Author: CMP Staff

Two Countries at War, in the People’s Daily

On Monday this week, a report on page three of the People’s Daily recounted the compliments offered by foreign leaders to Xi Jinping as he secured a historic third term as China’s president. It was a boilerplate piece of propaganda, affirming the great esteem with which Xi and his leadership have been regarded internationally.

From Israeli President Isaac Herzog: “Under your leadership, China has achieved tremendous development, and I believe that China will continue to prosper.” From Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha: “Your global development initiatives and global security initiatives offer hope for a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous world.”

But there was one notable surprise in the otherwise unremarkable People’s Daily tribute to Xi — the mentioning by name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who since Russia’s invasion of his country more than a year ago has been mentioned just once in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper.

Page 3 of the March 20, 2023, edition of the People’s Daily, with an article mentioning Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The language from Zelensky came amid speculation that Xi Jinping will speak by video with the Ukrainian leader later this week, shortly after his return from a state visit to Moscow. And it seemed to underline the importance of China’s role in addressing global security issues, coming as Xi Jinping has positioned himself as a peace negotiator:

President Zelensky of Ukraine said that the Ukrainian side attaches great importance to the traditionally friendly relations between Ukraine and China. “I am confident that under your leadership, China will make significant contributions to strengthening the world security architecture and consolidation of the world order based on the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. I wish you new and outstanding achievements in your governance [of China].”

Interestingly — symbolically? — the first mention of Zelensky in the People’s Daily since October 2022 was hemmed in on all sides by articles extolling China’s deep friendship and partnership with Russia, including a piece penned by Vladimir Putin himself, “Russia and China: A Partnership for the Future.”

“I am convinced that the friendship and partnership between Russia and China, based on the strategic choices of our two peoples, will continue to grow strong and make Russia and China happy and prosperous,” Putin said in closing his article, which spoke of a no-bounds military and political alliance exceeding that of the Cold War.

“Without a doubt, the Chinese President’s visit will contribute to this,” he wrote.

Framing China’s Health Experts

When China scrapped mandatory quarantine for foreign arrivals on January 9th this year, the last pillar propping up the government’s “zero Covid” regime came crashing down. The decision marked the final collapse not just of a policy that had defined life in China for three years, but also of the scaffolding of expert opinion that had long supported these measures.

Suddenly, leading epidemiologists who had publicly made scientific cases for adhering to lockdown measures were talking about the science of completely scrapping them, with slippery words like “optimization.” The before-and-after contrasts, laid out in posts like this one on Chinese social media, seemed to beg a fundamental question: What good are health experts if politics leads their science by the nose? 

Cringy Contrasts

One prominent case in point has been medical expert Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), dubbed a hero during the 2003 SARS epidemic and chosen in early 2020 to lead a Covid response expert panel under China’s National Health Commission (NHC). 

In March 2022, Zhong was quoted in the People’s Daily and other official sources as saying that the “harmfulness” of the Omicron variant “far exceeded that of the flu,” encouraging fear of a more relaxed approach. While the rate of deaths might be low, he suggested, the variant remained highly infectious. 

The doctor’s voice was even used to allay fears about the deep economic impact of continued lockdowns. “But life comes first, and this is a price that must be borne, a price worth paying,” he was quoted by the official China News Service as saying. “Because economic losses can be regained, but the loss of human life cannot.” 

The doctor’s voice was even used to allay fears about the deep economic impact of continued lockdowns.

The next month, as the turmoil of Shanghai’s lockdown drove a wave of public anger, the doctor was invoked repeatedly by the media to make the case for what Xi Jinping called “persistence.” A headline in the China Youth Daily newspaper read: “Zhong Nanshan: China Should Persist with Dynamic Zero, Opening Gradually.” Similar cautions appeared across commercial internet sites.  

On April 11, 2022, the China Youth Daily newspaper invokes Zhong Nanshan in a headline about “persisting” in the “zero Covid” policy. 

But as controls were suddenly eliminated in December, even as the government seemed to have neglected the most basic preparations, Zhong Nanshan changed his tune — and set off marching in the opposite direction. 

On December 19, less than two weeks after the NHC announced a nationwide relaxation of Covid restrictions, Zhong was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying, “Now, looking correctly at the situation caused by Omicron, one cannot apply the methods of two years ago.” In a clear reversal of the government’s previous fear-mongering over the dangers of infection, he added that “Omicron infection is not scary, and 99 percent [of people] can fully recover within 7-10 days.” 

This dramatic about-face in the official messaging was for many Chinese a tacit admission of how ill-considered the policies applied over the previous year had been. It also sapped public confidence in the reliability of the knowledge and advice offered by experts. 

By the end of the year, Zhong Nanshan was facing what one blogger in China called “a serious crisis of credibility.” He was not alone. Experts like Liang Wannian (梁萬年), head of the Covid response expert panel under the NHC, had similarly been strong voices in support of “zero Covid,” and they too were now supporting a dramatically different policy, even as they claimed to base their points on science. 

