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China, Explained

If webby U.S. media startup Vox were acquired by the Chinese Communist Party, it might resemble Sixth Tone, a new English-language media outlet aimed at attracting a Western readership.

Launched on April 6, garnering some immediate attention from the Western China-watching community, Sixth Tone is a Chinese invention: a media start-up under party oversight that features a slick, attractive website and appealing headlines designed to entice Western readers. Chinese state media has long been known for its turgid reporting, formulaic pronouncements, and utilitarian web formats. And that’s in Chinese — their English-language counterparts, such as the state-sponsored China Daily, known for its saccharine reporting, are often even worse. The ruling Communist Party, through its official media mouthpieces and foreign ministry spokespeople, often repeats its belief that China is unfairly represented in Western press, giving news consumers around the world an overly negative image of China. Sixth Tone appears to be an answer to that perceived problem.

 But that highlights the inherent conundrum facing the publication’s editors. While it’s not officially party-operated, Shanghai-based Sixth Tone is a sister publication to state-backed digital outlet The Papersharing both its resources and its state-owned parent company, Shanghai United Media Group, which provided about $4.5 million of Sixth Tone‘s initial funding. And as a publication based in China, it is subject to strict censorship. Many Western readers approach all media with deep skepticism, and China watchers in particular are highly sensitive to anything that smacks of censorship or self-censorship. How will Sixth Tone make its articles appealing to a cynical Western readership without crossing party lines?

The plan, Sixth Tone’s founding editor-in-chief Wei Xing told Foreign Policy in an April interview, is to “humanize” China news. “If we cover a very big topic, we prefer to cover the topic with people stories,” Wei said.

“We want to go beyond the reports, to go to people’s homes.” Though the new media outlet is currently aimed primarily at a Western audience, Wei told FP that Sixth Tone doesn’t plan to compete directly with major outlets such as the Wall Street Journal or state broadcaster China Central Television English, but rather to fill a specific niche. According to an April 6 press release, the start-up will showcase a “fresh” side of China through its “deep features, timely news reports, and rich commentaries” and by “focusing on the everyday realities of Chinese people’s lives.” Even in such a short time period, there’s already been an editorial shake-up at Sixth Tone. Wei resigned on May 30 to launch a video-based media start-up; Qiu Bing, CEO of The Paper, left in late May. Wei told FP in a June 1 interview that such quick turnover was common among Chinese media start-ups. The new editor-in-chief, Zhang Jun, told FP in an email that his vision for Sixth Toneremains the same as its previous editor, and that he also hopes to “grow the number of our reporting trips to China’s heartland.”

Two months into Sixth Tone’s existence, its emphasis on the human side of the news is taking shape. The website features personal narratives often related to major national issues, such as one April 27 essay by a former migrant worker who shared how he eventually became the director of an NGO; long-form dives into social problems, like an April 8 piece about a children’s gangs in rural China; and inside looks at controversial topics, such as an May 10 article about a man who decided to raise an intersex baby he found abandoned by the road. The stories are often interesting or surprising, offering glances into little-known parts of life in China.

The outlet’s strategy for handling its existential conundrum — how to attract foreign readers without crossing the party — is also emerging.

Sixth Tone’s hyper-local, highly personal focus often has the effect of stripping many articles of their larger, possibly charged, political contexts. One April 20 article, “How Crushing Debt Fractured My Family,” is a typical example. In the piece, a woman details how business debt broke apart her once-happy extended family. It’s an interesting insider look at family dynamics in China, how relatives work together to build a family construction business, and what can happen when a company fails. But the origin and details of the debt are given very brief treatment: “In the midst of the global financial crisis in 2008, the government stopped paying the arrears they owed at the family construction site.” The explanation leaves the reader asking what government entity failed to pay arrears, and what recourse may have been available to the company. It’s not hard to guess at the pressures behind that article’s approach; were it to place blame on a more specific target, a disgruntled government official could make life difficult for Sixth Tone, or for the author or editor individually.

Other articles in Sixth Tone touch on hot-button issues, but in some cases avoid in-depth discussion of their provenance or possible real-world solutions. For example, one April 26 essay, titled “Why I Am Not a Good Doctor” and written by a prominent Chinese physician, seems to promise to address the explosive issue of Chinese hospitals, which are plagued with episodic violence as patients or their families, sometimes desperate after an operation has gone wrong or when expensive treatments have wiped out their savings, having physically attacked doctors and nurses. “Chinese hospitals are overburdened and understaffed,” reads the article’s sub-headline, “leaving many doctors unable to give their patients the standard of care they deserve.” That much is true: numerous factors have created this endemic problem. State-owned hospitals often underpay and overwork their staff, who often face obstacles in striking or engaging in collective bargaining. To supplement their income, doctors may prescribe expensive and unnecessary tests and drugs. And patients often have little recourse in the case of malpractice or corruption. But the personal essay itself does not engage these causes. “Patient-hospital disputes are by no means a new trend,” the article states, correctly but incompletely. “Our medical staff have problems, as does the hospital, as does the world.”

