When does a corporate apology become a political self-confession, or jiantao (检讨), an act of submission not to social mores and concerns, but to those in power? The line can certainly blur in China. But the public apology today from Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of one of China’s leading tech-based news and information platforms, crosses deep into the territory of political abjection.

Zhang’s apology, posted to WeChat at around 4 AM Beijing time, addressed recent criticism aired through the state-run China Central Television and other official media of Jinri Toutiao, or “Toutiao” — a platform for content creation and aggregation that makes use of algorithms to customize user experience. Critical official coverage of alleged content violations on the platform was followed by a notice on April 4 from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), in which the agency said Toutiao and another service providing live-streaming, Kuaishou, would be subject to “rectification measures.”

Read through Zhang’s apology and it is quickly apparent that this is a mea culpa made under extreme political pressure, in which Zhang, an engineer by background, ticks the necessary ideological boxes to signal his intention to fall into line.

At one point, Zhang confesses that the “deep-level causes” of the problems at Toutiao included “a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses”. This is a unique Xi Jinping buzzword, introduced in January 2016, that refers to 1) “political consciousness” (政治意识), namely primary consideration of political priorities when addressing issues, 2) consciousness of the overall situation (大局意识), or of the overarching priorities of the Party and government, 3) “core consciousness” (核心意识), meaning to follow and protect Xi Jinping as the leadership “core,” and 4) “integrity consciousness” (看齐意识), referring to the need to fall in line with the Party. Next, Zhang mentions the service’s failure to respect “socialist core values,” and its “deviation from public opinion guidance” — this latter term being a Party buzzword (dating back to the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests) synonymous with information and press controls as a means of maintaining Party dominance.

Zhang also explicitly references Xi Jinping’s notion of the “New Era,” and writes: “All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.”

In the list of the company’s remedies, there is even a mention of the need to promote more content from “authoritative media,” a codeword for Party-controlled media, which suggests once again that the leadership has been unhappy with the idea of algorithms that wall users off from official messaging if they show no interest in such content.

We include a translation of Zhang’s apology letter below, excepting (only for the sake of time) the final section on management of online communities. We have left the Chinese alongside the English, believing this letter offers an essential view of the deep tension in China right now between technological innovation and economic reform on the one hand, and the urgency of political controls on the other. Here we have a technologist celebrating innovation and apologizing at the same time for its political crimes — in a way quite redolent, in the sense that this is a jiantao made before the leadership, of the pre-reform era.

Apology and reflection

今日头条的朋友们:

Dear friends of Jinri Toutiao:

我真诚地向监管部门致歉,向用户及同事们道歉。 从昨天下午接到监管部门的通知到现在,我一直处在自责和内疚之中,一夜未眠。

I earnestly apologise to regulatory authorities, and to our users and colleagues. Since receiving the notice yesterday from regulatory authorities, I have been filled with remorse and guilt, entirely unable to sleep.

今日头条将永久关停“内涵段子”客户端软件及公众号。产品走错了路,出现了与社会主义核心价值观不符的内容,没有贯彻好舆论导向,接受处罚,所有责任在我。

Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its “Neihan Duanzi” app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].

自责是因为辜负了主管部门一直以来的指导和期待。过去几年间,主管部门给了我们很多的指导和帮助,但我内心没有真正理解和认识到位,也没有整改到位,造成今天对用户不负责任的结果。

I am responsible because I failed to live up to the guidance and expectations supervisory organs have demanded all along. Over the past few years, the regulatory authorities have provided us with much guidance and assistance, but in our hearts we failed to properly understand and recognise [their demands]. Nor did we properly rectify the situation, which led to the present failure to be responsible to our users.

自责也是因为辜负了用户的支持和信任。我们片面注重增长和规模,却没有及时强化质量和责任,忽视了引导用户获取正能量信息的责任。对承担企业社会责任,弘扬正能量,把握正确的舆论导向认识不够,思想上缺乏重视。

I am responsible also because I failed to live up to the trust and support placed in me by our users. We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.

同时,我也辜负了投入无限热情和心血打造了这款产品的同事。产品出现这么大的问题,停止服务,我有领导责任。

At the same time, I failed my colleagues who invested such boundless enthusiasm and hard work to create this product. For such major problems to emerge with the product, and for service to halt, I bear leadership responsibility.

3月29日央视报道我们的广告问题后,我不断反思自己以前的想法,反思公司现在的做法,开始大力推进公司员工提高意识、改进管理、完善流程。

On March 29, after China Central Television reported problems with our advertisements, I engaged in steady reflection over my previous ways of thinking, reflected upon the company’s current methods, and began an energetic campaign among our staff to raise their consciousness, improve management and streamline processes.