Science When the Expert Says So

During a press conference on December 7, as the government announced sweeping changes to its policy, Liang casually noted “a decrease in the virulence and pathogenicity of the virus, which is already present in the Omicron strain.” 

Contrast this with his message less than eight months earlier, on April 22, as Shanghai’s lockdown was accelerating and whole communities were forcibly relocated. At that time, Liang had been referenced in a  report headlining the official nightly news program Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) that made the case for the leadership’s decision to “unshakably persist” in its “zero Covid” policy. That report said: “Determining the seriousness of a disease, Liang Wannian said, requires an overall calculation of its infectiousness and the serious illnesses and deaths it causes. Omicron is much more transmissible than influenza and other previous mutant strains of Covid.”

A WeChat post in December 2022 puts August and December remarks on Covid by expert Zhong Nanshan side-by-side, marking a dramatic change in Zhong’s perspective on the dangers of the disease. On the left, Zhong warns that no medicines can stave off Covid. On the right, he is quoted as saying that “Omicron is not scary.”  

In recent months, Liang Wannian has repeatedly used the word “science” to explain away accusations that there were failures in how the government managed the loosening of Covid restrictions. On January 7, the epidemiologist, regarded as one of the architects of “zero Covid,” explained that because the virulence of the Omicron strain had been shown to be low, “I think the timing [of the policy change] was determined in a scientific way, that it was appropriate and in accordance with the relevant requirements.” 

Rewind just three months to the first half of October and Liang can be found on the popular news commentary program News 1+1 on China Central Television, warning millions of viewers that “from a scientific point of view, it is also difficult to say when we can return to normal,” considering that the Omicron variant “remains a major health threat to the population.”

But behind these apparent case studies in expert flip-flopping lies a deeper story about the framing and censorship of expert knowledge by the Chinese Party-state and its massive media ecosystem. And once again, Zhong Nanshan could be a strong case in point. 

Behind the Face of Persistence

One of the most revealing episodes in the saga of Chinese expert opinion on Covid came in the first week of April 2022 but was quickly eclipsed by the dramatic scenes emerging from the lockdown in Shanghai, and by a tidal wave of official propaganda in support of “zero Covid.” 

On April 6, the English-language National Science Review, a journal edited by scholars from the Chinese Academy of Sciences with a full list of editors and advisory board members comprising leading Chinese experts, published an editorial called “Strategies for Reopening in the Forthcoming Covid-19 Era in China.” Co-authored by Zhong Nanshan and Guan Weijie (关伟杰), a doctor at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease, the editorial said that China’s current Covid policies “cannot be pursued in the long run.”

“China needs to reopen so as to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening,” Zhong and Guan wrote. 

The article immediately prompted speculation that changes might be underway to China’s Covid response. But the signs quickly changed. A Chinese-language version of the article had briefly circulated on social media inside China on April 4, ahead of the official publication date, but this version was quickly expunged, and replaced with an article reflecting the official view. In consideration of the generally extended period required for the peer review of academic journal contributions, some speculated that the Zhong Nanshan article had been submitted prior to the March 17, 2022, address to the Politburo Standing Committee in which Xi Jinping doubled down on “zero Covid” by reappropriating the revolutionary slogan “persistence is victory.” 

China needs to reopen so as to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening.

Zhong Nanshan, in an article deleted from the Chinese internet in early April 2022.

In the weeks that followed, there were further hints of criticism and resistance within China — and not just from medical experts. In a post to WeChat on April 19, 2022, Liu Xiaobing (刘小兵), a delegate to the National People’s Congress and the head of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE), called on the authorities to raise the “scientificity” (科学性) of the Covid response. 

Among his carefully thought-out suggestions, which included more recent research on the Omicron variant, Liu focused on the national framing of the virus and the measures to deal with it as a key contributing factor, feeding an unnecessary sense of fear to support policies. “The dangers of the epidemic should be judged scientifically and objectively,” he said, “and the virus should not be demonized in national propaganda.” 

While Liu Xiaobing’s post did not expressly call for an end to “zero Covid,” it was quickly deleted by internet censors, again depriving the public space of important facts and perspectives. 

The flip-flopping remarks of China’s medical experts have prompted some amusing and revealing discussions on Chinese social media, but the limits of this discussion again reveal the key underlying issue. One WeChat post, “Experts Have Mutated Overnight” (一夜之间, 砖家们全变异了), which laid before-and-after examples side-by-side, was widely shared but quickly censored.

Taken together, the deletion of the Zhong Nanshan editorial, the constructive criticisms offered by Liu Xiaobing, and even a playful WeChat post folding the history of Covid-related official communication against itself, all reveal the immense barrier created by censorship and propaganda. They are a reminder of a painful lesson that played out in the earliest days of Covid in late 2019, as doctors in Wuhan were quietly disciplined for privately discussing local infection cases, and warned instead to “speak politics,” “speak discipline,” and only last to “speak science.” 

