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China's news media largely silent amid market losses

Investors look at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai.
Aly Song | Reuters
Investors look at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai.

After China's stock markets crumpled, prompting a global sell-off, People's Daily, the premier newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, had other things on its mind on Tuesday.

There was no mention of the market mayhem on the newspaper's front page, which featured a report about economic development in Tibet. Indeed, there was not a single reference to the stock markets throughout the entire 24 pages of the paper, which dwelled instead on the forthcoming 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

The silence was a telling sign that, while Republican aspirants to the White House have upbraided Beijing over the stock market turmoil, China's leaders were sticking to their habit of staying above the public fray when policies turn sour.

"My hunch would be that they're really not about to stomach another wave of more open reporting by the Chinese media," said David Bandurski, the website editor for the China Media Project, based at the University of Hong Kong, who has written extensively on China's controls on news.

"This is an explosive economic story for China," he said.

Mr. Bandurski noted that in April, People's Daily was among the party-run news outlets encouraging investors to buy stocks, on the assumption that prices would keep rising, despite occasional hiccups. "I think people's memories are long enough that they can remember how this began," he said. "They were pushing the Kool-Aid."

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The home page of Xinhua, the state news agency, was highlighting a report about President Xi Jinping's visit to Tibet in 1998, when he was a provincial official in eastern China. On Monday, the 7 p.m. news broadcast on China Central Television, the country's main television network, also skipped mention of the plummet in stock prices.

China Digital Times, which collates leaked, confidential propaganda and censorship directives to Chinese journalists, reported that in June they were told to keep coverage of the stock markets strictly in line with official rules intended to deter pessimism or panic.

"Do not conduct in-depth analysis, and do not speculate on or assess the direction of the market," said the instructions, according to China Digital Times, based in Berkeley, Calif. "Do not exaggerate panic or sadness. Do not use emotionally charged words such as 'slump,' 'spike' or 'collapse.' "

Other newspapers and websites in China reported on the market turmoil, though often presenting China as an unlikely bystander in a wider global downturn.

Some parts of the Chinese news media that are less firmly yoked to echoing the party leadership's positions voiced rival views of what the government should do about the stock market slump. Some said the government should do more. Others said it was time to quit intervening.

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Securities Daily, a leading financial newspaper, seized the opportunity to urge the government to do more to prop up stock prices. "The slump in the stock markets is destroying what remains of investor confidence, and this problem is profoundly serious," the paper said in a front-page commentary. It called for stronger government measures to shore up stock prices.

China's economic fundamentals remain sound, it said, but "the stock markets' reactions to these fundamentals have become extremely chilly, and pessimistic sentiment has continued to spread." The commentary called for continued government intervention in the markets to counter what it called "irrational" and "malicious" sell-offs.

"Currently, some in the market have assumed that the government's stabilization funds would curtail market operations, but this is a misunderstanding," it said. "Stability maintenance efforts must continue to be strengthened, but their mode of implementation can be improved."

On the other hand, The Economic Information Daily, a newspaper issued by the Xinhua news agency, argued that the Chinese government should retreat from trying to shore up the stock markets. Instead, the paper said, policy makers must focus on improving economic conditions, such as making it easier for businesses to attract loans and investment.

"The turbulence in global stock markets has largely arisen from volatile sentiment, and not because major problems have hit the economy," it said in a front-page commentary.

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"The domestic policy focus should be on steadily retreating from stock market bailout policies," it said. "Government bailouts are meant to avert financial risks, not to prop up stock prices. Although A-shares have suffered another substantial fall, we still need to stick to steadily phasing out bailout measures."

Even as frazzled Chinese investors endured another day of market tumult on Tuesday, there was some light relief. Chinese news websites featured images of a massive sculpture in the coastal city of Xiamen that depicted a bull astride a bear.

The sculpture was intended to symbolize bullish, upbeat market forces subduing bearish pessimism, according to the news reports. On the Internet, however, some Chinese commentators said the sculpture appeared to show something more intimate going on between the two beasts.

Cai Mingchao, the businessman and art collector who commissioned the sculpture, said he hoped it would ease some of the stresses of weary investors.

"Actually, this is for stock investors to let off steam," Mr. Cai said, according to Xiamen Daily. "If everyone is more upbeat, then maybe the stock market will be too."