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Media : China's New News Rules: Make Money, Entertain : Tabloids flourish under relaxed social controls and a government campaign to reduce subsidies.

October 25, 1994|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — Not since the Communist revolution of 1949 had China known a hero the likes of Jiang Shijie: A 19-year-old criminal serving prison time in the coastal city of Tianjin, Jiang last February saved a child who had fallen into a frozen pond but lost his own life in the rescue.

Word of the incident quickly reached the editors and top executives of Beijing Youth News, a financially self-supporting newspaper published by the Beijing Communist Youth League.

This was a good story. But the editors faced a sensitive political dilemma.

"In the past, only good people could be heroes. You couldn't have a criminal be a hero," explained Cui Enqing, 55, president of the Beijing Youth News. "We had to think about whether to report this or not. We decided to report it, even if he was a criminal."

In the controlled world of China's mass media, this was a breakthrough. "I heard this was the first report like this in more than 40 years," Cui said. "It aroused attention all over the country."

Major media throughout China remain under Communist Party management and it is strictly illegal for anyone to publish direct criticism of top leaders or of Communist rule in general. But within those severe constraints, a new liveliness is creeping into the Chinese press, promoted by relaxed social controls and a campaign to make publications dependent on sales and advertising rather than government subsidies.

At the bottom level are tabloids published in provincial cities and towns that print sensational stories of crime, sex and low-level corruption. The criminals in these sordid tales always come to an ill end. Meanwhile, pornography is still illegal and publications must be careful who they attack on corruption issues.

But the flavor of the Chinese publications is not too distant from that of supermarket tabloids in the United States, and the goal is the same: to attract readers and make money.

At a higher level, publications like Beijing Youth News have discovered that lively writing on interesting topics can help them grow and prosper, which increasingly is a prerequisite for carrying out their propaganda or educational role.

As readers enjoy more choice, and the once pervasive role of politics in society gradually fades, staid big-time publications such as the Communist Party's flagship newspaper People's Daily seem to be gradually losing influence.

Among the most popular newspapers are weekend publications that specialize in features.

"There are lots of interesting stories about superstars, strange phenomena and criminal cases in these kinds of newspapers," noted Liu Jun, a young architect. "It's very entertaining. I read newspapers just for fun, to relax."

However low the quality of the tabloid press, its existence marks an upsurge of a "pluralistic spirit," explained Scott Savitt, a Beijing-based American writer who recently completed a book on contemporary Chinese society.

Some more serious publications are pressing the limits of political acceptability with in-depth looks at the early period of Communist rule, he added, even though a free-spirited look at more recent events is still taboo.

"People's lives were downright dull," Savitt noted. "This is spicy. People have a choice on the newsstand--a huge choice. It's empowering. There's that kind of political element to it: people making choices about what they want to read."

Beijing Youth News is so different from what people have come to expect from a Communist Party newspaper that some foreign observers seem to believe it is run by dissidents, said Xiao Pei, the paper's editor in chief. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

"Our policies are identical with those of People's Daily," Xiao said. "Our methods are different. Our newspaper carries a big responsibility: We need to train and educate young people."

To achieve that goal "we have to get people to want to read us," Cui added. One way the paper does that is simply to report the news--including events that once would have been left untouched. Earlier this year, for example, three high school students died when a fire broke out in a ride at a Beijing amusement park.

"We sent a reporter right away," Cui said. "Ordinary people love to read this kind of story. . . . In the past, we didn't report such incidents, because the government felt it was too terrible and would affect stability."

Such incidents "create an uneasy feeling" and "the amusement park isn't happy about such reporting," Cui acknowledged. "But it forces them to improve safety. In the long run, people can have more trust in them."

Public endorsement of this type of reporting came last month from Beijing's Communist Party secretary, Chen Xitong. Speaking at a journalists conference, he complained that bad news constitutes only about 10% of official news reporting. The ratio of bad news to good news should be increased, he declared.

Some saw his remarks as representing a major step forward for Chinese journalism, while others suspected that Chen might simply have some enemies in mind.

Xiao, the Beijing Youth News editor, said he believed Chen's point was that in the course of China's development, problems will crop up and it is necessary for the media to point them out to help the government solve them. "What's beneficial, we report," he said. "What's not beneficial, we don't report."

The popular press strives to preserve an element of moral preaching, but the writing style is often sensationalistic.

The problem is that there often is no way to be sure whether any specific story is true. "There's no integrity in any of this journalism," Savitt conceded. "You don't know what's news or not. For so long, (reporters) were forced to lie in the service of the state. . . . You have no confidence that what you read has even a grain of truth to it."

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