Breaking The News; The market is starting to unleash China 's media


It started at the 21st century Herald. In March its editors decided to run a controversial interview with Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao Zedong. In the interview, Li criticized top leaders and accused the Communist Party of being heavy-handed. Then the Beijing bosses proved him right: the newspaper was immediately shut down. Since then a string of newspapers and magazines--including Southern Weekly, China Youth Daily, Caijing and the Beijing New Times--has been shuttered, had issues pulled from newsstands or had staff fired because they crossed the political lines of the party.

It may seem like the beginning of a Chinese media crackdown, but it's actually the start of something good. For the past six months Chinese news junkies have witnessed a period of greater media freedom, which many have linked to the new generation of leaders who came to power at the 16th Party Congress last November. Early on, President Hu Jintao criticized state-run China Central Television for pandering to government officials. In January, Li Changchun, the Politburo's propaganda czar, urged the local media to be more open in their reporting. And many Chinese journalists have taken them up on their offer, even if it means crossing the party. But the changes that are afoot in China 's media industry may be more powerful than any political order from on high.

Like so much else in China , the driving force behind the liberalizing media is the market. Faced with increasing competition, Chinese news outlets are going after readers with hard-hitting, aggressively reported stories. The number of privately owned publications across the country is mushrooming, while the props supporting state newspapers are slowly being pulled out from under them. Sensing the new privatizing trends, many of the leading government dailies have already launched commercial papers that are far more enterprising and, in turn, sell much better. "Newspapers have to cater to readers to get circulation and advertising revenue," says Liu Libo, an editor at Caijing, the Beijing magazine that was censored for reporting on Shanghai's recent real-estate scandal. "The media are getting more and more aggressive in trying to report the news. That's the power of the market."

For decades Chinese state newspapers enjoyed captive markets. The country's government units were literally forced to subscribe to state publications. No more. The party's propaganda arm recently issued an order prohibiting local party newspapers from forcing government offices to sign up as subscribers. State publications like the People's Daily--which has already seen its circulation fall from 5.2 million to 2.2 million readers over the past 20 years--are expected to be hit hard. "No one reads the official newspapers anymore," says one Beijing news vendor, with more than 100 different magazines hanging on racks behind him. "You won't find any real news there."

No one is sure how many new publications there are, but more and more these young upstarts are becoming the leading source for people's news. One new entrant into the media market, Xin Bao, recently saw its circulation jump 25 percent, while the readership of the Beijing-based Sanlian Shenghuo climbed from 60,000 to 220,000 between 2001 and 2002. Even the ailing People's Daily has found a way into the marketplace. Two years ago the parent publication launched Jinghua Shibao, which has quickly become one of the best-selling morning papers in Beijing.

The explosion of commercial news outlets is also acting as a safety net for those journalists who get tripped up by politics. With reporters no longer dependent on the state for jobs, writing a politically taboo story is no longer fatal for a cub reporter's career. One senior journalist at the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan was recently forced out after offending party bosses. But a short while later he was at work for one of the hottest new papers in Beijing. Another reporter from the state media is now making a living writing for overseas Chinese publications and turning out books for Hong Kong publishers. Says one investigative journalist, "We have more opportunities now."

Clearly, serious barriers remain for China 's fourth estate. Chinese journalists say they have been given stern warnings from the party's propaganda department to keep their hands off sensitive topics, including SARS or any news that might embarrass the leadership. One former People's Daily staffer believes that the trend toward a more open media is irreversible. But he warns that it will come slowly. "There will be changes, and there will be setbacks," he says. "But along the way we'll do what we can." Which means Chinese readers are still a long way from seeing all the news that's fit to print.