Author: David Bandurski

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).

Getting Personal With State Propaganda

Imagine you are a member of the international recruitment team at the University of Worcester in the UK, responsible for managing exchange programs with universities from China; or, alternatively, you are the president of the University of Northern Iowa, which has actively developed exchanges with Chinese universities. In either case, you would naturally expect your partners to engage in international exchanges, including yours, in good faith. You would expect them to uphold basic ethical and academic standards.

Now consider: How would you respond if you discovered that a Chinese university you partnered with had launched a specialized research center in partnership with that country’s Central Propaganda Department, whose purpose was to actively utilize foreign exchange students as “resources” for global propaganda?

Audacious though it may seem, such a scheme is already underway in China. It is one of the more egregious examples of how a range of actors in the country — including high-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bodies, state media, local governments, and universities — are responding to the top-down mandate from the CCP leadership to pursue greater “discourse power” around the world as a whole-society effort.

International Resources

Last month, Nanchang Aviation University (南昌航空大学), located in China’s southern Jiangxi province, announced that it had launched the “Jiangxi International Communication Research Center” (江西国际传播研究中心) in cooperation with the China Media Group, the state media conglomerate formed in 2018 directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. According to coverage by China Education Daily, a newspaper directly under the Ministry of Education, the new center is an experiment in combining central CCP media and universities (央媒+高校) to carry out international communication by using the “overseas student resources” (留学生资源) of the university.

Nanchang Aviation University has so far established cooperation with more than 70 universities in 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine. It reports that it currently has more than 1,600 international exchange students studying on campus in China. But the existence of the new center, and its exploitation of programs undertaken in the spirit of exchange, could also mean that Chinese students in programs overseas — like those in Worcester and Iowa — are enlisted for state communication work having no relation to their studies.

According to the China Education Daily report, the university had “taken the initiative in cooperating with the ‘international communication national team’ of China Radio International to invest lasting power in the university’s efforts at international communication capacity building.”

China Radio International (CRI) is China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster, which has now branched out into the production of multimedia content for the country’s external communication objectives. In order to achieve what Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), enhancing the CCP’s influence on public opinion globally, CRI has partnered with local media abroad, and in some cases has sought to covertly influence content.

Exploiting Foreign Friends

Some of the products already created through Nanchang Aviation University’s utilization of the foreign student population may seem harmless enough. One example is the online video “Jingdezhen in the Eyes of Foreign Friends” (外国友人眼中的景德镇), in which Nanchang Aviation University graduate students “Muheet” (李想) and “Jonas” (吉达), both studying civil engineering, introduce local pottery-making traditions. Another is “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” (带你认识不一样的南昌), a city promo video that introduces the ancient history of Nanchang and promotes the city’s modern achievements as “creating new brilliance.”

The final credits of the promotion video “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” list Nanchang Aviation University alongside China News Service and the official Jiangxi Daily as producers.

But as a formal arrangement for the use of foreign students in Party-state propaganda, under the auspices of the state-run China Media Group and the Central Propaganda Department, the Nanchang Aviation University center is clearly a cause for concern. It is a fundamental corruption of the university’s educational mission and its relationship with students, which should be about providing high-quality programs. And it is a corruption of the spirit of international exchange among educational institutions globally, which should be undertaken with integrity, thinking first and foremost of the development and well-being of students.

The credits for “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” are visual proof of how these relationships and exchanges have been co-opted by the Chinese state for its own purposes. They make clear that the promo film was produced jointly by Nanchang Aviation University, the official China News Service (CNS), another China Media Group unit with responsibility for overseas propaganda, and Jiangxi Daily, the official CCP mouthpiece of Jiangxi province.

The so-called “Jiangxi International Communication Research Center” should also serve as a cautionary note about the transactional way the Chinese state conceives friendship and exchange. For decades, the “foreign friend” has been central to how Chinese leaders understand international relations and communication. CCP officials and diplomats have typically viewed friendship through a narrow frame of “goodwill” and “mutual friendship,” favoring those who have remained obligingly acritical and whose actions are seen to have advanced the Party’s own agendas.

Last October, in the midst of the 20th National Congress, China’s Foreign Languages Press released a book looking back on the positive views of China and the CCP propagated overseas by such friends as the journalist Edgar Snow and former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The book, Together on a Shared Journey: 100 Stories of the Communist Party of China in International Communication, was promoted during a foreign ministry press conference, thanks to a softball question from a local Shenzhen television station. And the state-run China Today plugged the book by quoting from another trusted foreign friend, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who said in typical softball fashion: “Considering China’s role in the world today, foreigners should know and appreciate the real China.”

Making Propaganda Personal

In coverage of the new communication center, Nanchang Aviation University said the venture implemented the concept of “international communication by all” (人人国际传播), which emerged in Chinese strategic circles in 2022.

Speaking on Zhang Weiwei’s “China Now” (这就是中国) program on October 17, 2022, Guo Ke (郭可), the head of the School of Journalism and Communication at Shanghai Foreign Languages University, linked the idea of “international communication by all” to his own concept of “international communication +N” (国际传播+N). This was essentially the idea, “N” denoting an infinity of voices, that China’s global communication strategy must rely not just on state-run media and centralized messaging, but must be carried out by individual Chinese on a broad scale.

Guo Ke (郭可) speaks on the “China Now” program in October 2022, as international communication guru Zhang Weiwei looks on.

Guo spoke about the need for China to find new ways to communicate in the world in light of changes in technology and global engagement. No longer, said Guo, is international communication about traditional media such as newspapers, television, and radio. In the digital age, it intersects with the social realm. “Only when people all participate in the work of international communication can we resolve the challenges facing international communication. Only then can we use our attitude of self-confidence to build our discourse system with Chinese characteristics.”

The Nanchang Aviation University center is apparently the first application at the university level of the concept of “international communication by all.” The university said in the China Education Daily report that it “encouraged everyone to become microphone-wielding communicators,” affirming that “everyone can participate in the production and singing of the main melody of good China stories.”

Chinese Propaganda, In a Local Paper Near You

Raising the effectiveness of international communication has been a top political priority for China’s leaders since the late 2000s, rooted in the sense that the country’s comprehensive national power (CNP) and capacity for global influence are hampered by a deficit of soft power. In the Xi era, the sense of strategic urgency has deepened, with concern among Chinese Communist Party leaders that “the general pattern in international public opinion of western strength against our own weakness remains unchanged.”

Xi Jinping’s bid to close China’s gap in global discourse power (话语权) with the West has focused on remolding older CCP approaches to external propaganda (对外宣传) around the notion of strategic storytelling. The objective, first outlined in August 2013, is to “tell China’s story well,” which will enable the more effective transmission of “China’s voice.”

But crafting a credible and compelling narrative and finding ways for that narrative to effectively reach diverse audiences with widely varying demands is far easier said than done. As we approach the ten-year anniversary of Xi’s injunction to “tell the China story well,” it is not clear that China has become better or more effective in conducting external communication — even if it has become far more determined.

Global Delusions of Grandeur

Last month, as the CCP’s official People’s Daily reflected back on its accomplishments for 2022, it ran several articles on the issue of “comprehensively raising the effectiveness of international communication.” This included a December 22 article laying out the CCP’s strategic approaches to external communication, and a December 28 special feature detailing the ways the People’s Daily had applied its own efforts.

The pieces, juxtaposing policy approaches and concrete cases, offer a revealing summary of how the Party and its flagship newspaper approach the issue of external propaganda. And one clear takeaway for those who observe the broader question of Chinese influence is that core Party media have made little notable progress in developing their own international channels for communication since “going out” was defined as a key goal in the late 2000s.

Core Party media have made little notable progress in developing their own international channels for communication since “going out” was defined as a key goal in the late 2000s.

The first piece, “Raising the Communication Power and Influence of Chinese Civilization” (增强中华文明传播力影响力), mirrors language first introduced with boldness at the May 2021 collective study session of the CCP Politburo. One priority at that session, following the thinking of the invited speaker Zhang Weiwei (张维为), a known proponent of Chinese exceptionalism, was the creation of a unique “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系) that could be deployed with confidence globally. Another was the building of a “strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics” (具有鲜明中国特色的战略传播体系), a phrase that since that time has been taken seriously by CCP officials and commentators.

Both of these phrases, strategic though they may sound on the surface, are prime examples of a malady endemic to CCP policy-making. As formulas, they may sound purposeful, but they are utterly vacant when it comes to strategic content.

Zhang Weiwei may talk until he is blue in the face — and he and others do — about the new global dominance of a “Chinese discourse system” and a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语). But these are little more than slogans used to mobilize toward broadly-defined objectives, often without any apparent consideration of audiences globally and their values and interests. As we shall see in the next section, they do not generally result in fresh approaches to the practice of international communication.

This is the way CCP’s movement-style governance often works. Concepts and slogans delivered from the top, some fresh and others recycled — think “common prosperity” —package and repackage official priorities. These priorities are then broadly applied by actors throughout the political system, including various Party and government bodies, the Party-led media, academia, and even private and state-run businesses, which have a vested interest in signaling compliance.

The process certainly holds for the CCP’s international communication objectives, which under Xi Jinping have been defined as a whole-society effort in which even individuals are to be mobilized as communicators of the Party’s global agenda.

It all sounds very grandiose. To many in the growing global community of researchers of so-called “Chinese influence” around the world, it may also sound sinister and dangerous. But when we take a closer look at the activities China pursues globally, what we often see is a pattern of changing official discourse to describe the intent behind tactics that have largely remained unchanged, and that have questionable effectiveness.

A Chinese Strategic Communication System?

The December People’s Daily piece on raising the power and influence of Chinese civilization offers a good look at this gap between newly wrought CCP discourse and unchanging CCP strategies. The piece contains this choice and revealingly empty passage:

Only with a strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics can we effectively coordinate our resources, give full play to our collective effect, and focus on improving the influence of international communication, the appeal of Chinese culture, the affinity and strength of China’s image, the persuasive power of Chinese discourse, and the guiding power of international public opinion. Building a strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics is a systematic project that requires systematic thinking and overall planning.

The Party must, this passage tells us, be systematic as it works toward a strategic communication system. This system, moreover, irrespective of the obvious strategic need to take into consideration other cultures and discourses, must be distinctively Chinese. In statements like this, we can see China’s official discourse turning in on itself. What does any of this mean? More importantly, how does it have any reference or relevance to a television audience in Nairobi, or to newspaper readers in Brazil?

This is not to say that the CCP’s strategic intentions should not be taken seriously. They certainly should be. But taking them seriously also means recognizing their limitations. Anyone with a background in media or strategic communication can tell you how challenging it can be to advance agendas effectively in any communication environment. Do we really imagine the CCP can simply do so by sloganeering about systems to communicate its cultural greatness, confidence, and uniqueness?

