Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).
In the latest edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s official journal Seeking Truth (求是), released last week, Xi Jinping topped the table of contents – as now seems to be mandated practice. But another prominent byline was that of Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), the head of China Media Group, or “Voice of China,” the official media conglomerate directly under the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) that was created in 2018 to serve as the umbrella group for state media as they sought greater influence internationally.
In fitting form as the 100th anniversary of the CCP approaches, Shen’s article was essentially an act of declaration (表态), expressing loyalty to Xi Jinping, to the Party and to its principles. In a series of deferential remarks greased with the phrase “General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out” (习近平总书记深刻指出), Shen stressed the glories of CCP history, and the great gifts bequeathed to the Chinese people in the form of “red traditions” (红色传统) and “red genes” (红色基因).
Shen revealed little, however, about China’s push to expand its international “discourse power” (话语权), the strategy that was the focus at the May 31 collective study session of the Politburo. On this issue, the media chief offered only a bland re-statement of purpose: the CCP must “build a new type of first-class international mainstream media with a strong capacity to lead, communicate and influence.”
But how do Shen Haixiong and the China Media Group hope to actually achieve this broad objective? To answer this question, we must look beyond Shen’s hymn on Party history in Seeking Truth to a speech he gave back on June 3 as he chaired a “thematic session” (专题会议) to convey the “spirit” of Xi Jinping’s remarks at the May 31 collective study session.
Shen, who is also a deputy minister at the CPD, emphasized at the June 3 session that “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事), and showing a “true, three-dimensional and comprehensive China” (展示真实立体全面的中国) necessitates the creation of “international discourse power that matches our country’s comprehensive national power.” One crucial point of breakthrough in reaching this objective, said Shen, was to create “a studio for influencers in multiple languages” (多语种网红工作室).
Beyond the usual buzzwords in the realm of external propaganda (外宣) and public diplomacy (公共外交), which often become indistinguishable in CCP strategizing, this talk of an “Influencer Studio” (网红工作室) is an intriguing clue. Generally, the phrase “influencer studio” can refer online in China to the space where influencers, as they hock the latest eyeliner, halter top or body cream, appear to their dedicated fans. It might be a backdrop that reads Danish modern or Japanese spa. But in this context, Shen Haixiong is talking instead about a state-supported training program for online influencers that would, at least in theory, allow the leadership to better capitalize on new media platforms as they are used by millennials.
The bottom line here is that CCP planners are strategizing about how to better reach younger media consumers globally, designing external propaganda for the next decade. And that means that China’s external messaging, even as it strictly adheres to political “red lines,” must learn to be youthful and viral.
Back in August 2019, these priorities were addressed openly at the China Media Group as it announced the formation of the International Communications Planning Bureau (国际传播规划局), the new buzzing hive of the CCP’s external propaganda planning, execution and assessment. In his speech introducing the International Communications Planning Bureau (ICPB), Shen Haixiong said that China Media Group must “actively explore new methods of external communication, including the Influencer Studio (网红工作室), and creating a ‘mobile app cluster in multiple languages’ and a ‘cluster of overseas social media platform accounts,’ thereby steadily raising our influence among young people and mainstream people.”
Here we can glimpse three distinct approaches at the China Media Group. First, a program to train and support online influencers that could be attractive for foreign audiences on social media platforms, all the while “maintaining political discipline” (坚持政治导向), the prerequisite for all content. These influencers, says in his recent speech on June 3, should be instrumental in reporting on “headline projects” (头条工程) and major topics (重大主题) – think initiatives like Belt and Road, and issues like Hong Kong – and training must be strengthened, he says, for influencers in “priority regions and priority languages” (重要地区重点语言).
The second distinct approach is to develop a cluster of information apps that can engage foreign audiences, whatever language they speak. Thirdly, the China Media Group must capitalize on overseas social media platforms to reach foreign users, particularly young users, who increasingly connect and engage through such tools. The focus in Shen’s speech on “young people and mainstream people” is a reminder of just how broadly the CMG conceives of this campaign – the goal being a groundswell of changing perception internationally on China.
We might respond that China’s state media have tried this last tactic before, launching accounts on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But the formation of China Media Group’s ICPB, which has nine subsidiary departments, suggests more concerted planning along several key lines. The departments now include: the 1) General Division (综合处); the 2) Project Coordination Division (项目统筹处); the 3) Overseas Brand Promotion Division (海外品牌推广处); the 4) Asia Division (亚洲处); the 5) West Asia and Africa Division (西亚非洲处); the 6) Europe and Latin America Division (欧洲拉美处); the 7) Americas and Oceania Division (美洲大洋洲处); 8) the Chinese Language Promotion Division (汉语推广处); and the 9) Overseas Evaluation and Verification Division (海外评估核查处).
Though little information is so far available about the ICPB and its subsidiary departments, this restructuring suggests that the China Media Group is gearing up for a sustained external propaganda campaign that is both concerted and to some extent responsive, considering regional differences and languages and also evaluating impact. In his June 3 speech, as he highlighted the urgency of fostering influencers in multiples regions and languages, Shen also said there was a need for “refined classification” (细化分类), “content deepening” (深耕内容) and “differential development” (差异化发展). The group is striving, at least, to break free of the one-size-fits-all thinking that for years has plagued China’s external communication efforts – and is still very much in evidence.
Two further clues can be spotted in Shen Haixiong’s June 3 speech. As the CMG chief talks about building up the team to conduct international communication (队伍建设), he says that journalists overseas should act as “diplomats” (外交家) and “social activists” (社会活动家). Shen in fact used both of these terms in another address back in October last year, when he spoke of “communication for a favourable impression” (好感传播), which should be taken as further proof that the talk of being “lovable” in the May collective study session was neither fresh nor an indication, as some reported, of a planned change in tone.
The term “social activist” may seem odd here, bringing to mind an individual working for social change through intentional action. In a Chinese political context, however, this refers instead to engagement with more ordinary social actors to further the Party’s agenda and convey its voice, which of course is “China’s voice.” The reference to “diplomats,” meanwhile, suggests CMG journalists internationally should be conveying and defending the official line, particularly to those who are themselves in positions of relative influence in foreign countries, in both leadership and the media.
“History is the best teacher,” Xi Jinping said in 2019 as he addressed a seminar for teachers of ideological and political theory courses. This laconic statement about the wisdom to be drawn from the well of the past might have been inspired by any number of historical figures, from Rosa Luxembourg to Winston Churchill. But it prompts an even more basic question: What does Xi Jinping mean by history?
The most recent edition of Seeking Truth (求是), the Chinese Communist Party’s official journal of theory, goes a long way in answering this question. Once again, as in previous editions, the table of contents is topped by an article attributed to Xi himself, a practice dating back to early 2019 that is an unmistakable sign of the general secretary’s commanding position within the CCP.
As has also been the practice since 2019, the publication of Xi’s article in Seeking Truth is announced with great fanfare in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper today, and also tops the paper’s website – with the headline that tells us history is a “mirror,” and that understanding it leads us to a love of the CCP and a love of the nation (以史为镜、以史明志，知史爱党、知史爱国).
In fact, Xi’s article, like so many that have taken a commanding position at Seeking Truth in recent months, is a compilation of quotes he has made in official speeches and letters since 2013. The reference to history as a mirror, for example, comes from a speech he made on December 28, 2015, at a so-called democratic life meeting of the Politburo.
“We must strengthen our study of history, particularly the study of the ancient history of China, of contemporary Chinese history, and of the history of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “History is a mirror, and from history we can be enlightened and receive direction.”
But reading Xi’s lines, and reading between the lines, it is clear that what history is mirroring back for the CCP is a story of unmitigated glory. This is not about reflection in the deeper sense, of questioning the errors and missteps of the past and pledging never to repeat them. There is no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. Nor is there any word about that document that in the earliest days of the reform era defined the sense of self-examination, the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi Jinping’s history, above all, is a resource of legitimacy. As such it must brim with “positive energy.” This Xi-era term denoting confident and uplifting messages (and the necessary restriction of their opposites) appears twice in the Seeking Truth article. “For us communists, the history of the Chinese revolution is the best nutrient,” Xi said during a visit to Hebei province in July 2013. “If we revisit the great history of our party leading the people in the revolution, we will increase a lot of positive energy in our hearts.”
Many of the quotes emphasize the value of China’s revolutionary history, focussing on the period before the establishment of the PRC – including episodes like the Long March and the Anti-Japanese War (抗日战争). These have been braided together in the CCP’s current conception of history with notions of the greatness of traditional Chinese culture, forming a DNA strand that is meant to cement the Party’s position at the center of Chinese identity.
The idea of the CCP’s legacy as a Chinese cultural inheritance is everywhere in the political discourse as the 100th anniversary of the Party approaches, epitomized by the notion of “red genes” that must be nurtured and passed on. In a May 2018 letter to a primary school in Shaanxi, Xi Jinping wrote: “I hope that all of you come to better understand the history of revolution, [PRC] establishment and reform in China, that you learn from heroic and exemplary figures, that you ardently love the Party, ardently love the motherland, ardently love the people, and that through your actions you transmit red genes from generation to generation.”
