Falling Short: Censorship at Work: The Newsroom in China

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5. Censorship at Work: The Newsroom in China

The state has weaned the media from subsidies and pushed outlets to rely on advertising revenue, all while keeping control over news content through financial incentives, administrative measures, and the threat of punishment.

June to September is recruitment season at Nanfang Daily Newspaper Group, which runs some of the nation’s most commercially successful newspapers. An astounding 40,000 résumés flooded its offices in 2006, according to news reports, though only about 100 applicants were hired to work at Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend), Ershiyi Shiji Jingji Baodao (21st Century Business Herald), and the group’s other publications. The thousands who applied to these top papers did so for all sorts of reasons, and money was among them. Reporters at Nanfang Zhoumo say that their average monthly income is around 5,000 yuan (US$715)—nearly twice the average monthly salary for urban workers, according to Ministry of Labor and Social Security statistics. Performance-based bonuses can double or triple the base salaries.

Publishing and broadcasting have been growth industries in China. Since 1979, when the sale of advertisements in state-controlled newspapers became legal, the media industry has undergone a dramatic commercial reform. In 2007, advertising revenue in China grew by 15 percent, to 441.5 billion yuan (US$62 billion), as income from newspaper and especially television and magazine advertising grew dramatically, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Even as Chinese authorities have shut down hundreds of television stations and newspapers for publishing internal news, offending the Communist Party’s propaganda authorities, or violating the complex rules governing the media, the overall trend of growth over nearly three decades is unmistakable.

The state has weaned the media from subsidies and pushed outlets to rely on advertising revenue, all while keeping control over news content through financial incentives, administrative measures, and the threat of punishment. Since Hu Jintao became president in 2003, journalists say, these restrictions have become more stringent.

Though the Chinese constitution protects freedom of the press, speech, and expression, there are institutional barriers to the free distribution of news in China. All news outlets must be authorized by the State Council and must comply with specific media regulations guarding almost every aspect of operation: hiring and training practices, amount of registered capital, location of premises, ties to any sponsoring state agency, and number of news bureaus.

By law, a journalist must hold a government-issued press card, which requires a minimum junior college education. The card must be renewed every five years and can be revoked for failing to “respect and follow government-issued laws, regulations, and professional journalist ethics.”

Regulations for operating broadcast, print, and Internet news outlets also list broad categories of unacceptable content, including anything that “disrupts the social order or undermines social stability” or is “detrimental to social morality or to the finer cultural traditions of the nation.” Outlets that violate regulations can be punished with fines or shutdowns. By law, all news outlets must be affiliated with a state entity, but the degree of direct party oversight, the level of financial pressure, and the influence of reporters and editors vary across regions and types of media. National state-controlled media such as the Xinhua News Agency, Guangming Daily, People’s Daily, and China Central Television, for instance, enjoy the backing of the central party leadership, and are known to do critical reporting at the local level even as they praise the Beijing elite. Print and Internet media tend to have more leeway than broadcast news outlets. Authorities in Shanghai have a reputation for tolerating little political criticism from the city’s media, while those in Guangzhou preside over an aggressively commercial press. Liberal management can make a difference, as can the kinds of topics that a news outlet focuses on; because of the official desire to promote commercial growth and foreign investment, financial reporting is given a wider berth by propaganda authorities and media owners.

The most significant distinction, however, is the one between news outlets directly controlled by the state and those with a largely commercial aim. At the national level, Xinhua, China Radio International, China Central Television, Guangming Daily, and People’s Daily are controlled by ranking party cadres in the government and the Central Propaganda Department; their expressed aim is to communicate the official line. Provincial and municipal authorities, too, run their own newspapers and television stations. At the same time, all levels of government also oversee commercial spin-offs, like the Guangdong provincial party committee’s Nanfang Daily Group, that are intended to bring in revenue.


 An array of committees and agencies collaborate to promote the official line. For party officials, ‘propaganda’ is no dirty word.

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Journalists’ experiences with censorship, and the extent of official control in their daily work, depend greatly on whether they work for the commercial or party-run news media. For a successful example of a market-oriented news outlet, look no further than Caijing. A financial magazine based in Beijing, it has grown under the leadership of Editor-in-Chief Hu Shuli into a publication with a solid reputation for well-researched journalism. Its reports on SARS, avian influenza, pharmaceutical scams, corruption, and other crucial issues have won it an affluent readership and wide admiration.