Immediately after the inflated passage above, the People’s Daily runs briefly through concrete strategies for international communication, exposing the CCP’s reliance on old and familiar approaches pre-dating the Xi era and having precursors even in the pre-reform era:

[We must] better employ high-level experts, using important international conferences and forums, foreign mainstream media, and other platforms and channels to speak. [We must] prioritize the use of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese-invested enterprises, international friends, and others in international communication. [We must] be tactful in the strategy and art of the international public opinion struggle, widely making friends, uniting and winning the majority, grasping international discourse power, and consciously safeguarding the dignity and image of the Party and the state.

The cultivation of “international friends” and use of “international conferences and forums” and “foreign mainstream media” are tactics that would be familiar to any propaganda official in the 1950s, when, for example, the official journal People’s China (人民中国) was launched by the Central Propaganda Department with editions in 49 countries to “let the people of the world understand China,” and to serve as a front for people-to-people exchanges with willing partners abroad, such as the Japan-China Friendship Association, linked to the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The 1963 delegation by the Foreign Languages Press to Tokyo, Japan, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Japanese-language edition of the People’s China journal.

The creation of a new generation of Chinese media outlets overseas — echoing the rollout of People’s China in the 1950s and 60s — was defined as a core objective beginning in 2008, around the time of the Beijing Olympic Games. China invested heavily in the global expansion of state media ventures throughout the 2010s, with outlets like Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, CCTV, and China Radio International (CRI) expanding their global presence. Notice, however, that the above list of priorities does not even include the building of more direct communication channels overseas through the “going out” of Party-state media. These direct efforts have resulted so far in few real gains for Chinese media in foreign markets. And so, revealingly, the People’s Daily article prioritizes the exploitation of foreign mainstream media as well as international conferences and forums.

The creation of a new generation of Chinese media outlets overseas was defined as a core objective beginning in 2008.

The reality of China’s reliance on foreign communication channels is difficult to square with the CCP’s determined language about the need for a “strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics.” And the December 28 full-page feature in the People’s Daily paints a much clearer picture of this reliance as the newspaper touts its foreign propaganda victories.

Turning Inward While Going Out

According to the December 28 feature, “Improving the Overall Effectiveness of International Communication” (全面提升国际传播效能), the People’s Daily reported “cumulative annual views” of nearly 20 million internationally in 2022 for content produced by its 39 overseas bureaus. How was this achieved?

The newspaper claimed to have provided around 3,000 news products in 13 languages to foreign mainstream media, with 35,000 “media drops” (落地) in more than 1,000 foreign media. If these numbers are reliable — though we should remember that the People’s Daily has a vested interest in boasting to those above — it means that the newspaper group produced roughly 3,000 distinct articles or news products that were placed in foreign media outlets 35,000 times, either with payment for inserts or through media cooperation. In many cases, then, identical pieces of People’s Daily news copy would have been shared with around 11.6 media outlets in different languages, with an average of just under 100 “media drops” per day.

The People’s Daily also claimed to have cooperated with media from 24 countries to introduce 169 special sections (主题专版) that reached more than 100 million readers (this likely being a calculation based on total circulation figures for these publications). Finally, the People’s Daily said it cooperated with mainstream media in Mexico, Japan, Egypt, Korea and Nigeria to create regular columns providing continuous updates on Chinese news, with annual views of nearly 20 million.

Page 13 of the December 28, 2022, edition of the People’s Daily profiles the newspaper’s international communication efforts in 2022, with images of foreign news pages.

In what sense was this content from the People’s Daily strategic? Did it take into consideration the needs or values of local audiences? Did it focus on human stories or voices, taking cues from Xi’s notion of “telling China’s story well, transmitting China’s voice well” — a phrase that ran down the center of the page, in the midst of images of international newspaper pages?

The answer is no. The examples the People’s Daily provided are entirely in line with the themes to be found in domestic propaganda. As the newspaper explained:

We focused on the interpretation of President Xi Jinping’s major diplomatic events and series of important speeches. President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the 2022 annual meeting of the Boao Forum for Asia and his speech at the 14th meeting of the leaders of BRICS countries were published in full in foreign media. In line with President Xi Jinping’s major diplomatic activities, more than 50 special pages were launched in cooperation with foreign media.

Examples included a commentary under the official pseudonym “He Yin” called “Working Together to Create a Better Future for Humanity” (携手开创人类更加美好的未来), which spoke of China as a positive force for world peace and prosperity, drawing heavily on CCP jargon. The article was published through Detikcom (点滴网), one of Indonesia’s largest online news portals. Another example was “The Vivid Embodiment of ‘Discussing, Building and Sharing Together'” (“共商共建共享”的生动体现), an article published through Saudia Arabia’s Al Riyadh (利雅得报) newspaper during Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East that spoke glowingly of China’s involvement in the Jizan Port.

The December 28 review of external propaganda quoted Al Riyadh editor-in-chief Hani Farid Wofaa as praising the timing of the publication of the Jizan Port article in his paper. “We are looking forward to long-term cooperation with the People’s Daily,” he said. But neither of the abovementioned articles was written with any consideration of domestic audiences in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Both were domestic propaganda appearing first in the pages of the People’s Daily.

“We are looking forward to long-term cooperation with the People’s Daily.”

Al Riyadh editor-in-chief Hani Farid Wofaa

Other titles emphasized by the newspaper give a sense of the content transmitted to foreign audiences, and suggest little effort beyond the mirroring of propaganda priorities at home in translated external propaganda. The paper “actively promoted the spirit of the 20th Party Congress,” it said, by “cooperating with foreign mainstream media” to launch 50 special pages on such themes as “An Extraordinary Decade, China’s Achievements” (非凡十年·中国成就), and “Making the Manufacturing Sector Superior and Strong” (把制造业做实做优做强).

The People’s Daily is almost certainly applying the word “cooperation” only in the loosest sense here. There might be cases of real cooperation between the newspaper and foreign outlets. But most of the so-called “media drops” are likely instances of paid advertising or inserts, coming at immense aggregate cost when the sheer volume of drops is considered.  

The December 28 review includes, for example, the image of a full page of content published in Egypt’s Al-Ahram (Pyramid), the country’s second-oldest and most widely circulating newspaper. The stories, which are clearly labeled at the top of the page as coming from the People’s Daily, deal with Chinese infrastructure projects, including renewable energy, corresponding to the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), of which Egypt was the host.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram (Pyramid), the country’s second-oldest and most widely circulating newspaper, runs a special page on China, labeled at the top with a People’s Daily logo.

According to advertising rates available online, a daily full-page advertisement (4 colors) in Al-Ahram was listed in 2018 at over 19,000 US dollars.

Rates of course vary from publication to publication. Covering a 2021 People’s Daily review of its own foreign propaganda blitz around the National People’s Congress, CMP noted that advertising rates for that year posted by the French magazine l’Opinion (one of the publications featured) showed that full-page advertisements ran between 18,000 and 30,000 euros (21-36,000 US dollars).

The many thousands of placements in foreign newspapers alone by the People’s Daily in 2022 would likely translate into many tens of millions of dollars, an immense investment.

The Korea Economic Daily, a conservative daily business newspaper in South Korea, publishes a full-page insert of People’s Daily content. The content is labeled with a People’s Daily logo, but no indication to readers that this content is from the Chinese government.

In addition to newspaper “drops,” the People’s Daily claimed to have pushed its propaganda through overseas websites. In the December 28 review, the group took credit for an English-language illustrated series called “China: The Numbers of a Decade” (数说中国这十年), which it said ran on “close to 200 websites in the US, France, Germany, and India.” It quoted “Isabel,” identified as a “news editor for the Manila Bulletin, voicing a sentiment suspiciously in line with official CCP views about the unique advantages of the China Model for developing nations: “Through reading People’s Daily articles we can profoundly feel that China has successfully taken a path to development that is different from that of the West. China’s tremendous development achievements are amazing.”

But these claims for “China: The Numbers of a Decade” hardly stack up against the evidence online. The series, which seems to have been a China Media Group production in which CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-run broadcaster, took the lead, was promoted through PR Newswire, the release sharing a link to the series on the CGTN news website. The same release can be found pasted to other sites, including Padova News, a free news site that advertises itself as the first online daily newspaper in Padua, the independent news outlet India Shorts, and the options trading site Benzinga. CGTN also plugged the content through Twitter, receiving 5 retweets and just 11 likes.

The claim that the series ran on “close to 200 websites” around the world is a blatant and self-deceptive exaggeration based on the casual re-posting of a free press release by scores of websites on the internet periphery. Moreover, the interactive product itself is created in such a way that it is hard to imagine its appeal to international audiences. The product essentially offers blocks of text-heavy propaganda about China’s economy and society in a slow-loading digital format that is cumbersome to navigate — and is likely to be incompatible with most websites internationally.

Screenshot of the Economy section of CGTN’s interactive series “China: The Numbers of a Decade,” promoted by the People’s Daily as a propaganda triumph.

Nevertheless, the People’s Daily insisted with tone-deaf conviction on the appeal of this and other media products: “Reading and understanding China, and reading and understanding the Chinese Communist Party, is the common wish of many overseas audiences,” the December 28 review concluded.

Is it really, though? What efforts have Chinese Party-state media made to actually understand overseas audiences and their wishes and interests?

China insists that it is ready to speak more loudly and compellingly in the world and that it wishes to convey a “real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China” (真实, 立体, 全面的中国). But this goal is ultimately thwarted by its inability to listen, and its insistence on repressing diverse and human voices in favor of the one-dimensional and self-gratifying voice of the state.

These 35,000 media drops reported by the CCP’s flagship newspaper, just drops in the sea of a broader campaign to influence global public opinion, suggest that China — for all its talk of “a strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics” — has made few real advancements in terms of strategy or substance. It still relies overwhelmingly on the credible avenues offered by local and international media outside of China.

This is a testament, on the one hand, to the failure of the mission set by Hu Jintao nearly 15 years ago, to create the country’s own effective international communication channels through a process of “going out.” On the other hand, it does not mean that such tactics should not be taken seriously, or watched closely. As China’s media “going out” strategy proves ineffective, state media and other actors, including Chinese missions overseas, will continue to exploit foreign media channels and online platforms in ways that have a potentially corrosive effect on open discussions of China and its role, particularly in less free media environments. And they are likely to double-down on more covert and coercive means to co-opt agendas and silence China’s critics.

