An aerospace engineer who previously worked on China’s manned space program, Zhejiang’s top CCP leader, Yuan Jiajun (袁家军), knows all about soaring into the cosmos. But this week his performance at his province’s latest leadership gathering was stellar in an entirely different way – offering soaring praise of his top boss, Xi Jinping.
An official news release yesterday in Hangzhou noted that the curtain had closed on Zhejiang province’s 15th CCP Congress the previous day, and that it had “successfully completed its agenda and tasks.” It then shared important snippets of the speech delivered to the congress by Yuan Jiajun, who became Zhejiang’s Party secretary in August 2020, after serving nearly three years in the position of provincial governor.
Formerly president of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, Yuan Jiajun began his engineering studies in the 1980s at Beihang University, previously known as the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Though it claimed “fruitful political results,” the summary of Yuan’s remarks offered little in the way of agendas and tasks — but much in the way of “loyalty signaling,” or biaotai (表态), the registering of support for the top leader. The conference in Zhejiang, said Yuan, “must inspire the entire province to move forward unswervingly along the path guided by General Secretary Xi Jinping, to firmly endorse the ‘Two Establishes’, and to firmly achieve the ‘Two Protections.’”
The first of these two terms, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), emerged in the wake of the Sixth Plenum last November. It is essentially a giftbox of loyalty to Xi, establishing him as 1) the unquestionable “core” leader of the CCP, and 2) his ideas as the bedrock of China’s future under the CCP. The phrase, once unpacked, is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him. Meanwhile, the “Two Protections” (两个维护) is 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.
But Yuan went beyond the dry mathematics of loyalty signaling to offer more words of ardent conformity: “We must always harbor a heart of gratitude to General Secretary Xi Jinping, a heart of love and respect, and a will to defend [him].
In a notice this week, China’s National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), the government agency responsible for regulating news media and news personnel, announced that it had completed verification of the press cards held by the country’s nearly 200,000 licensed journalists.
By April 30, 2022, a total of 3,676 news units and 180,075 journalists across the country had taken part as required by law in the annual verification drive. According to the NPPA, 24 news units and 353 journalists were suspended for suspected violations.
Press cards, or xinwen jizhezheng (新闻记者证), are required for media staff formally employed by news organizations and tasked under contract with news gathering activities. According to government notices on the implementation of Measures for the Administration of Press Cards (新闻记者证管理办法), which took effect in October 2009, the press card system is meant to improve professional conduct, combating ethical problems such as “fake news” (假新闻) and so-called “news extortion” (新闻敲诈), in which those identifying themselves as reporters may threaten a company or individual with negative coverage or exposure of illegal conduct in order to obtain cash payments or to force advertising arrangements.
But despite language about professional standards and protecting the work of journalists – another argument being that local authorities are less likely to ignore, threaten or intimidate licensed reporters – it is clear that the primary objective of the press card system is the exercise of political and ideological controls on the press.
The cards, which are issued only after reporters have received training in the mandates imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, are verified on an annual basis, and can be withdrawn for various reasons, including violations of political discipline.
The NPPA has made clear that “news organization and news editorial staff must uphold correct guidance of public opinion and preserve the national interest and public interest when conducting news reporting activities.” The notion of “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确的舆论导向), dating back to the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, asserts the need for control of the press and public opinion in order to maintain the stability of the regime.
In addition to “correct guidance,” news media and journalists are obliged to adhere to the “general direction of emphasizing positive news” (正面宣传为主的方针), a basic admonition against being critical in mindset, and to uphold the “Marxist View of Journalism” (马克思主义新闻观), which essentially places the CCP’s interests, policies and objectives at the center of news activity – and explicitly rejects what the Party criticizes as “the West’s idea of journalism.”
In fact, press cards have never served as a real deterrent against unethical practices, and abuses are often committed by licensed official media with formal press cards precisely because their association with organs of power gives them standing within China’s system.
The link between formal licensing and media corruption came to the fore two decades ago, in July 2002, when China Youth Daily reporter and CMP fellow Liu Chang found that eleven reporters, including four from the official Xinhua News Agency, had accepted gag fees (including cash and gold nuggets) to cover up news about an explosion in which 37 workers had died. The Xinhua reporters in particular had been singled out for special treatment by local mine bosses.
The debate over press credentials and corruption within the industry re-emerged in April 2007 with the story of Meng Huaihu, former Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times, who was accused of extorting money from companies using the threat of negative news reports.
Under China’s censorship rules for film production, film projects must undergo three stages of approval. First comes application for project establishment, including the important process of greenlighting the script. Next up are production-related approvals – shooting locations, film title and so on. The final and most important stage is to obtain the film’s public screening license (公映许可证), the coveted “Dragon Label,” or longbiao (龙标), which means the film has undergone review and can be released in theaters.