The People’s Daily report on the Seeking Truth article by Xi emphasizes another line from the general secretary that appears in the first two quotes listed. “History,” says Xi, “is the best textbook.” The proviso of course is that the textbook must, as another of Xi’s quotes says, “focus on why the CCP is ‘capable,’ why Marxism ‘works’ and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is ‘good.'”
As Xi has regularly stressed, echoing Mao Zedong: “East, west, south, north and center, Party, government, military, society and education – the Party rules all.” If history is a mirror, the CCP must command the reflection.
As the doors opened Monday for China’s national college entrance examinations, nearly 11 million candidates flooded examination centers across the country. And as the clock ran down to zero for the morning’s language subject test, it was finally possible by lunchtime for People’s Daily Online to share this year’s essay test questions.
What competencies were China’s young test takers challenged to demonstrate? An appreciation of the world views of others, perhaps? Or a tough-minded curiosity on global and intercultural issues? Surely, as the leadership pushes for innovation and self-reliance, these future university students were encouraged to demonstrate their capacity for independent and critical thinking?
Think again. But do not think too acutely.
The demand for competence and allegiance increasingly commingle in Xi Jinping’s China, where education has become a process not just of gaining knowledge and skill, but of signaling and instilling the image of the Chinese Communist Party as benevolent and capable. Patriotic education, or the “construction of socialist spiritual civilization” (社会主义精神文明建设), has been a feature of education in the PRC since the early 1990s, as the CCP sought to remake a legacy that had been badly damaged by the brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989. But Xi Jinping has doubled down on the glories of the CCP’s past as a resource for legitimacy to be reconstructed from the primary level on up.
As Xi has regularly re-asserted, echoing Mao Zedong: “East, west, south, north and center, Party, government, military, society and education – the Party rules all.” New guidelines for patriotic education in 2019 encouraged the melding of “love of the Party, love of the nation and love of socialism,” and mandated “strengthening the will of a strong nation” (砥砺强国之志) through revolutionary nostalgia and the promise of what Xi has called the “great rejuvenation.” The emphasis on “red culture” has now become ubiquitous, to the point even of exhausting the very youth it is meant to inspire – with school textbooks on “transmitting red genes,” regular special events for the telling of “red stories,” and the incessant singing and dancing of “red songs.”
Little surprise then that many students taking college entrance examinations this week have been challenged to demonstrate, in 800 characters or more, their Panglossian allegiance to CCP ideals as they show off their mastery of Chinese grammar and composition.
The subject of National Paper A (全国甲卷) in yesterday’s exam was given as follows:
The Chinese Communist Party has gone through a century of history. The revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture nurtured in the great struggle carried out by the Party in uniting and leading the people has been deeply integrated into our bloodline and soul. We have celebrated holidays such as “May Fourth,” “July First,” “August First” and “October 1,” and we have sung songs such as “March of the Volunteers” (义勇军进行曲), and “Without the CCP There Would Be No New China” (没有共产党就没有新中国). We have read works such as “Serve the People” (为人民服务), “Qin Yuan Chun – Snow” (《沁园春·雪), “Lotus Creek” (荷花淀) and “Red Crag” (红岩). We have admired revolutionary martyrs such as Li Dazhao (李大钊), Xia Minghan, Fang Zhimin and Yang Jingyu. We study role models such as Lei Feng (雷锋), Jiao Yulu (焦裕禄), Qian Xuesen (钱学森), Huang Danian (黄大年) and others. All of them provide us with spiritual nourishment and inspiration. There is sunshine in our hearts, and there is power beneath our feet. Our future will merge with the new journey toward the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and we are in the midst of an era of great promise . . . .
Assignment: Please compose an essay on the theme of “great possibilities and seizing opportunity” (可为与有为) on the basis of the material.
Xi’s New Era is certainly no time to expound in an exam paper on the temptations of “lying down” (躺平), a neologism that for many young people in China has come in recent weeks to offer the promise of tranquility, a respite from the unbearable pressures of ambition and overwork in a society that emphasizes self-sacrifice and “lives elevated by struggle.”
On Monday this week a collective study session of China’s Politburo, the top decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), addressed the topic of external propaganda and messaging, which in recent years has fallen under the rubric of what Xi Jinping calls “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). Over the past two years, that story has seemed a rancorous one, delivered with venom from the “wolf warriors” at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Analysts who sought clues to a possible tactical reset in the language of the collective study session found encouragement in one phrase in particular: “[The Party] must focus on grasping the tone, being open and confident as well as having modesty and humility, striving to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Language about the need for China to expand its “circle of friends in international public opinion” (国际舆论朋友圈) added, for some, to the sense of a tonal change.
The word “lovable” was an obvious temptation. If China wished to be loved, then surely it would begin to speak more cordially, if not affectionately. As for “grasping the tone,” could that not suggest an inclination to tone things down? A report from Bloomberg took the language on lovability and friend circles as “a sign that Beijing may be looking to smooth its hard-edged diplomatic approach,” and that “Xi may be rethinking his communication strategy on the global stage.”
Before we invest ourselves too deeply, we should look carefully at the context.
Within the textual fabric of the news of the collective study session there is plenty to give pause: the characterization of the challenge at hand as a “public opinion struggle’ (舆论斗争), a term redolent of the Mao era; the persistently tone-deaf language about educating foreigners about the goodness of the CCP; the talk of mobilizing, funding and training and, importantly, ideologically assessing local leaders on their input in terms of international communication work, which hardly seems conducive to a broad change in tone. On the issue of broadening the “friend circle,” how can it escape notice that the next line is a reiteration of the “public opinion struggle”? In such a struggle, there are friends in the form of compliant media and apologists, and there are enemies in the form of recalcitrant journalists, academics and politicians who insist on criticism – exactly what this external push is designed to neutralize.
But beyond the text itself, remembering that we have only Xinhua News Agency reporting, there is an important point of context so obvious many observers seem to have missed it.
This was a collective study session, and such sessions, whatever their topic, generally benefit from the instruction of experts. In this case, we are told right at the outset of the official news release that “professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University offered his explanations on this issue, and suggestions for work.” What sort of teacher would Zhang Weiwei be?
A professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, Zhang Weiwei (张维为) is director of the university’s Institute for Chinese Studies. In the 1980s he served within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an interpreter for senior leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. He is an old hand when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, and in the course of his career has visited many countries.
Zhang is also a staunch defender of what he regards as the superiority of the political system led by the CCP, and of the so-called “China Model,” which he insists has ‘performed better than other models.” Internationally, one of his most remembered exchanges is his 2011 debate with Francis Fukuyama, in which he extolled the virtues of the Chinese system and suggested that Western democratic systems “might be only transitory in the long history of mankind.”
The rise of China is what we call “shi” or an overall trend, the scale and speed of which is unprecedented in human history. My own feeling is that the Western system is trekking on a downward slope and in need of major repairs and reforms. Some Chinese always speak and think highly of the US model, but to someone who has lived in Europe and visited the US many times, this is a bit too simplistic and naive.
In a 2013 interview with Phoenix Weekly, “The Chinese No Longer Require the ‘American Dream’”, Zhang spoke glowingly of China’s achievements and the ways in which it has already surpassed the West. “We have learned a lot from the West and will continue to learn in the future, but we have a vision today that goes beyond the West,” he said. Importantly, he spoke of a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语) in which the rising dominance of a “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系) should be expected.
The notion of a “Chinese discourse system” appears, in fact, in the announcement from the collective study session, and we should note that it has generally not been among the terminologies in the arena of external propaganda, soft power and so on. Here is the portion of the Phoenix Weekly interview in which Zhang discusses this emerging system and its implications for scholarship and the “new world order”:
Chinese intellectuals should no longer be subservient to the Western discourse, but should think independently and, with their own conscience, knowledge and patriotic spirit, absorb the wisdom of the world while rejecting Western neo-obscurantism (西方新蒙昧主义). They should jointly explore and construct a Chinese discourse system in the era of “post-Western discourse,” making their own contribution to the formation of a new world order.
Zhang has repeatedly urged “self-confidence” in China’s model, and in the building of a “Chinese discourse” grounded in self-confidence that can then be applied in public diplomacy. In a 2014 talk called “Chinese Must Have Self-Confidence” (中国人你要自信), Zhang urged an end to uncertainty: “Let us remove the hat of flagging self-confidence and give it to our opponent,” he said. It was with this newly asserted self-confidence that China should combat the distortions and misunderstandings of the West.
Given the unshakable premise that China’s system is superior in terms of its performance, it naturally follows that the core problem is Western resistance. “Because the mainstream media in the West have long reported on China in an manner that is not factual, and with a strong ideological bias and cultural prejudice,” said Zhang, “many people in many Western countries, and even many experts and scholars, have a very poor understanding of China.”
In a video interview with People’s Daily Online posted today, Zhang again places the blame for miscommunication squarely on the shoulders of the West. To the extent that the project of “telling China’s story well” has not succeeded as it might, and misunderstandings persist, this, he says, is “mainly a problem on the part of the West.”