But China’s communication failures also represent an opportunity that should be recognized and responded to. Beyond raising awareness of the efforts of the Chinese Party-state to influence international agendas, free and open societies around the world should find new ways to work collaboratively on media projects that respond to local needs and concerns, and that encourage media literacy and media production in ways that are professional, participatory, and creative.

For all our talk of asymmetries in global communication, and related vulnerabilities for liberal democracies as opposed to authoritarian states, it remains true that openness is an asset and a strength. It enables us to do that thing so fundamental to the act of communication, which China has consistently shown itself unwilling to do. It enables us to listen.

Whitewashing China’s Record on Covid

China’s leaders have been at pains in recent days to defend their handling of Covid-19 in the face of tough criticism both at home and abroad, with cases soaring and concerns rising among international experts and foreign governments that China is under-reporting cases and fiddling with the facts — the type of obfuscation, it could be said, that got the world into this mess in the first place.

Published yesterday in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, the latest official commentary from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), an official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view, is one of the more egregious examples of how determined CCP leaders are to present their handling of the pandemic over three years as evidence of strong global leadership.

The latest commentary from “Zhong Sheng” appears on page three of yesterday’s People’s Daily.

On the question of responsibility, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary turns legitimate concerns on their head. “To smear a China that has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic is disrespectful to the facts, disrespectful to science, and irresponsible in the face of history,” the column says.

While China’s most recent about-face on Covid, a chaotic unraveling of strict lockdown measures with little apparent preparation and a woeful lack of transparency, has drawn criticism from a wide range of sources globally, including governments, health experts and the World Health Organization, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary” heaps blame on its favorite scapegoat — the foreign media.

It is regrettable that some Western media have turned a blind eye to the above facts and have blatantly smeared China, which has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic. Without reason, they have smeared China’s adjustment of its pandemic prevention and control policies. This practice is a complete departure from the professional conduct expected of the news media, a disrespect for the facts, a disrespect for science, and an irresponsibility to history.

Doubling down on hypocrisy, the same newspaper that in January and February 2020 neglected coverage of the pandemic for more than six weeks, choosing instead to focus on the major propaganda objectives set out for the new year, suggests that “[since] the outbreak of the pandemic, China has always been open and transparent.”

This most recent “Zhong Sheng” commentary, “Ignoring China’s Contribution to the Fight Against the Pandemic is Irresponsible to History,” exposes the CCP’s desperate bid to maintain its grasp on the broader narrative about China and Covid.

China’s economy has floundered, held back throughout 2022 by rolling outbreaks met with uncompromising lockdowns as part of Xi Jinping’s “dynamic zero” policy. Despite the official talk of these lockdown policies as “scientific” and “rational,” they were often disruptive of life in ways that were unnecessary, painful, and even tragic. The examples are numerous, from the horrors of the Shanghai lockdown in the spring to the fatal crash of a quarantine transport bus in Guizhou in September. The deadly fire in an apartment block in Xinjiang in November was for many Chinese the final straw, prompting unprecedented street protests.

Despite these obvious failures, never openly acknowledged, China’s leaders have insisted that the country’s response to Covid since 2020 has demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility, both domestically and to the world. They have suggested consistently, ever since strict lockdowns took effect, that “China’s struggle against the epidemic has shown the advantages of the Chinese system.” Even in late September, within days of the fatal crash of a quarantine bus in Guizhou province, the official Xinhua News Agency argued that China’s real actions on Covid and the economy demonstrated “the correct leadership of the CCP Central Committee” and “gave full play to the superiority of the socialist system.”

China’s Covid policies, no matter how ruinous or ill-advised, must not be associated with failure. The CCP leadership has too much invested politically. And so the ultimate act of irresponsibility for the leadership is to suggest that it has not acted responsibly.

This bottom line played out over the weekend as Sina Weibo, one of China’s top social media platforms, shut down more than 1,000 accounts on the grounds that they had been critical of Covid policies. The platform said it had logged close to 13,000 posts violating regulations by leveling criticism at the government and medical experts.

This cartoon appeared on Chinese social media in early January. It shows coffins being marched into a building labeled “The People’s Crematorium.” The caption at the upper-left reads: “The first wave of revenge spending after opening.”

For all its talk about the need for “reason” from the media, the CCP is clearly not prepared to grapple with the facts when it comes to China’s record on Covid.

Relaying the view from the top in China, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary carps about respect for science, and about the need to be responsible toward history. But we must remember that in the CCP’s understanding, both history and science are beholden, like much else, to the limitations of politics. Sprinkled throughout official CCP discourse today, references to the policies and actions of the leadership as “scientific” are little more than a claim to the legitimacy of anything and everything the Party does.

This is why, in the earliest days of the epidemic in Wuhan, medical experts attempting to call attention to the emergence of worrisome respiratory cases were sharply disciplined by local officials and warned instead to “speak politics.”

Notes taken of an internal hospital meeting by Wuhan doctor Jiang Xueqing on January 3, 2020, with the note (highlighted) to “speak politics.”

Surely, one of the most critical lessons to be drawn from the past three years is that when politics reigns supreme over science, this can have profound and far-reaching implications for the health and security of the entire world.

Whatever “Zhong Sheng” may say, professional conduct by the news media, in China and around the world, should be all about unsettling and pulling apart the reductive narratives imposed by political power, and foiling with factual reporting their attempts to whitewash history. Anything less would be irresponsible.

Reporting Achievements

Earlier this month, Chinese Journalist (中国记者), an official journal on media published by Xinhua News Agency, ran an article laying out the essential role to be played by news agency journalists in the coming years. Attributed to the agency’s president, Fu Hua (傅华), the article is an illuminating look at just how cowed Party-run media have become under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Perhaps more definitively than at any point in China’s reform era, the mission of CCP media today is about whitewashing the record of the general secretary and the top leadership, building the case that a “great transformation” has been underway in China.

Fu begins by emphasizing the so-called “Five Firm Grasps” (五个牢牢把握), one of the key catchphrases emerging from the recent 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. In particular, Fu stresses that the first of the “Five Firm Grasps” defines the way forward for Xinhua. The news agency, he writes, “will firmly grasp the significance of the work of the past five years and the great transformation of the new era, carefully organizing achievement reports and model propaganda.”

“Achievement reports,” or chengjiu baodao (成就报道), are news stories that amplify the successes of the leadership, often around important milestones and commemorations. Such reports are not new, but in Xi’s “New Era,” when every day is a fresh opportunity to declare victory, they have become far more routine.

Special Occasions

In the Party’s official People’s Daily, references to achievement reports go back to the early 2000s and the run-up to the 16th National Congress, when Jiang Zemin’s theory of the “Three Represents” was being feted ahead of its inclusion in the Party Charter. In September of that year, a special series of articles appeared in the News Frontline (新闻战线), another core CCP media journal, in which editors from the Economic Daily, Nanfang Daily, and other newspapers discussed “how to innovate achievement reports.”

It was a time of media experimentation. Propaganda was changing too. In January 2003, the new propaganda chief, Li Changchun (李长春), would introduce the “Three Closenesses” (三贴近), an approach to media control that at the same time recognized the need to commercialize the sector and make media products more attractive to ever more savvy audiences.

Talk of the need to transform media and propaganda had already been in vogue for a number of years, on the back of a media commercialization process already well underway. In one article for an obscure academic journal published in September 2000, Pan Shanwu (潘善武), a local television producer in the city of Shaoxing, had written of the need to breathe life into the achievement report.

In recent years, achievement reports have become a ‘prescribed action’ for all media. In order to ensure the proper dedication of space, many media outlets set up special columns, dealing with the achievements for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, or of the 15th and 20th anniversaries of reform and opening. . . . In all fairness, however, there are few compelling reports on achievements in the media. We must devote further thought and study to the content, subject matter, and form used for the ‘prescribed action’ of the achievement report.

Generally speaking, achievement reports were prescribed for special occasions. And this prescriptive approach, Pan suggested, invited a mechanical response, when in fact media should emphasize “individuality” (个性特色). Pan referred at the time to the novelty of the idea that media were offering “products” to readers.

in a 2000 paper, television producer Pan Shanwu (潘善武) bemoans a lack of “individuality” in achievement reports by CCP media.

Innovated or not, achievement reports continued to be a focus of CCP media planning around special events. From time to time there were even achievement reports for achievement reports. As the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC approached in 2009, the People’s Daily ran an article praising its work hyping the event. The paper boasted that it had created a whole series of achievement reports that had “helped the masses of readers deeply understand the establishment and development of our great motherland.”

The New Era: Special All the Time

In the Xi era, achievement reports seem to have become a topic for constant hand-wringing and consideration as propaganda officials and communications experts fall over themselves to strategize for the build-up of China’s discourse power — and as the Party-state media enter a period of renewed emphasis on obedience and positivity.

During his first major meeting on propaganda and ideology in August 2013, Xi Jinping introduced the notion of “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), finding new ways to conduct propaganda, both domestically and overseas. He also spoke of the need to “transmit positive energy” (传播正能量) — in other words, to promote uplifting messages about China and its ruling party as opposed to critical or negative ones.

Xi Jinping’s focus on propaganda innovation and positivity naturally invited a reconsideration of the achievement report.

In November of that year, just weeks after Xi attended the Central Forum on Arts and Literature with more messages about the need for obedient journalists and online writers, Zou Xianqi (邹贤启), the president of the Hubei Daily Media Group, wrote in the People’s Daily to discuss the “innovation” of front pages at CCP newspapers. He praised the work of his group’s flagship Hubei Daily, claiming that it had trailblazed with a series of front-page reports touting local economic growth, new investment policies, and so on. The paper, he said, had “broken through the simple narrative mode of achievement reporting.”

Xi’s further elevation during the 19th National Congress in 2017 fueled a continued upsurge in achievement reporting. As China Central Television reflected back on its work in 2018, the network’s deputy chief editor, Wei Quhu (魏驱虎), became over-excited with war metaphors, telling the Cyberspace Administration of China’s New Media magazine that “in the battlefield of the 19th National Congress coverage, CCTV entered the field early, broadened the front, focused its attack, occupied the high ground, and achieved remarkable war results.”

CCTV’s ammunition? The achievement report, naturally. Wei noted, first and foremost, that CCTV had “strengthened the intensity of achievement reports,” touting China’s victories in the fight against poverty, improving people’s livelihoods, and protecting the environment.

But at its heart, achievement reporting wasn’t really about the substance of the country’s vaunted achievements at all. It was about obedience to Xi Jinping and the CCP Central Committee. This priority had become the intensely new order of the day, taking precedence over all content-related decision-making, following the general secretary’s February 19, 2016, speech on media policy, which had been accompanied by visits to the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and China Central Television.