In recent years, online drama films (网络剧片), though a booming market through streaming platforms, have been subject to content controls. But they have not been subjected to the same rigid system of approvals box office feature films must endure in order to be mainstreamed, meeting the Chinese Communist Party’s political expectations for the broader market.
That is now changing.
Beginning today, June 1, 2022, a new system of administrative licensing (行政许可) will be implemented for online drama films, which will now have their own version of the coveted “Dragon Label” – the “Online Label,” or wangbiao (网标). The label, which will be issued by the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), will be the new distribution licensing standard for online dramas, ensuring that the political prerogatives of the CCP are considered and implemented at every stage of production and distribution.
In coverage of the new rules, state media emphasized the move by regulators as being about quality. But questions of quality were clearly intermixed, and often confused, with questions of political restraint.
In a report by Guangming Daily, published by the Central Propaganda Department, Yang Hongtao (杨洪涛), a professor at the Communication University of China, suggested the label would rein in the volume of productions so that “blind development” would become a thing of the past. “At a time when competition in the film and television industry is fierce,” he said, “online audiovisual [content] can only secure a bright future if there is a firm sense of artistry, a reduction in the total volume of production, and improvement in quality and subject matter.”
Deng Boren (邓博仁), the vice-president of the Bilibili streaming platform, told the paper that the “Online Label” would be a major step toward greater quality. “The ‘Online Label’ will lay down a firmer foundation for quality upgrades and high-quality development in the audio-visual industry,” he was quoted as saying.
But the newspaper also indicated clearly that the new label would “mean higher standards and tighter control” (更高标准更严把关).
An article posted on the WeChat public account of Minsheng Weekly, a magazine published by the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, said “many industry insiders believe” that the fact that online dramas must now apply for distribution licenses is “a step forward” in terms of improving the legal regime for audio-visual content, ensuring “the same standard online and offline.” This was a clear reference to ensuring the uniformity of political standards as applied for box office versus online films, the primary consideration being what the CCP has for more than three decades referred to as “correct guidance of public opinion” – or the need to enforce controls on media in order to maintain political control.
In a report on the new “Online Label” last week, Xinmin Weekly wrote that the consensus among government regulators and industry insiders – who of course have little to say in this political matter – was that there has been “an urgent need for major change” for online drama films, which should have “content as the king, and guidance as the soul” (内容为王, 导向为魂). In other words, dramas should pursue high production values and audience appeal, but must also consider and advance the political values of the CCP.
The online drama film “The Fight” (对决), released on May 10 by Tencent Video, was the first drama on record to carry the new “Online Label.”
With officials in Shanghai now saying a return to normal life in the city is not expected until around June 1, the saga of the 2022 lockdown is far from over for many residents in China’s financial capital. Whether the city does return to normal will depend on the results of continued mass testing under a policy mandating that anyone testing positive must be sent to a government-run isolation center, regardless of whether they report symptoms.
But over the past week new questions have been raised about the integrity of the testing process, a clear and present concern for residents eager to ensure an end to lockdown for all. In the midst of these questions, says one veteran Chinese journalist, there has been worrying silence from the very media outlets that should be tasked with getting at the root of problems. And this is a reminder that the health of a community is directly linked to the health of its journalism.
Last week, numerous residents in Shanghai independently posted to Weibo that they had been relocated to quarantine facilities after receiving positive Covid test results from a lab operated by Shanghai Runda Medical Technology, a company listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (603108 ). Once these residents had been tested in quarantine, their tests processed by other labs, their tests had come back negative.
Subsequent online discussions focused on poorly managed testing in the city, where residents have been obliged under China’s “dynamic zero” Covid policy to endure multiple rounds of self-testing in addition to regular PCR tests. The alleged false positives angered many residents given the serious consequences such results could have not just for those tested but for whole communities and for the entire city.
On May 11, Shanghai Runda Medical Technology announced publicly that it had ordered its affiliate to conduct internal checks in response to public concerns. But in the week since concerns first came to light, there has been no reporting of this story from state media or commercial media outlets.
Over the weekend, Yang Lang (杨浪), a veteran journalist who has worked previously at several of the leading publications of the reform era, including China Youth Daily (中国青年报), China Youth (中国青年) magazine, the Business Times (财经时报) and Caijing (财经), posted a reflection on social media in which he decried the lack of media attention to the Shanghai Runda Medical Technology case.
Indirectly criticizing controls on media reporting, Yang said that no good has ever come from “uniformity of public opinion” (舆论一律), and he harkened back to an earlier era of press activity in the 1990s and 2000s when it was possible for investigative reporters in China to expose major issues of public concern.
A translation of Yang’s brief post follows.
The Shame of the Media After the ‘Neutering’ of Investigative Reporting (调查报道被“去势”之后媒体的尴尬)
By Yang Lang (杨浪)
It has been six days since information was shared about false positives being returned [on Covid tests conducted by] Shanghai Runda Medical Technology, but up to now there have been no real follow-up reports from well-known media aside from internet reports.
