Tea Leaf Nation

The New Website That Has China Buzzing

"Pengpai" has tens of millions of dollars in funding, and everyone in journalism is talking about it. But no one seems pleased.

The chief executive officer of The Paper, a slick new state-funded Chinese media site at thepaper.cn, launched his venture in a most unusual fashion: with a nostalgic confessional about a drunken night during his senior year in college in 1990. Qiu Bing described a young couple whom he had been friends with while an undergraduate, and how they left each other love notes in bottles and stashed them in a campus pond. It was a time before egoism and consumerism had taken hold of his country, waxed Qiu. The emotions of that era were "surging" up in him again, he said, using the word pengpai, also the Chinese name of the new website. It was a riveting read and a masterstroke in marketing. Buoyed in part by the essay, the site's clean look, and the venture's rumored big budget, the formal launch of The Paper and its iPhone and Android apps on July 22 triggered a huge buzz on social media and among journalists. "I've been waiting for this a long time," wrote one reader in the comments section below Qiu's piece.

Much of the discussion surrounding the new venture has involved trying to classify the beast, a hybrid with a clean new-media style gloss but, some argue, a conservative and self-censoring core. Wen Yunchao, a blogger and free-speech advocate based in New York, told Foreign Policy that although The Paper resembles "the Huffington Post or Hong Kong media on the surface," its essence is "not much different from other media in China." Wen said that the outlet touts itself as new media but its "definition of new is only in comparison to the rigid face of traditional party media," meaning media directly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Other observers were more generous in their assessments. The Global Times -- which, it's worth noting, is itself a party mouthpiece -- called The Paper a "trailblazer." Financial Times columnist and new-media entrepreneur Xu Danei wrote on July 23 on microblogging platform Weibo that the appearance of The Paper marked the biggest Chinese media splash since uber-influential muckraking journalist Hu Shuli kicked off Caixin, her second big financial news magazine, back in January 2010. Xu said The Paper's initial investment from state-run Shanghai United Media Group had first been reported in the ballpark of $16 million; that estimate doubled to $32 million in a February news report by Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing reporter Luo Changping. Currently swirling estimates now stand at $64 million, Xu wrote without citing sources. Xu told FP via mobile discussion platform WeChat that The Paper seemed to be trying to compete with Caixin for market share, though he said the former seemed to have a broader scope of coverage and looked set to outpace Caixin in terms of volume, since The Paper updates daily and Caixin publishes a weekly and a biweekly magazine.

The Paper has likely been on the savvy Hu's radar for some time; it is an offshoot of the well-known Oriental Morning Post in Shanghai, a state-run paper known for breaking the explosive September 2008 news that Chinese dairy company Sanlu was one of the companies behind a tainted milk scandal that would eventually kill six babies and sicken hundreds of thousands. But the Post's reputation hasn't been entirely heroic. The journalist who broke that story, Jian Guangzhou, dramatically quit in October 2012, saying his ideals had been crushed by his time on the job. Jian later famously told California-based McClatchy news service that working in journalism in China was like "dancing in shackles." (According to a web search, Jian now works as a freelancer.)*

The Paper doesn't appear to signal the imminent breaking of these shackles. But it does look like a news site trying to find the sweet spot where public service journalism converges with party objectives. Since taking over as China's top leader in November 2012, Xi Jinping has pushed an aggressive anti-corruption campaign and also urged a more forthright line from the government, railing against what he calls "empty talk" and impenetrable jargon from long-winded officials. Xi's initiatives seem to offer an opening for a media outlet producing plainspoken reportage about corruption and abuse of power. The Paper appeared to be testing that proposition with a daring expose about health problems at a mercury mine in the poor mountainous Guizhou province. Another looked at excessive spending on a construction project in poverty-stricken Laifeng county in central Hubei province. At least two pieces on alleged miscarriages of justice have prompted lightning-fast public responses (in less than 10 hours) from the courts involved, one in Anhui province and another in Guangxi province. The stories prompted one reader to ask in the comment section: "Which court will be getting your memo tomorrow?"

Recent accomplishments aside, The Paper is a venture that so far intrigues many while satisfying few. For leftist (read: conservative) commentator Zhang Hongliang, the site is too liberal. He wrote in a July 21 piece for the conservative Revival Web that The Paper was meant to be part of efforts to restore ideology in China but that the project so far was "a waste of money." Meanwhile, Shanghai Jiaotong University design professor Wei Wuhui asked, "Where's the innovation?" in a July 23 article about The Paper. He said that the editors face an uphill battle if they really want to embrace a "new media" model because that would require user-generated content, something that is extremely hard to police.

Others saw the site as old wine in a new bottle. Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei, a Beijing-based research and media services business, told FP via email that although The Paper might have "a flashy new website and new media savvy," it doesn't look poised to revolutionize the Chinese media environment. He pointed to the recent visit to The Paper headquarters by Lu Wei, the chairman of the government's State Internet Information Office, which oversees China's extensive web censorship. The visit and The Paper's prominent coverage thereof, complete with online photos, indicated to Goldkorn that The Paper was "not going to be speaking truth to power anytime soon, even if they do master the dark arts of click-bait and listicles."