In his speech, Xi insisted that all Party media were “propaganda positions” of the Party and that they must “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party.” Ultimately, the media must recognize before all other priorities their “partyness” (党性), that they were, as Xi made clear, “surnamed Party” (姓党). This took precedence over the notion of “peopleness” (人民性), that the media were meant to serve the people. To serve the Party, in fact, was the only way to serve the people.

As Xi Jinping’s power within the Party grew, “partyness” was increasingly Xi-ness. Telling the China story meant trumpeting the Party’s achievements under the inspirational guidance of Xi as the “core” leader. As Wei Quhu wrote at CCTV:

In the specific act of creation, the CCTV News Center’s production team clearly realizes that in order to make such loftily atmospheric and weighty thematic achievement reports really enter the hearts of viewers to trigger the resonance of ideas and emotional resonance, we must follow the spirit and requirements of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech on February 19 [2016], adhering to the unity of party spirit and the people spirit . . .

For all the talk of “resonance,” Xi Jinping’s media policy has been a recipe for divorce from the audience and from reality.

If the Chairman Says So

Even as China’s economic problems mounted this year amid painfully restrictive Covid policies, the story of Xi Jinping’s economic genius had to take precedence. As Party media readied themselves over the summer for a rush of positive reporting ahead of the 20th National Congress, the Economic Daily reported the release in late June by the Central Propaganda Department of a “study guideline” for “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想), the phrase meant to signal the strength of the general secretary’s economic policy approaches.

The newspaper, published by the same Central Propaganda Department, pledged itself to three actions in promoting the economic work of the Party at a time of historic changes “such as have not been seen in a century.” First, it must abide by the principle of “politicians running the newspapers” (政治家办报), maintaining a high level of unity with “Xi Jinping as the core” in both politics and action. Second, it had to “create new heights in the propagation of Xi Jinping Economic Thought.” And finally, it had to promote the “vivid practice and living experience” of Xi Jinping Economic Thought by organizing topical propaganda and achievement reports.

When the People’s Daily published a notice on October 19, 2020, to congratulate groups and individuals — but mostly the Party itself — for achievements in poverty alleviation, it included the Emergency News Division of the Central Propaganda Department’s News Bureau, for “coordinating achievement and model reports on poverty alleviation policies and achievements,” which had “opened the great curtain on propaganda work” for 2020.

The Emergency News Division had indeed “opened the great curtain” in 2020. And so heavy was the curtain, in fact, that it had shoved aside coverage of the emerging global pandemic for two months.

In the People’s Daily, that coverage included a series called “The General Secretary Came to My Home” (总书记来过我的家), highlighting Xi’s official trips into the impoverished countryside. Writing about the CCP’s concerted propaganda push in early 2020, as the global pandemic raged, CMP co-director Qian Gang said that the Xi Jinping series, “with its feel-good reminiscences aggrandizing Xi Jinping as a man of the people, stands as a historical record of propaganda ugliness that cannot be whitewashed away.”

Fu Hua’s article in Chinese Journalist reminds us that now, more than at any point since the Cultural Revolution, whitewashing is the official policy in the Chinese media. Fu runs an ostensible news agency that understands its chief responsibility as looking back at the past and manufacturing its glories. This is the essence of the first of the “Five Firm Grasps” emerging from the October congress. All Chinese must “firmly grasp the significance of the work of the past five years and the great transformation of the new era.” For the media, this means embracing the achievement report as the primary form of news reporting. For Party officials and citizens, it means suspending doubt and swallowing criticism.

“History illuminates the future, and the journey has no end,” Fu wrote in the soaring conclusion to his song of obedience. But when history conveys no real lessons, when its primary business is to construct models of achievement and greatness, what it reveals instead is the rottenness at the core of the politics that have wrought it.

Looking the People’s Daily in the Eye

As was to be expected, today’s edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper went all black in a show of mourning for the death of former general secretary Jiang Zemin, who passed away yesterday afternoon in Shanghai at the age of 96.

The front page of the newspaper carries the same official Xinhua News Agency release that made the rounds late yesterday — a letter of notice to the entire country about the passing of a comrade “who had the utmost respect of our Party, our military, and the various peoples of our nation.”

Given the high level of sensitivity surrounding the death of a senior CCP leader, we can expect the media inside China to keep strictly to the official line, and so it is little surprise today to see that papers and websites across the country continue to run the official Xinhua releases and little else.

The letter of notice continues to top the website of the People’s Daily today just as it was posted yesterday. The image slider at the top of the site, which generally wheels will brightly colored photographs, is frozen with the notice of Jiang’s death, the dark characters identical to what can be seen just below the masthead in today’s print edition.

Across the country, the treatment of the story has been virtually identical. Here is a glimpse at a few other papers, including CCP mouthpieces (across the top) and their corresponding commercial spin-offs.

In the selection above, the only paper departing ever so slightly in its layout choice is Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily (center bottom), a commercial spin-off, or zibao (子报), of Guangdong province’s official Nanfang Daily (center top).  Rather than run the text of the letter of notice along with the list of authorities releasing it, the newspaper fills nearly the entire page with a large image of Jiang.

But the level of uniformity on the front pages today, which is mirrored also on news websites across the country, such as the provincial news portal of Fujian province shown below, is a clear testament to the sensitivity with which the CCP treats the news of the passing of any senior political figure.

Reactions to death can of course be deeply personal, and they are matters of real grief for family members and friends. But the death of any “comrade” in China is a deeply political matter too, over which the Chinese Communist Party must have the final word. The meaning of an official’s death, like the meaning of history, must be arbitrated through official discourse.

When we look at the front page of the People’s Daily today, and at the front pages of local Party-run newspapers across the country — identical save for the differing nameplates only — we can see clearly the act of discursive framing, meant to define the bounds of Jiang Zemin’s influence and remembrance.

The text of the letter of notice is itself of interest, naturally. Many have noted the reference to the “political turmoil” of 1989, the democratic movement that culminated in the bloody and brutal crackdown in Beijing, which of course is never mentioned, the letter simply stating that “Comrade Jiang Zemin supported and implemented the correct decision of the CCP Central Committee to oppose unrest, defend socialist state power and safeguard the fundamental interests of the people, and relied closely on the Party members, cadres and the masses to vigorously maintain stability in Shanghai.”

But the primary act of framing I’m referring to can be seen clearly in the identical layouts themselves. The CCP leadership has already highlighted for us what it regards as the most crucial paragraph of the letter of notice, paragraph two, which is pulled out and emphasized by inclusion in the space directly to the right of the People’s Daily masthead, known in Chinese as the “newspaper eye,” or baoyan (报眼).

Here is that paragraph, which we emphasized yesterday at CMP in our brief summary of online media coverage.

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

Commenting on the release yesterday, political scientist Victor Shih from UCSD noted that Jiang’s official obituary is “a bit effusive.” On one level, this is certainly true. Seen through the eyeglass of living language, this passage is embarrassingly lavish, enough to make any world leader blush.

In fact, the passage is not so much exuberant as formulaic. And as any close observer of Chinese politics knows, even deadened formulas matter in the living world of Party power. Often, they matter a great deal.

So how should we unpack the passage found in today’s baoyan?

Outstanding Leaders

Let’s begin with the first honor pinned to Jiang Zemin’s legacy: “an outstanding leader who had the utmost respect of our Party, our military, and the various peoples of our nation” (我党我军我国各族人民公认的享有崇高威望的卓越领导人). When we search for this phrase in the archives of the People’s Daily, we naturally turn up two separate articles printed across the first three pages of today’s edition. But beyond these, we must go back to the period between February 1997 and 2014, during which another leader was consistently honored in the newspaper as “an outstanding leader who had the utmost respect of our Party, our military, and the various peoples of our nation.”  

That leader, as most will probably guess, was Deng Xiaoping. The “outstanding leader” badge of honor in reference to Deng first appears on February 20, 1997, the day after his death in Beijing at the age of 92.

A look at the front page of the People’s Daily on February 20, 1997, demonstrates again just how ritualistic the process of passing is for a senior CCP leader. The likeness to today’s front page is astonishing.

For comparison, let’s put the two front pages alongside one another.

This particular “outstanding leader” formulation was never used before Deng Xiaoping. And until yesterday, it was never used after. On this particular designation, then, we can see that Jiang has been placed in the same company as Deng, an outstanding leader succeeding an outstanding leader. Will the formulation be used for Jiang’s successors? This of course is a question that will have to wait. But we should see the phrase used consistently in the coming months and years as Jiang Zemin is mentioned in the official CCP media.

But look more closely at the “newspaper eyes” of each of the above front pages. They too are virtually identical. In the case of Deng, as in the case of Jiang, it is the second paragraph of the identically titled letter of notice that conveys the most essential material about how the leader is to be framed.

Only the latter portions of the baoyan content differ, adjusted to reflect the unique contributions of each. In Deng’s case, he is the “general architect” of opening and reform and the building of modernization, and the “creator” of the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics. In Jiang’s case, he is the “outstanding leader of the great project of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the “core” of the third generation of leadership, and the “principal creator” of the “important thought” of the Three Represents.  

Great Marxists

When we turn to the next formulation in the key passage about Jiang in the “newspaper eye” today, “a great Marxist” (伟大的马克思主义者), we find a somewhat richer history — but one nevertheless quite exclusive. The label has been used regularly in the official media for important historical figures in the CCP, the likes of Li Dazhao (李大釗), one of the Party’s co-founders in the 1920s, and Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白), who was coaxed back to China from Russia in 1923 to join the communist cause.

When Xi Jinping delivered a speech in November 2018 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of former chairman Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), who was persecuted and jailed during the Cultural Revolution, Xi referred to Liu as “a great Marxist.” Zhou Enlai (周恩来) too has been afforded the label from time to time in Party writings.

The original great Marxists, appearing earliest with the badge of honor in the People’s Daily, were of course Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. The phrase was used regularly for Stalin in particular in China from 1949 through to 1957, after which point most references to “great Marxist” in CCP discourse were direct references to Mao Zedong (毛泽东), portrayed in official Party histories as having carried on the work of Stalin, and the path in China begun by Li Dazhao and other CCP founders.

The reference to Jiang Zemin as a “great Marxist” situates him squarely within a lineage of power and theoretical prowess, the heartstring of the CCP, that can be traced back to Stalin, on to Lenin, and ultimately back to the progenitor, Marx himself.

Great Proletarians

The third honorific in today’s baoyan for Jiang Zemin — and the last I’ll trace — is the ponderous phrase “a great proletarian revolutionary, politician, military expert, and diplomat” (伟大的无产阶级革命家、政治家、军事家、外交家).

