Author: CMP Staff

Hot Words Heat Up for Xi

We are just under one-third the way through the month of August, but key terms in the official discourse of the Chinese Communist Party are heating up fast – and they point once again to efforts to shore up the position of the country’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

One of the key phrases to watch in the coming weeks is the so-called “Two Establishes,” or liangge queli (两个确立), which emerged in the wake of the Sixth Plenum last November. The phase 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.

Unpacked, the “Two Establishes” is a claim to the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule, and a challenge to any who might oppose him. As such, the phrase is an important part of the process of “loyalty signaling,” or biaotai (表态), the registering of support for the top leader. 

So what are we seeing right now?

According to CMP’s preliminary analysis, the “Two Establishes” phrase has appeared already in 33 articles in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper this month. That compares to 47 articles using the phrase for the whole of July 2022, when the phrase reached a broiling Tier 2 on CMP’s discourse scale, which defines a six-tier system based on a historical analysis of keywords appearing in the China Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily.

Note: Tier rankings are based on the discourse scale developed by CMP in 2016. The above table shows monthly levels, calculated as the total number of articles including a term.

This means it is likely that the “Two Establishes” will climb into to Tier 2 for August by mid-month, and surpass last month’s total by a healthy margin.

How is this phrase actually used? Looking at page two of the People’s Daily today, we find the phrase in an article called, “Hebei Strives to Deliver Excellent Results on the Road to the New Test” (河北努力在新的赶考之路上交出优异成绩单). This article, part of a series called “China These 10 Years,” quotes Hebei’s top leader, Ni Yuefeng (倪岳峰), as saying that his province is “using real actions to greet the opening of the Party’s 20th National Congress.” This tells us that the article should be understood in the context of the upcoming congress, which will likely bring a third term for Xi Jinping and the further elevation of his leading ideology as “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想).

The opening of the article makes clear its role in signaling support for Xi Jinping and his banner ideology, and it’s here that we find our phrase:

Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP, Hebei has persisted in taking as its guide Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, deeply studying and implementing the important instructions of General Secretary Xi Jinping and the decisions and deployments of the CCP Central Committee, deeply comprehending the decisive meaning of the “Two Establishments” . . . .

Twice, at the beginning and the end, the article raises the need to follow Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” (重要指示), a concrete term that since at least 2015 has been used exclusively to emphasize Xi’s leading role over the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee (who must content themselves with “written comments”).

The more Xi Jinping’s hot words heat up in the coming weeks, the more we should be able to visualize his stratospheric rise far above the heads of the PSC.

Looking Back on China’s “Golden Era”

Earlier this summer, we posted two tributes to Yang Haiping (杨海鹏), one of the top investigative reporters in China from the heyday of investigative journalism from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, who passed away suddenly in Shanghai on June 30. For many media veterans in China, the death of Yang Haipeng, who was also a CMP fellow in the early 2000s, was a painful reminder of the passing of a more hopeful era for Chinese journalism.

As veteran journalist Xiao Shu (笑蜀), a former columnist at Southern Weekly, said in a tribute during Yang’s online memorial on July 10: “Today, we remember not just [Yang] Haipeng the individual, but an era that has passed, a golden age of investigative reporting and current affairs commentary, a golden age of the media, a golden age of civil opinion, a golden age of the rebuilding of civil society.”

“In short,” said Xiao, “we feel nostalgia for heroic times.”

Xiao’s tribute was a portrait in contrasts, bold in its own way. In remembering the “golden age” of the past, he also yearned for a “new era” (一个新的时代) of openness and justice, an unmistakable reference to the repression of Xi Jinping’s “new era” (新时代).

Continuing our series of tributes to Yang Haipeng, a way of looking back at the recent history of journalism in China, we offer a translation of the remarks delivered at the outset of the July 10 online memorial by Jiang Yiping (江艺平), the former deputy editor-in-chief of the Nanfang Daily Group, long the publisher of some of China’s boldest publications, including the Southern Weekly newspaper of which she was once chief editor.

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By Jiang Yiping

Haipeng’s life was unique, the stuff of legend. I believe that Haipeng, who suffered such hardships, and the family he loved so dearly and did everything to protect, finally have some peace, and will have happiness. But Haipeng the legend, at 55, in the prime of his life, has passed, and his passing has become a great sadness for all of the friends who loved and understood him – and many still find it impossible to bear.

These days, like many of his friends, I have also searched back through the memories buried by time, going back to the Haipeng I knew. My memories deal with just a small portion of his legendary life, his time at Southern Weekly. But for me, this older sister, these memories will become, because of his passing, a precious time I will treasure for the rest of my days.

In order to more faithfully grasp Haipeng, I looked back through my bound volume of Southern Weekly. 1998. 1999. 2000. 2001 . . . . Newspapers printed more than 20 years ago, already yellowed with age. I looked back through Haipeng’s reports in the paper, and suddenly they were all fresh to me. I know that many colleagues will regard “Three Noble Laureates Criticize China’s Nucleic Acid Nutrition Products” (三位诺贝尔奖科学家指斥中国核酸营养品) and “Whose Supporting the ‘Underground Organization Minister’ Behind the Scenes?” (谁是’地下组织部长’的后台) as his most representative works, and as classics from the canon of the era of investigative reporting. How to open up the complex network of interests and harm in the nutritional products industry, and how to break through the corrupt official network of cronyism involving the private sector that was completely unknown to people – these were questions to which Haipeng applied the keen blade of his investigative skills.

Haipeng came from a background in law, and he had worked in the courts. When he was a reporter at Southern Weekly, exposing corruption in the justice system was his special territory. On September 7, 1999, he published “Hundreds of Millions Lost in Two Fake Rulings” (两张假裁定 赖掉上亿元), which revealed that the president of the Hangzhou Intermediate Court had colluded with others to falsify rulings and cause two enterprises to lose massive bank loans, costing the state hundreds of millions of yuan. This report alarmed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Supreme Court.

On January 7, 2000, [Yang Haipeng] published “Loansharking in the Courts” (高利贷出自法院), which offered a living example of how political and legal organs could engage in profit-making activities, impacting the justice system.

Haipeng’s life was full of legends. Later he would microblog to save his wife, fighting against Shanghai prosecutor Chen Xu, the so-called “Law Lord.” . . . But the Haipeng I knew always had deep inside him the psychology of a professional journalist (职业记者的情结).

I saw a quote from Haipeng online that I think captures the Haipeng I knew: “It’s about how we use our own strength to turn our society into a just society, that’s what I think the attitude of a citizen should be.”

Haipeng, I am filled with honor and gratitude for having crossed paths with you.

Major Glitch at Virtual Tech Event

Awkwardness ensued yesterday at the 2022 Baidu World Conference, a virtual event jointly organized by the Chinese technology giant and the official CCTV News, as Baidu’s dedicated live video channel for the event on WeChat was cut off early in the broadcast, and participants were told to migrate instead to CCTV.  

According to the media-related public account “Media Insights” (传媒见闻), Baidu had not registered the broadcasting event with the proper broadcasting authorities. Ordinarily, registration for major political, military, economic, social, cultural, sports, and other activities must be made at least five days prior to any planned live broadcast.

A post to Baidu’s official Weibo account at 9:53 AM on July 21 announces with a shedding tears emoji that the live broadcast of the 2022 Baidu World Conference has been cut off by WeChat and invites viewers over to CCTV.

The proper authority in Baidu’s case would likely have been the Beijing municipal office of the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), the ministry-level agency under the Central Propaganda Department that oversees television and radio, and now online broadcasts.

Shortly after the Baidu broadcast was interrupted, Zhang Jun (张军), a public relations executive at Tencent, announced in a WeChat friends group that the Baidu broadcast had been “urgently” restored.

The theme of the event was “Deepening AI innovation for social growth,” and according to state media, it showcased “eye-catching applications of artificial intelligence,” dealing with areas from autonomous driving to aerospace modeling.  

“Clear and Bright” for the CCP Congress

Chinese state media announced over the weekend that the central government has launched a two-month internet clean-up campaign targeting 10 categories of content on social media as well as short-video and live-streaming platforms.

While the “special action” purports to deal with “problems and chaos pertaining to minors” on the internet, including personal privacy (个人隐私) issues, official coverage of related actions in recent months has made clear that the campaign’s primary focus is purging unwanted information ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to be held sometime this fall. Following an official conference earlier this month on “protecting minors in cyberspace,” the campaign is the latest example of how broad political controls on the internet are routinely justified in China as actions protecting society’s most vulnerable.

The online campaign, “Clear and Bright: Summer 2022 Internet Environment Rectification” (清朗·2022年暑期未成年人网络环境整治), was formally launched on Sunday by several offices and ministries, including the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Ministry of Education and the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL).  A release by Xinhua News Agency noted 10 focal points in the actions to be taken by authorities across the country. They included personal privacy, personal attacks (人身攻击), and “insulting and abusive cyber-bullying.” The notice also alluded to the use of images of minors, including in sexually suggestive poses, to draw online traffic.

However, just as CMP showed in coverage last week about the hijacking of “digital literacy” (网络素养) campaigns, which stress obedience to CCP rule over basic protections, this most recent “Clear and Bright” (清朗) campaign reaches far beyond legitimate concerns about youth safety.

Introducing a series of “Clear and Bright” actions in March this year, Zhang Yong (张勇), head of the Internet Communication Office (网络传播局) of the CAC, the country’s top internet control body, emphasized what his office called “regulating the online information order” (规范网络传播秩序). Zhang wasted no time in putting “Clear and Bright” actions in their proper political context:

This year is the year of the Party’s 20th National Congress, and an internet communication environment that is clean and orderly, and full of positive energy, serves the situational needs of the overall work of the CCP and the government, and it is also what the majority of internet users eagerly look forward to.

The reference to “positive energy,” a term at the heart of the information control regime under Xi Jinping, was an unmistakable reference to broader political controls on content. But Zhang was even more explicit. “Regardless of the nature of the platform, and regardless of what type of communication,” he continued, “everything must give priority to adherence to the correct political direction, to [correct] public opinion guidance and [the correct] value orientation.”

“The goal in carrying out the special action . . . . is to protect the Party’s 20th National Congress around services, continuing to deepen rectification work in various sectors of online communication order.”

Zhang Yong (张勇), CAC INTERNET COMMUNICATION OFFICE

Zhang justified the actions by suggesting that they were welcomed by the majority of internet users – as real moves to combat online trends like cyber-bullying might certainly be. And Sunday’s Xinhua release too suggested that the “Clear and Bright” special action was meant to address problems “on which the people had reflected strongly.”

But the mixing of priorities, evident in campaign after campaign, should call into question whether the leadership has its eyes fixed on real issues concerning China’s online population, or whether its focus with such campaigns is on political fundamentals. This, in fact, is a question Zhang Yong answered quite directly back in March, leaving no doubt: “The goal in carrying out the special action . . . . is to protect the Party’s 20th National Congress around services, continuing to deepen rectification work in various sectors of online communication order.”

A Tribute to the Journalist’s Spirit

For many current and former professional journalists in China, the recent passing of media veteran Yang Haipeng (杨海鹏) in Shanghai has been an occasion to celebrate the man, but also to look back on a time when conscientious reporters and editors could do breakthrough work exposing the ills of the system.

The following tribute to Yang was written by “Lao Zuo” (老左), a former reporter at the 21st Century Business Herald (21世纪经济报道), a paper launched in 2001 by Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily Group. The journalist recalls how Yang Haipeng’s assistance was instrumental to their first in-depth investigative report, on the 2003 corruption case against former Wenzhou deputy mayor Yang Xiuzhu (杨秀珠). And in the process they provide a picture of just how much has changed for Chinese media in the past 10 years.

We include three photos of Yang Haipeng, including the featured image above, taken during his visit in 2004 to Hong Kong, where he took part in a forum of top investigative reporters and editors.

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“Yang Haipeng and My First Investigative Report” (杨海鹏和我的第一篇调查报道)

Lao Zuo (老左)

My first time doing investigative reporting was back in 2003. The topic was fugitive former Wenzhou deputy mayor Yang Xiuzhu (杨秀珠). The case didn’t deal with a very high-level official, but it did deal with more than 100 million yuan, and the nature [of the case] was especially outrageous. China had issued a red notice [from Interpol], and from that time on Yang Xiuzhu would top China’s most-wanted list.