Given that nucleic acid testing is the chief means by which anti-epidemic testing is conducted throughout the country . . . . and given the fact that a single positive result means lockdown for major cities, the accuracy of testing is a matter of public concern.
Unfortunately, even in the face of such major news concerning people’s lives, local Shanghai media, official media and professional media have said nothing. A number of outlets that once prided themselves on investigative reporting have been collectively silent.
The authorities have left an opening [for discussion] on the internet . . . . But everyone is clear about the difference between the internet and the official media. It’s because of the internet that we have information at all, but also because of the internet that things quickly get confused. In such cases, investigative reporting by the media is what provides credibility in the online age.
The landmark event in the neutering of investigative reporting [in China] was the reporting by the China Economic Herald in 2010 of the Shanxi vaccine scandal. In March of that year, nearly 100 children in Shanxi either died or were disabled for unknown reasons. Distraught parents sought desperately for treatments, and took their children to well-known hospitals that were unable to isolate any cause. But it was Wang Keqin (王克勤), a reporter for this newspaper, that reported the awful truth about fake vaccines following a detailed investigation, and as a result the criminals were severely punished. However, the reporter and his newspaper were severely criticized. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Bao Yueyang (包月阳), was dismissed.
The fading away of investigative reporting has already for many years been a thing of the past. But has anything good ever come of uniformity of public opinion? Once this this form of news reporting as a public instrument (公器) was neutered, the credibility of the media as whole went into decline. The silence of the media has only led to the accumulation of things that give the public cause for doubt. So, they wonder, was the “misreporting” of nucleic acid test result by Runda Medical Technology a mistake — or was it something else. The facts don’t simply cease to exist because you say nothing. Rather, the disease will spread to infect the entire body.
In the past, investigative reporting was an important means of clearing away public doubts and confusion, bringing balance to public opinion, maintaining the credibility of power, and stabilizing society. Some people did think that it caused chaos, but this was a means of avoiding even greater chaos.
Now, everyone can see this. And our friends in Shanghai’s media can feel it.
Late last month, the State Information Center, a policy think-tank under the Chinese government, released its 2021 China Online Media Development Report (中国网络媒体发展报告). Pitched as a broad overview of developments in the country’s online media industry, the report assesses 20 major online media platforms, including both state-owned media websites and private internet platforms.
The report notes general industry trends such as an increase in the impact of online news (versus traditional channels), a rise in the number of “online news users” (网络新闻用户), and the shift from “digitization” (数字化) to “digintelligence” (数智化) – meaning that platforms have applied AI solutions to online news products.
But the rankings in the SIC report, and the case studies cited in online media development, make clear that the report’s primary concern is to chart the effectiveness of online platforms in serving the news and information agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As such, the report offers an interesting glimpse into CCP thinking on both the transformation of Party-led media and the operationalizing of private online platforms in the digital era.
Towing the Party’s (Digital) Line
In the report’s general ranking of the top-ten online media, the list is topped by People’s Daily Online, the web portal operated by the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Xinhua Online, the online portal of the state news agency. Among private internet platforms surveyed, Tencent (腾讯) is ranked number three and Toutiao (今日头条) number eight. Phoenix Online and Sina.com, coming in at 9 and 10 on the list, are the only other two “private” online media to make the top-ten. Phoenix Online is the online portal operated by the partly state-held Phoenix TV, which in recent years has been more closely aligned with state agendas.
After opening with an emphasis on the leadership of CCP with comrade Xi Jinping as the “core,” the report’s preface says that “online media steadily increased positive propaganda and educational leadership” in 2021. Betraying the clear linkage in the report between CCP agendas and success metrics, the preface notes that “online media steadily enriched broadcast methods and content surrounding the national glories of the centennial of the CCP.”
Shanghai’s The Paper, under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG), is singled out for praise in the report for having seized a position in the top five. The Paper is the only “local online media” (地方网络媒体), the report says, meaning that it is Shanghai-based and therefore a municipal (provincial) versus central-level outlet. The report says that The Paper “further consolidated its influence and reputation as a leader in media integration development and as one of the benchmarks of new mainstream media on the internet.”
The reference to “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体) further betrays the report’s emphasis on leveraging new media developments to modernize propaganda efforts. In the Chinese political context, the term “mainstream” refers specifically to Party-state media that play a front-line role in guiding public opinion. The “new mainstream media” refer to the digital outlets created by legacy Party media such as the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily at the central level, and The Paper at the regional level.
As the report addresses the “people’s livelihood” (民生) and “social welfare” (社会公益) as agendas for online media platforms, these are deeply enmeshed with the agenda of the CCP. The clear assumption is that the advancement of the Party’s agenda on “livelihood” issues by definition serves the public. It is not surprising, therefore, to find Party-run platforms topping both top-five lists for online media when it comes to both of these measures.
