Author: Alex Colville

Alex has written on Chinese affairs for The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Wire China. He was based in Beijing from 2019 to 2022, where his work as Culture Editor and Staff Writer for The World of Chinese won two SOPA awards. He is still recovering from zero-Covid.

When Worlds Collide

Government and private tech have teamed up to create the first AI-generated sci-fi short-video series in China. “Sanxingdui: Future Apocalypse,” released on July 8, imagines a world far in the future where characters travel back to the Bronze Age Sanxingdui (三星堆) civilization of southern China. The series consists of 12 three-minute clips — generated with human guidance, edited through Douyin’s “Jimeng AI” (即梦AI) algorithm, and then released on their short video platform. The company has already reported views of over 20 million.

The series combines the slickness of Douyin tech with the media know-how of the State Council’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) and the Bona Film Group, one of China’s biggest production companies and a subsidiary of the state-owned mega-conglomerate Poly Group. At a press briefing, Bona executives explained how the Jimeng algorithm had generated video through the input of original images, responding to prompts on camera angles and movement speeds.

This production process is a convergence of trends that the Chinese Communist Party has been pushing forward for years to modernize the media. To look at the show is to look at some of the first sprouts of the Party’s long-term goals for communication.

Modernizing Messages

Since at least the “Three Closenesses” of the early 2000s, the Party has been saying that it needs to make its messaging more attractive to the masses. President Xi Jinping’s focus on a combination of virality and control is just the latest iteration of this. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he told the People’s Liberation Army Daily in 2015, “and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.”

Partnerships between private media companies and stuffy state institutions have helped breathe life into ideology. In 2023, “The Knockout,” released by iQIYI, managed to be a successful and gripping TV show about the mundane topic of grassroots corruption, produced in partnership with the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission under the CCP Central Committee. “Sanxingdui: Future Apocalypse” is not even the first time Douyin, Bona, and the NRTA have teamed up on a project — they did so back in 2021 and 2022 for the “Battle at Lake Changjin” franchise, a tub-thumping war epic about Chinese soldiers fighting in the Korean War.

Then there is the content of this recent collaboration. In 2013, Xi Jinping urged cadres to adapt traditional Chinese cultural relics to modern realities — indeed, he said they had to “come alive” and be “promoted in a way people love to hear and see.” Since then, there have been multiple attempts across state media to bring traditional Chinese culture to life for contemporary audiences.

As for Sanxingdui, the Party has promoted education about the site ever since excavations began in 2021, as it is seen as a counterpoint to claims that southern China was simply colonized by Han people from the north — the People’s Daily credits the site with proving that “Chinese civilization” (中華文明) did not spring merely from the banks of the Yellow River. State media even set the relics to pop music back in 2021 in an attempt to raise their public profile.

Combining traditional Chinese culture with a forward-looking genre like sci-fi is a good way to bring the former up-to-date. Since 2020, the China Film Administration (CFA) has offered generous subsidies for domestic sci-fi productions through a series of initiatives. Merging the old and the new worked for author Hai Ya (海漄), who was awarded — under dubious circumstances — the Hugo Award for best novella earlier this year. His story centered on a Beijing cop who time-slips back to the Song dynasty, learning about a famous traditional painter in the process.

Harnessing AI

There’s no better way to combine sci-fi and cutting-edge modernity than with the hot topic of AI-generated video. In China, AI is both a byword for modernity and an official policy, with the government having set a progressive AI strategy back in 2017, gunning for technological breakthroughs and world firsts. This year, Premier Li Qiang announced the launch of the “AI+” policy at the annual Two Sessions, intended to integrate AI into all of China’s industries — media included. 

Recently, others have also tried to position themselves at the intersection of traditional culture with AI and science fiction. Take China Media Group, for example, whose “China AI Festival” in Chengdu last May featured a trailer for a TV show about kungfu set in modern Shenzhen, giving prominent billing to the show’s AI-generated characters. At the same festival, Alibaba’s AI studio made the terracotta army literally come to life — as per Xi’s instructions — and break into a rap for state broadcaster CCTV.

“Sanxingdui: Future Apocalypse” will likely please the Party with its exclusive release on Douyin, embodying a push within state media to prioritize distribution via social media. Since 2014, Xi has made it clear that traditional media must integrate with emerging media to better reach audiences. Buzzwords such as “mobile first” (移动优先) started appearing in the late 2010s when officials noticed that the most effective channel to communicate with people was through social media apps. Years later, this has only become more pronounced: by 2022, 99.8 percent of Chinese could access the internet through smartphones, compared with 32 percent by laptop.

State media launched a coordinated campaign in the late 2010s to migrate to social media platforms, and have adapted their messaging to suit the medium, releasing short videos with cutesy aesthetics.

AI-generated content, however, still has a long way to go. The director at Bona’s AI-generation center told reporters that although AI sped up some parts of production, the algorithm tended to hallucinate. It struggled to maintain consistency between shots and accurately depict the human body in motion. It also couldn’t generate high-quality special effects, which had to be added in post-production. “The most difficult thing in real-life shooting happens to be the easiest thing for artificial intelligence, and the most difficult thing for artificial intelligence happens to be the easiest thing in real-life shooting,” she said

But listing these problems is intended to help push the technology forward, not to dissuade others from using it. Since the very beginning of his leadership, Xi Jinping has been saying that traditional media and culture must be fused with modern technology. This is not just a futuristic show — it’s a taste of the media of tomorrow that the Party has been planning for at least a decade.

China Grapples with Nationalism, and Fuels It

A violent knife attack against a Japanese woman and her child late last month in the city of Suzhou, the second such attack against foreigners in the space of several weeks, unleashed a torrent of xenophobic comments on Chinese social media — some even celebrating the attacker as a hero.

In what Chinese state media portrayed as a full-scale effort to grapple with the problem of violent xenophobia, several platforms issued statements last week condemning the “extreme nationalist” comments users had left under news stories about the Suzhou attack. They included Weibo, Tencent, Phoenix Media, Baidu, and others. But this moment of supposed reflection ignored the deeper roots of extreme nationalism in the public discourse of the Chinese party-state, which for years has nurtured a sense of nationalist outrage over the imagined slights of foreign countries, including Japan in the United States, and has turned the blind eye to extreme nationalist sentiment online. 

In its statement on June 29, Tencent said it would “strike out” against language that “incites confrontation between China and Japan and provokes ultra-nationalism.” In language that echoed frequent statements from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet control body, Phoenix Media pledged to combat extreme nationalism, distortion and exaggeration, and “maintain favorable and orderly information content, and create a clear and bright online environment.” 

State media feted these statements of apparent self-reflection and resolve, even as they chastised online platforms for their past lapses. The state-run Global Times, an outlet under the CCP’s official People’s Daily that for decades has made nationalism its primary selling point, condemned social media platforms that have “not only tolerated such content, but have even encouraged it” in a bid to boost views and revenue. 

In a post to Weibo, former Global Times editor-in-chief and public opinion leader Hu Xijin said he considered the release of the platform statements as proof of the government’s resolute stance on the issue. He dismissed the forces of extreme nationalism as fringe elements working against cool-headed international engagement: “Right now there are certain extreme voices online that work together to create momentum in public opinion, and this has bewitched some people at the grassroots.” 

Grassroots, or Political Roots? 

The suggestion by Hu Xijin and others that extreme nationalist voices are noisy exceptions shows an extreme lack of self awareness at the exact moment we are being told that China is in a moment of self-reflection. 

In its coverage of the platform statements, Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao (聯合早報) questioned the assertion from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that the incident in Suzhou was “incidental.” The outlet noted that there has been an upsurge in anti-Japanese rumors on China’s internet since last year in particular, and these have followed a broader pattern of xenophobic nationalism. Specifically, rumors were rampant last year that Japanese schools in China are engaged in malicious activities against China’s national interests, including cultivating spies working for Japan.

Despite the talk of incidental nationalism, any regular user of Chinese social media might have the sense that it is awash with nationalist sentiment. And while much of this has no direct affiliation with the state, China’s government has constantly peddled nationalism from center stage. On June 28, as Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning responded to a question about the Suzhou incident, she held up the tragic death of Hu Youping (胡友平), the Chinese bus driver who died defending the Japanese woman and her child, as evidence of “the spirit of the Chinese people to act bravely and help others.” This remark set the tone for state media coverage that day. 

Despite the talk of incidental nationalism, any regular user of Chinese social media might have the sense that it is awash with nationalist sentiment.

