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Bold media reform sets sail
( 2003-08-17 08:56) (China Business Weekly)

China's bold media reform might take longer than expected, but insiders vow the plan, to have a market-oriented media industry, will not be altered.

"Some recent incidents have prompted top decision-makers to prudently advance media reform," said an official with the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP).

"However, the concept that media should be operated in accordance with the market has been accepted by the new leadership."

The official, who refused to be named, made the comments during an interview with China Business Weekly.

GAPP has proposed an aggressive reform plan for the media, which, with a few exceptions, are nearly 100-per-cent State-owned, the official said.

The requirement that most Party and government publications sever ties with their government agencies is the crux of the plan.

The publications would then be free to operate in the marketplace rather than continuing to serve as cultural units under government departments or social organizations.

The central government plans to end its direct financial support to, and mandatory subscription requirement of, all but three newspapers and two journals.

The government will continue funding People's Daily, official newspaper of the Party's central committee, and the committee's journal, Qiushi, or Seeking Truth.

The central government will allow each provincial Party committee to continue operating one newspaper and one journal. Each municipal Party committee will be allowed to operate one newspaper.

County-level governments and Party committees will not be allowed to operate publications.

Government departments will be punished if they are caught trying to force people to subscribe to newspapers under their control.

By the end of 2002, China had 2,137 newspapers, about 9,029 magazines, around 2,000 TV stations and 81 media groups.

Unconfirmed news agencies reports indicate China's media reform might be bolder than first expected.

It has been rumoured that China was considering allowing foreign and private investors to hold up to 49 per cent of non-Party media outlets' advertising and/or circulation departments.

Investors would be prohibited a say in the media outlets' editorial content.

Eliminating government support while improving market competition might force the closures of specialty media outlets and propaganda-oriented publications, suggests Yu Guoming, a journalism professor at Renmin University of China.

The Party Central Committee's working conference on cultural reform, held in late June, has accepted in principle the media reform plan, insiders said.

Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV reported late last month that the plan's final version would be released by the end of July.

But China's leadership is still examining the plan for possible risks, insiders said.

The recent criticism of several media outlets will not kill the reform process, said Xie Ying, an analyst with the Market Research Firm of China Central Television.

Rather, she told China Business Weekly, the correction were imposed to ensure the media reform proceeds in an orderly way.

Resistance by some media outlets - especially heavily subsidized publications - is impeding the reform.

Some outlets argue they will face bankruptcy and their employees will lose their jobs if their government support is cut off.

Also, some government departments are reluctant to give up their publications because they don't want to lose their soapboxes.

Media advertising revenues last year surpassed 80 billion yuan (US$9.6 billion). They are expected to exceed 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) this year, indicates "China Media Investment Report 2002-03."

The report is an industry analysis released by Global China (Beijing) Media Consulting Co.

The revenues, however, are concentrated in the top 100 TV stations, newspapers and magazines.

Wrestling with the many issues associated with the reform will slow the process, analysts predict.

Lin Jiang, an official with the Department of Newspapers and Periodicals Management under GAPP, said it might be difficult for publications to sever ties with their Party and government departments in the short term.

But that, Lin said, is a necessary first step if the media outlets are going to become profitable. However, he said, the process is likely to take longer than originally expected.

Zhao Xiaobing, president of Global China (Beijing) Media Consulting Co, predicted, despite the resistance, the reform will proceed within three years.

"Without the deaths of numerous media, there cannot be new life for reformed media. That is the reality of the market economy," Zhao said.

Other insiders suggest the proposal to allow foreign and private investments into the media sector should be limited, on a trial basis.

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