China's Fourth Estate Emerges, Timidly

Hidden video cameras and tape recorders, long wielded by the Communist Party to spy on suspected "class enemies," are now being used by a new breed of Chinese: the investigative reporter.

Path-breaking reporters here are beginning to cover everything from official corruption to police brutality. But some wonder if the trend will trigger another party clampdown on the press. "Investigative reports can only be made of local officials, and it is unclear how long the party will tolerate the prying eyes of the press," says Dai Qing, a former reporter for one of China's leading newspapers.

Since the 1949 revolution, Chinese journalists have been required to mythologize Communist heroes and demonize class enemies while ignoring political killings, famines, and other disasters. But some are breaking out of the mold to write about China's rapid social changes, born of two decades of market reforms.

While the party still uses the media to promote itself, a commercial revolution now sweeping across China is helping some newspapers wiggle out of the shackles of government control. The party's use of the press to fashion a state-planned society was weakened in the early 1990s, when Beijing began cutting subsidies to the media. "With financial independence has come a degree of editorial autonomy, and in some ways Chinese journalists now have more freedom than at any time in Communist history," Ms. Dai says.

A growing number of papers are becoming more daring and lively, to attract readers and advertisers. The Beijing Youth Daily has become one of the hottest broadsheets in China by printing a mix of crime stories, the latest trends in fashion and cyberspace, news from the West, and exposs of abusive cadres. And in a culture increasingly guided by the slogan "To get rich is glorious," the Youth Daily's financial success is gaining admirers throughout the industry. "Five years ago, the Youth Daily agreed to give up state subsidies in favor of raising its own revenues," says Chen Kexue, the newspaper's deputy editor. "Since then, its advertising income has gone from zero to 150 million yuan [nearly $20 million] annually."

The paper's circulation has quadrupled, to 400,000 copies daily, as it distances itself from newspapers like the People's Daily, which still features Communist directives, grain-production figures, and socialist "model workers" on its front pages.

Mr. Chen says the paper's rise has been fueled by a novel idea in China: polls of readers. "Each month, we ask subscribers what topics they want to see, and we use the feedback to develop the paper," he says.

It's easy to see why the Youth Daily's growth has been so explosive in a field that is still dominated by government-run newspapers that are virtual clones of one another. In a typical issue April 22, the paper led with stories on Microsoft chief Bill Gates, and video compact discs.

Inside, sandwiched between features on the computer age and fashion models, the Youth Daily carried a long report on a Chinese Romeo and Juliet whose families have been devastated since the couple eloped two months ago. The story, which has since triggered a high-level investigation, revolves around the deputy chief of a county in central Shaanxi Province who forbade his daughter to marry a poor local boy. When the two ran away to get married, the paper reported, local police arrested the boy's parents and tried to beat information about the elopement out of them. The boy's father died during the attack, the paper said.

While Beijing is now allowing reports about local abuse of power and graft, "The press can't step over the line by criticizing party leaders at the national level," says Orville Schell, a China scholar and dean of the journalism department at the University of California at Berkeley. "Great swaths of Chinese history are completely out of bounds," he adds.

One of the many "black holes" in reporting here has been the Chinese Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, he says.

Nine years ago, Dai made the mistake of criticizing the government's plan to use force to clear student protesters from Tiananmen Square. Since then, she has been banned from writing, and her state-ordered silence serves as an example for journalists nationwide. "Now many reporters censor themselves, and that makes the party's job easier," she says.

Yet she and many other Chinese intellectuals say that the Tiananmen tragedy has been a double-edged sword: The split between the party and the people was so great that it has helped give birth to a civil society. "The 1989 crackdown and the commercialization of society since then have each fostered a new sense of independence by journalists," Dai says. "The press is now moving toward acting as a check on the government, much as it does in the West.... And that trend is likely to strengthen as we move into the next century."

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