Tea Leaf Nation
Behind the Fall of China’s Greatest Newspaper
Censorship and commercial pressures have driven the once-revered Southern Weekly to the margins.
In early January 2013, hundreds of protesters gathered in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in support of one of the country’s most influential liberal newspapers, Nanfang Zhoumo, or Southern Weekly, in a rare standoff against local propaganda officials. The Weekly, established in 1984 and claiming a present-day circulation of over 1.7 million, had long been regarded as a model of watchdog journalism. But under the thumb of then-new, conservative chief provincial censor, Tuo Zhen, the paper’s scheduled annual 2013 New Year editorial advocating constitutional reform had been secretly scrapped and replaced with a different version praising the Communist Party. Some Weekly journalists, angered at the meddling with the popular editorial, which since 1999 had set forth a vision for social change the editors hoped to see in the year ahead, openly demanded an investigation. Following days of public protests in support of the journalists, Guangzhou authorities reached a compromise with the paper. In an internal announcement, officials promised to “improve their methods of media management” if the paper would publish the next issue as planned.
Instead, over the past two years, the Weekly has continued to lose its erstwhile status. Journalists’ hopes that a collaborative attitude towards authorities could buy more room for solid reporting in the wake of protests have not seemed to pay off. Tuo has remained in charge, and according to over ten staff reporters who currently work at the Weekly, tight censorship has persisted. As a result, the Weekly appears to be losing its luster in the eyes of Chinese literati. A number of media scholars, journalists, and Chinese officials alike observed that they now take the publication less seriously. “I no longer read the Weekly,” said a former high-ranking official speaking on background in March 2014. In January 2015, an expert in Chinese media who did not wish to be named said she had not read the Weekly directly in years, only looking at Weekly articles when friends posted them on social media.
Economic pressures have accompanied the political pressures facing the Weekly, at which one of this article’s authors worked from July 2010 to July 2013 before quitting to pursue graduate study in the United States. Since October 2014, the price of the paper has almost doubled from about $.50 to about $.80, while the number of articles has shrunk, suggesting difficulty in garnering readership and advertising revenue. In a November 2014 article for Southern Media Studies, a media-studies journal, Wang Wei, the current editor-in-chief of the Weekly, wrote that both revenue and profit declined in 2013 compared to 2012 (full-year 2014 statistics are not yet available.) As its reputation for a source of popular exposés began to fade, so, apparently, has its appeal to advertisers.
The Weekly once stood among the pioneers of serious investigative journalism in China. Since the 1990s, the Weekly had shown how engaging with social issues ignored by most other media – while staying away from authorities’ red lines – could make a publication commercially successful while allowing it to withstand the vicissitudes of Chinese politics. Its stories, which often channeled the frequently overlooked perspectives of disadvantaged groups, such as migrants, protesters, and government petitioners, drew a wide readership that included government authorities and the general public. Weekly reports like a May 2008 investigation into school collapses during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and the May 2010 undercover look into labor conditions at Foxconn factories, drove the national conversation.
Things started to change even before the protests, in the summer of 2012. Apparently under pressure from propaganda chief Tuo, and months before the planned transition of power from then-President Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, the paper gave tepid coverage to a number of incidents seemingly in its wheelhouse, and certainly in the national interest. That included severe flooding in Beijing in July 2012, which killed nearly 70 people, exposing outdated infrastructure in the capital city that had held the summer Olympics less than four years earlier.
The fallout from the protests proved the last straw for some. In the wake of the New Year’s editorial fiasco, the combination of political pressures and economic decline led many journalists to reconsider their commitment to the Weekly. The start of 2013, right after the paper’s New Year’s editorial was censored, “marked a watershed for me,” wrote one now-departed Weekly journalist on a web forum internal to employees of the newspaper. “I felt that the imagination” of the newspaper “had been depleted.” Many have quit the Weekly in the past two years, including two deputy editors in chief, an assistant editor-in-chief, and dozens of other editors and reporters, according to conversations on background with current and former employees of Weekly. Key vacated editorial positions — including the two deputy editors-in-chief — were filled with conservative staff from Nanfang Daily, an official party mouthpiece also owned by NMG, the Weekly’s parent company.
To be sure, many departed journalists are continuing to produce socially meaningful content, but nothing that resembles hard-core investigative journalism. Based on a survey of those who have left the Weekly since January 2013, about one-third of the departed are now running or working for web startups, in some cases lured by the generous amounts of venture capital currently available in China’s tech scene, which will include money from a $6.4 billion fund the Chinese government announced Jan. 14. Deng Ke, a former editorial board member of the Weekly, founded a research firm called Trigger Trend, which analyzes major political and economic trends, and monitors interactions among politicians and businessmen. Two former editors, Zhao Ling and Deng Jin, started “Boya Kids,” a podcast providing liberal arts education to children. Zhang Hua, who used to edit the Weekly’s business section, launched “Youth MBA,” a K-through-12 platform for innovation and creative learning. And Feng Duan, former chief operating officer of the Weekly’s new media content operation, founded an online reading company. Its first project: “Poems for Kids.”
The latest news from China points to the current regime’s increasingly coercive and centralized approach towards media. In the past several months, a number of liberal journalists have been arrested or detained, including well known columnist Cao Baoyin and former publisher Shen Hao, whom an article in the Washington Post called “an inspiration to a generation of Chinese journalists.” But the top-down silencing of journalists is not the only mode of control. The Weekly’s fate illuminates the more subtle mechanisms that limit critical and investigative reporting in China. In particular, the fusion of censorship and market pressures has conspired to push this popular newspaper — and what it used to represent — closer to the margins.
Maria Repnikova is an expert on Chinese media politics, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania