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Chinese newspapers fold amid growing censorship, falling incomes

Man reading a newspaper. (Pexels/Released)
February 16, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

More than a dozen newspapers have shut down in China since the beginning of the year, amid falling advertising revenues and ever tightening censorship by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

At least 13 newspapers that rely on advertising revenue but are still subject to the government’s strict censorship regime have folded, including the Beijing Morning Post, the Beijing Suburban Daily and the Heilongjiang Morning News, official party newspaper The People’s Daily reported.

The Anyang Evening News and Zhangzhou Evening News titles have also been suspended.

Analysts told RFA that as commercial newspapers are increasingly squeezed by growing controls on what they can print on the one hand, and falling revenues and competition from social media on the other,government-run media are experiencing a huge boost resulting from their whitelisted status.

The skyrocketing popularity of smartphones and social media in recent years has led to sharp drop in circulation figures, with newspaper advertising revenues falling in China to 10.2 billion yuan in 2016, from 41 billion yuan in 2012.

Veteran Beijing journalist Li Xinde said many “market-oriented” papers are meeting the same fate, while papers under direct party or government control are subsidized by a system of compulsory subscriptions.

“In the internet age, traditional media have been negatively affected,” Li said. “Because we have a system of media control, the media run by our party have relied on financial subsidies.”

“One example is newspaper subscriptions,” Li said. “Every year, the provincial government and the provincial propaganda department send out documents listing which newspapers to subscribe to.”

The biggest names in state media, including party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, are compulsory subscriptions, he said.

Regional official papers are also given handouts by local governments, enabling them to stray less into the red. The Guangzhou Daily, for example, was granted 350 million yuan in subsidies in 2016. Local governments also take out large advertisements to laud their own achievements.

Loyalty to the ruling party and to President Xi Jinping

Yang Shaozheng, a former professor of economics at Guizhou University, said the label “market-oriented media” is actually a misnomer in China, where all media are expected to show loyalty to the ruling party and to President Xi Jinping.

But he said the current economic slowdown is affecting newspapers that enjoyed little or no financial backing from official budgets, and the authorities have little incentive to do anything to save them.

“I think we can say that these closures are a good thing for the Communist Party,” Yang said. “Because that way, they can draw the battle lines even tighter, and make sure all media speak with one voice: the voice of the party.”

“They want to unify everyone’s thoughts across the whole country,” Yang said.

Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo agreed that the government is able to provide a much-needed boost to its preferred media outlets at a time when newspaper sales are rapidly falling around the world.

“It is a characteristic of China that something that affects all media outlets affects party media least of all,” Zha said.

The Beijing Youth Daily group also shuttered the Legal Evening News on Jan. 1, so as to concentrate on its social media output, according to separate media reports.

The paper, which once billed itself as “an urban evening newspaper with a legal flavor,” had won itself a reputation for cutting-edge investigative reporting and in-depth features on crime and social issues. Its closure came after the sacking in May 2018 of editor Wang Lin, who headed its in-depth features department.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party sent in a top official to make sweeping changes that led to the resignations of dozens of editorial staff, RFA learned at the time.

Wang’s colleague Zhu Shunzhong had already been targeted by the Communist Party’s powerful propaganda department, who had him taken on forced “vacation” last year after he posted messages it considered politically sensitive to his friends’ group on the social media app WeChat.

Some of the problematic content related to the targeting of hundreds of Chinese rights lawyers in a nationwide crackdown since July 2015, in particular, the accusations of subversion that many faced.