What happened at The Beijing News?

The biggest media story in China so far this September is the takeover of The Beijing News and the Beijing Times, two of the country’s leading commercial newspapers, by Beijing’s municipal propaganda department. The story, which deals with the highly sensitive issue of press control, cannot be openly addressed in domestic Chinese media. English-language coverage of the story, meanwhile, has been a knot of confusion.

Everyone knows, or senses, that the move is fundamentally about press control, and not, as the Beijing city leadership has said, about addressing things like resource scattering (资源分散) and homogenized competition (同质化竞争) in the Beijing newspaper market — whatever those are. But beyond this intuition there are few specifics to put the story into context.

An AFP report said in its lead that both newspapers were “under new management,” not bothering to explain what that meant. Further down it quoted an Internet user as saying both papers had “been downgraded.” Huh?

In one of the better reports, The Guardian cited suspicion among some Chinese journalists that the reshuffle had something to do with bold coverage of the July 23 Wenzhou train collision, which had sparked “official anger.” But the idea of a generalized “official anger” failed to address why a story more directly implicating national-level railway officials and local officials in Wenzhou and Shanghai would have generated such focused concern among city officials in Beijing.

So, “official anger,” sure. But which level of “official anger” is most relevant here — national or municipal? In fact, the idea that the Wenzhou train crash was an important factor behind this management change doesn’t accord well with how press politics work in China.

The Diplomat, clearly also confused by the move, even noted that the two newspapers had “now been taken over by CCP media authorities.” Like all media, of course, both newspapers have been under the control of “CCP media authorities” since birth. The difference now is that these papers are under the control of municipal authorities in Beijing rather than central authorities. Their new managing institution representing CCP media authority, in other words, is a notch down on the Party totem pole.

Breaking through the confusion and understanding what has happened to The Beijing News and the Beijing Times means revisiting how media are controlled institutionally in China, and specifically the crucial role approval and registration of media plays in securing Party control over them.

So here are the basics.

1. How Publications are Approved and Controlled

For starters, one of the most critical of management functions in the process of press control is the government’s enactment of a system of approval (批准) and registration (登记) for news media. The right of approval, or shenpiquan (审批权), is exercised by the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP), or the relevant press and publications authority at the provincial or municipal level.

According to regulations on the publishing of newspapers and periodicals, all publications must have “a definite managing institution capable of conscientiously taking on leadership responsibility.” Basically, that means they must have an official sponsor that says, “Look, we will manage this publication politically, ensuring that it abides by propaganda discipline and doesn’t cause trouble — and the buck will stop with us if things go wrong.”

So, here’s a key term to remember: managing institution (or “supervising institution”).

Think of the managing institution (主管单位 ) as the node where any given publication connects to the Party press bureaucracy. If you’d like to take a look in practice at which publications are controlled by which managing institutions, try using our China Media Map. In the search bar at the right enter the name of a publication like Nanfang Daily (南方日报) and hit “Go.” When the publication appears underneath, click on it. You’ll see a box of information including its “supervising institution.” In this case, it’s the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the CCP, the Party’s top leadership ranks in Guangdong. That means, folks, that the newspaper and its leadership have to answer ultimately to top Party leaders in Guangdong, who exercise their authority through provincial propaganda leaders.

You can also use the China Media Map search function to see how publications are connected to one another, and how the chain of command and control works. If you search Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) you’ll notice that its managing institution (or “supervising institution”) is the Nanfang Daily Press Group, so it is a spin-off of the Nanfang Daily, whose own managing institution is the top leadership in Guangdong.

Moving on, once the agreement of a managing institution is obtained, the publishing institution (主办单位) — think of it as a publishing house or group — can seek approval from the General Administration of Press and Publications for the launch of a publication, or “publishing unit”. And once the proper approvals and registration are complete, the publication can legally publish.

