Biganzi: Cheng Yizhong’s Quiet Comeback

The forecast for the weekly newspaper and periodicals market in China is very upbeat, but I am very pessimistic about the current situation. This, as a matter of fact, is also my view of the Chinese media industry as a whole…

ChengRemember Cheng Yizhong (Á®ãÁõä‰∏≠)? The above-quoted statement appears to be the first to be published on the mainland in about a year from the long-embattled newsman. He’s featured in recently printed promo material for Southern Metropolis Weekly (SMW), the new ‘zine from Cheng’s old employer. Though the interview was not intended for public consumption, as SMW told Biganzi when contacted, it may be the first with Cheng that the mainland press has printed at all since he spent 160 days under police lockdown in Guangzhou in 2004. And the words are vintage Cheng Yizhong: less a plug for SMW than a backhanded critique of the industry. Cheng’s timely bit of advertorial editorializing prompted a blogger from a Guangzhou-based partner site of SMW to tack the statement onto a popular online journalists’ forum on the weekend . Cheng’s many backers took notice.

In fact, the Chinese media world has been twittering with gossip about Cheng’s potential comeback ever since he landed a big new role in Beijing earlier this year: running the new Chinese-language edition of Sports Illustrated. How is one of China’s sharpest editors managing to re-surface? Delicately. Click here for Cheng’s full statement and further details…

Cheng’s saga is recounted in the links below. He was once the high-flying founding editor of Southern Metropolis and The Beijing News, but lost both jobs and his freedom in the embezzlement dragnet against Southern Metropolis – thought to be a bald vendetta by local officials and police for embarrassing scoops Cheng had run. Since being dramatically sprung in August 2004, Cheng for the most part has been lying low.

He hasn’t had much choice in the matter. In early 2005, Cheng was allowed back to work at Southern Daily Group in the advertising and personnel departments – but not editorial. “I’m relaxing” in an “idle post”, he told your reporter in an interview during that time. For about half the year, Cheng managed the group’s foundering sport tabloid, Southern Sports (Nanfang Tiyu ÂçóÊñπ‰ΩìËÇ≤), which finally bit the dust last September. Just before it did, Cheng landed a celebrity column reviewing daily domestic headlines on Sohu.com. “Although it falls far short of a high level of freedom of speech,” he wrote in his opening “manifesto”, in late August 2005, “I think it is a very good start.” But within less than a week, Sohu had to axe the column. “If you want to understand what happened,” Cheng wrote your reporter in an e-mail a few weeks afterward, “you can ask the State Council of Information Office” – (SCIO) one of the principle bodies policing the Web.

But determined to keep working within the system, Cheng has adopted his own personal sort of nei jin wai song (ÂÜÖÁ¥ß§ñÊùæ) posture – tight-lipped within China, yet more open to outside world. One of Cheng’s few public statements was the blistering speech he released in absentia on receiving a United Nations press freedoms prize in 2005, in which he quoted Vaclav Havel and John F. Kennedy and on a dark note, thanked the politicians who supposedly framed him: “Were it not for your recklessness and stupidity, I would not have gained this honor.”

Now Cheng is a Vice President of the SEEC Media Group ( Ë¥¢ËÆ؉º†Â™íÈõÜÂõ¢ÊúâÈôêÂÖ¨Âè∏ ), the Hong-listed publishers of titles including Caijing Magazine and most recently, the new mainland version of Sports Illustrated, which debuted in August. As a member of SEEC Media family, one China’s most institutionally sovereign, Cheng like Caijing editor Hu Shuli have a princeling behind them in the group’s chairman, Wang Boming (son of former deputy foreign minister Wang Bingnan).

Still, Cheng’s name does not appear on the masthead of Sports Illustrated’s debut issue. The Chinese licensees took pains to keep Cheng’s moniker out of press coverage about the launch, sources close to the magazine tell Biganzi. With a revived set of rules out earlier this year nominally blocking new copyright tie-ups with most kinds of foreign titles, SEEC Media certainly did not need the name “Cheng Yizhong” complicating publishing regulators’ views of their new venture (here’s a related link).

That hasn’t stopped Cheng from making a V.I.P cameo a couple weeks ago, at a launch event for a battle-of-the-blogs competition on Sina.com. Cheng, listed as a Vice-President for SEEC Media, joined officials from the central propaganda bureau and the SCIO in attendance, according to press photo Sina released online.

It is in the same capacity as SEEC Media Veep that Cheng delivers his comments on behalf of Southern Metropolis Weekly, posted on the Xici Hutong BBS Journalists’ Home on the weekend. As the observant blogger behind the post noted, Southern Metropolis, in turn, has been advertising in the pages of Sports Illustrated.

Cheng was out-of-town on business on Monday, according to a woman answering the phone at SI offices in Beijing, could not immediately be reached for comment.

When Biganzi contacted the Southern Metropolis in Guangzhou, a member of the editorial department explained that Cheng’s statement only was printed in a “white paper distributed internally” to advertising clients. “We interviewed him for it, but it was not made public,” he said.

Here’s the full text of Cheng’s statement, roughly translated by Biganzi:

The Path of the Weekly Newspaper’s Rise

The forecast for the weekly newspaper and periodicals market is very upbeat, but I am very pessimistic about the current situation. This, as a matter of fact, is also my opinion of the Chinese media industry as a whole. The [state of the] media industry in China is extremely disproportionate to economic development and to the status of a major power. If the media industry is to have a major breakthrough, it depends on reform to be carried forward. Under the current conditions, the traditional print media is not any more mature than the new and expanding Internet media. The traditional print media is hitting a bottleneck at the moment, and the predicament of newspapers is even more striking than for magazines.

From a long-range standpoint, the Chinese media industry could see explosive growth; the energy that has been repressed for so long all at once would be released, and the space for newspapers and magazine to develop suddenly would come clear. While the media industry in China still has a very long way to go before it becomes a pillar industry of the nation, as in the United States, it is headed in that direction.

Although the development of weekly periodicals market in China currently is very uneven, with the triumphant advance of urbanization campaign, the Chinese weekly newspaper and magazine market has already developed the three basic conditions [needed] for it to mature. There are more and more people who have the wealth (through the formation of the so-called “middle class”); who have the interest (through the rising level of education); and who have the free time (through their increasing ability to control their time).

To tell you the truth, the weekly newspaper and periodicals market is far from reaching expectations, and far from as matching newspapers in its abundance. Leaving aside policy matters and speaking in terms of the people in the business alone, the first people to work on weekly publications, especially magazines, generally were not media professionals. That has determined the fact that they can only reach certain heights. Thus, I look rather favorably on media groups like the Nanfang Daily entering the competition in the weekly newspaper and periodicals market in this way [with Southern Metropolis Weekly). It is conducive toward raising the levels of professionalism and competition in the trade as a whole.