Official squeeze on money-wasting party newspapers unlikely to stop many from
AS from yesterday, government and party organisations are banned from publishing newspapers, existing ones are barred from receiving public money and those with a circulation under 30,000 must be closed.
The order was issued on November 16 by the News Publication Bureau, on the authority of the Communist Party's Central Committee and the State Council.
It aims to save the estimated 10 billion yuan (HK$9.3 billion) in public money spent each year on compulsory subscriptions to official newspapers and subsidies needed to keep them alive.
The order has all the hallmarks of Zhu Rongji, who has made it a key target of his premiership to reduce waste of public money and close surplus capacity, be it in manufacturing or newspapers that print the same stories.
He wants to make newspapers like other products, which consumers decide themselves to buy and advertisers to use, and titles prosper or die as a result of those market decisions.
Such a market already exists, with fierce competition between newspapers that have sprung up over the past 15 years in response to public demand and which adjust rapidly to meet that consumer demand.
But alongside it is a parallel world, the 1,500 newspapers published by party and state organisations, accounting for two-thirds of the total in China. They force other state institutions and companies to buy them and only a few copies are sold in the market.
They are a hangover from the planned economy when state bodies had a newspaper just as they had hospitals, kindergartens, holiday homes and clubs for retired cadres. Such a newspaper provides jobs, advertising revenue, opportunities for travel and a platform for officials to promote themselves and their projects and to launch other businesses.
But ask a street vendor in Beijing if he has the People's Daily or the Economic Daily - published by the party central committee - and he will look at you in astonishment. No one would spend their own money on such papers, which are read at work, if they are read at all.
The newspapers on the vendor's stall are those consumers want, on stocks, cars, property, football, basketball, entertainment, fashion, television and film stars. If you pay extra and there are no police nearby, he will sell you a pornographic magazine too.
Mr Zhu's goal is laudable - he hopes to save billions of yuan in public money. But few believe he will achieve it.
'There are thousands of jobs and issues of prestige involved,' said an associate editor who lost his job when his magazine was closed last year for 'criticising the reforms' and who moved to a newspaper.
'Ministers, mayors and heads of departments want to see their faces published and their speeches reported,' he said.
'They will find ways to keep these papers alive. One is to transfer ownership from a ministry to the industrial association it supervises. The firms and institutions under it will still be obliged to subscribe to the newspaper.
'As the proverb says, the high official is as clean as water but those who work for him are as dirty as oil. Only a few of the papers will close.' Another reason for staying open is the hope of turning a profit in future, because the media is a potential gold mine.
Yu Guoming, head of the public opinion research centre at the People's University, said that between 1988 and 1998 newspapers in China had an average annual rate of return of between 17 and 50 per cent, making them one of the most profitable industries.
This is because it is one of the most tightly regulated. The Government bans private and foreign investment and all publications must be registered with an official body, even if this is only nominal and simply involves paying that organisation a fixed sum each year.
According to the China Economic Times, there are 2,052 newspaper titles in China, down from 2,400 in 1996 when the Government stopped issuing new licences.
The result of this restriction is soaring advertising revenue, as companies have a limited choice as to where to place adverts.
So why give up all this just because of another directive from the centre? And will it be implemented anyway?