Zhang speaks of the urgent need and responsibility of the West to “understand China.” Given his emphasis on the glories of the “China Model” and the objective truth of “China’s story,” which at its core is about the infallibility of the CCP, this need to “understand China” is not really about dialogue or dialectic. It is about acceptance. China must act with confidence to overcome these misunderstandings. As one senior German diplomat told GMF’s Noah Barkin recently: “Dialogue is now conditional on us not criticizing China.”
If one detects a certain wolfishness in this perspective, Zhang does not disappoint in his views on how China should respond to the prejudices that are standard fare, according to the CCP narrative, for the West. Here is what Zhang said in September 2020, during an interview on the “This is China” television program:
The Chinese have a culture of ‘being kind to others’ and of giving face to others, which the West does not have. That’s why I often say that in order to communicate better with the West (与西方交流), we have to learn to confront the West (与西方交锋), and after confrontation we can often communicate better. Of course, confrontation does not mean you shout yourself hoarse, as the Chinese say. Confrontation is about stating your principles clearly. Western culture is a culture of the strong (西方文化是强者文化). They respect the strong, respect the winner. If they raise a provocative issue and you dare not respond, dare not confront, then you have lost. And you’ve lost representing the country.
Zhang, with his talk here of “crossing swords” (交锋), sounds very much like a proponent of what is so often now called “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” He is a champion of the Chinese system, and of its assertion in international discourse and diplomacy as “self-confidence.” Considering that the Shanghai professor has advised the leadership for a number of years on these questions, including at a May 2016 symposium hosted by Xi, we should perhaps view him not as a moderating voice on the question of international discourse and diplomacy, but rather as a one of a number of architects and supporters of the approaches that have been applied over the past several years.
The West must be persuaded to see things China’s way. And to this end, confrontation, the crossing of swords, will likely remain as a core component of communication as conceived by the leadership.
At a conference of scientists and engineers from China’s national academies last week, Xi Jinping sounded a strong note on the country’s development as a powerhouse of science and innovation. In his address to the event, which was attended by all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Xi outlined his ambition to secure China’s status as a “science and technology power” (科技强国), thereby securing a “new pattern of development” focused on “high-quality” – this last word a reference to moving up the global value chain.
But another catchphrase stood out in Xi’s speech. The party’s general secretary spoke of “science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement,” or keji zili ziqiang (科技自立自强) as the “strategic support for national development.” This underscores again China’s determination to pursue a path of greater self-reliance, a theme reiterated throughout the ambitious 15-year economic agenda China outlined at the National People’s Congress back in March.
Self-reliance will no doubt continue to be a major theme as China seeks to address slowing economic growth amid a complicated array of domestic and global challenges – including greater wariness and pushback from the United States, the EU and other major economies. Even as Xi addressed participants from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and the Chinese Association of Science and Technology (CAST) last week, the US was poised to pass broadly bipartisan legislation to compete with China, including billions in new funding and an overhaul of the National Science Foundation.
“Technology self-reliance and self-improvement” will be a slogan to watch in the coming months and years. So what do we know about how this phrase came about?
While buzzwords like “scientific innovation” (科技创新) and “science and technology power” have been regular features of Xi-era discourse on science and technology, “science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement” is a much more recent addition. Both “scientific innovation” and the notion of building a “science and technology power” featured strongly in the 13th Five-Year Plan as it was introduced back in 2016, part of the focus on innovation-driven development. Official coverage at the time specifically noted that this was the first time that “scientific innovation” had made the economic blueprint as a concept for top-level planning.
But this higher profile for “scientific innovation” in fact began even earlier, around October 2015, as it became a major focus during the the 5th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the CCP. The emphasis on providing policy and material support for the “building of a global science and technology power” (建设世界科技强国) is clear in official news coverage in China from September 2016 onward, as the new five-year plan turned up the volume on innovation-driven development as the way forward for China’s domestic economic health and global competitiveness.
If “scientific innovation” was a key buzzword in 2016 and afterward for the growing emphasis on cutting edge technology as a development driver, “science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement” can be seen to signal the renewed conviction within the leadership that China must achieve self-sufficiency as a global technology power.
Not surprisingly, we see this new phrase emerge for the first time around the 5th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in October of last year – this being the meeting from which the communique emerged that offered the first glimpses of the 14th Five-Year Plan. The full phrase to appear at that time was, “taking self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology as the strategic support for national development” (把科技自立自强作为国家发展的战略支撑). As the five-year plan and the vision for 2035 blanketed official news coverage in October and November of last year, the phrase “science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement” was everywhere.
This talk of self-reliance and self-improvement has been attended by a discourse of “self-confidence” (自信). But here, as is so often the case, the projection of self-confidence betrays deeper anxieties. A sense of crisis underlies the talk of historic opportunity. One of the clearest examples in the official discourse came in December 2020, just as the Central Economic Work Conference was concluded. An official commentary, or shelun (社论), in the People’s Daily newspaper spoke confidently of China’s “institutional advantages” (制度优势) — code for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party — before asserting that “scientific decision-making and creative responsiveness are the fundamental methods by which crisis can be transformed into opportunity, and self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology provide the fundamental support to promote overall development.”
This phrase is worth monitoring closely as an indicator of China’s pursuit of self-reliance in its innovation-driven development.
When writing an obituary there is one question above all others that must be factually established: Has the subject in fact died? It is a basic rule of thumb that CGTN, China’s international English-language cable TV news service, and many other state media outlets, fumbled badly today as they issued premature reports of the death of the celebrated agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), known for his development of high-yield rice varieties.
Yuan, 90, in fact did pass away at around 1PM Beijing time, but this was many hours after CGTN reported through its official Weibo account that the scientist had died in Changsha at the age of 91. Later this morning, after the CGTN report set off a wave of copycat coverage, Yuan’s personal secretary confirmed that he had been unwell, but said he remained in the hospital for treatment.
Within several hours, CGTN had removed the original story, seen below with its 404 error and remaining search result on Google, and the network had issued a public apology.
The fake news traveled rapidly this morning, picked up by numerous official news outlets and other channels. Below is a screenshot of a report from Phoenix News, citing as a source a subsidiary publication of the state-run China Central Television (CCTV), China Television News (中国电视报).
The China Television News tribute struck an emotional tone, emphasizing love and dedication to the country:
An old man with the heart of a child, and with a childhood dream. His love for this land was profound, and he was a faithful watcher of the rice fields!
🕯 We offer our tribute, in memory!
Sites across the Chinese internet pounced on the fake news, and even for a time the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia included a date of death for Yuan’s entry, while the English-language Wikipedia continued to list the scientist as alive.
Shortly after the news began spreading like wildfire, Eastday, the national news portal based in Shanghai, reported, citing Hunan’s provincial propaganda department, that the news of Yuan’s death was in fact fake news. The simple message in the header read: “[Propaganda Department of the Hunan Provincial Committee: #YuanLongpingPassingIsFakeNews#] (湖南省委宣传部: #袁隆平去世为假信息#).
This story about fake news disseminated through state media outlets about a celebrated figure in China’s agricultural development for a time became the real story. Here is that story through Southern Metropolis Daily, shared via Sohu.com.
The source for the Southern Metropolis Daily story was the official People’s Daily, citing once again Hunan’s propaganda department. The authorities, clearly were working overtime to reverse an embarrassing case of state-driven fake news.
In recent weeks and months, grumbling from Chinese diplomats and state media about how Western media report prejudicially on China has been nearly constant. In many cases, these criticisms have not just addressed particular cases of reporting but have sought to broadly undermine the credibility of the Western practice and experience of journalism – depicting it as hypocritical, corrupted by capital, and doing the bidding of foreign governments bent on “interference” and containment.
One particular aspect of China’s continued attack on Western journalism that might puzzle outside observers is the insistence at the highest-levels of the Party-state press apparatus that the CCP upholds the principles of “objectivity, impartiality, truth and accuracy” – as a commentary in the People’s Dailyargued back in February in the midst of the storm over Ofcom’s decision to withdraw the UK broadcast license for CGTN.
At a press conference this week, MOFA spokesperson Hua Chunying too threw the old ideal of “objectivity” back in the face of the Western press, saying, as she accused the Wall Street Journal of ‘smearing the safety and effectiveness of Chinese vaccines,” that she hoped “media organizations can follow the principles of authenticity, objectivity and justice, [and] report on the epidemic and vaccines in an impartial and fact-based manner.”
China’s talk of objectivity seems like rank hypocrisy until you have a better grasp of what officials and official media actually mean by this word. So what does it mean, in the CCP political context, to be “objective”?
In his excellent review of the writings of Eileen Chang, Perry Link one wrote that everything in Communist China worked “under blankets of jargon.” In this world, in which the control of language remained central to political rule, people were immersed and educated in the vocabulary of pretense. “There are certain things you are supposed to say and certain ways you are supposed to say them,” Link wrote. “‘Tell the truth!’ is a command that you recite your lies correctly.”
Link’s observations, and the insights to be gleaned from Chang’s prose, remain as relevant today as they were six years ago or sixty. In Xi Jinping’s “new era,” as in Mao’s day, the truth is determined by the Party. The most fundamental truth, moreover, is the centrality of the Party itself, which is why the project of “telling China’s story well” is formally tied, clear as day in the official discourse, to the Party and its narrative of competence and legitimacy.
