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).

How a Massacre Shaped China’s Media

When Xi Jinping addressed Chinese journalists on February 19, 2016, emphasizing loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party as the fundamental condition of their work, he spoke a phrase that has echoed across the now 34 years since the brutal murder of innocent students and citizens by government savagery on June 4, 1989. “Adhering to correct public opinion guidance,” said Xi, “is the heart and soul of propaganda and public opinion work.”

This concept that Xi describes as the “heart and soul” of press and information control in today’s China is about cutting out the real heart and soul of the people — ensuring not that the voices and demands of the population are heard, but that the undeviating voice of the Party dominates the life and politics of the country.

The lead editorial on the front page of the April 26, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily characterizes the peaceful protests in Beijing as destructive “riots” (动乱) that are “an attack on the Chinese Communist Party and the socialism system.”

Underpinning all work to control information and public opinion today, from the latest commentary in a state-run newspaper to every comment on the most popular social media platform, “public opinion guidance” (正确舆论导向) reaffirms and focuses the CCP’s conviction that media control is essential to regime stability.  

The concept emerged in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre, as the new leadership under Jiang Zemin (江泽民) — who as Party Secretary of Shanghai had played a central role in the April shutdown of the country’s most liberal newspaper, the World Economic Herald (世界经济导报) — identified the factors leading to the unrest in Beijing and across the country. The leadership’s assessment centered on a meeting that Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the ousted liberal premier, had held with his top propaganda officials on May 6, 1989, ten days after the People’s Daily had published the infamous April 26 commentary (shown above) taking an attitude of zero tolerance and branding the protests as “an attack on the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system.”

Zhao Ziyang had called for the rescinding of the April 26 editorial, which had angered protesters and further intensified an already tense situation. According to an account in China Comment (半月谈), a leading CCP journal:  

In the afternoon, Zhao Ziyang spoke with officials from the Central Propaganda Department and others responsible for the ideological work of the Party. “Open things up just a bit. Make the news a bit more open. There’s no big danger in that,” he said, adding. “By facing the wishes of the people, by facing the tide of global progress, we can only make things better.”

In the aftermath of the massacre, it was the assessment of the new leadership, as reported in China Comment, that this moment between Premier Zhao and his top propaganda ministers had marked a fundamental failure. What happened next? According to the journal:

Once Zhao’s words were conveyed to news media through comrades Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen, support for the student movement rapidly seized public opinion and wrongly guided matters in the direction of chaos. Several large newspapers, television and broadcast stations in the capital offered constant coverage of the students’ wishes. Subsequently, movements nationwide begin to gather strength, and the numbers of participants swelled. Headlines and slogans attacking and deriding the Party also multiplied in papers of all sizes, the content becoming more and more reactionary in nature.

In this passage, we see the notion of “public opinion guidance” emerge as a renewed conviction on the part of a hardened leadership that the control of the press is essential to the maintenance of social and political stability. For the hardliners who prevailed in that fateful political moment, the upheaval that spring was first and foremost a failure of media policy. And that perceived failure would shape the Party’s approach to media and information for decades to come, right through Xi Jinping’s undisguised declaration of media subservience in 2016.

For the hardliners who prevailed in that fateful political moment, the upheaval that spring was first and foremost a failure of media policy.

The Heart of the People

Looking back today, what can we see of China’s press at this critical juncture? What did this “constant coverage of the students’ wishes” in major newspapers actually look like?

To get a glimpse, we pulled just one page from the People’s Daily, dated May 18, 1989, and labeled “domestic news.” It is a page full of heart and soul, reporting the voices on the ground as China faced critical questions about national affairs that impacted everyone.

Page two of the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily.

At the top of the page is a large photograph of protesters marching with a banner that reads: “People’s Daily journalists.” It is an image of the same group of protesters from the newspaper pictured at the top of this article. The caption in the lower right-hand corner of the image reads: “On May 17, a number of workers from this paper march in the streets, expressing solidarity with the university students.”

To the left of the image, a story bears the headline: “The Heartfelt Patriotic Demands of the Students Are Reasonable, and We Hope the Central Leadership Addresses Them As Soon as Possible.” This was a continuation of calls published on the front page of the newspaper, expressing the hope that central leaders would respond substantively to the demands being made by students who were now on hunger strikes that had begun five days earlier on May 13.

Page one of the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily, will top to bottom coverage of the pro-democracy protests.

The wishes in the article were those of the parents and teachers of students on hunger strike, who were sought out by the People’s Daily, and who expressed understanding for the students’ actions. “I think the students’ actions are justified and patriotic,” Zhu Renpu (朱仁普), a teacher from the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, told the newspaper. “It should be said that the central government is fully capable of satisfying [their demands], and should do so.”