Then there’s an April 28 long-form article, called “Children of Coal: After the Collapse,” a gritty inside look at the lives of four young graduates of a coal college in Shuangyashan, one of China’s failing mining towns in its industrial north. It’s narrative-driven, with few background paragraphs to provide context or additional analysis, but also fascinating. One college graduate fed directly into the coal industry described his first experience entering a mine this way: “I felt like a plate of sushi on one of those circular belts, heading straight into the mouth of a monster hiding in the shadows.” Yet the article scarcely mentions the crucial subtext of Shuangyashan. In March, more than 1,000 miners and others took to the streets there in a mass demonstration. One group held a sign that read “We must live. We must eat.” Indeed, labor-related protests, which Chinese authorities often view with wariness as potentially destabilizing, nearly doubled in 2015 versus 2014, which itself marked a doubling of the total in 2013. That Shuangyashan strike went unreported in Chinese state media, and received only a fleeting reference in the Sixth Tone piece.

A May 20 essay on a truly daring topic — a lesbian relationship between two Muslims from China’s far western region of Xinjiang — revealed similar gaps. Timed to roughly coincide with the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, it eloquently described the difficult choices that two lovers must make when neither can reveal the relationship to their respective families. But it provided almost no larger social, political, or religious context for a love story that is, presumably, closely related to three topics all highly controversial in China — sexuality, religion, and ethnicity.

When asked about these omissions, Wei said in a June follow-up interview after his resignation, that Sixth Tone “face[s] all the challenges that media in China face” — an allusion to the tight control that Chinese authorities maintain over what can and cannot appear in print or online.

As a state-market hybrid, Sixth Tone enjoys greater, though still limited, editorial freedom than official state outlets such as party mouthpiece People’s Daily and state news agency Xinhua, which both have English-language websites. Chinese media outlets, once largely state-run, began commercializing in the 1980s; now, out of the thousands of newspapers, periodicals, and broadcast stations in China, most rely on subscriptions and advertising for revenue.

With about 3,000 followers on Twitter and around 1,300 on Facebook so far, Sixth Tone has a modest following among U.S.-based China watchers, some of whom see it as supplementary reading to what is currently available about China in English. The publication “is a useful contribution to some of the knowledge coming out of China,” Bill Bishop, publisher of influential newsletter Sinocism, said in an interview with FP. “It’s more about culture, and that’s great, because frankly, there should be more stuff in English about that.”

The publication may also hold an appeal for internationally-minded Chinese. Muyi Xiao, a Chinese photojournalist who will begin work at Sixth Tone in August, studied at the International Center for Photography in New York after launching her career in Beijing. She said during her study abroad, she often thought deeply about the idea of insider and outsider perspectives. “I think we need more insiders’ point of view on China’s stories for foreign readers,” she told FP. “Sixth Tone focuses not only on topics about China that the world is interested about but also the topics that the world doesn’t necessarily know about China.” That focus, said Xiao, is what drew her to Sixth Tone. And while she does have some concerns about censorship, she said, “the content they run looks good to me.”

“You’re not going to read this and think this is party propaganda,” said Bishop. But even so, “it shouldn’t be forgotten where this fits in with the broader propaganda strategy,” he explained. Since assuming office in late 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has worked to project a global image of a strong, competent China, while simultaneously tightening the party’s grip on media and the Internet. Xi has rebranded China’s rise as the inspirational-sounding “Chinese dream,” demanded absolute loyalty from state media outlets, and called for more “positive energy,” or peppy pro-China posting, on the Internet. “To ‘better tell the China story,’” said Bishop, “that’s an ongoing project for the party for some time.”

To be sure, Chinese media entrepreneurs face tough choices. Some choose to leave China for Hong Kong or even for foreign countries to pursue their passions in environments with greater media freedom. Others never enter the newsroom in the first place. But some remain, trying to produce important work within an increasingly constrained system. “Our sense of readers’ impressions of Sixth Tone,” said current editor-in-chief Zhang, “is that we are seen as a voice that stands apart from traditional media, addressing difficult and fresh subjects without sensationalism or prejudice.” And there’s always the possibility that Sixth Tone, still young, will continue to evolve.

By BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN June 3, 2016 in Foreign Policy