For China Media Project, David Bandurski responds to the confusion in English-language media over recent changes at Beijing News by providing a useful primer on how media control works in China. Earlier this month, it was announced that two popular Beijing newspapers, Beijing News and Beijing Times were being moved under direct control of the Beijing municipal propaganda department. From the CMP report:
An AFP report said in its lead that both newspapers were “under new management,” not bothering to explain what that meant. Further down it quoted an Internet user as saying both papers had “been downgraded.” Huh?
In one of the better reports, The Guardian cited suspicion among some Chinese journalists that the reshuffle had something to do with bold coverage of the July 23 Wenzhou train collision, which had sparked “official anger.” But the idea of a generalized “official anger” failed to address why a story more directly implicating national-level railway officials and local officials in Wenzhou and Shanghai would have generated such focused concern among city officials in Beijing.
So, “official anger,” sure. But which level of “official anger” is most relevant here — national or municipal? In fact, the idea that the Wenzhou train crash was an important factor behind this management change doesn’t accord well with how press politics work in China.
The Diplomat, clearly also confused by the move, even noted that the two newspapers had “now been taken over by CCP media authorities.” Like all media, of course, both newspapers have been under the control of “CCP media authorities” since birth. The difference now is that these papers are under the control of municipal authorities in Beijing rather than central authorities. Their new managing institution representing CCP media authority, in other words, is a notch down on the Party totem pole.
Breaking through the confusion and understanding what has happened to The Beijing News and the Beijing Times means revisiting how media are controlled institutionally in China, and specifically the crucial role approval and registration of media plays in securing Party control over them.