What kind of content at Chinese online media is the report prioritizing in making these rankings?
Moving down the top-five list under “people’s livelihood,” the report singles out an online “documentary” called “China Products” (物产中国) that was jointly released in January 2021 by The Paper and China Postal Savings Bank. The short film is a look at pig farming in a remote rural area of Sichuan that intersects with the state narrative about poverty alleviation, and even shows the protagonist, pig farmer Zheng Chihe (郑吃合), as he visits a local poverty alleviation official.
Once we are told by the narrating voice that Zheng Chihe has achieved his dream of raising pigs, the “China Products” documentary ends with an inset video message (over the credits) by a local county government official. The video is a fascinating and revealing look at how the CCP’s propaganda directives are pursued not just by central Party media (like People’s Daily Online), but by semi-commercial local outlets like The Paper, and in cooperation with corporate entities like the China Postal Savings Bank, a commercial retail bank formed in 2007.
Getting Technical About Propaganda
As online media are singled out in the SIC report for “technical layout of content” (内容科技布局), the clear focus is on innovation of propaganda content, the standard by which online media are being assessed. Examples given in the report include the establishment at CCTV.com of a virtual reality (VR) channel, which allows users full 360-degree interactive views of scenes testifying to the victory over Covid-19, the eradication of poverty, vibrant economic activity, or the government’s proactiveness in dealing with floods.
Similar VR channels have been established by other Party-state media. The VR channel at People’s Daily Online allows users full 360-degree tours of historical sites and government buildings, including the Great Hall of the People and the Beijing Natural History Museum – but it opens with a VR tour through a hall telling the story of Xi Jinping’s victory over Covid-19.
Next up on the “technical layout of content” list in the SIC report is a feature at People’s Daily Online called “Red Cloud Showroom” (红色云展厅), an interactive online experience similar to the above-mentioned VR projects that was specifically designed to commemorate the CCP centennial.
The “Red Cloud Showroom” is essentially an interactive list of provinces and municipalities and their various “red” sites – memorials to the history of the CCP and its glories. Click on Tianjin, for example, and you are taken to a page that includes a list of sites such as a memorial to Zhou En’lai, and another to the Battle of Pingjin. Pages for individual memorials include audio as well as text introducing the history and significance.
Serving the People
The SIC report also highlights efforts by online media to integrate news services with government services. It highlights, for example, the People’s Daily Online mobile app “People’s Daily Online+“ (人民网+), which draws together interactive services for areas like “rights protection” (维权), which refers in this case to direct interaction between Chinese consumers, companies and government agencies over consumer issues. Another service packaged under “People’s Daily Online+“ is “People’s Good Doctor” (人民好医生), a health app that purports to connect consumers with doctors from top-ranked hospitals.
The SIC report also hypes a People’s Daily Online message board service that was created in September 2021 to serve as an information resource and reporting hotline during the Covid-19 outbreak in Fujian province. The purpose of the message board, said the report, was to “listen to the voices of the people,” and it included a function allowing users to leave messages to leaders from the local command center for Covid-19 control.
However, the recent breakdown of help hotlines in the midst of the Shanghai lockdown should urge caution in taking the effectiveness of such interactive features at face value. The SIC report simply notes the set-up by such features at Party-run online media, assuming efficacy, but does not provide meaningful data about their effectiveness in addressing public needs.
At a symposium for television and radio anchors and program hosts held yesterday in Beijing, officials from the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), a ministry-level executive agency under the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department that oversees television and radio in China, emphasized the need for “loyalty to the party” (忠诚于党) above all other values.
The official readout from the meeting, for which the keynote address was delivered by Nie Chenxi (聂辰席), a vice minister of the Central Propaganda Department and deputy head of the NRTA, was a dense thicket of official CCP terminologies signaling Party dominance of information and public opinion. “The [Party’s] corps of announcers and hosts is an important force in the Party’s work on propaganda, ideology and culture, assuming the important responsibility of adhering to the correct [public opinion] guidance, spreading advanced culture and leading civilization,” the readout said.
Program hosts and anchors must “strengthen their political character” (强化政治素养), “steadily raising their political discriminatory powers”(不断提高政治判断力), and they must “maintain the correct political orientation at all times”(时刻把牢正确的政治方向), said the readout.
Hosts on state-run television and radio programs, being closely associated with the Party’s “mainstream” image, have generally been held to high standards of political and personal discipline. In rare cases, however, they have breached this compact through personal conduct or political outspokenness. Prominent examples include the 2014 arrest of the “rock star” CCTV host Rui Chenggang, and the 2015 scandal surrounding CCTV host Wang Yinqi, who was caught wearing an expensive watch during a broadcast. Last month popular TV host Jin Xing became the source of controversy as she made a post to Weibo criticizing Russia for invading Ukraine. In response, CCTV responded publicly that it is “guided by Party spirit,” or dangxing (党性).