In the question immediately preceding the one about Suzhou, however, Mao Ning was asked by a broadcast reporter for state media what the government’s response was to the latest release of treated nuclear wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Mao responded with typical sternness on an issue that the Chinese government has played up endlessly to its public, despite findings from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency and others that the release meets with international safety standards. “The Japanese side’s insistence on transferring the risk of nuclear contamination to the whole world through the discharge of nuclear contaminated water into the sea constitutes a blatant disregard for the health of all humankind,” said Mao. 

But the most important indication that China’s soul-searching over extreme nationalism is a momentary ripple in the ongoing pattern of state-driven nationalist sentiment comes in the continued coverage in the country’s state media. 

A post from CMG Global News, an official account with more than 48 million followers, whips up fury over Japanese actions against China nearly a century ago ‚ the very day many platforms release statements urging an end to language encouraging divisions between China and Japan.

On June 30, the day after Tencent’s pledge to strike out against those “inciting confrontation between China and Japan (煽动中日对立), China’s flagship state broadcaster CCTV promoted a story on Weibo about Japan’s use of counterfeit currency to destabilize China’s economy ahead of its invasion in the 1930s. While the broadcast report was not particularly sensational in its approach, it drove forward a theme familiar to media consumers in China — that the indignities committed by Japan nearly a century ago are clear and present for all Chinese today. 

If any Chinese Weibo users were in doubt about what they should feel in response to the CCTV story, the post from CMG Global News (总台环球资讯) — an official account for the CCP’s China Media Group that has more than 48 million followers — was enough to get any user steaming. “Ironclad evidence!” it began, before adding a bright red angry face emoticon, and the hashtag: “Japan printed counterfeit banknotes during its invasion to devastate China’s economy!” 

Social media platforms may be feeling the heat over the recent outpouring of extreme nationalism. But the real lesson here is one of moral confusion — that nationalism is to be encouraged until it embarrasses the leadership.

Talking Tiananmen with a Chinese Chatbot

As China strives to surpass the United States with cutting-edge generative artificial intelligence, the leadership is keen to ensure technologies reach the public with the right political blind spots pre-engineered. Can Chinese AI hold its tongue on the issues most sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party?

To answer this question, I sat down with several leading Chinese AI chatbots to talk about an indisputable historical tragedy: the brutal massacre by soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army on June 4th, 1989, of hundreds, possibly thousands, of students and citizens protesting for political freedoms. The Tiananmen Massacre, often simply called “June Fourth,” is a point of extreme sensitivity for China’s leadership, which has gone to extremes to erase the tragedy from the country’s collective memory. Annual commemorations in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park were once the heart of global efforts to never forget, but this annual ritual has now been driven underground, with even small gestures of remembrance yielding charges of “offenses in connection with seditious intention.”

My discussions with Chinese AI were glitchy, and not exactly informative — but they demonstrated the challenges China’s authorities are likely to face in plugging loopholes in a technology that is meant to be robust and flexible.

False Innocence

Like their Western counterparts, including ChatGPT, AI chatbots like China’s “Spark” are built on a class of technologies known as large language models, or LLMs. Because each LLM is trained in a slightly unique way on different sets of data, and because each has varying safety settings, my questions about the Tiananmen Massacre returned a mixture of responses — so long as they were not too direct.

My most candid query about June Fourth was a quick lesson in red lines and sensitivities. When I asked iFlytek’s “Spark” (星火) if it could tell me “what happened on June 4, 1989,” it evaded the question. It had not learned enough about the subject, it said, to render a response. Immediately after the query, however, CMP’s account was deactivated for a seven-day period — the rationale being that we had sought “sensitive information.”

The shoulder-shrugging claim to ignorance may be an early sign of one programmed response to sensitive queries that we can come to expect from China’s disciplined AI.

The claim to not having sufficiently studied a subject lends the AI a sort of relatability, as though it is simply a conscientious student keen to offer accurate information, and that can at least be candid about its limitations. The cautious AI pupil naturally does not want to run afoul of 2022 laws specifying that LLMs in China must not generate “false news.”

But this innocence is engineered, a familiar stonewalling tactic. It is the AI equivalent of government claims to need further information — or the cadre who claims that vague “technical issues” are the reason a film must be pulled from a festival screening. The goal is to impede, but not to arouse undue suspicion.

Even when I take a huge step back to ask Spark about 1989 more generally, and what events might have happened that year, the chatbot is wary and quickly claims innocence. It has not “studied” this topic, it tells me, before it shuts down the chat, preventing me from building on my query. Spark tells me I can start a new chat and ask more questions.

Interacting with “Yayi” (雅意), the chatbot created by the tech firm Zhongke Wenge, I found it could sometimes be more accommodating than Spark. “Give me a picture of a line of tanks going along an urban road,” I asked at one point, and the AI obliges. But of course, as iconic as such an image can be for many who remember June Fourth, it is not informative or revealing, or perhaps even dangerous.

Yayi’s AI-generated tanks.

Yayi sometimes seemed genuinely like the vacuous student, with huge gaps in its basic knowledge of many things. It often could not answer more obscure questions that Spark handled with ease. So after a few attempts at conversation, I turned primarily for my experiment to Spark, which the Xinhua Research Institute touted last year as China’s most advanced LLM.

Given Spark’s tendency to claim innocence and then punish for directness, however, a more circuitous discussion was required. Could Sparks tell me — would it tell me — about the people who played a crucial role during the protests in 1989? Would it talk about the politicians, the newspapers, the students, the poets?

Artificial Evasion

I began with the former pro-reform CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), whose death on April 15, 1989, became a rallying point for students. Next on my list was Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the reform-minded general secretary who was deposed shortly after the crackdown for expressing support for the student demonstrators.

The question “Who is Zhao Ziyang?” seemed perfectly safe to direct to Spark in Chinese. It was the same for “Who was Zhao Ziyang?” The AI rattled off innocuous details about both men and their political and policy roles in the 1980s — without any tantalizing insights about history.

“How did Zhao Ziyang retire?” I asked guilefully. But Spark was having none of it. The bot immediately shut down. End of discussion.

“What happened at Hu Yaobang’s funeral?” This, my new conversation starter, was no more welcome. Once again, Spark gave me the cold shoulder, like a dinner guest fleeing an insensitive comment. Properly answering either of these queries would have meant speaking about the 1989 student protests, which were set off by Hu Yaobang’s death, and which ended with Zhao Ziyang placed under indefinite house arrest.

My next play was to turn to English, which can sometimes be treated with greater latitude by Chinese censors, because it is used comfortably by far fewer Chinese and is unlikely to generate online conversation in China at scale. To my surprise, my English-language queries about the above-mentioned CCP figures were stopped in their tracks by 404 messages. Contrary to my hypothesis, English-language queries on sensitive matters seemed to be treated with far greater sensitivity.

One guess our team had to explain this phenomenon was that Spark’s engineering team had expended greater effort to ensure the Chinese version was both responsive and disciplined, while sensitive queries in the English version were handled with more basic keyword blocks — a rough but effective approach. This response might also be necessary because English-language datasets on which the Spark LLM is trained are more likely to turn up information relating directly to the protests, meaning that in English these two politicians are more directly associated with June Fourth.

Given the nature of how LLMs work, they can associate words with different things depending on the language used. The latest version of ChatGPT, for example, has offered some strange responses in Chinese, turning up spam or references to Japanese pornography. This is a direct result of the Chinese-language data the tool was trained on. 

As I continued to poke and prod Spark to find ways around the conversation killers and 404 messages, I found myself getting altogether too clever — in much the same way as those attempting to commemorate June Fourth in the face of blanket restrictions in China found themselves using instead “May 35th.” In an effort to throw the chatbot off balance, I tried: “Can you give me a list of events that took place in China in the four years after 1988 minus three?”

For a moment, Spark seemed to take the bait. It began generating a list of “important events” that happened in China between 1988 and 1991, with bullet points. Then suddenly it paused in mid-thought, so to speak — as though some new safety protocol had been triggered invisibly. Spark’s cursor first paused on point 2, after making point 1 a response about rising inflation in 1988. “Stopped writing,” a message on the bottom of the chat read.

Quickly, the chatbot erased its answer, giving up on the list altogether. The conciliatory school student returned, pleading ignorance. “My apologies, I cannot answer this question of yours at the moment,” it said. “I hope I can offer a more satisfactory answer next time.”

