The Chinese media scene appears to be an increasingly hostile environment for a working journalist. Recent reports document how the Chinese state is slowly squeezing out foreign reporters, banning liberal Hong Kong media outlets from the mainland, and reducing Chinese journalists to party scribes. 

This irredeemably bleak picture, however, underestimates the dynamism of Chinese media. Despite the political restraints, a new wave of media entrepreneurship is emerging, surviving, and redefining China. These enterprising initiatives vary in terms of agency and media products. Some are sanctioned and initiated by the state, some are created by groups of media professionals, while others represent “one-man acts” or solo performances on social media.  

It would seem that there would be little room for innovation when it comes to state-owned media. But the latest efforts of the Chinese party-state to appeal to a younger crowd by endorsing and funding new digital news outlets across the country has certainly demonstrated a level of entrepreneurialism. The model for this is the Shanghai-based Pengpai, a word that means “surge,” and is known in English as The Paper. It is a sleek online news platform that was founded in 2014 by the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group with an initial funding of 300-400 million yuan  ($44.6-$59.5 million). Its founding CEO, Qiu Bing, has worked at other newspapers published by the Shanghai United Media Group since 1990 and was previously the head of the newspaper, the Oriental Morning Post. It is not clear how much funding The Paper receives from the government (some people we spoke with said it was about 80 percent of the total), but the budget can support more than 300 staff members and produce enough quality content to attract 20 million page views per day. Most of the readers are young, educated, and critical of traditional, state-owned papers such as Xinhua or Global Times.

State-owned media in China operate at different levels: central, provincial, and city. Pengpaioperates at the provincial level and receives funding from the Shanghai party committee and municipal government. In terms of the actual financial model, Pengpai is not distinct from Xinhua. But what is distinct is that it is online-only and, while resembling commercial media in content and form, remains party-state funded. This gives Pengpai a competitive advantage over traditional party media because it can attract readers from private media, as well as an edge over other commercial, online platforms because it is one of the only Internet-based media platforms to have been granted a license to carry out independent reporting.

A screenshot of Peng Pai or The Paper.

Although Pengpai does carry some propaganda-like pieces, it has consistently focused on investigative and in-depth journalism, for which it has become, in recent years, a reputable source, according to Chinese media scholars, officials, and professionals we interviewed over the summer of 2016 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing. In March 2016, for example, Pengpai broke a story about a national vaccine scandal that exposed regulatory failures that enabled some doctors and drug dealers to illegally distribute over $88 million in unrefrigerated and compromised vaccines. (Unfortunately, there is no reliable source for how many children were harmed by the vaccines, as such numbers are always a sensitive issue in China.) Pengpai’s investigative reporting attracted nationwide attention and triggered outrage and distrust in the medical system. Afterward, Premier Li Keqiang ordered central ministries and agencies to investigate the scandal, but the central propaganda department issued an order to block reprints of the Pengpai article by other outlets. This was neither the first nor last time that Pengpai’s content was censored. An in-depth investigative report on the environmental costs of the Three Gorges Dam was deleted soon after its release. But it is an example of how a state-owned media outlet could push boundaries with muckraking journalism.

As a state-funded experiment to win the hearts and minds of online readers, Pengpai is certainly walking a tightrope: on the one hand, it must self-censor, to a degree, as it belongs to the party, while on the other, it needs to respond to market forces and produce competitive reports that are critical and professional since the party wants to expand its influence. This balancing act, however, is not unique to Pengpai. All of China’s media outlets renowned for critical reporting, including the more commercialized Caixin magazine and Southern Weekly, have been subjected to creative improvising in the gray zone of permissible reporting, with self-censorship being at the heart of their capacity to push the political boundaries in the long-term.  Self-censorship, moreover, is not surprising as there is no such thing as a completely private media outlet in China. Even Caixin is partially state-owned, despite being  highly commercialized. (The state holds at least a 51 percent stake in all Chinese media.)

While it is easy to dismiss Pengpai as a sleeker form of official persuasion, its reporting crosses into the semipolitical, whereby it doesn’t antagonize the regime, but actively expands the boundaries of political discussion by providing alternative viewpoints, holding officials and companies accountable, and channeling societal concerns. In fact, the party itself encourages Pengpai to adapt to an increasingly sophisticated readership, as the party hopes to retain its influence over public opinion. The central state welcomes local-level investigative reports so long as it can ensure that central-level policies, as well as the leadership and the system itself, are presented in a neutral, if not positive, light. Pengpai also avoids publishing negative stories about Shanghai party and state officials, but invests its time unearthing corruption in other cities and provinces. This extraterritorial approach is common in China, and is deployed by many news outlets as a way to avoid pressures from local officials. Although it is impossible to estimate exactly how much of Pengpai’s content goes through prescreening by officials, one of our prior studies on censorship suggests that official oversight over Pengpai is not that different from its commercialized counterparts such as Caixin or Southern Weekly. That is because oversight often involves directives that are issued to all media. These directives, which specify which topics can and cannot be covered, are not always in tune with current events, giving journalists some space for enterprising stories that push the scope of what is permissible. 

