Newspapers in China have evolved from government gazettes that fostered communication between the central imperial court and local officials to the cosmopolitan newspapers of today. Modern, appealing, reader friendly—and available early in the day—they feature not only the news but coverage of sports, entertainment, and fashion trends. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
Newspapers have existed in China for more than a thousand years. Always changing and evolving with Chinese history, they have served a variety of purposes, from informing readers about government activities and current affairs to keeping ordinary people up-to-date on the lives of celebrities. Today’s state-run newspapers face the challenge of operating in dual roles: as ideological instruments and players in a competitive media industry.
Chronologically, the development of Chinese newspapers can be divided roughly into three phases. First, before the nineteenth century, China’s newspapers were mostly government gazettes that served to facilitate communication between the central court and local officials. The second phase is from the nineteenth century to 1949. Modern newspapers emerged in this period. The earliest ones were initiated by Western missionaries. Later, when Chinese started to set up their own newsrooms, they mostly published civilian papers, although party-sponsored papers also appeared in this period. The mainstream trend for newspapers of the time was to serve as a forum for intellectuals to voice their political voices. The third phase started after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and it can be further divided into two stages: from 1949 to 1976, when most newspapers were strictly operated and regulated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); and from the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 to the present. China’s newspapers at this period are characterized by large variety, diverse content, and the modern “newspaper group” model.
Government Gazettes in Ancient China
Somewhere between 776 and 835, in the middle of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), local authorities from different locations stationed agencies in the national capital (Chang’an, or today’s Xi’an city in Shaanxi Province) to collect information and intelligence. The officers of these agencies would sporadically send back either documents published by the imperial court or intelligence they had gathered to affiliated local lords so the lords could keep abreast of occurrences in the central government. These bulletins later evolved into official gazettes, whose sources were controlled by the central government. The contents of these publications included the emperor’s orders, appointments of officials, and ministers’ reports to the emperor, as well as information about the royal family. The content and function of these gazettes, which were copied by various local agents, remained unchanged even though methods of circulation and modes of regulation varied from reign to reign. The gazettes remained an instrument to facilitate communication across local governments in the realm of the throne, but they had no unifying title and were all named differently. Because the earliest agencies sent to the national capital by local governments were called Di, starting from the Song Dynasty (960–1279) the gazettes they published were gradually named Di Bao. During the Song dynasty the general public was allowed to copy and spread the Di Bao. In the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), civilian-operated agencies that copied the gazettes appeared, and agencies printing and selling government gazettes surfaced in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). These developments helped the public access information to some extent. Starting with the Song dynasty, gazettes emerged that were not published by the government. But they were banned by the dynastic governments and doomed to extinction.
From the Late Qing Dynasty to 1949
China’s modern newspapers were started by foreigners in the nineteenth century. Missionaries were the pioneers, followed by businessmen and politicians. The Chinese began to run their own newspapers in the 1870s. At the end of the 1890s, civilian newspapers reached their peak in number. From August 1896 to September 1898 alone, more than seventy newspapers were launched in China, double the total number of newspapers established by Chinese in the previous twenty years (Ding, 1998, 87) Confronted with the booming civilian newspapers and backed up by the central government, some local authorities in the Qing dynasty started to launch their own official newspapers in 1901 in an attempt to influence public opinion and check the effects of civilian papers. Since these official papers mainly carried news of laws that had been passed, administrative directives, and government documents—and most of them were distributed free to different government agencies and schools—their impact on public opinion was minimal. They were no rival to the prosperous civilian newspapers.
At the threshold of the twentieth century civilian newspapers thrived. After the imperial dictatorship was toppled and a new republic was set up, the development of civilian newspapers picked up pace. Meanwhile, due to frequent and fierce conflicts between parties and military tycoons, civilian newspapers were diversified to become organs of different political interests, and often integrity fell victim to the fluctuations of party conflicts.
After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established in 1921, the party newspaper systems for the CCP and the Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) gradually took shape and matured. The ruling GMD established national news-regulation institutions. After about a decade, the CCP build its own party newspaper system and its basic paradigms, which would exert profound influence on China’s newspaper industry after 1949. Though some other party newspapers survived, most merely scraped by and their influence was limited, at best.
But private newspapers were never extinct. Some of them emphasized business operation and expansion, and the prototype of the modern newspaper group can be detected among them. Some cherished the ideal of free expression and neutrality to win professional prestige and become leaders in shaping national public opinion. Some popular tabloids focused on women and the personal lives of celebrities.
The pattern for the literati to comment on politics was still an integral part of China’s newspaper industry at that time. Taking advantage of newspapers, intellectuals promulgated modern science, voiced political opinions and criticism, and motivated the masses. Hence, among the large variety of newspapers, the majority were still devoted to political opinion. This trend for intellectuals to voice political opinions via newspapers was a result, in part, of the political movement to rescue the country from the despair and decline in the late-Qing period and of the tradition for intellectuals to serve their country. Yet as the fight between the CCP and the GMD escalated at the end of the 1940s, the world that tolerated diversified politics and opinions was no longer viable, and intellectuals had to identify with one party or the other. After the GMD met its Waterloo, so to speak, in 1949, the model for intellectuals to run newspapers vanished.
Newspapers in the People’s Republic of China
When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the CCP immediately built its own newspaper system. Apart from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper for the
CCP’s central committee, the main emphasis was to establish party newspapers at the provincial level. Gradually, these efforts were extended to the local cities and counties, so that a party newspaper framework featuring the four levels of central committee, province, local cities, and counties was set up. Moreover, non-CCP parties, professional associations, and social groups also started or revived their newspapers, and some private civilian newspapers also survived.
