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Profits, Permissiveness Issues Raised : Romance Tabloids Thrive in China

September 15, 1985|JIM MANN | Times Staff Writer

PEKING — If you are going out with a girl, you will want to know whether she likes you or not. To find out, you can ask yourself the following questions: (1) Does she always try to be with you and make all kinds of excuses to visit you . . . ?

--From the Chinese tabloid Yue Lao Bao (Matchmaker News)

In the United States, routine newspaper advice for teen-agers trying to manage their love lives would hardly attract much attention. In China, it is an astonishing change that has led to literary controversy and political strife.

In the last year, what amounts to an unofficial "yellow press" has begun to flourish in China. Tabloid newspapers have sprung up featuring adventure stories about knights and warriors, lurid tales of crime and corruption, advice on matters of love and sex, even personal ads from young people seeking mates.

The tabloids, which carry names like Golden Flower Tea and White Cloud, have been selling by the millions, even though they cost more than the most prestigious and most expensive official newspapers.

On trains and street corners, people can be seen staring at the splashy headlines and poring over stories promoted as inside accounts of the evil-doing of such people as the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and Mao Tse-tung's wife, Jiang Qing.

Last month, the newspaper China Publication News said that what it called "unhealthy tabloids" are selling so well that the nation is facing a shortage of newsprint this year. The publication reported that by the beginning of July, there were more than 100 tabloids in circulation selling an estimated 800,000 copies each.

Devouring Paper

The tabloids were said to be eating up newsprint at the rate of 50,000 tons a year--about one-eighth of China's annual output. Paper mills were said to be rushing to sell their newsprint to the unofficial tabloids, which offered premium prices. As a result, for the first half of this year, China's paper mills failed to meet their quota for supplying newsprint to official government publications under China's centralized state planning system.

The proliferation of these tabloids is to some extent an outgrowth of China's economic liberalization.

Last fall, some provincial and rural publishing enterprises, including some that are controlled by the Communist Party, decided to put out mass-circulation tabloids in order to bring in new revenues. The cost of newsprint was increasing and the authorities were pressuring them to be financially self-sufficient. The additional money, they apparently reasoned, could be used to help subsidize their more sedate and serious official newspapers.

The spread of the tabloids has raised some interesting questions in China, where for 35 years the official press has been kept under the direct control of the Communist Party.

To what extent should government-controlled newspapers be required to meet the rigors of the marketplace? How permissive should the authorities be toward tabloids whose principal aim is not to propagandize, but to make money? Can an avowedly Marxist regime permit the development of a press that caters to public taste? The answers are beginning to come in.

The government appears to have decided to try to crack down on the new papers and to prevent the emergence in China of any budding scandalmongers. After displaying an early tolerance toward the tabloids, known here as xiaobao, or little newspapers, the authorities have voiced increasingly harsh criticism of them.

'Spiritual Opium'

The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily commented earlier this year: "Editors of and contributors to newspapers and magazines of all categories should think of their lofty responsibilities as builders of socialist spiritual civilization, and continue to heighten their ideological and artistic levels so as to provide the people with more and healthy spiritual food. They should by no means disregard the social effects of their work, let alone make a fortune out of selling spiritual opium."

Chinese leaders recently have resorted to more direct methods. The provincial Sichuan Daily reported that law-enforcement officials had confiscated 20,000 copies of 38 tabloids because they had stories or cartoons judged to be "obscene."

The government-controlled English-language newspaper China Daily quoted an official of Peking's Communist Party disciplinary inspection commission as saying that city police confiscated 700,000 copies of tabloid papers as part of their campaign against "unhealthy tendencies." According to the official, Meng Zhiyuan, the confiscated tabloids "carried sensational stories about murder, sex, gang fights and superstitions."

Provincial authorities have begun to issue regulations warning that newspapers and magazines may not be sold without official registration certificates and that their content and layout must not differ from what was promised at the time the publications were registered.

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