Media and Advertising

The World according to Cankao Xiaoxi
by Bruce Humes

Reference News: slightly dodgy
This article is by Bruce Humes, a China publishing consultant based in Shenzhen.

What's more convincing to the masses than propaganda out of Beijing? Discreetly massaged copy from the New York Times, evidently.

The New York Times' Howard W. French recently visited Korla, discovering that despite the oil boom in this "sleepy oasis" in Xinjiang, "not everyone is enjoying the benefits of the town's new wealth."

And just who might "not everyone" be? Well, you would have to have read the English article, 'cuz the Chinese version ain't gonna tell ya.

Cankao Xiaoxi (参考消息) is in fact a much-respected Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history. Published nowadays for the public by Xinhua News Agency, until the 1980s the only eyeballs that scanned these pages were those of elite party cadres who received this sensitive, "internal-circulation" publication featuring reportage and opinion from the outside world. Claimed daily circulation exceeds several million. As a publishing consultant, I generally take such figures with several grains of salt, but in just about every city I've been throughout China, Cankao Xiaoxi is on the newsstand early in the morning, and often sold out by early afternoon.

Unlike many other publications in China, Cankao Xiaoxi implements strict standards for translation: Virtually no English is used, no content is added, and politically incorrect terms - such as the Republic of China (中华民国) - are translated directly into the Chinese if they appear as such in the original. Such practices make for a good read and have endowed the brandname with an air of authoritativeness over the years.

But there are three areas in which Cankao Xiaoxi takes liberties: It runs its own headlines, creates its own captions, and - this is the killer - deletes references deemed unbecoming to China's image.

Back to our Xinjiang oasis. French's story documents the positive and negative impact of the oil boom: On the up-side, a new airport is under construction, thousands of new jobs are being created, and of course, Made-in-China petroleum is flowing for this energy-hungry nation. But the down-side is there too: Raunchy night-club acts which must be offensive to the Muslim locals, retail commerce monopolized by Han Chinese migrants, and discrimination in hiring which leaves even some educated Uighurs, the once dominant indigenous people who are Muslim, less likely to participate in the boom.

The Chinese digest artfully repackages these "contradictions" into highly readable praise of a new-look Xinjiang where Uighurs hardly figure. While the New York Times leads with "A Remote Boomtown Where Mainly Newcomers Benefit," the Chinese digest headline boasts "American Marvels at Prosperity in Xinjiang's Korla".

And to ensure that this happy picture is not marred by reality, the following references/full sentences have not been included in the Chinese digest:

* "...script used by the region's Uighur ethnic minority"

* "...newly arriving ethnic Chinese migrants from the country's crowded east"

* "As with Tibet to the south, China's hold on Xinjiang is recent. Elements of the Uighur and Kazakh minorities have long yearned for independence and have sporadically engaged in terrorism.”

* "Beijing has cracked down harshly on separatists and has banned religious schools in Xinjiang, for fear they will foment Islamic radicalism and separatism."

* "At one club, Chinese fashion models strut and Russian dancers shimmy on a stage for ogling oil workers. An entertainer with an atrocious voice belts out karaoke songs urging patrons who disapprove to "throw your money, your cellphones, whatever you've got at me."

* "I studied at the university in Urumqi," the province's capital, "for three years, majoring in mechanical engineering," said the Uighur barber, Yasen Keyimu, 25. "But I can't find a job with the oil industry. Such great skills, and I can't get work."

Working out of Shenzhen, Bruce Humes is a bilingual China Media Analyst who offers services such as reader focus groups, pre-launch research for magazines and web sites, and training for China publishing professionals. He can be reached at

Links and Sources
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
From 2008
Front Page of the Day
A different newspaper every weekday
From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!
Danwei Archives