Yang Daming, Caijing’s deputy editor-in-chief, attributes the magazine’s success to its coming of age during a time of market reform in China, when professional reporting on financial news became both necessary and commercially viable. In addition, Yang notes that Caijing has avoided one pitfall that traps other media outlets competing for advertising revenue. “From the beginning, there has been a clear line between editorial and advertising at Caijing,” Yang said. “The advertising department is in a separate building. They give us the independence we need to work.” Journalists at Caijing work on a different pay scale than most others in Chinese media. Only about 30 percent of a junior journalist’s pay at Caijing comes from politically influenced performance bonuses—the mirror opposite of the typical pay structure. Caijing senior staffers receive relatively high salaries that are not affected by performance bonuses at all.

The profitability of the magazine also gives it leverage in its inevitable tussles with authorities. Caijing is owned by the SEEC Media Group, a firm with mainly commercial interests, and is under the oversight of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC), an official organization that describes its political aims, in part, as “to hold high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping’s theory.” When propaganda officials were alarmed by a March 2007 article concerning use of public funds to bail out a private company, the ACFIC acted. The issue was pulled from the printer, but Caijing journalists succeeded in revising the copy and publishing the work the next week.

For chief editors, though, miscalculating official reaction carries significant risk. No case illustrates this more clearly than the crackdown at Nanfang Dushi Bao in 2004. Cheng Yizhong, a young party member who was appointed to bring in profits, led the newspaper as it investigated the death in police custody of college graduate Sun Zhigang. The newspaper’s powerful reporting resonated with the public, forcing the government to make nationwide changes in detention policies. Yet the very same reporting caused the newspaper itself to come under investigation. Cheng was subsequently held in police custody for five months, and two colleagues served several years in prison on corruption charges.


The flow from censors was daily, unrelenting, and covered every conceivable topic, from the serious to the banal.

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All news outlets are subject to orders from the party’s Central Propaganda Department. These directives range from relatively broad guidance to mentions of specific cases and issues in the news. An office at the Nanfang Daily Group receives the orders from local party officials—often by telephone—and then relays them to the editors-in-chief of the group’s various newspapers. Editors are told they should carry only Xinhua’s reports of a corruption trial, for example; that they should cease coverage of anti-Japanese demonstrations; or that they should emphasize positive aspects of newly proposed legislation. Municipal and provincial media like those in the Nanfang Daily Group are also subject to orders from the propaganda departments of the local Communist Party committees, whose members may wish to silence coverage of a nearby mining accident or a land dispute.

In addition to the specific orders, journalists understand they have to stay away from stories about the military, ethnic conflict, and religion (particularly Falun Gong and underground churches), along with articles on the inner workings of the party and, to a lesser extent, the government. Savvy journalists carry their own internal compasses for issues like these. They openly admit that self-censorship is just as stringent a master as the Central Propaganda Department.

The penalties for crossing the censors’ line are mostly administrative. Serious infractions are noted in a journalist’s employment record. Seeing a pattern of controversial reports, propaganda authorities may close down a publication or “reorganize” its personnel. These are not uncommon practices: Each year, several high-profile publications disappear, or have offending staff demoted and shuttled off to publications where they can have less impact.

In early 2007, Huang Liangtian, editor-in-chief of the Beijing-based magazine Baixing (Ordinary People), was removed from his post after the publication ran one too many news reports about corruption and official land grabs. His magazine was reconfigured as a cultural affairs publication, carrying reprints of innocuous material and no original news reports. Huang was transferred to a position at Agricultural Products Weekly, taking much of the staff with him.

Another example: In June 2007, after the Chengdu Evening News published a small classified ad in support of “the strong mothers of 6/4 victims”—referring to the events of June 4, 1989, at Tiananmen Square, a subject that is strictly off-limits to the Chinese media—the paper’s deputy editor-in-chief and two others on the editorial staff were fired, according to news reports. Sources at the newspaper told reporters that the young staff members simply had no idea what “6/4” referred to, a plausible explanation since reporting on the 1989 military crackdown has been officially suppressed.