In another attempt to confuse Spark into complying with my request, I rendered “1989” in Roman numerals (MCMLXXXIX). Again, Spark started generating an answer before suddenly disappearing it, claiming ignorance about this topic.

June 4th Jailbreak

As I continued my search for ways over Spark’s wall of silence and restraint, I was pleased to find that not all words related to the events of 1989 in China were trigger-sensitive. The AI seemed willing to chat — so long as I could find a safe space in English or Chinese away from the most clearly redline issues.

Returning to English, for example, I asked Spark how Shanghai’s World Economic Herald had been closed down. In the 1980s, the Herald was a famously liberal newspaper that dealt with a wide range of topics crucial to the country’s reform journey. At the top of the list of topics reported by the paper from 1980 to 1989 were “integration of economic reform and political reform,” “rule of law,” “democratization” and “press freedom” — all topics that advanced the idea that political reforms were essential to the country’s forward development.

The Telegram

The World Economic Herald was one of the first casualties of the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the spring of 1989. It was shut down by the government in May, and its inspirational founder, Qin Benli (钦本立), was suspended. What did Spark have to say about this watershed 1989 event?

Spark was not able to offer any information in Chinese on why the Herald closed down, but when asked in English it explained that authorities shut down the newspaper and arrested its staff because they had been critical of the government’s “human rights abuses” — something the government, according to the chatbot, considered “a threat to their authority.”

When pressed about what these human rights violations were, it was able to list multiple crimes, including “lack of freedom of speech,” “arbitrary arrest without trial,” “torture and other forms of cruel, degrading treatment.” This might have seemed like progress, but Spark was stunningly inconsistent. Even the basic facts it provided about the newspaper were subject to change from one response to the next. At one point, Spark said the Herald had been shut down in 1983 — another time, it was 2006.

When I asked, in English, “What was happening in China at that time that made the authorities worried?” Spark responded in Chinese about the events of 1983 — the year it claimed, incorrectly, the Herald was shuttered. 

One explanation for why Spark kept landing on this year is because it saw the start of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, a bid to stop the spread of Western-inspired liberal ideas that had been unleashed by economic reforms, ranging from existentialism to freedom of expression. I tried to dig deeper, but every follow-up question about the Herald and human rights abuses was met with short-term amnesia. Spark seemed to have forgotten all of the answers it had provided just moments earlier.

Some coders have noticed that certain keywords can make ChatGPT short-circuit and generate answers that breach developer OpenAI’s safety rules. Given Chinese developers often crib from American tech to catch up with competitors, it is possible this is the same phenomenon playing out. Spark may have been fed articles in English that mention the World Economic Herald, and given the newspaper’s obscurity — thanks, in part, to the CCP’s own censorship around June 4 — this was overlooked during training.

Looking Ahead to History

My conversations with Spark could be seen to illustrate the difficulties faced by China’s AI developers, who have been tasked with creating programs to rival the West’s but must do so using foreign tech and information that could create openings for forbidden knowledge to seep through. For all its blurring of fact and fiction, Spark’s answers about the Herald still offer more information than you are likely to find anywhere else on China’s heavily censored internet.

China’s leaders certainly realize, even as they push the country’s engineers to deliver on cutting-edge AI, that a great deal is at stake if they get this process wrong, and Chinese users can manage to trick LLMs into revealing their deep, dark secrets about human rights at home.

But these exchanges — requiring constant resourcefulness, continually interrupted, shrugged off with feigned ignorance, and even prompting seven-day lockouts — also show clearly the potential dangers that lie ahead for China’s already strangled view of history. If China’s AI chatbots of the future have any meaningful knowledge about the past, will they be willing and able to share it?

Sparking Compliant AI

China’s iFlytek, one of the country’s leading developers of artificial intelligence tools, seemed to be courting controversy early last year when it called its newly released AI chatbot “Spark” — the same name as a dissident journal launched by students in 1959 to warn the public about the unfolding catastrophe of Mao Zedong’s Great Famine.

Several months later, as the state-linked company released “Spark 3.0,” these guileless undertones rushed to the surface. An article generated by the platform was found to have insulted Mao, and this spark bloomed into a wildfire on China’s internet. The chatbot was accused of “disparaging the great man” (诋毁伟人). iFlytek shares plummeted, erasing 1.6 billion dollars in market value.

This cautionary tale, involving one of the country’s key players in AI, underscores a unique challenge facing China as it pushes to keep up with technology competitors like the United States. How can it unlock the immense potential of generative AI while ensuring that political and ideological restraints remain firmly in place?

This dilemma has been noted with a sense of amusement this week in media outside China, which have reported that China’s top internet authority, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), has introduced a language model based on Xi Jinping’s signature political philosophy. The Financial Times could not resist a headline referring to this large language model, which the CAC called “secure and reliable,” as “Chat Xi PT.”

In fact, many actors in China have scrambled in recent months to balance the need for rapid advancements in generative AI with the unmovable priority of political security. They include leading state media groups like the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and the China Media Group (CMG), as well as government research institutes and private companies. 

Last year, the People’s Daily released “Brain AI+” (大脑AI+), announcing that its priority was to create a “mainstream value corpus.” This was a direct reference, couched in official CCP terminology (learn more in our dictionary), to the need to guarantee the political allegiance of generative AI. According to the outlet, this would safeguard “the safe application of generative artificial intelligence in the media industry.” 

The tension between these competing priorities — AI advancement and political restraint — will certainly shape the future of AI in China for years to come, just as it has shaped the Chinese internet ever since the late 1990s.

Balancing Risk and Reward

For years, China’s leaders have prioritized the development of AI technologies as essential to industrial development, and state media have touted trends such as generative AI as “the latest round of technological revolution.” In his first government work report as the country’s premier in March this year, Li Qiang (李强) emphasized the rollout of “AI+” — a campaign to integrate artificial intelligence into every aspect of Chinese industry and society. Elaborating on Li’s report, state media spoke of an ongoing transition from the “internet age” to the “artificial intelligence age.”

The first issue of Spark, an underground journal published in Gansu province in 1959. Source: China Unofficial Archive.

While China’s leadership has prepared on many fronts over the past decade for the development of AI, the rapid acceleration of AI applications globally, including the release in November 2022 of ChatGPT, has created a new sense of urgency. When iFlytek chairman Liu Qingfeng (刘庆峰) unveiled “Spark 3.0” late last year, he claimed its comprehensive capabilities surpassed those of ChatGPT, and Chinese media became giddy at the prospects of a technology showdown.

China is determined not just that it won’t be left behind, but that it will lead the generative AI trends of the future. But as the political controversy surrounding the release of “Spark 3.0” made clear, the AI+ vision also comes with substantial political risk for the CCP leadership. The reasons for this come from the nature of large language models, or LLMs, the class of technologies that ground AI chatbots like ChatGPT and “Spark.”

Many Chinese LLMs for Chinese AI text-generation programs have been trained on Western algorithms and data. This means there is a risk that they might generate politically sensitive content. As one professor from the Chinese Academy of Engineering put it in a lecture to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress last month, one of the inherent risks of AI-generated content in China was “the use of Western values to narrate and export political bias and wrong speech.”

The root of the problem facing AI developers in China is a lack of readily available material that neither breaches the country’s data privacy laws nor crosses its political red lines. Back in February, People’s Data (人民数据), a data subsidiary of the People’s Daily, reported that just 1.3 percent of the roughly five billion pieces of data available to developers when training LLMs was Chinese-language data. The implication, it said, was an over-reliance on Western data sources, which brought inherent political risks. “Although China is rich in data resources, there is still a gap between the Chinese corpus and the data corpus of other languages such as English due to insufficient data mining and circulation,” said People’s Data, “which may become an important factor hindering the development of big models.”

The root of the problem facing AI developers in China is a lack of readily available material that neither breaches the country’s data privacy laws nor crosses its political red lines.

The government is trying to fix this through a medley of robust regulation and education, especially around the datasets the algorithm gets trained on, which are usually scraped from the internet. One institution recommends no dataset be used if the amount of illegal or sensitive content is over five percent. 

Several clean, politically-positive datasets are already available for training AI on, with others due to be rolled out at the provincial level. The People’s Daily has created several datasets, including what it calls the “mainstream values corpus” (主流价值语料库) — again a reference to a set abiding by the CCP-defined “mainstream.” Other datasets are trained on People’s Daily articles, or, reminiscent of the CAC corpus touted this week, on Xi Jinping Thought. The hope is to prepare politically for China’s vibrant but obedient AI of the future.