In a personal expression of political conviction that would be unthinkable in any Chinese medium today, Zhu spoke about how he had come to sympathize with the position of the students, and to be moved by the nature of their actions. “At first, I didn’t understand the student movement, thinking they were being irrational,” he said. “But after going to Tiananmen Square several times, I found their slogans and orderliness to be truly moving. Not only were they rational, but they were also restrained. Their sense of concern and responsibility about the future and fate of the country is something we in the older generation should learn from.”

Such talk of “orderliness” went directly against the allegations in the April 26 editorial, which portrayed the students as destructive and chaotic. At this point, in any case, top Chinese leaders were nowhere to be seen. A key message in this report, as in many in the May 18 edition of the paper, was that they should come to Tiananmen Square and see for themselves.

“I sincerely hope that the main leaders of the central government will come out immediately to talk to the students,” Zhu Renpu was quoted as saying.

This extraordinary news story was written by Zhang Jinli (张锦力), who subsequently made a reputation for himself as a television presenter and expert in history — and now has a history-related channel on the short video platform Watermelon. At the time, Zhang was a young economics reporter for the People’s Daily, having joined the paper in 1986.

Can’t Leaders Guide By Listening?

Chinese author Bing Xin (冰心), who wrote an article for the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily calling for top leaders to listen to student demands.

In the upper right-hand corner of page two on May 18 was an article called, “We Are Called the Parents of the People, So We Can Protect Our Children and Grandchildren.” This small contribution was written by the author Bing Xin (冰心), who at the time was, rather symbolically in retrospect, 89 years old. She had been born in Fujian in 1900, and had published her first essay 70 years earlier in 1919 in Shanghai’s The Morning Post, which had launched the previous year.

The headline of Bing’s article in the People’s Daily was taken from a couplet posted above the gate of a temple in her hometown when she was a young girl. “Now there are hundreds of thousands of my children and grandchildren suffering in Tiananmen Square,” Bing wrote. “When will this suffering end?” A parenthetical note at the end of the article read: “Urgently written on May 17, 1989.”

Bing Xin voiced her agreement with an open letter published by the presidents of 10 Beijing universities, calling on top Party and government leaders to meet with the students and hear their demands. She pointed the way to a form of “guidance” markedly different from the one that would emerge from the tragedy of June Fourth just over two weeks later:

I think that if only one or two major leaders of the Party and the government show up at Tiananmen Square now and say even one or two words of sympathetic understanding and knowledge to the hundreds of thousands of people, they will guide things in the direction of sanity and order, and then our children and grandchildren will not have to pay an unnecessary and heavy price.

As the journalists of the People’s Daily took to the streets to report on the demonstrations, and as they sought out parents, teachers, intellectuals, and others, it was clear that the heart and soul of the capital, the heart and soul of the nation, was with the students.

For the leaders who came to power in the wake of June Fourth, this was the lesson to be taken from the tragedy they never acknowledged: that “guidance” had to be the heart and soul — that it was perilous to let the people speak their minds.

… that brief moment in time when the People’s Daily was truly the people’s daily.

. . . . . .

In remembrance of the horrors of June 4, 1989, we finish with a humble celebration of that brief moment in time when the People’s Daily was truly the people’s daily.

The piece that follows, which appeared at the center of page two of the People’s Daily on May 18, 1989, just below the image of protesting journalists, is called simply, “They Must Come Out to See the Children” (应该出来见见孩子们).


At 2 PM on the 17th, this reporter’s car was stopped in mid-journey by a group of marchers. When I walked into the Yong’an Xili Neighborhood Committee in Chaoyang District [about four kilometers east of Tiananmen Square], several female cadres there were gazing out the window at the stream of people on Chang’an Avenue shouting slogans in support of the students. Anxiously, she said: “The central leadership should hurry up and come out to meet the children!”

If Premier Zhou [Enlai] was still alive, he would have come out earlier,” said Liang Yanyi (梁晏怡), director of the family planning committee of the neighborhood committee. Late last night, around 3:30 AM, she was still unable to sleep, and every time she heard the cry of an ambulance out on the street, she was saddened. “On the radio this morning, [I heard that] more than 600 of the university students going on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square had collapsed. They freeze in the black of night, and roast during the day. How can anyone who raises children feel anything but pain?!”

“I watch TV, and as soon as I see the university students being loaded onto ambulances, I break out into tears,” said Xu Fangling (徐芳玲), the neighborhood committee mediation director. “It is not easy for the country to train a college student. Their patriotic actions and the words they say arise from the hearts of the people and represent the masses. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and Premier Li Peng should come out quickly and meet the students who are on hunger strike in the square!”

As she saw groups of workers marching along Chang’an Avenue, the women’s director of the neighborhood committee, Dai Baozhu (戴保竹), said with concern: “We’re all so anxious. Thousands of families are concerned about national affairs. When the elder brother (the workers) has come, can his sister-in-law feel at peace? For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they [the leaders] won’t come out to see them. You can’t just hide. You can hide from today, but you can’t hide from tomorrow. The more you hide, the bigger the problem becomes!”