However much the leadership and its experts in the official media may talk about the need for scientific approaches, it is politics that ultimately drives decision-making in China. The result is not just poor public policy but a complete loss of credibility for experts, in the eyes of an increasingly jaded and untrusting population.

China's propaganda department is hiring

China’s Propaganda Machine is Calling

Have you ever imagined yourself networking with newspaper and website editors to force the latest censorship directives down their throats, or to threaten them with disciplinary action? Have you ever been so moved by the consummate greatness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its enlightened leadership that you need to shout it to the whole world?

Your dream begins now.

China’s Ministry of Human Resources has posted its 2023 call for the hiring of positions within the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department and its subsidiary departments. This would include branches like the Overseas Promotion Office (对外推广局), the International Communications Office (国际传播局), and the Overseas News Office (对外新闻局). It would also include related entities masquerading as private enterprises and driving external propaganda internationally — the likes of the China International Communications Group (对外称中国国际传播集团), or CICG, and the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心), or CICC.

If censorship and propaganda, both at home and abroad, are your cup of tea, then the Central Propaganda Department has just a few basic requirements.

First, you will need to be a citizen of the People’s Republic of China — sorry foreigners. Next, and this is critical, which is why it tops the list, you must “be firm in your political position” (政治立场坚定), and that position must of course be the CCP’s position. This means — as the announcement says — that you must “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system, be firm in upholding the ‘Four Consciousnesses,’ resolute in the ‘Four Confidences,’ and must achieve the ‘Two Safeguards.’”

If you do not know what these phrases mean, you are probably best not to apply for a position. But they are essentially about the emphasis on Xi Jinping as the “core” of the Party and the fountainhead of the ideas propelling it into the glorious future. The first of the “Two Safeguards” is about the need to protect the “core,” meaning Xi himself. Meanwhile, the  “Four Consciousnesses” are about the need to 1) maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership “core” (again, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.

Beyond holding the above as a matter of faith and practice, the successful job candidate must “maintain a high degree of consistency with the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core in ideology, politics and action, and be ready to join work in propaganda, ideology and culture with conviction.”

Is this you?

There are a host of other prerequisites in the propaganda department announcement, including age requirements. Those with undergraduate level education must not be older than 24; those with master’s degree level education must not be older than 27; and those with PhDs must not be older than 35. But candidates who feel they meet the necessary requirements need only fill out the “Central Propaganda Department Units 2023 Open Recruitment Application Form” (中宣部直属单位2023年度公开招聘报名表) to begin the rigorous process involving a credentials check, written tests and face-to-face interviews,  a physical health check, an on-the-spot investigation (for example, at the candidate’s school), and finally the singing of the employment agreement.

According to the announcement, there are an estimated 114 positions to be made available at 21 subordinate units of the Central Propaganda Department. That means plenty of opportunities for those willing to check their sense of dignity and conscience at the door. All others need not apply.

Optimization: Another Word for Messy

China’s sudden about-face on its rigid “zero Covid” policy in early December, which resulted in a tidal wave of infections across the country, was a public embarrassment for the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Accounts of hospitals and emergency rooms overwhelmed with severe cases, pharmacies cleaned out of basic fever-reducing medications like Ibuprofen, and bodies piling up at funeral homes pointed to a woeful lack of preparation — in spite of the coercive and all-consuming controls applied since the pandemic began.   

The stark and often irrational contrasts in China’s Covid story prompted one internet user to muse wryly in a year-end recap:

Professional matters were handled with bullshit.
Bullshit matters were handled with professionalism.
Good things were done atrociously.
Atrocious things were done seamlessly.

How does an image-obsessed political system deal with the fallout after so many months of insisting that the costs of strict lockdown must be borne by all with a sense of sacrifice? Deny and reframe.

Over the past two months, the CCP leadership has sought to downplay drug shortages and other problems, insisting that all is going according to plan. State media have actively pushed the narrative that the sudden dismantling of rigid Covid control measures was simply a skillful re-tooling of existing policies. And one of the most important tools in this reframing process has been the phrase “optimize and adjust epidemic prevention and control measures” (优化调整疫情防控举措).

The notion that China “optimized” policies in December has now become an essential part of CCP propaganda, with the claim, supported by the selective use of foreign voices, that sudden changes in Covid policy were good not only for the health and livelihoods of Chinese citizens but for the development of the entire world.

“Optimizing” at the Local Level

When official media in Guangzhou announced in late November that strict Covid control policies had been dismantled in certain districts of the city, the headline read: “New! Many Districts in Guangzhou Optimize and Adjust Epidemic Prevention and Control Measures.”

Guangzhou media announced changes to Covid measures in early December as an “optimization.”