If the truth is defined as the story of the Party’s competence, then the failure to tell that story – to “inject more positive energy,” as Hua said this week – is to lack objectivity. But we can understand this logic also by peeling away those “blankets of jargon.”
In 2019, an article in the Guangming Daily newspaper, published by the Central Propaganda Department, laid out the key points on information control as reflected in a decision from the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP, which spoke of “improving the system of public opinion channelling for correct guidance” (完善坚持正确导向的舆论引导工作机制). This phrase contains two key terms in the press control lexicon, “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确舆论导向) and “public opinion channelling” (舆论引导), both essentially pointing to the need for the CCP to control the process of agenda-setting and maintain regime stability through the management of news and information, with Party-state media playing a core role in guiding the agenda on breaking stories and hot-button issues.
In a section on “emphasizing positive news” (坚持正面宣传为主), another press control principle emerging in the aftermath of the June 4th crackdown in 1989, and which Xi Jinping stressed as a lynchpin of news and propaganda policy in both 2013 and 2016, the Guangming Daily article wrote:
The emphasis on positive propaganda means objectively reflecting the mainstream and essence of contemporary Chinese society, as well as the need to stimulate the powerful force of the entire Party and entire society to unite and advance, overcoming the various difficulties and challenges we face. Adhering to positive propaganda demands that we focus on the Chinese path, on Chinese theory, on the Chinese system, the Chinese spirit, on Chinese strengths, and that we properly explain and propagate Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era . . .
Here we can see clearly how Party-state propaganda, emphasizing positives, is regarded by the CCP as an “objective reflection” of Chinese society. The notion here of the “mainstream” also refers back to the Party’s dominance of the agenda.
Creating social cohesion and political legitimacy through the manufacture of “mainstream” views of the positivity of the path and the system is the point of journalism for the Party.
Today is the 24th World Press Freedom Day. First conceived three decades ago at a UNESCO conference in Namibia still regarded as having catalyzed global press freedom efforts, the day has been commemorated every year since 1998. In its concept note for this year’s conference, with the theme “Information as a Public Good,” UNESCO said that a key objective would be encouraging greater information literacy in order to “enable people to recognize and value, as well as defend and demand, journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.”
As it has for a quarter century, the UN event passed quietly today in China. There was no mention in mainland Chinese media of “World Press Freedom Day,” in either official Party-state media or in the country’s increasingly straightjacketed commercial press.
As for social media platforms, one rare mention appeared on UNESCO’s official Weibo account, which sought to explain the importance of commemorating the day:
Our reasons for establishing this international day are: To remind countries to respect pledges for press freedom To call on media professionals to consider press freedom and professional ethics To express support for the media To remember those journalists who had given their lives for journalism . . . .
Rather hopefully, the UNESCO account topped its post with the hashtag #WorldPressFreedomDay (#世界新闻自由日). Users clicking on the hashtag, however, were given an error message that read simply: “We’re sorry, there are no results for ‘World Press Freedom Day.’”
It cannot be true that there are “no results.” There is at least one other post from UNESCO alone using the hashtag. That post reads: “There are many questions that we don’t have the means to ask. If journalists are not free to ask questions, we will not know the answers.”
But the bottom line is that World Press Freedom Day is something about which Chinese are not free to ask. One user who had clearly attempted to learn more by clicking the tag wrote in a comment under the UNESCO post: “This TAG is already gone.” A search for World Press Freedom Day through Baidu, China’s top-ranking search engine, also turns up no current coverage or discussion of the issue.
Nor in recent days has there been any mention of “press freedom” or “World Press Freedom Day” from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, despite remarks from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 28 at a roundtable to commemorate the international day, during which he talked about a “democratic vision for global information,” and singled out China as a source of concern for the US and its allies. “The real concern here is Beijing’s use of propaganda and disinformation overseas through state-owned media enterprises and platforms with the purpose, in part, of interfering or undermining democracy while restricting freedom of the press and speech in China,” Blinken said.
World Press Freedom Day is a no-go area in China, and near silence has attended the day since its inception. This is because the very concept of a press that operates independently in the public interest is politically unacceptable in China, where the Communist Party has long demanded that the media are subservient to itself as the arbiter of the public interest. The term “press freedom,” or xinwen ziyou (新闻自由), has been regarded as sensitive since the earliest years of the People’s Republic of China, and has often been attacked and dismissed as a bourgeois fancy of the West – or worse, as a tool wielded by a hypocritical West, led by the United States, to defile and slander China and the CCP.
“Press freedom” is rarely ever used in the Chinese media, where less ideologically charged phrases like “freedom of expression” (言论自由) are preferrable if references are necessary. Under Xi Jinping, the term “press freedom” has slipped from sensitive territory into the formally taboo zone. An internal communique released in 2013 by the CCP’s Central Office, which has since been known as “Document 9,” listed “the West’s idea of journalism” among seven restricted ideas. “Some people, under the pretext of espousing ‘freedom of the press,’” said the communique, “promote the West’s idea of journalism and undermine our country’s principle that the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party.”
“So-Called Press Freedom”
One of the most common contexts for the appearance of “press freedom” is the longer phrase “so-called press freedom” (所谓的新闻自由). In the wake of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989, the People’s Dailyreported that Xu Zhen (徐震), the head of the journalism school at Shanghai’s Fudan University, advocated deeper “political education” for journalists.
During the unrest, he said, some people in society had raised up so-called “freedom of the press” and the students had followed suit, marching on the streets with banners saying “freedom of the press, give me back my [Word Economic] Herald.” In fact, these students did not know what freedom of the press meant. In a class society, there is no freedom of the press beyond class. Some people advocate “freedom of the press,” but does this mean they have the freedom to oppose the major decisions of the Party’s Central Committee and to incite the overthrow of the legitimate government?
In 2005, a commentary in the paper took aim at what it characterized as the corrupt “basic nature” of “the West’s press freedom.”
For a long time, there have been certain people who do not understand the true meaning of freedom of the press, or because they do not know enough about the world and the reality of journalism today, they bear misconceptions in their minds. Essentially, there are two main aspects: First, they blindly worship the West’s press freedom, thinking the West is the paradise of press freedom; second, they think press freedom means reporting whatever they want to report, reporting however they want to report, and being completely free from restrictions. In order to clarify the true meaning of press freedom and bring into play the rational guidance of press freedom, it is necessary to revisit this issue.
The commentary, echoing attacks going back to the 1950s, argued at length that press freedom in the US was a figment, that speech was severely restricted by capital on the one hand and political interests on the other. Noting the mid-air collision of a US Navy intelligence aircraft and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in April 2001, the commentary said: “This is so-called ‘freedom of the press,’ a freedom that distorts the truth and puts lives and human rights at risk.”
Revealing the CCP’s view of “press freedom” as being defined ultimately by the Party’s own interests and its ostensible representation of the people’s interests, the commentary then spoke of “correct guidance of public opinion” (正确的舆论导向) – the policy, implemented in the aftermath of June Fourth, that essentially avers that the Party must “guide” and control speech and the media in order to maintain political control:
China’s freedom of the press must be conducive to economic development, social stability and the improvement of people’s living standards, and journalists must adhere to the correct guidance of public opinion, promoting the main theme, so that the news media can provide a strong ideological guarantee and public opinion support in the great cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is also the essence of freedom of the press.
Such a bald-faced affirmation of the CCP’s media control policies couched in the language of “press freedom” is exceptionally rare. In the vast majority of cases, “press freedom” is treated as negative and oppositional, warranting only suspicion.
More recently, a report in the People’s Daily on September 12, 2019, addressing protests in Hong Kong, said that “black hands behind the scenes are the root of the Hong Kong riots, and Hong Kong’s so-called press freedom has reached a point of absurdity.” In March 2020, as China responded angrily to “discriminatory measures” against Chinese state media in the US – referring to the move by the Trump administration to designate such media as state operatives – the People’s Dailywrote that the measures had “exposed the naked double standard of America’s so-called press freedom.”
The phrase “press freedom day” is mentioned in the official People’s Daily newspaper just three times in its 75-year history, and only one of these mentions pertains to the UN’s international day.
The first two mentions, appearing in 1959, make reference to an event held in Cuba just months after Fidel Castro had been named the country’s prime minister, and weeks after he had instituted agrarian reforms that broke up landholdings. A report on June 9 read: “Prime Minister Castro told the press at a conference to mark Press Freedom Day on July 7 that Cuba ‘will not change a single comma’ of the agrarian reform law. Castro stressed that although the agrarian reform has caused opposition, ‘the enemy has spurred the revolution forward.’”
The third mention, the only in the People’s Daily to date to reference the UN event, came on May 5, 2009, following comments in Washington by both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to mark World Press Freedom Day. On May 1, Obama had noted “the indispensable role played by journalists in exposing abuses of power,” and he had urged greater attention to the plight of journalists across the world who “find themselves in frequent peril.” Among these, he named in particular Chinese journalist Shi Tao (师涛) and Chinese political activist Hu Jia (胡佳).
