Profits, Permissiveness Issues Raised : Romance Tabloids Thrive in China

Times Staff Writer

If you are going out with a girl, you will want to know whether she likes you or not. To find out, you can ask yourself the following questions: (1) Does she always try to be with you and make all kinds of excuses to visit you . . . ?

--From the Chinese tabloid Yue Lao Bao (Matchmaker News)

In the United States, routine newspaper advice for teen-agers trying to manage their love lives would hardly attract much attention. In China, it is an astonishing change that has led to literary controversy and political strife.

In the last year, what amounts to an unofficial “yellow press” has begun to flourish in China. Tabloid newspapers have sprung up featuring adventure stories about knights and warriors, lurid tales of crime and corruption, advice on matters of love and sex, even personal ads from young people seeking mates.


The tabloids, which carry names like Golden Flower Tea and White Cloud, have been selling by the millions, even though they cost more than the most prestigious and most expensive official newspapers.

On trains and street corners, people can be seen staring at the splashy headlines and poring over stories promoted as inside accounts of the evil-doing of such people as the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and Mao Tse-tung’s wife, Jiang Qing.

Last month, the newspaper China Publication News said that what it called “unhealthy tabloids” are selling so well that the nation is facing a shortage of newsprint this year. The publication reported that by the beginning of July, there were more than 100 tabloids in circulation selling an estimated 800,000 copies each.

Devouring Paper

The tabloids were said to be eating up newsprint at the rate of 50,000 tons a year--about one-eighth of China’s annual output. Paper mills were said to be rushing to sell their newsprint to the unofficial tabloids, which offered premium prices. As a result, for the first half of this year, China’s paper mills failed to meet their quota for supplying newsprint to official government publications under China’s centralized state planning system.

The proliferation of these tabloids is to some extent an outgrowth of China’s economic liberalization.

Last fall, some provincial and rural publishing enterprises, including some that are controlled by the Communist Party, decided to put out mass-circulation tabloids in order to bring in new revenues. The cost of newsprint was increasing and the authorities were pressuring them to be financially self-sufficient. The additional money, they apparently reasoned, could be used to help subsidize their more sedate and serious official newspapers.

The spread of the tabloids has raised some interesting questions in China, where for 35 years the official press has been kept under the direct control of the Communist Party.

To what extent should government-controlled newspapers be required to meet the rigors of the marketplace? How permissive should the authorities be toward tabloids whose principal aim is not to propagandize, but to make money? Can an avowedly Marxist regime permit the development of a press that caters to public taste? The answers are beginning to come in.

The government appears to have decided to try to crack down on the new papers and to prevent the emergence in China of any budding scandalmongers. After displaying an early tolerance toward the tabloids, known here as xiaobao, or little newspapers, the authorities have voiced increasingly harsh criticism of them.

‘Spiritual Opium’

The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily commented earlier this year: “Editors of and contributors to newspapers and magazines of all categories should think of their lofty responsibilities as builders of socialist spiritual civilization, and continue to heighten their ideological and artistic levels so as to provide the people with more and healthy spiritual food. They should by no means disregard the social effects of their work, let alone make a fortune out of selling spiritual opium.”

Chinese leaders recently have resorted to more direct methods. The provincial Sichuan Daily reported that law-enforcement officials had confiscated 20,000 copies of 38 tabloids because they had stories or cartoons judged to be “obscene.”

The government-controlled English-language newspaper China Daily quoted an official of Peking’s Communist Party disciplinary inspection commission as saying that city police confiscated 700,000 copies of tabloid papers as part of their campaign against “unhealthy tendencies.” According to the official, Meng Zhiyuan, the confiscated tabloids “carried sensational stories about murder, sex, gang fights and superstitions.”

Provincial authorities have begun to issue regulations warning that newspapers and magazines may not be sold without official registration certificates and that their content and layout must not differ from what was promised at the time the publications were registered.

Male, 30 years old, 1.61 meters, good health, third-level worker, also attending night school. Wants to look for a girlfriend. It doesn’t matter whether she is from the city or the countryside, or whether she has been married or not.