By the middle of December, following the State Council’s release on December 7 of its “Notice on the Further Optimization of Measures for the Prevention and Control of Covid-19,” cities across China were “optimizing”: Shanghai, Ningbo, Dongguan. All were pushing, they said, to “optimize and adjust epidemic prevention and control measures.”

As a report on the Ningbo government website on December 8 read:

Since December 5, the city has optimized and adjusted its epidemic prevention and control measures. A few days ago, the reporter came to Jiangbei District primary medical institutions and PCR testing sites to witness changes in public traffic to these places. The reporter came to the city’s No. 9 Hospital and found that the health code scanning sign originally set at the entrance of the east gate had been removed, and both private cars and pedestrians could enter the hospital for medical treatment by simply showing the green code of health code to security personnel.

As reports abounded across Chinese social media and in international news coverage of a whole range of problems stemming from rising cases, including inadequate treatment facilities and drug shortages, the People’s Daily doubled down on the notion that this was an “optimization” resulting from careful and “scientific” consideration of the situation on the ground.

Foreign Friends on China’s Wisdom

On December 14, the newspaper ran an article called “’Scientific Assessments Made in Light of the Times and Situation’ (How the International Community sees China’s Optimization of Its Epidemic Prevention and Control Measures).” The article lined up quotes attributed to various foreign scholars, journalists, and ostensible civil society figures — all of them regular sources in state media coverage — to make the case that China’s recent actions on Covid were an extension through “optimization” of three years of supreme policy competence.

The article quoted Eduardo Regalado of the International Policy Research Center of Cuba (CIPI), a frequently cited foreign source that CMP covered in its August study called “China’s Global Soundbyte Factory,” as well as the Cambodian head of a Chinese Friendship Association whose claim to fame is having translated Xi Jinping’s Governance of China into the Khmer language.   

On the last day of 2022, a commentary in the official People’s Daily by “Zhong Yin” (仲音) — a homophone for “important voice” (重要声音) that marks it as reflecting the prevailing leadership view — was called “Time and Situation, Steadily Optimizing and Adjusting Prevention and Control Policies” (因时因势,不断优化调整疫情防控政策). The commentary argued that China’s reclassification of Covid as a Class B infectious disease, subject to less stringent Class B measures (乙类乙管),  has “brought greater benefits for global economic development.”

The notion that China “optimized” policies in December has now become an essential part of CCP propaganda.

The commentary stated in a blanket fashion that foreign chambers of commerce had welcomed the change in China’s policy. Broadly speaking, this was true. But confidence in an eventual return to normal business, including crucial in-person contacts, was not the ringing endorsement the newspaper claimed.

Last month, Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber,  welcomed changes to Covid measures in China but noted clearly that “the government’s emphasis on testing over vaccination had led to a waste of resources and greatly impacted people’s daily lives,” and that his group had consistently promoted vaccination since the start of the pandemic — apparently to deaf ears.

The commentary drew ostensible foreign support from a few sources quoted in the December 14 piece, including “Isabel,” identified as a news editor at the Manila Bulletin in the Philippines. According to the People’s Daily, “Isabel” had said with “heartfelt feelings” that she “expressed her admiration for the results achieved by China’s insistence on research in the course of prevention and control.” Conveniently, the Manila-based editor’s comments were a perfect mirror of the CCP’s new talking points, as she said that China had provided a shining example “by closely tracking virus variants, strengthening effective research and development, and stockpiling medications, enhancing medical treatment capacity, and constantly optimizing measures to prevent and control the epidemic.”

This phrase essentially leveled three years of Covid history into a single affirmation of top-level decision-making as “scientific,” but also responsive. The new story to cap 2022 was that the leadership had always been willing to bend to the circumstances, despite Xi Jinping declaring with revolutionary fervor in May, following chaos in Shanghai, that “persistence [in applying zero Covid] is victory.”

“The wise change with the times,” the December 31 commentary said.

A Capstone for China’s Covid Legacy

In China, all policies are too big to fail. The CCP invests so much of its credibility and legitimacy in the idea that it governs effectively and “scientifically,” always for the benefit of the people, that the story of success is always written before the outcome. (For more on this, read CMP’s “Propaganda Soars Into Orbit,” a look at the messaging campaigns that began from bottom to top from the start of the CCP’s push to eradicate poverty.)

This is why the narrative of “optimization” and “adjustment” will continue in 2023 and beyond, as China’s leaders leverage their vast propaganda apparatus to set the capstone for the CCP’s Covid legacy.

On Monday this week, the People’s Daily again enlisted foreign voices to push the narrative that China’s “optimization” of its Covid policy has been for the benefit of the entire world. The article was carried on news sites across the country, including Netease, Yangcheng Evening News, and Shanghai’s Jiemian.

The newspaper quoted Pakistan’s Ambassador to China Moin ul Haque perfectly mirroring official CCP talking points as he said: “China’s adjustment of the classification of Covid as Class B is a scientific decision made in response to the situation.” As a major trading partner of more than 140 countries and regions, the ambassador reportedly said, China’s optimization and adjustment of its Covid policies “will further stabilize the global industry chain supply chain and inject strong momentum into the global economic recovery.”

