Olympics: Interview highlights a top paper

Thanks to Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Sophie Beach at China Digital Times for taking the time to translate and post Southern Weekend’s interview with Zhang Yimou, the once renegade movie maker who took on the job of organizing the opening ceremony of the Beijing Games. The excerpt is called “The Way Art Works,” and it turns out that the way art works in China is not pretty. Zhang has become mainstream and in doing so has become controversial again. His early movies were low budget, set in ordinary people’s lives and had a gritty reality that ran into a lot of problems with censors but found receptive audiences overseas. Lately he has veered toward more lavish movies as he has found more officially approved success and acceptance. 

Whatever you think about the controversy surrounding the ceremony–the lip-synching, questionable ethnicity, digitally altered special effects, over-the-top pageantry–Zhang’s readiness to do a frank interview and the newspaper’s readiness to ask some serious questions about the machinations behind the ceremony says a lot about the media in China. There is a growing space for public discourse, despite the government’s interference.

A prime example of that is the publication that interviewed Zhang. Nanfang Zhoumou­ (or Southern Weekend) is part of the Nanfang Daily Newspaper Group, which runs some of the nation’s most commercially successful newspapers like Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), and Ershiyi Shiji Jingji Baodao (21st Century Business Herald). They are published in the southern city of Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, which has become the most economically successful region since China liberalized its economy on the last three decades. Although by law all news outlets must have links to an official state publication, the group’s papers stand out for their editorial guts. They have had to trim their editorial sails at times, even pull copies off of newsstands, but their independent editorial stand has made it the most economically successful operation in a media industry that saw advertising revenue grow by 15 percent, to 441.5 billion yuan (US$62 billion) in 2007.

Even with their links to the state for publications like Southern Weekend, there is a great distinction between them and the truly official Chinese media. At the national level, Xinhua news agency, China Radio International, China Central Television, Guangming Daily, and People’s Daily are party controlled, with copy strictly regulated by the Central Propaganda Department. At the local level, provincial and municipal authorities run their own newspapers and television stations. Guangdong‘s provincial party committee nominally controls the Nanfang Daily Group, but they give it a lot of latitude for several reasons, one of which is the group’s revenue stream. And Guangdong province has traditionally been more liberal. Its export-driven economy has been closely linked to Hong Kong’s. Its global business links have always made it a more liberal area.

The point here is that Chinese journalists and media companies do push limits. You miss an important part of China if you just see China’s press as a gray amorphous mass. Even with the government’s obsession of controlling its image with more than 20,000 visiting foreign journalists in town, their Chinese colleagues are still trying to break new ground.