Government Turns Lights Out At "Time Out Beijing"
Sherman Oaks, California
In a heavy-handed move, the Chinese government has banned the production of Time Out Beijing, an English-language magazine at the core of the city’s expat community.
According to the London Times, the ban may be temporary, extending until after the Olympics. The official reason for the shut down was that the magazine, which has been publishing for four years, did not have a license.
1. Time Out Beijing is not political; it’s an arts and nightlife magazine. The publication certainly would not have lasted four years if it were agitating for multi-party elections or demanding the prosecution of former premier Li Peng for giving the order to clear Tiananmen Square. Time Out Beijing is a much-better-than-average listings mag about where Anglophones can eat, drink and hang out. To the best of my knowledge, restaurant reviews have never sparked a counter-revolution.
2. Time Out Beijing is written in a smart, snappy style that helps make the city seem hip and cosmopolitan. For all the hype, much of Beijing is drab. The city and national governments would presumably want to spice up the image of the capital, and Beijing Time Out was, from that perspective, a bunch of laowai (foreigners) promoting Beijing on their own time. (And, yes, I’m biased, since I met various Time Out Beijing folks during my stays in China.)
3. Time Out Beijing is central to the expat experience. When you’re in a city as vast and intimidating as Beijing, with opaque language and Martian signs, you need a guide. Helen Gurley Brown, the long-time editor of Cosmopolitan, said that her readers saw the magazine as a friend. That’s certainly true for Time Out Beijing. It’s the Big Cool Friend from a similar cultural background who’s been in town a few years and can show you the ropes. It is incomprehensible to me why the Chinese government would want to ban a publication that makes it easier for people to live in the capital.
4. The Chinese government is sending a terrible message to entrepreneurs: We can, and will, shut down your business any time we want. Meanwhile, it appears that the Chinese government has confiscated a competing listings magazine called that’s Beijing. I’ve blogged before that China presents itself as a terrible place to build an idea business, and these moves support the argument.
5. Maybe there’s something in the air this month. Over in Russia, the government has forced the closure of The eXile, a popular expat publication. Mark Ames, the editor, is blogging about the closure at Radar.
6. The Chinese officials appear to have no media savvy. Why would they? There’s no need to learn message management or how to influence a story in a system where all print publications are government controlled. In this instance, the officials responsible seem unaware that (1) they’re closing an outlet that presents the city in a positive light, (2) they look like small-minded autocrats, and (3) journalists empathize with censored colleagues, which can color subsequent coverage. And, of course, this shutdown adds more velocity to the “China cracks down before the Olympics” narrative, increasing the chances of negative coverage. Rogers & Cowan these guys ain’t.
7. The mere existence of publications like Time Out Beijing and City Weekend, another expat magazine, help foster the image of a free and open China – which you’d think would be one of the goals of the employees at the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. To the extent the copy is written in English, more than 90% of Chinese can’t read it, and the rest have made their peace with the system. So the principal effect of allowing Time Out Beijing to publish during the Olympics would have been to convince credulous English-reading visitors that the Chinese press was just like the media back home in Wellington or Wolverhampton, but with more photos of Ziyi Zhang. Somebody needs to read a basic public relations textbook.
8. Ultimately, this befuddling move by the Chinese authorities may be rooted in the base motive of all totalitarians: the need to control everything. Perhaps an official in the walled compound of Zhongnanhai can’t stand the fact that someone other than the government – particularly a bunch of expats – will have any say whatsoever in the way China is perceived during the Olympics.
In any event, if it’s not allowed to resume publication, or if it’s taken over by apparatchiks, Time Out Beijing, like all good friends who have passed on, will be missed.
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