Cai Qi Leads Propaganda Ministers Conference

In his first address this week to hundreds of propaganda ministers from across China, the newly-minted Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi (蔡奇) urged all present to “accurately grasp the new circumstances and new tasks” facing the Chinese Communist Party, according to a summary provided by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Cai enjoined propaganda leaders to use “core socialist values” to “better meet the diverse and high-quality spiritual and cultural needs of the people” and to “comprehensively improve the level and effectiveness of foreign propaganda work.” As for what these instructions meant in practice, official reports did not elaborate.

But obedience to Xi Jinping and his governing concepts was clearly at the heart of what Cai outlined as the essentials of “propaganda and ideology work” (宣传思想工作). Leaders, he said, must “uphold the leadership of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” the banner phrase synonymous with the power and legacy of the CCP’s general secretary.

Moreover, they must “deeply comprehend the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes’” (两个确立), this being code for the centrality of Xi as “core” leader, and Xi’s ideas as the bedrock of the future. And they must “uphold the ‘Two Safeguards’” (两个维护), known elsewhere as the “Two Upholds” or “Two Protections” — all about the need to 1) protect the “core” status of Xi Jinping within the CCP, and 2) to protect the centralized authority of the Party.

Following the 20th National Congress of the CCP in October last year, Cai Qi, who previously served as Party Secretary of Beijing, succeeded Wang Huning (王沪宁) as the First Secretary of the CCP Secretariat in charge of propaganda and ideology. He is assumed to be a close ally of Xi Jinping, having long served in official positions in Zhejiang province, overlapping with Xi’s time there as CCP secretary (2002-2007).

The National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference (全国宣传部长会议) is a meeting of top national, provincial and city-level propaganda officials held each year during the first half of January to lay out the top priorities for propaganda and ideology for the coming year.

Colorless Tributes for Jiang Zemin

As the news came this afternoon of the death of China’s former top leader Jiang Zemin (江泽民) at the age of 96, the treatment of the story in the country’s online media was a study in color contrasts.

Jiang’s death was reported after 4 PM in the form of a pair of official Xinhua News Agency items — the first a letter of notice to the country, the second the “committee list” for Jiang’s funeral arrangements. After announcing Jiang’s passing to the Party, the military, and the country, the first release listed the former leader’s honorifics:

Comrade Jiang Zemin was an outstanding leader who had the utmost respect of our Party, our military, and the various peoples of our nation; a great Marxist, a great proletarian revolutionary, politician, military expert, and diplomat; a tried and tested communist fighter, an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics; the core of the third generation of the Party’s collective leadership; and the main founder of the important thought of the ‘Three Represents.’

The honorifics bestowed on CCP leaders after their death are not an incidental matter. They are considered carefully in the light of history and internal Party politics. For more on this issue, readers can turn to David Bandurski’s 2017 article, “The Politics of Passing On.”

The phrase “great proletarian revolutionary” used here, for example, is far more elevated that the usual “outstanding proletarian revolutionary” — putting Jiang, not so surprisingly, in the company of a short-list of greats including Deng Xiaoping, Ye Jianying, Chen Yun, Yang Shangkun, and Hu Yaobang.

As this pair of Xinhua releases went out through CCP media across the country, those directly under the leadership of Party committees and propaganda departments, site designs went black.

At People’s Daily Online, the letter of notice was carried across the top of the image slider. The website’s banner remained a link to a collection of “important speeches” from Xi Jinping, but the backdrop, usually bright CCP red, was drained of its color. All images and advertisements across the site’s homepage, including the digital version of today’s edition of the People’s Daily print edition, were black or chalky grey.

The homepage of People’s Daily online at around 5 PM on November 30, 2022.

The text immediately under the main headline read, simply:

Our beloved Comrade Jiang Zemin, suffering from leukemia combined with multiple organ failure, could not be resuscitated and passed away in Shanghai at 12:13 PM on November 30, 2022, at the age of 96.

The lower sections of the website, all the way down to the footer, were darkened to black, including advertisements for Dell Technologies and other companies.

The middle section of People’s Daily Online at around 5PM on November 30, 2022.

The treatment at the website of the Global Times, a sister publication of the People’s Daily, was nearly identical. The same headlines for the same Xinhua releases. And propaganda feature buttons for campaigns such as studying the “spirit” of the 20th National Congress of the CCP were again all in black.

The website of the Global Times at around 5PM on November 30, 2022.

China Youth Online, the website of China Youth Daily, a newspaper under the Chinese Communist Youth League, also flipped the switch this afternoon.

China Youth Online goes all black on November 30, 2022, to mark the passing of Jiang Zemin.

And here is the same treatment at Tianshan Online (, the official website of the Xinjiang region, under the control of its propaganda department.

