With China unveiling a new set of broad rules that will govern the Web and the mainstream press last week, how do Xi Jinping’s efforts at controlling the message differ from his predecessors?
Three years ago, launching a “mass line” effort to close the widening gap between the public and the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping urged officials to take stock of themselves. Leaders, he said, must“gaze into the mirror” and “straighten their outfits.” They must, in other words, seek constant self-improvement and purification.
But what if that mirror is distorted? What if it casts back your own self-image, refracting and sublimating your imperfections? What if the mirror tells you only what you wish to hear?
The People’s Daily is the best (if not the fairest) reflection we have of the Chinese Communist Party’s own self-image. We gaze into its pages to better understand how the Party, at any point in time, regards itself.
The February 20, 2016, edition of the People’s Daily — essentially a bold red birth announcement for Xi Jinping’s fully-developed media policy — tells us even more: What kind of reflection China’s leaders hope to see of themselves in the great mirror of domestic and international public opinion.
Xi Jinping’s media policy, which we might call “Control 3.0,” is a map for all-dimensional control(全方位控制) — that’s our term, not the Party’s — involving Party domination of the message as reflected in both domestic and international public opinion, across all imaginable media platforms (including advertising and entertainment).
News Friday that President Xi was paying visits to Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily and China Central Television was the first sign that announcement of a new or refined media policy was imminent. It was during a visit to People’s Daily in June 2008, more than five years into his administration, that Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, articulated his full-fledged media policy.
The front-page piece in the February 20 edition of the People’s Daily is an in-depth treatment of Xi Jinping’s “important speech” on the role of media. Further details may come over the next few weeks. But for now, we can summarise the various media policies of the past three leadership generations in the following way:
- Jiang Zemin / Control 1.0: “Guidance of public opinion,” or yulun daoxiang (舆论导向), the notion that media control (the almost exclusive focus being domestic and Chinese-language), is essential to the maintenance of social and political stability. Emphasis of Party leadership of the media under the Mao-era notion of “politicians running the newspapers,” or zhengzhijia banbao (政治家办报), and the idea that public opinion control is for the benefit of the people (福祸论).
- Hu Jintao / Control 2.0: “Channeling of public opinion,” or yulun yindao(舆论引导), the notion (more a refinement of “guidance”) that the Party should more actively direct coverage of breaking news events, and better exploit the resources of commercial media and the Internet to ensure the Party’s own agendas dominate. Increasing concern after 2007 with “soft power” development and transmitting “China’s [official] voice” overseas.
- Xi Jinping / Control 3.0: The “48-character policy” (48字方针), an all-dimensional vision of comprehensive control across media platforms and bridging the domestic/international frames, articulated through 12 four-character phrases.
If the Jiang and Hu-era policies were encapsulated in the four-character phrases “public opinion guidance” and “public opinion channeling” respectively, we might say that Xi Jinping’s policy is encapsulated in the hardline phrase “public opinion struggle,” or yulun douzheng (舆论斗争),introduced in his August 19, 2013, speech. It may be too early to make that leap. The phrase does not appear in the People’s Daily coverage of Xi Jinping’s “important speech” on Friday. However, an accompanying official editorial (社论) in the People’s Daily does mention the phrase “ideological struggle,” oryishixingtai douzheng (意识形态斗争), which is essentially equivalent.
The “48-character policy” is an important new feature of Xi Jinping’s media control regime, promoted right at the top of the front page of the People’s Daily.
I’ll come back to these 12 phrases next week, but notice that the first four phrases along the top line all deal with the centrality of the Party and the need for media to serve its larger political agenda. They are: “raising high the banner” (高举旗帜), a reference to the primacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics; “public opinion leadership” (引领导向), essentially an invocation of Jiang-era “guidance” and the need for agenda control; “revolving around the centre” (围绕中心), meaning full obedience to the leadership of the Party’s Central Committee; and “serving the overall situation” (服务大局), meaning that expedient political considerations take precedence.