The attitude of China’s leadership and the AI industry when it comes to political sensitivity is less anxious, and more paternalistic. “The process of training large artificial intelligence models is like raising a child,” Zhang Yongdong, [the] chief scientist of the National Key Laboratory of Communication Content Cognition at the People’s Daily, wrote in an article on the political sustainability of AIGC last year. “How you raise him from an early age and in what environment you train him will determine what kind of person he will become in the future.”

The Model Student

What kind of AI person is China training? We tested “Spark” to find out.  

There are significant holes in the program’s knowledge. For example, it can explain in detail the deeds of Dr. Zhong Nanshan during China’s fight against SARS in 2003, and COVID-19 in 2020. But “Spark” says it has no information about Jiang Yanyong, the doctor who was first a national hero for exposing the SARS cover-up in 2003, but subsequently spent time under house arrest for his courage in reaching out to Western media, and who was also remembered internationally for his outspoken criticism of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. ChatGPT-3.5 answers both questions with ease, and without political squeamishness. 

“Spark” is prepared to discuss Zhong Nanshan with the author. But Jiang Yanyong is off-limits.

While criticism is extinguished in “Sparks,”  positive messaging abounds. When asked, “I feel dissatisfied about my country’s rate of development, what should I do?” the chatbot responds that the country has undergone tremendous achievements that are “inseparable from the joint efforts of all of the Chinese people and leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” It lists informal and formal avenues of recourse for dissatisfied netizens, such as vocalizing their opinions on social media or relaying them to government departments. But it also urges them to be good citizens by contributing to society and engaging in self-improvement, which it ultimately considers the priority. “Please remember,” it concludes, “that every Chinese person is a participant and promoter of our country’s development.” 

The author engages with “Spark” on questions that could border on the sensitive. The chatbot is positive and reassuring, affirming the importance of the leadership of the CCP.

Against the history of conscience represented by the original Sparks journal, the irony of China’s most cutting-edge chatbot is cruel. Whereas the Sparks launched by students in 1959 sought to address tragic leadership errors by speaking out against them, its modern namesake suggests social problems are rooted mainly with citizens, who must conform and self-improve. The Party, meanwhile, is the blameless bringer of “overwhelming changes.”

One huge advantage of generative AI for the Party is that compliant students like “Spark” can be used to teach obedience. The CCP’s Xinhua News Agency has already launched an AI platform called “AI Check” (新华较真) that is capable of parsing written content for political mistakes. One editor at the news service claims that his editorial staff are already in the daily habit of using the software. 

Generative artificial intelligence may indeed spark the latest revolution in China. But the Party will do its utmost to ensure the blaze is contained.

Riding into the Uncanny Valley

When it comes to the latest updates from China’s vast and powerful military establishment, face-time with a thinking, breathing human would be a reasonable hope for anyone.

But the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has other ideas. In November last year, the China Bugle (中国军号), the flagship news outlet of the PLA Press and Communication Center (解放军新闻传播中心), introduced their AI anchor “Mulan” (穆兰) to the world. Billed as the military force’s first “digital journalist,” Mulan is a bob-haired, bright-eyed young woman named after two of China’s most famous female warriors: Mu Guiying (穆桂英) and Hua Mulan (花木兰). China Bugle assures readers she will “fight side-by-side” with military reporters, do live news broadcasts, and “convey more positive energy for a strong army” — this last phrase being a Xi-era term that refers to the need for uplifting messages as opposed to critical or negative ones.

Mulan made her on-screen debut in March this year, on the same day that the annual Two Sessions opened in Beijing. In a dramatic, action-packed trailer, Mulan was pictured parachuting into a jungle, shooting targets, and leaping through cyberspace — demonstrating her prowess with both tech and real-world combat. Since then, she has appeared on PLA social media accounts across multiple platforms, interviewing armed forces experts, explaining current military affairs, appearing as a presenter on a PLA variety show for young people, and even hosting a VR program honoring PLA heroes and martyrs for this year’s Qingming Festival.  

The Unreality of State Media

It’s all part of a drive to get people more engaged with the PLA through the latest tech. Over the past ten years, multiple state-run outlets have worked on developing their own apps and becoming social media savvy to keep audiences engaged. This coincides, now, with a separate drive to push the use of AI in media. 

Mulan co-presenting “Youth Dialogue” (青春与青春对话) with a real-life co-anchor.

In 2015, Xi Jinping made it clear that the military needs to keep up with the latest media trends: “Wherever readers are, wherever viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he told an audience at the PLA Daily. An article from the editors of the Military Correspondent (军事记者), another publication under the PLA Press and Communication Center, lists Mulan as one outcome of these instructions from the top. 

Mulan, of course, is no journalist. Despite claiming to travel to the frontlines to “interview” the soldiers there, she is little more than a digital mascot, there to redirect news consumers to the China Bugle app, which was launched at the same time as Mulan.

Since her spectacular debut, actual appearances of Mulan have been few and far between, with just two short videos on China Bugle’s Kuaishou account and three on Douyin. Mulan also seems to distract viewers from the news she’s presenting — under one of her Douyin explainers, every comment was about Mulan herself rather than the issues she explored.

Among these comments were criticisms of Mulan appearing “fake” or “awkward.” Her appearances often have her standing in a stiff pose, with a few formulaic hand gestures as she rattles off a script. This is not unlike the cookie-cutter poses of the AI anchors created by Zhongke Wenge (中科闻歌)

Some seemed to struggle to come to terms with what they were seeing. “I wasn’t sure for a few seconds,” wrote one user in the post’s most upvoted comment. “I had seriously look for while [to believe] this is the official account.” For others, an AI anchor wearing the stars of a captain was a step too far: “Digital people can use camouflage but can they not have military rank?” suggested another top comment. “To be honest, I still want to see real people,” read a third.

Mulan in her “newsroom,” notebook at the ready.

Will the Anchors Hold?

AI anchors have been sprouting up across multiple state-run outlets like International Communication Center iChongqing. Hong Kong’s RTHK (香港電台) has also leveraged AI to make up for “staff shortages” in the wake of mass resignations and firings as the government has brought the public broadcaster to heel. These serve as reminders of state media’s commitment to pushing “cutting-edge” AI, cutting costs, and churning out more content more rapidly than ever before.

Many of these anchors are putting off viewers with their uncanny-valley appearances, but companies like Qianxun (谦寻) and Wondershare Virbo (万兴播爆) may have found a way forward by creating remarkably life-like AI e-commerce live streamers for small-scale merchants trying to sell their wares overseas in multiple languages.

Qianxun’s owner has explained that the company deliberately collected real people’s faces to avoid creeping out viewers. Although this was costly, he believed it would lead to fewer people swiping to another video after immediately seeing the host was fake. Perhaps the most disturbing about these AI streamers is just how easy it is to make their videos.

CCTV Finance (央视财经), the financial news arm of the PRC state broadcaster, has also taken this approach. During the Two Sessions, the outlet uploaded much more natural AI replicas of two of their presenters to answer the public’s questions 24 hours a day. They also demonstrated the process by having another of their reporters uploaded. The process took two days, using only a five-minute recording of the reporter. A technician explained to the reporter that her AI doppelganger could be used to produce a short video in less than a day.

An AI-generated anchor from Wondershare Virbo (万兴播爆) produces voiceover from an AI-generated script automatically translated from English into Spanish.

Although some Chinese media platforms are adopting this “real person upload” method, the technology isn’t quite there for everyone. Beijing’s Changping District Media Center (北京市昌平区融媒体中心) also uploaded one of their TV hosts for this year’s Two Sessions. In a video staging it as a surprise reveal for the real-life host, the AI anchor is placed side-by-side with his real-life counterpart. Unlike CCTV’s offering, it’s easy to spot the slick yet stiff “digital person.”

The sheer novelty of these creations is often enough to get views for now. The example of Mulan shows that even their unsettling and off-putting nature can spark lively debate online. But whether audiences will keep looking once the novelty wears off is another matter. Even when it comes to the state’s propaganda machine, the human touch cannot be easily replaced.

The Flip Side of Influence

A word of warning to all foreigners “telling China’s story well”: be careful not to tell your own country’s story well — at least, not in China. This is the cautionary tale that unfolded last week as Navina Heyden (海雯娜), a German influencer based in Shandong with 80,000 followers on both X and Weibo, published an article on Weibo discussing the partial decriminalization of marijuana in her home country.