Tianshan Online on the afternoon of November 30, 2022.

At Chongqing News Online, a site under the control of the propaganda department of the Chongqing Municipal CCP Committee and its official Chongqing Daily newspaper, the flipping of the switch, sending the site into black and white, created more than the usual visual confusion. The propaganda banners generally populating the top of the site were all there — about Xi Jinping’s inspirational ideas and new paths of struggle in the “New Era.”

But in black and white, they formed a thick and unbroken layer of rhetorical stratigraphy separating visitors from the news down below: “Letter of Notice of the Whole Party, the Whole Army, and the People of the Nation / Funeral Committee List for Comrade Jiang Zemin.”

Chongqing News Online at around 5PM on November 30, 2022

But while all media and websites were likely under explicit instructions to run the official Xinhua notices about Jiang’s death, more commercially-minded outlets and private internet portals were apparently not under orders to go black, and they took hybrid approaches.

The Beijing News, for example, the paper’s logo on the site banner maintained its characteristic deep red, and a propaganda banner further down announced in deep red the publication of a recent speech by Xi Jinping in the official CCP journal Seeking Truth. Links to the newspaper’s WeChat and Weibo accounts were also in full color.

Only then came the Xinhua announcement of Jiang Zemin’s death, along with black-and-white news items of the releases on the officials set to prepare and attend the former leader’s funeral.

The website of The Beijing News on November 30, 2022, with Xinhua notices on Jiang Zemin’s death in prominent position, but color still used on the site.

A newspaper with a deep tradition of professionalism from its founding in 2003, at the dawn of the Hu Jintao era, The Beijing News was brought under the management of the Beijing municipal propaganda department in September 2011, a clear attempt to bring it to heel.

The Paper, an online portal launched in July 2014 under the state-run Shanghai United Media Group, remained full color this afternoon, choosing to include the official releases about Jiang’s death and the list of funeral attendees along with other propaganda items, including the same Xi Jinping speech printed in Seeking Truth.

Shanghai’s The Paper runs the official Xinhua releases on Jiang Zemin’s death, but without going black or special treatment.

There was no effort in The Paper to accentuate the news about Jiang’s death and featured images and advertisements remained in color.

At private internet sites too, like Sina and Phoenix Online, the color remained. and iFeng (Phoenix Online) run the official Xinhua News Agency releases on Jiang’s death, probably under orders to do so. But colors remain on the sites.

A Sina Weibo, where full color remained except for individual posts from Party-run media, the pair of Xinhua News Agency releases topped the list of most popular posts, listed as “exploding.” Slipping under these trending stories were several other hashtags about how Covid measures were being “optimized and refined.”

The Good Journalist

Today is the 23rd annual China Journalists’ Day. And in a nod of respect to the profession, the hashtag for a special themed page was pinned to the top of the hot searches roster on the popular Weibo platform: “#GoodJournalistsTellGoodStories” (#好记者讲好故事).

If you are a journalist working in China today, what does it mean to tell a “good story”?

In an address to top officials in charge of ideology in August 2013, Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, said that “telling China’s story well” was essential to shaping a favorable global image of China — what the Chinese Communist Party calls “external propaganda work.” The phrase has since come to describe more broadly the fundamental mission of the Chinese journalist in the New Era, whether at home or abroad.

The hashtag “#GoodJournalistsTellGoodStories” appears at the top-right of Weibo today.

Telling China’s story well means focusing on the positives, ensuring that your work as a journalist helps to shape a favorable public view of China. And the most important aspect of this act of proper telling — as CCP scholars have clearly laid out — is the primary goodness of the Party itself.

Not One Minute Outside the Line

To fully understand how the Party sees the role of the journalist today, one of the best sources we can turn to is the recent remarks made on domestic and international propaganda by Fu Hua (傅华), who back in June this year was appointed head of the official Xinhua News Agency.

In an article written back in September for the journal China Cyberspace (中国网信), Fu stressed that the “intrinsic political nature of the media cannot be changed,” and that the policy must remain an “emphasis on positive propaganda” (正面宣传为主) — the latter being a decades-old phrase that has signaled a hardline view on the media.

But for Fu, this was not quite hard enough. His language soared as he spoke of the sacred duty of Xinhua as the vanguard of the Party press — a “strategic town” that had to be held against incursion. “As a strategic town of the CCP’s press and public opinion work, Xinhua News Agency must clearly speak politics, [and] persistently strengthen online propaganda on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, taking this [Xi’s banner phrase] as the logical starting point of news coverage,” he wrote.

Xinhua, said Fu, must “always write the main melody,” and must “transmit positive energy.” All of these are references to the Party’s control of the press and manipulation of public opinion in order to maintain the stability of the regime — explained in greater detail in our CMP Dictionary.

Still, Fu had not sufficiently conveyed the sense of obedience to Xi Jinping and the central leadership that he sought to instill at the country’s largest news agency.