Once again, this phrase was born on February 20, 1997, the day the news of the death of Deng Xiaoping was published on the front page of the People’s Daily. Before yesterday, the phrase had been used only in reference to Deng Xiaoping and one other senior leader: Zhou Enlai.

Interestingly, in a reminder of just how much power current leaders have over the framing and remembrance of their predecessors, the man to designate Zhou Enlai as a “great proletarian revolutionary” was none other than Jiang Zemin. This happened on February 23, 1998, as Jiang addressed an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Zhou’s birth.

As though presaging his own valorization in death by senior leaders under the thumb of Xi Jinping, Jiang said immediately after his salutation to comrades and friends that day: “Comrade Zhou Enlai was a great Marxist, a chief leader of the Party and the country, one of the creators of the People’s Liberation Army, and a great proletarian revolutionary, politician, military expert, and diplomat.”

The Politics of Passing On

When Lux Nayaran, the co-founder of content analytics company Unmetric Inc, fed 2,000 New York Times obituaries into a natural language processing program, he found that most all the people featured, famous or not, had used their talents for good. They had, he said, “made a positive dent in the fabric of life.” Had Nayaran instead run 2,000 obituaries from Chinese Communist Party leaders through his program, he might have found something astonishing — that they had all made more or less identical dents in the stiff fabric of Chinese politics.

Qian Qishen’s funeral portrait, as published in the official People’s Daily newspaper.

After the death this month [in June 2017] of former Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen (钱其琛), the official People’s Daily newspaper carried a terse synopsis of the man’s life, calling him an “excellent Party member,” a “time-tested fighter for the communist cause,” a “proletarian revolutionary,” and last but certainly not least (he was a diplomat, after all), an “outstanding leader on our country’s diplomatic front.”

But these superlatives were entirely run-on-the-mill. Qiao Shi (乔石), the former chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, had been similarly lionized after his death in June 2015, his official obituary calling him “an excellent member of Chinese Communist Party, a time-tested fighter for the communist cause, an outstanding proletarian revolutionary and politician, and an exceptional leader of the Party and the country.”

The January 2015 obituary of Yang Baibing (杨白冰), the People’s Liberation Army general who reportedly signed the order to fire on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, had also extolled him as “an excellent Party member, a time-tested fighter for the communist cause, a proletarian revolutionary, and an outstanding leader of political work within our military.”

Students from the University of Politics and Law march to Tiananmen Square in April 1989 bearing an image of Hu Yaobang. The poster in the foreground writes out the constitutional rights to freedom of expression, association and demonstration.

Even over death, the Chinese Communist Party has the final word. The death of any “comrade” is a deeply political matter, and its meaning must be ascertained through the deadening discourse of the Party.

One important reason for this is of course that deaths can have an outsized impact on political life. Consider how the death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) on April 15, 1989, “fell like a spark into the highly flammable atmosphere of elite division and popular disaffection.” Or consider how the immediate possibility of the death of Jiang Zemin (江泽民), whose political influence is an unknown quantity, has impended over Chinese politics for almost a decade.

When the memorial service for Qian Qichen (钱其琛) was held on May 18, media in Hong Kong noted the conspicuous absence of Jiang, under whom Qian had served for more than a decade. Jiang had been placed, along with President Xi Jinping (习近平), on the official roster of mourners. Could his absence be a sign that he was edging closer to death? If so, what would this mean for Chinese politics in the run-up to this year’s 19th National Congress?

Jiang will turn 91 on August 17 this year. Or won’t he?

Deaths conjure up legacies, and legacies are a core matter of ideology and legitimacy for the Chinese Communist Party. Which means a lot is riding on the official obituary. “Well then, is there any political logic in the obituary the follows the death of a leader?” a column at Sohu.com asked following Qian’s death on May 9. “The answer is: of course there is.”

In a column shortly after the death of Qiao Shi, the former NPC chairman, the “News Dig” section at Sina.com took a deep dive into the obituaries of 13 former members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Here is how “News Dig” characterized the practice of Party obituary writing generally:

The ruling party’s assessments of political figures who have passed away is not only about evaluating the person but is also an important political consideration made by the ruling party. The obituary is an extremely serious matter, and it can be said that every word is carefully weighed and has deep significance.

So who, then, is doing all of this careful weighing of deep significance? Well, that all depends.

The obituaries of Party and government leaders generally involve five major institutions — 1) the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, 2) the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, 3) the State Council, 4) the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and 5) the Central Military Commission (CMC). But the deaths of different political figures will touch on these institutions in different ways or combinations. In the case of Qiao Shi, institutions 1–4 were all jointly involved, according to “News Dig.” For Yang Baibing, institution 5, the CMC, was naturally crucial, given his status as “an outstanding leader of political work within our military.”

CLICK HERE for a regularly updated list of official Chinese Communist Party obituaries.

Xinhua News Agency was responsible for releasing the official obituaries in both of the above cases. But that isn’t always the way it works either.

When reformer Hu Yaobang passed away in 1989, his obituary was released directly by the Central Committee. In other cases, as with the death of former premier Hua Guofeng (华国锋) in 2008, and PLA general Liu Huaqing (刘华清) in 2011, Xinhua can release official obituaries without the direct involvement of the above-mentioned institutions.

The official obituary of Chinese general Zhu De (朱德) appears on the front page of the July 7, 1976, edition of the People’s Daily. The obituary is clearly marked in the headline as coming from “the Central Committee of the CCP, the NPC Standing Committee and the State Council.”

At the level of the text, what do the various cuoci (措辞), or turns of phrase, in these official obituaries mean? And who gets what?

As you might imagine, it’s all very complicated.

The titles “excellent Party member” and “fighter for the communist cause” can be applied quite generally to Party and government leaders. The descriptors “time-tested” or “devoted” are often placed before “fighter for the communist cause,” as was the case for the obituaries of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Chen Yun (陈云) and others.

The phrase “proletarian revolutionary” is generally applied with either “great” or “outstanding” up front. Given a choice, any leader worth his salt should prefer to be “great” over “outstanding” — because this places him in the company of Deng Xiaoping, Ye Jianying (叶剑英), Chen Yun, Yang Shangkun (杨尚昆), Hu Yaobang, Peng Zhen (彭真) and Deng Yingchao (邓颖超). Slightly lesser figures, like former vice premier Yao Yilin (姚依林), must settle for “outstanding.”

Hua Guofeng, the former CCP chairman drop-kicked into retirement by Deng Xiaoping, ended his life in relative political obscurity. For him, then, there was no superlative up front — he was just (poor Hua) a “proletarian revolutionary and politician,” plain and simple.

The terms “outstanding proletarian revolutionary” (杰出的无产阶级革命家) and “proletarian revolutionary” (无产阶级革命家) are generally used for state-level deputy officials (副国级官员), also sometimes called “sub-national” leaders (those in second-tier Party or government positions).

Leaders who were responsible for work related to the military are generally appended with such titles as “military expert” (军事家), “commander” (指挥员) and “political worker” (政治工作者).

Leader’s obituaries may also, of course, make references to the areas in which they most clearly achieved. The official obituary for Peng Zhen, who had served as Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission in the 1980s, said that he was the “principal layer of the foundations of socialist rule of law in our country.”

After his death in 1997, Deng Xiaoping was called in his obituary, “the chief architect of socialist reform and opening and the building of modernization,” and referred to as “the creator of the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Obviously, it is a special distinction to be designated in such a way as a trailblazer nonpareil.

A report two years ago in Jinan Daily, the official Party mouthpiece of the city of Jinan, in Shandong Province, noted five distinct phrases in the official discourse to signal a leader’s adherence to the tenets of socialism. The heftiest of all was “great Marxist” (伟大的马克思主义者).

Beyond this, in apparent descending order, were: “outstanding Marxist” (杰出的马克思主义者), “staunch Marxist” (坚定的马克思主义者), “faithful Marxist” (忠诚的马克思主义者) and just plain-Jane “Marxist” (马克思主义者).

Only nine leaders in China’s history have been designated “great Marxists,” the last being Deng Xiaoping, who passed away on February 19, 1997.

The original “great Marxists” were of course Soviet leaders. The first appearance of “great Marxist” in China’s People’s Daily newspaper came on December 21, 1949, Stalin’s 70th birthday, when an article on the front page boomed: “Long Live Generalissimo Stalin! Long Live the Friendship Between China and the Soviet Union!”

This article, three years before Stalin’s death and more than a decade before Mao’s formal denunciation of the “revisionism” of the Soviet Union, brimmed with comradely good feeling:

We of the Chinese Communist Party fervently congratulate Comrade Stalin on his 70th birthday. Comrade Stalin is the greatest Marxist after Lenin. Under the leadership of Comrade Stalin, the people of the Soviet Union have built humanity’s first socialist society, and are progressing toward the realization of a Communist society.

The December 21, 1949, edition of the People’s Daily wishes Stalin a happy 70th birthday.

Being designated posthumously as a “Marxist,” the Jinan Daily article observed, is something Party leaders have long regarded as a mark of prestige.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Jiang Zemin, the leader who decided to admit capitalists to the Communist Party, might, when he does pass on, earn distinction as a “great Marxist,” or at the very least a “Marxist.”

When it comes to the discourse of the CCP, old habits die hard.

This article was originally written for SupChina.com and is republished here with permission.

Buzzword Babble

For analysts of China’s political discourse, this has been a boisterous week. Ever since Xi Jinping reached the podium in the Great Hall of the People on Sunday to unveil his soaring report, the Chinese Communist Party’s latest rhetorical Tower of Babel, experts have probed its bricks and joints, eagerly taking its measure.

Data being the new intellectual currency, many have also bravely tackled Xi’s report with the clarifying medium of the spreadsheet. The result has sometimes been to heap confusion atop an already mystifying report.

To explain, I offer below an example of my own invention, a mashup of three separate graphs offered online this week from well-regarded political experts. The graph was created using my own counts within the full-text versions of the two most recent CCP political reports (政治报告) of keywords being identified by others as deserving analysis.

For starters, phrases, slogans, and buzzwords can be extremely useful tools in understanding China’s political discourse. As the reader of CMP’s “China Newspeak” section will know, we obsessively research the specialized language formulations the CCP uses to frame its ideas and signal its collective moods. These are know as tifa (提法), and we even collect them in our CMP Dictionary — like bug specimens on a pinning block.

But which phrases and keywords should we be seeking? What are the basic building blocks of CCP discourse? This question is crucial when it comes to readings of Party texts, contemporary and historical.

The proliferation of keyword charts this week suggests to me that when it comes to the analysis of China’s political reports, we all might be in need of some “rectification of names” (正名) — to borrow carelessly from Confucius.