Earlier this year CMP wrote about the re-branding of the flagship publication of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s chief internet monitoring and control body. Previously called New Media (网络传播), the journal, which is published quarterly, was to be renamed in Chinese “China Cyberspace” (中国网信), a more direct reference to the agency. Reports suggested that the English name of the journal would remain unchanged.
Today, People’s Daily Online promotes the launch of the first quarterly issue of the re-branded New Media journal with a large headline splashed across the top of the site. In keeping with the character of recent news and propaganda in China, which lays emphasis on Xi Jinping and his leadership ahead of the 20th National Congress of the CCP, to be held this fall, the headline announces that the launch edition the new New Media features a “record of the development of cyberspace work” with Xi Jinping “leading at the helm” (舵领).
Even the choice of the phrase “leading at the helm” in the headline is a strong reference to the power and prestige of Xi within the CCP — invoking the notion of the “helmsman” that recalls the era of Mao Zedong.
Even in the midst of ongoing news about the devastation in Ukraine and tensions in the US-China relationship, the launch of the newly branded CAC journal was also the top story at the website of the official Xinhua News Agency. None of the top stories to the right-hand side of the slider feature on the Xinhua site dealt with the war in Ukraine or foreign affairs.
Interestingly, the newly branded CAC journal does not include the publication’s English-language name. The bright red cover of “China Cyberspace” includes only the main story headline — about Xi’s leadership on cyberspace work — and reference to the management of the publication by the CAC and the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (中共中央网络安全和信息化委员会办公室), the office led directly by Xi.
Previous editions of New Media included the publication’s English name, and the decision to omit the English on the relaunched publication could reflect the growing sense of what Xi Jinping has promoted as “cultural confidence” (文化自信), the need to uphold and strengthen traditional Chinese culture as a means toward what Xi has called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
In a letter accompanying the launch edition, CAC chief Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), who has led the crackdown on Chinese internet firms over the past year, emphasized the “four confidences,” “four consciousnesses” (四个意识), and “two safeguards” (两个维护), a formula that includes protection of Xi Jinping as the “core” leader of the CCP, and of the preeminence of the CCP itself. The so-called “442” formula is now routinely used to signal loyalty to Xi ahead of the 20th Congress.
Zhuang also stressed the CCP’s goal of building China as a “cyber power” (网络强国), essentially the idea of advancing internet technologies and the internet-based economy while maintaining a strong system of internet controls to maintain Party leadership of public opinion.
What do you get when you send a television film crew into the wilds of western China with a dramatic television actor from Hong Kong, a Chinese-Canadian film star, a boy band rapper, a well-known actress, and a survival expert from New Zealand who calls himself “The Kiwi Bushman”? You get a compelling documentary survival series with major commercial backing that might look to global audiences like simple entertainment.
But the six-episode series Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), produced by China’s Tencent Video with the US multinational television conglomerate Discovery, Inc., along with China International Communication Center (CICC), is more than a simple joyride into harmless voyeurism and escapism. It is part of an effort by the Chinese state, with international partners, to be more appealing in its push for global discourse power — an effort that requires all those involved to be less than forthcoming about its origins.
The Art of Foreign Acceptance
Journey of Warriors follows five celebrities as they attempt arduous treks – à la Naked and Afraid – along routes traversed by the Red Army during the Long March in 1934-1935 and during China’s struggle against the invading Japanese army, is meant as a celebration of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial. As these celebrity adventurers scale the face of Jiajin Mountain (夹金山), the first snow-laden peak the Red Army is said to have crossed during the Long March, or as they fashion bamboo stalks into a raft to tackle the Wu River (乌江), where a Red Army regiment once made a difficult crossing, Journey of Warriors is also an allegory for China’s contemporary journey as the country’s leaders envision it.
When Xi Jinping spoke of the Long March back in October 2021, stressing the need to “channel the courage and determination of those revolutionary soldiers on a new march, one toward national rejuvenation,” he might as easily have been speaking about the series.
It was certainly was no accident that Journey of Warriors was released in China on November 9, the day after the opening of the 6th Plenum that brought the year’s political culmination with the release of a new official resolution on the Party’s history valorizing Xi’s role. The CCP’s general secretary is in the midst of his own long march toward the Party’s 20th National Congress in the fall, where he will likely be draped in the mantle of “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) and given the mandate to rule China through another decade as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. It was in the course of the historical Long March, as the Red Army traversed 5,000 miles of rough terrain in a retreat to avoid annihilation at the hands of pursuing Republican forces, that Mao achieved his rise as the Party’s undisputed leader.
