An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Old Grey Lady in Red China

Will the just-launched New York Times Chinese-edition get censored by Beijing's media watchers?


The New York Times this week launched, its first foreign-language website, joining several Western newspapers and media outlets like the BBC, Forbes, Newsweek, and Time that have published Chinese-language editions, with varying degrees of editorial and business success. The site, with staff in Beijing and Hong Kong and a server located outside of mainland China, will feature approximately 20 stories a day from the roughly 200 produced by the New York Times and also include roughly 10 pieces of original Chinese content daily. Philip Pan, a former Washington Post Beijing chief, and Cao Haili, a former Caixin reporter and Harvard University Niemann fellow, will run the site. The New York Times brings its sterling reputation to a place where its competitors have had to make difficult choices between self-censorship and unwanted government interference. "There are a lot of editing choices, but not censorship choices," says Joseph Kahn, the Times‘ foreign editor and former Beijing bureau chief who will oversee the site from New York. "We’re not going to withhold stories."

The first day of the Chinese edition of the New York Times hews closely to the mixture of stories that appear on its English language site. It features op-eds from Paul Krugman and Jimmy Carter, stories about China that appeared earlier in the New York Times — such as a well-regarded January piece about the human cost of Apple’s iPad production in China and a June blog post (the original title in English was changed from "Putting China’s Economic Power in Perspective" to, in the Chinese version, "Survey: Who’s the Number One Superpower?"). The beta site also includes some original articles, like a column about Kafka-esque experiences of Chinese private enterprises, and a column from influential Chinese media personality Hung Huang on fashion photographers.

The Chinese edition of the New York Times will compete with Chinese editions of the Financial Times, (launched in 2005) and the Wall Street Journal (launched in 2002), both of which are headquartered in mainland China, cater to a Chinese audience, and publish only online versions. The original Chinese-language content commissioned for both sites is mostly in the form of columns and editorials, a model that the New York Times Chinese edition will also follow, says Kahn.  "It’s been a lot of hard work," said Angela Mackay, who supervises, adding that it’s been a positive experience and that the website "turns a generous profit." WSJ Chinese receives almost two million monthly unique visitors, according to a Wall Street Journal spokesman; he wouldn’t comment on the profit margin but called it a "success."  

Western-style journalism in the world’s second largest economy is a tricky business; China ranks 174 out of 179 countries in the 2011/2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Although dissenting views do appear in Chinese state media, direct criticism of high leaders and unwelcome reporting on sensitive subjects like Tibet and human rights can lead to the firing of a journalist or the closure of a media outlet. "If you don’t care about being blocked, you can go as far as you can go," says Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at Hong Kong University.  "But if you want the access, then you need some measure of self-censorship."

Though freer than Chinese newspapers, the content of WSJ Chinese is censored. In late April, when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, his release six days later and his subsequent pleas to go abroad became a major international news story. But WSJ Chinese appears to barely have covered the story at all: a recent search on the Wall Street Journal‘s main English-language website finds 126 mentions of Chen in the last 90 days. In the Chinese version, there are just two search results for the activist Chen Guangcheng over the past five months, one in a translated posting about the film The Hunger Games and one that mentions the actor Christian Bale visiting Chen, according to a Google search conducted in the United States.

Some Wall Street Journal articles are translated into Chinese and then censored. For example, part of a WSJ English article about Chinese former vice-mayor Wang Lijun fleeing into the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, an event that sparked the downfall of high-ranking official Bo Xilai, reads: "U.S. officials have risked confrontation with Beijing before over how to handle Chinese citizens. During the 1989 Tiananmen political uprising, Chinese dissident and democracy advocate Fang Lizhi was granted sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing; he remained for more than a year." The Chinese version, published with the same byline, dateline, and title, translates the article almost verbatim — but doesn’t include that paragraph. Later in the article, where the English version mentions "some foreign nationals, such as Mr. Fang," the Chinese version writes "some foreign nationals," deleting the mention of Fang, who’s still a sensitive subject in China. A Wall Street Journal spokesman declined to comment on censorship or any aspect of the WSJ Chinese editorial policies, or to make available anyone working on the editorial team at the time of publication.

The New York Times Chinese-language addition intends to hew closer to the Financial Times model. Sensitive stories in the English version and the Chinese version of the Financial Times appeared to be identical. FT Chinese even translated a 2010 article about the controversial subject of princelings — the sons and daughters of high-level leaders — working in private equity. Xu Zhiyuan, a Beijing-based author and columnist for FT Chinese, said in a phone interview that he’s free to choose the subject matter for his column; "I can write about Chen fleeing, but it would be blocked [domestically by state censors]," he said; the difference would be that the article would appear on the site, but it would not be available in mainland China. "FT tries very hard," said a Chinese media expert who asked for anonymity. "Sometimes they translate political news, at the expense of advertisement income. They want to keep the balance between income and good reputation." Xu credits the FT‘s success in part to its editor Zhang Lifen, a well-known reporter and 10-year BBC veteran. "He has a good understanding of sensitivity; what kind of debate will raise people’s interest but not the interests of local authorities," he said. Zhang, through an FT spokesperson, declined an interview request.

BBC Chinese, a wholly owned Chinese-language news outlet launched in 1999, does not tweak the sensitivity of its content for the domestic market and has been, with few exceptions, completely blocked in China since its inception, says its editor Raymond Li. "WSJ Chinese and FT Chinese are offering good quality content," said Li, but inside China "you have to work in the political environment you’re in. I’m not criticizing WSJ. It’s just a matter of fact that they have to face with."

A Wall Street Journal spokesman said that WSJ Chinese gets blocked "from time to time"; the FT‘s Mackay said that "before (censors) were clumsy and would block" the entire FT Chinese website, but "now if there are things that they don’t like sometimes they block that article." The BBC "made a choice," says Hong Kong University’s Chan, and thus it now reaches fewer Chinese language readers. "Maybe WSJ Chinese in the way it’s doing it is more influential, because it’s made a compromise and is reaching more people."

The Chinese edition of the New York Times has made clear that it doesn’t intend to self-censor, but it’s a delicate balance between editorial independence and being rendered irrelevant by having one’s website blocked. Beijing is sensitive about its image abroad — as the difficulty foreign journalists have reporting in China attests — but the government is even more sensitive about how it’s perceived by its 1.3 billion people at home. Kahn says that in meeting with Chinese officials, "they don’t try to micro-manage, they don’t signal how they’re going to react, but the broad feeling we have is that China is a big, growing globalized economy, and they’re not surprised that a major media company like the New York Times is interested in being in China in English as well as Chinese." And the Times, as the paper of record, will likely face difficulties on a different level from that that others face.

"I think WSJ positioned themselves as being much more of a financial site in Chinese, with breaking financial news, and we’re not positioning ourselves to being a breaking financial news site, we’re a general news site," says Kahn. "We don’t really have plans if we do get blocked" but added that "I don’t think the choice is between never being available to Chinese users, or always being freely available, there is a kind of middle ground."

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish