There are no pyres of magazines burning, no information police combing the newsstands every morning. Magazine censorship in China is banal. Almost all of the control has long been done in-house before publication, by reporters and editors who know just how far they can and cannot go. The closest many private magazines get to an official censor is someone they call "Teacher," sent from their own publishing houses, to patrol content.
But these days, it's not just editors who are drawing in the lines. It's the investors -- the owners and backers of China's few independent media outlets. And there is no better example than Caijing, China's leading business magazine, for which I used to work as a sub-editor. The magazine, whose name means "finance and economics," earned its muckraking stripes with exposés of everything from corporate fraud and insider trading to the government's handling of the SARS outbreak. Editor in chief Hu Shuli was recently profiled in The New Yorker; the piece emphasized her savvy, which has ensured the financial magazine's survival and kept her and her reporters out of jail since she founded Caijing in 1998. The trick was knowing just how far stories could go and not taking them any further.
So when the magazine tightened the breadth of its coverage at the end of July, it was not the editorial side but the purse strings calling for caution. The source of the pressure, Caijing reporters told me, was the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, the party-led organization of businessmen that holds the magazine's publishing license. The change was passed down matter-of-factly at routine weekly meetings in July, sandwiched in along with the news budget. Many desk editors told reporters they wouldn't be running any politically controversial stories -- indefinitely.
The move at Caijing comes as part of a larger constriction of civil society ahead of the 60-year anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on Oct. 1. In the case of Caijing, the editorial chill came from an unlikely source: reform-minded and Columbia University-educated Wang Boming, the very investor who launched the magazine with a phone call asking Hu Shuli to be editor in chief a decade ago. Wang, a party scion, was born in Poland, where his father was the Chinese ambassador.
Wang declined to be interviewed, but he has said that he aspires to turn the holdings group that publishes Caijing -- as well as the Chinese editions of PC Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Better Homes and Gardens -- into one of China's biggest advertising agencies. Which may be exactly why a push -- or a threat -- from the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce had such an effect. China's media licensing structure makes it nearly impossible to get a license without major guanxi, or connections to officials in the right places. Private or foreign-invested magazines (like Caijing) often "rent" licenses from state-owned institutions, which means that those institutions end up taking responsibility for any politically risky material -- but investors lose the money if trouble brews.