A May 5, 2009, article in the People’s Dailyurged the United States to “respect the facts, take a correct view of China’s press freedom situation, respect China’s judicial sovereignty, and stop making careless remarks about China’s press freedom situation.” Chinese official media coverage following Obama’s criticism marked a high point for the appearance of “World Press Freedom Day” in China’s newspapers. But the coverage was uniform, with at least 37 papers and scores of websites all running a single release from the state-run China News Service that mirrored the People’s Daily article.
The most recent article in the People’s Daily to mention the term “press freedom” was a commentary on February 6, 2021, attributed to “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), a pen name used for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view. The commentary followed the decision by the UK’s Office of Communications (Ofcom), the government regulator for broadcasting and telecoms, to withdraw the UK broadcast license for China Global Television Network (CGTN), China’s state-run English-language satellite news channel. The “Zhong Sheng” article called the decision “a brutal suppression of Chinese media,” and said it had “fully exposed the falseness of the so-called press freedom flaunted by the UK.”
One of the nastiest turns occurred as the Chinese Embassy in Paris openly attacked scholar Antoine
Bondaz, a researcher for the Foundation for Strategic Research, calling him a
“thug” and a “troll.” Defending its conduct as France summoned the Chinese
ambassador, Lu Shaye (卢沙野), to voice its
strong objections, the embassy insisted that criticism of China would not be
If China’s national interests and image are threatened
and damaged, our diplomats must rush up and defend them desperately. Some have
for this reason given the label “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” If there are truly
“wolf warriors,” this is because the “mad dogs” are too many and too fierce,
including these “mad dogs” who tear China apart in the guise of scholarship and
journalism. Some hope that China’s diplomacy can be “lamb diplomacy,” that we
just sit quietly as the attacks come from outside. Such times have passed!
This contrast between “mad dogs” and “wolf warriors” seemed destined to
catch on, and indeed it was instantly picked up by state media in China. A column on March 23 under
the byline Shan Renping (单仁平), which often stands
in for Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进), bore the headline: “If There are ‘Wolf Warriors,’ This is Because
‘Mad Dogs are Too Many and Too Fierce.” Another piece published through the news app
of the Beijing Daily, run by the city’s propaganda department, similarly
highlighted the “mad dog” line. “This talk of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights,’ and
‘freedom’ is just the same old rhetoric,” said the commentary. “The same old
script and a similar farce.”
The same old script indeed.
In recent years, as new digital platforms have come to dominate, the Chinese Party-state and its principal media have pushed a transformation of propaganda and public diplomacy. This is not just about global Twitter spats, but about the way public accounts on platforms like WeChat have been used to viralize the idea within China, whenever it suits the objectives of the leadership, that the dignity of the country is under attack. The New York Times, in its report Monday on the phenomenon, termed this China’s “outrage machine.”
These tactics, which draw on a deep well of historical resentment, are digital-era echoes of past mobilization campaigns. For the Chinese Communist Party, online rage is the conflagration needed to suck the oxygen out of any debate over substance, and distract attention away from criticism. Facts and hard questions on issues like Xinjiang are consumed in the blaze. The trouble is, fires are difficult to contain. The most recent over H&M could send China’s investment deal with the EU up in flames. So much for constructive diplomacy.
But for those who remember the world before the WeChat public account, before the instant rage machine of microblogging, going back even to the youthful days of the Party press of the 1950s and 1960s, much of this may seem familiar. Mao Zedong had his “outrage machine” too, and the anger fomented internally over perceived enemies externally – from “hostile forces” to Soviet revisionists – was very often about building a wall of rage against internal criticism. We should recognize this common lineage, while acknowledging that what is happening today is new and unique, and global in ways CCP outrage could never be in the past.
As it happens, the catchy contrast between “mad dogs” and “wolf warriors” is one key that can help us look back on the historic waves of furor and indignation unleashed by the CCP. Despite the apparent novelty of Ambassador Lu Shaye’s viral remark, “mad dogs” have been around for a very long time.
The Dogs of Civil War
In its earliest appearances in the People’s Daily, dating back to
the Chinese Civil War, the phrase “mad dog” spoke to the depravity of the
Kuomintang and its soldiers and officers. One story from August 13, 1947,
explained how “the most honest militiaman,” comrade Wang Mingyi (王明义), a communist fighter in a
Shandong village, was interrogated by Nationalist soldiers following an
incursion and bravely resisted revealing the location of CCP cadres:
a group of enemies pressed Mingyi to the ground like mad dogs, first striking
him 20 times with a club, and then 40 more times before hanging him up from a
tree and beating him with a leather shoe until he could not straighten his
body. These mad dogs still wanted the guns, and to find the cadres, and
comrade Mingyi finally said resolutely: “The guns were handed over to the
district office, and I don’t know where the cadres went!”
Many stories at the time were war stories of this sort, conveying a
sense of justice, and sometimes also a disdainful sense of humor, about the showdown
with the Kuomintang. One story described an enemy tank that made a desperate turn
toward communist combatants and became stuck in the mud, its main gun facing
downward at an impossible angle as it fired at the earth “like a mad dog.”
By January 1949, as the People’s Liberation Army was in the midst of its Pingjin Campaign to take northern China, one top trade union official was quoted in the paper as exclaiming: “The Kuomintang war criminals are like a pack of mad dogs. We must chase them to the ends of the earth and make sure they are brought to justice, dunked down into the water. We cannot let them go. If we let them go, they might raise their hackles again and turn to bite us.” Several weeks later, army commander Zhao Shoushan, a former KMT general who had switched allegiances, was similarly quoted by the People’s Daily, suggesting this had become something of stock phrase: “The KMT gang is already like a mad dog facing death. Right now it poses as a begging dog, but we must not fall into its trap and allow it to catch its breath, lest it turn and bite us again.”
American Imperialist Dogs
Earlier this month, China’s government issued its Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2020, sharply criticizing alleged human rights abuses in
the US, including “comprehensive, systematic and continuous” racism, and what
Xinhua called “Washington’s incompetent pandemic containment.” These problems were
framed as a repudiation of any and all US claims to leadership on human rights.
China’s government has issued similar reports annually since 1998, in direct
response to the country reports on human rights
practices issued by the US State Department.
The rancor over US government reports has echoes deep in the pre-reform
era. On September 8, 1949, the People’s Daily criticized the China White Paper issued by the Truman administration, saying it had “exposed the new
conspiracies by American imperialism to invade our country.” Referring to Secretary
of State Dean Acheson’s assertion that “democratic individualism will reassert itself” in China, and
should be supported, the article fulminated:
One sentence [in the white paper] says:
“Democratic individualists will revolt against the CCP.” This was
likely referring to Hu Shih, who, when the mad dog Chiang Kai-shek was
about to be beaten to death, wanted to mobilize the powerless lice to bite the
Chinese people to death.
Hu Shih, the famous writer and thinker (and leader of the 1919 new
culture movement) who from 1938 to 1942 had served as the KMT government’s
ambassador to the US, was already by this time the frequent topic of bitter
criticism in the People’s Daily. While president of National Peking
University (later Peking University) from 1945, Hu had publicly opposed Marxism
and advocated “reforming drop by drop” (一点一滴的改造), a notion bitterly
opposed by Mao
and his revolutionaries as bourgeois nonsense. In 1948, Hu Shih fled the city as communist forces
closed in, returning to the United States. The intellectual was
by this time “Hu Shih the running
dog of American imperialism,” and his ideas – including the pragmatism of
his teacher at Cornell University, John Dewey – were the “powerless lice”
biting at the Chinese people.
As the PRC was founded, and Chiang run off to Taiwan, much of China’s
“mad dog” ire turned on the United States after 1949. The Korean War broke out
in June 1950, and by October that year Chinese soldiers from the People’s
Volunteer Army (PVA) had crossed the Yalu River and engaged in the conflict. On
October 27, 1949, an article dedicated to China’s
The sound of artillery in Korea shakes our hearts
daily. The massacre of peaceful residents of Korea by the US Empire reminds us
even more of the atrocities committed by the Japanese fascists against the
Chinese people. We cannot tolerate this beastly behavior of the US empire!
In order to save itself from crushing defeat, the mad
dog of the US empire is getting crazier and crazier, mobilizing all
available US troops in the Far East at all costs.
American bombs, said the paper, had “opened flowers across China,” as
volunteers sprang up to head to the front lines. “We cannot allow this mad
dog to destroy world peace,” it said.
The show trial against former
Hungarian Politburo member László Rajk in Budapest in September 1949, which
marked the launch of Stalin’s anti-Titoist purge in Hungary and the removal of
competing political parties, was reported in a bloodthirsty account in the People’s
Daily, Rajk seen as an agent for the US-led imperialist West. As the paper
reported the words of one prosecutor in the Budapest court:
people demand the execution of these criminals, and I, as representative of the
prosecution, concur in this demand. We must crush the head of the viper. Such a
verdict will show every imperialist agent and traitor what awaits him. There is
only one defense against mad dogs: destroy them!