Even in 2015, during a visit of [our] national leader to the US, when the extradition of fugitives was raised, Yang Xiuzhu was the first to be mentioned. So this could be said to be a benchmark anti-corruption case.

But when I arrived in Wenzhou overnight with another colleague [that year], we were like mindless flies crashing into an invisible net. Three days passed, and the two of us spent every day making appointments with people we thought might be likely to talk. Most of the time we were denied. From time to time, someone would be willing to meet, but it was always some rather marginal person — and what they told us was either unverifiable or just plain gossip, nothing that could be included in a rigorously vetted manuscript.

Just imagine, if a corrupt official stealing hundreds of millions can slip through the net of police, prosecutors and the law, how could two young people in their 20s pry open the mouths of people at the center? Yang Xiuzhu had fled the country, but her protective network remained intact.  And even if someone could lay out the twists and turns, could they really trust two journalists to bring down [the enemy]?

Yang Haipeng speaking with colleagues at home in 2011. SOURCE: “Lao Zuo.”

At that time, we were a weekly publication. The two of us had just seven days to put the report together. As the time passed our anxiety only gathered.

At a loss about what to do, our editor suggested that we ask Yang Haipeng.

At that point, Yang Haipeng and I had never met, but I’d heard people talk about him. The editor’s point was that Old Yang had done his report on Wenzhou’s “underground organization minister” (温州地下组织部长案), [about a local official who had sold government posts], that he would be rather familiar with the official environment [in the city], and he probably also knew Wenzhou officials. “You can find him and ask,” [he said], leaving us Yang Haipeng’s phone number.

I called the number right away.

On the other end of the line, Lao Yang’s voice rang like a bell. He spoke so eloquently. He analyzed for me the personnel lines of officialdom in Wenzhou and Zhejiang province, and then he said he could introduce some friends to me. It seemed like he was pulling out a small book on the other end, and then he rattled off a series of mobile numbers.

All of them were for top-level Wenzhou city officials, or for old cadres who had retired [from top positions].

My colleague and I later estimated that we had visited close to 50 city officials in Wenzhou. Each time we called to arrange an appointment, our opening line was: “I was introduced by Yang Haipeng.”

As it turned out, the name “Yang Haipeng” was at that time an implied access card within Wenzhou officialdom. Some officials politely declined on the phone, but most would still point us in the right direction, which they considered to be a matter of giving Yang Haipeng face. And many officials were willing to talk. Time was running out, and my colleague and I split up to meet with as many officials as we could.

Yang Haipeng on a hike in Hong Kong during a visit in 2004.

In just two days we obtained enough material to support publishing [the story.] Then we hightailed it to Hangzhou, where we met our last key interview – a retired former vice-governor of Zhejiang.

That was one night in the spring of 2003, and after we had dinner the colleague and I hurried off to a villa district next to West Lake. There was a guard at the gate, and the leader’s wife came personally to meet us there. Once we were through the gate, the leader was there to greet us warmly. The first words that came out of his mouth as he greeted us were: “So you’re friends with Yang Haipeng.”

My colleague and I later estimated that we had visited close to 50 city officials in Wenzhou. Each time we called to arrange an appointment, our opening line was: “I was introduced by Yang Haipeng.”

We spoke for nearly two hours, then the leader’s wife walked with us back to the gate. We hurried back to our hotel, because the story’s deadline was the next day. We hadn’t even organized a lot of the audio recordings, and we had so much more than we had anticipated, so it took us a long time to get everything sorted.

We arranged for my colleague to sleep first while I wrote the first half. Early the next morning, I slept while my colleague continued to write the second half. Then, at around four or five in the afternoon, I got up again and the two of us went over the draft together, delivering it to the editors.

In the end our manuscript was completed on schedule, and though the writing left much to be desired, the reporting met with the approval of the editors. Given the significance of the case, our article got front-page placement.

When I look back on it now, we certainly had enthusiasm back then. But we didn’t have the ability to take on such a heavyweight investigative story. I had just joined the paper, and I was totally green. But the Southern Daily Group [at that time] had the courage to let young people take on such projects, and the editors took care in correcting the draft. But if it hadn’t been for Yang Haipeng and his selfless help, that report would never have been done.