As she cut hair for local residents, Yue Zhimei (越志梅), the director of public security, chimed in: “The head of the central government should not be afraid of the masses. He should go to the square and see for himself the students who are starving.”

“We hope that the leaders become one with the masses,” local resident Ren Zangfen (任藏芬) said.

As we were all conversing, Dong Wenying (董文瑛), the director of the neighborhood committee, returned from an emergency meeting at the sub-district office. “We support the children’s patriotic actions,” she said. “The head of the central government must receive the children as soon as possible. They must be more responsible for the nation’s future. There must be no more delay.”

“Otherwise, they will be responsible for the future of China!”

China’s Rush to Ratify

It’s an iron rule and a cautionary note for anyone attending a forum hosted by the Chinese government or its proxy institutions, including state media: You will be ratifying a declaration of principles, whether you have reviewed the text or not.

So, after news executives from five Central Asian states met in the Chinese capital with the editor-in-chief of Xinhua News Agency earlier this week to discuss “strengthening media cooperation” and “working toward the building of a China-Central Asian community of destiny,” the men around the table, with a phalanx of national flags standing sternly behind, sealed the deal — with a declaration.

Initiated and hosted by Xinhua, a news agency directly under the government and the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the forum was billed in media reports as an important “result” of the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi’an on May 19-20, and attended by Xi Jinping. The Xinhua event was attended by executives from Kazakhstan’s Central Communication Services, Kyrgyzstan’s Kabar national news agency, the Khovar National Information Agency of Tajikistan, the Turkmenistan Oriental News Service (ORIENT), and the Uzbekistan National News Agency. All are official news services under the control of their respective governments.

What exactly does the China-Central Asia News Agency Forum Beijing Consensus say? The full text of the document has not been released. And perhaps no one will ever know exactly what the declaration says. But even so, it has served its purpose — seeking apparent public recognition of the political principles underlying China’s media policies and strategies.

It is general practice in the case of such forums for China to reference the “ratification” (通过) of various statements and declarations (and even supposed mutual charters of quasi-institutions hosted by the Chinese partner) with full fanfare in the state-run media, even though they may never see the light of day.

The broader objective is to give run-of-the-mill exchanges and ad hoc events an elevated diplomatic air, the semblance of multilateral diplomacy, while political language is slipped in to suggest that China’s concepts are making international inroads. The symbolic “ratification” of the CCP’s political principles is ultimately what matters. No surprise, then, that while the Beijing Consensus with Central Asian media leaders was mentioned by scores of official media outlets this week and appeared on more than 100 other websites, all of these were iterations of a single official news bulletin from forum host Xinhua.

Based on what we can glean from the official Xinhua release, there are two basic principles underlying the Beijing Consensus “ratified” on May 23.

Joining Hands for Media Control

First, the document says, according to Xinhua, that “the media of China and the five Central Asian countries have unique advantages and play a bridging role in telling the stories of China and the five Central Asian countries well, enhancing mutual understanding and trust among people, promoting exchanges and mutual appreciation of civilizations, and advancing the construction of the China-Central Asia community of destiny.”

With its reference to “telling stories well,” this passage validates a CCP worldview in which the media’s primary role is to uphold a positive view of the national leadership and maintain social and political stability. It is a view that militates against all criticism, arguing that this undermines “mutual understanding.” The reference to a “community of destiny” in the above passage is language central to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy — rejecting universal values such as human rights in favor of state-centered multilateral exchanges.

In practical terms, China hopes not just that it can achieve stronger relations with Central Asian states at the formal diplomatic level, but that it can have the cooperation of media in the region to ensure that domestic public opinion about China is conducive to its ambitions as a global power and as a regional trade and security partner.

The West is Out to Get Us

Next, the document says, according to the Xinhua release, that the world is now in a turbulent state, and “the times and history are unfolding in an unprecedented manner.” This is a stock Xi Jinping phrase that is now routinely used in the state media to justify governing with a strong hand, including on media policy. It signals that these are times to uphold unity and eliminate dissent. The phrase is used in this context to suggest also that China is a strong and dependable pilot in the storm.

“The media of China and the five Central Asian countries should pool their efforts and make a concerted voice to enhance the discourse of emerging markets and developing countries and promote international equity and justice,” the Xinhua summary of the declaration continues. This passage reflects the official CCP view that the international discourse environment, dominated by what China generalizes as “Western media,” disadvantages the country and its leadership, shaping a predominately negative global view of China.

Foreign news executives are listed as members of the “Presidium” for the WMS in 2013.

The Beijing Consensus solicits sympathy for this view among Central Asian media partners, with the subtext that they must together resist the depredations of “Western” news values. This is interwoven with a statement of concern for the welfare of developing countries — long a pillar of Chinese foreign policy.