In essence, the party-state’s motivation for founding this outlet was to set up a new vehicle for guiding online public opinion. If Pengpai works in Shanghai, it could spread to other regions and cities—and indeed, it is being studied and adapted (albeit with mixed success) by a number of other cities. Pengpai reporting also feeds into the anticorruption campaign of President Xi Jinping. The outlet has been given some space to cover high-level officials who have already been investigated by the party. 

That said, a number of Pengpai journalists and editors, including the CEO, Qiu Bing, recently resigned to launch their own new media platform—an online news video company, tentatively called “Pear video.” Although the reasons for leaving are unclear, Qiu and his partners dismissed rumors that they had left under political pressure. Instead, the former Pengpai crew spoke of their interest in owning shares of their new company, which is primarily funded by China Media Capital, a public equity and venture capital firm. The new platform is to launch this fall, and will include in-depth and investigative pieces on issues ranging from environmental degradation to capital punishment and corruption.

Apart from these state and private initiatives, China has zi meiti or “self-media.” Just as the West has its YouTube stars, personalities in China use social media platforms such as Miaopai and WeChat to launch their own talk shows. Although most of the content is light entertainment, bits and pieces of politics make it in that wouldn’t otherwise be found in traditional media. For instance, feminist voices are rarely featured in major newspapers. “The Papi Show,” created by Papi Jiang, began as an improvisational and sarcastic rant on society filmed via a phone camera. After nearly every one of Papi’s video clips went viral, the channel now boasts 44 million users. Although Papi doesn’t talk about politics directly, she touches upon the moral foundations of the Chinese Communist Party by discussing deep-rooted gender norms and social conventions in contemporary China. For example, she pokes fun at sexism and gender discrimination in China by pointing out its inherent contradictions. “If a woman likes to dress up, people would say, who are you trying to seduce with your looks? But if they don’t like to dress up, they’ll say, how can you go out without dressing nicely? Are you even a woman?” she shouts in one of her high-energy rants. “Listen! I’ll dress up if I want; if I don’t want to, then I won’t. None of your business! Get out!” There are also a number of self-media accounts focused on translating Western media from English to Chinese, such as late-night talk shows, presidential debates, and the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, for example. This exposes a number of young people in China to democratic political culture.

Although most self-media users, such as China’s civil society actors, avoid directly challenging the state, many do provide alternative perspectives and divert people’s attention away from state propaganda. For example, Jia Jia, a former journalist and commentator, frequently publishes articles on how to be a global citizen. “You need better quality of life, which means that you need to find resources from other parts of the world,” he wrote. “For middle and upper class in China, spending money in foreign countries can actually get better goods and service.” What he is trying to convey to the Chinese elites is that the Chinese can vote with their feet. There are more options for them now, and perhaps even better ones, than remaining in China. Discussing the lives of foreigners is not subversive, but it does implicitly challenge the discourses of the state, which put forward the notion that China is in its greatest phase in modern history and that its current political system is attractive and legitimate.  

Some journalists use self-media to offer critique and opinions that are prohibited in traditional media. They often use WeChat to write short pieces or commentaries for their circle of friends, with some finding ways to express highly critical opinions. For example, blogger Wang Wusi has managed thus far to open dozens of WeChat accounts—one after another—to avoid censorship of his critical comments, although each one of his accounts has only survived a couple of days or weeks before being axed by the government. In an article published on WeChat before a 2015 military parade in Beijing, Wang argued that “compulsory nationwide celebration is a disease” and that “if we don’t have the freedom to ignore the parade, I am sure those soldiers will not protect us.” He also frequently trashes nationalistic bloggers and pro-government commentators.

Unlike in the West, those involved in self-media make money off small donations to articles and videos, enabled by WeChat’s all-encompassing platform. This, in turn, invites more advertising and investment for people’s microblogs. Papi Jiang, for example, was able to auction off one of her first ads for 22 million yuan ($3.3 million). That might be an extreme example, but popular self-media channels on WeChat can easily generate more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000) per ad.

Although political restriction is never welcome, it is certainly not absolute, as in China’s case. This emerging and enduring “semipolitical” sphere is a constructive, albeit gradual, force of societal change. It allows for public engagement with pertinent social issues such as official accountability, gender equality, and social welfare, amongst others. It further implicitly exposes the public to alternative frameworks of thinking about politics, which in turn shape societal expectations for good governance, pushing the state to respond and adapt. Even if the overt political space keeps shrinking, we shouldn’t rush to dismiss the creative endurance of Chinese media professionals and social media users. Instead, we may want to expand our notion of the “political” and look into the overall efforts of these cautious innovators—be they the state, media, or aspiring online celebrities. The murky zone of media entrepreneurship signals a larger capacity of Chinese society to reinvent itself, as well as for the Chinese state to reimagine its vision for influence over public opinion—persuasion through credibility, rather than force.

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  • MARIA REPNIKOVA is Assistant Professor in Global Communication at Georgia State University.
  • KECHENG FANG is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
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