The publication of the article shook official circles in Zhejiang, and it was shared widely by media in China and overseas.

Yang Haipeng visits the library stacks at the University of Hong Kong.

After our story broke, Yang Xiuzhu remained in the media spotlight. Her life overseas was often the subject of reporting at home and abroad, and she could never shake the red notice or the official media [coverage]. As I said at the outset, when [our] national leader visited the US in 2015, the first name mentioned was her. The next year, Yang Xiuzhu returned to China and surrendered herself, closing the top case on the Red Notice List.

From beginning to end no one but us knew the decisive role Yang Haipeng had played in the whole process. That was because Yang, even though a talkative guy who was then very active on social media, never mentioned it to anyone. The public had no way of knowing.

My guess is that he had long ago forgotten the whole thing himself. The reason simply being that after he left the Nanfang Daily Group in 2002, Yang helped so many generations of journalists. His kind assistance was behind so many of the major reports that are now so familiar to everyone.

Whether in the media, or later as an opinion leader on Weibo, he was probably doing this his entire life, defending the public interest and sniping at the corruption of those in positions of power. You could call it a hunger for justice.

In the media era, his wide range of interview resources and his familiarity with the environment of officialdom were a constant wonder to those of us who came after him. So he was later recruited to Caijing magazine by Hu Shuli (胡舒立). His work in the news business [back then] was never questioned by anyone in the industry.

Whether when in the media, or later as an opinion leader on Weibo, he was probably doing this his entire life, defending the public interest and sniping at the corruption of those in positions of power. You could call it a hunger for justice.

From that time, as traditional media declined, Old Yang continued to be active on social media. The things he did were no different from what he did in the newspaper era – exposing corruption, and expanding the space for speech.

So in my eyes Yang Haipeng was of course an outstanding journalist with great inner strength, a great man of his generation. He was also a traditional scholar with a chivalrous sense of justice, and a modern intellectual committed to expanding public space.

It was just that our times placed a seal on such intellectuals. For those who have influence, this has been tantamount to a capital punishment of the spirit. The spiritual Old Yang, after hundreds of “reincarnations” on Weibo [after his account was repeatedly shut down], passed away long before his physical body.

But his lifelong pursuit and ambition was in the end that of humanity. Before the spiritual power of words and ideas, worldly power is like a knife in the water. The physical body is just a skin. In the river of the ages, fleeting twists and turns cannot alter the direction of the current.

May Haipeng step through the ages!

Rocketing Praise for Xi

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.

Screenshot of a profile at the Beijing Review of members of the Shenzhou space program in October 2010.

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].  

A License for Control

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.

It is clear that the primary objective of the press card system is the exercise of political and ideological controls on the press.

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.

New Licensing System for Online Dramas

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.

The newly introduced “Online Label” for streaming dramas (at top) and the traditional “Dragon Label” for box office films (below).

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.”

When Media Test Negative for Journalism

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.

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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.

Developing Online Media Control

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.”

Preface of the recently released China Online Media Development Report (中国网络媒体发展报告), emphasizing the power of Xi Jinping and the CCP, and the propaganda role of online media.

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.

The “people’s livelihood” list is led by People’s Daily Online, CCTV.com (央视网), the official website of the state broadcaster, and by Xinhua Online. Meanwhile, the top-five list for “social welfare” impact is led by Xinhua Online, followed by People’s Daily Online.

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.

Screenshot of the mini-documentary “China Products” (物产中国), a propaganda film by The Paper produced to support China’s anti-poverty campaign.

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.

The VR channel at CCTV offers an interactive feature dealing with the government response to floods, with soldiers working to shore up barriers against flooding. This is the old approach to disaster reporting, emphasizing government action, using new digital products.

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.

Screenshot of the People’s Daily Online VR channel, which opens in a hall about Xi Jinping’s fight against 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.

Screenshot of People’s Daily Online’s “Red Cloud Showroom” (红色云展厅), an interactive online feature about the history of the CCP.

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 SCI report features the “People’s Daily Online+” application run by People’s Daily Online in its section evaluating online media for supporting people’s livelihoods.

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.