We must achieve, he said, “not standing even for a single minute outside the Party line, not deviating even for a single minute from the direction as guided by General Secretary Xi Jinping , and not departing even for a single minute the from the vision of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the CCP Central Committee.”

Today, as media across the country celebrate Chinese Journalists’ Day, there can be no question who China’s journalists are meant to serve.

A New Slogan Rises from the Past

As Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the CCP, delivered his quinquennial political report in the Great Hall of the People on October 16, 2022, he began by outlining the key themes of the congress, including the “comprehensive implementation” of his own governing concept, “[Xi Jinping] Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” Immediately after, he defined the necessary character of all Party members as the country faced the road ahead. He said:

Our responsibility is unmatched in importance, and our mission is glorious beyond compare. It is imperative that all of us in the Party never forget our original aspiration and founding mission, that we always stay modest, prudent, and hard-working, and that we have the courage and ability to carry on our fight. We must remain confident in our history, exhibit greater historical initiative, and write an even more magnificent chapter for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.

This phrase outlined the basic points of what subsequently has been touted in the Party-run media as the “Three Imperatives,” or sange wubi ((三个务必), which broadly set out what is demanded of CCP officials and Party members over the coming years.

  1. It is imperative that the original aspiration and founding mission not be forgotten. This is the idea, in other words, that the legitimacy of the CCP arises from its service to the people.
  2. It is imperative that Party members remain humble, prudent, and hardworking (谦虚谨慎, 艰苦奋斗). This plays to the idea of clean governance, and the fear that corruption and extravagance might undermine the CCP’s legitimacy.  
  3. It is imperative that Party members “dare to struggle, and are adept at struggling” (敢于斗争、善于斗争). This arises from the idea that tough times are ahead for the country and for the Party, and meeting challenges — and no doubt maintaining unity and keeping down dissent — will require resolute and forceful leadership and decision-making.

In October and November 2022, the use of the “Three Imperatives” rose rapidly in the official Chinese media, with many officials and scholars writing to praise the concept and its timeliness (something always expected after the introduction of new terms to the official lexicon), and explain its meaning.

On November 7, 2022, a piece on page three of the People’s Daily newspaper spoke of the “Three Imperatives” as the essential guide for the Party in tackling challenges ahead. The piece was written under the pen name “Zhong Yin” (仲音), a homophone for “sound of China,” marking the piece as an official work, likely by a commentary group within the People’s Daily, meant to represent the view from the center of the leadership.

An official commentary in the People’s Daily, top right, discusses the importance of Xi’s “Three Imperatives.”

On the first imperative, remembering the “original aspiration,” the commentary stressed that this aspiration was to “breathe together with the people, sharing a single destiny, and remaining heart-to-heart.” So long as the CCP could maintain its political and ideological leadership power, it said, this “will certainly ensure the Party is always the reliable backbone of the Chinese people.”

On the second imperative, the commentary painted a portrait of the self-effacing and hardworking official, laboring without a mind to his own comforts. In colorful language, it said that “Red rice, pumpkin soup, and wild root vegetables provide sustenance too” — suggesting officials should not insist on privilege. It also noted the observations made by the American reporter Edgar Snow in his book Red Star Over China, who “saw Mao Zedong living in a simple cave dwelling, wearing patched clothes, and eating millet rice and shredded potatoes with chili.”

The second imperative fits well with the nostalgic attitude toward the CCP’s past that Xi Jinping has cultivated since coming to power in late 2012, emphasizing the traditions of the Party and its “red genes” as a source of both legitimacy and cultural identity.

On the third imperative, the People’s Daily commentary resorted largely to hyperbole and very mixed metaphors, speaking of mountains scaled, and concluding that “it is because of the spirit of perseverance and struggle that the Chinese Communists have been able to engrave the miracle on the wheel of time without fearing the wind and rain.” Translation: The CCP is in the midst of a new “revolution,” which Xi Jinping has called a “self-revolution” within the Party, and in a period of new uncertainty, and this will require all within the Party to steel themselves.

The “Two Imperatives”

On October 20, an explanatory piece in China Newsweekly (中国新闻周刊) addressed the “Three Imperatives” by explaining their echo in the depths of CCP history. It was at the Second Plenum of the CCP’s 7th National Congress in March 1949, months ahead of the decisive victory in the Chinese Civil War, that Mao Zedong prepared for what would be an important new phase for the Party, with a shift in focus, by introducing his “Two Imperatives” (两个务必).

Victory in the Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China would mean a shift from work in the countryside to work in the cities, and governance in place of revolution. Mao Zedong stressed that “while the revolution in China has been great, the distance that follows the revolution is even greater, and the work is greater and more arduous.” As such, Mao said, it was imperative that Party comrades 1) continue to keep a style of humility and hard work, and 2) that they maintain an attitude of struggle against hardships. Mao Zedong’s “Two Imperatives” essentially meant: stay clean and don’t go soft.

