Paper tigers, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears

People's Daily, November 27, 1975

Geremie R. Barmé is an academic, filmmaker, and author of many essays and books in both English and Chinese, including the recently published Forbidden City.

In September 1999, the weekly magazine Beijing Scene (of which your correspondent was managing editor) published an article by Barmé about Chinese newspapers, comparing the press at the end of the 20th Century to the newspapers that he was reading in Shenyang in 1976 as a young Australian student of Chinese in the final year of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Rereading that article in 2008 on the first day of the Year of the Rat, I am struck by how much changed in the Chinese press between 1976 and the 1990s, but how little the newspapers have changed since then.

While Beijing has succeeded in remaking itself as a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis, its newspapers are fossilized relics subject to the same levels of interference and intimidation from the central government as a decade ago. It's both laughable and tragic.

Thankfully, the Internet has made an unprecedented diversity of information and opinion available to ordinary Chinese people, and continues to act as the closest thing to a Fourth Estate that exists in the People's Republic. On that note, below is the article, republished with permission from the author.

Paper Tigers

by Geremie R. Barmé
China's State-run press has become dramatically more dynamic since the dark days of the (1966-76) Cultural Revolution, when Chinese newspaper editors did everything they could to keep readers from knowing too much.

At major intersections throughout Beijing, in newsstands on the crowded shopping streets of Shanghai, and in all of China's hundreds of towns and cities, newspapers, magazines and journals vie for the attention of passersby from those on bikes and fresh off the subway, to pedestrians and commuters caught in peak hour gridlock. The average stall carries dozens of newspapers of all descriptions. There are the local dailies and evening news (though you rarely find the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily there—most subscriptions go to government offices), weekend broadsheets, and the specialist press with titles like Shanghai Securities News, Soccer, Computer Weekly, Movie and Drama Weekly, China Business, The New Family Press, Shoppers Guide, Democracy and Rule by Law Pictorial, Health Press, and any number of news digests with articles gleaned from the nearly 2,000 papers produced in the People's Republic today. If your Chinese isn't up to speed, there is always the China Daily, a rather stodgy official English-language newspaper; though in hotels and cafes frequented by foreigners you can pick up a copy of one of the edgy semi-official weeklies like the Beijing Scene you're holding, run by Anglophone expats.

A typical edition of the Beijing Evening News, the capital's afternoon paper, might contain headlines on the 'breaking news' about the latest political campaign; a major antique smuggling scam; the latest info about a favorite soccer team; a report on a national anti-drug campaign exhibition; a story on exhaust levels of cars fresh off the assembly line; and a story about how a local worker saved a drowning child.

The precious print space that is left over is crammed with advertisements for electronic goods, deodorants, computers, a news hotline, and of course a weather forecast. Even the fold between the front and back page is utilized with half-inch slabs of information going down the spine of the paper, movie and theater listings included. Then there are promos for colleges that teach everything from English and accountancy to computing and cooking. The other 15 pages of the paper are similarly packed with hard and soft news, ads and commentaries.

Southern Weekend, produced in the city of Guangzhou near Hong Kong, is one of the most popular weeklies in the country. It advertises its 20-page round-up of news, gossip and investigative journalism with the slogan: "Everything we do is aimed at letting you know even more." Once, not all that long ago, Chinese newspaper editors did everything they could to keep readers from knowing too much. When I first started reading mainland Chinese newspapers in earnest, I was equipped with both the leisure and the obsessive need to acquire the newspaper-analyzing habits of those inured to the official press by a lifetime of exposure. It was the early 1970s, the dying years of the Cultural Revolution, and I was an exchange student studying in Shenyang (formerly Mukden), capital of the northeastern province of Liaoning, hundreds of miles from Beijing. When the newspapers arrived in the morning, the first thing you did was take note of the "Highest Directive" (zuigao zhishi) from Chairman Mao, printed in bold type within a box in the top right-hand corner of the front page of every newspaper. But then there were not that many newspapers to worry about. Since the local press was strictly off-limits to foreigners—as it was believed that regional news could provide the inimical imperialist powers which we represented with state secrets and dangerous information—our reading was generally limited to the People's Daily, the official Communist Party organ, and Guangming Daily, a paper supposedly aimed at the educated.