Actress Zhang Xinyu sums up the sense of historical overlap in a dramatic trailer for the television series as she traverses a steep hillside: “We will retrace the thrill of when our red grandmothers were being pursued. . . . The challenge has begun. This is the journey of the warriors.”
The series can at times be truly entertaining, and within China it has been received enthusiastically, drawing more than five billion views per episode after its November launch, and earning a 9.6 out of 10 rating from users at Tencent Video.
But Journey of Warriors is also domestic entertainment with a serious international mission. China has gambled on the series as an effective form of “external propaganda” (外宣), hoping to influence views of China across the world. At the 11th China Academy Awards of Documentary Film in December 2021, the series took away the prize for best international communication, where it was praised as “boldly innovative,” “perfectly integrating stories of revolutionary history with the international communication discourse system in a way that foreigners find easy to understand and accept.”
One commentary on the series in mid-November, published on a WeChat public account operated by a research center under the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), bore the telling headline: “Journey of Warriors: Turning External Propaganda Documentaries into Blockbusters for the World to See.”
China has struggled for many years to bring smart story-telling together with high-end production to create propaganda that is captivating and effective. The CCP has yearned for the magic formula to build credibility internationally, to bolster its “cultural soft power,” and to counter what it sees as Western domination of global discourse. And for as many years, state media and government-affiliated producers have failed, often because the system is too inflexible, its message too simplistic.
Journey of Warriors, however, may be the nearest thing to watchable to emerge from the field of external propaganda. The series was released outside China on November 28, 2021. And thanks to the strong distribution channels provided by Discovery, Inc., it has reached substantial audiences across Southeast Asia, as well as in India on Discovery+, and on Prime Video. Given Discovery’s global reach, that audience is sure to grow as the series, which the state-run CGTN blandly referred to as “China’s first international co-produced adventure documentary,” is rolled out in other regions and other languages.
To burnish the series’ international appeal, the producers brought on television star Josh James, who Discovery introduces as “the renowned Discovery explorer and the world’s top survival expert,” as well as award-winning director Phil Stebbing, who has worked in the past with the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
James, who rose to fame through his online adventure vlogs on hunting, trapping and surviving in the wilds of New Zealand, and who starred in the series Dual Survivor, lends the series an air of wild man credibility as well as being the obligatory “foreign friend” on screen. (For more on the history of the CCP’s employment in foreign affairs of the “foreign friend,” or waiguo pengyou (外国朋友), we recommend the wonderful paper Friendlit by another New Zealander, professor Anne-Marie Brady.)
Chinese cast members include Wallace Chung Hon-leung (锺汉良), an actor from Hong Kong who has made his career starring in mainland films and television dramas; Shawn Dou (窦骁), a Chinese Canadian actor who played the lead role in Zhang Yimou’s 2010 film The Love of the Hawthorn Tree; Zhang Xinyu (张馨予), an actress, singer and model; and Yan Xujia (焉栩嘉), an actor, rapper and member of the idol boy band R1SE.
Landing on the program from their living rooms in Southeast Asia or India, television viewers might be drawn in by Journey of Warriors. But once we understand how this series is intended to work its propaganda magic, slipping its message of CCP-led national glory right into our entertainment fare, should we tune in? Or should we change the channel?
Co-Producing with the CCP
Entertaining or not, Journey of Warriors, like many of the programs in which CICC has been involved, raises serious questions about transparency in international documentary and entertainment programming. Before they tune in, audiences across the world – many paying for content through subscription services – should probably be informed about the parties involved in a production as well as its purpose beyond pure entertainment.
For its part, Discovery has been opaque about its longstanding co-production relationship in China. Journey of Warriors was jointly produced with Tencent Video, the streaming channel operated by the Chinese tech giant. Less known, however, is the third partner, the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心), or CICC, which is listed prominently in Chinese media coverage and on Chinese-language promotional posters. Though CICC routinely bills itself as your go-to co-production partner in China, and as a source of essential video footage through its Video China platform, the company is a propaganda subsidiary under the State Council Information Office, whose clear mission is external communication.
Company registration records prior to 2019 show that CICC was controlled by the Central Propaganda Department, the department being listed along with the Information Office (these essentially being the same office) as the sole shareholder. During that time, CICC worked closely with Discovery in the production of a number of documentary series, including China: Time of Xi, a production attributed in state media coverage to the UK-based Meridian Line Films, which previously was 85 percent held by CICC.
The most recent registry records show that CICC is now held by China’s Ministry of Finance. But CICC is essentially an active media arm the State Council Information Office. The group, for example, runs multiple websites designed for external communication on issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet. One of these sites is humanrights.cn, the official website of the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies (国人权研究会), or “CSHRS,” an ostensible non-government organization in fact operated directly by the State Council Information Office.