Continuing Cooperation

Beyond the above language, the Xinhua readout of the Beijing Consensus indicates that the parties present agreed to strengthen their cooperation “under the framework of multilateral mechanisms.” Tellingly, the report includes in this category events such as the World Media Summit (世界媒体峰会), which was first held in 2009 in order to bring major global media outfits into Xinhua’s orbit.

As CMP reported more than a decade ago, the first World Media Summit (WMS) emerged from a central CCP directive that was enacted by Xinhua. As Li Congjun (李从军), a former propaganda official who was then at Xinhua’s helm, wrote in 2009 in the Party’s official Seeking Truth journal:

[We must] actively seek out new horizons, new mechanisms, new channels and new methods in the area of external dialogue and cooperation, particularly, as by the demands of central party leaders, successfully organizing the first meeting of the World Media Summit, building a platform for dialogue among first-rate international media (国际一流媒体), further raising the capacity of Xinhua News Agency to make its voice heard in the international news and information sector.

At the first summit, Li Congjun was styled as “WMS Executive President,” which made him head of a “presidium” comprising top executives from News Corporation, The Associated Press (AP), Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Google, Al Jazeera Media Network, and the New York Times Company. WMS headquarters, state media said, was located inside Xinhua.

The summits continued on a regular basis from 2009, foreign media executives naively obliging their Xinhua hosts, as though oblivious to their real intentions. Chinese state media even reported at one point that there were plans for a subsequent WMS event at the New York Times.

Beyond the embarrassing (for foreign media executives) efforts by Xinhua to brand the WMS as a multilateral media organization with real participation and real values, successive summits have introduced declarations. The third WMS, held in Doha in March 2016, concluded with a “Doha Statement” that conveyed, according to Xinhua, “the consensuses reached by the world media leaders.”

In a telling statement of just how little such statements matter substantively, the full text of the statement, which was once carried on the official website of the WMS, hosted on Xinhua servers, is now unavailable.  

What happened to the much-touted “Doha Statement” emerging from the 2016 World Media Summit? It’s no longer where it once was. The message below the original link reads: “We’re sorry, the link you wish to visit has already been deleted!”

In late 2013, after I wrote a rather confrontational bit of context for the Second World Media Summit, calling out executives for international news media taking part, a Hong Kong-based executive for a major Western newswire met me for drinks at the Foreign Correspondence Club. He confided that media executives had seen the event merely as a networking opportunity — a chance to shake hands, and hopefully open doors in an environment mostly closed to international media. Moreover, he said, the event had been hastily planned by China. They had only learned about it perhaps two weeks before, and China had pushed them hard to attend.

Not much time, then, to have a careful look over that declaration.

Comedy, Under the Watchful Eye of the State

On Tuesday this week, China’s official Xinhua News Agency harshly criticized comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who is alleged to have insulted the People’s Liberation Army with a joke during a performance over the weekend. In the latest development, the China Performing Arts Association (CAPA), which identifies itself as a non-profit social organization voluntarily formed by performance operators and practitioners, issued a strongly-worded statement late yesterday calling on all members to boycott Li — effectively ending his career as an artist in China.

A statement on the Li Haoshi incident, released on May 17 by the CPAA.

The statement from CAPA alleges that “circumstances emerged [in Li’s performance] that insulted the people’s military, with nasty social consequences,” and it reminds all performers and enterprises in the culture space of their obligations to uphold decency and abide by the country’s laws and regulations.

But what exactly is the CAPA? And how does such a voluntary professional association have the power to enforce a ban on an individual performer?

Reading behind the news of the CAPA statement, which is being reported across official media today, can offer a glimpse into how the Chinese Communist Party exercises political and ideological control over culture and entertainment — and indeed many other areas — through organizations that apply Party-state power while seeming on the surface to represent broader interests.

A Professional Front

Formed in 1988, the CAPA began as an association of managers in the performing arts, and in 1993, as China’s media and culture industries entered a new period of development, the association morphed into a group also purporting to represent individual performers, with special divisions for areas like dance, drama, tourism performance and so on.

Like all professional associations in China, the CAPA claims to be voluntary (自愿) in nature. However, as the Li Haoshi case demonstrates, it clearly has a mandate to enforce political and cultural guidelines in ways that underline its quasi-official status. It is best understood, therefore, as an enforcement body of the Chinese state that networks with performers and enterprises in order to more closely apply political guidelines (the real goal of the “professional” front). At the same time, whenever necessary, the professional association can sanitize official actions, giving them the appearance of having emerged from professional consensus.

The organization’s official charter provides one of the first clues to its crucial role in enforcing CCP guidelines for the arts, and more fundamentally upholding the leadership of the Party.

Article 3 of the charter lays out the ideological commitments of the association — to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the “Three Represents,” the Scientific View of Development, and of course to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. Article 4 states the association’s commitment to “adhering to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” as well as ensuring the operation of a Party organization and related activities within the association.

But neither is this, as some might imagine, a self-governing organization making commitments in principle to the tenets of CCP rule. The leadership structure of the CPAA ensures that it can be readily operationalized as a front to control the performance industry. In Article 5, we finally see clearly how the CPAA plugs into the government bureaucracy, despite its pretense of being a non-profit social organization. The language subjects the CPAA to the “oversight and control” of its sponsoring institution (业务主管单位), the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

And what about the association’s leadership? Should we expect it to be led by active cultural performers and entrepreneurs — perhaps even a comedian or two? Who is Association President Liu Kezhi (刘克智)?

No bio is given for Liu Kezhi on the association’s website, but he is easy enough to track down. In fact, he is a top official in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and we can find him involved in a range of issues, including dealing with stranded foreign tourists at the start of the pandemic in February 2020 and conveying safety procedures that year for Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

CAPA President Liu Kezhi is also a bureau chief at China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Liu Kezhi has even dealt frequently over the past two decades with issues concerning tourism between China and Taiwan. He appeared during a 2006 press conference held by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, for example, to address cross-strait tourism. And 10 years later, as 26 Chinese tourists in Taiwan died when their chartered bus caught fire, Liu Kezhi was quoted in an official Xinhua news release expressing his “strong discontent” (强烈不满) with how Taiwan handled the incident. It was Liu Kezhi who “demanded that Taiwan must thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident.”

But there is a final, revealing, aspect to the Taiwan story that relates to the broader question of China’s operationalizing of ostensibly independent associations.

At the time of the 2016 tourism bus fire, Liu Kezhi had a government position as Director of the Department of Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan Tourism Affairs at China’s National Tourism Administration. Why, then, would he be identified in official press reports as “Secretary-General Liu Kezhi” (秘书长刘克智)?

Well, at the time, you see, Liu Kezhi was also the number-one man at the Association for Tourism Exchange Across the Taiwan Straits (海峡两岸旅游交流协会). It will not surprise you to learn that the Association for Tourism Exchange Across the Taiwan Straits is a “non-profit organization” — or that it has offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung.

China has watchful eyes on every stage.

Slogan Not Funny (Not a Bit), State Media Say

During a meeting with top military officials 10 years ago, Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed to mold the People’s Liberation Army into a world-class fighting force “able to win battles, with first-rate style” (能打胜仗, 作风优良). Apparently, the general secretary was not joking.

News broke yesterday that Li Haoshi (李昊石), a Chinese stand-up comedian who goes by the nickname “House,” has been suspended indefinitely after a joke during a performance on May 13 alluded to the above slogan — which has frequently been used by the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese state media in recent years to signal Xi Jinping’s resolve in reaching “the goal of a powerful military” (强军目标).

The phrase “able to win battles, with first-rate style” is part of a full propaganda phrase that begins with the injunction to “listen to the Party,” emphasizing the leadership of the military by the Chinese Communist Party, an unquestionable tenet of regime security. With its allusion to “first-rate style,” the phrase invokes for some the image of a fighting force that is buttoned-up and in tip-top shape, rigidly goose-stepping toward greatness.

A response to the Li Haoshi incident from Xinhua News Agency says the pro-PLA slogan must not be derided.

During his performance, however, Li Haoshi apparently committed the sin of turning this image into a parody. He quipped to his audience that he had adopted two stray dogs that showed great determination whenever a squirrel crossed their path. “When these two dogs chase a squirrel, they launch after it like artillery shells,” Li said. “Usually, you see dogs and you think how cute they are, and your heart melts . . . . When I see these two dogs, my heart flashes with the words: ‘Able to win battles, with first-rate style.’”

In a strongly-worded response yesterday amid a barrage of attacks from state-run media accounts on the internet, the official Xinhua News Agency did not mince words: “The people’s army protects the country, and must have the reverence of all. ‘Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style.’ Not a word [of this phrase] must be derided!”

The incident has reportedly prompted an official investigation into Li Haoshi’s employer, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media (上海笑果文化傳媒有限公司), which has already said publicly that it has “severely criticized” (严肃批评) the comedian. According to Caixin Global, the Li Haoshi incident has “sparked an online debate about the boundaries of talk show jokes in China.”

But defining the boundaries of funny and not-funny is likely to prove a difficult, if not impossible, task in a political culture already flooded with bluster and hyperbole that can, with the slightest tilt of the head, come off as hilariously disjointed from real life.

High-Level Black, Low-Level Red

The “bit” in comedy — as stand-up performers know only too well — is a comedic take on reality. And reality in Xi Jinping’s “New Era” has become so drenched in the viscid syrup of seriousness that it can be a real challenge to take seriously. It’s a problem endemic to seriousness: that upon reaching its upper limits, it tends to descend rapidly into farce.

