The top news today at the People’s Daily is the announcement that China will host its second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, or BRFIC, in Beijing from April 25 to April 27. That of course is less than a week away, and the big propaganda push today fits China general penchant for springing ostensibly major international events on the world before it — meaning both China and the rest of the world — has any opportunity to prepare. Think of the mystery, for example, that always surrounds the so-called World Internet Conference, otherwise known as the Wuzhen Summit.
Why does China do this? And what does it tell us?
I think the clearest message it sends is that China is ultimately interested only in the optics, in creating big events through which it can advance its own vision and agenda. It has no interest whatsoever in making these events about real international cooperation, in the sense that participants can come prepared to discuss real and perhaps competing agendas. The invitations are only ever to China’s great big stage.
For those interested in the upcoming event and its implications as understood from China’s official state perspective, today’s commentary from Guo Jiping (国纪平), the designated byline for important CCP commentaries on international issues, is a must-read.
One of my favorite lines in the piece is borrowed from a March 18, 2019, report in the New York Times by Jason Horowitz, “A Forgotten Italian Port Could Become a Chinese Gateway to Europe.” Horowitz wrote: “Now, courtesy of a rising China, Trieste appears ready to return to the center of a realigning world.” In today’s People’s Daily commentary, the indefinite “appears” of the Horowitz piece becomes a prophecy fulfilled. The commentary follows with: “Today, stories like that of Trieste are being replayed again and again along the ‘Belt and Road.'”
But turning away from the top news, today is also a major anniversary — or so we are told by the Chinese Communist Party. It was three years ago today that Xi Jinping opened the first Cyberspace Work Conference, an event bringing together key national and regional officials from the various branches of the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), and gave his “important speech” on the governance of cyberspace, and the need to protect cybersecurity. That speech offered a broad and expansive vision of what that security means, and essentially mapped the Party’s overarching media control priorities — on the older post-1989 notion of the need to maintain “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确舆论导向) — on the massive new universe of cyberspace.
Visiting the People’s Daily on September 26, 1996, President Jiang Zemin (江泽民), who introduced the concept of “guidance of public opinion,” or yulun daoxiang (舆论导向), in the wake of the violent crackdown on student protests on June 4, 1989, elaborated the concept in terms of the benefit to the regime and to the people: “Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party and the people,” said Jiang. “Incorrect guidance of public opinion means calamity for the Party and the people.”
In Xi Jinping’s era of cyberspace-driven media control — which is far more encompassing, to the point of involving every citizen in the act of “correct guidance” — Jiang Zemin’s so-called “theory of weal and woe” (福祸论) has been re-patterned after the language of another ostensible policy priority: environmental protection.
We can find the new formulation in a series of commentaries in the People’s Daily published to commemorate the anniversary of Xi Jinping’s inaugural speech on cybersecurity. A commentary yesterday, “Actively Leading Public Opinion for a Clean and Bright Online Space,” offers the following pairing, unmistakable to those who follow the official discourse of information control.
A clean and bright online space, with a favorable environment, is in keeping with the interests of the people; a foul atmosphere in the online space, with a foul environment, is not in keeping with the interests of the people.
Asked whether they want to live in a polluted environment, surrounding by hazardous materials that poison their children, any citizen would say No. But when it comes to information, of course, this is a false choice. The very real poisons to which your child might be exposed, for example, cannot be reported on or discussed on social media, because this goes against the mandate for “correct guidance” and another now-favorite buzzword, “positive energy.”
Another trend I’ve addressed previously, and that we can see again in this series commemorating the anniversary of the “4.19” speech, is greater openness about the project of information control. Censorship, justified as an environmental clean-up, is not such a dirty business itself as it once was, something the Party is ashamed to talk about. Many of the operational details of information control are naturally still secret, and the Party is not ready to have an open discussion about censorship. But it is far more prepared to announce to the public, with a sense of urgency and pride, everything it is doing to protect them from the perils of unwanted speech.
A translation of yesterday’s commentary follows.
Actively Leading Public Opinion for a Clean and Bright Online Space:
Commentary 2 in Series on the Third Anniversary of the “4·19” Speech
April 18, 2019
Ye Xiao (叶筱)
In recent days, the Beijing office of the Cyberspace Administration of China has targeted websites that have posted illegal information and not done their full duty in carrying out censorship (审查义务), and which have continued to exhibit such serious problems as the dissemination of incorrectly guided [content], vulgar or pornographic [content], fake and untrue [content] and other harmful information. [The office] has called in people in positions of responsibility at these companies, has taken PC desktop apps and mobile apps off the market pending rectification. The CAC office in Tianjin has brought in the Visual China Group (视觉中国) for discussions, ordering it to stop illegal conduct on its site and demanding that it strengthen content reviews and management, and the training of staff, undergoing a complete rectification . . .
It can be said that a series of targeting cleansing campaigns on the internet are striking out, creating a fresh and clean online space for the masses of internet users.
In fact, these are just a microcosm of the governance [control] of the online space in recent years. On April 19, 2016, General Secretary Xi Jinping led the opening of the Cybersecurity Work Conference (网络安全和信息化工作座谈会) and emphasized that “[we] must build a favorable climate online, using the internet to play a role in channeling public opinion and reflecting the public will.” Over the past three years, our country has opened up a new phase in the development and control of the internet, from enhancing the governance of the online space to building a favorable online climate, from conscientiously defending cybersecurity to accelerating progress in introducing laws on the internet.
The online space is the spiritual homeland of the 100s of millions of masses. A clean and bright online space, with a favorable environment, is in keeping with the interests of the people; a foul atmosphere in the online space, with a foul environment, is not in keeping with the interests of the people.
We have seen repeated cases recently of the use of the internet to swindle, to spread pornographic materials, too carry out personal attacks, and to sell illegal products; or using the internet to promote the overthrow of the state regime, to stir up religious extremism, or to proclaim ideologies of ethnic separatism, to instigate violent acts of terrorism. Such language is not only not to the benefit of individuals, but also harms the progress of the work of the Party and the government, and it must be resolutely stopped, controlled and attacked, and firmly not be allowed to spread.
No one wishes to live in a space full of falsehood, deception, attack, derision, terror, pornography and violence. This means that in our cyberspace work we must actively direct public opinion, creating a clear and bright online space. . . .
Actively leading public opinion, and purifying the online climate, means strengthening the supervisory role (监管职责) of administrative departments of the government, and also means consolidating the responsibilities of internet business [in maintaining control]. Internet businesses are sensitive to the marketplace, sensitive to demand and innovation, and have a keen desire to innovate - but they must be correct in their value orientations, upholding their social responsibility. As General Secretary Xi Jinping has pointed out: “Those operating websites cannot simply pursue click rates, those opening online stores must be on the guard against cheap counterfeits, those operating social media platforms cannot become instruments of rumor spreading, and those doing search [business] cannot only set their results by how much people are willing to pay.” Upholding economic benefit and social benefit must go hand-in-hand, and only then can we ensure that the internet better enriches the country and the people.
Of course we must also see that the myriad changes and constantly emerging new circumstances of the internet age raise new challenges for the work of the cyberspace administration. We encourage mutual effort and participation from all sides in singing the main theme [of the CCP], and in transmitting positive energy (传递正能量). We are confident that we have the ability to protect and maintain a healthy and advanced online climate, and to create a clear and bright online space.