In a post earlier this week, we took a look at an article the latest edition of Seeking Truth (求是) journal by the president of Xinhua News Agency, Cai Mingzhao (蔡名照), which sought to unpack the “spirit” of President Xi Jinping’s speech last month to a national conference on propaganda and ideology. Cai’s article laid the official discourse on thick, emphasizing the core status of President Xi Jinping and his banner term (旗帜语), “Xi Jinping Thought of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” He also stressed the importance of what is now being called the “15-character mission,” or shiwuzi shiming renwu (15字使命任务).
All of Cai’s language boiled down to a single unmistakable message — the need to assert the absolute dominance of the Chinese Communist Party, with Xi Jinping as its core leader, in all media and propaganda work. Journalists at Xinhua, said Cai, must “maintain a high level of uniformity in terms of political positions, political orientation, political principles and political path with the Central Party with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, firmly preserving the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping within the Party’s Central Committee and within the entire Party.”
How odd it seems then that it is also Cai Mingzhao’s own Xinhua News Agency that in recent weeks has bemoaned the fact that journalists, particularly at the local level, not longer criticize Party and government officials. On August 31, in the wake of Xi Jinping’s address to the work conference on propaganda and ideology, Xinhua Daily Communication (新华每日电讯), a paper published by the news agency since 1993, ran a piece that criticized local officials in China of “having a sensitivity toward supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督敏感症). It bemoaned the fact that certain media, and particularly journalists working at the local and regional levels (as opposed to the center), have “lost their capacity to conduct supervision by public opinion.” They have, instead, “nurtured the habit,” said the paper, of “reporting only the good news, not the unpleasant news,” or baoxi bu baoyou (报喜不报忧).
How should we understand this deep inconsistency — between Cai’s genuflection and his agency’s call for a more critical, even adversarial, attitude?
In the West, the notion of “watchdog journalism,” that journalism plays an important role in holding institutions accountable, is subject to considerable discussion and debate. But whether or not one accepts this “normative vision” of journalists in pursuit of the public interest, few certainly would take seriously the notion that enforcing broad uniformity of political views around a single political figure could encourage or ensure accountability within a political system. In China, this idea is not just taken seriously; it is regular feature of discourse about the role of the press and of journalism.
The Chinese Communist Party has deep tradition of media control. Think of the way Cai’s recent statement in Qiushi about the need for “politicians to run the news agency” recalls Mao’s language about “politicians running the newspapers,” meaning that the press should be wielded as a tool of the Party. But there is also a coexisting notion that the media should, empowered by the Party, serve a supervision role as well. One of the most important phrases to encompass this idea is “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), a difficult term to come to grips with within a system that does not have a robust system of press supervision.
At times, the term “supervision by public opinion” can denote the exposure at one stratum of political power of negligence or misconduct at a lower stratum. More often than not, however, the exposure isn’t of misconduct within the Party or government at all, but of corporate or individual misconduct. Think of the way, for example, that China Central Television recently exposed — once again — possibly fraudulent doctoring of health related search results by the Chinese search engine giant Baidu.
This sort of top-down monitoring through the media has sometimes been called “swatting at flies and letting the tigers run free,” a phrase that in fact sums up quite well the fundamental problem at the heart of the Party’s notion of monitoring by a press under strict control. Party leaders are the tigers, and when “supervision by public opinion” is conducted at all, we can best imagine government officials lounging at their leisure as they swat the flies idly with their tails.
However, there have been times in the past four decades when Chinese scholars and journalists have in complete seriousness discussed “supervision by public opinion” as being in much the same vein, if not essentially the same practice, as what we call in the West “watchdog journalism.” Here’s a 2011 piece from Forbes that reviews our book on the subject, looking at a number of important stories covered in the Chinese media from the late 1990s to the early 2000s — some of the best examples still of Chinese investigative journalism in practice.
Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, in-depth and investigative reporting have become extremely difficult in China. And though the disruption of the news industry by digital platforms, and changing commercial models, may have some role in shaking up the practice of journalism, the primary cause is without a doubt the intensification of controls on reporting, and on information more broadly. Xi Jinping has redoubled the emphasis on the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party, telling media in March 2016 that they must be “surnamed Party.” He has stressed that reporting must “spread positive energy,” or zhengnengliang (正能量).
Xi Jinping has brought journalism to heel. But herein lies the problem. When journalism is well and truly restrained, when leaders at every stratum of power have emulated the General Secretary’s attitude of dominance, ensuring the media are dutifully “surnamed Party,” when every particle of the Party’s molecular structure is vibrating with “positive energy” — how can problems be exposed and addressed at the higher strata of political power?
“Supervision by public opinion” provides a crucial, if hugely imperfect, feedback loop within China’s political system. And when press control brings too much quiet, this fact can be disquieting. When propaganda is too effective, the feedback loop is broken.
This is a very real dilemma now facing the Chinese political system and the media. As the Xinhua Daily Communication piece concludes, likening problems in society to the pests infesting the trees:
“Some scholars compare the supervision conducted by the media to woodpeckers who peck the parasites out of trees. Bad news does not originate with the messenger, and the trees are not sick because the woodpeckers seek out parasites. This simple logic should be understood by those propaganda officials who are ‘oversensitive to supervision by public opinion.'”
The metaphor sounds perfectly reasonable. But there is the simple logic of the woodpecker, and then there is the simple logic of the parasite. Can the two really coexist?