An official CCP historian, Luo Pinghan (罗平汉), told China Newsweekly that Xi’s “Three Imperatives” had been built “on the foundation of the ‘Two Imperatives,’ according to the new situation and tasks faced by the Party.” CCP members needed first, in other words, to remember the original mission set by Mao’s Party, to stand with the people, and then they needed to meet the challenges of the New Era with the same attitude Mao defined on the eve of the nation’s founding.

Five Firm Grasps for the World

On the front page of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper yesterday, a new buzzword was born. Introducing the “Five Firm Grasps” (五个牢牢把握). Appearing in a prominent headline to the right of the masthead in the People’s Daily, the phrase was meant to condense the “spirit” of the 20th National Congress of the CCP, conveying to Party members the essentials they were meant to take away.  

Those essentials are the need to:

Firmly grasp the major significance of the work of the past 5 years and the great transformation of the 10 years of the New Era (要牢牢把握过去5年工作和新时代10年伟大变革的重大意义)

Firmly grasp the world view and methodology of the Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era (牢牢把握新时代中国特色社会主义思想的世界观和方法论)

Firmly grasp the mission and task of promoting the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people through Chinese-style modernization (牢牢把握以中国式现代化推进中华民族伟大复兴的使命任务)

Firmly grasp the important demand of leading a great social revolution through a great self-revolution (牢牢把握以伟大自我革命引领伟大社会革命的重要要求)

Firmly grasp unity and struggle as the requirements of the times (牢牢把握团结奋斗的时代要求)

Two things immediately jump out in this five-point formulation. First, while the 20th National Congress should be broadly about charting China’s course for the next five years, the point topping the “Five Firm Grasps” list is focused entirely backward — with the doctrinaire demand that CCP members fall into line and succumb to wide-eyed wonder at the greatness of the Xi era to date.

An article on the front page of yesterday’s People’s Daily instructs Party members to understand the “spirit” of the 20th Congress through the concept of the “Five Firm Grasps.”

Second, we can see an elevation in point two of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase, “[Xi Jinping] Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” which is referred to not merely as a banner phrase to lead the work of the CCP, but as a “world view” — something that has been emphasized only since the end of July this year, during a meeting of top provincial CCP leaders.

Never before this ten-week window was the notion promoted that “Xi Jinping Thought ____” is a “world view,” which suggests that the vision of Xi’s banner phrase transcends domestic Party politics and has global relevance.

Notably, we see this prominently again today in the lead commentary promoted on the front page of the People’s Daily and rolled out on page four. It is called: “Uniting in Struggle, Writing a More Splendid Chapter of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”

The front page of today’s edition of the People’s Daily, with an official commentary in red in the lower right-hand corner.

The commentary includes the phrase, in use since July, “We must have a proper hold on the world view and methodology of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (我们要把握好习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想的世界观和方法论).

While study commentaries in the People’s Daily over the past two months have made reference to Xi’s banner term as a “world view” and “methodology,” Xi Jinping is reported by Xinhua to have emphasized this point to delegates on October 19, which suggests that it is now the orthodoxy of the moment.

What does this mean?

In part, it is simple and raw, about the continued attempt to elevate the importance of Xi’s ideas, condensed into his banner phrase as a symbol of his power and position within the CCP. Again and again over the past year, speeches and state media coverage have emphasized the “Two Establishes,” the phrase that argues that 1) Xi Jinping himself is the unassailable “core” of the Party, and 2) that his ideas are the spiritual direction of the Party.

Adding to this signaling the vision of Xi’s thought as a “world view” and “methodology” sends the additional message that the general secretary’s ideas are a formula, a toolbox, that should be used to grapple with the challenges in the decade to come — whether in China or in the world.

The Long and Short of the CCP Congress

Today, October 16, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping opened the 20th National Congress by delivering his political report, or zhengzhi baogao (政治報告), in which he praised the leadership of the Party and outlined key priorities for the next five years.

The entire process of reading the report lasted for nearly two hours, during which the hundreds of delegates present dutifully scribbled on their copies and, when prompted, offered waves of applause.

But in fact, this version of the political report was at least one-third shorter than the full report, as commentators on state media revealed shortly after the broadcast. Reading the full report would have required perhaps another hour of performance by Xi Jinping, which planners possibly felt would have been too taxing on the country’s top leader, now 69.

Instead, Xi did what is called “picking out the key points,” or tiao zhongdian (挑重点). At points during his delivery, Xi paused to clear his throat, cough, or take short drinks of tea or water, the cup clinking as he returned it to the saucer.

The last time that there was such a substantial difference between the delivered report and the full-text report was back at the 16th National Congress of the CCP in 2002, when the political report was delivered by Jiang Zemin, then 76.

Jiang Zemin delivers the political report to the 16th National Congress of the CCP in November 2002.

For the convenience of those wishing to study the full-text version of the 2022 political report more closely, we offer the following copies for download — the short version (delivered by Xi today) followed by the longer version.