The managing institution and publishing institution systems (主办单位与主管单位制度) are a crucial part of the Party’s control of the media. According to regulations, a managing institution must be a “Party, government, Federation of Labor, Youth League, or Women’s Federation” organization. The “Provisional Regulations Concerning the Responsibilities of Publishing Institutions and Managing Institutions of Publishing Units” (关于出版单位的主办单位和主管单位职责的暂行规定), issued by GAPP in 1997, clearly stipulated a line of command in which managing institutions are responsible for exercising control over publishing institutions, which then in turn are responsible for exercising control and generally managing their “publishing units” (出版单位), the publications themselves.

These regulations make it impossible for private publications to be launched in China.

Some of you might be thinking: “Well, what about the internet?” You should keep in mind that internet sites are technically barred from doing their own news reporting and limited to aggregation of news content — so the licensing and approval system for “print” publications essentially ensures that the information pipeline is in the hands of “publishing units” controlled and managed by Party-sanctioned “managing institutions.”

2. The “Abnormal” Phenomenon of Cross-Regional Reporting

The next bit of background to understand about the recent change affecting The Beijing News and the Beijing Times is that the priority and legacy of information control as a means of protecting the interests of the Party and government, and the mapping of the press structure on the Party-state bureaucracy itself, has created a unique phenomenon in China called “cross-regional reporting,” or yidi jiandu (异地监督).

Basically, yidi jiandu is when a publishing unit in one region, let’s say Guangdong, conducts critical reporting — what is often known as “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), which you can think of as a uniquely Chinese form of “watchdog journalism” — on another city or region. They can do this because negative stories from another region do not directly impact the leaders responsible for managing their publication. Remember, for example, that propaganda officials in Guangdong (who effectively control Nanfang Daily) are tasked with maintaining “discipline” on stories affecting the province. If Nanfang Daily editors send reporters off to Guangxi province to report on a local case of corruption, this does not compromise this primary task, and in fact may draw feisty media away from more sensitive local stories.

In August 2007, Li Kaisheng (李开盛) explained the principle of cross-regional reporting and its importance this way:

“Cross-regional reporting is an important phenomenon in China’s media. Speaking from reason, extra-territorial reporting is an abnormal phenomenon. If [media] are all mouthpieces of the Party, and are the inner voice of the people, then why should local events rely on the support of media from outside the area to be reported, for monitoring to happen? When local media are already on the ground, and can operate more conveniently, when their understanding of the background of [local] news events is stronger than that of outside media, why wouldn’t their reports be of better quality than those of outside media? But the reality is quite the opposite. In today’s society, cross-regional reporting plays an extremely important role, and many sudden-breaking incidents are reported first by media from outside the area, and only in this way can draw the attention of the higher levels of leadership and therefore ultimately be quickly resolved, limiting harm to the greatest possible extent. On the other side, we see that when something happens in one area, the media of that area maintain complete silence, or present one unified picture of positivity. Regardless of how lively these [local] media might be in their reporting of sudden-breaking events elsewhere, they are silent on issues concerning their own areas.”

As an example, Li cited the August 2007 collapse of a bridge in Xiangxi, a prefecture in Hunan province. Searching Rednet.cn, a major news portal in Hunan, he found that the story of the collapse, a story obviously of great local relevance, was nowhere to be seen in the featured news of the day. Only deep in the site was some coverage found by means of a targeted keyword search.

But Li noted also that among the coverage available there was nothing in the way of critical reporting, and no attempt to explore the causes of the collapse or the question of responsibility.

By contrast, media outside of Hunan did report on the story, and online news portals outside the region, like Sina.com, actively aggregated related content, including in-depth reports and critical opinions.

So even when cross-regional reporting was not about the conduct of labor-intensive investigative reporting, it was still critical in offering more comprehensive coverage of local news stories.

Li Kaisheng concluded what should be obvious to anyone who observes Chinese media coverage on a regular basis — that media from outside a given region are generally far more effective in covering local stories from that region than are local journalists, regardless of how professionally-inclined these local journalists are. He said: “We must emphasize that in a situation in which local media are deficient [in covering local issues], cross-regional reporting is indispensable. The prominence of cross-regional reporting shows us clearly the deficient state of local monitoring by media.”

