Last month, a blog article declaring China to be in the midst of a “profound revolution” fueled speculation online after it was republished by several Party-state media outlets. In the comparatively moderate intellectual climate of the 1990s or early 2000s, such a leftist screed, with its talk of a “red return,” would have been beneath the notice of the majority of news media and readers in China, suited only to fringe online forums like Utopia (乌有之乡). But the high-profile official treatment of the post, written by a virtually unknown blogger named Li Guangman (李光满), seemed to signal a more profound leftward slide in China’s politics at the top.
In a post to his WeChat public account on October 9, Li Guangman doubled-down on his September thesis, citing two recent media-related cases to support his conviction that a “profound transformation” is underway in China, with deep implications for politics, business, culture and the media.
The first of these cases was the release by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top macroeconomic management agency, of new draft rules unambiguously prohibiting the involvement of all “non-public capital” (非公有资本) – meaning private capital of any kind, domestic or foreign – in news gathering, production and dissemination. While restrictions on news content and its production are of course not news in China, these new rules are so salient and broad in their prohibitions that they seem to remove all strategic ambiguity.
The second media case cited by Li Guangman was the detention on October 7 in Hainan of well-known entrepreneur and former professional journalist Luo Changping (罗昌平), who was charged with insulting and defaming the martyrs of Chinese history by criticizing a new film about China’s involvement in the Korean War. Luo’s detention, widely reported by state-run media, underscores the resolve of the Chinese Communist Party leadership in policing the bounds of the CCP’s official narratives, the stories and mythologies that undergird its power and legitimacy.
In his October 9 post, Li Guangman in fact reviewed four major events he claimed had “symbolic significance” (标志性意义). In addition to the new NDRC rule and Luo Changping’s detention, these included the recent antitrust fine against the shopping platform Meituan, the second major penalty so far this year against a Chinese internet firm, and the withdrawal of plans for a 1.6 billion dollar listing by Lenovo Group on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
Li Guangman begins his post by repeating the line for which he has become so well known: “We are right now going through a profound transformation!” This ecstatic declaration is followed immediately by his rundown of the NDRC draft rules on media investment. After reviewing the language of the NDRC release, he summarizes:
We can note first of all that non-public capital here should include all domestic and foreign non-public capital. Second, news collection, editing, broadcasting and distribution businesses here cover all aspects of the news, including print news media, television news media, and internet platform news media, including traditional news media and new media. In summation, the entire news sector will be closed to non-public capital, and only public capital will be permitted to participate in related operations, without exceptions. I would also like to emphasize that there are no exceptions in the formulation here — the entire news sector is to be brought under the operation of public capital.
Li’s reading of the letter of the NDRC draft rules is certainly not wrong. The release tells us clearly that the rules “raise prohibitions on the illegal (违规) development of business related to the news media.” And the language is actually quite expansive in defining the relevant areas of media activity – the clear point being that “non-public capital may not invest in the establishment and operation” (非公有资本不得投资设立和经营) of such entities. This includes traditional and new media, so that the rules would seem to prohibit outright, for example, a Tencent investment in Caixin Media, the professional outlet founded by veteran editor Hu Shuli (胡舒立), as much as an investment from a smaller online gaming company in a youth-oriented history or sports news product distributed through an app or WeChat public account. In terms of media type, the rules would seem to prohibit private capital across the spectrum — if they were implemented to the letter.
And what about content? Li Guangman revels in the expansiveness of the rules in terms of content coverage as well, and his glee is not misplaced. The rules include a laundry list of activities, checking all the boxes for content in key areas, including politics and current affairs, culture, science and technology, military affairs, foreign affairs, health, education and sports. And the draft adds to the concrete areas of content prohibition for “non-public capital” the dragnet language “and other activities that concern political orientation, guidance of public opinion and value orientations.”
The language here about “guidance of public opinion” will be familiar to seasoned observers of China’s press policy. It is the concept, underpinning press controls since the beginning of the 1990s, that the CCP’s concerted control of all media is essential to the maintenance of regime stability. The term dates back to June 1989 and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, and came from the consensus after the crackdown, as Jiang Zemin took on the top leadership position, that Premier Zhao Ziyang had “guided matters in the direction of chaos” by urging propaganda leaders in May 1989 to “open things up a bit” (China Comment, June 1989).
“Political orientation,” another important catchphrase here, is more squarely about obedience to the political line of the CCP Central Committee, but especially to the leadership of Xi Jinping. If “guidance” is about ensuring that public ideas and sentiment are managed through control and direction of the media , “political orientation” is more about enforcing the political and ideological dominance of Xi and his CCP, of his rebranding of the Party for the 21st century. Think of his overarching banner term, the ponderous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” which could in due course be distilled into the potent “Xi Jinping Thought.” But think also of the populist notion of “common prosperity” (共同富裕), which turned heads (with concern) in early August this year, coming months into a broad crackdown on the tech sector that has shamed the scions of Chinese entrepreneurialism and innovation into pledging allegiance to Xi’s project of red revival.