And yet, perhaps Qiu's nostalgia is more than posturing. An analysis of his essay by Wei Yingjie, a columnist for Caijing, said some have read the piece as espousing idealism, others as embracing realism. But Wei offered a third reading, complex but perhaps more intriguing: Maybe the narrator is a "pragmatist holding on to ideals in a world of realities."

Correction, July 23, 2014: The 2008 tainted-milk scandal in China killed six babies and sickened hundreds of thousands. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the scandal killed dozens of babies and sickened tens of thousands. (Return to reading.)

Photo: thepaper.cn/Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

China's 'Stinky Meat-Gate'

A recent muckraking report is a black eye for McDonald's and KFC, but also for the country's regulators.

"This beef is turning green," one worker said to a hidden camera. "It stinks," another chimed in. The frozen meat in question had expired more than seven months ago by November 2013, when the exchange took place. But the batch was re-cut and repackaged anyway, then stamped with a new expiration date: June 2015. This conversation stands among the damning evidence unearthed by a reporter for Dragon TV, a Shanghai-based television station, while undercover at the Shanghai subsidiary of Illinois-based OSI, a long time global supplier of major international fast food restaurant chains that include McDonald's and KFC. (OSI has supplied McDonald's in China since 1992 and Yum! Brands, the parent company that owns KFC, since 2008.)

The ensuing scandal has quickly engulfed the China operations of McDonald's and KFC, two popular restaurant chains with over 2,000 and 4,400 locations in the country, respectively. Several state media outlets have pounced on what they now refer to as the yang kuaican -- or "foreign fast food" -- issue, with state agency Xinhua devoting a special section to what it calls "Stinky Meat-Gate." An article in nationalist state-run outlet Global Times quoted an online survey from an unspecified website, claiming that 68 percent of respondents would "never eat" McDonalds, KFC, or Subway again. Nationalistic blogger Song Zude even exhorted "all Chinese people to band together and say no to foreign trash food." But Song's call is probably going to go unanswered; in contrast to state media's very public hand-wringing, many Chinese consumers have seemed relatively unfazed.

That, at least, is the takeaway in the immediate aftermath of the news. Reporters for state-run China News Service found the Beijing outlets of McDonald's and KFC still crowded the day after the report broke. A man with the surname Lei told one reporter that he actually felt "more secure about food quality at McDonald's, now that it is in the middle of a publicity storm." Similarly, a report by Henan Radio in Zhengzhou, a city of 8 million in central Henan province, found that business at local McDonalds and KFC restaurants was "hopping" with long lines and few seats. One McDonald's patron admitted that she saw the news about the food scandal but was "already desensitized to this sort of thing."

The sad reality is that Chinese consumers find it difficult to trust any food establishment, which gives foreign ownership continuing credibility when it comes to quality control, scandal or no. Ma Xian, a real estate investor, wrote on Weibo, China's major micro-blogging platform, "I can't boycott Uncle McDonald's or KFC, because the food is also unsafe at other restaurants, or even less safe." Tong Guangcan, a lawyer based in eastern Jiangsu province, agreed: "McDonald's and KFC are still much better than the tiny food stalls on the street that use ‘gutter oil,'" used cooking oil that is sold or passed off as new.

Chinese citizens are shocked, of course, by the report's findings, but have directed a healthy dollop of their ire at state regulators. In recent months, authorities have pledged "stringent supervision" of food safety and considered revising the country's food safety laws. But observers feel the latest scandal belies those assurances. In response to state-run broadcaster China Central TV's July 20 Weibo post about the scandal the most popular comment read, "This year, we have relied entirely on the media to reveal problems of quality. The regulatory agency might as well just close." Another commenter wrote, "You can't just put responsibility for weak government regulating on McDonalds and KFC." Even the Global Times, in a July 22 English-language op-ed claiming that foreign fast food chains in China need a "new attitude," acknowledged the concerns about China's regulatory system, conceding that "quality oversight authorities are weak." Sensitive to this backlash, state media have been careful to highlight the speed with which government regulators have acted in response to the report.

McDonald's and Yum! have apologized to consumers, but that did not stop the firms' share prices from tumbling. For its part, OSI China released an apology stating that management is "appalled" by the report and believes it to be an "isolated incident." But a whistleblower from its quality control department produced two notebooks with details on each "expiration date extension," with a manager's signature next to each entry.

The China operations of McDonald's and KFC are likely to show some scars from the recent news; Yum!'s sales in China reportedly dropped 40 percent after a 2012 report that alleged that its chickens were pumped full of antibiotics, and are still recovering. But they are also almost certain to survive. Not only is the blame being spread far and wide, but these fast food chains offer something else to Chinese diners besides food. As one Weibo user wrote, "No matter what, the bathrooms at McDonald's and KFC are definitely a public utility," adding, "We can't live without them!" As long as Chinese consumers remain eager to get in the door, the chains' bosses can probably rest easy.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed writing and research.