In an article for Deutsche Welle in October 2008, veteran journalist and CMP fellow Li Datong (李大同) declared in reference to the poisoned milk scandal that broke on the heels of the Beijing Olympic Games and first implicated a major milk company and Party officials in Hebei province: “If it hadn’t been for the [Shanghai-based] Oriental Morning Post violating propaganda discipline and conducting ‘cross-regional reporting,’ children in China today would probably still be drinking poisonous milk powder!”

(Read on for an explanation of why Li Datong would refer to cross-regional reporting as “violating propaganda discipline.”)

3. Cross-Level Reporting and the Top-Down Monitoring

The unique nature of “supervision” by the press in China — specifically, its regional and bureaucratic character — also means that media whose managing institutions are higher up the ladder of the Party bureaucracy can more easily conduct critical reporting of issues involving lower-level governments or organizations. While this is generally also included under the term “cross-regional reporting,” we can think of this as “cross-level reporting” or “top-down monitoring.”

Imagine, for example, that there is a major corruption story involving city leaders in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province. It would be difficult and dangerous for a local Hangzhou newspaper like Hangzhou Daily or any of its commercial spinoffs to pursue such a story. But it might be possible for a newspaper like the City Express (都市快报), a spin-off of the provincial Party mouthpiece of Zhejiang province, Zhejiang Daily (浙江日报), to attempt such a story because its managing institution once removed is the top leadership in Zhejiang, not the city leadership in Hangzhou (which directly controls Hangzhou Daily and its spin-offs by extension).

Of course, we can’t forget that a major corruption story involving Hangzhou city leaders might be a major priority for provincial Party leaders as well, and provincial propaganda leaders might for this reason prevent the City Express from covering it.

How The Beijing News Was Knocked Down to Size

The above overview should begin to make it clearer exactly what happened to The Beijing News and the Beijing Times and why. A paper like The Beijing News, located in the city of Beijing but with the administrative and cross-regional clout, if you will, afforded by having the central-ranking Guangming Daily Newspaper Group (top-down clout) and the Guangdong provincial-ranking Nanfang Daily Group (cross-regional clout) as its joint managing institutions, is understandably a thorn in the side of the Beijing city leadership. This is particularly true when you consider that the The Beijing News has also benefitted from the professional tradition afforded by the Nanfang Daily Group connection — a tradition of strong “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督).

Having now been knocked down a notch administratively, it will now be much harder for both The Beijing News and the Beijing Times to cover more sensitive stories concerning the interests of Beijing leaders.

The registration information in the General Administration of Press and Publications database — on which our China Media Map is based — has not yet been changed. So readers can still enter The Beijing News (新京报) and see the the managing and publishing institutions prior to the change.

And who is the managing institution for the Guangming Daily Newspaper Group, the former partner managing institution for The Beijing News? It is the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, a high as you can go up the ladder of power. In fact, the Guangming Daily is directly administered by the Central Propaganda Department (of the CCP Central Committee).

That may seem mind-blowingly improbable to those not privy to the inner workings of China’s media. How could a publication known for its hard-hitting coverage and outspoken opinions have been administered directly by the Party agency at the very pinnacle of press controls? And how can we possibly be concerned about the possible loss of “space” for coverage when a publication is just shifting from one control-minded boss to another?

Welcome to the fog and complexity of China’s media.

In fact, cross-regional reporting generally has come under much greater pressure in recent years, as regional officials have complained about pesky journalists snooping around in their own backyards. On September 18, 2004, the Central Party Office bowed to demands for action and issued a policy banning the practice of cross-regional reporting. This has not stopped the practice outright, but it has served as a pretext for many officials to push back against critical reporting.

The recent action against The Beijing News and the Beijing Times was a play by city leader in Beijing to remove the longstanding threat that both newspapers posed to their propaganda objectives — as professionally-minded, competing newspapers based in the city with the administrative clout to tackle bigger stories.

