Tea Leaf Nation

Looking for Smarter, Sexier Chinese State Media? There’s an App for That.

The <i>Paper</i>, a popular state-funded start-up, is like <i>Vox</i> with a side of propaganda.

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 22:  A Chinese man takes a selfie in a snow covered Tiananmen Square during a snowfall on November 22, 2014 in Beijing, China. China's capital and other parts of northern China had its second snowfall of the year Sunday.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 22: A Chinese man takes a selfie in a snow covered Tiananmen Square during a snowfall on November 22, 2014 in Beijing, China. China's capital and other parts of northern China had its second snowfall of the year Sunday. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

SHANGHAI — Before the Internet age, it used to be relatively straightforward for authoritarian regimes to dictate popular news consumption: just control all the major newspapers, as China’s ruling Communist Party has done since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. But the advent of the Internet, particularly the rise of the social web, has broken that monopoly. Stiff online competition for the attention of China’s more than 600 million Internet users has become a major challenge for state media and its traditionally stolid reporting style. In response, the country’s leaders are looking for new ways to control how citizens produce and consume news; in the last two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has stepped up this effort by restricting online freedom of speech, launching a central leading group on Internet affairs, and repeatedly calling for “proactive” and “effective” Communist Party-led responses to a changing media environment.

Enter the Paper, or Pengpai in Chinese, a web-based media outlet headquartered in Shanghai promising to provide news on “politics and thought” and one of the most successful answers to Xi’s call thus far. A start-up launched in July 2014 with enough government funding to now reach over 300 staff members, the Paper is the first Chinese web-based news organization to create a mobile news application featuring its own content. (Other larger online news apps like “Today’s Headlines” typically don’t have a government license allowing them to produce their own news, instead curating the content of licensed outlets.) And while some state outlets do have a large mobile presence — party mouthpiece People’s Daily operates a huge public account on mobile messaging platform WeChat — the Paper has distinguished itself by successfully integrating into the media diet of many young Chinese, most of whom would normally not follow or share state media’s often stodgy coverage.

The popular and slick-looking app offers over 100 news and background stories a day in 49 categories that range from rule of law to real estate to art. It is already a staple in WeChat feeds and web portal repostings, greatly amplifying its influence. The quantity and range of content attracts readers, most of whom are young and educated. Bruce Bo Ding, 26, a Guangdong native who now works in an art gallery in Shanghai, said the Paper is the only news app left on his phone. “I only have so much time,” said Ding. “Pengpai offers a lot of content in one place. I can just pick and choose.”

How did the Paper — which, according to its deputy editor in chief, Wei Xing, receives about 20 million page views a day — manage to establish itself in the middle of the hypercompetitive Chinese social media landscape so quickly? For many readers, their first introduction to the platform, months before its official WeChat launch, came via the Paper’s aggressive coverage of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The nationwide graft sweep, tackling an issue that had long been at the top of the list of citizens’ concerns, has been a hugely popular cornerstone of the Chinese president’s tenure so far. The Paper reported extensively on the lives of fallen “tigers,” official slang for high-ranking officials, all across the country. “Part of that was marketing,” said Wei Xing in an interview with Foreign Policy. “There is a huge demand in China today for high-quality political news. People are no longer content with simple stories about local events. They want to know why.”

But it was also timing. “Because of the campaign, we had all this material to report on,” said Wei Xing, referring to China’s political environment, in which many topics are strictly off-limits to the media unless government permission is granted. “Without that background, we would not have been able to do it, even if there was demand.” It was during the anti-graft sweep that Xu Liangliang, a 23-year-old university graduate working in finance in Shanghai, started reading the Paper. “I am interested in politics,” said Xu, “and their news on the crackdown was different from that of traditional media. It was a better read.” The Paper‘s writings on the campaign sometimes read like a mix between novels and gossip magazines. One influential article on former official Ling Zhengce, the brother of former President Hu Jintao’s top aide Ling Jihua now accused of corruption, opened with an allusion to Gabriel García Márquez’s celebrated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