Dimming Distinctions

If we tabulate a term like “democracy” (民主), won’t this have something to reveal about political trends in China?

We might hypothesize that greater chatter about “democracy” in a high-level CCP document would have to indicate some level of either support or criticism of democracy. In the case of Xi’s most recent report, there is an apparent downturn in the use of the word “democracy,” as my graph clearly shows.

Is this notable?

The problem is a simple one. The two characters that have been translated here as “democracy,” minzhu (民主), could mean any number of things in Xi Jinping’s text, and they might in fact be little more than subordinate pieces of larger phrases. They might be adjectives rather than nouns.

To illustrate the point, here are five separate appearances of minzhu in the political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP:

1. “whole-process people’s democracy” (全过程人民民主)
2. “democratic centralism” (民主集中制)
3. “the democratization of international relations” (国际关系民主化)
4. “strengthening unity and cooperation with people from democratic parties” (加强同民主党派和无党派人士的团结合作)
5. “supporting the main status of the people” (坚持人民主体地位)

In the case of phrase 1 above, we have a concept that has been newly emphasized by Xi Jinping, the idea that China, unlike the countries of the West, is truly democratic and deliberative, which the leadership has now dubbed “whole-process democracy,” or more properly “whole-process people’s democracy.” This is an old term contained inside a newer phrase. The older term is “people’s democracy” (人民民主), the Marxist-Leninist concept that emerged after the Second World War.

I won’t go deeply into these phrases and their history. But suffice it to say that these concepts are built on the foundation of CCP supremacy, and on the assumption that its actions, whatever they are, reflect the will of the people. Tellingly, Xi’s democracy neologism is more vocal in its response to US actions on global democracy, such as Biden’s summit in late 2021, than it is in laying out the real mechanisms of citizen participation in governance in China.

Similarly, phrase 2, “democratic centralism,” is a Leninist revolutionary strategy that seeks to combine centralized Party control and the notion of free and open discussion. History has shown through successive waves of suffering in both China and the Soviet Union that “democratic centralism” is in practice far more centralist than democratic.

Both 1 and 2 are about governance, though it should be clear to most readers that they are not at all about true democratic governance. In fact, a strong case could be made that increased mention of either term in the CCP discourse corresponds to a reversal in terms of real interest in truly deliberative mechanisms.

As for 3, this use of minzhu has nothing whatsoever to do with issues of domestic governance. The context here is China’s foreign policy and the view that the current international order is not suitable or fair for China and developing countries. A system is needed globally, therefore, that is more “democratic.” This is about balancing out the dominance of the United States and the West, as China understands it.

Moving on to phrase 4, this is a reference to so-called “democratic parties” in China, which fall under the CCP’s united front (统一战线) and have nothing whatsoever to do with real democratic governance. These parties are subject to strict control and are completely compatible with centralized — and centralizing — Party rule.

An excerpt from Xi’s political report illustrates the generalizing of significance that happens when words like “ideas,” or sixiang (思想), are treated as the basis for analysis.

Finally, in phrase 5, we have an oops moment, a false positive for minzhu arising from the close proximity of the word renmin (人民), or “people,” and zhuti (主体), or “main.” I include it because data-led approaches to documents like the congress report are likely to throw up such issues when the Chinese language is broken up to its root level in this way.

If we are, as one researcher suggested, looking at the “relative weights of phrases” as a means of insight, then surely it matters that the above instances of minzhu are in practice semantically distant. What exactly are 61 or 47 occurrences of minzhu supposed to signify?

What’s the Problem?

The gaps become more serious when choices like “problem,” or wenti (问题), are crunched into visualized data, as also happened this week.

The word “problem” occurred 37 times in the 2017 report, and 43 times in the 2022 report. So perhaps we should infer from this that CCP leaders have roughly the same degree of concern about unspecified things that are happening in China and the world in 2022 as they did in 2017.

Any Chinese speaker who slows down for just a moment will register that the word wenti can refer an “issue,” “question” or “problem.” The question of where to eat lunch can be a wenti, as can the more pressing question of how to face a life-changing problem.

What are the basic building blocks of CCP discourse? This question is crucial when it comes to readings of Party texts.

In Xi Jinping’s 2022 political report there are “political problems” (政治问题) and “economic problems” (腐败问题), both crowded into the same textual space as “corruption problems” (腐败问题), of which they are examples. But there are also “major questions” (重大问题), those immense decisions that the leadership claims to make with unparalleled competence. Further, there is the issue of poverty (贫困问题). And finally, there are real, immense, and looming things like the “Taiwan question” (台湾问题), which was mentioned four times in Xi’s report this week.

These examples suffice, I hope, to introduce the problem, issue, or question invited by number-crunching the word wenti in Party documents.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Phrase?

There are rare instances where these fragmented pieces of the Chinese language can actually be mildly, incidentally, revealing. One example is the word “security,” or anquan (安全), which has ballooned in Xi’s 2022 report, as my graph above shows. Many of the references in the report deal with a host of CCP priorities under the broader mantle of “national security,” and these permutations of national security all contribute to a general rise in the word.

But there is also mention, for example, of the need for “reliable and secure supply chains,” the need to ensure “work safety” (安全生产), and China’s participation in global “safety standards” (安全规则). If the interest is to compare the degree to which the 2017 and 2022 reports deal with the broader issue of national security, then the proper phrase to explore would be guojia anquan (国家安全), along with mentions of related terminologies.

Did new aspects of national security appear in 2022 that were absent in 2017? Yes, in fact. This year’s report throws in “system security” (制度安全), about the preservation of the regime, and “ideological security” (意识形态安全), about safeguarding the theories and principles of the Party. The simple hard work of sussing out the contexts and histories of phrases like these would in this case be far more insightful.

But if we wish to visualize the terminologies, we might first isolate the full phrases within the national security domain, and then plot the occurrences in political reports over time. We might get something like the following graph.

This graph has the advantage of at least isolating those keyword mentions that are related to national security, and it accurately shows a fairly substantial increase in related buzzwords — considering that the political reports are nearly identical in length. The term “national security” is used 60 percent more in the 2022 report than it was in 2017. Meanwhile, we see the emergence in the 2022 report of new related terms elaborating the security concept.  

The basic point here is that the analysis of CCP discourse should be built on full-fledged keywords like those used in the arena of national security. Sometimes these are terminologies that are shared between the Chinese political context and our own languages, with key differences (see our partner Decoding China project). And sometimes they are terminologies that are entirely unique to CCP discourse, which brings us back full circle to those building block terminologies I referred to earlier as tifa.

Tifa are crucial for researchers to grapple with because there are whole sets and hierarchies of such buzzwords and phrases regularly used by the Party, falling in and out of favor as the political winds change. The phrases have layered moods and meanings. Some may have more liberal, pro-reform histories, associated with political moments in the CCP’s contemporary past; while others hiss with hardline warnings, echoing the painful pre-reform decades, or the dark notes that prevailed in the wake of the bloody Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

As deadened as they may sound as they are intoned from the podium in the Great Hall of the People, tifa are alive and changing, and they have their secrets to tell.

We have, in fact, one rather ominous example of this in Xi Jinping’s political report this week that takes us right back to the question of democracy — and has nothing whatsoever to do with the word minzhu.

Political Reform, Count Me Out

Throughout China’s reform era, the phrase “political reform” (政治体制改革) has been used within the CCP to point to the need to consider systemic approaches to greater public participation and oversight. Building on the reform spirit of the 1980s, the phrase rose to prominence in the political report delivered by Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) to the 13th National Congress in 1987, where it was given a special section, and appeared in the header of that section.

“The unfolding and deepening of the reform of the economic system has put forward increasingly urgent requirements for the reform of the political system,” said Zhao Ziyang. “The process of developing a socialist commodity economy should be the process of building socialist democratic politics.”

Section 5 of Zhao Ziyang’s political report in 1987 repeatedly mentions the need for “political reform.”

The idea in the late 1980s, voiced clearly in Zhao’s speech, was that political reform should proceed in step with economic reform. In line with these convictions within the Party, “political reform” rose rapidly from 1986 through 1988, taking center stage among the cast of characters in the CCP lexicon.

From the early 1990s onward, following the harsh crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989, “political reform” alternatively faded and returned. But it never vanished, always lurking in the background, awaiting its opportunity.

Those whose memories reach back to the Hu Jintao era will recall that Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝), on the doorstep of the changes that would come in the next administration, made repeated calls for political reform in 2010 and 2011, culminating in a very public address mentioning political reform at the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos in Dalian in September 2011.

As deadened as they may sound as they are intoned from the podium in the Great Hall of the People, tifa are alive and changing, and they have their secrets to tell.

Stubbornly clinging on, the phrase has appeared in every political report at every CCP congress since 1987. In both the 1997 and 2002 reports by Jiang Zemin, it was mentioned in the section header (with five and seven nods to the term, respectively, in each report.) In 2007, “political reform” appeared five times, though shoved out of the section header.

In 2012, by which time outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao’s steady speech-making on the phrase had for some inspired cautious hope, “political reform” returned to the section header, which read: “Adhering to the path of socialist political development with Chinese characteristics, and promoting political reform.”

By the time the 19th National Congress rolled around in 2017, Xi Jinping’s colors had become terrifyingly clear. But still, “political reform” lingered, with a single mention in his report that year of the need to “actively and steadily promote political reform.” This appearance marked the term’s 30th anniversary in the CCP’s most important policy address.

Moving ahead to this year, what does the performance of “political reform” in Xi Jinping’s latest report tell us about the state of democratic politics as a stated ambition of the CCP?

In Section 6 of the report this week we can find mention of “socialist democratic politics” (社会主义民主政治), the phrase Zhao Ziyang wove into his notion of political reform. But it is treated not as an urgent prerogative but rather as a fait accompli. Xi Jinping claims that “whole-process of people’s democracy is the essential attribute of socialist democratic politics.”

But the real secret lurking in Xi Jinping’s political report — one that tells us quietly and convincingly that the “New Era” is about one man’s grasp for power — is the one that won’t be entered into our spreadsheets.

For the first time in almost 40 years, “political reform” is gone.

Puzzling Through Xi’s Political Report

Xi Jinping’s political report, delivered at the opening of the 20th National Congress of the CCP last Sunday, is a monster of a text to grapple with. You might think of it as an edifice of little snap-together blocks, all specialized terms and slogans molded within a century-long history of CCP political discourse, much of it drawing also on Marxist, Leninist, and Stalinist prose.