In China’s commercial press, the payment system for journalists has emerged as a central method of content control. At most papers, reporters receive bonuses when their articles are published, and those bonuses make up the bulk of their income. The end result is that staff reporters are more likely to go after stories that will make it into print, or at least cover them in a way that will not offend the censors.

The impact of such a system is clear. Most reporters with the Nanfang Daily Group are better paid than their colleagues elsewhere in the country, and they can better afford to lose some income when editors spike their stories for political or business-related reasons, or by orders of propaganda authorities. It is no coincidence that Nanfang’s newspapers, along with the profitable and well-paying Caijing, have developed a reputation for aggressive news coverage. But for reporters at provincial newspapers, who can expect to earn less than 50 yuan (US$7.14) per article, loss of income can be devastating. Journalists at these news outlets have an extra incentive to avoid work that might anger propaganda authorities.

Another defining feature of the payment system is the ratings scale. At many publications, there is no set payment for an article; instead, internal committees rate each article to determine how much the reporter will be paid. An article’s rating is sometimes determined by its popularity but is more often decided on its political merits.

In August 2005, Li Datong, who was then editor-in-chief of the China Youth Daily supplement Freezing Point, created a stir when he wrote a furious memo to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Li Erliang, excoriating a newly proposed ratings system. Under this system, 50 points would be awarded to articles with the highest readership, and up to 300 points would be awarded to those praised by officials. Party or government criticism would lead to deductions. Though it was posted on the newspaper’s internal network, the memo quickly found its way online.

“No matter how strongly readers praise an article, if it makes some official unhappy, and receives a couple sentences of ‘criticism,’ then not only is all your labor for naught, but the prestige of the paper is for naught, and it goes without saying that the opinion of the readers is worth less than a fart,” Li wrote, according to The Washington Post’s translation of the memo. 

“Under this arbitrary and meaningless arrangement, what sane journalist would choose to write public interest reports?” Li asked.

Li won the battle, and the proposed ratings system at China Youth Daily was scrapped. (Li survived as Freezing Point editor only a few more months before being banished to the research department for publishing a controversial essay on Chinese history.) But across China, similar systems are the norm, and investigative journalism in particular suffers under them. With a good chance of attracting the negative attention of businesspeople or officials, exposés are likely to be rejected by propaganda authorities. Add the time commitment of researching and investigating each report, and the economics of investigative reporting becomes bleak.

While editorials at Nanfang Dushi Bao, China Youth Daily, and other newspapers have continued to break new ground, media observers note that, partly as a result of these commercial pressures, investigative reporting remains limited to a small number of journalists sporadically taking on projects at a handful of major news outlets. Zhou Kai, a reporter at China Youth Daily, gave a devastating online account of his frustrations in pursuing an investigative piece. When Zhou published an essay on counterfeit medicine, he recounted, a reader in northern China’s Shandong province called him with a real-life example. The reader’s mother was on the brink of death after doctors gave her a counterfeit medication intravenously.

Zhou went after the story. In the course of writing a 7,000-word investigative piece, he interviewed the deputy director of the municipal food and drug administration in the provincial town of Laiyang, who brought along a representative from the party’s local propaganda department. When Zhou returned to Beijing, he was informed by his boss that the newspaper had decided to do a joint project with Laiyang officials on “One Hundred Great Counties.” He was advised to file his investigative report as an “internal reference”—distributed only to high-ranking party officials.

Even as he posted his account of censorship in April 2007, Zhou couldn’t help thinking his career would suffer. “As I write this essay, I am wondering how many people I am going to offend. Will I be able to work at the newspaper anymore? Will I be allowed to write news reports? Will I ever get a good rating for my reports? Will I ever get a good rating for job performance? Will I ever be rated excellent again?”

His judgment of his bosses’ actions was equally direct: They were simply responding to the pressures of the media market when they accepted an offer from the officials in Laiyang, Zhou said. “The newspaper … needs money to satisfy its workers,” he wrote. “If the state won’t provide the money, the newspaper has to earn money on its own. It needs advertisements, it needs marketing, it needs distribution, and it is that simple.”

