China’s Defiant Local Newspapers

China’s media censorship has repeatedly made headlines over the last year for restricting information about the COVID-19 outbreak. While many might dismiss China’s news media as servants of power, such pessimism belies the fact that China’s local newspapers have been pushing the boundary of censorship and challenging the official narrative. These local newspapers’ works are of particular relevance today, as China’s central government increasingly encroaches on the press by setting rules on what’s allowed and not allowed. 

China is home to over 1800 newspapers — most of them state-owned and all subject to censorship. However, some local newspapers have retained a higher degree of independence than others. This is because local governments and the central state have different goals and priorities that sometimes do not align. The central propaganda authority, for example, is more concerned about information that could undermine the image of the central government and the Communist Party. But it appears more tolerant (however reluctantly) of news that exposes provincial officials’ wrongdoings, since the central government must keep local cadres in check in order to improve governance.

Moreover, China’s decentralized authoritarianism assigns extensive political power to provincial governments, allowing reform-minded local officials to tolerate news reporting that may depart from the Party line. Resistance from front-line journalists and editors could also strengthen local newspapers’ editorial independence.

This delicate dynamic between the local and central governments has enabled some newspapers to continue operating on the margin (though their numbers are steadily decreasing). In fact, a look at historical archives shows that local newspapers have been producing critical, in-depth reports since the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” prompted them to step beyond their traditional propaganda roles. In the words of Karoline Kan, local newspapers “took on more of a watchdog role, although in a compromised way”.

Liberation Daily, 1980

One of the earliest “watchdogs” is Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. On October 3, 1980, the Daily startled Beijing by publishing on its front page a report from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which bluntly pointed out that Shanghai’s development came at a high social cost. The article also attributed Shanghai’s deteriorating living standards to China’s fiscal policy. The command economy, it said, disproportionately relied on Shanghai’s local fiscal revenue, which accounted for a third of the central government’s expenditure.

The October 3 issue quickly sold out. It was praised by the locals, receiving over 300 letters to the editors within days. In response to the public’s enthusiasm, Liberation Daily dedicated ten columns to Shanghai’s reform schemes, some even boldly criticizing Beijing for not granting Shanghai enough autonomy.

Soon, however, the news reached the ears of Beijing officials, who were angered by the paper’s position. In a 2008 interview, Xu Xueming, Liberation Daily’s then-editor of economics news, recalled that a member of the State Council called the editors and lambasted them for “pressing the central government”.

The editors’ other sin was not having sent this piece of “negative” news through neican (“internal reference”) for Party internal review and approval. Of course, the editors had done it on purpose, knowing that their piece would likely get cut. Consequently, all the editors involved were summoned for censure and self-criticism.

The tussle didn’t end here though. Things took a dramatic turn when the reform-minded Zhu Rongji took office as Shanghai’s mayor in 1987. That year General Secretary Zhao Ziyang asserted in front of the 13th Party Congress that the media should identify societal problems and hold the state to account via yulun jiandu (“supervision by public opinion”) — essentially an affirmation of the media’s watchdog role. Zhu affirmed the editorial stance of Liberation Daily and exonerated the editors involved. The researcher who penned this report was also given an award.

Delicate balancing act

While local newspapers like Liberation Daily were emboldened to criticize authorities by the limited political freedom that came with economic liberalization, that would change in the 1990s with the presidency of Jiang Zemin, who viewed newspapers not as watchdogs but as instruments of political control. China’s news media have a duty “to educate and propagate the spirit of the Party’s Central Committee,” he said in 2001. This policy was advanced through the weiwen system (“stability maintenance”) under Hu Jintao’s administration and would squeeze China’s local journalism for years to come.

A few provincial news outlets resisted the suppression and continued to be outspoken. Southern Weekend, a newspaper known for its investigative journalism, was the first to expose the AIDS epidemic in rural Henan province in November 2000. Here one can see the dynamic between the provincial and central censorship in practice: on the local level, Henan authorities threatened journalists who attempted to report on the epidemic. Zhang Jicheng, a reporter for Henan Science and Technology Daily, was fired after publishing an article entitled “Strange Disease in a Henan Village Shocks Top Officials.” Gao Yaojie and Wang Shuping, two whistleblower doctors, were harassed and later went into exile in the US.

The central government, however, gave a green light to reports that local officials tried to suppress. Notably, Huadong News, a subsidiary of People’s Daily, weighed in after the Southern Weekend exposé. It acknowledged the “explosive growth” of AIDS virus and, perhaps more importantly, condemned local officials for downplaying the danger.

But the priority of the central state censorship — i.e., to maintain the central government’s image and legitimacy — ensures that provincial newspapers would be reined in once they went too far. Take the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the four days after the disaster, state and local newspapers alike covered the mass destruction of school buildings and dormitories and questioned their poor construction quality.

But the tides turned after local newspapers like Southern Metropolis Daily and Caijing jumped in and dug deeper. Notably, allegations of corruption in Southern Weekend’s reports unsettled higher officials who feared that public anger would translate into discontent at China’s political system. In response, Xinhua News Agency, a state-run outlet, criticized the Weekend for biased reporting (“tinted lenses to view China”), and critical reports were subsequently taken down.

Looking back and looking forward

The brief period of China’s flourishing local journalism from the 1980s through to the 2000s has begun to fade from public memory in recent years. Part of the reason is political: the propaganda department, besides appointing newspapers’ editor-in-chief, also began to monitor which stories the reporters planned to work on. In Southern Weekend’s case, 1,034 articles were censored prior to publication in 2012, according to its former editor-in-chief. Even less fortunate was Legal Evening News, a prominent Beijing-based newspaper, whose in-depth section was dismantled in 2018.

Part of the reason is also economic: newspaper advertising revenue has been steadily decreasing, down by 30 percent year-on-year in 2017. Disillusioned editors quit for jobs at internet startups like Tencent, Toutiao, and Didi Labs. As top positions were vacated and filled with appointed officials, more and more local voices were silenced and forgotten.

Nonetheless, looking back is important for understanding the rich history of China’s adventurous local newspapers. Their courageous work allows us to envision a healthier media environment characterized by pluralism. Even in the dark year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was hope for independent journalism: local outlets like Jiemian News and Beijing Youth Daily challenged the official narrative by interviewing frontline health workers, including whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang. Reports from Caijing revealed Wuhan government’s mismanagement, proving that “rumors” are better dispelled with transparency than censorship.

The tradition of defiant local newspapers has roots deeper in China than many might think.  Acknowledging this helps us aspire to a future in which more Chinese newspapers serve as a fourth estate that holds power accountable, rather than ceremonial bodies that parrot the official line.