Many, if not most, of these specialized formulations, or tifa (提法), come loaded with meanings and associations that demand historical as well as contextual readings to really understand what they are meant to signal. For example, to truly understand the notion of “common prosperity” (共同富裕), a phrase that Xi Jinping has made a centerpiece of his contemporary vision of promoting greater economic fairness and balanced development, you have to grapple with the term’s unique history under Mao Zedong as well as Deng Xiaoping, which CMP wrote about in-depth in 2021.

In a very real sense, the political report is the reconstruction every five years of a complex structure and tradition of political rhetoric to broadly define priorities within the CCP, condense power relations, and build the present as a historical moment that necessitates and legitimizes Party rule.

And this brings us to the first misunderstanding that has proliferated in the wake of Xi’s report.

This was a political report, not a “work report”

A number of news stories and summaries in recent days have referred to Xi Jinping’s report on October 16 as a “work report.” In fact, this is inaccurate in two ways.

First, as the brief summary above suggests, the political report is more fully about CCP politics and the political ideas that animate it. By contrast, work reports serve more as reviews of tasks set and accomplished. They are, in other words, more about execution than vision. This is why the annual report delivered to the National People’s Congress (NPC) by China’s premier is indeed referred to as a “work report,” or gongzuo baogao (工作报告). It is why the report delivered by Xi Jinping just eight days ago, at the 7th Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee, was also referred to as a “work report.”

Second, “work report” is not generally used in Chinese, at least correctly, to refer to these important once-every-five-years events. Instead, the reports delivered at CCP national congresses are referred to in long-hand form as simply “reports” with reference to the respective congress: Report to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党第二十次全国代表大会上的报告).

In short-hand form, they are more properly called “political reports,” or zhengzhi baogao (政治报告) — and so they have been called for decades. The image below is a page from the People’s Daily in September 1977, following Hua Guofeng’s political report to the 11th National Congress in August of that year. The headline reads: “Chairman Hua’s Political Report Provides a Powerful Weapon for the International Communist Movement.”

At top left, an article from 1977 mentions Hua Guofeng’s “political report” in the People’s Daily.

The term “political report” is commonly used, including in external communication. Wrote one commentator on Toutiao over the weekend, anticipating Xi’s report: “The Party’s leadership is the greatest political advantage of China’s diplomacy, and the political reports of the Party’s congresses on foreign affairs have made clear China’s judgment and view of the world situation.”

The distinction is an important one. While work reports do of course also include political signaling and can be heavy on CCP jargon, they are more directed in their response to specific policies and objectives, and are more oriented to current challenges.

The reading of Xi’s report to the 20th National Congress as a “work report” might lead us to suspect that it would address major political and security events directly, even perhaps in the manner of a State of the Union — which leads us to the second misunderstanding in evidence this week.

Current events may be in the background, but they are not the point

As the initial quick reads poured in on Sunday and Monday following Xi’s address, there was much chatter about what Xi Jinping emphasized, and what he left out. As the BBC’s correspondent in Beijing summed up on Twitter:

Notable for what wasn’t in Xi’s speech: no mention of soaring youth unemployment; no mention of the property crisis; no mention of economic & social pain from Zero-#Covid in #China. Overall, it was 2 hours heavy on standard rhetoric and light on specific solutions to problems.

These absences were notable, indeed. Not, mind you, as reflections of what things might have been expected but were not addressed, but as reflections of how political reports are meant to be. Political reports are always heavy on “standard rhetoric,” those tifa snap-together blocks. They do not offer specific solutions to problems, even if they may point broadly in the direction of solutions (remember “common prosperity”?).

And political reports most certainly do not mention points of sensitivity such as soaring youth employment. This occasion, like all public and formal events hosted by the CCP, is about keeping the cards close, not laying them on the table. It is a carefully scripted drama through which the power of the Party, its leader, and its ideas are meant to be elevated and amplified.

Perhaps with the “work report” frame in mind, some observers anticipated mention by Xi Jinping of the war in Ukraine — and its absence, with not even an oblique mention, was regarded as newsworthy. “Xi made no mention of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing refuses to criticize,” reported the Associated Press.

It is a carefully scripted drama through which the power of the Party, its leader, and its ideas are meant to be elevated and amplified.

But in fact, mention of any current or recent war whatsoever would have been a history-making precedent for CCP political reports. Remember, this is not about current events, even if they shape the tone of certain sections of the speech, or linger in the margins; the references, for example, to “not fearing ghosts” (不怕鬼) and “not fearing pressure” (不怕压), were likely flares in Xi’s most recent report to signal tensions with the United States and the West.

Looking back on full-text political reports stretching back to 1997, I could find not a single reference to any current or recent war in the six political reports delivered during this period. The references to war are invariably ideological concepts, such as a “people’s war” (on corruption), general notions (“information war”), or historical wars that lend an epic nature to the Party’s overarching vision of itself. Just half of the reports I reviewed referred to specific wars at all, and these were the “Chinese people’s war of resistance against Japan,” the “world war against fascism,” and the “war of liberation.”

Concrete References to war in CCP National Congress Reports:
1997 = Opium War, War of Resistance Against Japan, War of Liberation
2002 = None
2007 = None
2012 = None
2017 = Opium War
2022 = War of Resistance Against Japan, World War Against Fascism

The absence of Ukraine resonates with those of us experiencing this political event from the outside. How can such a flagrant violation of a country’s sovereignty as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not be acknowledged in such an important political address?

But this was entirely expected. And expectation is the perfect segway to a third misunderstanding of Xi Jinping’s political report that merits a mention.

No, this report was not substantially shorter

Hot takes served during the first 24 hours and more following Xi Jinping’s address noted a seemingly quite significant fact — that the report was apparently far shorter than reports in previous years. Coming in at just around two hours as delivered from the podium in the Great Hall of the People, the speech was roughly one-third shorter than Xi Jinping’s report five years earlier.

What could it mean?

One explanation early on was that this could be explained through the lens of factional politics, and there were just fewer factions now given Xi Jinping’s overwhelming dominance (for more, see CMP’s analysis of “Major Points” ahead of the Congress). As one researcher wrote at Chatham House: “The 20th Party Congress report is significantly shorter than the 19th, which is a clear indication of Xi’s success in centralizing power.”

In fact, official commentary on state-run television in China immediately after the broadcast of the political report noted clearly that what Xi had intoned from the floor was not the full report, but rather “picking out the key points,” or tiao zhongdian (挑重点).

The full-text report, which circulated through various online channels in the hours immediately after Xi’s performance, was 31,600 characters in length, just over 800 characters short of his 2017 report to the 19th National Congress. Both versions can be downloaded here at the China Media Project in searchable Word format.  

Another important characteristic of CCP political reports is that they are quite consistent in length. Political reports in the pre-reform period may show greater variance, but here is a list of the character lengths for reports going back to 1997:

1997 = 28,400
2002 = 28,180
2007 = 28,000
2012 = 29,101
2017 = 32,450
2022 = 31,600

As you can see, the reports are remarkably similar in length — making comparisons convenient for researchers. But the similarity is not so remarkable when you consider again that these reports emerge through a rigid and carefully controlled process of discourse construction (and likely, yes, some degree of factional deliberation), in which there is no room for the incidental or spontaneous. Even the sustained applause in sections of the report is a carefully crafted performance.

Reading Xi Jinping’s political report is a painstaking process. Like any puzzle, it is sometimes best to begin with the corners and edges and work your way in. On that note, please look forward to our modest observations on language now missing in the 2022 report.  

Chance and Defiance on the Front Page

Was it a “serious mistake” or a wilful and desperate act of protest against worsening press controls? This question remains unanswered one week after a headline news editor at the Shenzhen edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, Liu Cuixia (刘翠霞), was fired for her role in a peculiar media scandal — an incident that top political brass at the paper’s publisher, the Nanfang Daily Group, characterised in an internal release as “a serious matter of guidance.”

The February 20, 2016, front page of the Shenzhen edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.

The scandal was prompted by the unfortunate — or defiant? — pairing of two headlines on the front page of the Shenzhen edition on February 20. The bold headline across the top of the page referenced President Xi Jinping’s “important speech” made the previous day in Beijing, in which he stressed the Chinese Communist Party’s supremacy over all media: “Party and Government Media are Propaganda Positions and Must Be Surnamed Party.”

Directly below this banner coverage — which all Chinese media were under orders to prioritise, along with a photo of the president’s tour of core central Party media — was a large photo of the spreading at sea of the ashes of Yuan Geng (袁庚), a key founder of the Shekou Industrial Zone. Yuan, an important local businessman and reformer, died on January 31 at the age of 99. The headline of this article read: “A Soul Returns to the Sea.”

The juxtaposition was either so canny or so casual few might have noticed at all. But once eagle-eyed Chinese internet users had noted a certain friction between the lines, the static energy quickly became electric. If the two headlines were read together vertically, people realised, the “hidden-head” message would be as follows:

媒体
姓党
魂归
大海

Media Are
Surnamed Party
Their Souls Return
To The Sea

The editors, it seemed, were suggesting that the severe controls on Chinese media Xi Jinping outlined in his February 19 speech were a death sentence for all semblance of journalistic professionalism — the last nail in the coffin.

In its statement, the Party committee of the Nanfang Daily Group suggested the editors had merely lacked “political sensitivity,” committing a serious error that had been “interpreted maliciously by others online.”

Staff at the Southern Metropolis Daily have suggested the editors would never knowingly have taken such risks. “It can’t have been deliberate,” one anonymous journalist told the New York Times. “It’s just very, very serious. And these days no one would dare to do something like that.”

Yes, these days indeed. These days are exactly the point.

Intended or not, the message about these days comes across loud and clear between the unfortunate headlines. Xi Jinping’s controls on “news and public opinion,” and in fact on all forms of expression and dissent, have become so draconian that to many the spirit of reform in China seems, like Yuan Geng’s ashes, to be slipping into the depths.

In his February 19 speech, Xi Jinping spoke of the need for “innovation” in the arena of media control, increasing the reach, influence and “infectiveness” of propaganda. During a visit to the People’s Liberation Army Daily back in December, the president described propaganda as a kraken-like monster, its arms twisting through the media-saturated lives of the public. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he said, “and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.”

But the kraken induces not interest or attraction, but terror. And if the kraken inspires “innovation,” it is defensive only.

For the nearest analogy to the preposterous level of panic and paranoia at work in the recent Southern Metropolis Daily headline scandal, we must return to the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, and to the very newspaper where China’s kraken-in-chief aired his comments last December on the “innovation” of control.

The “Black Box Scandal” (黑框事件)

It was early evening on July 8, 1974. One by one, the members of the Party committee of the People’s Liberation Army Daily — the official mouthpiece of the military and one of just three publications dominating China in the midst of the Cultural Revolution — received phone calls summoning them to the newspaper’s conference room for an unspecified urgent matter.