Stalin was China’s friend, and the US was the chief enemy in Europe,
Asia and right across the world. “Let us unite together like steel,” said an
article on December 5, 1950, “and beat to death this mad dog of US
imperialism.” The US was “plainly a mad dog,” was “already becoming a mad dog.” In 1958, in the midst of the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, as the PRC
shelled the islands of Kinmen and the US came to the aid of the Republic of
China (ROC), the People’s Daily reported that “the mad dog of US
has again provoked 600 million Chinese people.”
In 1962, as the US ramped up its military support for South Vietnam, the issue had shifted but the language was consistent. Reporting on a bombing campaign by US forces, the paper said that “enemy bombers again bombarded indiscriminately like mad dogs, covering helicopters as they made their descent.” That same year, a poem in the People’s Daily called “The Original Yankee” (美国佬的原形) disparaged US notions of freedom, and was accompanied by an unflattering image of Uncle Sam strolling away from a pile of bones, his feet leaving dog prints behind. The poem read:
America, “free” America Standing before human civilization, You are naked, you stink to high heaven, Like a mad dog scampering about.
Toward the end of the 1950s, following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation
of Stalin and disagreements over a host of other issues, China’s
relations with the Soviet Union steadily soured. There were new “mad dogs” to
join the old.
Soviet Revisionist Dogs
By 1960, the schism between China and its old ally was a fait accompli,
Mao denouncing Soviet leaders as “revisionist traitors.” The USSR joined the US
in China’s dog house, the People’s Dailygrowling that the Chinese
people, “armed with Mao Zedong Thought,” were undefeatable. “We must, in the
spirit of ‘beating the dog that has fallen in the water,’ strike without mercy the
mad dog of Soviet socialist imperialism.”
As the Sino-Soviet split drove a rift through the international
communist movement, just one country in
Europe, Albania, chose to stand with China. The USSR retaliated by withdrawing
its economic and military assistance to Albania, but China stepped in, providing shipments of grain to the country even as the Great Famine at home claimed millions of
lives. The Albanian alliance was a necessity for Mao Zedong, a political vanity
for which the Chinese people paid dearly. Throughout the 1960s, the Albanian
friendship was warmly promoted in the People’s Daily.
In a piece called “The Heroic Women of Albania” (英雄的阿尔巴尼亚妇女), the paper told the story of one female commando named Little Fado who
was captured by “fascist bandits” during the Second World War and held with
other female combatants in the hazy and damp dungeon of an old castle.
Interrogating her, the fascists yanked off her five-star cap and threw it to
the ground. They ordered her to reveal the location of her unit. Here is the
climax of that story:
Her lungs were about to explode, but she calmly picked up her hat,
kissed the red stars, and then put it squarely on her head again. The enemy was
so furious that they barked like mad dogs and decided then and there to
shoot her. Before the end came, Little Fado shouted to her sisters in their
cells: ‘Destroy the German and Italian fascist devils! Sisters, I am honored,
because I will die like a true partisan. Victory must be ours!”
But following the Lushan Conference of 1959, at which many Party members
were highly critical of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the “mad
dogs” were not just China’s external enemies. As Mao sought to stave off
criticism, the aspersion was leveled at internal foes as well.
Dogs in the House
In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, in March 1966, General Luo Ruiqing, a
veteran revolutionary who had been on the Long March, was branded as part of an
“anti-Party clique” that
included Peng Zhen, Yang Shangkun and Lu Dingyi. Luo attempted suicide by
leaping from the roof of a three-story building. Though he survived, paralyzed,
his legs shattered, the public attacks continued. On October 28, 1967, the People’s
Dailyran a piece alleging that Luo,
with the support of “China’s Khrushchev” (meaning Liu Shaoqi), had “engaged in a
sinister conspiracy to turn the army against the Party.” The article described
Luo Ruiqing as “scurrying like a mad dog” as he sought to disrupt the
study of Mao Zedong Thought within the army’s ranks.
Another article in 1968, laden with
political insults, branded the writer Zhou Yang as an “agent in the arts” for
Zhou Yang and the capitalist roaders of the old film
association think they’ve performed “well,” that they “remain useful.” This
word exposes their secret all at once, that they believe this mad dog can
still serve their counter-revolutionary criminal activities.
[They] must be materially and politically generous in feeding
this mad dog, because this mad dog is very good at “biting
people,” and can be used to attack the party and attack socialism.
Chinese life became a chorus of rabid denunciations during the Cultural
Revolution. And of course it was not
just senior Party officials and intellectuals that were tossed into the dog
house. A March 1971 article filed from Zhejiang province offered a chilling glimpse
into a struggle sessions unfolding in one community. At one point, a member of
the community stands up to make a damning disclosure: “That ‘dog that
doesn’t bark’ on our team, Jiang Ruilu, has now become a mad dog,”
they said. “He has torn off his disguise, revealing his fierceness. He disobeys
commands, and provokes divisions between cadres and the group.”
The Pack of Four
The downfall of the Gang of Four in October 1976, just one month after Mao Zedong’s death, ushered in
another period of dramatic change. The political faction, led by Mao Zedong’s
fourth wife, Jiang Qing, was blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution
– and these “criminals” were quickly, well, dog-piled.
On December 16, 1976, the People’s Daily published an article on
Dazhai village in Shanxi province, which in 1963 had been the focus of a vast propaganda campaign by Mao Zedong calling on farmers across the country to emulate the
community’s example. The whole thing was a vast manufactured drama, PLA
soldiers brought in to do the vast construction projects attributed to self-sacrificing
villagers. Guo Fenglian, the top leader in Dazhai, was favored by Jiang Qing,
and often used in political campaigns.
But as the Gang of Four was crushed, the village became an object of
ridicule. The People’s Daily profiled one poor old farmer in
Dazhai, Jia Chengyong, who fiercely
denounced Jiang Qing:
“I know best who loves Dazhai and who hates
Dazhai. The beloved Premier Zhou visited Dazhai three times and sat on the beds
of the poor peasants to ask for warmth and affection; the big ambitious Jiang
Qing visited Dazhai twice and bit people everywhere like a mad dog and
hurt socialism everywhere like a vicious wolf.”
In a separate article, another farmer, Jia Chengyong, was quoted saying exactly the same thing. Zhou Enlai had visited the village three times, Jiang Qing just twice. Madame Mao was a “mad dog,” a “vicious wolf” and a White Bone Spirit, referring to a demon that appears in the classic The Journey West. “The big ambitious Jiang Qing came twice two Dazhai, biting people like a mad dog, and harming socialism like a vicious wolf. For three generations we have loathed this White Bone Spirit.”
Mad Dogs and Black Hands
As economic reforms took hold after 1978 and through the 1980s, China
embarked on a new path. The calumnies of the pre-reform era faded as the focus
economically turned from ideology toward pragmatism. In the media, there was corresponding push for “news reform” (新闻改革), rejecting the “falsehood, emptiness and bluster” (假大空) that had dominated the
Party-run press – really the Mao-run press – for more than two decades, fanning
the flames of internal strife.
The tone of the press, and of politics, became more civil, and the insults
and ad hominem attacks of the extreme left were far less welcome. In 1987, a
letter to the editor in the People’s Daily cautioned against the
volleying of defamatory insults by writers and journalists. Old habits died
hard, and some still struggled to shake off the deep impact of decades of raw
political hate and sloganeering. But the nation now had a new constitution, and
a new system of laws protecting people from such attacks:
Since last year, some readers have written to this
newspaper to reflect that some people use literary publications to attack,
insult and slander others. These letters have increased particularly since the
knowledge of the law has grown.
From the situation reflected by the readers and the
reporter’s understanding of the situation, there are indeed some people
(including some writers), who use the pens in their hands and the publications
they hold, in the guise of writing real stories about real people, to act against
the principles of literary creation, against the Constitution, and against the
law, amounting even to criminal activities.
One reader in Hebei, Wang Faying, shared her own
experience of being “insulted and slandered” by a writer for the magazine Women’s
Literature (女子文学). Wang, a former statistician at an agricultural machinery
company, understandably chafed against having been called a “specialized
privateer,” a “peach-picker,” a “political liar,” a
“pickpocket,” a “fraudster,” a “strangely tasting
southern chicken,” a “rogue,” and a “mad dog.”
There was a clear whiff of democracy in the air by the second half of
the decade. An article on August 10, 1987, shared the instructive story of an
overbearing and power-hungry assistant director of a blanket factory in Hubei
province, who became furious when his female employees did not support him in
casting their ballots for him as a district people’s congress representative.
He reportedly called the employees to his office and dressed them down: “I have
raised a bunch of mad dogs,” he said. “You do not endorse me,
but bite at me behind my back.” The article, “Violating Voters’ Democratic
Rights” (侵犯选民民主权利), reported that the assistant director had been dismissed from his
The moment that brought a swift and brutal end to the openness and
experimentation of the 1980s is one we all know. The violent suppression of
po-democracy protests in June 1989 ushered in a new period of denunciation and
finger-pointing, with a resurgence of hardline leftist discourse continuing through to Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” in
It will probably not surprise readers to learn that
the next “mad dog” in the People’s Daily, appearing on June 25, 1989, was
Liu Xiaobo, the scholar and human rights activist who would later become a
recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The article, a lengthy attack reprinted
from the capital’s Beijing Daily, was called “Seizing the Black Hand Liu
Xiaobo” (抓住刘晓波的黑手). Liu, a lecturer at Beijing Normal University, had been arrested and
imprisoned at Qincheng Prison on June 5, the day after the massacre, accused of
aiding the pro-democracy movement.
