July 2, 2012

The New York Times launches a Chinese edition


On Thursday, the New York Times took a big step: it opened its first foreign-language website, cn.nytimes.com, a Chinese-language edition of the Times.

For a news organization, opening your first foreign-language website in Chinese is like skipping the California Gold Rush and swinging your first ax in the Klondike. On the one hand, there’s gold there—last year China overtook Germany to become the world’s third-largest media market, and the Times‘s own article about the site, which appeared on its MediaDecoder blog, noted that they’d secured advertising from Bloomingdale’s, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Cartier, pitched at the “educated, affluent, global citizens” the Chinese New York Times is hoping to reach. On the other hand, you may freeze to death.

Other media organizations like Forbes, Newsweek, Time, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the BBC have Chinese editions, but in an article for Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish points out that the censorship exercised in the Chinese WSJ—which appears to be self-censorship—renders the paper toothless when it comes to reporting on major stories that happen to be embarrassing to Beijing.

“In late April, when Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, his release six days later and his subsequent pleas to go abroad became a major international news story. But WSJ Chinese appears to barely have covered the story at all: a recent search on the Wall Street Journal‘s main English-language website finds 126 mentions of Chen in the last 90 days. In the Chinese version, there are just two search results for the activist Chen Guangcheng over the past five months, one in a translated posting about the film The Hunger Games and one that mentions the actor Christian Bale visiting Chen, according to a Google search conducted in the United States.”

On the other end of the spectrum, you have BBC Chinese, which does not cater to or edit its content for the domestic market and has been almost completely blocked in China since it started up in 1999. For its part, the Times seems intent on not hewing its journalism to the Chinese government’s expectations and on dealing with site- or article-blocking as it comes up. The site’s server is not in China and Joseph Kahn, the Times’ foreign editor, is quoted in the MediaDecoder post as saying:

“We’re not tailoring it to the demands of the Chinese government, so we’re not operating like a Chinese media company. China operates a very vigorous firewall. We have no control over that. We hope and expect that Chinese officials will welcome what we’re doing.”

This is a patient attitude which may have immediately been tested: just hours after the site launched, a number of the microblogging accounts associated with the NYT Chinese site went down. Microblogs or “weibo” are sites that function much like Twitter—users can post short messages, images, links to music and video, follow other users, etc. But whereas there’s one big tweeting community in the US, there are multiple Weibo sites in China, owned by different corporations. The @nytchinese account at one of the most popular sites, Sina Weibo, went down shortly after the site launched, then was back up, then went down again, along with the accounts at Sohu and NetEase. The account at Tencent remained active but certain features like commenting and forwarding posts were disabled. The accounts are all now back up, but it’s still unclear whether these outages were a technical problem or an official block.

So what’s in there that’s so scandalous? Fish reports that on its first day, the edition contained the much-discussed NYT article from January about Apple’s iPad factories in China, op-eds from Paul Krugman and Jimmy Carter, and original material about Chinese private enterprise and fashion photographers. So far, relatively mild. But watch this space.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.