Image of Xi Jinping by the Office of the President of Mexico, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

In recent weeks, the Chinese Communist Party has loudly proclaimed Xi Jinping’s “August 19 speech” on ideology. In the rush of language that has accompanied this media campaign, one phrase in particular stands out: “public opinion struggle,” or yulun douzheng (舆论斗争). The phrase is heating up, and this allows us to draw some serious conclusions about the volatility of China’s current political climate.

In fact, some media are now using the phrase “positive propaganda, public opinion struggle” (正面宣传,舆论斗争) to summarize Xi Jinping’s speech. This is a dangerous sign. And serious questions also remain about how this phrase has come to the fore.

Initially, No Mention of “Struggle”

When I searched coverage of Xi Jinping’s speech over the past month in China’s media, I discovered something strange.

Xi Jinping’s speech was first reported by the official Xinhua News Agency on the night of August 20. Readers should know that there is a rigid process of examination and authorization for reports of speeches by leaders in China. The cable report of the August 19 speech could not possibly come direct from Xinhua. The final say would be that of the Politburo member in charge of propaganda, or an even more senior leader.

Notes from state media on the “spirit” of Xi Jinping’s August 19 speech on ideology.

When I watched the initial state television news report on Xi’s speech, it seemed reasonably moderate in tone — in sharp contrast to the bloodthirsty tone that came later. For that first report, the headline was: “Xi Jinping Emphasizes at the National Propaganda Work Conference: [We Must] Grasp the General Situation and Focus on Major Events with a View of the Big Picture, Working Hard to Do Propaganda and Ideological Work Properly.” The lead to the story went: “He emphasized that propaganda and ideological work must take surrounding the core and serving the overall situation as its chief task, holding the big picture close, grasping the overall trends, focusing on major events, properly ascertaining the starting point and focus, and strategizing and acting as the circumstances demand.”

Comb through the full text of this initial report and you will find no mention whatsoever of the phrase “public opinion struggle.”

This could not have been a mere careless omission. From August 21 to September 1, the People’s Daily published eight different commentaries on the speech and its “spirit.” The process for pieces in the People’s Daily labelled as “from our commentator” (本报评论员) is formalized to a high degree, second only to the paper’s leading editorials, or shelun (社论). The “from our commentator” series can be regarded as quite authoritative (as a reflection of the leadership’s thinking, that is). But none of the eight commentaries on Xi Jinping’s speech made any mention of a “public opinion struggle.”

Moreover, on August 23 People’s Daily Online — the newspaper’s web portal site, important, but not to be read simply as an online version with the same political force — ran a special piece that purported to “read the spirit of Xi Jinping’s important August 19 speech.” The piece had 14 separate entries on the speech, under five headers, but nowhere did it mention the phrase “public opinion struggle.” This “reading” did not appear in the print edition of the People’s Daily. But even so, it would most certainly not have been put together haphazardly.

How Did the Temperature of the “Public Opinion Struggle” Rise?

Even though none of these important official interpretations of Xi Jinping’s speech made any mention of the term “public opinion struggle” over this period, there were crucial exceptions.

On August 21, the Central Political Office of the People’s Liberation Army (解放军总政治部) issued a notice on the study and interpretation of Xi’s August 19 speech. This notice said that General Secretary Xi had outlined a number of key issues, including “positive propaganda and the public opinion struggle” (People’s Liberation Army Daily, August 22, 2013). On August 23, Qin Yizhi (秦宜智), General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, raised the question of “grasping ideological channeling with one hand and the public opinion struggle with the other” when relaying the messages from Xi Jinping’s speech (China Youth Daily, August 26, 2013).

In their tone, these messages were quite at odds with coverage in the People’s Daily and on People’s Daily Online during the same period.

On August 24, the Global Times published an editorial called, “The Public Opinion Struggle: A Challenge We Cannot Avoid But Must Face Head On” (舆论斗争,不能回避只能迎接的挑战).

An August 24 commentary in the Chinese-language Global Times puts “public opinion struggle” in the headline.

This editorial implied that there were some who were avoiding the “public opinion struggle,” but after the editorial came out there was a rebuttal from Cao Lin (曹林) in the August 27 edition of China Youth Daily. Cao’s piece was headlined: “The Term ‘Public Opinion Struggle’ Makes People Uneasy” (“舆论斗争”是一个让人不安的字眼). “Using the term ‘public opinion struggle’ to characterize the current ideological conflict ushers us back into the past,” Cao wrote, referencing China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

130827曹林批舆论斗 争
A rebuttal to the Global Times editorial on the “public opinion struggle,” run by the China Youth Daily, reminds readers the term hearkens back to the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, and includes a black-and-white image from that era.

