In a notice this week, China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the government agency responsible for regulating news media and news personnel, announced that it had completed verification of the press cards held by the country’s nearly 200,000 licensed journalists.
By April 30, 2022, a total of 3,676 news units and 180,075 journalists across the country had taken part as required by law in the annual verification drive. According to the NPPA, 24 news units and 353 journalists were suspended for suspected violations.
Press cards, or xinwen jizhezheng (新闻记者证), are required for media staff formally employed by news organizations and tasked under contract with news gathering activities. According to government notices on the implementation of Measures for the Administration of Press Cards (新闻记者证管理办法), which took effect in October 2009, the press card system is meant to improve professional conduct, combating ethical problems such as “fake news” (假新闻) and so-called “news extortion” (新闻敲诈), in which those identifying themselves as reporters may threaten a company or individual with negative coverage or exposure of illegal conduct in order to obtain cash payments or to force advertising arrangements.
But despite language about professional standards and protecting the work of journalists – another argument being that local authorities are less likely to ignore, threaten or intimidate licensed reporters – it is clear that the primary objective of the press card system is the exercise of political and ideological controls on the press.
The cards, which are issued only after reporters have received training in the mandates imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, are verified on an annual basis, and can be withdrawn for various reasons, including violations of political discipline.
The NPPA has made clear that “news organization and news editorial staff must uphold correct guidance of public opinion and preserve the national interest and public interest when conducting news reporting activities.” The notion of “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确的舆论导向), dating back to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, asserts the need for control of the press and public opinion in order to maintain the stability of the regime.
In addition to “correct guidance,” news media and journalists are obliged to adhere to the “general direction of emphasizing positive news” (正面宣传为主的方针), a basic admonition against being critical in mindset, and to uphold the “Marxist View of Journalism” (马克思主义新闻观), which essentially places the CCP’s interests, policies and objectives at the center of news activity – and explicitly rejects what the Party criticizes as “the West’s idea of journalism.”
In fact, press cards have never served as a real deterrent against unethical practices, and abuses are often committed by licensed official media with formal press cards precisely because their association with organs of power gives them standing within China’s system.
The link between formal licensing and media corruption came to the fore two decades ago, in July 2002, when China Youth Daily reporter and CMP fellow Liu Chang found that eleven reporters, including four from the official Xinhua News Agency, had accepted gag fees (including cash and gold nuggets) to cover up news about an explosion in which 37 workers had died. The Xinhua reporters in particular had been singled out for special treatment by local mine bosses.
The debate over press credentials and corruption within the industry re-emerged in April 2007 with the story of Meng Huaihu, former Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times, who was accused of extorting money from companies using the threat of negative news reports.