Here too is where the talk of “value orientations” comes in. Along with the crackdown on the internet sector and tech sectors – here, Li Guangman’s mention of the recent Meituan fine is apropos – the use of big data and so on, have come restraints on many aspects of internet culture that have been regarded of late as effete, excessively materialistic, even morally objectionable. With volleys against “fandom culture” and online gaming, and moralistic attacks on online influencers such as “Buddhist beauties,” China seems to be sliding into an era of rule by shame when it comes to social values. The right values combinea kind of stiff-faced adherence to CCP political values (manly and heroic) with a healthy attitude toward consumerism that eschews excess materialism and its effeminacy. Tech gurus are the first and obvious casualties of this “profound revolution” (to borrow again Li Guangman’s words) because they have profited from and super-fueled a tech-driven consumer and lifestyle revolution that has placed in their grasp the data of a billion lives. They epitomize commercial and technological power, and they impel the social and cultural transformations that could undermine the Party’s position at the center.
In a nutshell, these rules are abominable. But still, one crucial question remains: Will they be implemented according to their letter, or will they simply be applied in an ad hoc manner? In fact, similar rules regarding private capital involvement in traditional publishing have been around since 2005, and in 2017 the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet control body, also issued prohibitions on private capital involvement in news reporting. Given the focus in the past on traditional publishing, and given a history of selective enforcement, the feeling at media outlets with financing from private companies may be that strategic relationships remain most critical, and that the most important factor will be ensuring no red lines are crossed (or crossed egregiously) in terms of coverage.
This is cold comfort against the backdrop of recent actions against internet platforms in China. Sure, it is likely that a chill will run first through those media products on platforms like WeChat, including those with financing from internet firms like Tencent and Alibaba, before the temperature drops for legacy media. But the rules are explicit, and at the very least they are likely to drive private capital further away from media ventures and promote the continued consolidation of Party control over information products across the board.
In his latest gleeful declaration of “profound revolution,” Li Guangman also finds encouragement in the fact that these rules come from the NDRC, and not from the CAC or other propaganda agencies. “There is definite wisdom in the fact that this time public capital is taking back the right to news and public opinion not through departments in charge of news, public opinion and propaganda, but through the DRC’s ‘Negative List of Market Access,'” he writes. “As soon as this “negative list” is released and implemented, a profound transformation will occur in our country’s news sector.”
Will Li Guangman’s “profound transformation” in the Chinese media come to pass? Right now, it is impossible to say with certainty. But we should also view the NDRC rules in the light of how “political orientations” and “value orientations” are being policed in China. When we consider how the media atmosphere lately has been electrified with “red gene” jingoism and demands for fealty to the ideals of the CCP, the medium-term outlook does not give cause for optimism. Arriving at Shenzhen’s Bao’an Airport wearing her bright red dress last month, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟) epitomized this prevailing ethos as she delivered her speech on the tarmac, amid the fluttering of bright red national flags: “If faith has a color,” she said, “it must be Chinese red” (如果信念有颜色，那一定是中国红). Or think of the way that Wang Xing (王兴), the billionaire CEO of the Chinese shopping giant Meituan (美团) said during his group’s second-quarter earnings call in September that “common prosperity is rooted in Meituan’s genes.”
Woe be to those who lack the faith. And the fate last week of Luo Changping is an egregious case in point. Luo’s alleged crime is “infringing the reputation and honor of national martyrs” in violation of a 2018 law that criminalized criticism of “heroes and martyrs” with the stated goal of “cultivating and practicing core socialist values, and inspiring the glorious spiritual force of the realization of the China dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”
Luo’s crime, specifically, was to question the authenticity of the story of Chinese soldiers during the Korean War as portrayed in the new blockbuster film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (长津湖), released in theaters last month. A notice from police in Hainan on Friday said that Luo’s comments on the Weibo platform had slandered China’s volunteer soldiers and had “serious negative consequences.” The internet, it said, was not a “land outside the law,” and it hoped that “the majority of Chinese internet users would consciously follow laws and regulations.”
The fact that Luo’s case has been widely reported by Party-state media suggests he is being pursued in order to set an example to others – not least to online influencers (Luo has more than two million followers) who have the potential to impact public opinion.
For Li Guangman, who cites Luo Changping’s detention as further evidence of the “profound transformation” underway in China, action against public intellectuals is long overdue. For too long, he says, the country’s martyrs have been neglected. The situation has improved since the implementation of the 2018 law, but still “people like Luo Changping have not hesitated to test the law.” Li quotes from Jun Zhengping (钧正平), a writer at the People’s Liberation Army Daily, who said in a recent commentary venting outrage at Luo Changping’s remarks that, “We must not let those who malign the martyrs do whatever they want with impunity.”
Concluding his recent post, Li Guangman rails against private capital, which he says has “monopolized public opinion on China’s internet.” But the transformation now underway, he says, is “changing our society, our ideas, our concepts and our lives,” and is “destroying certain people and forces, and healing Chinese society.”
“What we are seeing and feeling now is the tremendous power brought by this change,” he writes. “Although it is one event after another in different arenas, the changes brought by these events to our society are comprehensive, profound and long-term, and each of us should face this profound change, be awake to change, and have the courage to accept change.”