I had spent time in Beijing and Shanghai, but only in Shenyang did a quizzical Chinese roommate finally induct me into the elusive art of decoding the daily press. For literate people of his generation—he was a former Red Guard who had done a stint in the countryside before being made a cadre and subsequently sent to university—learning to interpret the oracular pronouncements of Mao and read between the lines of the newspapers was not another academic subject, but vital for both political survival and peace of mind.

Soon I too learned the subtle significance of choice of font size and bold and italics, the complex relevance of choice of typefaces (from "Imitation Song" to "Wei Inscription"), the import of vertical versus horizontal typesetting, the endless intimations of headlines as well as the exegesis of cryptic quotations from classical texts. Above all, I gradually acquired a fledgling skill in deciphering photographs; and, mind you, not just the crudely airbrushed now-you-see-it and now-you-don't news pictures that instantly rewrite history, those lacunae on the page that leave in their wake gaping holes that everyone can fill in mentally.

I had to learn to "read" (I use the term not as a tired post-structuralist buzz word but as a translation of the Chinese verb du) the light and shade of each image in the People's Daily and its local clones. The hieratic significance of who stood where, near or in front of whom, required a trained eye and a mind attuned to the twists and turns of Party Central politics. It was significant, for example, that Mao's wife Jiang Qing appeared in news photographs with her head covered at the state-organized leave-taking of the corpse of the recently-deceased Premier Zhou Enlai in January 1976. To readers it indicated that she regarded the widely-mourned leader with contempt, and it was further proof that she was plotting to overturn his policies. But sometimes you literally had to see through the paper to get the point.

A notorious incident involving the People's Daily in 1966 illustrates the dangers of cheap paper. On page two, after the de rigueur bloated image of Chairman Mao, was a headline that read "Overthrow Imperialism and the Reactionaries in Every Country!" Held up to the light the word "Reactionaries" was branded squarely on the Great Helmsman's forehead. The editor responsible was severely reprimanded for his serious political error. Yet, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the gnomic Highest Directive from the Chairman that warned people which way the political winds were blowing.

These quotations appeared in a privileged position at the top right-hand corner of page one, a spot once reserved for international news stories or headlines, in a box that was known as the baoyan'r, literally 'the eye of the paper.' While hacks and humorists during this past century have staked out the back page of Chinese dailies, the baopigu (or 'paper's bum') for their short casual essays and cultural commentary, the baoyan'r served as a the real focus for a paper, a veritable darkened glass through which to observe the machinations of the engineers of the human soul in Party Central.

Elliptical utterances were issued from on high and were aimed at cajoling and guiding the hearts and minds of the nation. One of my favorites appeared in the press and on mammoth slogan boards in the cities—I recall it set up on a huge billboard, white-on-red, at the main entrance to Fudan University in Shanghai where I studied for a year in 1974-75: "Class struggle is like a net. Cast it wide and all is ensnared (jieji douzheng shi gang, gang ju mu zhang)." A political thought for the day to help comrades engaged in their life-and-death struggle with the recalcitrant and omnipresent bourgeoisie, one that sounded the alarm about the 'latest shifts in class struggle.'

When I first studied in the daily Party press 'capitulationists' (touxiangpai) were the most talked about bêtes noires. The aged Chairman (then 82 and only one year from death) shepherded the campaign against these shadowy figures who would betray the victories of his Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. His directives printed in "the eye of the paper" and peppered throughout editorials and articles enjoined the nation to re-read the 17th-century novel The Water Margin, a tale of a group of rebels eventually betrayed by Song Jiang, a former martial hero who capitulates to the imperial court and then sets about destroying his fellow peasant insurgents.

I too learned what was meant when, on September 4, 1975, the People's Daily published a quotation from Mao Zedong which in turn quoted the early 20th century writer Lu Xun's criticism of the novel. Lu Xun got it right, Mao remarked, for he said: "The Water Margin is quite explicit: because the rebels didn't directly oppose the Emperor, the moment the imperial forces arrive they give in and are pacified. Then they help the Court attack other brigands, rebels who didn't want to accord with 'the way of Heaven.'"

Everyone soon understood Song Jiang to be the code name for Deng Xiaoping, a modern-day capitulationist denounced in the mid-1970s as an Unrepentant Capitalist Roader for introducing educational and industrial reforms to a country becalmed by the squalls of lunatic politics. Deng's support for privatization and economic liberalization in the early 1960s led, during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, to his banishment to the countryside. Brought back to Beijing in 1972 to serve as Mao's lieutenant, now a few years later he was threatening to "reverse the verdict" (fan'an) on his past crimes and return to his heinous bourgeois ways.

