China's Press Lightens Up - a Little

More spirited content and competition for ad revenue follow reduced government control

FAN JINGYI doesn't think much of China's many sassy tabloids with blaring headlines, reports on Chinese film stars or leaders' private lives, and even an occasional nude photo. As editor-in-chief of Economic Daily, the influential voice of China's economic reforms, Mr. Fan urges tighter controls and even shutting down some papers.

Still, he admits the tabloids and other papers reporting on drug use, AIDS, and homosexuality have jolted the straitjacketed Chinese press, forcing editors to intersperse dreary political reports with lively news that people want to read. While the circulation of most official newspapers is falling, Economic Daily has boosted readership with investigative pieces on shoddy consumer goods and stories on second jobs, starting a business, and other timely topics.

"The official newspapers have to change themselves," Fan said in a Monitor interview. "The official newspapers should well understand the reality of people's lives and be in touch with that reality." Testing the limits

Emerging from the dark days after the 1989 crackdown on democracy protesters and journalists, China's press is testing the limits of loosened government control. As capitalist-style reforms take hold, the media have expanded to meet demand, competed by adding more spirited content, and tapped the lucrative advertising market. Last year, the number of newspapers jumped more than 10 percent, to 1,755, according to China Information News. Radio stations draw growing audiences with free-wheeling call-in talk

shows, the official television runs commercials with popular serials, and some major newspapers feature entire front-page ads for air conditioners, soap, and health drinks.

"Economic development has forced them to loosen up a bit, because reform has passed the point of no return," says a senior newspaperman who lost his job for supporting student demonstrators in 1989. "There are now so many journals and newspapers. How could the ideologues read them all?"

"The softer news is a good sign," says a political activist who also was forced out of his editor's position. "This shows that in the past, the newspapers only had to answer to higher authorities, while now they have to answer somewhat to the people."

But that doesn't mean that China is on its way to a free press, analysts caution. Still considered to be purveyors of propaganda, newspapers feature little reporting on popular issues compared with columns of communist jargon. In recent months, the newspapers have mouthed prominent warnings by top officials against "money worship" and other capitalistic excesses, a signal of party divisions over market reforms and China's torrid economic growth, analysts say.

The government is also determined to keep its grip. Piqued by the journalistic and commercial derring-do of the press in recent months, the party officials have moved to rein in recalcitrants. Newspapers have been cautioned about illicit commercial deals such as selling publishing rights or unsanctioned ads. In May, a newspaper in Anhui province was closed down for selling its registration and advertising certificate, while 13 others were disciplined for other violations.

Reporting on the influx of prostitutes from Russia, or on a campaign to claim war reparations from Japan, or on the spread of horse racing and gambling has been banned. Ad sales will be centralized, a move aimed at tightening control over smaller, more independent-minded publications. April Fools' Day issue

Some major newspapers have had their wrists slapped for being too lively. In April, China Youth Daily, one of the mainland's most popular papers, was condemned for running an April Fools' Day page featuring joke stories about selling city landmarks, dropping one-child family planning policies, and Libya recruiting Chinese women bodyguards.

Factory Director and Manager Daily, an independent-minded newspaper published in southern Sichuan province, was censored after it published a call for more democracy by Hu Jiwei, a prominent journalist who was ousted from his government positions four years ago.

"The editor-in-chief was told by his bosses that [this column] was too sensitive, and so is Mr. Hu. He was told that in the future he should not be after sensational effects," says an informed source.

"There is a credibility crisis," says Gan Xifen, a journalism professor at People's University. "Since papers have to report what they must, and fail to speak out on the issues they should speak out on, this has greatly affected the reputation of Chinese newspapers."

Still, Chinese observers say change is seeping in as China's communists grudgingly respond to market forces and the stirring openness.

With an array of new publications on the newsstands and with government-funded subscribers on the decline, subscriptions for 18 of 20 major party-run publications were down 14 percent last year, reported the English-language China Daily. Commerce fuels openness

Change has even spread to the party's official voice, People's Daily, and to the Propaganda Department, where reformers have been given top jobs in recent months. In June, China Daily, the government's major publication for China's foreign community, underwent a management shakeup, with longtime editors replaced by younger journalists.

Journalism observers say the openness is driven by the growing commercial interests of newspapers, including diversified interests such as taxi, real estate, and advertising companies. This protects against a complete rollback of new freedoms.

"The process has been that it's loose until there's a problem, and then the government tightens up," says Cheng Mei, a People's University professor of journalism. "But it can't go back to the way it was in the past because of the commercial interests of the newspapers," she says. "If the government tries to tighten up, the press will resist and will demand a law to protect their interests."

But commercialism also has a dark side. Mirroring the trend elsewhere in China, corruption is spreading among journalists. Some accept money, gifts, and even stocks from businesses and government agencies in exchange for prominent coverage.

Editors and journalists warn that such practices are poisoning Chinese journalism. "This is a very dangerous and unhealthy tendency among Chinese journalists," says Mr. Gan, the journalism professor. "If it continues to develop, the Chinese media will be greatly disgraced."

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