17 September 2019
The home page of 'The Paper' website. Besides its mixed ownership, the start-up tries to prove that propaganda news can also be readable and interesting. Photo: The Paper
The home page of 'The Paper' website. Besides its mixed ownership, the start-up tries to prove that propaganda news can also be readable and interesting. Photo: The Paper

New app creates buzz in China media landscape

China has a plethora of news apps vying for attention in a very crowded market. Almost all players acknowledge that the battle for eyeballs is not easy despite the nation’s huge number of mobile device users. So, what explains the apparent early success of a new app called “The Paper”?

Launched just last Tuesday, The Paper (“澎湃” in Chinese) has already received wide coverage in the media and drawn the attention of rivals. Reporters and editors across the country have had hot discussions on Weibo and other platforms — something rarely seen when other news apps came onto the market in the past.

The Paper is the fruit of a 200 million yuan (US$32.27 million) new media project of the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG) — one of the largest and most profitable media conglomerates in the country. SUMG, which emerged from the merger of two major Shanghai newspaper groups, is the publisher of the city’s official mouthpiece Jiefang Daily as well as other 30 newspapers and magazines.

On its first day of release, the free-to-download app, available for both iOS and Android devices, carried feature stories like the exile of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun in a remote village in Henan province, the life of disgraced China Central Television celebrity anchor Rui Chenggang before he shot to fame, and the secret hobbies of Guangzhou’s corrupt former party chief.

But what drew more attention from observers is its unique shareholding structure. Hong Kong Economic Journal notes that SUMG holds half of The Paper stake while Hony Capital, the private-equity unit of Legend Holdings, owns 20 percent. It’s noteworthy that The Paper’s CEO and editorial team are also among the significant shareholders with a combined stake of more than 20 percent.

Chinese authorities always seek a firm grip on the media as they want to control the content. Thus, media ownership must be secured by state capital. Indeed, despite some market-oriented reforms in recent years to shed direct government funding, virtually all of China’s publishers and other media and newspaper groups are state-owned enterprises and are subject to instructions from the Communist Party’s Publicity Department.

In this sense, The Paper, even though it is just an online start-up, represents a breakthrough in media ownership. Some believe the editorial team may be granted greater autonomy in news reporting and that it can serve as a template for future media reforms.

The Paper reflects the efforts of the Communist Party to establish a brand-new media platform for “sublime propaganda” as old-line mouthpieces like People’s Daily, CCTV and many others have lost their standing among the public and failed to strike a chord among the masses.

With people tiring of state propaganda, The Paper at least offers something more readable and is slightly more liberal in its coverage, even though its stories may still be full of political indoctrination.

Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, who is also a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, summoned several meetings with the news team before the launch of the service and Lu Wei, deputy director of the party’s publicity department and head of the State Internet Information Office, also paid an inspection visit to The Paper newsroom.

It is said that initial feedback from readers has been positive. Many are fascinated by the first-hand, investigative reports about disgraced officials and political wrangles in other countries like the United States

Of course, there are some subjects — like jailed dissidents, political movements and suppression, nepotism and cronyism of top party leaders and their offspring — that are absolutely out of bounds for the reporters.

But that doesn’t mean that one can’t try to innovate. The bottom line, for The Paper, is that news censorship will always be there, but it can certainly do things in a smarter way.

– Contact the writer at [email protected] 


The Paper app is currently available on Apple’s China and Hong Kong app stores. Photo: Apple

EJ Insight writer