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.
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.”
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.
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.
LEADERS AND THEIR MEDIA POLICIES
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.