From the start, the Paper, which is part of the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, had a difficult mission. The expectations from the leadership were clear: gain influence without making anyone up top look too bad. To do so, the start-up had to appeal to online readers, many of whom have an appetite for in-depth news without overt propaganda. “You have the right to know more,” goes one of the Paper‘s advertising slogans. The platform’s viral opening essay by CEO Qiu Bing discusses the summer of 1990, which he spent at university and during which “the air was filled with the smell of departure.” Meant to evoke the idealism of China’s 1980s (which came to an abrupt end with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, not mentioned in Qiu’s essay), it was dedicated to “everyone who still harbors ideals.” Some hoped that the new media venture, with its ample funding and ambitious aim of becoming China’s premier political news platform, would revive an otherwise ailing media climate. Others, however, pointed to the endorsement of Shanghai Communist Party chief Han Zheng and Internet czar Lu Wei, which suggested the outlet would adopt a more conservative approach.

So far, it seems a bit of both, with the Paper running both critical exposés on social issues that are sometimes deleted post-publication, indicating censors believed them too politically sensitive, as well as propaganda-like pieces. This past summer, an especially popular article series discussed a gay university student’s lawsuit against the Ministry of Education over allegedly discriminatory language in the curriculum. The Paper was the first media outlet to report that the student was being pressured by her university to drop the lawsuit. But the party hand remains readily apparent in other coverage on the platform. As with other state media, the Paper’s main headlines are almost invariably reserved for Xi, broadcasting anything from his comments on reform to what he eats during state visits. “Why do university students born after 1990 choose Xi Jinping as their idol?” was the title of a piece the Paper reposted on its app. One article last June, praising rescue divers searching for survivors in the Yangtze River after a ferry boat carrying more than 400 had sunk, drew heavy criticism for its uncritical coverage of the government’s rescue operation.

Such variety leaves the new outlet’s ideological leaning up to interpretation. “That is up to the reader to discern,” Ding said. “Yes, the Paper might have things that look like the Global Times” — a reliably nationalist state-run publication — “but it also has other things. You have to make your own judgment call.” To Li Shen, a 29-year-old Chengdu native, the mixed messages make the Paper hard to pin down. “The quality is quite uneven. It looks like they are trying a bit too hard to attract young readers,” said Li, who works in publishing. “But at the same time, they do often really go the extra mile in their coverage.” Li enjoys the Paper‘s history and social issues channels but stated that she doesn’t “really read their news.”

“It is a bit of a jumble,” Wei Xing, the deputy editor, acknowledged. He likes to think of the Paper as standing in the middle of the Chinese media landscape, both in terms of its size (“smaller than web portals like Tencent, bigger than financial media like Caixin”) and its ideology.

Since its launch, the Paper‘s rapid growth and emphasis on quantity has led to a number of quality control issues. In September 2014, the Paper published a partial Chinese translation of an article from the Economist, leaving out negative references to China’s political system and changing the tenor of the article. Chinese media researcher and former journalist Fang Kecheng discovered in October that the Paper had plagiarized an article on CNPolitics, a website he founded dedicated to popularizing academic studies on China to a Chinese public. The Paper later posted an apology below the revised piece. A former political reporter at the Paper, who asked to remain anonymous as she is still working in Shanghai media, relayed how she was sent to the southern province of Yunnan to pursue stories of corrupt officials about a month after accepting the job. “It was exciting, but the work pressure was high and there was little guidance,” she recalled. “As a new media platform, we had to work ourselves into people’s news feeds. Quantity was very important. But most reporters were young and inexperienced.”

Despite these incidents, the Paper is doing quite well, Fang told FP. “Quality control is not a priority, it seems. But they work hard and have lots of talent on board,” he said. “And they are the first to offer such a comprehensive online news app. They don’t really have any competitors.” Still, Fang emphasized that the Paper should be classified as a party platform: “They can be very pro-government and clearly don’t need to worry about being commercially viable.”

Shen Yachuan, a veteran journalist writing under the pen name Shi Feike, doesn’t need to be reminded of the Paper’s party backing. In July, he wrote a widely read online essay criticizing its sometimes uncritical attitude and explaining why he had deleted its news app from his phone. Shi confessed that he was “confused” about some of the Paper‘s content, which he describes as “classical Global Times,” a marked contrast to the Oriental Morning Post, the local Shanghai paper from which the platform grew. “I hope I will reinstall the app one day,” he concluded.

