Author: CMP Staff

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, 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, (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 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.

Anchoring Party Dominance

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).

Re-branded CAC Journal Launches

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).

A headline across the top of People’s Daily Online on March 21, 2022, announces that a record of Xi Jinping’s internet policymaking is featured in the first new edition of New Media.

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.

The cover of the newly launched “China Cyberspace” (中国网信), previously called “New Media” (网络传播).

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.

Warriors on the Red Road

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.”

Promotion poster for Journey of Warriors, listing the producers as Tencent Video, CICC and Discovery.

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.”

An online ad in late November 2021 promotes the new series Journey of Warriors, with broadcast times in Bangkok and Jakarta.

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.

China has struggled for many years to bring smart story-telling together with high-end production to create propaganda that is captivating and effective.

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.

In one trailer for the film, the English lyrics “There will be victory . . . there will be breakthrough” accompany cut-in scenes of adventurers Wallace Chung, the actor, and explorer Josh James.

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.

Records from 2017 show CICC as being 100 percent held by the “Central Propaganda Department (State Council Information Office).”

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, 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.

A promotional poster for Journey of Warriors, featuring actor Wallace Chung, posted by the China Daily in its English coverage of the series.

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.

Remembering Cao Jingxing

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.

Empowering China’s Digital Informants

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 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 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.

Screenshot of the CAC website at allowing users to submit reports on “illegal and undesirable content.”

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.”

A Listicle for Cyber Control

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s central agency for internet control and regulation, has now released its list of top ten keywords for 2021. True to form, the office does not go for excitement.

The CAC listicle does not include popular buzzword superstars like the zeitgeisty “lying flat” (躺平) or “broken defenses” (破防), terms expressing a rising sense of social exhaustion. Nor does it fuss with terms like “double reduction” (双减) marking the government’s attempts to grapple with the pressures weighing on Chinese families. How about crackdowns on so-called “fandom culture,” or fanquan wenhua (饭圈文化)? Nope, not a mention.

The CAC’s 2021 buzzword list is all business. Party business, to be precise. The fundamental message is the power and legitimacy of the CCP, and its need to maintain control of cyberspace. For starters, here are the top three:

  1. “Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP” (庆祝中国共产党成立100周年)
  2. “Party history study and education” (党史学习教育)
  3. “6th Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee” (党的十九届六中全会)

Please stop, you are saying. These keywords are just too exhilarating.

The third term above is important, of course, because it was at the 6th Plenum that the CCP released its new resolution on its history, just the third such document since the Party was founded over a century ago. The crus of the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议) is its positioning of Xi Jinping as the Party’s unassailable chief, paving the way for the possible elevation of his banner term as “Xi Jinping Thought” and his continued leadership through the coming decade.

But the Party is missing, in name at least, from the fourth term on the CAC list: “online civilization” (网络文明). The CAC notes that “as our country marches toward becoming a cyber power (网络强国), the building of online civilization is an aspect that cannot be overlooked.” This keyword makes the list because China hosted its first “Internet Civilization Conference” on November 19, 2021, the crux of the meeting being the imperative of CCP speech controls. Read more in CMP’s “Civilizing Cyberspace.”

Number five on the CAC list, “community of shared destiny in cyberspace” (网络空间命运共同体), turns toward the international dimension of the CCP’s ambition to exercise greater influence over internet development and governance. Related to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy concept of a “community of shared destiny for mankind,” this phrase is about promoting international co-operation and development in the area of digital technology – particularly in Africa and the Asia-Pacific. It is also about countering attempts by the United States to coalesce action against China over issues such as 5G infrastructure security (wink, Huawei).

The CAC list noted the hosting on November 29, 2021, of the 8th Forum’ on China-Africa Cooperation, held in Dakar, Senegal, at which participants – said the CAC – had heartily approved of China’s released of its Action Initiative on Building a Community of Destiny in Cyberspace Together (携手构建网络空间命运共同体行动倡议). The initiative’s first principal is “respect for the cyber-sovereignty of each country” (尊重各国网络主权), which is fundamentally about shaping the global governance of cyberspace in order to legitimize China’s tighter controls over information.

Interested in the rest of the CAC list? See it here.

A Long Road to the CCP Congress

At a meeting in Beijing yesterday meant to set the tone for the propaganda work of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the coming year, Wang Huning (王沪宁), head of the Central Secretariat and the Party’s most influential ideological theorist today, sent a clear message that all endeavors in news and public opinion in 2022 would tilt toward the opening in the fall of the 20th National Congress of the CCP.  

Speaking to propaganda ministers from across the country, Wang emphasized the preeminent importance of Xi Jinping’s banner phrase, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), as the principle guiding the propaganda work. A mark of Xi’s power and legacy, the banner phrase, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), is likely to be shortened in the coming months to the far more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想), putting Xi on par with his predecessor Mao Zedong and paving the way for his leadership beyond his current second term.

Wang also stressed the need for propaganda leaders to maintain a firm grasp of the so-called “442 formula,” another formulation meant to consolidate Xi Jinping’s personal power as the leader of the CCP. The formula comprises the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). The first of these terms refers to the need to 1) maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core (in other words, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.

