A state-backed newspaper posted an online statement in the early morning of May 5 on its Sina Weibo account: “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, ‘I am sorry.’ Goodnight”. (在夜深人寂时，卸下言不由衷的面具，对真实的自己说声“对不起”。晚安。) The statement was accompanied by a black-and-white photo of a clown taking a sad and lonely drag of his cigarette. By comparing himself to a circus clown having to wear a mask chosen by his master to perform, Beijing News is telling its readers that the editorial was imposed from the above.
Beijing News is one of the four newspapers (the other three being Beijing Daily, Beijing Youth Daily and Beijing Times) to release the coordinated editorials on the morning of May 4, 2012, attacking the U.S. for helping the blind activist Chen Guangcheng to stay in the its Embassy in Beijing for six days. The editorials were meant to give the US a strong message to stay away from China’s internal affairs, but their character and tone greatly embarrassed and exasperated Chinese readers who found them worse than those during the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese authorities reportedly launched a purge of social media posts about the editorials late in the evening.
The public is amazed by the twists and turns of the event: that Beijing News, launched in 2003 with a reputation of liberal and reformist ambitions, should join other Beijing newspapers in releasing the editorial, and then to be followed by an online statement within 12 hours, which would definitely be “harmonized”, and possibly result in the firing of those concerned.
But the event is only a reflection of the tensions and contradictions in China as it pursues economic growth without political reform. Beijing News is the first Chinese newspaper to be co-founded by media groups from different regions: Guangming Daily and the more liberal Nanfang Daily Group. It enjoyed a proud tradition of professional journalism. However, the tradition is short lived. Last September, the Propaganda Department of the CPC of Beijing took over Beijing News to keep closer scrutiny over its content. This takeover was suspected to be due to its coverage of the fatal high-speed train crash in Wenzhou last July.
However, while media professionals have to speak the words prescribed by the authorities on the given platforms, they can now turn to social media to speak their conscience, even if what they say there would be short lived. More importantly, they are often supported by hundreds of millions of micro-bloggers. The post of Zhao Pu, a well known CCTV anchor, advising the public not to consume a certain yogurt for fear of contamination on Weibo is another case in point. He was temporarily booted from his daily program after the post and like Beijing News, he did not answer directly all the questions coming from Weibo users. Instead he quoted two lines from a Tang Dynasty poet: “If relatives from Luoyang ask after me, tell them I have nothing to hide” (洛阳亲友如相问，一片冰心在玉壶).
What Beijing News has done demonstrates the difficulties the Party faces in conducting a harmonious tune. As it tries to maintain stability and harmony at all costs, discordant notes are often heard even within its own propaganda apparatus.
Xiaoling Zhang is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.