But Wei Wuhui (no relation to Wei Xing), a scholar of media development based at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, is more upbeat. He had previously voiced his criticisms of the Paper‘s model. But now he says he is largely impressed. “It is very rare for Shanghai’s traditionally conservative and locally focused media to have a national impact on public opinion,” he said. “That privilege is usually reserved for the central government media or, previously, the Southern Media Group. But the Paper has established a national presence.”

“In the current media environment, you could say they have been pushing the envelope where they can,” said Wei Wuhui. “Especially when it comes to reporting abuses in other localities.” But in China’s tightly controlled press, in which the bounds of politically acceptable criticism are constantly changing, even a state-run publication may not always know where the line is. An early series of critical articles about legal miscarriages in other provinces resulted in a warning from Beijing. Still, during the first months of the Paper‘s existence, the platform seemed to enjoy a bit more leeway in order to make an impact. During those months, several exposés were published one after the other, and three local courts even publicly announced their intent to look into court cases the Paper had investigated. Last July, one of the investigated cases was overturned. The platform was also the first to report on the details surrounding the arrest of Rui Chenggang, a well-known anchor at state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

Scoops and openly critical essays have been rarer this year. That does not mean there have not been attempts. “When will Chinese-style ‘convictions outside the courtroom’ end?” an article that can no longer be found on the Paper‘s website asked in March, referring to the phenomenon of parading criminal suspects on CCTV to plead guilty before their trial. In July, a series of three articles on the environmental and social impact of the massive Three Gorges Dam was censored soon after it came online. And on Dec. 1, the Paper took down a news article announcing an investigation against an official in Hunan province, only to republish it online after the government had made a formal announcement.

Apart from its continuous — if not as bold — news reporting this year, the platform distinguished itself by compiling online dossiers on topics of public interest, leaning toward the “thought” part of the Paper‘s mission statement. An article from September 2015 asking whether China’s feminism was too theoretical, for example, attracted responses both on and outside the platform. Last month, a recently added question-and-answer section featured gender studies scholar Fang Gang, who led an online discussion on why men should be feminists. The Paper also reserves more room for a diverse range of book, film, and art critiques than most Chinese media offers.

According to media scholar Wei Wuhui, this shift from in-depth investigations to other types of content should also be blamed on the exodus of experienced investigative journalists, both at the Paper and across the Chinese media landscape. Pay tends to be low while tightening government control of the media scares away those with a passion for the profession. Peking University communications expert Wu Jing recently lamented this, stating that even media students no longer read the news. But if they do, she added, they read the Paper.

So far, the government’s strategy of cultivating online media start-ups as a way to reach new audiences, in addition to boosting the social media presence of state outlets such as People’s Daily and CCTV, seems successful. Already, outlets across the country are copying the Paper’s model. In the past half-year, media groups have launched similar online platforms in the provinces of Sichuan, Henan, Hubei, Guangdong, and Xinjiang, as well as in the capital Beijing. The Paper itself is working on an English-language platform that will be launched in the first half of 2016. “It is another sign of the Paper‘s success,” said Wei Wuhui. “The people from the State Internet Information Office are quite satisfied.” And even after leaving the Paper to pursue other interests, the anonymous reporter working in Shanghai remains an avid reader. Caixin, the Beijing-based publication famous for its investigative journalism, is probably better, she said, “but reading a Caixin long-read takes a lot of time and dedication. The Paper is faster and more accessible.”

To deputy editor Wei Xing, the Paper‘s growing influence is a sign that even government-funded media, with its limitations, can make a journalistic contribution in China. “Yes, all our money comes from the government. But we can still make different news as well. Or rather,” he paused, seeking a description of content that doesn’t have a clear propaganda slant, “normal news.”

Correction, Dec. 21, 2015: Fang Kecheng discovered in October 2015 that the Paper had plagiarized a CNPolitics article. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that Fang had discovered it is October 2014. Additionally, Fang is a media researcher and former journalist. A previous version of this article stated that Fang was a Chinese journalist and blogger.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Tabitha Speelman is a freelance correspondent based in Shanghai.

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