In recent weeks and months, grumbling from Chinese diplomats and state media about how Western media report prejudicially on China has been nearly constant. In many cases, these criticisms have not just addressed particular cases of reporting but have sought to broadly undermine the credibility of the Western practice and experience of journalism – depicting it as hypocritical, corrupted by capital, and doing the bidding of foreign governments bent on “interference” and containment.
One particular aspect of China’s continued attack on Western journalism that might puzzle outside observers is the insistence at the highest-levels of the Party-state press apparatus that the CCP upholds the principles of “objectivity, impartiality, truth and accuracy” – as a commentary in the People’s Daily argued back in February in the midst of the storm over Ofcom’s decision to withdraw the UK broadcast license for CGTN.
At a press conference this week, MOFA spokesperson Hua Chunying too threw the old ideal of “objectivity” back in the face of the Western press, saying, as she accused the Wall Street Journal of ‘smearing the safety and effectiveness of Chinese vaccines,” that she hoped “media organizations can follow the principles of authenticity, objectivity and justice, [and] report on the epidemic and vaccines in an impartial and fact-based manner.”
China’s talk of objectivity seems like rank hypocrisy until you have a better grasp of what officials and official media actually mean by this word. So what does it mean, in the CCP political context, to be “objective”?
In his excellent review of the writings of Eileen Chang, Perry Link one wrote that everything in Communist China worked “under blankets of jargon.” In this world, in which the control of language remained central to political rule, people were immersed and educated in the vocabulary of pretense. “There are certain things you are supposed to say and certain ways you are supposed to say them,” Link wrote. “‘Tell the truth!’ is a command that you recite your lies correctly.”
Link’s observations, and the insights to be gleaned from Chang’s prose, remain as relevant today as they were six years ago or sixty. In Xi Jinping’s “new era,” as in Mao’s day, the truth is determined by the Party. The most fundamental truth, moreover, is the centrality of the Party itself, which is why the project of “telling China’s story well” is formally tied, clear as day in the official discourse, to the Party and its narrative of competence and legitimacy.
If the truth is defined as the story of the Party’s competence, then the failure to tell that story – to “inject more positive energy,” as Hua said this week – is to lack objectivity. But we can understand this logic also by peeling away those “blankets of jargon.”
In 2019, an article in the Guangming Daily newspaper, published by the Central Propaganda Department, laid out the key points on information control as reflected in a decision from the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP, which spoke of “improving the system of public opinion channelling for correct guidance” (完善坚持正确导向的舆论引导工作机制). This phrase contains two key terms in the press control lexicon, “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确舆论导向) and “public opinion channelling” (舆论引导), both essentially pointing to the need for the CCP to control the process of agenda-setting and maintain regime stability through the management of news and information, with Party-state media playing a core role in guiding the agenda on breaking stories and hot-button issues.
In a section on “emphasizing positive news” (坚持正面宣传为主), another press control principle emerging in the aftermath of the June 4th crackdown in 1989, and which Xi Jinping stressed as a lynchpin of news and propaganda policy in both 2013 and 2016, the Guangming Daily article wrote:
The emphasis on positive propaganda means objectively reflecting the mainstream and essence of contemporary Chinese society, as well as the need to stimulate the powerful force of the entire Party and entire society to unite and advance, overcoming the various difficulties and challenges we face. Adhering to positive propaganda demands that we focus on the Chinese path, on Chinese theory, on the Chinese system, the Chinese spirit, on Chinese strengths, and that we properly explain and propagate Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era . . .
Here we can see clearly how Party-state propaganda, emphasizing positives, is regarded by the CCP as an “objective reflection” of Chinese society. The notion here of the “mainstream” also refers back to the Party’s dominance of the agenda.
Creating social cohesion and political legitimacy through the manufacture of “mainstream” views of the positivity of the path and the system is the point of journalism for the Party.