Mao Zedong reads the People’s Daily in Hangzhou in 1961. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysées Palace in Paris, having arrived in France the previous day for his first European visit in five years. The bilateral meetings are being observed closely in Europe and beyond, and, in ordinary times, seasoned China watchers would turn on Tuesday morning to the latest edition of the flagship People’s Daily newspaper for signals of the leadership’s thinking.

But these are not ordinary times — and so far today, by late afternoon Beijing time, a newspaper whose digital edition is typically fully online by the crack of dawn is mysteriously gone without a trace. More curiously, at least two other central CCP newspapers, the Guangming Daily and the PLA Daily, are also missing in action.

Such a digital delinquency has not, by our reckoning, occurred at any point in the past two decades, and it is anyone’s guess at this point what this means.

In a possible early sign that either the production process or the political process was getting mucked up at the People’s Daily, yesterday’s digital edition went online shortly after 10 AM local Beijing time, hours after physical copies would have arrived on desks at Party and government offices across the country.

By the time of this posting, CMP had yet to confirm what content was appearing on the front page of today’s physical edition of the newspaper. But the digital print version remained stuck on yesterday, the day of the Paris meetings, according to the People’s Daily digital online database.

Nor could this be explained as a snafu impacting only the full digital newspaper version. In fact, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily is also missing. Perhaps more importantly, all primary and secondary headlines at People’s Daily Online, the paper’s official website, are content sourced from the People’s Daily News App (人民日报客户端). Typically, these important positions on the website are populated with page-one and page-two content clearly identified as being from the newspaper, with source pages listed at the foot of each article — as readers can see in this example from yesterday’s edition.

The CCP’s flagship newspaper has been pushing digital transformation for years. But the headlining of People’s Daily News App content is unlikely to stem from a format change, particularly amid such an important overseas trip by the country’s top leader.

The official “mouthpiece” (喉舌) of the CCP Central Committee, the People’s Daily is regarded as the unassailable voice of the top leadership, directing coverage in Party-run newspapers at every level across the country. As the newspaper describes its role: “The People’s Daily is responsible for propagating the Party’s theories, line and policies, and propagating the major decisions and deployments of the central leadership . . . . [and has] the important role of disseminating timely information in various fields both at home and abroad, and reporting and commenting on major events in the world.”

For the newspaper to go silent online at any moment, making it unavailable to global audiences, would be an unusual and important signal — of a cataclysmic editorial slip if not something more serious politically. Today’s absence is difficult to explain.

Despite today’s odd digital void, however, there are clues to what some of the front-page content in today’s People’s Daily might be.

Provincial Clues

In China’s highly formalized, and often ritualistic, Party media culture, the People’s Daily is the vanguard leading “mainstream” public opinion, and much of its headline content is mirrored closely, even slavishly, by Party newspapers at the provincial level. So what do provincial newspapers look like today?

The following front pages are from the official CCP “mouthpiece” newspapers in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Anhui provinces. In the important space directly under the masthead today, all lead with the official Xinhua News Agency release, or tonggao (通稿), on Xi Jinping’s meeting yesterday with Macron. This is the same release featured at the top of People’s Daily Online, but attributed to the People’s Daily News App. It appears also at the top of the Japanese edition of the website.

Provincial CCP newspapers of course would have known that the Xinhua release on yesterday’s meeting in Paris would get top billing. In all likelihood, if and when we see the digital version of today’s People’s Daily, it too will feature this story under the masthead. The provincial papers also run yesterday’s Xinhua release about Xi Jinping’s address in Paris to the closing ceremony of the Sixth Meeting of the China-France Business Council.

But these official releases on the Chinese leaders headline events in Paris are of course just a fraction of what we might expect from today’s edition of the People’s Daily. Missing is a whole range of content about which we can only guess: official commentaries on China’s relationship with Europe; songs of praise about the economic benefits of keeping a close trade relationship; growling criticisms of the suggestion that the EU should apply trade defense tools in the face of Chinese EV imports, and so on.

So far today, the voice of the central leadership is missing. That absence grows stranger and more ominous still when we realize that it is not only the People’s Daily today that is offline. Both the digital newspaper of the Guangming Daily (光明日报), published by the Central Propaganda Department, and the PLA Daily (解放军报), published by the Central Military Commission (CMC), are frozen on yesterday — the image lingering of Xi Jinping arriving Sunday in Paris.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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