Rolling Stone's China entry closes after one brash issue
By Mark Magnier
Los Angeles Times
By Mark Magnier
BEIJING — Rolling Stone has hit a wall.
The rock-and-roll publication entered the Chinese market early last month with a huge splash, including billboard advertisements, a 125,000-copy roll-out and free "Rolling Stone" hats with each copy. On Wednesday, regulators said they were shutting it down after one issue.
Authorities have been cracking down on the media, with the editor of Beijing News sacked in December and the well-regarded weekly supplement Freezing Point closed in January, subsequently reopened with a new, and presumably more cooperative, editor.
Articles in the first Chinese edition of Rolling Stone about a rock star associated with the Tiananmen protests and a blogger who wrote about her sex life pushed the limits of what is permissible. But the case appears to be more about a clash between the magazine's brash business strategy and regulators keen to show who is boss.
China often depends on a patina of legality that allows companies or individuals to get things done while ensuring that those in power don't lose face. Push things too far, however, and you risk a backlash.
"They didn't go through the proper procedure," said Chen Li, director of the newspaper and magazine department with the Shanghai Press and Publication Department, where the magazine was published. "There will be no future Rolling Stone content in this magazine. There's no such thing as 'Rolling Stone.' "
The publication's editor challenged that view, and some industry experts said it was possible the publication could agree to tone down its articles and find a way to keep publishing.
"I can tell you with absolute certainty, it's not true," said Hao Fang, chief editor of Rolling Stone China. "The second issue of our magazine should be on newsstands in April."
China is extremely sensitive about issues related to media content and the use of foreign names, befitting a government that long considered the media a lapdog rather than a watchdog. Propagandists referred to media as the "throat and tongue" of the Communist Party.
In many ways, Rolling Stone didn't do much differently from other foreign publications trying to enter the world's most populous market, essentially working within the shell of an existing Chinese publication.
Beijing has not issued licenses to foreign magazines for several years. So with the front door blocked, many foreign magazines have found a side entrance. A common practice is to find an existing local publication and strike a deal so it publishes significant amounts of foreign material, albeit after receiving government approval, then gradually strengthen its international identity over time.
Conde Nast, for instance, linked with China Pictorial last year to release Chinese Vogue. And Hearst, working through China's Trends Group, launched a Chinese Cosmopolitan in 1998 and Harper's Bazaar in 2001.
In Rolling Stone's case, the existing publication was Audio Visual World.
"Who is not bending the rules, Chinese companies or otherwise?" said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project with the University of California, Berkeley. "Everyone is doing it."
The problem, industry insiders said, was that Rolling Stone jumped into the market in a bigger, brasher way than others with the 144-page first issue, which has the look and feel of its U.S. counterpart.