But after 1953, private newspapers were nonexistent and public newspapers centering on CCP information became the dominant players. Over the years the number of newspapers fluctuated according to the domestic economy and the political situation. Yet as these fluctuations mainly affected specialized industry papers, county-level papers, or newspapers run by enterprises, their impact on the overall structure was minimal. In 1965, China had a total of 413 newspapers. When the ten-year Cultural Revolution started in 1966, newspapers were either closed or seized and their numbers dwindled drastically. In 1970, only forty-two newspapers had survived nationwide (Wu 2008, 483).
In 1976, the Cultural Revolution ended, and China’s newspaper industry caught its breath again. By 1978, there were 186 papers in China; at the end of 1995, this number had skyrocketed to 2,089. The quantitative boost invariably triggered major restructuring of the newspaper industry. Before 1978, the newspaper industry was very primitive, featuring only the different levels of party papers and a very small number of industry, enterprise-based, and evening newspapers. At the end of the twentieth century, although party papers were still the mainstream, an industry characterized by variety, diversity, and multiple levels had taken shape. Correspondingly, the function of newspapers went beyond publicity and political mobilization.
In 1979, the government permitted China’s newspapers to be “a public cause in nature but business in practice,” (Li, 2003,104–105), a designation that confirmed the newspapers’ roles as party organs as well as their independence as business entities. Newspapers had to practice business policies independently and be self-supporting. In 1993, the newspaper industry became the third largest in China, and it was acknowledged officially that newspapers had ideological functions as well as fiscal responsibilities. The political and theoretical preconditions for marketing newspapers were satisfied. Pushed by these notions and policies, in the thirty years since 1978, China’s newspaper industry reformed itself completely and rapidly to adapt to the development of a market economy. The reform of China’s newspaper industry could be divided into the following stages.
Expansion and Popularization
In the 1980s, the increase in the amount of information was the focus of newspaper expansions. Numerous papers emerged during this period to carry news, especially economic reports. Meanwhile, other newspapers enlarged their pages to contain more information.
Changes took place at the operational level, too, with advertising playing a significant role for the first time and many newspaper companies beginning to do their own distribution.
In the 1990s, China’s newspapers embarked on its popularization process. At the beginning of the decade, magazine-like weekend newspapers featuring society news, crime stories, and human interest stories became the rage. They depended on sales for profit. In the mid-1990s, evening newspapers took the place of the weekend newspapers, which were criticized for their vulgarity. Propelled by large subscriptions and advertising income, the number of evening newspapers grew from 48 to 180 during the decade. The evening newspapers focused on local news, and their content was relevant to the daily concerns of ordinary households.
But at the end of the 1990s, cosmopolitan newspapers featuring a wide-ranging array of information useful in daily life, with coverage of sports, entertainment, and fashion, became the trend. Compared with evening newspapers, cosmopolitan newspapers were modern, good looking, and reader friendly, and they were available earlier in the day. They were welcomed by city residents, especially the younger generation. Ever since the first cosmopolitan newspaper hit the market in 1995, the format has won out over that of the evening newspapers, catching the fancy of the entire nation. Pressured by cosmopolitan newspapers, 70 percent of evening newspapers at the time were forced to print earlier than scheduled to vie for readers. Yet that wasn’t enough to give them a competitive edge, and China’s popular newspapers gradually became the main players of the market.
From the end of the 1990s to the early twenty-first century, many party-controlled newspapers merged into groups. The growth of newspapers was quantitatively remarkable, but overlaps in market positioning and the small scale of operations made for vicious competition. More seriously, these problems weakened government regulation of public opinion and undermined the influence of the party newspapers. In 1994 the process of establishing newspaper groups began, and in 1996 the first “merger,” Guangzhou Daily Newspaper Group, was officially launched. Over the next five years, forty newspaper groups were approved by the state. Most of these groups were based on existing party newspapers, which usually became the flagships for six to twelve newspapers, magazines, websites, and other businesses. The establishment of newspaper groups symbolized the adjustment and variation of China’s state-run newspapers under new circumstances. A different mode of operation was put into effect.
After reforms over three decades, China had 1,926 newspapers at the end of 2007, and advertisement revenue reached RMB¥312.6 billion (about US$4.47 billion) in 2006 (Li, 2008, 4, 7)
General Characteristics and Problems
Today’s newspaper industry in China has several characteristics. First, it functions both as an ideological instrument and as a part of the information industry. Second, it has multiple identities: As an ideological institution, newspapers must serve as government and party organs; as content providers, they must satisfy the needs of consumers and provide services; as public-service providers, they must prioritize public interest and promote civility and social progress; and as businesses, they must survive and make profits. In terms of overseeing content and circulation, newspaper groups are divided by administrative districts, and each group covers only one district.
Presently, China’s newspapers are facing multiple challenges. The dual identities of newspaper groups endow them with the nominal independence of legal entities. Yet, the appointment of newsroom leadership, the major operational decisions, the distribution of vital resources, and the editorial policy decisions all reside in different levels of party organizations. Operationally, these groups also have to be self-supporting. Content production and business operations are separated, in that contents are planned and controlled by party organs and governments of different levels while marketing decisions have to cater to the fluctuating reader tastes. Multiple roles conflict sometimes. The political obligations on newspapers are compulsory, yet survival hangs on independent business procedures. Caught in such conflicting demands, neither the social responsibility of the press nor professional ethics of practitioners can be guaranteed. Also, the division of newspaper groups by administrative districts fosters regional monopoly and weakened market competition. The call for a cross-regional, cross-industry and cross-media newspaper group becomes an empty slogan if the scale and competitiv
eness of newspaper groups can’t be effectively boosted.
Source: Huang, Dan. (2009). Newspaper Development. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1608–1612. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
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