Tea Leaf Nation

The New Website That Has China Buzzing

"Pengpai" has tens of millions of dollars in funding, and everyone in journalism is talking about it. But no one seems pleased.

Photo: thepaper.cn/Fair Use
Photo: thepaper.cn/Fair Use

The chief executive officer of The Paper, a slick new state-funded Chinese media site at thepaper.cn, launched his venture in a most unusual fashion: with a nostalgic confessional about a drunken night during his senior year in college in 1990. Qiu Bing described a young couple whom he had been friends with while an undergraduate, and how they left each other love notes in bottles and stashed them in a campus pond. It was a time before egoism and consumerism had taken hold of his country, waxed Qiu. The emotions of that era were "surging" up in him again, he said, using the word pengpai, also the Chinese name of the new website. It was a riveting read and a masterstroke in marketing. Buoyed in part by the essay, the site’s clean look, and the venture’s rumored big budget, the formal launch of The Paper and its iPhone and Android apps on July 22 triggered a huge buzz on social media and among journalists. "I’ve been waiting for this a long time," wrote one reader in the comments section below Qiu’s piece.

Much of the discussion surrounding the new venture has involved trying to classify the beast, a hybrid with a clean new-media style gloss but, some argue, a conservative and self-censoring core. Wen Yunchao, a blogger and free-speech advocate based in New York, told Foreign Policy that although The Paper resembles "the Huffington Post or Hong Kong media on the surface," its essence is "not much different from other media in China." Wen said that the outlet touts itself as new media but its "definition of new is only in comparison to the rigid face of traditional party media," meaning media directly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Other observers were more generous in their assessments. The Global Times — which, it’s worth noting, is itself a party mouthpiece — called The Paper a "trailblazer." Financial Times columnist and new-media entrepreneur Xu Danei wrote on July 23 on microblogging platform Weibo that the appearance of The Paper marked the biggest Chinese media splash since uber-influential muckraking journalist Hu Shuli kicked off Caixin, her second big financial news magazine, back in January 2010. Xu said The Paper’s initial investment from state-run Shanghai United Media Group had first been reported in the ballpark of $16 million; that estimate doubled to $32 million in a February news report by Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing reporter Luo Changping. Currently swirling estimates now stand at $64 million, Xu wrote without citing sources. Xu told FP via mobile discussion platform WeChat that The Paper seemed to be trying to compete with Caixin for market share, though he said the former seemed to have a broader scope of coverage and looked set to outpace Caixin in terms of volume, since The Paper updates daily and Caixin publishes a weekly and a biweekly magazine.

The Paper has likely been on the savvy Hu’s radar for some time; it is an offshoot of the well-known Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai, a state-run paper known for breaking the explosive September 2008 news that Chinese dairy company Sanlu was one of the companies behind a tainted milk scandal that would eventually kill six babies and sicken hundreds of thousands. But the Post’s reputation hasn’t been entirely heroic. The journalist who broke that story, Jian Guangzhou, dramatically quit in October 2012, saying his ideals had been crushed by his time on the job. Jian later famously told California-based McClatchy news service that working in journalism in China was like "dancing in shackles." (According to a web search, Jian now works as a freelancer.)*

The Paper doesn’t appear to signal the imminent breaking of these shackles. But it does look like a news site trying to find the sweet spot where public service journalism converges with party objectives. Since taking over as China’s top leader in November 2012, Xi Jinping has pushed an aggressive anti-corruption campaign and also urged a more forthright line from the government, railing against what he calls "empty talk" and impenetrable jargon from long-winded officials. Xi’s initiatives seem to offer an opening for a media outlet producing plainspoken reportage about corruption and abuse of power. The Paper appeared to be testing that proposition with a daring expose about health problems at a mercury mine in the poor mountainous Guizhou province. Another looked at excessive spending on a construction project in poverty-stricken Laifeng county in central Hubei province. At least two pieces on alleged miscarriages of justice have prompted lightning-fast public responses (in less than 10 hours) from the courts involved, one in Anhui province and another in Guangxi province. The stories prompted one reader to ask in the comment section: "Which court will be getting your memo tomorrow?"

Recent accomplishments aside, The Paper is a venture that so far intrigues many while satisfying few. For leftist (read: conservative) commentator Zhang Hongliang, the site is too liberal. He wrote in a July 21 piece for the conservative Revival Web that The Paper was meant to be part of efforts to restore ideology in China but that the project so far was "a waste of money." Meanwhile, Shanghai Jiaotong University design professor Wei Wuhui asked, "Where’s the innovation?" in a July 23 article about The Paper. He said that the editors face an uphill battle if they really want to embrace a "new media" model because that would require user-generated content, something that is extremely hard to police.

Others saw the site as old wine in a new bottle. Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a Beijing-based research and media services business, told FP via email that although The Paper might have "a flashy new website and new media savvy," it doesn’t look poised to revolutionize the Chinese media environment. He pointed to the recent visit to The Paper headquarters by Lu Wei, the chairman of the government’s State Internet Information Office, which oversees China’s extensive web censorship. The visit and The Paper’s prominent coverage thereof, complete with online photos, indicated to Goldkorn that The Paper was "not going to be speaking truth to power anytime soon, even if they do master the dark arts of click-bait and listicles."

And yet, perhaps Qiu’s nostalgia is more than posturing. An analysis of his essay by Wei Yingjie, a columnist for Caijing, said some have read the piece as espousing idealism, others as embracing realism. But Wei offered a third reading, complex but perhaps more intriguing: Maybe the narrator is a "pragmatist holding on to ideals in a world of realities."

Correction, July 23, 2014: The 2008 tainted-milk scandal in China killed six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the scandal killed dozens of babies and sickened tens of thousands. (Return to reading.)

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o