In an online post, the now Hong Kong-based mainland blogger and media professional Bei Feng (北风) hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “By assigning The Beijing News and the Beijing Times to the Beijing Municipal Party Committee, the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Department can directly issue bans and missives [to them] and does not have to go through the Central Propaganda Department anymore. This move will without a doubt have a major impact in decreasing the number of their negative reports about Beijing; Aside from this, if they again report on negative news outside Beijing, this belongs to the realm of strictly prohibited extra-territorial reporting, so negative reports [in general] will see a major decrease. I’m confident that the former reason is relatively speaking the bigger one.” 

There you have it. . . And the real lingering mystery behind this change is how leaders in Beijing managed to make it happen. What were the specific lines of power and influence?

As to the reasons given by Beijing leaders for the change. They are, well, just so much posturing and drivel. But we should certainly have them on record. So here’s our translation of the news release published in the city’s mouthpiece Beijing Daily announcing the change:

Beijing Daily
September 3, 2011
Page 2

Beijing Times and The Beijing News Changed to Beijing City as Managing Institution and Publishing Institution

This reporter learned from the Beijing Municipal Administration of Press and Publications (北京市新闻出版局) that given the approval of the General Administration of Press and Publications, that the Beijing Times, whose managing and publishing institutions are the People’s Daily, and The Beijing News, whose managing institution is the Guangming Daily Publishing Group, and whose publishing institutions are [jointly] the Guangming Daily Publishing Group and the Nanfang Daily Publishing Group, will from today forward be changed to management and publishing by the City of Beijing.

The Beijing Times and The Beijing News were launched in 2001 and 2003 respectively. Since their launches, both publications have seen a steady increase in influence and market competitiveness, and have already become well-known metropolitan newspaper brands.

A representative from the Beijing Municipal Administration of Press and Publications said that the change in the managing and publishing institutions for the two publications is an important action of the central Party leadership’s demand to deepen cultural sector reforms, benefitting the acceleration of the promotion of resource integration in the publications sector of the Beijing region, benefitting change in the serious state of resource scattering (资源分散) and homogenized competition (同质化竞争) among metropolitan newspapers in Beijing, benefitting the city of Beijing in increasing the strength of its support for the two newspaper in terms of policy, resources, science and technology and personnel, further promoting media strengthening (做强做大) at the two papers.

Responsible persons at the two papers said that these changes in the managing and publishing institutions will enable the two papers to win greater space for development and infuse them with strength and vitality, further raising the influence and competitiveness of the two papers, and having great long-term significance for both papers.

The two papers will certainly grab this rare opportunity to adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, focusing on central tasks and serving the overall interests, promoting the rapid and healthy development of the newspaper industry in the capital.

2 Comments to “What happened at The Beijing News?”

  1. Joern says:

    Extremely informative and illuminating piece, thanks a lot!

  2. XinWenChong says:

    David,

    thank you so much for taking the time to write this long piece.

    Please, please, please try to keep up this effort, of now and then adding a longer more “instructional” article like this. I especially appreciate the fact that you:
    - make an effort to clearly and thoroughly write down every single chinese expression (buzz words, technical terms,and jargon). There’s no need to explain the chinese term, just leave it there. It doesnt take any extra space, nor it hurts your readers who cant read chinese, and is such a tremendous help for the others who can read it.
    - added a brief comment (…)English-language coverage of the story… a knot of confusion(…). By picking up a few examples of the “western press” as our 5mao friend commentator would say, you also added extra value to the article. Understanding the “mechanics” of the where, how and why they (international press) fail, also indirectly helps recognizing my own “blind spots” and developing a more acute and sharpen media sense.
    - keep up with the “data journalism” style. Please continue providing the original link to every single story, citation, original article, etc.. If not available online any more, you can provide your readers with just the keywords to try a google search themselves. Yes there are actually some of us who will want to ready the original chinese version … :-)

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