The distribution of China: Time of Xi and subsequent productions involving CICC, including Journey of Warriors, apparently stems from a deal inked in 2015 with Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, under which both sides agreed to “produce content related to China.” But the line between content related to China and content brazenly promoting official CCP narratives can be very thin indeed. In the case of Journey of Warriors, the line completely disappears – if, that is, you read Chinese.
Aside from the three joint producers, Chinese-language promotional posters for the series note that the “guiding unit” for the project is the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department (中宣部对外推广局). Outside China, these connections and agendas immediately become invisible to audiences watching the series.
A press release from Discovery promises that Journey of Warriors will “bring global audiences infinitely closer to real historical experiences by means of real-life entertainment,” without being explicit about what historical episodes are being addressed. Readers are told only that the series “relive[s] the dangerous trek that the Chinese military endured decades ago,” which it also calls “[one of] the most epic voyages in history.” No mention at all is made of CICC or the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.
In a description accompanying a trailer for Journey of Warriors on its YouTube channel, Discovery+ India explains:
It’s the journey of true daredevils who will face one of the most challenging environments on Earth. They will give it their all to make their way through the toughest of terrains and uncharted territories, a road not meant for the faint-hearted.
Foreign language coverage of the series from Chinese state media similarly obscures its genesis. An English-language news brief from Xinhua News Agency omits mention of CICC and the Central Propaganda Department, reporting only that Journey of Warriors was “co-produced by Tencent Video, a Chinese streaming platform, and Discovery Channel.” The same brief is shared online by China Daily, the English-language newspaper published by the Information Office. The story, however, includes an image of another Chinese-language promotional poster, sourced from Tencent Video’s Weibo account, that again confirms the involvement of CICC and the Foreign Promotion Bureau of the Central Propaganda Department.
The Road to Transparency
The question is not whether such stories should be told internationally, or whether they are compelling or entertaining. Viewers may feel genuine interest in knowing that Red Army soldiers cut the glare of the sun coming off the snow on Jiajin Mountain by fashioning blinders out of horsehair. They may be amused as they watch Wallace Chung and Josh James imbibing “pepper water” in preparation for their cold ascent.
But why are the parties involved in Journey of Warriors choosing – and only overseas – to omit key aspects of the story of the series’ production?
In an address on external propaganda and international discourse power back in May, Xi Jinping urged Party propaganda workers to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Xi stressed the same point recently at a congress on literature and art, where he also praised the recent propaganda blockbuster The Battle at Lake Changjin as a great success overseas. In fact, the film is a flop outside China, just one more casualty of the CCP’s insistence on a unified “Chinese story” delivered through rigid frames that alienate global audiences.
Love may certainly arise from compelling and colorful programming. But credibility and respect must come also through honesty and clarity. International viewers have a right to know the deeper story, and the deeper agenda, underlying programs like Journey of Warriors or China: Time of Xi.
For its part, Discovery states in its Code of Ethics: “We act and make decisions with integrity. We are honest, open, genuine and transparent in our work.” Perhaps it is time that the network applies this principle to its production relationships with China.
Journalist Cao Jingxing (曹景行), whose work impacted media development in both Hong Kong and China, passed away on February 11 at the age of 75.
Born in Shanghai in 1947, Cao was among the first group of students to return to university studies in 1978, the year after the college entrance examinations, or gaokao, were reinstated, having been suspended in 1965 ahead of the Cultural Revolution.
In 1982, Cao joined Yazhou Zhoukan (亚洲周刊), the Chinese-language edition of Asiaweek magazine, which had been founded in 1975 by former colleagues at Hong Kong’s Far Eastern Economic Review. Cao was promoted to editor-in-chief of the magazine, often called “the first Chinese language international affairs newsweekly,” in 1994, the same year the magazine was purchased by Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, where Cao was also an editorial writer.
From 1997, at the time of Hong Kong’s handover to China, Cao was editor-in-chief of the news channel at the Chinese Television Network (香港传讯电视). The next year, he left CTN to become deputy director of the Phoenix InfoNews Channel, a paid television news channel in Hong Kong owned by Phoenix Television.
University of Hong Kong professor Xu Zidong (许子东), a long-time friend of Cao’s, told Shanghai’s The Paper: “He was a very good newsman, exceptionally poised, and he made people feel that they could trust him.”
Xu also said, according to The Paper, that the popular news talk program, Behind the Headlines With Wen Tao (锵锵三人行), a pioneering format at Phoenix launched in April 1998 that spawned many imitators, was first proposed by Cao Jingxing. “He phoned me before the show even aired and said it was going to bring together a few readers for a chat, something that hadn’t been done before,” Xu recalled. “I always remembered after that that he said something like, ‘The point of the show is not the content of the talk, but the method of the talk.'”
Among Cao’s best known works are a pair of memoirs, Drifting Over the Sea of Life (浮過了生命海) and Me and My World (我與我的世界).