--Ad in Yue Lao Bao

The tabloids first caught on not in Peking and Shanghai but in small towns far from China’s intellectual centers, in places where the central government’s control is less firm. A study by a Shanghai literary journal found that a surprisingly large number of them were in the remote, mountainous Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China.

“Guangxi is not only the marketing center for such literature but also the main source of its production,” the study concluded.

From these rural areas, the tabloids have gone out to all of China. The Shanghai journal found that they are distributed through “non-government channels,” which are cheaper and less restrictive than the official newspaper distribution system.

Gossip, Romance Popular

Two Chinese reporters who studied 106 issues of the tabloids for the journal found that the most popular themes were detective stories and stories dealing with knights and the martial arts, social gossip and romance.

Sales of the tabloids were “astonishing,” the reporters found. Some sold as many as 2 million copies. Generally, the tabloids are sold on the streets for 15 or 20 fen (5 to 7 cents).

By comparison, the party-controlled People’s Daily, China’s most prestigious and expensive national newspaper, costs 10 fen ; its circulation is 5 million.

The tabloids are being published by town and county-level literary and art groups, health and science organizations and official Communist Party newspapers. Another study, by two reporters for the Economic Daily, found that the Hunan Province Cultural Assn. was putting out a tabloid about romance to cover the financial losses run up in publishing its more high-brow Literary Monthly.

Patti, the 31-year-old daughter of American President Reagan, married her 26-year-old yoga teacher Paul in a Los Angeles restaurant. Paul is the son of a carpenter, having no money or social status. When Reagan was still the governor of California, he had hoped that his daughter would marry somebody in high society. However, Patti was not willing to carry out her parents’ wish.

--Item in Yue Lao Bao

The growth of the tabloids has sparked an increasingly nasty debate among Chinese intellectuals. Some say they are at worst harmless entertainment, and in some instances informative. In fact, some intellectuals have described the short stories and other fiction published in the tabloids as a form of “vernacular literature.”

“Vernacular literature has a long history and tradition within the nation,” one critic, Bao Chang, wrote. “It was suppressed during the time of the Gang of Four (the Cultural Revolution). Its re-emergence is quite an eye-catching new literary trend, but not something horrible.”

However, some of China’s older literary figures view the tabloids as a sign of decadence.

“Even in Shanghai before liberation (the Communist takeover in 1949), there weren’t so many of these tabloids,” a veteran journalist, who refused to speak for the record, said in an interview. “And back then, they didn’t try to call them popular literature.”

Literary critic Huang Hongxiu wrote in January: “I can’t believe that all this current literature-for-profit and light reading could be considered one of the main products of the socialist literature of the 1980s.”

Profit Motive Issue

The debate has serious political implications for China, since the underlying issue is to what extent the profit motive should be tolerated, or encouraged. It is a particularly difficult ideological problem for the present government, which has tried to move the Chinese economy toward a form of market-oriented socialism.

A Western diplomat said that he believes conservative forces opposed to the efforts of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to change the country are using the tabloids as a convenient symbol through which to attack his economic reform program.

The Guangming Daily, China’s official newspaper for intellectuals, contended in a front-page commentary that the government has still not acted forcefully enough “to put an end to these tabloids.” And it added: “The fact that some people think the economic reform means grabbing money gives rise to this profitable publishing.”

The Guangming Daily also complained about the way the economic reforms have affected publishing enterprises. It said the government has cut back on state allocations of newsprint supplies, forcing some printing plants to go into the market and pay higher prices.

“Publishers of unhealthy papers aren’t affected too much, because they generally enjoy good sales of their newspapers,” the Guangming Daily said. It called on the government to strictly control the distribution of paper supplies.

Last New Year’s Day, Yue Lao Bao got its final approval for publication from the information division of the Fujian provincial (Communist) party committee. Since its first publication, Yue Lao Bao has become very popular throughout the country.... Within a few days after its first issue was published in Fuzhou, Yue Lao Bao sold more than 100,000 copies.

--Editor’s Note in Yue Lao Bao