Newspapers are a crucial part of contemporary Chinese cultural life, selling hundreds of millions of copies every day. Newspapers have been at the forefront of media change as newspaper journalists have had greater leeway to test the limits set by the Party and the state than their counterparts in television. In the post-Mao reform era, the newspaper market has undergone a massive transformation through the proliferation of new titles, new formats and new styles of reporting.
Although court bulletins and monthly journals can be traced back to at least the eighth century (e.g. Di Bao) or even to the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220), it was only in the nineteenth century that China’s newspaper industry really took off, largely driven by foreign missionaries and businessmen. Perhaps the most famous of these was Shen Bao (a.k.a. Shanghai Gazette), launched in 1872. Most titles, despite foreign involvement, were nonetheless published in Chinese and they soon became closely associated with politics, particularly becoming the public voice of political reformers at the end of the century. Following the May Fourth movement of 1919, many politically and socially motivated progressive journals came into circulation throughout China, including those of the Communist Party, founded in 1921, that would later develop into the nationally recognized papers of the People’s Republic. During the Mao period Chinese newspapers became one of the main vehicles used by the Communist Party to promulgate policies and deliver political education to the people, and the People’s Daily became the key to understanding the latest policies and political trends.
The 1980s saw a massive growth in the number of newspaper titles in China, most of them local publications. Between 1979 and 1986 the number grew from 186 to 1,574, a growth rate of nearly 200 new titles per year. By 1989 this had risen further to 1,618 and by 1996 there were 2,235 titles, a twelve-fold increase since 1979. This massive proliferation in newspapers meant that the Party could no longer fully subsidize production as it had in the past, and newspapers found themselves exposed to the commercial pressures of the market for effectively the first time since 1949.
The combined pressures of Party control on the one hand and the market on the other have led newspapers to seek out new and innovative ways of pleasing readers and meeting readership demands for livelier, interesting and socially relevant content. One way to do this has been to launch evening newspapers and weekend editions that are more easily able to circumvent Party news. Many newspaper groups have also launched tabloid-style, ‘metropolitan’, non-Party-organ newspapers that adopt a slightly more sensationalist and populist approach to news production. These newspapers are strongly driven by commercial motives, stretching the limits of Party control as far as possible in order to sell more newspapers in a highly competitive market. Unlike large Party-organ newspapers, tabloids, evening papers and weekend editions generally rely almost entirely on street sales and advertising for their revenue.
Newspaper content is usually more than 80 per cent domestic news, although Chinese readers have a great interest in foreign issues as well. However, apart from major national papers like the People’s Daily, very few have their own overseas correspondents or stringers and rely principally on news agencies for overseas news. In recent years, many of the leading urban papers have increased the size of their papers with pull-out supplements on entertainment, lifestyle and sports news.
The government divides newspapers into the following categories: (1) national newspapers (such as the People’s Daily); (2) Party-organ newspapers (see below); (3) specialist professional newspapers; (4) industry newspapers; (5) evening newspapers (e.g. Yangcheng Evening News); (6) digest newspapers; (7) interest group newspapers (e.g. for workers, soldiers, youth, women, the elderly and so on); (8) lifestyle papers; and (9) army newspapers.
Although all Chinese newspapers must be owned by state or Party organizations (see state control of media), there is an important, though subtle, distinction to be made between Party-organ and non-Party-organ newspapers. Party-organ newspapers are those which come under the direct jurisdiction of Party propaganda committees at whichever is the appropriate level. For instance, the Nanfang Daily is the Party organ of the Guangdong Province Party Propaganda Committee (see Nanfang Weekend). The People’s Daily is the organ of the Central Committee of the CCP. A Party-organ newspaper comes under the direct control of the propaganda committee, which is able to take a more forceful part in the daily management and content of the newspaper than it can for non-Party organs. Party organs have a greater obligation to publish political news—such as meetings, leaders’ visits, mass campaign mobilization propaganda and so on—while non-Party papers can more easily avoid, or place in less conspicuous positions, such items which are not popular with readers.
However, even non-Party organs cannot avoid strong central directives on major issues such as the events of 1989, Falun gong or Tibetan independence, and they cannot publish anything critical of the Party. Newspapers are supervised at the central level by the Ministry of Press and Publications. At the local level their output is usually monitored by local Party propaganda committees. The system of content control depends on self-censorship and post hoc chastisement for breaches of codes and regulations. Such regulations are often vaguely defined which leaves a degree of flexibility in the system. This means that editors can (and do) regularly try to push the understandings of certain codes to publish what they consider more lively copy. However, this flexibility also means that censors have various tools at their disposal—such as accusations of breaching the interests of the Party or national security that can cover a plethora of activities—that enable them to tighten up on media production at critical moments. In this way there is a constant game of give and take going on between more adventurous journalists and Party officials.
Latham, K. (2000). ‘Nothing but the Truth: News Media, Power and Hegemony in South China.’ China Quarterly 163:633–54.
Lee, C.C. (ed.) 1990. Voices of China; The Interplay of Politics and Journalism. New York: Guilford Press.
Zhang, X. (1997). ‘Zhongguo baoye: jixu zou baotuan zhi lu’ [China’s Newspaper Industry: Continuing Down the Road of Corporatization]. In J.M.Weng, X.Zhang, Z.Zhang and K.M.Qu (eds). 1996–7 nian Zhongguo fazhan zhuangkuang yü qushi [China’s Development Situation and Trends 1996–7]. Beijing: China Society Publishing House.
Zhao, Y. (1998). Media, Market, and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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