Trying to Make Sense of the Jing

15:04 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 20 MAY 2015 | GBR LONDON

Newsstand Beijing

China is this weird and wonderful country where it’s a challenge to make sense, at times, of what’s coming out from Zhongnanhai. Mixed in at times horrifically hard-to-understand officialspeak are national policies of a system that, whilst grey (like the smog) on the outside, actually works in more and more of the country. (Beijing donated not a half-fen to this site, by the way, so you know where you’re getting your sources from.)

I’ve spent 14 years in China in one go. (I had an earlier six years from when I was born, but I guess I was too young to remember things from that time.) When I first returned to Beijing after 12 years in Switzerland, back in 2000, I only knew 200 Chinese characters. This was eventually boosted to 3,000 shortly afterwards, but not without very intensive courses (some of them extending to outside university study hours) and probably a fair bit of lost hair.

So if you’re willing to make sense of how this nation is supposed to be made sense of, here are the media resources I often tune into (in Chinese, as this is what you’d want, right?… If you were serious about China, you’d have learnt the language!)…

(For this post alone, I’m going “just” into the world of print media. I’ll leave radio, TV, and the Internet for subsequent posts.)

People’s Daily (人民日报)

Too often, we malign this paper as required reading only for card-carrying communists. In fact, you can be politically neutral and still get away reading this paper whilst striking it rich in China.

This is because official policy and a fair number of new laws are nearly always announced on this paper, which is the Communist Party’s mouthpiece paper. For those who want to second-guess what policies are next for Beijing, read those first bits of the paper that pertain to what the leadership is up to, plus the parts about political theory (理论).

If you are the kind of rarely-seen “foreign expert” working in a PRC government organ (or a government-funded organisation), expect this paper to make an appearance nearly every workday. If you are a mere commoner, you (almost) have nothing to see. Move on… (Individuals hardly ever subscribe to this on their own initiative.)

If you are overseas, look for the Hong Kong or overseas editions, which interestingly enough here in London have gone on a bit of a disappearing act.

Qiu Shi (求是)

If you absolutely must keep tabs on every last uttering Zhongnanhai has, well, uttered (because your business is so reliant, it’ll die if the next big policy wasn’t “felt out” ahead of time), try the official-est periodical in China, the Communist Party’s own theoretical magazine. Qiu Shi, in essence Seeking Truth in English, contains lots of theoretical papers from top Communist Party leaders. At times it even incorporates a full article written by the President or Premier.

The only other people (apart from those “in the system”) that must care about Qiu Shi are academics and historians, as that’s a lot of political theory.

I subscribed to this for a few years — whilst I was doing my PhD, which was probably the sole acceptable excuse as an apolitical civilian.

The English version of the periodical is getting better — it used to leave much desired but apart from the rather Chinglishy sounding tone, is much more readable as of late.

Beijing Daily (北京日报)

Replace this with your city or province’s name if you want regional news from your region. The Dailies will often bring you authoritative information, whilst the Evening papers are much more reader-friendly and are only rarely political.

At times, very local cities as well as counties will get their own such papers. They are probably only good for the immediate surroundings.

Reference News (参考消息)

Also known in Hanyu Pinyin as Cankao Xiaoxi, this is one of China’s most oddball papers. All in black-and-white, it is less “flashy”, rather bland, and extremely international and interesting.

It is a printed manifestation of a selective destruction, if only for a day, of China’s rather infamous Great Firewall, since news from foreign sources (as well as those from Hong Kong, Macao, and even Taiwan) are given eight full pages to cover news, both national and international.

Whilst the Chinese mainland editors supply titles, they often keep the original (translated) titles there unchanged. Even more interesting are how very different terms are used. For example, when Lien Chan, the former Kuomintang chief, visited the mainland, the paper cited a Taiwanese source, and referred to the then-number one leader on Taiwan according to how Taiwan itself referred it to — the words “president” and “Republic of China”, long verboten on the mainland since October 1949, made a surprise “comeback”.

Obviously, don’t be surprised to see omissions of “subversive cults” and their ilk. But this paper is still a very interesting addition to your reading, as it shows how China sees the outside world seeing the wider world (I hope I haven’t lost you yet here!).

Guangming Daily (光明日报) and Economic Daily (经济日报)

Both of these are still considered key CPC papers, but are somewhat less politicised than their “superiors” (the People’s Daily and especially Qiu Shi). The Guangming Daily tends to be more for intellectuals (academics, take note) and the Economic Daily focuses more on the business world.

When key government / CPC events happen, you can expect, most of the time, an 80% – 100% copying of the front page as shown on the officially predictable People’s Daily, although as of late this practice has changed a little.

Key ministerial / “group” papers

These are more “little league”:

  • The Worker’s Daily (工人日报) deals, obviously, more with workers / labourers. Not read a lot these days — unless you’re in the same industry.
  • The railways, police, military, and courts, amongst others, have their own papers.
  • A very PRC institution, the “procuratorate”, have their own official paper as well (it is closely associated with both the police and the courts, although it is not fully 100% of either).

Global Times (环球时报)

A pro-government, semi-gov-ish paper that is known to be patriotic and at times visibly nationalistic. Jabs are often taken at “renegade” leaders on Taiwan (especially Chen Shui-bian back in the day) and there is visible distrust of both Japan and the United States. Has its own English version which, despite being more liberal, still isn’t too far from toeing Beijing’s line. It is visibly hawkish and finds no issue in tooting the People’s Liberation Army’s horn for them!

This paper itself is ferociously under attack in southern China, especially in Guangdong / Canton; I have heard people ranting about its readership as “people without normally-functioning brains”. It is less like you were carrying The Sun into Harrods (as an example of a “shock factor”) and more, to some, as waving a red flag in front of a bull.

Southern Metropolis (南方都市报)

China’s more liberal paper, although rumour-mongers wonder who really is behind the funding at the end of the day. This paper has pounced upon Beijing’s central authorities quite often; it (“bravely”!) included swearing after the HSR crash in Wenzhou in summer 2011, and had an editorial calling for more constitutionalism in China (which got Beijing more than a bit worried) cut from local propaganda ministers back in early 2013.

As expected, this paper is just about as polarising in terms of its audience as the Global Times. Whilst it does not have an English version (yet), it is widely resented by nationalists in China, who often do not hesitate to shower it with “altered characters” of resentment, comparing it to bloodsucking insects.

So here you are — a few to start you off. Now curse me for turning your home or office into a media history museum of sorts — like me, you might struggle to keep all copies and feel uneasy about throwing “living history” away!