While pushing commercial news agencies to adhere to political exigencies, the state has kept tight control over its flagship: the Xinhua News Agency. Xinhua, which means “New China,” is a branch of the State Council and answers directly to the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department. It functions both as a sanctioned mouthpiece of the central government and as a source of internal information for senior officials. A great deal of the content provided by Chinese news outlets is composed of Xinhua reports, often by order of propaganda authorities. 

At the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xinhua’s foreign bureaus, celebrated on May 31, 2007, Central Propaganda Department Director Liu Yunshan extolled Xinhua for the special role it plays both within China and abroad.

“As a state news agency, Xinhua is in a pivotal position in the party’s news and propaganda work,” said Liu, according to a Xinhua report. “In the last 60 years, Xinhua has earnestly carried out the party’s line, principle, and policy; has actively carried out propaganda abroad making use of its overseas organ; has endeavored to create an objective and friendly international public opinion environment; and has made important contributions to pressing ahead China’s revolution, socialist construction, and reform and opening up.”

Liu encouraged Xinhua to maintain its role as a disseminator of propaganda overseas: “It should forcefully propagandize China’s policy and advocacy of adhering to scientific development, harmonious development, and peaceful development; should fully present China’s brand new outlook of economic development, social progress, ethnic solidarity, and the people living and working in peace and contentment; should fully reflect the Chinese people’s good wish to pursue world harmony and to promote peace of mankind; and should create an image of China as being civilized, just, democratic, and progressive.”

To make this happen, Xinhua hires recent college graduates who undergo an ideological training session of several weeks before they begin work. Departmental leaders introduce them to the structure, function, and discipline of the Xinhua model of reporting, and even offer training on how to protect national secrets. “In a word, we’re expected to be brainwashed,” said one Xinhua editor, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Xinhua employs thousands of people in its domestic and international bureaus. Reporters are viewed as government employees and enjoy special access to officials at the local level. Agency managers, from department directors to top editors, enjoy all the privileges of the ruling elite. Xinhua’s president, the newly appointed Li Congjun, operates at the ministerial level and is a member of the party’s Central Committee. The Xinhua president traditionally undertakes diplomatic missions abroad and hosts foreign delegations in Beijing. Li’s predecessor, Tian Congming, met with representatives of state news agencies from North Korea, Venezuela, and Cambodia to promote “bilateral cooperation.”

In the newsroom, Xinhua reporters enjoy enviable access, but their reporting is slowed by the agency’s prepublication censorship system. As in many news organizations, dispatches must flow through headquarters for review before release. But at Xinhua, stories that deal with the party’s upper leadership must also go to the Central Office of the party’s Central Committee and the State Council Office for approval. Particularly sensitive stories are sent to Xinhua’s chief editorial office or, on occasion, to the president of the agency for a final decision, according to CPJ sources. Because it is the flagship, Xinhua receives special and direct attention from the Central Propaganda Department in the form of orders to suppress or to cover specific news. These directives can be contradictory and are often confounding, Xinhua staffers say, in some cases instructing journalists to report a story they were ordered to stay away from just hours earlier.

Authorities approach online news providers in much the same manner as they do traditional media: by dictating the kinds of outlets that can post news and by controlling the management of those outlets. In sum, they lean on hosting services and search portals to help censor content. Regulations posted by the Guangdong Provincial Communications Administration, for example, mandate that a systems operator “filter, select and monitor” all content on their site and be held personally responsible if any content is found to violate relevant regulations.

While authorities effectively keep unwanted news from reaching mass audiences, journalists know they can troll the Web for hidden treasures. Thus, they say, the scope of news and commentary has broadened over nearly three decades of commercial reform and information revolution.

That the government’s system of media control has effectively stayed the same is a source of optimism for some journalists.

“The media management system is like a balloon,” said media critic Li. “Thirty years ago, there wasn’t much for the balloon to hold. But over the years it has been expanding and expanding with the Internet—new ideas, more reporting. But the framework hasn’t changed.”

Li pauses, then grins: “Pop!”

» continue to Chapter 6:
Local Threats: The Bureaucrat’s Tyranny

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