Propaganda leaders, said Wang, must “firmly grasp the main line of welcoming, publicizing and implementing the 20th National Congress.”

Echoing Wang words, Huang Kunming (黄坤明), head of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, said that “must implement the main line of the CCP’s 20th National Congress in the conduct of propaganda and ideology work.”

Buckle your seatbelts for a long road trip through the official discourse of power and succession. 2022 has hardly begun, but for the propaganda ministers of the CCP there can be no doubt that the year’s biggest news story – the Beijing Winter Olympics notwithstanding – will be unfolding more than 10 months from now.

Buzzwords at the Biden-Xi Talks

Virtual talks between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden reportedly stretched to three and a half hours and covered a range of issues, from trade and cooperation to democracy and human rights. How were these issues reflected in coverage from the Party-state media in China? Here are just a few notes.

On the issue of democracy and human rights, Biden had sought to frame confrontation between China and the US as being about the broader struggle between autocracy and democracy. State media emphasized that Xi pushed back by asserting China has its own functioning form of democracy – and that outside meddling amounts to “undemocratic behavior.”

The assertion corresponds, in fact, with a strong push by Xi at home to champion what he calls “whole-process democracy” (全過程的民主), essentially arguing that China has found a democratic system distinct from “that in the West.” According to Xinhua News Agency:

Xi Jinping stressed that civilization is rich and abundant, and so is democracy. Democracy is not a customized product (定制的产品), with one model for the whole world, and one standard. Whether a country is democratic or not is to be judged by the people of that country themselves. To exclude different forms of democracy simply because they are different is itself undemocratic behavior. We are willing to conduct dialogue on human rights issues on the basis of mutual respect, but we do not support the use of human rights issues to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

While a senior US official told journalists that the tone of the exchanges remained “respectful and straightforward,” perhaps the most contentious issue was that of Taiwan. The White House readout was measured in its statement following the talks. “On Taiwan, President Biden underscored that the United States . . . . strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the statement read.

Xi was firm in his tone on the Taiwan question. “China is patient and seeks peaceful reunification with great sincerity and effort,” he told his counterpart, “but if Taiwan secessionists provoke, or even cross the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.”

As state media reported the issue of Taiwan in coverage of the talks, two phrases in particular came into focus. On its official Weibo account, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper shared a quote card with US and Chinese national flags that read: “The Taiwan situation faces a new round of sensitivities, and the reason is that Taiwan authorities continually ‘lean on America in the pursuit of independence’ (倚美谋独), and certain people on the US side intentionally play [a game of] ‘using Taiwan to control China’ (以台制华).” 

These phrases are in fact relative newcomers to official CCP discourse. The phrase “lean on America in the pursuit of independence” has appeared just eight times in the People’s Daily, having first emerged in the paper on September 2, 2020, with a headline that read: “US Six Assurances are Illegal and Void, Democratic Progressive Party Authorities Leaning on America to Seek ‘Independence’ Will Have Terrible Consequences” (美方“六项保证”非法无效,民进党当局倚美谋“独”必食恶果).

Four separate articles using “lean on America in the pursuit of independence” appeared in the People’s Daily in January this year, followed by one article in April and two more in August. The first of the two August articles was a commentary under the name “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), which is used for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. That article included the second of the above phrases, “using Taiwan to control China,” in the headline, which read: “‘Using Taiwan to Control China’ is Doomed to Fail” (‘以台制华”注定徒劳).

The “Zhong Sheng” commentary read:

The DPP authorities are caught in the American dream of ‘leaning on America to seek independence” dream, and this is entirely empty. Some Taiwanese scholars have hit the nail on the head by pointing out that in the eyes of the United States, Taiwan is merely a pawn, a pawn that can be abandoned and sacrificed at any time. As the comprehensive strength of the motherland continues to advance, the gap between the strength of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait continues to widen, and the dominant power in the development of cross-strait relations is increasingly firmly with the motherland.

The phrase “using Taiwan to control China” has appeared a total of 14 times in the People’s Daily, all but one of these in the Xi era (all since 2019). The first use of the phrase occurred in June 1995, following a visit to the United States by Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui. A page 6 commentary accused the United States of playing the “Taiwan card,” and said that “Lee Teng-hui has transgressed national righteousness and held foreigners hostage in order to aggrandize himself, essentially giving the United States a bargaining chip ‘using Taiwan to control China.”

Visas and Vitriol

In a statement on November 12, The Economist’s editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, issued a statement revealing that the magazine’s Hong Kong correspondent, Sue-Lin Wong (黄淑琳), had been denied a visa for work in the city. “We regret their decision, which was given without explanation,” Beddoes wrote. “We are proud of Sue-Lin’s journalism. We urge the government of Hong Kong to maintain access for the foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s standing as an international city.”

On November 13, Wong Tweeted that she would miss reporting from Hong Kong, and that she had “loved getting to know the city and its people.”

