Magazine article The Nation

China Goes Pop; Mao Meets Muzak; Communism Lite in Beijing

Magazine article The Nation

China Goes Pop; Mao Meets Muzak; Communism Lite in Beijing

Article excerpt

A little more than a year ago, China Culture Gazette, official organ of China's Ministry of Culture, was transformed. For years C.C.G. had been an infamous stronghold of the hard-line apparatchiks, choking with dull, harsh Communist Party propaganda. With a new issue of its Cultural Weekend edition, the paper changed color overnight: from red to yellow.

The pictures did the trick. On that day, the four-page Cultural Weekend displayed many nude and half-nude photographs (mostly of busty Western women in languidly seductive poses); instantly it became known as "the coolest paper in Beijing." It also ran a front-page interview on the subject of nudity with Liu Xiaoqing, China's brash movie queen. The issue sold like hot cakes.

The Ministry of Propaganda was furious. The Ministry of Culture wasn't happy about it, either. Rumor had it that Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who has a propensity for showing off his "high-culture" taste, happened to pick up a copy of C.C.G. at a subway station. The General Secretary couldn't believe what he saw, and afterward expressed grave concern about the moral health of Chinese society.

Graver concerns these days center around economics. Considered to be on the front line of ideological battles, Chinese print media have always been both financially dependent on the party and under its tight control. For the past four decades the basic axiom taught in all Chinese journalism departments was "news is the party's throat and tongue" Every newspaper had--and still has--a party secretary, who would often take the post of chief editor as well, and who would report not so much to his readers but directly to his party boss.

But with the economic reform and a mushrooming of new papers and journals competing with the old ones, the situation has changed significantly in the past five years or so. C.C.G. had been in the red politically and financially. In fact, the paper was so deeply mired in debt it was on the brink of folding. Everyone on the staff knew that the party was not going to bail them out: As inflation continued and the price of paper climbed, the government ladled out the same meager subsidy.

Fortunately, just around this time, Deng Xiaoping, China's de facto emperor, issued his call for wider and deeper marketization. Following Deng's orders, the State General Press and Publishing Administration announced new guidelines: Publishers were given more decision-making power over matters such as priming erotic material and kung fu novels; the previous ban on printing pictures of young women in bikinis, foreign movie stars and pop singers on Chinese calendars was lifted; publishers in specialized fields could now cross over to general subjects to help sales.

So when Zhang Zuomin, a short, urchinlike former Red Guard, took charge of Cultural Weekend, he was given a free hand to make it profitable, and he knew exactly in what direction and how far he was to exercise that freedom. What was remarkable was that C.C.G.'s hard-line chief editor stood firmly behind Zhang when the nudity scandal broke. The wily old apparatchik even snapped at his grumbling superiors at the ministries. "Are we no longer 'marching toward the market'?" he demanded, employing a party slogan currently in fashion. "If not, I quit."

Such a rationale could not be questioned for the moment, so the muttering stopped. Circulation of Cultural Weekend soared to 260,000--not as high as some of China's most popular papers and magazines with their half-million or more circulations, but breaking C.C.G.'s old record by far. Thanks to a steady outpouring of front-page reports on women, sex and the pop culture scene, written by Zhang Zuomin himself, Cultural Weekend soon became one of "the four little dragons of the Beijing press," and Zhang the newspaperman whom all others love to hate. Some dismiss him as the scumbag of the profession, while others acknowledge grudgingly that he may be a journalist for his times. …

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