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A man reads a newspaper in Beijing. Journalists in China are locked in a cutthroat battle for higher pay and promotions.   © Reuters
China up close

Praising Xi Jinping won't pay the bills for China's journalists

Newspaper scribes' livelihoods depend on talent and an editor's red pen

TOKYO -- Life is not easy for the Chinese local reporter.

As mouthpieces for the leadership, local party newspapers are tasked with trumpeting the achievements of the Xi Jinping epoch. They are under the sway of the Publicity Department, now led by a close aide to the president. But that does not mean reporters can coast along, filing party-pleasing but substandard stories.

At the Hubei Daily, and likely other papers, journalists are locked in a cutthroat battle for higher pay and promotions. If they want to bring home the yuan, they have to deliver the goods.

The journalists have to perform under an uneasy equilibrium -- between obedience and ability, between open competition and Xi's iron grip.

Keeping score

Hubei, a central province, is home to 61 million people. The Hubei Daily is published by Hubei Daily Media Group, headquartered in the provincial capital of Wuhan. The group's high-rise is situated in a prime spot overlooking the Yangtze River and East Lake.

Trucks cross a bridge over the Yangtze River in Wuhan, in the central province of Hubei.   © Reuters

Inside, journalists have to claw their way to a decent paycheck every month.

Only 30% of their monthly wages are guaranteed. The rest comes from bonuses based on a scoring system. Their articles are graded on a daily basis -- the higher the grade, the higher the bonus, and ultimately the better chance of promotion.

For front-page stories, a deputy editor will give each article a score with a red pen, up to a maximum of 500 points. The marked-up page is posted by the building's entrance, offering employees a not-so-gentle reminder of what they are striving for.

The highest score comes with a bonus of 6,500 yuan ($982). In addition to the scores, a journalist's total number of characters published is also factored into the bonus calculations.

The front page of the Hubei Daily with scores written in red

Hubei Daily management uses sticks alongside the carrots. Reporters are fined immediately if readers spot typos or factual errors in published pieces.

Management faces its own pressures.

Papers like Hubei Daily are wedded to the party, but they still have to earn enough to complement financial assistance from the national and local governments. They have to be competitive enough to stand on their own.

As if to make up for insufficient backing, the authorities allow newspaper publishers to diversify into unrelated, more profitable fields like property and finance. Hubei Daily Media Group has done just that: The property business accounts for three-quarters of the group's 4 billion yuan revenue, and almost certainly a considerable chunk of its profit. It has been relatively easy to rack up gains on real estate in Wuhan, where housing prices have quadrupled in the last two years alone.

Hubei Daily Media Group also has a subsidiary that produces baijiu, an alcoholic drink, which it acquired for 300 million yuan. The company holds equity stakes in a securities house and bank, too.

Like just about all Chinese newspaper publishers, Hubei Daily Media Group is keen to harness the internet and the explosive growth of the online population. Government figures show China had 710 million internet users in mid-2016, including 656 million smartphone users.

Publishers hope to offset plateauing or declining print circulation and advertising revenue. But local party papers cannot put up paywalls, and they can only earn so much online ad income. Having a knack for other businesses remains vital to their survival.

Meanwhile, in politics ...

In the political world, however, the priorities are much clearer. Obedience is the currency that counts.

At October's twice-a-decade national congress of the Chinese Communist Party, roughly 200 members of the Central Committee were chosen. Among those members, the top 25 form the Politburo, and the top seven of them form the Politburo Standing Committee -- the party's most powerful decision-making body, led by Xi.

The president and his close aides are said to have directly interviewed, analyzed and selected most of the new Central Committee members and all of the new Politburo members. The party's Organization Department arranged the interviews and declared that the main cadres would be promoted based on character, rather than past achievements such as contributions to economic growth.

Translation: Loyalty was the most important quality.

This is not to say the revamped leadership lacks talent. Chen Xi, the new head of the Organization Department and a fresh addition to the 25-member Politburo, once headed the prestigious Tsinghua University. But he was given the Organization Department's top job "because he is a close friend President Xi can really trust," a party source said.

When Xi was young, he spent about seven years in a farming village near Yan'an, in Shaanxi Province. This was during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when millions of urban youths were sent to the countryside for a taste of hard labor. After returning to Beijing, Xi entered Tsinghua University, where he ended up sharing a dorm room with Chen.

Chen, now 64, has also taken over as president of the Central Party School, which trains senior party officials. This is the first time in years that the school's top post has been filled by a party official who is not a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

(Click here for a look at China's new leadership)

Internet with Chinese characteristics

China's top man on ideology and propaganda is Wang Huning, a member of the powerful Standing Committee. That puts him in a position to guide the Party's Publicity Department and China's media, online and offline alike.

The 55-year-old is a policy expert and has been part of the brain trust of three successive administrations -- Jiang's, Hu's and now Xi's. He also once taught international politics at Shanghai's esteemed Fudan University. Still, he has no experience in any local party organizations or governments.

By the standards of the past, his elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee is highly unusual. Not only that, but he is ranked fifth in the overall party hierarchy.

How will he use his influence?

Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning addresses the opening ceremony of the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, on Dec. 3.   © Reuters

Wang recently hosted the fourth World Internet Conference, held in the Zhejiang city of Wuzhen on Dec. 3-5. Sponsored by the Chinese government, the event drew some 1,500 participants from about 80 countries -- Apple CEO Tim Cook among them.

The conference highlighted China's internet and media development policy, including a commitment to global connectivity. "China's door to the world will never close, but will only open wider," Xi said in a letter to the conference.

At the same time, though, China continues to insist on its right to "cyberspace sovereignty." This covers the party's strict censorship of online content, known as the Great Firewall, which blocks the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Line and any other content the authorities deem harmful.

In the absence of those global information technology giants, China has become an online powerhouse in its own right. Now it wants a greater say in how the global internet is managed. "We should promote security, construct a fine order, and build a secure, stable and prosperous cyberspace," Wang said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Here, again, we have an example of China's uneasy equilibrium. The internet breeds new ideas through the free exchange of information across borders and cultures. China wants to make the most of this. But if it takes the concept of cyberspace sovereignty too far, it could stunt its own online development.

Much is riding on China's internet and media policies in Xi's new era. The world -- and those journalists at the Hubei Daily -- will be watching closely.

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