And so the second purge of Deng Xiaoping in 1975-76 unfolded in the pages of the nation's press, not at first through direct attacks on his policies, but in oblique references to a classical novel and the treacherous acts of the fictional turncoat Song Jiang. As Mao said: "This was a peasant rebellion that had bad leaders: they capitulated." Everyone knew that capitulation meant reneging on the Cultural Revolution and surrendering to the bourgeoisie. Whispers intimated what was happening in Beijing, but Deng was not denounced by name in the media until his ouster many months later.

For a 20 year-old foreign student this was all a delightfully esoteric and bizarre thrill. While our sibling middle-class hippies jetted off to tune in, turn on, and drop out in exotic climes in North Africa, India and Southeast Asia, we western foreign students in China were playing political and cultural tourists. We could afford the luxury of debating Maoist arcana; though we wanted to believe everything we saw and heard would influence the world revolution, in reality what was really going on hardly impinged on us. Veiled literary references and court intrigue over rice gruel and salted vegetables in the morning appealed to the cultural voyeur in me, but for a population whose political and personal fate hinged on these auguries, reading the daily newspaper was a dispiriting and, more often than not, baffling chore.

Apart from the Highest Directive in the paper's eye, a mote in the medium so to speak, virtually all articles and news items were strewn with quotations from Mao, invariably printed in bold type. Everything from prolix theoretical screeds to statistics on pig-iron production had to be sanctified by a print-bite by Mao or one of the approved socialist worthies: Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin. Even when we wrote essays in class about classical Chinese literature, our teachers expected us to quote the Marxist-Leninist classics. Just as devotees of what in mainland China is dubbed 'post-studies' (houxue) today will pay homage to the secular saints of theory whether they be Walter Benjamin, Homi Bhabha or Jacques Deleuze in lengthy prefatory quotes, or tireless cap-doffing as they identify the modish loci classici for their ideas, so everyone made impotent tributes to the Great Proletarian Revolutionaries in Cultural Revolution China.

But just as suddenly as the bold quote became a journalistic standard in the 1960s, it faded from public view. I remember well the precipitate disappearance—first of bold type and then of the ubiquitous Mao quote—in early 1978.*

While relatively easy for the authorities to order an end to bold quotes, or to repudiate one style of Cultural Revolution journalism as "fake, overblown and vacuous" (jia da kong), official attempts to transform the mainland print media into a source of useful information, entertainment and even hard news was (and in many cases still is) a slow and arduous process. As in other socialist countries under draconian media control, only in fiction and in the pages of literary journals could a vision of society not completely at odds with people's lived experience be expressed.

Newspapers have literally taken decades to catch up. Today, mainland Chinese news publishing still exists within (sometimes fairly lax) guidelines determined by the Communist Party leadership, and they basically want to hear good news. Indeed, Hu Yaobang, the most enlightened Party General Secretary (who was purged in late 1986) declared that although 20 percent of paper reports could cover negative stories, 80 percent had to be positive and uplifting.

Under Jiang Zemin the percentage may be fluid, but for the moment the heyday of Chinese journalism when bold writers constantly pushed the limits of permissibility is often replaced by a cozy relationship between propagandists and commercial media pragmatists. It is little wonder then that Rupert Murdoch has his gimlet eye set on China. And this is where a new, globalizing pressure for change may come from.

To comply with conditions for entry to the World Trade Organization, China is allowing foreign media conglomerates to expand their businesses on the mainland. Over the past few years local Chinese media corporations have been formed to prepare for the competition, with many of the smaller, special-interest papers that appeared in the early 1990s being closed down or taken over by big brother companies.

As global capital and Chinese socialism get into bed with each other, there is little doubt among my comrades in the Chinese media that these two forces already speak the same language; both long ago learned to whisper sweet nothings into each other's ears.

Note: See the Communist Party Department of Propaganda 'Circular on Not Using Bold Type to Print Quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao in Newspapers, Periodicals, Books, and Documents in the Future [23 March 1978],' in Barme, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, pp.128-29.