Nothing in there sounds very fresh. But Xi Jinping’s language is notably tough in comparison to that of his predecessors. Here is one passage from the People’s Daily:
The Party’s news and public opinion work must adhere to the principle of the Party character, cleaving fundamentally to the Party’s leadership of news and public opinion work. Media run by the Party and government are propaganda positions of the Party and the government, and they must reflect the Party (必须姓党) [lit., “be surnamed Party”]. All work of the Party’s news and public opinion media must reflect (体现) the will of the Party, mirror (反映) the views of the Party, preserve the authority of the Party, preserve the unity of the Party, and achieve love of the Party, protection of the Party and acting for the Party(爱党、护党、为党); they must all increase their consciousness of falling in line, maintaining a high level of uniformity (高度一致) with the Party in ideology, politics and action.
The talk of “maintaining a high level of uniformity” is unique in this context, and the passage about “love of the Party, protection of the Party and acting for the Party” is a Xi Jinping neologism we might expect to see entering dominant discourse. Both speak to a heightened sense of urgency about the need for media in all of its aspects to fall in line with the leadership.
Along with the “48-character policy,” the following passage from the People’s Daily can be regarded — for all its verbosity — as a refined statement of the Xi Jinping media control agenda:
He emphasised that the Party’s news and public opinion work is an important task for the Party, that it is a major matter concerning the management of national affairs and [the maintenance of] national peace and stability; [The Party and the media] must grasp their position [and role] with the overall work of the Party as the point of departure, and accommodating situational developments domestically and internationally; [They must] adhere to the leadership of the Party, adhere to correct political orientation, adhere to a work guidance of people at the core, respect the principles of news and communication, innovate their methods, and effectively improve the propagation force (传播力), guiding capacity (引导力), influence (影响力) and credibility (公信力) of the Party’s news and public opinion.
The all-dimensional nature of these controls becomes clearer further down in the People’s Daily treatment of Xi Jinping’s speech. The language is a noticeable departure from Hu Jintao’s focus on “channeling,” which prioritised agenda control in the event of major breaking news stories:
Xi Jinping pointed out that correct guidance of public opinion must be adhered to in all of the various aspects of news and public opinion work. Party newspapers and journals, and radio and television stations at all levels must abide by [correct] guidance; commercial tabloid newspapers and magazines (都市类报刊) and new media must abide by [correct] guidance; news reports must abide by [correct] guidance; publication supplements, special programs, advertising and publicity must abide by [correct] guidance; current affairs news must abide by [correct] guidance; entertainment and social news must also abide by [correct] guidance; domestic news reports must abide by [correct] guidance, and international news reports must also abide by [correct] guidance.
If Hu Jintao’s Control 2.0 approach was strategic and selective, Xi Jinping’s Control 3.0 approach is no-holds-barred. To the extent that President Xi addresses the need to “innovate” — for example, to “promote integrated development” — he is talking about the need for tightly controlled media to find new ways of aligning the Party’s demands and public demand. This strategic objective extends internationally, with a vision of “flagship external propaganda media.”
Any sense we might have glimpsed in the Jiang and Hu eras of the need for “media reform” — in the loosest sense of improving the way media report and operate commercially and professionally — is now completely gone. Even innovation must revolve around the central priority of advancing the Party’s agenda.
And what about “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), that mantle of officially recognised press scrutiny (sometimes translated “watchdog journalism”) that Party officials since Premier Zhao Ziyang have regarded as a necessary form of power monitoring?
“Supervision by public opinion” is the closest one can come in the Party’s mainstream press discourse to the idea that an honest, self-critical gaze has value. But Xi Jinping now distorts “supervision” with what has long been its polar opposite. “Supervision by public opinion and positive propaganda are unified,” says the summary in the People’s Daily.
Given the robustness of Xi Jinping’s efforts to remake public opinion in the Party’s image, the question of self-reflection and self-recognition takes on new urgency.
Will China, now on the brink of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, have the capacity to see itself clearly? Will it remember what the country became when a single vain revolutionary was able to gaze into the pages of the People’s Daily, the Liberation Army Daily and Red Flag — the notorious “two papers and one journal” — and see a hallucination of himself gazing back?
This article, first published by the China Media Project on Medium, is republished here with the permission of the author. It was originally published under the headline ‘Mirror, Mirror on The Wall’.
Featured image credit: James Yeo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0