The People’s Daily article suggested Liu had been part of a foreign conspiracy, calling him “Liu Xiaobo who rushed back from the United States at the beginning of the turmoil.” Here was the unflattering portrait painted of the activist:
has long been known as “a madman”, “a mad dog” and
“a dark horse.” Since 1986 he has made a lot of noise by rejecting everything
about China. After receiving his doctorate in literature from Beijing Normal
University on June 25, 1988, he traveled to Norway to lecture on August 24, and
after three months, he moved to the United States. Before he left the country,
he wanted to drop a number of so-called “heavy bombs” against the
Communist Party and the people, but he hid them for the time being because he
was afraid they would “fizzle out” because he was about to leave the
country. When he arrived abroad, he had nothing to worry about, so he tossed
them one after the other.
The attack closed by saying that history “is not subject to the will of the reactionaries.” Liu Xiaobo’s dream was but an empty dream. “The people, and only the people, are the masters of this land of China,” it said.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the virulent rhetoric of “rabid dogs” faded once
again. As the focus shifted back to rapid economic development, the nation was
busy with matters of trade and investment. The society grew wealthier. The
media, though still under Party control, diversified, and the internet ushered
in a more connected China.
For the first time in the People’s Daily, there were actual mad
dogs, rabid ones that had to be dealt with. A reader’s letter from August 13, 2006, argued the need to register dogs in
the countryside and regularly vaccinate them to deal with rabies outbreaks. There
was the problem of domestic violence, of fathers who show two faces to the
family, one the “mad dog.” The paper, calling in 2011 for zero tolerance toward
domestic violence, explained: “The ‘mad dog’ type of person can be a gambler,
or a drug addict or have other bad habits, and no one can stop them from
beating up people.”
At long last, “mad dogs” were dogs, or “mad dogs” were people, with real human problems. The point was not to dehumanize the subject and justify cruelty as payment for their political crimes.
Mad Dogs in the New Era
But the pendulum has swung back once again. There is a new rancor in China’s diplomatic relations, and in the domestic reverberation of its outrages, that is reminiscent, like so much else in the Xi era, of politics in China’s past. That rancor has focused on criticism of China, and on perceived threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Comments like those made by Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye in France are part
of a larger turn toward uncivil and dehumanizing speech directed at those who
criticize the country or are perceived as its enemies. Earlier this week, a Chinese diplomat
on Twitter called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “boy,” accusing him of
destroying the relationship between China and Canada, and in the next breath
branded Trudeau “a running dog” of the United States.
The diplomat, in fact, was not stepping out of line. A nasty relic of the pre-reform era, the term “running dog,” has in recent years been largely reserved in the Party-state media for discussion of history. But it now seems to be creeping back. Generally speaking, such Cold War rhetoric has been normalized, despite frequent calls in the Party’s own People’s Daily and other state media to avoid Cold War thinking and Cold war talk. Last July, after Canada’s withdrawal from its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, the Global Times said Chinese experts had “slammed Canada’s decision, saying it shows Canada is a ‘running dog’ of the US.” In October 2020, the People’s Daily ran a warning on page seven to Taiwan’s Intelligence Bureau over alleged spying and “sabotage activities.” The article urged the bureau not to “continue to act as the ‘hawks and hounds’ and ‘running dogs’ of the Tsai Ing-wen administration.”
The first re-emergence of the “mad dog” to address current affairs in the
People’s Daily in the Xi era came in August 2019, as protests in Hong Kong grew increasingly rancorous, and at times violent. On August 17, an article in the paper reported comments from members of the legal profession in Hong Kong
decrying violence, including an attack on a reporter from the
During the illegal assembly at the Hong Kong
International Airport, the mob obstructed and pushed the passengers, and some
mainland passengers and journalists were tied up, beaten and abused by the mob.
Some Hong Kong legal professionals have pointed out in interviews and articles
that the mob have acted like “mad dogs,” and there is no
escaping criminal responsibility.
The point here, as in the case of the Party’s “mad dogs” of the pre-reform era and the attack on Liu Xiaobo, was to dehumanize the party-state’s critics, to impute lunacy and unreason. This removes the need to grapple with the substance of real concerns. Mad dogs are a menace. Period. There is no sense in coaxing them, petting or feeding them. They must be caged, muzzled and removed – whatever it takes to keep the people safe. In this way, it becomes a simple leap from the dog’s madness to the party-state’s reason and legitimacy. Silencing criticism is necessary to inoculate China from rabid criticism.
What is most disturbing about the “mad dog” in the new era, however, is the way such attacks are applied not just to national governments, or “the West,” or political elites like Justin Trudeau, but to scholars like Antoine Bondaz or Joanne Smith Finley. We cannot forgot the resolve of the Chinese Embassy in France as it insisted, in the face of criticism, that China must defend itself against “these ‘mad dogs’ who tear China apart in the guise of scholarship and journalism.”
Scholarship and journalism must stand before its peers and the public, before a global community that is free to speak, free to seek the facts, free to criticize and free to listen. Hu Shih, the intellectual the People’s Daily attacked early on as a “mad dog,” had in fact been called the same by Chiang Kai-shek. He was a critic of the KMT, a critic of the CCP. But above all he was a critic. It was his independence as a thinker and writer that commanded the attention of the thinking public. “Hu was known as a scholar who did not belong to any party, and that’s how he was seen in society,” one researcher has said. “For this reason, as soon as Hu was published, this won the sympathy of society, particularly of the intellectual class, who were very happy about it.”
As comments in online forums in China about its international relations call on the country to “do battle with the mad dogs,” independent voices from scholarship and journalism are invisibilized. The diplomacy of the PRC is lost, meanwhile, in a chorus of howling over “wolves” and “mad dogs.”
Yesterday, confusing things even further, the Chinese Embassy in Ireland made a post to Twitter – a platform banned inside China – that brought sheep back into the cacophony. “Who is the wolf?” the embassy asked. “Some people accused China for so-called ‘wolf warrior diplomacy.’ In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences.”
What did the embassy mean be related a tale whose moral is that the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny? As though hastening to explain, the embassy said in the very same tweet: “The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb. BTW, China is not the lamb.”
Was the embassy averring that China is in fact the wolf, ready with excuses, pointing its accusing finger at perceived offenders in order to justify devouring them? Certainly, as the diplomats insisted, China is not the lamb in this confusedly allegorical message.
Understandably, puzzlement and ridicule justifiably ensued. But one small shift in the reading of the post from the Chinese Embassy in Ireland makes the allegory work. As the scornful baying about wolves and dogs grows louder, swallowing up all meaningful dialogue, all real diplomacy, along with all facts and legitimate questions – isn’t it painfully clear?
The treatment of the Colorado story by US and international media starkly contrasts with the reporting of a story unfolding the very same day on the outskirts of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou – the detonation of a bomb in a historic village, killing five and injuring five others. In this case, there were no big headlines. There were no reporters on the scene. There was only a trickle of information, including a pair of terse local police notices, a news item from the state-run Xinhua News Agency that parroted the police line, and a graphic video of the aftermath circulating with little context on social media.
Today the Guangzhou story has settled into eerie silence across the Chinese media landscape. News editors are reportedly under instructions to use only official copy from Xinhua — ensuring that if the story is told at all, it is told only in the way the authorities see fit.
Left with only hints as to what might have happened in the Mingjing Village (明经村), what can we learn?
Explosion at a “Building Structure”?
Some of the first details from the scene in Panyu emerged at
12:48 PM Monday, nearly three hours after a man identified as “Hu XX” (胡某), age 59, apparently set off an explosion
Mingjing Village, located in Panyu District, about 25 kilometers southeast of
the city center of Guangzhou.
Few of these details were included in the first official announcement from police in Panyu, posted to Weibo. Reporting only a “criminal incident,” the release read:
At around 10AM on March 22, a criminal incident occurred in Mingjing Village, Hualong Township, Panyu District, Guangzhou City, resulting in casualties. After the incident, Panyu police quickly dispatched officers to the scene, carrying out rescue and relief work in coordination with the local government, the fire department and medical [personnel]. Currently, the injured have been sent to the hospital for rescue and treatment, and police are putting their full energies into the investigation.