Somewhere beneath its mask of seriousness, this is a lesson the Chinese Communist Party recognizes only too painfully.

In recent years, the terms “high-level black” (高级黑) and “low-level red” (低级红) have focused the CCP‘s anxiety over its insistence on political and ideological seriousness on the one hand, and its inability to police and ensure the authenticity of that seriousness on the other. The first term, gaojihei, which is not unlike the proverbial “smile that hides a dagger” (笑里藏刀), refers to the act of using humorous language to criticize and satirize. It can often be used to describe extreme expressions of praise and obedience that use the Party’s own overworked discourse to surreptitiously signal criticism.

The second term, dijihong, refers to the other end of the spectrum — the cheap expression of obedience, pro-Party feeling, or nationalism that, while perhaps genuine, becomes a public embarrassment. This phrase became popular in November 2018, following an incident in which long-distance runner He Yinli (何引丽) was interrupted during the last stage of the Suzhou marathon by a volunteer trying to force a national flag into her hands. As a result, He fell back in the race, which drew scorn from internet users who felt this was a stupid and self-defeating display of nationalism.

Chinese paramilitary police stand at attention at a propaganda event in April 2021. The words on top of the building read: “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style.” Image:

So sensitive is the Chinese Communist Party not just to criticism but to the predations of overwrought praise that in February 2019 it released an opinion on “strengthening political construction” that was the first high-level official document to include “high-level black” and “low-level red.” The document dealt with the need to safeguard the seriousness of the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护), a buzzword that refers to the need to 1) reinforce the rule of Xi Jinping, and 2) reinforce the dominance of his guiding ideology.

The 2019 document was not at all kidding when it said: “[We] must with correct understanding and correct actions resolutely enact the ‘Two Safeguards,’ firmly preventing and correcting all erroneous statements that diverge from the ‘Two Safeguards,’ and [we] must not allow any form of ‘low-level red’ or ‘high-level black,’ permitting no form of two-faced outer devotion and internal opposition toward the Party’s Central Committee, any double-dealing or ‘false reverence.’”

As the Li Haoshi incident demonstrates, China’s highly sensitive political environment has very real implications for journalists, writers, performers, and ordinary citizens (to say nothing of Party officials themselves.) Between the perilous sincerity of “low-level red” and the treacherous pretense of “high-level black” there lies a minefield of language unfolding in reality. Potential crimes are a matter of perception, weighed by the risk psychology of China’s leadership and its media attack dogs — whizzing like artillery shells after the squirrels of disgrace.

It’s a problem endemic to seriousness: that upon reaching its upper limits, it tends to descend rapidly into farce.

China’s state media have put on a stern face this week over the Li Haoshi incident, letting the world know that the phrase, “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style,” is not to be taken lightly. Since Xi first mentioned the phrase a decade ago, it has been used faithfully within the PLA to focus and re-focus China’s resolve to build world-class armed forces.

How, we may wonder, has the PLA fared with the line between the serious and the ridiculous?

Many examples to add to the ongoing online debate about boundaries might be found in the PLA’s own use of the phrase, including an over-the-top PLA-produced musical, and a cheesy PLA comic strip. But we leave you with a personal favorite — a PLA-produced illustration that appeared on the military’s official website,, on August 1, 2016, marking its 89th anniversary.

A cartoon published on August 1, 2016, to commemorate the PLA’s 89th anniversary.

The illustration depicts musical notes aloft on the winds with the seagulls — or are those doves of peace? — as a sailor extends an open hand. A soldier at the center brandishes his AK-56 rifle, the bayonet attached, as the words “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style” fly over his head, in yellow characters across the five-star flag.

But it’s the final flourish that really hammers home the full dignity of the phrase, and the profound import of this talk of “first-rate style.” On the right side of the illustration, an air force pilot plays gleefully with a toy airplane, even making a flying motion with his hand.

Who says propaganda can’t be serious fun?

Extinguishing a Scandal at Zhengzhou University

Last night, in a harrowing post to Chinese social media, an anonymous user laid out serious accusations against a male professor at Zhengzhou University, the country’s largest public university, alleging that he raped and manipulated her 11 years ago when she was just 16 — and that he later accompanied her to the hospital for an abortion.

“Hello, Professor,” the post read. “It’s been 11 years. Are you surprised I’m still alive? I’m so sorry to disappoint you. Do you still remember me? I’m the girl you brainwashed, that you mentally controlled for two and a half years, that you violated, that you destroyed.”  

The original post from “UnclePeterPan” on Weibo accuses a professor at Zhengzhou University’s School of Marxism of rape and abuse.