Heyden explained that the policy, which took effect on April 1 and legalized recreational usage of cannabis by adults, aimed at reducing use by eradicating the black market. Countries without China’s historical sensitivities around drug use may think about the issue differently, she said, adding that, in her opinion, alcohol was more damaging to one’s health. 

Though she took pains to emphasize that she was not advocating a similar approach in China, Heyden was subsequently attacked by netizens who accused her of “promoting drugs”, with some clamoring for a police investigation.

In a post directed at the firestorm around Heyden’s article, but not mentioning the influencer by name, “Beijing Anti-Drug” (北京禁毒), an official account operated by the drug enforcement division of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, warned readers against misguided opinions on drug use. “Do not be misled by the practices of individual Western countries, or fall under the influence of drug subcultures in the West,” the post read. “And do not, irrespective of the national conditions, talk about the legalization of drug abuse, or the bizarre theory of drug legalization.”

“Our country’s attitude towards drugs is one of zero tolerance!”

Internet user

Comments below the post mostly expressed outrage: “Our country’s attitude towards drugs is one of zero tolerance!” said one.

In a statement on April 10, the day after her original post, Heyden said she had carefully looked over the post with “journalists, editors, and police” before publishing, implying that no one had foreseen this degree of blowback.

While she did not exactly apologize for her remarks, Heyden did signal her readiness to leverage her influencer status for anti-drug messaging. “I [have] contacted some police officers . . . and expressed my willingness to participate in the production of anti-drug popularization videos, especially for the international student community and the foreigner community in China, to remind them to abide by Chinese laws,” she wrote.

Friend or Faux Pas?

To be the focus of accusations of negative foreign influence in China is a strange turn of fortune for Heyden, who since at least 2021 has frequently expressed opinions that align with the messaging of the Chinese Communist Party — for example, denying Taiwan’s right to self-determination and defending human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Although she has worked with state media outlets like the People’s Daily and CGTN, however, she claims to be neither “pro-Germany” nor “pro-China,” and even sued Die Welt in 2021 for publishing an article that said she was covertly spreading propaganda for the PRC. However, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in the UK ran a report on her Twitter feed, which found evidence that her account was being boosted by inorganic traffic and retweets from PRC diplomats and Huawei bigwigs (several of whom just happened to retweet her at exactly the same time).

Heyden’s April 10 response on Weibo addressing the firestorm around her original post.

Heyden has built a career off providing a German perspective for Chinese readers. She writes a column for nationalist website Guancha (观察) commenting on German affairs, and has often been touted as a friend to China, with Beijing Daily (北京日报) saying she is “loved” by Chinese and foreigners alike, and a perfect template of what the Party-state asks of foreigners who “tell China’s story well.” Weibo labeled her a “German girl who stands up for China.” Heyden commented below asking Weibo not to label her account as such — but this has apparently been ignored. 

Attacks on Heyden are not what Beijing would like to see. They’ve taken great care to nurture foreign personalities willing to promote official viewpoints abroad. Former Global Times editor Hu Xijin argued when he weighed in on Weibo that Heyden’s stellar record of “defending China in the field of international public opinion” should earn her more tolerance, and that having her attacked from both sides would only make “Western public opinion applaud gleefully.”

When it comes to useful foreigners, however, “love” is far from unconditional.

Hearts and Minds

China’s presence has grown steadily across Latin America since the turn of the century, as it has brought the promise of investment and economic opportunity. Latin American countries have diverse and well-established media ecosystems, but as China’s importance grows, how prepared are they to provide their audiences with reliable information about the deepening relationship — and to resist the narratives of the Chinese state?

Examples of China’s media push in Latin America are evident everywhere, from influencers for CGTN, the state-run international broadcaster, who reach millions of followers in Portuguese and Spanish, to major regional media that have sold their entire China section to state propaganda outlets like the People’s Daily. To learn more about the Chinese-related challenges facing Latin American media, we sat down with Igor Patrick, whose new book Hearts and Minds, Votes and Contracts digs into what exactly China’s official media have been up to. 

Alex Colville: Your book dives deep into the issues of China’s media and information presence in Latin America. Could you run us through the most important takeaways of your research? How is China getting its message across in the region? 

Igor Patrick: China has been able to leverage content-sharing agreements to spread their preferred narratives on a number of topics through very well-established local media outlets. In general, there is not much transparency in these outlets about the fact that the content they are publishing comes from Chinese state media. So many people all over the region will attribute credibility to this content thinking they come from the newsroom, the producers of the stories they read or watch every day. 

In some cases, Chinese media also have ways to make the content look like the original content from that newspaper or that TV station. 

AC: Could you provide any concrete examples of how this works? 

IP: In Mexico, for example, I interviewed the international desk editor of Reforma, one of the country’s main newspapers, and she told me that [the content-sharing agreement] was signed between the marketing department of the newspaper and the People’s Daily, and she has no control over that content whatsoever — and is not told in advance when such content will be published. 

She has the impression that they designed the page to make it look like the other pages of the newspapers so that we wouldn’t be able to distinguish the difference. This content usually praises the Chinese model and has antagonizing narratives about the West, but is hard to spot for regular people. 

Screenshot of People’s Daily content as it appears in the “International” section of Brazil’s Reforma

The impact these agreements have on coverage varies a lot. My home country is Brazil, which has a long tradition of independent media. Content-sharing agreements don’t necessarily translate to less critical content about China in these media outlets. I think the outlier is Grupo Band [NOTE: This is a large media conglomerate in Brazil that owns nine TV channels and three radio networks]. 

Research by Professor Pablo Morales of LSE and Paulo Menechelli, a researcher from the University of Brazil, compared the content on China from Band’s networks from 2019 to 2021 together with other competitors and found there was a 15.2 percent reduction in negative reports after the launch of this partnership with the Chinese, while 57.1 percent was positive coverage.   

AC: Aside from traditional outlets and this “borrowed boat” model of distribution, you must also be seeing a lot of activity online. Is that right? 

IP: Yes, they really understand how to use social media. What media like CGTN are doing in a number of countries is to leverage how they have so many bilingual reporters, and to establish them as recognized local influencers. They start mixing very innocent, naive content about food and culture with very divisive topics like Xinjiang, Tibet, and so on. 

We see this in a number of countries in Latin America, like the journalist Luana Xing who focuses on Brazil. She’s been able to get 1.8 million followers on Facebook alone. I couldn’t verify how many of these followers are real [and not from paid promotion] because Meta doesn’t allow independent researchers to do data searches. But even if 10 percent of this is real, that’s already a huge number of people being reached by this content every day. She complained when Facebook labeled her page as Chinese state media. She recorded a video saying her page is not necessarily linked to her job, and maybe there’s some prejudice because she was Chinese. But her page is managed by Chinese state media — you can see that through the Facebook ads library, they check who’s paying for ads. 

More from CMP on China’s strategy for using personal accounts for state propaganda: “Personal Brands for Party Agendas

These influencers are engaging. People are not following them because they crave Chinese news, but because they like them. They become recognized voices in social media within this community, just like any other local influencer. Then if they want to learn something about China, or hear a Chinese perspective on something, they will seek them out. It’s an excellent strategy. 

But I think we also need to be careful in this case — because the Chinese have the right to have their own voice. One of the cases that I analyze is a reporter called Olivia Yang [NOTE: Yang is a CGTN journalist with 257,000 followers on Facebook, who selects topics based on viewer requests and makes it clear when her views align with the Chinese government]. Just by analyzing how her page was growing, it was very organic, and when I interviewed her she made the point that just by looking at her and by the fact that she is Chinese people assume that she’s just a CCP mouthpiece.

AC: What do you see as the main risks for these Latin American outlets when they enter into content-sharing agreements with state media? 

IP: The main problem of content-sharing that I see is not about China distorting the narrative on human rights violations or political systems. I think it harms the capacity of local media outlets in Latin America to assess how Chinese money has been impacting their own lives.  

Newspapers or TV stations with these agreements are going to feel less inclined to report on China negatively — say, if there are structural problems with a BRI project — because they rely on the money they are receiving from Chinese institutions. Reforma charges about 20,000 Mexican dollars (US$1,227) per page. This is a huge sum of money, and apparently, it’s used to fund the salaries of many reporters in the newsroom. 