In typical fashion for Chinese government (and official media) reporting of breaking stories, the focus was on the actions authorities were taking, and few details were forthcoming. Later that night, more than 10 hours after the explosion, the local police again provided information through Weibo:
10AM on March 22, a criminal incident occurred in Mingjing Village, Hualong
Township, Panyu District, Guangzhou City. After Panyu Police received a report,
they quickly began an investigation.
preliminary investigation [it is understood that] suspect Hu XX (male, 59 years
old, from Panyu District, Guangzhou City) carried explosive materials on the morning
of that day into a building structure in the village, resulting in the death of
5 people, including suspect Hu XX, and the injury of 5.
all injured have been sent to the hospital for treatment, and the case is under
statement from Panyu police was quickly carried by a number of online outlets
in China, including the website of the National Business Daily,
which ran it along with a screenshot of the Weibo post. It was shared verbatim hours later
by Xinhua News Agency. It was now clear that the case involved the unidentified
“Hu XX,” who had carried explosive materials into “a building structure” (一建筑物).
detail was a clear clue that something was seriously wrong, and that the
authorities were being exceptionally careful about how they characterized the
Interestingly, the report from the Reuters news agency on the explosion in Panyu, relying primarily on Xinhua’s verbatim repetition of police accounts, also described the explosion as having occurred at a “building in the Mingjing area,” though it noted several paragraphs down that “local media reports described the building as housing a community committee.”
Map searches suggest Mingjing Village is a relatively remote community, well to the east of the center of Panyu, a bustling satellite of Guangzhou proper that has been known in the past as a center for rights defense activity – including bitter land disputes over the years, as the urban fabric of the Guangzhou megalopolis has expanded. But the area around Mingjing Village has been developing rapidly, and those familiar with village politics in the Pearl River Delta region might surmise that this incident was related to a land dispute. Indeed, it seems to have been exactly that. We’ll come to the details in a moment.
First things first, what about this “building structure”?
At 3:05PM, in fact, about five hours after the explosion occurred, The Beijing News, a commercial paper based in the capital that since 2011 has fallen under the management of the local propaganda department but for many years has fought to maintain its professional reporting, posted a story online drawing on the initial police release as well as phone conversations with local villagers and township police. It was a rare instance of a journalist actually reporting substance:
The Beijing News reports (Reporter, Liu Ruiming) – The Panyu branch of the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau issued a release saying that a criminal case occurred in Mingjing Village in Guangzhou’s Panyu District, resulting in casualties. On March 22, villagers from Mingjing Village at the scene of the incident told the reporter that the site of the incident was the office building of the Mingjing Village Committee, and that there was a suspected explosion with casualties. An employee at the Hualong [Township] police substation, located in the area where the incident occurred, told the reporter that the substation had already dispatched officers to the scene of the bombing at the Mingjing Village Committee.
the Village Committee
As to why the committee building had been targeted, the report was not clear. It went further in describing the scene, however, using eyewitness video and accounts from local villagers:
shows severe damage to the interior of the first floor of a building, with columns
and walls collapsing and people falling to the ground with injuries. Police,
fire and emergency personnel have arrived to deal with the scene.
A villager from Mingjing where the incident occurred told the reporter from The Beijing News that it was believed an explosion had occurred on the second floor of the village committee building at around 10AM on March 22. “My home is only two or three buildings away from the village committee, after hearing the sound of the explosion, I went to the scene to see for myself.”
The villager said that at the scene they saw that there was broken glass everywhere on the floor the first level of the committee building, the doors and walls inside were all damaged, and people were being sent off for rescue and treatment. After public security officers arrived at the scene, a cordon was drawn around the area and personnel were on the scene to investigate.
The report from The Beijing News came almost five hours before the second release from police in Panyu, referring evasively to “a building structure.” A search of the Wisenews database, covering print and online media in China and Hong Kong, shows that only the Information Times and New Express, both based in Guangzhou, have run the story of the Mingjing Village explosion today. In both cases, the papers use only information from the Panyu police notices, mentioning that an explosion occurred and that the suspect “Hu XX” had been identified, but continuing to report that the explosion had occurred in “a building structure.”
On Monday afternoon, video from the scene of the explosion, the same referenced by The Beijing News, was shared on social media platforms, with the majority of posts appearing to share information only from the police notices, and referring to “the second floor of a building structure.” The following post from the Headline News (头条新闻) Weibo account, for example, closely follows the release, making no mention of the committee building. The post was made about 30 minutes before The Beijing News released its report.
However, a number of social media posts later in the afternoon, following the report from The Beijing News, did mention the village committee. The following post, made to Weibo by Cover News (封面新闻) just before 8PM Monday, reads:
the site of the explosion is the Mingjing Village Committee. Villagers near the
site of the incident say that the Mingjing Village Committee holds a regular
village affairs meeting every Monday in the morning, attended by the village secretary,
the deputy village secretary, the security chief and other cadres.
Hints of A
By Monday night and into Tuesday, online reports on the explosion continued to focus sparsely on the details provided in the initial police notices, including the ambiguous reference to “a building structure.” Chinese media were reportedly under instructions to use only official media reports in referring to the incident.
From media in Hong Kong, however, we get a much fuller picture. The Apple Daily reports on page 17 today that the bombing in Mingjing Village is related to a major development project underway in the area that involves the Shanghai-based Shenglong Group, one of the country’s largest real-estate companies, which also has developments in the US and Australia. The project, which involves the renovation of Mingjing Village – which like hundreds of other villages in the area has a deep history – will create an area to showcase technology innovation, and has an estimated total investment of around 1.2 billion US dollars.
The founder and chairman of Shenglong Group, Lin Yi (林亿), was listed on Forbes’ “China Rich List”
in 2017, but subsequently fell
back in the listing of billionaires. He has made headlines
in Australia with his backing of Aqualand in Sydney, which is
operated by his son, Lin Shangjin (林尚景).
What exactly were the grievances of “Hu XX”? Why did he attack, if that is what happened, the meeting of the Mingjing Village Committee? How was the renovation project being handled? What arrangements were there for compensation of villagers, assuming that collective village land was being used for this major project? All of these questions point to a more significant story.
Given the immense restraints they face, we can hardly expect Chinese media to tell this story. Or can we?
In fact, the Shanghai-based outlet Jiemian (界面) did run a report yesterday under the tantalizing headline: “Criminal Case in Mingjing Village, Panyu, Guangzhou, Where the Partner Company for the Old Village Renovation is Shenglong Group” (广州番禺明经村发生刑事案件，该村旧改合作企业为升龙集团). The story drew a tentative line between the explosion yesterday and disputes over land use surrounding the project involving Shenglong Group.
Not surprisingly, given the subsequent instructions against reporting, the Jiemian story has disappeared from China’s internet, yielding a “404” error.
The same story at QQ has also now disappeared, resolving into a “404” error inviting readers to share information about missing children. (Is this QQ’s way of transforming censorship into public service?).
Sina.com too had apparently re-posted the story, only to remove it later, as the word came round that no reporting was to be done on the incident in Mingjing Village.
Fortunately, a cached version of the story as it appeared at QQ is still available. In fact, the story does not explicitly state a link between the explosion Monday and the planned village renovation project in Mingjing. But the implication of a connection is strong, and Jiemian even quotes Shenglong Group as saying that demolition work has not yet begun because the project is not far enough along. This clues us in to the fact that demolition and removal, and related compensation issues, are almost surely involved here.
Inside China, the stories from Jiemian and The Beijing News are likely as far as this story will now go. We include a partial translation of the former below.
| Huang Yu (黄昱)
on March 22, police in Guangzhou’s Panyu issued a notice saying that at around
10AM on March 22, a criminal case occurred in Mingjing Village, Hualong Town,
Panyu, Guangzhou, resulting in casualties. After the incident, Panyu police
quickly sent officers to the scene to deal with it and cooperate with the local
government to carry out rescue work in collaboration with fire and medical
departments. The injured have been taken to hospital for treatment and the
police are working hard to investigate the case.
the crime scene circulated online shows the Village Committee [building] in
chaos, the ceiling of the building collapsed by the impact of the shock wave,
and people lying on the ground, with blood covering the walls and the ground.
Firefighters, police and medical personnel are on the scene dealing with the
Village Collective Economic Organization has a total of 3,736 registered
people, and is located in the middle of Panyu’s Hualong town, east of the Panyu
Intelligent Network and New Energy Automobile Industrial Park, south of
Tangshan Village, west to Guang’ao Expressway, north of Jinshan Avenue, with an
excellent location. Not only is it near Guangzhou University City and the
Guangzhou International Innovation City and other important areas, but the
construction of the Guangzhou Automotive Value Innovation Park should also
bring significant opportunities for the development of Mingjing Village.
last year, the Mingjing Village Old Village Renovation Project, with a total
estimated investment of about RMB 8 billion, was voted by the member
representatives of the Mingjing Village Joint Stock Cooperative Economic
Society (明经村股份合作经济社), with Shanghai
Shenglong Investment Group (hereafter “Shenglong Group”) as a partner.
to official data, the total land area of Mingjing Village is 108.49 hectares,
including 95.81 hectares for the residences of villagers and other uses, about
9.5 hectares for the village’s collective economic properties, and about 3.18
hectares of state-owned land.
reported that after the transformation, Mingjing Village will be planned around
the Guangzhou Automotive Value Innovation Park, deepening the functional
interaction and support with Guangzhou University City and Guangzhou
International Innovation City, building an area of science and technology
innovation support . . . .
to Jiemian, Shenglong Group revealed that since officially becoming a partner
of Mingjing Village’s renovation, the company has completed the data survey of
the village and now the whole project has reached the stage of preparation for
the area plan, which is far from the stage of reform plan review – and so as of
yet no demolition work has been carried out.