The professor was identified in the post as a faculty member at the university’s School of Marxism, who taught courses on contemporary Chinese Marxism and the theory and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics. His accuser wrote that she had not previously come forward because she had been gripped by fear, shame, and hopelessness. “I know that justice will never come,” she wrote. “I compose this letter with the certainty of death, knowing that once the heat has passed, he will still be who he is. He will be the same professor who writes so well about socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The post trended rapidly on social media. By early Wednesday, a chat thread for “Zhengzhou University Wang _____,” identifying the accused by name, had received more than 100 million views. A related thread on Weibo reached number eight on the list of hottest searches nationwide, gaining 1.2 million views and listed as “boiling” (沸) — marking it as one of the hottest trending topics on the platform [archived hashtag].

The list at Weibo of the hottest searches on the platform at 12 PM on May 10, 2023.

But even as it went viral, the plateauing of information about the Zhengzhou University case offered a salient illustration of how such posts are contained by the authorities in China — with the broader objective of guiding public opinion and ensuring discussions do not entertain deeper questions about the abuse of authority.

In the early hours of Wednesday, close on the heels of the original post, Zhengzhou University issued a response through its official Weibo account. The notice, issued by the Teachers Work Department of the university’s Party Committee, said that it had given the matter high priority, setting up a special task force to investigate. “The university attaches great importance to the construction of morals and styles among our teachers,” the notice said, “and has zero tolerance for moral misconduct.”

A notice from Zhengzhou University dated May 10, 2023, first posted around midnight.

As the story was picked up early Wednesday morning by scores of media outlets, the coverage parroted the Zhengzhou University notice posted to Weibo and the university’s website. The majority of stories listed the source directly as the “Zhengzhou University Website,” or sourced identical news items from other media channels that referred to the Zhengzhou University notice.

Examples of this treatment of the story can be seen at The Paper, a Shanghai-based digital outlet under state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG); Global Times Online, the website of the Global Times newspaper published under the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily;, the website of the Economic Daily, a state-owned newspaper managed by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department; the Shanghai-based news portal (观察者); China National Radio; the official website of the Hangzhou city government — over 1,000 kilometres away — and so on.

Screenshots of coverage of the Zhengzhou University scandal at The Paper and Global Times Online, both citing the notice from the university — and neither offering further information.

The complete lack of follow-up by Chinese media, and the near uniformity of treatment, suggests that restrictions on the story were already in force by early Wednesday morning, instructing editors to use the Zhengzhou University notice only, and to avoid independent reporting. This would effectively mean the story was finished before it ever had the opportunity to develop — for example, through direct and personal interviews with the author of the Weibo post.

The complete lack of follow-up by Chinese media, and the near uniformity of treatment, suggests that restrictions on the story were already in force

There were only the slightest variations among the above-listed news sources. The story from China National Radio, for example, repeated the university notice verbatim after a simple lead that noted that “a web user revealed on the internet that 11 years ago they were PUA’d for two and a half years by a Zhengzhou University professor.” The term “PUA,” short for “pickup artists,” is popular slang on the Chinese internet for men who use cruel tactics to pursue women.

The version at the Global Times Online included a 10-second video that simply displayed the notice from Zhengzhou University and summarized the story based on the university’s release.

Of the news reports available online, the report from Shanghai’s went furthest in reporting the nature of the allegations, noting after a lead repeating the university notice (and tip-toeing around the mention of rape):

On May 10 at around 00:00, a netizen posted on Weibo that she had been mentally controlled by a teacher at Zhengzhou University for two and a half years 11 years ago, and that he had taken her to the hospital for an abortion after a violation leading to pregnancy.

This small addition to the story, based on the original Weibo post, at least offered some indication, unlike most other versions online, of the exact nature of the accusations to which the university was responding. But the information was also inaccurate. The original post had been made hours earlier.

The only other point of slight variation in coverage came in the headlines added by some media channels to their reports as they copy-and-pasted the Zhengzhou University notice. At Phoenix Online, for example, nothing was added beyond the official university response. Nevertheless, editors did their utmost to grab the audience, stuffing as much sensationalism as they could into the headline of a story that deserved sensitivity and humanity.

“Woman Pregnant After Assault by Marxism Teacher? Zhengzhou University Responds.”

Speak Plainly, Mr. Chairman

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was mentioned a single time in the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party back in March, this minuscule event seemed momentous. Up to that point, through 13 dreadful months of a war that had dominated world affairs and claimed the lives of close to 20,000 civilians in Ukraine, the People’s Daily had mentioned Zelensky just once.

Let the absurdity of that fact sink in for a moment.

The People’s Daily is meant to coalesce and communicate the power and vision of the CCP leadership under Xi Jinping, to signal its position on domestic and foreign affairs. It is the authoritative reference book to which observers everywhere turn for a glimpse of what China’s authoritarian strongman and his acolytes, who govern a population of 1.3 billion, are thinking. And yet, for nine months last year, as missiles rained down on millions of innocent Ukrainians, their president merited not a single mention because this violence was being unleashed by China’s staunchest ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Last week, as Xi Jinping finally spoke to President Zelensky, four articles materialized in the People’s Daily within half as many days, signaling Xi Jinping’s ambition to position himself as a peacemaker in Ukraine. And as China now claims to be stepping up as a responsible power, it is critical to reflect on the obscure, constrained, and sometimes monstrously insensitive discourse of the Chinese Communist Party — and its possible implications for the world.