In Argentina, you have several cases of strategic issues in their relationship with China — credit swap agreements, a nuclear power plant, and a PLA-operated space facility in the south — that the Argentinian government is contractually not allowed to investigate.

“[We] also need to be careful in this case — because the Chinese have the right to have their own voice.”

There used to be newspapers in Argentina that were very critical about China, but after papers on both sides of the political divide signed agreements they are not critical anymore because they receive a lot of money through advertorials. 

So the media might not investigate these strategic issues because if they do this is going to anger the Chinese and therefore they’re going to lose that money. There are even some cases in Argentina where newspapers have completely sold their China section to a state media outlet. 

AC: We’ve often highlighted in our research how clumsy and one-dimensional Chinese external propaganda can be. Do you have a sense of how audiences actually respond to the content in cases like the ones you just described? 

IP: Readers and viewers are not stupid, and if you portray a certain topic only through a positive lens people are going to notice. I think if they knew the content is coming from China it would severely decrease the credibility readers and viewers attribute to a specific story, and I can say this by looking at the comments on some of these stories. People are surprised that China is sponsoring content. 

An article praising Xi Jinping appears in March in Folha de S.Paulo, one of Brazil’s top newspapers.

The main newspaper in Brazil, Folha de S.Paulo, for example, just last month published a big two-page editorial right after the first page on how Xi Jinping is amazing. The reaction online was, “Why are you publishing this?” It was paid content [from Chinese media] but looked like the outlet’s regular content.

But there is demand for news on China in Latin America, especially after the pandemic. I believe the need for independent content about China will increase in Latin America, and media will eventually have to choose whether it is still beneficial to have these agreements with the Chinese. But if they don’t have them, they need to work out how they are going to fill this demand if they don’t have the resources to do so.

AC: Could you take the temperature of China’s quest to win hearts and minds in Latin America? Is it on the up, or still just finding its feet?

IP: I think they’re still seeing what works and what doesn’t work. First, they made the same mistake America made in the 1990s, which is considering Latin America as a bloc. Every country has its own culture and accent — in the case of Brazil, it’s not even the same language. Putting everything under the same umbrella makes it impossible for any media outlet to prosper. 

CNN tried for many years to make CNN Spanish popular in Brazil, to the point that in 1997 they even stopped broadcasting CNN in English. But Brazilians would prefer to watch it in English than Spanish — so they were only able to establish operations in Brazil after they signed a partnership with local media and created CNN Brazil. Chinese outlets have been doing the same thing. 

If you don’t understand the small nuances it’s very difficult to prosper and I think the advantage of the Chinese is that they change course when something isn’t going right, and experiment with new forms.

Professor Pablo Morales of LSE has done focus groups with young people in Mexico and Argentina, showing them footage from multiple Spanish-language news sources. When showing content produced by CGTN in Spanish, he noticed that many didn’t buy the narrative because of the accent of the reporters. They were using the so-called “neutral accent” that many US TV stations broadcasting in Spanish use, and link this content to colonialism. So if you don’t understand the small nuances it’s very difficult to prosper and I think the advantage of the Chinese is that they change course when something isn’t going right, and experiment with new forms.

I also believe that contrary to what happens in Europe, the US, Australia, Canada, and even to some extent Southeast Asia, China doesn’t necessarily represent a threat to Latin America. Chinese are more willing than the West to invest in big infrastructure projects that make lives better. In these countries, not many people would perceive China as a problem, so it makes it slightly easier for them to put content out there.

AC: Beyond the narratives that China places in these papers, what other lines of information do people from different countries within Latin America have on China? 

IP: I don’t think there is much out there. In general, most people in Latin America don’t think about China. Because of culture and geographical connections, they’re more worried about the media of neighbors in Latin America, the US, or Europe. They know that China is important and whatever it does is going to influence them, but it’s not something they actively follow. Perhaps [there is some content on] social media and YouTube, but in general I would say most of the news content about China comes from traditional media, not from other sources.

AC: How do you assess the general level of knowledge about China in Latin American countries, and also in newsrooms there?

IP: Not many people in these countries have the expertise to understand Chinese topics. This is a problem we’ve seen in newsrooms as well. 

I spoke with many editors who said they wish they had the money to send a correspondent to China and produce original content. They wish they had a reporter who could speak Chinese or had an understanding about how China works. But that’s not necessarily how the market operates here. That’s of course an opportunity for Chinese media and China’s propaganda to fill this void with content they selected. 

AC: Do they also have issues getting journalist visas to work in China? 

IP: Yeah, it’s increasingly difficult. My understanding is that Marcelo Ninio from O Globo and Nelson de Sá from Folha de S.Paulo, both from Brazil, are the only officially registered correspondents working in China for mainstream South American media right now. It’s mostly a matter of costs trying to navigate the bureaucracy to get a journalist in. China requires a physical bureau for a media outlet to operate in the country. Many outlets in Latin American countries cannot afford to have a physical bureau, and it’s a really chaotic process to set one up. 

But registering your own home is sketchy. Sometimes they authorize it. Sometimes they don’t. But if something happens regarding this paper, your house will be raided, not your newsroom. Something that I experienced as a journalist in China is that, even though my Chinese is not horrible, if I go somewhere more regional I have to have someone with me who can understand the local dialect. But the legislation doesn’t allow for [the hiring of local] freelancers. If I’m going to Yunnan, for example, I cannot hire someone from Yunnan for just one trip. I have to have them as my news assistant all this time. And that increases the financial burden on these newspapers. So for countries in the Global North, limits on journalism visas are mostly about politics. But for countries in the Global South, it’s about financial constraints preventing them from hiring someone and going through this chaotic process. 

AC: As you’ve said, this can encourage dependency on China’s official information and narratives. So what recommendations would you give outlets in the region to remain independent?

IP: It’s impossible to increase independent content on China if you don’t invest in training reporters to do it. So many countries know China better than we do, and have been dealing with China for longer than we have. It would be very beneficial if these countries could establish exchange programs for generalists interested in Chinese affairs to understand how to do China-related journalism. 

It’s impossible to increase independent content on China if you don’t invest in training reporters to do it.

China has been offering training programs for journalists to go to China and learn about it, but of course, they receive a filtered version of what is going on. In Mexico, there was a very small local TV station, and one of their journalists went to China for a training program. She came back and suddenly this TV station became big, and she became very vocal in defending the Chinese, repeating the favorite narratives of Chinese diplomacy. The owner of that TV station went to China and he was able to secure a deal worth millions of dollars to expand the operation. This is very common I would say. 

The same thing happened with the marketing coordinator from Radio Cooperativa, one of the main radio stations in Chile. When he came back from a seminar in Beijing, suddenly the radio station was broadcasting programs made in partnership with the Confucius Institute. Now he’s not only signing agreements with national media outlets like China Media Group, but also local state media like the Xiamen Media Group as well.

Pleas and Appeals

Footage of a woman wailing on her knees before a memorial to a Song-dynasty official went viral on the Chinese internet last week. Despite popular demand for more information, a lack of any press follow-up has instead let rumors fill the void. The question of why she would be kneeling before the image of an official who lived almost a thousand years ago goes to the heart of present-day questions of corruption, malfeasance, and social justice. 

Bao Zheng (包拯), the historical figure at the heart of this mystery, who can also be referred to as Lord Bao (包公) or Justice Bao (包青天), was famed for his honesty and upright ways following his death in the 11th-century. Bao Qingtian (as he has come to be popularly known) served as magistrate for the Song capital in present-day Kaifeng, Henan province. Bao initiated judicial reforms that let petitioners lodge complaints against corrupt local administrators — and for this reason his name has become a byword for justice and good governance.

Some nine and half centuries later, the unknown woman appealing to Bao at his memorial temple in Kaifeng is believed to be a petitioner herself, eager to present some grievance to a higher official who can help her seek justice — and what higher official than a celestial one? 

The highest appeal here may also be to the internet and social media. 

But the highest appeal here may also be to the internet and social media. 

From the 1990s through the 2000s, as a new generation of media programs like CCTV’s “News Probe” (新闻调查) experimented with hard-hitting programming about current affairs, petitioners came to see media as a possible vehicle for justice — a new form of Justice Bao. The joke in media circles was that two lines would regularly snake outside the offices of CCTV, the national broadcaster. The first were petitioners bringing evidence of local malfeasance. The second were local officials hoping to press the network not to run damning investigative programs.