Finally, on August 30, the People’s Daily ran an article attributed to the People’s Daily editorial board” (人民日报编委会) that cited the need to “effectively channel public opinion and actively launch a public opinion struggle.” This was the first time since the newspaper’s inception in 1946 that an article was attributed in such a way. The article, presented as a study of the August 19 speech, was called: “A Scientific Guide to Consolidating and Strengthening Mainstream Ideology and Public Opinion” (巩固壮大主流思想舆论的科学指南).

This term that “makes people uneasy” had now appeared in a lengthy study of the August 19 speech in the official People’s Daily.

After that, these lengthy readings came one after the other. On September 4, the People’s Daily ran an article from Xinhua News Agency chief Li Congjun (李从军) called, “Firmly Grasping the Initiative in Public Opinion Work” (牢牢掌握舆论工作主动权). The principal viewpoint in this piece, that “[the Party must be] confidence and courageous in its positive propaganda, [carrying out] the public opinion struggle with a clear banner,” became the headline on many of the websites that re-posted it.

Li Congjun
A September 4, 2013, article in the People’s Daily by Xinhua News Agency chief Li Congjun says the Party must uphold a “clear banner” in carrying out its “public opinion struggle.”

Li Congjun’s piece also made it clear that new media were a priority battlefield in the struggle. “Newly emerging public opinion positions,” he wrote, referring to new information platforms, “have already become the chief battleground in the public opinion struggle, and their importance and status in the overall news and propaganda framework is ever more obvious.”

On September 16, Zhang Yannong (张研农), the head of the People’s Daily, contributed a piece called, “Maintaining the Unity of the Popular Spirit and Party Spirit” (坚持党性与人民性相统一), in which he emphasized in the course of discussing the issue of “Party spirit” and “popular spirit” that “not even the slightest passivity can be shown in carrying out the public opinion struggle with the hostile forces.” He even reiterated criticisms made back in the 1980s against then chief of the People’s Daily Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), a political reform proponent caught up in the campaign to “root out spiritual pollution” (清除精神污染). The article happened to be published on the one year anniversary of Hu Jiwei’s death.

People’s Daily chief Zhang Yannong writes that leaders must be firm in “carrying out the public opinion struggle with the hostile forces.”

It has been 33 years from the time the term “public opinion struggle” first appeared in the People’s Daily in 1980, up to Xi Jinping’s August 19 speech, the term appeared in a total of just 23 articles in the newspaper. Nearly all of those were in the context of discussion of an “international public opinion struggle,” or in the context of struggles against superstition (such as the Falun Gong in the 1990s). There is only one article in which the use of the term is similar to the sense in which is has been used over the past month.

Since the August 19 speech, the term “public opinion struggle” has been used four times in the print edition of the People’s Daily. In every case, the term is used to refer to an internal ideological struggle in China.

In laying out this wave of coverage of the Party’s ideological challenges, we must also mention the September 2 piece in the official Beijing Daily: “In the Struggle in the Ideological Sphere We Must Have the Courage to Show Our Swords.” Terms appearing in this piece, such as “the struggle in the ideological sphere” and “ideological struggle,” are synonymous with “public opinion struggle.” As soon as this article appeared in the Beijing Daily, the idea of “showing one’s sword” was everywhere.

130902北京日报亮剑 文
The Beijing Daily says Party leaders must have the “courage to show their swords,” or be tough and uncompromising in fighting the ideological struggle at hand.

On September 4, the People’s Liberation Army Daily published a piece called, “Capturing the Initiative in the Online Public Opinion Struggle” (夺取网络舆论斗争的主动权). On September 6, the Legal Daily reported that the Central Politics and Law Commission had raised the issue of “daring to struggle for public opinion.”

The Legal Daily reports that the language of “public opinion struggle” is being used by the Central Politics and Law Commission.

Beginning on September 10, Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily Online ran a series of remarks from 31 provincial propaganda chiefs on Xi Jinping’s August 19 speech. Of these 31 propaganda ministers, at least 16 used the phrase “public opinion struggle” or “ideological struggle.” The fiercest remarks came from Yin Hanning (尹汉宁), the propaganda minister of Hubei province. He said in the Party’s Seeking Truth journal that constitutionalism and universal values were just “beautiful lies.”