Cao Jingxing’s father was renowned Republican Era journalist and author Cao Juren (曹聚仁), who was reportedly close to such May Fourth writers as Lu Xun (魯迅) and Zhou Zuoren (周作人), and was active as a writer in Shanghai before arriving in Hong Kong in 1950.
At a meeting in Beijing last month, Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and a deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department, issued written comments on the construction of what he called an “integrated national system for the reporting and handling of illegal and undesirable information” (全国互联网违法和不良信息举报受理处置一体化机制建设工作). Zhuang urged officials across the country to push for “new breakthroughs” in 2022 in what he called “online reporting,” or wangluo jubao (网络举报).
What does this mean? And what are its implications?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards the control and manipulation of public opinion, a process known since 1989 as “public opinion guidance,” as being of “extreme importance” to regime stability. The “guidance” mandate is achieved on a constant basis both through a vast and evolving human architecture (including propaganda officials, media personnel, public security staff and so on) engaged in what is broadly called “news and public opinion work” (新闻舆论工作). It is also, in the information age, achieved through a vast and evolving technical architecture restricting access and filtering content on the internet and social media.
Crucially, human and technical controls are also imposed through private, commercially operating internet websites and platforms that are pressed into service through a constantly evolving system of administrative rules and regulations that enforce “guidance” as a condition of doing business. (For a recent example, refer to the new “opinion” released last month tightening controls on chat groups).
But in an era of explosive digital development, with an online ecosystem shaped by nearly a billion active Chinese internet users, these intersecting human-technical-regulatory webs, which form the biggest thought control system in human history, are still not regarded as sufficient by the CCP. The answer is to create a further layer of control by mobilizing the population, again with the help of internet platforms, to flag “illegal and undesirable information” (违法和不良信息).
In 2014, the same year the CAC was formed, the CCP began building a nationwide system for “informant report acceptance” (举报受理). Coordinated out of the CAC’s “Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information” (违法和不良信息举报中心), this system was about ensuring that all websites and platforms had reliable mechanisms in place to source reports from the general public about content violations. In December last year, the CAC announced that an eighth batch of 450 websites had joined the system, bringing the total number of sites involved to more than 3,500.
According to the CAC announcement, these 450 new additions to the reporting system included news and information sites, social media platforms, livestreaming platforms, browsers, e-commerce sites, education sites and so on. New additions included the Hong Kong-listed education service provider Koolearn Tech, Shenzhen-listed Offcn Education and Uxin (优信二手车), an online site for the sale of used cars.
The purpose of this national reporting system, and the coordination of the CAC’s reporting center, is to leverage the eyes and ears of the general population to ensure that websites and platforms comply with Party-state mandates on information control, and that they do so in a way that is consistent and actionable.
But a further role of the system is to help legitimize controls through broader social involvement in the process. The authorities talk about “monitoring by society and the public” (社会公众监督), and about “properly safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of netizens.”
The formation of the CAC reporting center in 2014 came with the launch of a national reporting website at 12377.cn. The “About” section of the CAC site makes the role of the CAC reporting center clear:
The Cyberspace Administration of China (State Internet Information Office) Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information coordinates the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] leads and supervises local websites in standardizing the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] accepts and assists in the handling reports from internet users on illegal and undesirable information; and it conducts propaganda to mobilize the general public in actively participating in the reporting and supervision of illegal and undesirable information.
Despite the talk of safeguarding the public interest, the homepage of 12377.cn also offers a glimpse of the CAC’s prioritization in the reporting of “undesirable” content. And the political goal of enforcing “correct guidance” is front and center.
The site provides users with nine categories of information to report, including “fraudulent” (诈骗类), “rumor-mongering” (谣言类) and “pornographic” (色情类). But the list is topped at the upper left-hand corner by the content type most critical in the enforcement of the CCP’s guidance – “political” (政治类).
Clicking on the “political” button, users are taken to a landing page that urges them to understand the specific nature of this category and inform on content accordingly – lest their report not be properly processed. Here is how the category is described:
Please report here: Illegal and undesirable internet information involving attacks on the Party and state system and its major policies, attacks on the “Two Safeguards,” endangering of national security, leaking of state secrets, undermining national unity and territorial integrity, damaging the national image and honor, undermining national policies on ethnicity and religion, promoting cults, defaming heroes and martyrs and so on.
The reference here to the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护) is an important one. The “Two Safeguards,” which were stressed in the November 2021 CCP resolution on the history of the Party (read more in this recent CMP analysis), are about the protection of 1) the “core” status of Xi Jinping and 2) the central authority of the CCP. Internet informants, in other words, are invited to report anything that might undermine the position of Xi or the CCP.
Once users at the CAC reporting center website understand the virtually unlimited scope of this “political” category, they must click the box next to “I have already read the text.” Two buttons then offer a simple choice: “I accept” and “I do not accept.”