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The news earlier this week that two popular Beijing newspapers will now come under the capital’s propaganda department has raised concerns that the two hard-hitting dailies will face tighter control.
The Beijing News and Beijing Times were previously under the control of state-level propaganda authorities.
Most commentators agree that the change means that the papers will not be able to report as freely on local news as before.
We talked to David Bandurski, editor of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, and asked him what this means for the two papers and why it was happening now.
The thing to understand about this story is just how important the power of cross-regional reporting and top-down media monitoring has been for Chinese media in recent years.
Essentially, publications registered in one city or province are less able to do hard-hitting reporting of local issues because, according to China’s press bureaucracy, they are directly controlled by the Party leaders immediately above them. For example, top city leaders in Guangzhou have fairly direct control through their own propaganda department over any newspaper registered under the city level there. So these papers won’t generally do investigative reporting on corruption in the city government.
By contrast, a paper registered in another city or province can more safely conduct such monitoring because they have little to fear from these leaders. This is what cross-regional reporting, or yidi jiandu, is all about.
But another important tool is top-down monitoring, which means that a publication registered at a higher administrative level can more easily and safely report on stories about lower-level Party or government institutions.
This was the case with both the Beijing News and Beijing Times. The former was administered by the Guangming Daily Group, under the Central Propaganda Department, and published jointly with the Nanfang Daily Group of Guangdong.
City leaders in Beijing could not control the newspaper through their own propaganda department because the paper was senior.
The Beijing News, which has had a strong professional tradition of reporting — part of its legacy from its southern Chinese co-publishers — certainly exploited this administrative position to its advantage, doing harder coverage of local issues in Beijing.
You can imagine that in some sense, from the standpoint of Beijing leaders, the paper was like a sword of Damocles, constantly hovering over their heads.
The only way for them to deal with the paper was to do so through negotiation with the paper’s managing institutions.
The Beijing Times, as a commercial spin-off of the central Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, was in much the same position.
So this action by the Beijing city leadership is a clear move to deal with Beijing-based publications that have been beyond their control.
One of the most interesting questions, though, is exactly what sort of behind-the-scenes power shifts made this change possible. I leave that as an open question.
There is little question that this change will have a clear impact on the conduct of watchdog journalism, or “supervision by public opinion”, by both papers on local Beijing issues.
Theoretically, it will still be possible for them to investigative stories in other cities and regions, but the impact on reporting in Beijing should be immediate. This is something we’ll have to watch closely.