One after another, officials came out saying the Party needed to harden up, that officials shouldn’t “cherish their reputations” or seek to be “enlightened elites.” In the month after Xi Jinping’s speech, at least five chiefs of provinces and semi-autonomous regions came out and expressed support for a “public opinion struggle” either in public speeches or as they kicked off meetings. They included Zhang Chunxian (张春贤), the top Party leader in Xinjiang; Yuan Chunqing (袁纯清), the top Party leader in Shanxi province; Wang Sanyun (王三运), the top Party leader Gansu province; Luo Huining (骆惠宁), the top Party leader in Qinghai; and Wang Rulin (王儒林), the top leader in Jilin.

The propaganda minister of Hubei province makes fierce remarks on the “ideological struggle,” calling constitutionalism and universal values “beautiful lies.”

A number of department heads in the central government also came forward to make related remarks. On September 16, Xu Qiliang (许其亮), a politburo member and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, presided over a meeting of the Four Commands (四总部). The topic of the meeting was the implementation of Xi Jinping’s instructions that the goal of a strong army be “implemented at the grass roots.” But one focus of Xu Qiliang’s speech was the “need to actively seize and control the internet as the new position in the ideological struggle,” and to “strengthen the line of defense against infiltration by hostile forces.” On September 18, the People’s Liberation Army Daily published an article saying that the Party must “stand its position in the ideological struggle” just as China’s 15th and 12th corps did at Triangle Hill during the Korean War in 1952.

The High-Pressure Atmosphere Exceeds That During Both the Jiang and Hu Eras

I think the extreme high-pressure environment right now over public opinion control becomes clear when we look at the past month since Xi Jinping’s speech and see the transition from first an official avoidance of the term “public opinion struggle,” to the term fighting its way to centre stage, and finally to the Chinese military “showing its sword.” When I searched the WiseNews database for occurrences of “public opinion struggle” or “ideological struggle” or “struggle in the ideological sphere,” I found that use of these terms in the past month (56 unique articles) has nearly leveled with total use over the eight months from the end of last year’s 18th National Congress up to Xi Jinping’s August 19 speech (64 unique articles).

The Chinese Communist Party’s national ideology work conferences are not a very common occurrence. Under Jiang Zemin, such conferences were held twice, first in January 1994, then in October 1996 (the theme then being “the building of spiritual civilisation”). During Hu Jintao’s tenure in office, meetings were held in December 2003 and January 2008. You could say that national ideology work conferences are an opportunity for top leaders to declare their overall direction for public opinion work, which includes media and information policy.

I have scoured through the speeches given by Jiang and Hu during their ideology work conferences. During the Jiang era, the core slogan of public opinion work was “guidance of public opinion” (舆论导向). Jiang did say some hawkish things during his tenure, such as the need to “oppose Westernization and separatism.” But the 1994 work conference happened in the midst of Third Plenary Session of the 14th Central Committee, when the “socialist market economic system” was being established and Jiang stayed close to the reform theories of Deng Xiaoping. Jiang said that “[the Party] must arm the people with scientific theories, guide people with correct public opinion, shape people with an uplifting spirit and inspire people with excellent works.” He also said that “the masses . . . needed guidance and resolution for problems of ideological understanding that emerged as a result of interest reshuffling in the midst of reforms.” These statements couldn’t be labeled hardline, and we can see in them the fact that Jiang was checked by Deng Xiaoping’s warning to “be wary of the right, but chiefly oppose the left” (要警惕右,但主要是反左). During the Jiang era the direction of international integration was set, and if it hadn’t been for his policies at the time to develop the internet, we wouldn’t see the explosive development of Chinese internet that we have since seen.

In the Hu era, the core slogan for public opinion work was “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导). After the 16th National Congress of the CCP, in December 2003, he emphasized innovation during the national ideology work conference, saying “[We must] not only educate people, guide people, inspire people and spur people on, but must also respect people, understand them, care about them and help them.” During his first five years, the Party emphasized the policy of the “Three Closenesses,” that propaganda work needed to be “close to the truth, close to the masses and close to life.” He also worked to formulate China’s Open Government Information Ordinance (政府信息公开条例), which eventually went into effect in May 2008. In his speech at the national ideology work conference in January 2008, held after the 17th National Congress, Hu Jintao introduced the idea of “raising [the Party’s] capacity for public opinion channeling” (提高舆论引导能力) and called for the protection of peoples’ cultural interests — “respecting differences and tolerating diversity.”