In a statement on November 14, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Hong Kong, said it was “deeply concerned that another journalist . . . has been denied an employment visa in Hong Kong.” The denial of Wong’s visa without explanation, said the FCC, “further highlights the concerns raised in the FCC’s survey of correspondent and journalist members on the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.”

What have the reactions to the denial of Wong’s visa been inside China? The following rundown offers a taste of related coverage and commentary.  

In a post called “Not At All Wrong for Reporter for British Media to Be Denied Visa” (英媒记者被拒签,一点都不冤) on November 14, Guancha Syndicate (观察者网), an online media portal based in Shanghai that capitalizes on nationalist topics (a good dig into its affiliations can be found here), immediately went on the attack, alleging bias in Wong’s reporting on Hong Kong: “So how has Sue-Lin Wong covered Hong Kong issues over the years?”

During the period of the “legislative amendment controversy” in Hong Kong, Sui-Lin Wong worked at the Financial Times. In a series of reports on the “amendment controversy,” she smeared the Hong Kong government’s “crackdown” and the Hong Kong police’s enforcement of the law, and glorified rebellious elements and thugs as a common practice; she ignored the tremendous damage caused by the latter to Hong Kong society and said they are “fighting for democracy.”

The Guancha Syndicate article criticizes Sue-Lin Wong’s reporting back in July on threats to academic freedoms in Hong Kong, a report based on interviews with numerous sources. It then broadly criticizes reporting by the Guardian, the Associated Press and Reuters, suggesting that they “all coincide in throwing out absurd arguments such as the so-called ‘suppression of freedom of speech’ under Hong Kong’s national security law and the “erosion of freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”

In fact, it is not difficult to understand the mentality of the Western media. The entry into force of Hong Kong’s national security law has dealt a serious blow to their Hong Kong-related reports that distort facts and turn black and white. At the November 5 press conference held by China’s Foreign Ministry, a Bloomberg reporter tried to hype the fact that nearly half of the journalists from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Hong Kong were considering leaving Hong Kong.

Yesterday, November 15, the Guancha Syndicate article was widely shared across Chinese social media, including by the official news app of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily.

Also on November 14, the Global Times interviewed several Chinese “experts” for their responses to the denial of Wong’s visa, all expressing the view that “the Hong Kong government has the right to admit, delay or refuse any applicant for a work visa for security or other matters without explanation to the public.” The article suggested that Wong “needed to reflect” on her actions in the past. This in fact was the sense carried in the headline, which read: “Hong Kong’s Immigration Department Does Not Comment on Denial of Visa to Foreign Media Reporter: There is No Need to Explain, the Reporter Needs to Reflect on What [She] Has Done.”

A November 14 article by the Global Times suggests Economist reporter Sue-Lin Wong “must reflect on what [she] has done.”

Who were these “experts” cited by the Global Times? In fact, there was just one. This was Zhu Jiajian (朱家健), identified as executive director of the Hong Kong chapter of the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR), an organization that was founded by the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

Hong Kong Courier” (港闻速递), a verified Weibo account with close to 50,000 followers that aggregates Hong Kong-related news, often with a pro-government slant, posted that the Hong Kong government had no need to explain its decision. “Some things need not be said so clearly, and the outside world can guess the message that is implied,” the account wrote.

Perhaps the problem comes from the applicant’s past words and actions not being in line with the scope of work and the nature of the visa in question. She needs to reflect on the things she has done in the past, and the speech she has published.

To slander the Hong Kong government for “violating freedom of speech, freedom of the press and human rights” is alarmist talk, as Western countries also deny visas and entry at the drop of a hat.

“Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” (孤烟暮蝉), a well-known “red V” account – a designation given to accounts deemed highly influential – referred to Wong in a Weibo post as an Australian “[Chinese] traitor,” or erguizi (二鬼子), an insult referring to Chinese who sided with Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). The post seemed to suggest too that Wong’s publication, the Economist, had departed from an economic focus (a misunderstanding of the magazine’s positioning) to wander into politics:

The editor-in-chief of the Economist, which does not talk about economics, has issued a statement saying that the Hong Kong Immigration Department has refused to renew the work visa of Australian dilettante journalist Sue-Lin Wong, asking the Hong Kong government to remain open to foreign media. This person says she is sad she can’t return to Hong Kong, and before she was a reporter for the Financial Times and Reuters.

The general tenor of the comments proliferating under the “Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” post was hateful, ugly and personal – expressing hatred for those of Chinese ancestry who do not unconditionally love the People’s Republic of China, showering it with positivity, and voicing general displeasure with Western media.

“The creation of disinformation is the same everywhere,” one user wrote. “Just like the foreign devils and Chinese traitors who have never been to Xinjiang spend the whole day dissing on our Xinjiang.”

“They were a traitor to start with. They don’t even have Chinese citizenship!” another wrote.

“I’m happy this piece of garbage has been thrown away!”

“This person is an anti-China journalist. Eight out of 10 of her articles blackens China, spreads rumors and speculates. What is this pretense of sadness!”

“Sad is exactly how she deserves to feel!”

“Go back home and weave stories there!”