that many of the country’s best reporters decide that working for Zhaojizhe makes more financial sense than sticking with traditional newspapers. And if that proves to be the case, quality investigative reporting may face a future as bleak as that confronting the traditional taxi driver, who is now being confronted by the rise of the car-hailing apps.


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