Political power machine keeps newspaper toes on party line

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 12:00am

AS CHINA'S economic reforms deepened in the past 20 odd years, the government reached an informal agreement with the business community - and with the population as a whole. Beijing agreed to stand aside and let businesses and people get on with making money, provided no one challenged the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on political power.

In most commercial spheres, the separation of politics and business has worked well enough. The government gradually reduced its involvement in day-to-day business operations. The parallel party structure in all state-owned enterprises - with each having its own party secretary and party committee - still exists. But its influence waned as commercial considerations became paramount.

In the ever-sensitive newspaper industry, however, commercial considerations continue to rub up against political imperatives on an almost daily basis. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Guangzhou, which boasts the mainland's most competitive print media market and - as a result - its best newspapers and magazines. The city is unique in having not just one, but three large publishers: the Guangzhou Daily Group, the Southern Daily Group and the Yangcheng Evening News Group.

As a general rule, the quality of a newspaper is directly proportional to its thickness. In a virtuous cycle, a better paper attracts more readers, and that in turn attracts more advertisers.

In most mainland cities, newspaper readers make do with dreary, four-page papers stuffed with President Jiang Zemin's latest ponderings on his 'Three Represents' theory. They are not fit to wrap fish and chips in, as the poor quality newsprint would rub off on and poison the food.

But in Guangzhou, 16, 32, 48 and even 80-page editions are common. On one day recently, the seven daily newspapers published by the city's three media groups contained a combined total of 238 pages.

This presents the Guangzhou and Guangdong governments, which control the news groups, with an awkward dilemma. Thick as they are with ads, Guangzhou's papers are profitable and pay a lot of taxes.

The Guangzhou and Guangdong governments are loath to do anything that might interfere with this valuable revenue stream. On the other hand, they know that the papers are popular and profitable precisely because they give short shrift to the type of garbage that appears in the Beijing-based People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Sensitive to their overlords' dilemma, each of Guangzhou's three newspaper groups manages its stable of papers with the same consummate skill that Alex Ferguson manages his multi-million dollar footballers at Manchester United. Each paper has a role. Flagship papers toe the party line while subsidiary ones cater to popular tastes. Local journalists refer to this as the 'shield' strategy, with each group's flagship paper providing ideological cover for its more market-oriented sister publications.

But even this cleverly crafted smokescreen can dissipate when the prevailing political wind from Beijing blows hard and cold enough, as it has ever since the central government launched a media crackdown in late May.

On August 13 the Guangdong Party Committee's Propaganda Department issued an internal circular rebuking one of Guangzhou's more daring dailies, the Southern Daily Group's Southern Metropolitan News.

'A few comrades at Southern Daily Group made the ideological mistake of 'letting the big paper grab the [political] trend and letting the little papers grab the market'. They were only concerned about increasing their brand recognition, geographical coverage, circulation and ad share,' the circular said.

The Southern Daily Group's party committee, it added, 'must ensure that subsidiary papers are party papers and that they uphold the same political yardstick and ideological standards [as flagship papers]'. In a bizarre example of the paranoia pervading China's propaganda apparatus, the circular criticised Southern Metropolitan News for a May 17 article that 'compared the Stalin-era Soviet Union with Hitler-era Germany and said that both were totalitarian and had no fundamental political freedoms . . . This kind of position and viewpoint is very wrong politically and created a seriously unhealthy influence'.

It has been more than 40 years since the Sino-Soviet alliance fractured after Khrushchev criticised Stalin, who in China's eyes remained a Communist hero. Someone apparently forgot to tell Southern Metropolitan News that unflattering comparisons about Stalin are still politically incorrect.

Nor is it the only paper feeling the heat. In a short front-page article published earlier this month, the Yangcheng Evening News Group's New Express News inadvertently referred to Guangdong governor Lu Ruihua as Lu Ruihuan, getting the last character in his name wrong. The next day it ran an abject front-page apology for the typo, which it described as a 'serious error' stemming from its editors' 'lack of political responsibility'.