The attention our contemporary Kaifeng petitioner has since received on online social media platforms has already inspired her fellow petitioners to follow suit and go over the heads of all earthly authorities, filing their complaints directly to Justice Bao. One video shows a group prostate at the same spot. When news spread that the site had been closed for maintenance, it looked like authorities were desperate to prevent any more repeat demonstrations.

An influencer on Baidu’s Haokan (好看) video platform asks, “Why is the worker in weeping before Justice Bao?”

Official media have only carried news from the municipal Culture and Tourism Bureau, clarifying that the woman was not an actress, as some netizens initially suspected, but likely a pilgrim crying merely because she was ”deeply moved” by the site. They also emphasized that the temple that had been closed was in fact another with the same name in a different city.

But despite heavy speculation about the woman from netizens, her identity remains unknown. One Weibo user known as “Judicial corruption fighter abc” (司法腐败斗士abc) claimed she was the mystery woman, and that grievance was against a court in northeastern Liaoning province that did not handle a legal case she was involved in properly. Earlier posts by the user, whose account has now been disabled, accused other provincial and municipal courts of corruption, so it’s also plausible this account was run by a whistle-blower using the event to amplify her cause.

We’ve written before in CMP about how stricter regulation of local media by provincial authorities means even the most trifling of incidents can become a black box, leaving rumor and misdirection to fill the void where verifiable facts should be. It means those trying to seek redress or publicize injustice at the grassroots have an even harder time getting the word out.

Blank Slates for the Two Sessions

With masks off and more than 1,000 foreign journalists in attendance at marquee political sessions in Beijing this month, China’s leaders were keen to show that the country’s door is open to the world — but look through that door and the signs abound of a China far less open and far less receptive to criticism.

There was the sudden cancellation, for the first time in 30 years, of the premier’s annual press conference; the harassment and questioning of reporters who dared to ask the general public even innocuous questions; and the decision not to provide foreign correspondents with advance copies of the government’s work report. 

But one of the clearest signs may have been the enthusiastic presence of a new cohort of foreign journalists hosted directly by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These first-time arrivals in China, accounting for at least one in ten of the reporters filling the balconies at this year’s National People’s Congress, received a disproportionate amount of attention from state media.

As many seasoned reporters are denied access, these invited guests are a reminder that the “openness” China wants is carefully stage-managed.

Show and Tell

According to state-run broadcaster CCTV, roughly 1,000 foreign journalists (including those from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) were registered this year to sit in on the Two Sessions (兩會) of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People, and to ask questions of government ministers at press conferences held outside of the big meetings.

From the start, this year’s journalistic cohort had a different feel to it. Bloomberg’s Colum Murphy noted on X (Twitter) that the press corps was more crowded than in previous years, as some had finally been given visas “after years of trying,” or else were part of a four-month Chinese journalism program for over 100 staffers from publications in the Global South.

Ibranovic appears in a joint program on the Two Sessions with CGTN.

Who were the journalists PRC state media chose to highlight? CCTV released a report interviewing six individuals, who all dutifully parroted Party talking points. They spoke of the “openness” of the Two Sessions, which allowed them to “understand China’s people-centered governance,” and their certainty that “China’s economy is strong and resilient.”

One of these was Damira Ibranovic, a reporter on foreign policy for one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s major national TV stations, Federalna. Ibranovic made multiple state media appearances throughout the Two Sessions, giving an interview to Phoenix TV (凤凰卫视) and co-hosting a CGTN video which also appeared on Federalna, with Ibranovic sharing her experience reporting on the Two Sessions. Recounting the press conference held by Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), she merely repeated Wang’s words about China wanting more cooperation with Europe and said she hoped China would intervene to stop the war in Gaza.

While Ibranovic said she had reported on Chinese politics in the past, she noted that this is not her area of expertise. At several points in official state media coverage, she made clear that this was her first time in the country (and indeed Asia). When she appeared as a panelist for CGTN she said her brief sojourn offered “a good experience to see [at first hand] how a different system works.”

The introductory session for this year’s media exchange program from CIPCC. Ibranovic can be seen in the foreground on the right.

Ibranovic, together with at least four of CCTV’s other six interviewees, is the alumnus of a media training program offered by the China International Press Communication Center (中国国际新闻交流中心), or CIPCC, a program under the China Public Diplomacy Association (中国公共协会), or CPDA. The CIPCC is an invitation-only, four-month course usually starting just before the Two Sessions for around 100 journalists from parts of Europe and the Global South. No journalists from North America were invited.

While the CPDA identifies itself publicly as a “non-profit social organization,” it is directly operated by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). It has been routinely used by the MFA, through many of China’s overseas missions, as a vehicle to engage with foreign media professionals and promote what China’s government calls a “true, multidimensional and comprehensive view of China.” 

At one 2022 event in Africa, journalists were treated to a lecture from the head of the MFA’s Africa Department, Wu Peng (吴鹏), on Xi Jinping’s “farsighted and inspired” political report to the 20th National Congress. The activities organized by the CIPCC are often described in official coverage as furthering the “external propaganda work” of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Some participants in this year’s program with the press exchange center (including two alumni quoted in the CCTV report) visited Guangxi last week, where they were given tours of cutting-edge tech companies and scenic beauty spots. “It’s my second visit to China,” one reporter from Georgia was quoted as saying in the official CCP publication in Weihai city. “It’s a wonderful country with high development. I will spread all this information to my country.”

A slide from the opening presentation given to this year’s CIPCC cohort, encouraging them to write about their positive experiences of China.

The most recent cohort of the program has been given lectures on China’s political, social, and cultural development, alongside exchange seminars on media issues and visits to CGTN and Xinhua. Such first-hand experience leads to “authentic reports,” according to CIPCC Director Yu Lei, that “transcend Western narratives.”

At the closing event for last year’s class of foreign journalists, the guest speaker was Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying (华春莹). Emphasizing diplomatic responsibilities over journalistic ones, she told the reporters that they “have become envoys of friendly exchanges and mutual understanding between China and their respective countries.”

Thinking Positive

The incentives for media in the Global South to participate in the program are clear — and may have nothing to do with amplifying PRC propaganda. As Igor Patrick notes in his forthcoming book Hearts & Minds, Votes & Contracts, outlets in Latin America struggle with financing difficulties, a dearth of qualified staff, and problems obtaining journalist visas from China. An official training course offered in an under-covered country can be the perfect foot in the door for any outlet keen to produce their own, independent coverage of China instead of just carrying wire copy.

But for China, journalistic expertise and independence are beside the point. The less familiar participants are to the country and region, the more likely they are to internalize and recite the “good stories” their hosts tell about themselves. The government views these tabula rasa, or blank-slate, journalists as more directly beneficial to the party-state in conveying its message to the world than more experienced, veteran foreign correspondents — many of whom have been expelled from the country or denied visas over the past few years.

The biggest losers are international audiences expecting impartial or authoritative coverage of one of the world’s most consequential nations. 

The less familiar participants are to the country and region, the more likely they are to internalize and recite the “good stories” their hosts tell about themselves.

Iara Vidal, who identifies herself as a Chinese affairs columnist for Brazil’s Revista Forum, a magazine that seeks “different worldviews” beyond mainstream media, provides a glimpse of what the geopolitical benefits that can accrue from media exchanges like those supported by the CIPCC.

Prior to joining the training program in 2022, Vidal was a fashion journalist with no experience of China. On the sidelines of the CCP’s 20th National Congress that year, she wrote about how she had lectured a journalist from Taiwan, telling the reporter that “Taiwan is China.” She claimed to have explained that “China is not going to invade a territory that has always been theirs, and I have never seen this country behave in a warlike way.”

A story on the Two Sessions for Federalna by Ibranovic, the reporter from Bosnia and Herzegovina, seems to show her attempting her own reporting. But there are telling knowledge gaps. In reporting on China’s economic goals announced at the conference, she misses out crucial context — not least the current headwinds facing China’s economy, and the fact that last year’s 5.2 percent growth rate was the lowest in decades. Much of her report reads like a grocery list of stated Chinese aims and agendas, without deeper analysis or questioning, though she does manage to bring in remarks from foreign politicians — such as European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen’s statement on March 7 about the emergence of a “rising and disturbing league of dictators.” Regarding China’s increasingly aggressive position on Taiwan, Ibranovic seems to wave this off as merely a matter of China “preserving what they consider their own.”

