The Stars Align in China

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Every 40 years or so, five major planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter) form a single line in the sky. In ancient China, people believed that this phenomenon signaled the imminent arrival of a major, and usually unfortunate, event. Last weekend, a joke circulated on the Chinese blogosphere: When five major state-run newspapers run identical front pages, what does it portend?

The answer is: the 17th Communist Party Congress, a meeting held once every five years and slated for October. Last Sunday, five major newspapers, (from left to right below) the People's Daily, Guangming Daily, Economic Daily, People's Liberation Army Daily and the Beijing Daily-- ran almost look-alike front pages. The stories, routine dispatches, were issued by Xinhua, the country's state-run news agency. Government efforts to rescue miners trapped in a flooded mine; President Hu Jintao's meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan; China's ties with its neighbors.

Party newspapers in China follow instructions from the Central Propaganda Department. But for five papers to publish nearly identical front pages is still pretty rare. The natural interpretation is that as the Party Congress approaches, China's media control has been tightened to an unusual degree. Because the Party Congress will decide who rises and who retires at the highest levels of government, it is the most important political event in China -- even the upcoming Olympics pales in comparison.

With the Central Propaganda Department ordering what's fit to print, the last thing editors of party newspapers want to do is make their own decisions. A minor departure from the order could end a career. What a tough position to be in. Then again, others may say, with so much decided for them, these editors have it easy.

-- Xiao Qiang

Xiao Qiang is the founder and editor in chief of China Digital Times and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School

of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley.

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