People's Daily cover from

There are currently 7 Comments for Paper tigers, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears.

Comments on Paper tigers, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears

That is a fascinating article.
I'm curious, what was the status of study-abroad students at that time? There couldn't have been more than a couple hundred in the whole country, right? How were you received on the street by the laobaixing?

A response to Jonathan:
Many thanks for your comment. There were relatively few foreign students studying in China from 1972 until the end of the decade. In Beijing those from 'fraternal socialist countries' (North Korea, Albania, Vietnam, etc) far outnumbered students from bourgeois nations that had recently recognised the People's Republic (Japan, Canada, Australia, various European nations, etc) and the UK (which had a far more lengthy engagement with the PRC).
I first lived in Beijing in late 1974, followed by a year in Shanghai and another two in Shenyang, before going on to live between Beijing and Hong Kong for some years. Responses to young foreign students varied tremendously. In Beijing at first it was usually very hard to get anyone to talk to you--I personally found the cloud of fear heavy on many people, and you did notice (quite often) people spitting when you came near. But Shanghai was altogether more open and friendly when I was there in 1974-75, while suffocating curiosity (and glum silence) tended to be the rule in Shenyang.... It's a long story, but I won't bore you with any more of it here. Geremie

The role of the media in China has always been to support the aims of the CCP. Newspapers as a form of media are well understood and easy enough to control when you can simply fire an editor or reporter, but its much harder to control online media and its user generated content.

The Water Margin reference is interesting in that nowadays it is ordinary Internet users who can use the same tactics to speak out without explicitly naming a person or incident.

Many governments worldwide seek to use newspapers to influence public opinion, or simply to deliver the "official" view of reality while excluding other viewpoints. China is one of those governments, has been since 1949, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

But newspapers are merely one player in the media, and they are much less influential than during the 1950-1990s. The reason: There are many types of media available today, some are harder to censor, and the government treats each of them differently.

TV and daily newspapers are treated similarly: Government ownership is common, top management must be party members, these managers see these media as outlets for propaganda, and content MUST be politically correct. Under no circumstances could a new TV station or a new daily newspaper be launched anywhere in China without strong government backing.

But radio, magazines and the Internet are a different sort of beast, and there is a different approach to each.

Radio stations in Guangzhou, for instance, can now broadcast in Cantonese. Note that publishing in dialect, outside Hong Kong, is expressly forbidden. And despite heavy criticism, many cities nationwide continue to broadcast call-in shows live, many at night, where callers talk about their sex lives and lambaste local officials for incompetency.

Ownership of most weekly and monthly magazines is now held by profit-oriented firms, partly because of the recent policy restricting local governments from ownership of more than 2-3 local newspapers and radio/TV stations.

I worked for several years at "Manager" (经理人) beginning in the year 2000. Owned at that time by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Shenzhen, it has evolved into a privately held management magazine largely based in Beijing. The magazine does not submit copy to censors, and editors are hired for their journalistic skills and management knowledge, not their devotion to the socialism.

I find much of the thinking one finds in Chinese magazines rather limited in scope, but the issues are wider and discussions more animated than what one finds in daily newspapers. If most magazines seem to shy away from political matters, I would tend to put this down to self-censorship.

Many of the younger generation -- say 18-30 -- are much less likely to read daily newspapers regularly, or to take them too seriously even if they do. The reason, of course, is that freer electronic media -- the Internet and text messaging (many of which express opinions at odds with government propaganda) -- has captured the interest of many of these people.

For the reasons noted above, I would suggest that China media watchers take a wider view when talking about the "press" or the "media" in China. They are in flux, and government strategies for each type of media are actually fairly different.

Bruce Humes

I found that fascinating too. I'm just going through that process of trying get to grips with what's really being said in the articles I read in the Chinese press and elsewhere.

I'm also doing it in Shenyang, and would love to hear more about your experience here. Have you written about those times in Shenyang?

despite nowadays the governments capitalism style on economics, the government is still very communistic. their philosophy has been to control the spread of information. if you keep everyone in the dark, the people are easier to control.or so they think. i believe it is a typical characteristic of all communist governments,not just China.and i dont think theres we can do about it because the government is over powered the people.

Unfettered media is still a long way to go in mainland China!
Scandals about detaining journalists is looming.
If one day China becomes a land of free press,I don't dare imagine what it will transform into.

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