When the news broke last Sunday that China planned to introduce changes to its Constitution removing term limits for the president and vice-president — paving the way for Xi Jinping to remain in the position beyond 2023 — observers outside China puzzled over the fact that this news seemed to break first through an English-language report from the official Xinhua News Agency.
Media in Hong Kong are now reporting that the English-language news brief from Xinhua was the cause of some consternation in Beijing, where unspecified central Party leader have ordered an investigation into what has been called a "serious political error" (严重政治失误). It is reported that the editor responsible has been removed, and that top leaders at Xinhua have been asked to submit self criticisms (检讨).
Shanghai-based former investigative reporter Yang Haipeng (杨海鹏), a former CMP fellow, was one of the first to report word on February 26 that the Xinhua news brief had been identified as a problem. Here is Yang's post on Twitter:
各种撤职，社领导检讨。— 杨海鹏 (@1oVkSudMpws1PGQ) February 27, 2018
TRANSLATION: That English-language report that went around yesterday from Xinhua News Agency is now being handled, the word going around that it has been labeled a "serious error, political error." The result: various removals, self criticisms from agency leaders.
The news brief in question, "CPC Proposes Change on Chinese President's Term in Constitution," is still available online.
Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported that it had confirmed the disciplinary action with a source who wished to remain anonymous. The source told the newspaper that they believed there was nothing seriously wrong with the English-language report — an assessment possibly corroborated by the fact that the report remains accessible online — but that it might have fallen afoul of certain influential Party officials who were angered by the immediate wave of negative commentary overseas in the wake of the announcement.
Reached by the newspaper, an employee at Xinhua News Agency's External News Office would only say: "This . . . . This kind of thing. There is no way we can confirm it for you."
Generally, the External News Office (对外部) at Xinhua enjoys a level of discretion in the dissemination of English-language releases. These generally begin as Chinese-language official release copy that is first approved (both content and images) by the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party. The copy is then translated into foreign language copy for release by the External News Office.
Zhang Lifan (章立凡), an independent scholar and historian based in Beijing, told the Apple Daily that it was possible the English-language news brief had angered Party leaders because it focused only on the removal of presidential term limits, and avoided mention of other proposed changes to the Constitution. This might have been blamed for the immediate focus internationally on this aspect of the news, putting propaganda authorities on their back foot in terms of framing the story.