On June 20, 2008, Hu Jintao introduced his first full-fledged media policy during a visit to the People’s Daily, in which he emphasized the need to “do things according to the principles of news transmission,” and to “fully build the reporting system for sudden-breaking public events, reporting authoritative information at the earliest moment possible, and enhancing transparency.” Hu also emphasized the need to “fully understand the social impact of new media, of which the internet is most representative, and to give high priority to the building, use and management of the internet.” Hu Jintao’s new media policy buzzword was “public opinion channeling,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导). It had subtle differences from the “guidance of public opinion”, or yulun daoxiang (舆论导向), touted through the Jiang era. While the clear emphasis of “guidance of public opinion” was on traditional media control — on reporting restrictions and propaganda — “public opinion channeling” focused on the need not just to control, but also to grasp discourse power (掌握话语权). It wasn’t enough to muzzle the voices of others — the Party’s voice had to be heard and accepted as well.

During Hu Jintao’s second term in office, the objective of “public opinion channeling” and information control more generally became much more difficult as social media, the representative form being Weibo, experienced rapid development.

Without a question, both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were supporters of the notion of “the Party running the media” (党管媒体), a principle that has been at the heart of the press policy of the Chinese Communist Party ever since it came to power. There were plenty of media disasters under both men — publications suspended or shut down, journalists and editors removed. But at the very least, their policies were packaged with an eye to public and international perception. They did not use the term “struggle” heedlessly. The speeches they delivered at their national ideology work conferences did not become manifestos for new anti-rightist movements.

At the outset of his term, as Xi Jinping, traveling light, retraced the steps of Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour, as he urged Party officials to cut down on the claptrap and jargon, and get down to serious business, many of us thought political reform was right around the corner. We have gotten exactly the opposite of what we hoped. The “public opinion struggle” is upon us.

In fact, to this day no one has seen the full text of Xi Jinping’s August 19 speech. If we look only at the earliest reports of the speech, it would seem to us that Xi’s language is little different from that Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. There was mention that Xi Jinping talked about a “great struggle,” and he did say apparently that “on a number of major questions of political principle, [we] must strengthen our initiative.” These words, though, cannot be directly construed as referring to a “public opinion struggle.”
But when we look at the language transmitted by the Central Political Office of the People’s Liberation Army and the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League, and when we see this in combination with the campaign against internet celebrities and civil society figures such as Xu Zhiyong and Wang Gongquan, it’s clear that the notion of the “public opinion struggle” has already become a general principle of public opinion control for the Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, the sword of the “public opinion struggle,” which once on occasion was turned against the West, against religious cults and against separatism, is now being turned also against domestic intellectuals and ordinary internet users.

Jiang Zemin = “Guidance of Public Opinion” (舆论导向)
Hu Jintao = “Channeling of Public Opinion” (舆论引导)
Xi Jinping [?] = “Public Opinion Struggle” (舆论斗争)

This tells us that the intensity of the political atmosphere under the current group of Chinese Communist Party leaders exceeds that in both the Jiang and the Hu eras. That intensity now threatens also to impact “core” economic tasks, such as the next round of economic reforms anticipated from the upcoming 3rd Plenum of the 18th Central Committee. China’s politics is now in danger of running back over the errors of the Mao era. I don’t know whether the Party’s current senior leaders recognize it or not, but when they pledge that they will fight corruption and strike out against tigers, but the first to be cut down in the “public opinion struggle” are a bunch of tiger killers, this does much to erode support in society for the anti-corruption campaign.

In a recent piece for Deutsche Welle, the scholar Chen Ziming (陈子明) drew parallels between the political situation today and the climate during China’s anti-rightist movement of the 1950s: “Some people say that the situation in China’s ideological sphere right now looks like it did back in the 1980s during the campaign to ‘root out spiritual pollution’ and the campaign to ‘oppose liberalization’. This comparison is inaccurate, I say. . . The campaigns against spiritual pollution, liberalisation and peaceful evolution were blemishes against the backdrop of the 1980s. These recent events take us back to the first 30 years [of CCP rule], splashing black ink against the backdrop of the 1950s.”
These are warning signs that we must watch very carefully.


Qian Gang

CMP Founder and Adviser

Latest Articles