Media: Will a cultural revolution rebuild the `People's Daily'?

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The Independent Online
The People's Daily this week launched an offensive to win back readers who have deserted the stodgy diet of propaganda served up by the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Its circulation has halved during the economic reform. But Teresa Poole in Peking doubts that the changes will halt the decline.

There was a time, back in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when there were "only" about 100 different newspapers in China and the People's Daily sold a healthy six million copies a day. The pressure of the market-place was non-existent: print media carried no advertisements, state subsidies were available to bale out loss-makers, and few readers expected to find a newspaper actually interesting.

How times have changed. These days, the number of national and local newspapers and magazines has soared to 10,000, including 2,235 newspapers available nationally, providing cut-throat competition.

It comes as no surprise that what sells is not President Jiang Zemin's latest speech in full, but celebrity interviews, gory crimes, fashion, stockmarket information, and tips for doing business. Just the sorts of subject not covered by the People's Daily.

Until this week, that is. With the newspaper's circulation now a relatively dismal three million - and almost all sales going to government offices - China's propaganda tsars have decided it is time to fight back. On Monday, a new four-page "Economics Weekly" section appeared. On Wednesday, a similarly sized "Society Weekly" made its debut. Jing Xianfa, director of the newspaper's foreign affairs office, told The Independent yesterday: "In this new year, we want to give this newspaper a new face and give the readers a sense of freshness."

Remember, this is the newspaper which in September last year announced that the media was there "to give help, not to create trouble". It called for the proper reporting of "hot issues" and warned journalists not to make "a big fuss" about them. The political tramlines remain straight and narrow, but it represents a minor editorial revolution for the People's Daily to admit that it needs to attract a readership, rather than consider one its political birthright.

So, on Monday, detailed tables reviewed the 1997 performance of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets, and complicated graphs explained the theory of chartism and how it could be used to predict market movements.

There was even a flow diagram of what Thailand was doing to combat its economic crisis. The section's main news story was all about how the customs department had rumbled a corrupt Chinese firm which had shipped Japanese cars to Hong Kong, taken them apart, shipped the components into China, reassembled the vehicles, and licensed them with illegal brandnames and documents.

In the middle of the week, "Society Weekly" sadly turned out not to be a run-down of which leaders had attended China's best soirees, but a worthy look at consumer and social news. Indeed, one wonders whether the People's Daily bosses have really understood how to win the circulation battle.

The main story provided an exhaustive explanation of why the price of electricity in the countryside is no longer higher than it is in the cities. There was an update on the good deeds of a woman in Inner Mongolia who, during the Fifties, was crippled after sheltering the commune's sheep with her body during a snowstorm. Then there was half a page on a certain An Ziwen, a "great organiser" in the Communist Party, and his activities during the anti-Japanese war during the early Forties. Another big spread marked10 years since the death of He Changgong, practitioner of the "three glories" of geology.

More interesting were the readers' letters. One correspondent explained how rural parents encouraged the otherwise undesirable early marriage of their sons in order to stop them gambling. Another complained about the lavish present-giving by work units as Chinese New Year approached.

So the changes have limits. Readers might still find the People's Daily rather a slog. This is a newspaper, for instance, that on five of the first eight days of 1998 has carried front-page main photographs or big news stories about President Jiang Zemin. And yesterday, the main headline on page one read "Discussing Control of the Whole Situation", and was followed by dense editorial on how officials "must understand the big picture in order to address smaller problems".