Page one of the May 19, 1974, edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily.

The senior editors of the PLA Daily crowded into the conference room. Finally, in walked the young deputy editor from the newspaper’s “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius Office.” From his leather satchel he withdrew several copies of the paper and said sternly: “Comrade Hu Wei (胡炜), chairman of the military commission’s Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius Office, has sent me here with instructions from the centre. Recently, leading central Party comrades received a letter from the masses pointing out that there is an overlap between the funeral picture of Mr. Lu Han on page two of the May 19 edition of the PLA Daily, and the picture on page one of Chairman Mao meeting with a foreign guest.”

“This is a serious political error,” the deputy editor continued. “The emergence of this problem is surely not an accident.” He read out a letter, dated June 25, from Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, in which she demanded a thorough investigation of this “serious political incident.”

An overlap? What could the young editor possibly have meant?

Page 2 of the May 1, 1974, edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, with the obituary of former KMT general Lu Han.

As it turned out, the PLA Daily had run, on page two of the May 19 edition, an obituary for Lu Han, the former Kuomintang general who had defected to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. As was customary, editors had included a photo of Lu bordered by a thick black box, which in China symbolises death.

Page one of the paper had featured coverage of Mao Zedong’s meeting with Makarios III, the first President of the Republic of Cyprus. In an image below the fold, Mao Zedong was pictured sitting in a meeting room with Makarios III.

Separately, the pages were fine. But when the newspaper was held up to the light, the black border around the page-two photograph of Lu Han became a black box around the image of Mao Zedong.

The following composite image is an approximation of what the reportedly scandalised PLA Daily readers would have seen as light filtered through pages one and two on the morning of May 19, 1974.

As in the case of the recent Southern Metropolis Daily incident, there was an immediate question of intention in what became known as the “Black Box Scandal.” Had the editors knowingly designed the paper in such a way as to curse the unassailable Chairman Mao?

Likewise, just as the political implications of the recent Southern Metropolis Daily headlines had to be teased out by Chinese on social networks, so had the “Black Box Scandal” been illuminated — ostensibly, at least — by “the masses.”

The above account of the “Black Box Scandal” comes directly from Wu Yongchuan (吴永川), a former deputy director of the PLA Daily who was on duty with another editor, Xue Zhen (薛真), as the May 19, 1974, edition went to press. Wu gave a detailed account of the event in the December 21, 2000, edition of Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly.

According to Wu, a full investigation was conducted into the incident and both he and Xue Zhen were compelled to make full and public self-examinations. The PLA Daily was ordered to make all necessary adjustments to ensure that such offences were not repeated.

And so it was, Wu writes, the PLA Daily became the first newspaper in China to set up a special “searchlight table” (探照桌), its top made of transparent glass under which could be placed an electric bulb. As the proofs were reviewed each night, editors studied pages one and two, pages three and four, and so on, ensuring there were no political violations — real or imagined. The process was called “searchlighting” (探照).

In his essay, “The Reputation of Millions Can’t Stand Up to One’s Man’s Ruin” (万人之誉不及一人之毁), Zhang Xinyang (张心阳), one of Wu Yongchuan’s former colleagues, tells us that “searchlighting” was eventually extended to the inspection of the Chinese characters appearing on the backs of photographs of Communist Party leaders. The editor responsible for searchlighting had to ensure that no words with negative connotations — like “death,” “overthrow” or “criticise” — appeared on the backs of such images. If possible infractions were found, the pages had to be scrapped and redesigned, even if that meant the edition came out late.

“Searchlighting” at the PLA Daily continued through the end of the Cultural Revolution. For Zhang Xinyang, the process was a grotesque anomaly — “a great invention,” he writes acerbically — highlighting the political excesses of that painful time.

Zhang writes: “It entirely surpassed conventional human thought, and innovated methods of reading the newspapers in ways not seen before or since, an entry in the annals of press history.”

But history, when not properly regarded, has a way of returning, kraken-like, from the depths. Xi Jinping’s fearsome “innovations,” should they continue, are likely to spawn new and yet oddly familiar absurdities — “searchlighting” for the 21st century.

The former PLA Daily deputy director, Wu Yongchuan, closed his December 2000 account of the “Black Box Scandal” by conceding that the political context of his experience must seem remote to his contemporary readers.

“I’m afraid,” wrote Wu, “that readers today would find it difficult to imagine such trials and tribulations in getting a newspaper out, or such a way of reading a newspaper.”

Ah, Wu Yongquan!

But these days. These days . . .

[This essay was originally published by CMP in March 2016.]

Writing the Future into History

For the Chinese Communist Party, history is never in the past. It is a political text to be imprinted with a vision of power and its legitimation; a culmination in the present, gathering on the selective foundation of what has come before. It follows, naturally, that history is never simply written. It is drafted in consultation, making its way from one office to the next, approved and rejected, revised and re-revised, chiseled into being like a cathedral of rhetoric and representation — until what emerges is a monument to the Party’s image of itself at that concrete moment in time.

It is in exactly this spirit that we should understand “A Chronicle of Major Events Since the Party’s 19th National Congress” (党的十九大以来大事记), the declaration of the Party and its purpose that today dominates most of the first eight pages of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper. Like the communique released earlier this week, the “Chronicle of Major Events” is one of a number of official documents that we can anticipate in the run-up to the 20th National Congress of the CCP, set to open on October 16.

The last such chronicle was released in the People’s Daily on October 16, 2017, two days before the opening of the 19th National Congress.

This year’s “Chronicle of Major Events” comes with a special commentary marking the release, printed on page two, as well as a dry question-and-answer recounting on page eight, with an unnamed official from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature (中共中央党史和文献研究院), of the process and principles by which the document was formulated.

The attribution of the commentary to “a commentator from this paper,” or benbao pinglunyuan (本报评论员), marks it as an important staff-written piece representing views in the senior leadership. The commentary concludes with a packed paragraph of loyalty signaling that references the power of Xi Jinping’s guiding philosophy, or “banner term” (旗帜语) — which is expected to be shortened at the upcoming congress to the potent “Xi Jinping Thought” — as well as formulas like the “Two Establishes,” which is meant to seal the position of both Xi and his guiding ideas.

“The banner points the direction; the direction determines the path; the path determines destiny,” it reads, sending a clear message that Xi’s “thought” is the way of the future for China.

Drafting the Past for the Future

The question-and-answer article from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature is mostly uninteresting in its fawning restatement of CCP orthodoxy. The question is asked, not by a human being but presumably by the Institute itself: “Could you please talk about the guiding thought and basic principles in the preparation of ‘Major Events’?” The answer comes from the unnamed “responsible official”: “The writing of ‘Major Events’ adheres in its guidance to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.”

Not exactly gripping or revelatory.

The banner points the direction; the direction determines the path; the path determines destiny.

—    The People’s Daily, October 14, 2022

But the Q&A’s sketch of the procedural process behind the “Chronicle of Major Events” might be interesting to observers of Chinese politics. It explains that a series of internal CCP chronicles since the 19th National Congress in 2017 laid down the foundation for the “Chronicle of Major Events” and that work on these documents “gathered experience and trained the team” at the institute. These official historical documents included “Major Events in 40 Years of Reform and Opening” (改革开放四十年大事记), released in 2018, and “Major Events in a Century of the CCP” (中国共产党一百年大事记), released in late June of 2021.

Early this year, in anticipation of the 20th National Congress, the institute defined the drafting of the “Chronicle of Major Events” as one of its top priorities, and formed a “drafting team” (编写组). The drafting process then involved numerous internal meetings to discuss various issues as they emerged. Once an initial draft had been produced, experts were organized to further discuss the draft and make suggestions. “The more than 500 entries were revised word by word, polished repeatedly, and drafted several times,” according to the Q&A.  

“It can be said that ‘Major Events’ is an important research result completed under the kind care of leading comrades of the Central Committee with the full effort of Party history and documentation departments, and with collaboration from other relevant departments,” the anonymous official concludes.

The nod to “research” aside, this is not the work of professional historians. What to include, and what to leave out? Whom to downplay and whom to emphasize? Such questions are too momentous to entrust to academic historians. The process must instead rely on those we might call, for lack of a better word, historiogrofficials — bureaucratic functionaries who shape the past through the political prerogatives of the present.

So what shape has the “Chronicle of Major Events” taken?

Visualizing the Past Five Years

It would be a mostly pointless exercise to delve into the 500-odd entries in the chronicle, but the consistency of these documents, in terms of form and process, as they are released every five years provides an excellent opportunity for comparison. And one crucial indicator we can observe is how frequently the chronicles mention the Party’s top leaders, the seven men on the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

Comparison is feasible not just because the process, as the official from the Central Institute of Party History and Literature explained, is a highly formal one. The chronicles released in 2017 and 2022 are also nearly identical in length, the former coming in at 49,949 characters, and the second at 50,800 (being just 16-20 lines longer).

If we search full-text versions of both chronicles for the names of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and then plot the number of mentions for each name, a clear pattern emerges.

The rise in mentions of Xi Jinping in this year’s chronicle (268) represents just over a 25 percent increase over his mentions in the 2017 chronicle (222), clearly reflecting his growing profile within the official account of the past five years.

As for the remaining members of the Standing Committee, the total mentions of all have fallen in real terms, despite the very slight increase in the length of the chronicle. Premier Li Keqiang, the second-ranking official on the PSC after Xi, received 66 mentions in the 2017 chronicle. This year, Li received just 44 mentions, a significant drop of one-third.

Drops for the rest of the PSC members in this year’s chronicle are similar to that experienced by the premier. For example, the third-ranking member in 2017 was Zhang Dejiang (张德江), who had 24 mentions in the full text.  In the chronicle released today, the third-ranking member, Li Zhanshu (栗战书), has just 16 mentions, a drop again of one-third.

This yawning gap between Xi and the rest of the top leadership, and the shaping of history around his person and leadership, is not exactly a surprise, of course. It recalls what we saw back in November 2021 with the release at the Sixth Plenum of the CCP’s third resolution on history, the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议).

That decision announced a new direction for the CCP and reconsolidated its claim to legitimacy under Xi’s leadership in the “New Era” (新时代). And it was certainly no accident that Xi’s decade in power, a period covering just 10 percent of the Party’s entire 10-year history, dominated more than one-half of the resolution.  

No one can yet say with a great deal of certainty what the 20th National Congress of the CCP will bring. But in the version of the past offered by today’s “Chronicle of Major Events,” we can certainly see glimpses of the very near future.