Friday, April 1, 2011

People’s Daily: Two Years, Two Editions, One Front Page?

People’s Daily: Two Years, Two Editions, One Front Page?: "

While most journalists in China spend mid-March scouring their notes and wracking their brains in order to come up with something new and interesting to say about the country’s annual legislative meeting, one Chinese newspaper employee apparently remains exempt from the effort: the front page layout editor at the People’s Daily.

In a message posted to a number of online forums on Monday (and subsequently, it seems, deleted), a Chinese internet user produced side-by-side images of two People’s Daily front pages—one from Monday’s paper, the other from exactly a year before—and challenged readers to spot the differences.

People’s Daily

The front page of the People’s Daily newspaper, March 14, 2011

People’s Daily

The front page of the People’s Daily newspaper, March 14, 2010.

Regular readers of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper, are trained not to expect much variation. Add in the fact that in both front pages were published on the closing day of the plenary session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, and one wouldn’t be shocked to see a high degree of similarity.

In this case, however, the differences are positively miniscule.

The top two headlines on Monday’s paper—one announcing the closing of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, the advisory body that meets alongside the NPC, and the other noting a meeting of the presidium of the NPC–are essentially identical to the top two headlines from a year earlier, in each case differing only enough to take into account the ordinal numbers: This year was the 4th session of 11th NPC and CPPCC, last year was the 3rd session.

Even the subheads are identical, listing top attendees and hosts for each meeting in the exact same order in both editions.

Most remarkable of all are the front-page images: In both cases, a large photo of eight of Beijing’s top nine leaders sitting hands folded (and in the same order) on the main stage in the Great Hall of the People appears to the left of a smaller photo of CPPCC chairman Jia Qinglin standing before a bank of microphones holding what appears to be a copy of his closing speech in his right hand. Close examination reveals minor differences—a slightly different expression on Mr. Jia’s face, a slightly different bright-red necktie, a barely detectable upward tilt of the head from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

While on the surface this would seem to qualify as possibly the laziest cut-and-paste job in the history of journalism, a more likely explanation lies in the way pressure is applied within China’s government—and inside the central propaganda apparatus in particular.

As more than a few former state employees in China have noted, most government-run organizations mirror Beijing in putting a premium on stability. There are few points given for creativity, while mistakes can be punished harshly. The best way to ensure career progress, therefore, is to make as few decisions as possible—a rule that goes double any time the country’s top leaders are involved.

If a front page worked once, in other words, it will work again.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin


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