我是工程师出身,创业的初心是希望做一款产品,方便全世界用户互动和交流。过去几年间,我们把更多的精力和资源,放在了企业的增长上,却没有采取足够措施,来补上我们在平台监管、企业社会责任上欠下的功课,比如对低俗、暴力、有害内容、虚假广告的有效治理。

My background is engineering, and my originating idea in starting this business was to create a product that would facilitate interaction and exchange among users worldwide. Over the past few years we have invested more energy and resources in the growth of the company, but we did not take the proper measures to improve supervision of the platform, and we did not adequately do our homework in terms of effectively controlling such things as low-row, violent and harmful content, and fake advertising.

我们作为一家十八大后快速发展起来的创业公司,深知公司的快速发展,是伟大时代给的机会。我感恩这个时代,感恩改革开放历史机遇,感恩国家对于科技产业发展的扶持。

As a start-up company developing rapidly in the wake of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, we profoundly understand that our rapid development was an opportunity afforded us by this great era. I thank this era. I thank the historic opportunity of economic reform and opening; and I thank the support the government has given for the development of the technology industry.

我深刻反思,公司目前存在问题的深层次原因是:“四个意识”淡薄、社会主义核心价值观教育缺失、舆论导向存在偏差。一直以来,我们过分强调技术的作用,却没有意识到,技术必须要用社会主义核心价值观来引导,传播正能量,符合时代要求,尊重公序良俗。

I profoundly reflect on the fact that a deep-level cause of the recent problems in my company is: a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses” [of Xi Jinping]; deficiencies in education on the socialist core values; and deviation from public opinion guidance. All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.

我们必须重新梳理我们的愿景。我们说,要做全球的创作与交流平台。这就要求我们必须保证所“创作”与“交流”的内容是积极向上的、健康有益的,能够给时代、给人民带来正能量。

We must make a renewed effort to sort out our vision of the future. We say, we want to make global platform for creation and conversation. This demands that we must ensure that the content of “creation” and “conversation” are positive, healthy and beneficial, that they can offer positive energy to the era, and to the people.

我们必须重新阐释并切实践行我们的社会责任:正直向善,科技创新,创造价值,担当责任,合作共赢。我深刻地认识到,企业的发展必须紧扣时代和国家发展主旋律。

We must renew our understanding and enactment of our social responsibility; upright and good, innovative technology, value creation, taking responsibility, cooperation and mutual benefit. I profoundly recognise that the company’s development must stick closely to the era and to the main theme of national development.

今天,监管部门、公众和媒体指出了公司存在的问题,是对我们的善意提醒和有力鞭策。我跟我的同事们将立即着手改变,改变自己的思想,改变我们的做法。

Today, supervisory organs, the public and the media have pointed out problems in our company, and this is well-intentioned reminder and an encouragement to us. I and my colleagues will work immediately to bring about change — changing our own thoughts, and changing our methods.

一、将正确的价值观融入技术和产品

Introducing correct values into technology and products
1、加强党建工作,对全体员工进行“四个意识”、社会主义核心价值观、舆论导向、法律法规等教育,真正履行好企业的社会责任。

1.1 Strengthening the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the “four consciousnesses,” socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.

2、强化各业务线履行社会责任的制度化机制化,将其列入业务考核范围。

1.2 Strengthening implementation of systems and mechanisms for social responsibility in various business activities, bringing them into the scope of business assessment.

3、进一步深化与权威媒体合作,提高权威媒体内容的分发,保证权威声音有力传播。

1.3 Further deepening cooperation with authoritative [official Party] media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, ensuring that authoritative [official Party] media voices are broadcast to strength.

4、强化总编辑责任制,全面纠正算法和机器审核的缺陷,不断强化人工运营和审核,将现有6000人的运营审核队伍,扩大到10000人。

1.4 Strengthening the editor-in-chief responsibility system, comprehensively correcting deficiencies in algorithmic and machine review [of content], steadily strengthening human operations and review, raising the current number of operational review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons [carrying out content review].

[Translation omitted here for section on management of online communities]

Finally, I again express my apologies to supervisory organs, and to the friends who care about us.

我们理应做得更好。我们一定会做得更好。

We ought to do better. We will definitely do better.

我们真诚地期待社会各界帮助和监督我们的整改。我们绝不辜负大家的期望。

We earnestly await help from various parts of society in supervising our rectification. We will not disappoint everyones’ hopes.

今日头条创始人、CEO张一鸣

Jinri Toutiao founder and CEO Zhang Yiming.

2018年4月11日

April 11, 2018