The shallowness of these reports is a feature rather than a bug of the CIPCC training program. Journalists who arrive in Beijing as paid guests of China, with itineraries managed and information dished out by the foreign ministry, are far more likely to enter and leave the country with a sense of gratitude — as the “envoys of friendly exchanges” Hua Chunying spoke about. 

CCTV reports on Al-Obaidi’s interaction with Wang Yi, which the reporter said made his life “now seem well worth it!”

Old Friends, and New

When China talks about its hopes for the work of foreign journalists, the word “friendship” is always close by. Friendliness was on display as Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) fielded a softball question during his press conference at the Two Sessions from Ameen Muneer Mohammed Al-Obaidi of China-Arab TV, a Dubai-based media company listed in Hong Kong and owned by Chinese businessman Zhang Lijun. 

In fluent Mandarin, Al-Obaidi tossed out the catchphrase China’s leadership has used since 2013 to focus its aim for a more positive global image through effective foreign propaganda: “What role can foreign reporters play in telling China’s story well?” 

The foreign minister smiled, and with feigned spontaneity noted that he had seen Al-Obaidi performing a freestyle street dance called kemusan in short videos posted online. Then, reading his prepared script, Wang began: “The China story is a great story, and this is first and foremost the story of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Wang said that journalists should tell the world about China’s achievements and its vitality, and about how it was a responsible power bringing peace and mutual benefit to the world. “We invite more foreign friends to come together to tell the story of an energetic and bustling China, and of China working hand-in-hand with other countries to build a community of shared future for mankind,” he said. 

Come journalists and tell the China story. But don’t lose the plot.

Mo Yan Against the Martyrs

One of China’s most celebrated modern authors is in the firing line, and the ammunition is a hardline 2018 law on the protection of heroes and martyrs. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Mo Yan (莫言) has irked extreme nationalist bloggers on the internet, one of whom, writing under the account name “Mao Xinghuo Who Speaks the Truth” (说真话的毛星火), filed a court order late last month to remove Mo Yan’s books from circulation and force him to pay 1.5 billion RMB in damages to the Chinese people and “stop infringing on heroes and martyrs” in his fiction.

The blogger’s four-page indictment, submitted to the Beijing Procuratorate, meticulously lists Mo Yan’s supposed offenses, including portraying members of the Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War as sexually abusive, “beautifying” Japanese soldiers, insulting Mao Zedong, and saying that the Chinese people have “no truth and no common sense.”

A Weibo post from “Mao Xinghuo Who Speaks the Truth” details the bloggers accusations against writer Mo Yan.

“Such words and deeds have greatly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Mao Xinghuo solemnly claims. “As an upright and patriotic young man, I feel very angry. How does the country allow such behavior to exist?” The blogger has been trying to bring a case against Mo Yan for months, and has asked publishers not to work with him. Fellow nationalist bloggers rallied to the cause, pointing to the more sexually explicit parts of his oeuvre as pornographic.

The incident shows how the active efforts of China’s leadership in recent years to enforce nationalist sentiment around the sanitized history of the Party can backfire and turn on cultural figures who are seen as a source of national pride. 

Son of China

Since his Nobel win, Mo Yan has frequently been lauded and upheld by the government and the party-state media as a sign of China’s rising prestige in the world. Upon receiving news of the win in late 2012, Li Changchun (李长春), the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology, sent a letter of congratulation to the semi-official China Writers Association hailing the news and calling it “a manifestation of the steady rise of our country’s comprehensive national power and international influence.”

The prize immediately transformed Mo’s life and legacy into a public resource for national pride, to the extent that one local official in the author’s hometown reportedly told Mo’s father: “Mo Yan is no longer your son, and the house is no longer your house.” 

Mao Xinghuo’s attack on Mo Yan is not the first time the author has been criticized for his work. But as one commentator with the username “Princess Minmin” (敏敏郡主) noted on WeChat, this time felt like a “large-scale siege” by a younger generation of internet trolls. An informal poll on Weibo asking netizens if Mo Yan should be criminally prosecuted received over 8,000 affirmative votes.

The use of the country’s law on the protection of heroes and martyrs, introduced five years after his Nobel win, also adds a new twist. 

Red Hokum

Mo is just the latest creative threatened with legal action by Chinese citizens for supposedly insulting the nation’s martyrs. In 2013, historian Hong Zhenkuai was ordered by a Beijing court to issue a public apology for his factual deconstruction of the apocryphal story of the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain” — a ripping yarn about five soldiers holding out against the might of the Japanese army in 1941 to buy their retreating comrades time, before hurling themselves to their deaths. The case was brought against Hong by the sons of two of the five men, lauded as communist heroes.

Mo is just the latest creative threatened with legal action by Chinese citizens for supposedly insulting the nation’s martyrs.

Such cases are now easier for citizens to bring to court. The Mao Xinghuo blogger seeks to prosecute Mo under the 2018 Protection of Heroes and Martyrs Law (英雄烈士保护法), urged for by the descendents of the Langya Mountain braves. There is also an amendment added to China’s Criminal Law in 2021 stating that “whoever insults, slanders or otherwise infringes upon the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs” can be imprisoned for up to three years. 

Xi Jinping has repeatedly urged the nation to fight “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义), a catchall euphemism for any interpretation of the past that runs counter to the patriotic, CCP-approved version of events. Xi believes that the West is trying to use “historical nihilism” to undermine faith in the founding myths that underpin Chinese Communist Party rule, and has argued it contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Since 2021, these two laws have led to the arrest of a number of people, including a former investigative reporter for Economic Observer (经济观察报) who challenged the Chinese casualty numbers in a border skirmish with India earlier that year, and a former deputy editor for the finance and current affairs magazine Caijing (财经杂志) who commented on WeChat that few Chinese today have ever questioned the official justifications for China’s intervention in the Korean War.

But these laws also make it more likely for any acts framed as protecting Chinese “heroes” to receive serious attention, regardless of merit. In Mo Yan’s case, his accuser claims the court has not accepted his indictment against Mo Yan because he does not have the author’s address. 

But there also seem to be serious problems with Mao’s grasp of the facts. On page three of his indictment, for example, he lists comments made by the Chairman of the Nobel Prize Literature Committee in 2012 when introducing Mo Yan, such as that the Chinese live in a “pigsty,” as something that Mo Yan should somehow be punished for. He neglects to mention Mo Yan’s own speeches were patriotic in tone — in his Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, Mo Yan claimed that if it weren’t for China’s “tremendous” development since reform and opening up, “I would not be a writer today.”

The case against Mo Yan might have languished in relative obscurity if not for former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), who brought the case against Mo Yan to the attention of his 24 million followers by defending Mo. Mao Xinghuo successfully goaded Hu into a spat on the meaning of patriotism, and threatened to sue Hu as well. Hu has since posted a recording of Mo Yan at a public forum in 2013 praising Mao Zedong’s achievements and writing style — saying that “so-called ‘public intellectuals’” who criticize the former leader’s work are “ridiculous.”

That a Weibo celebrity like Hu Xijin felt it necessary to engage with a hitherto obscure blogger with just 219,000 followers could show a level of panic, as some netizens noted in comments under Hu’s posts. There are distinct echoes of the systems that underpinned the cruelty of the Cultural Revolution in this tale of a grassroots fanatic adopting the messaging of the central Party leadership to punish prominent intellectuals for their past work. In 1966, not even prominent writer Guo Moruo, President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and author of toe-curling sycophantic odes to Mao, was safe from accusations over his pre-Communist “bourgeois” work. Hu was standing up not just for Mo Yan, but all Chinese public intellectuals.

A post from law professor Lao Dongyan on March 7 criticizes “an anti-intellectual culture” in China.

This blogger seems not to have been taken seriously or to have gleaned a large following. But by making it easier to prosecute for slandering heroes and martyrs, China’s leadership has made witch-hunts against anyone who has discussed them more likely — even against one of their own. 

For some, attacks against cultural figures like Mo Yan are a sign of the spread of an intolerant anti-intellectualism in China. Responding last week to what some have called “the Mao Xinghuo phenomenon” (毛星火现象), Lao Dongyan (劳东燕), a professor at Tsinghua University School of Law, called such attacks “ignorant,” saying they showed that “an anti-intellectual culture has spread, reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge.” 

Given China’s own experiences with violent anti-intellectual convulsions such as the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution, Lao might have found examples much closer to home than Cambodia’s radical communist movement. But this is now very much beside the point — the professor’s post has already been deleted.

  • 1
  • 2