The Chinese press is experiencing a crackdown. The forced closure of a number of local newspapers and magazines in recent months has effectively reversed last year's trend toward a more relaxed atmosphere for the press.
The crackdown, which signals the ruling Communist Party's attempt to reassert control, has come since the fall of party secretary Hu Yaobang in January and the beginning of a propaganda drive to oppose ideas that challenge the party's leadership.
With the party's emphasis on political orthodoxy, newspapers have become more uniform in their stories and seldom vary from themes set out by senior leaders and the party propaganda department.
Most importantly, stricter criteria for regulating the press were announced to provincial officials at a party meeting last month.
A new watchdog agency - the Media and Publications Office - was set up earlier this year directly under the ruling State Council. The agency has wide responsibilities for overseeing the publishing industry and the press, and is headed by a former editor in chief of the Guangming Daily, the party's leading newspaper for intellectuals.
In what appears to be a related crackdown, authorities ordered the suspension of 39 literature and art journals in Guangxi Province pending re-registration, according to a provincial radio broadcast. The number of newspapers which may be closed in coming months under the party's tighter rules is not known, though observers say no national newspapers will be affected.
``The work of closing down newspapers has just started,'' a senior newspaper editor said. ``For the time being, it's hard to know how many will be closed down, but we'll see by the end of the year.''
Since January this year there have been reports of some newspaper closures from throughout the country.
``All are small, local newspapers, which are not influential,'' the editor said.
``Given China's size, we can never have too many newspapers and we will not close down those which are of interest to the people,'' he said.
Guidelines for reviewing China's 1,800 officially registered newspapers - less than one-fifth of which are published directly by the Communist Party - were announced at a meeting of party propaganda officials in late March.
The meeting was chaired by the newly-appointed propaganda chief, Wang Renzhi and included a speech by China's premier and acting party secretary, Zhao Ziyang.
According to a Peking editor, the propaganda chief described five categories of publications subject to closure. (Details, Page 14.)
The new guidelines are broad enough to cover many recently-established newspapers that cater to large readerships in rural areas.
Most are weeklies or semiweeklies that carry light and popular feature stories and avoid using material from the official party press.
The new rules are not as severe as those issued more than a decade ago. In the 1970s, some provinces forced local newspapers to close in order to prevent competition with party newspapers. If a town could be reached by a party paper the day it was published, the local publication was shut down.
One national newspaper that reportedly came close to being shut down last winter is the World Economic Herald of Shanghai.
A weekly paper with a circulation of 300,000, the Herald is one of the most liberal publications in China.
The Herald is considered a newspaper for intellectuals and technocrats; it offers lively economic coverage and is read by reform-minded leaders in Peking.
Observers say the Herald is read closely by Premier Zhao who often marks articles for the attention of his staff.
It regularly carries reports from the foreign press and recently published the series ``Agenda for the 21st Century,'' which originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.
Readers have complained that the Herald has been less lively since early this year, but somehow it has managed to avoid close association with the party's current propaganada line.
The Herald has yet to print a commentary attacking ``bourgeois liberalization'' or the influence of ideas that threaten the party and socialism. It is the only national newspaper of influence that has not done so.
Some people have said Mr. Zhao personally intervened to prevent the Herald from being closed down.
In an interview, the newspaper's editor in chief, Qin Ben Li, claimed he was unaware of any attempts to close the newspaper.
However, he was cautious in describing the Herald's current editorial position and hinted he had struggled with the challenge of continuing with its publication.
``Since our newspaper is very influential at home and abroad, every step we take must be considered seriously. Much work should be done to upgrade the quality of our staff so we don't let our readers down,'' Mr. Qin said.
Several specialized newspapers carry a masthead written in the distinctive calligraphy of ousted party secretary Hu.
One such paper is the People's Building Materials News, a newly established weekly with a circulation of 100,000.
``The name of our newspaper was written by Hu Yaobang, but we have kept it,'' the paper's editor in chief Zhang Song Jia said. ``Several years ago, we would have had to change the inscription.''
Mr. Zhang was confident Mr. Hu's identification with his paper would not be a problem.
Targets of China press crackdown
According to a Peking editor, the five categories of Chinese publications subject to closure under the current press crackdown are:
Newspapers that fail to fulfill their educational function, as outlined by the Communist Party, and print articles considered harmful to the public. This includes pornography and other similarly objectionable material.
``We must stop this kind of newspaper,'' the editor said.
Newspapers engaged in ``unhealthy activities.'' One such example is the Farmer's Information Weekly in Henan Province which has been accused of selling journalist identification cards for profit. Journalist cards can be used for priority purchases of train tickets and movie and theater tickets.
``Irresponsible'' newspapers. This includes the Shenzhen Youth News, which was shut down earlier this year for confirming a report that senior leader Deng Xiaoping will ``certainly resign.'' The newspaper was later accused of calling for Mr. Deng's resignation.
Publications that print ``absurd'' stories, such as a weekly in Changchun named Third Trade. After the newspaper reported that the Virgin Mary had come back to life in a foreign country, the provincial party committee told it to stop publishing.
Newspapers that have management difficulties and are losing readers. The state subsidizes numerous official publications, including the party's leading newspaper, the People's Daily. But subsidies for less important papers are being phased out because of its budget deficit.