When Xi Jinping delivers his speech this week to commemorate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, his theme will be history. Not as a factual question for thoughtful and critical exploration, mind you, but as the incontestable foundation of the Party’s rule, bereft of uncertainties and ambiguities. For their part, the Chinese media will remain compliant. The cost of dissent is too high at such moments of historical gravity. But how, if we look back on history, returning to the facts, did the Party’s early leaders understand the role of the press and its relationship to the public?
On January 11, 1946, an essay by Lu Dingyi (陆定一) was published in the Xinhua Daily (新华日报), a newspaper that had been launched exactly eight years earlier by Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and other Party leaders. In the essay, Lu Dingyi sharply criticizes authoritarian means of controlling the press, and argues for the fundamental importance of journalists seeking “real information” that “the people need to know.”
Lu, a leader who had taken part in the Long March and was a member of the Party’s Propaganda Department from 1934 onward, was a key figure within the Party’s intellectual culture at the time. In 1942, he had become editor-in-chief of the Liberation Daily, the CCP paper launched the previous year in Yan’an. In 1943, he wrote a long essay called “Our Basic Views on Journalism” (我们对于新闻学的基本观点), in which he highlighted what he viewed as the problems with “bourgeois journalism” and answered the fundamental question of “how news can be true.” It was in this work that Lu Dingyi emphasized facts as the basis of journalism along the lines of dialectical materialism. “The origin of the news is the material itself, the facts – and these are the facts that occur in the struggle between humankind and the natural world, and in the midst of social struggle,” he wrote. “Therefore, the news can be defined as the reporting of facts as they have newly occurred.”
Lu’s argument in his January 1946 essay in the Xinhua Daily, the first CCP newspaper to be distributed openly nationwide in China during the Republican Era (up until its closure by the Kuomintang government on February 28, 1927), can be seen as part of a deeper tradition supporting the idea of the “people nature,” or renminxing (人民性) of the media, as opposed to the “Party nature,” or dangxing (党性), which holds that the media fundamentally serve the CCP. This debate has emerged at various points in the Party’s history, in fact, such as in the 1980s, when the question was bitterly argued by Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), the liberal People’s Daily editor who supported greater press independence, and Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), the hardliner who insisted that “Party nature” was supreme, and that “people nature” arose from it.
More recently, Xi Jinping’s February 2016 speech on the media, in which he emphasized that media must be “surnamed Party” (姓党), was an unambiguous affirmation of the Hu Qiaomu line of thought, and contemporary CCP theorists since have stressed the “unity of the Party nature and the people nature.”
Lu Dingyi’s 1946 essay is certainly food for thought at a time when the intellectual content of the CCP’s history is itself subject to strict controls – and when red slogans drown out all nuance. At one point, Lu colorfully refers to the newspaper under authoritarian control, which spreads lies and disinformation, to “a steel blade that kills bloodlessly.” Our translation follows:
A journalist from Xin Min Po (新民报) asked me: “Some people think that Chinese journalists aren’t as good a British and American journalists. What is your opinion?” I responded by saying: “I don’t think so. Chinese journalists are no less capable than the journalists of other countries. Journalists from Britain and America certainly have their strengths. But for Chinese journalists to be able, under such immense pressures, to expose real information to the people that they need to know – that kind of experience, that kind of ability, is far beyond the reach of British and American journalists. If a tree, let’s say, grows on a flat stretch of land, it may grow to be very tall and very straight. That’s easy. But if it grows in rocky and twisted terrain, even if it becomes stunted, this is no small feat.” When I talk about Chinese journalists here I’m talking mostly about those who are working in the vast backcountry.
Why have modern newspapers emerged in the world? This is because the masses demand to know real information (真实的信息). Modern newspapers are the product of capitalist societies, and perhaps they emerged at the same time as democratic ideas. Authoritarians do not want the people to be intelligent or to understand things. They only want them to be foolish as wild beasts. And so they really don’t like modern newspapers. New authoritarians, or fascists, are more advanced even than their forebears. Goebbels’ principle is to take all newspapers, magazines, radio, television and everything, and rule it all together, so that disinformation is complete, and everything the people see with their eyes or hear with their ears is fascist disinformation, with no exceptions. In Goebbel’s hands, newspapers undergo a change contrary to their original intention, as lies take the place of real information. When people read such newspapers, not only can they not become intelligent, but moreover, quite the contrary, they become more and more confused. Look at Germany. Were there not many tens of thousands willing to become cannon fodder for Hitler?
So, there are two kinds of newspapers. One kind is the newspaper for the masses, which tells the people real information, inspiring the idea of people’s democracy, and urging the people to intelligence. Another kind of newspaper is the newspaper of the new authoritarian, which tells the people lies, closes off the people’s thoughts, and causes the people to become foolish. The first kind is good for a society and a people, and without it what we call civilization is truly unimaginable. The second kind is the opposite. It is poisonous to society, to humanity, and to the people of a nation. It is a steel blade that kills bloodlessly.
And so also, there are two kinds of journalists. The first kind of journalist serves the people, and tells the masses information the masses must know. He lifts up the opinions of the masses as public opinion. Another kind of journalist serves the authoritarian, and his task is disinformation, disinformation and more disinformation.
There are certain people in China who combine both the new and old styles of authoritarianism. On the one hand they use newspapers to sow disinformation, and on the other they prohibit other types of newspaper that expose real information. They fear the real journalist, because they have secrets they cannot tell people. So they prefer to do things in an underhanded way, so that people do not to take notice. If someone knows what they have done, and openly reports it, or takes what they did and honestly ‘exposes’ it, then they become furious. They will use any means necessary [to put a stop to it]. They put foreign journalists on blacklists, and they use visible and invisible means to threaten Chinese journalists, telling them, ‘Be careful! Be careful!’ . . . .
The journalist should be careful. But this carefulness should not be used to serve the authoritarian, but rather to serve the people, to become a servant of the people. The people are the most honored masters of the journalist. If [a journalist] serves this honored master, then of course there is need for caution. But this “caution” is not about whether one is permitted to publish real information, but quite the contrary, it is about doing everything possible to ensure that information is completely true – so that speech can truly represent the views of the people. In the midst of the Anti-Japanese War, who were the people? They were the workers, the peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, the liberal bourgeoisie, the enlightened gentry, and all those who love our country. They are the true masters of our nation. Authoritarians oppress the people, plunder the people, and make it such that the people have no path to salvation.