There have been unrelenting signals since August that Chinese leaders plan to act more robustly to control domestic social media platforms, which have been influential on a range of stories this year — from the Guo Meimei scandal to independent local people’s congress candidates. A series of pronouncements in Party publications over the past week, thankfully summarized in one place by Bill Bishop at DigiCha, seem to mark an intensification of the anti-rumor rhetoric that kicked off following the July 23 Wenzhou train collision.

The anti-rumor push, which focusses moralistically on false and misleading information — and, yes, politically uncomfortable information — as a socially dangerous scourge to be rooted out, can be seen as part of a broader attempt to legitimize the intensification of information controls. It is no surprise, therefore, to see that state media fulmination against “rumors” is drumming home the idea of rumors as “drugs” that threaten the well-being of society.

Of course, mobilizing society to accept and legitimize information controls is an increasingly difficult proposition in a country where ordinary people are growing ever more conscious of censorship and its ills. And perhaps one of the best examples of this can be seen in the online controversy brewing this weekend over the past remarks of Hu Zhanfan (胡占凡), the former Guangming Daily editor-in-chief who was appointed last month as the new head of the state-run China Central Television.


[ABOVE: Hu Zhanfan, appointed last month as the new head of CCTV, addresses a forum in January 2011 in his capacity as editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily, a paper published by the Central Propaganda Department.]

AFP had a good run down of the story yesterday, citing how internet users had seized on a July speech given by Hu Zhanfan in which he said that “[t]he first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece.”

In fact, Hu Zhanfan made the controversial remarks back in January this year at a special forum dealing with the issue of “fake news.” The event was hosted by Guangming Daily, a newspaper published by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department.

Hu’s speech drew little attention at the time, and his appointment last month to head up CCTV received little comment. But posts on social media over the weekend likening Hu Zhanfan to the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, known in Chinese as gepei’er (戈培尔), put Hu at the center of an online firestorm.

Posts like this one juxtaposed CCTV’s official nightly newscast, Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播), and photos of Chinese crowds waving red flags with black-and-white images from Nazi-era Germany. In clear reference to the Party’s anti-rumor campaign, posts like this one offered the apocryphal Goebbels quote about repeating lies: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

In yet another Sina Weibo post, a Chinese internet user asked: “When will Goebbels-style news controls end [in China]?” The post was a response to another post by writer Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村), who has frequently spoken out against censorship in China. Murong Xuecun’s post, which referred to the recent death of toddler Xiao Yueyue in southern China (after she was callously ignored by passersby after being struck twice by vehicles), read:

Experience teaches us that people gain much more from negative news. If you’ve watched Xinwen Lianbo, [the Party’s official nightly newscast], over the past 30 years, you’ve learned nothing useful . . . But a single Xiao Yueyue incident caused many to understand the responsibilities parents have and how passersby should conduct themselves . . . “Criticism” implies moral choice. Speak the truth and the sky won’t fall — it will just wake people up.

The official anti-rumor campaign and the anti-censorship firestorm on social media (which of course are the primary target of the anti-rumor campaign) together provide an interesting snapshot of tensions over information and censorship in China.

Further, it is interesting to note that opinion within China’s media does not hold that Hu Zhanfan takes a particularly hardline stance on press controls. In fact, some journalists consider him to be a rather liberal figure, and would suggest that his conservative remarks on the role of the press in China reflect nothing more than the fact that he was the Party boss of a major Party-run newspaper.

So can we regard these inflammatory statements on social media about “China’s Goebbel” as just more rumor?

The following is a partial translation of official media coverage of Hu Zhanfan’s remarks on the role of the press last January:

Guangming Daily Holds Special Education and Training Session on ‘Avoiding Fake News’

Editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan’s talk dealt principally with five points: The first was about what is fake news; the second about the reasons for fake news; the third about the harm done by fake news; the fourth about social responsibility and professional ethics; the fifth about putting an end to falsehood and upholding responsibility and morals.

Concerning the nature of fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan said, fake news refers to reports that do not truly reflect the original appearance (本来面貌) of things, which fabricate, twist or invent news facts. These common traits go against the objective facts upon which news relies, and wantonly rely on the will of individuals, seeking or relying on will of others to manufacture “news.” He used a rich variety of examples to talk about different forms of fake news, including embellishing stories . . .

Editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan believes that in recent years fake news has shown a number of new characteristics. First, [fake news] has spread from commercialized, metro media to traditional authoritative [Party] media. Second, it has spread from entertainment and social news to economic and political news. Third, as traditional and internet-based media have had a more interactive relationship, fake news has been transmitted much more rapidly and widely. Fourth, there has been a trend from simple concocting of fake news to making idle reports, reporting gossip, exaggerating, going against common knowledge and other such issues, which have steadily spread.

Concerning the reasons for the spread of fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan said that the principle reason was the drive for [personal] benefit (利益的驱动). Specifically, the impulse for economic gain had resulted in the emergence of a commercial trend in news; for the sake of finishing their task or making a name for themselves, individual reporters though nothing of fabricating news; some media, in order to attract eyeballs (吸引眼球), directly engaged in fake news. The second reason, [Hu said], was an incorrect style of work (作风不实) that caused [journalists] to chase after wind and shadows (捕风捉影). The chief reason for the emergence of fake reports, [he said], was that front-line reporters placed insufficiently strict demands on themselves and had an incorrect style of work. Some reporters showed insufficient cultivation, had low-quality behavior, had a flippant approach to work, and this had opened the door to fake news. The third and underlying root reason for fake news was the question of the Marxist View of Journalism (马克思主义新闻观). A number of news workers have not defined their own role in terms of the propaganda work of the Party, but rather have defined themselves as journalism professionals, and this is a fundamentally erroneous role definition. Strengthening education in the Marxist View of Journalism and raising the quality and character of news teams is not just very necessary, it is a matter of extreme urgency.

Concerning the damage done by fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan pointed out that fake news and false reports (失实报道) not only damage the reputation of news journalists and the credibility of the media, but they also hamper, interfere with and destroy guidance of public opinion, damaging social order and economic order and seriously and even directly impacting social stability. For the media, winning the trust of the people is a project that will take years and years, built up through report after report. But the emergence of a single false report can extinguish everything that has been gained . . .

Concerning social responsibility and professional ethics, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan believes that the first and foremost social responsibility [of journalists] is to serve well as a mouthpiece tool (当好喉舌工具). This is the most core content of the Marxist View of Journalism, and it is the most fundamental of principles.