At the moment, I am preparing to start on a new book, which will be a history of press and media law and regulation in China throughout the 20th century. Obviously, that means digging through imperial archives to find out how the Qing government, and in particular empress-dowager Cixi, dealt with the emergence of the first modern newspapers. The first one of these, Shen Bao 申报 was established in 1872 by a British entrepreneur, Ernest Major, but was aimed at a Chinese audience and run by Chinese staff. Although it was relatively conservative, supporting the Qing government until about 1905, it pioneered the use of communications technology and of vernacular Chinese. This broadened its scope of sources and potential audiences. Hence, it played an important role in a number of social issues of the day, and inspired the establishment of more newspapers in a number of cities.
These newspapers initially concentrated on commercial news and small, local affairs, in order to avoid government attention or post offices’ blocking their distribution. As the Qing weakened, however, a stream of politically-oriented newspapers and periodicals gradually merged. Some of these were run by reform-minded junior officials, who often had spent time abroad or in contact with foreigners. One of these, Huang Zunxian 黄遵宪, set up a newspaper in 1896, Shiwubao 时务报, which advocated for political reform. These calls were taken up by the reformist emperor Guangxu in the abortive Hundred Days Reform of 1898. These reforms were brutally ended with a coup d’état supported by empress-dowager Cixi, who immediately dialled back most of the reforms enacted by Guangxu. Also, she rescinded the rights of officials and individuals to send memorials to the emperor, and ordered the closure of Shiwubao and other non-government newspapers through a decree which reads interestingly like CCP notices of a century later.
“With an Imperial Decree, the official newspapers and Shiwubao were suspended without exception. Recently, in places as Tianjin, Shanghai and Hankou, but newspaper offices still stand in great numbers, talk wildly and without much thought, fabricate and spread rumours, mislead and deceive the people, have no scruples, and methods must be urgently set up to prohibit them. All governors-general and governors shall earnestly ban them. The editorial writers in their offices are the scum of the literati, do not have a sense of honour or shame, and are to be strictly investigated by local offices and gravely punished, in order to end the fallacies and pacify people’s hearts.”