Sweeping Up After Lu Shaye?

One popular expert reading in the wake of Xi Jinping’s one-hour phone call last Wednesday with Zelensky, likely the first in 14 months, has been that this was damage control for careless remarks made on French television on April 21 by the Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (卢沙野), in which he outrageously questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states — setting fire to perceptions in the European Union.

Image of Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

But China’s formal statement in late February of its “position” on the settlement of what it still insists on calling the “Ukraine crisis,” which came ahead of a month of active diplomacy that included the brokering of a landmark agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, suggests that however Lu’s antics might have shifted timelines (if at all), Xi Jinping has had peacemaking and its reputational benefits in his sights. In fact, that solitary mention of Zelensky last month, published in the People’s Daily on the very day Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for his state visit with Putin, was likely a little red signal flare, CCP-style.

This game of speaking in code is part of the instrumental language of China’s Leninist ruling party. For generations, CCP leaders have been steeped in this specialized discourse, which serves to construct power, to conceal as it declares, and (as the case of Zelensky shows) to obliterate. In the Xi era, the discursive confections of the CCP have grown more elaborate than at any point in the reform era, as controls on speech have intensified.

In a keynote address at a Beijing summit of world political parties on March 15, Xi Jinping announced the formation of the Global Civilization Initiative (全球文明倡议). The CCP, he claimed, had advanced “the progress of human civilization” with its creation of “Chinese-style modernization as a new form of human civilization.” In turn, this would contribute to a process of global civilizational exchange that would “make the garden of world civilizations more abundant,” and lead us all to what Xi calls “a community of common destiny for humankind.”

This game of speaking in code is part of the instrumental language of China’s Leninist ruling party.

What happens when we pick apart one piece of circuitry in this elaborate verbal machinery? In his political report to the 20th National Congress last year, Xi Jinping elaborated on the promise of “Chinese-style modernization,” and made clear that its most fundamental precondition is “adhering to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” So there we have it, lurking just behind another fanciful turn of phrase: the raw assertion of power and legitimacy.

These elaborate Russian dolls of rhetoric, painted with pretty phrases like “common prosperity” and “win-win cooperation,” may look to some in the outside world like real plans and strategies, an entire structure of responsible and well-thought-out proposals — even a “China solution” (to use another favored CCP buzzword). But they are always intimately connected to domestic power claims that have no business in practical and earnest deliberations over such important questions as peace in Ukraine.

For the world outside China, the real danger of this language is the way it obscures what China’s leaders have suppressed in their global vision as a reflection of their own repression at home — the individual rights set down in the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Self-determination. Peaceful assembly. Freedom of expression. In China’s formulation, all of these are subordinated to the vague and open-ended promise of “development.” The real concern is for the rights not of individuals but of nation states, which must engage internationally on the rudimentary basis of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference — which despite Xi’s claim to a “new form of human civilization” have all the conceptual freshness for international relations of antediluvian fossils.

Because the core of this language is raw power at home, and its further elaboration and justification through global ambition, even the base blocks can be rearranged when it suits the Party’s interests. China can ignore the catastrophic implications for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine of the war unleashed 14 months ago by its ally, Russia. And it can erase all mention of Ukraine’s president.

Solidity and Pure Wind

Now that Xi Jinping has opened channels to Ukraine and removed the country’s president from its long list of unmentionables, people like myself, who have established careers in the growth industry of decoding the CCP’s regimented language, are called upon to read through the obscurity. We ease back the layers, heeding the wisdom of one of the last century’s consummate readers of CCP-speak, Lászlo Ladányi, who urged us to, “Above all, read the small print!”

Lászlo Ladányi, the Hungarian Jesuit and editor of China News Analysis.

Ladányi also exhorted China watchers not to lose their sense of humor. “A regimented press is too serious to be taken very seriously,” he wrote. For anyone who tackles the April 27 readout on the call with Zelensky — who of course is famous for his sense of humor — this will seem sage advice.

The read-out begins with Xi Jinping thanking the Ukrainian side “for its strong support for the evacuation last year of Chinese citizens.” Immediately, the omissions loom large. Nowhere in the read-out is the word “war” mentioned, or Russia’s invasion, or Russia at all. Why, exactly, was it necessary to evacuate Chinese citizens from Ukraine last year? Can peacemaking really be entrusted to a power that cannot speak the word “war”?

Next comes the obligatory empty talk — which must have brought a chortle from Zelensky — about “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the “political foundation of China-Ukraine relations.” China also claims to have “always stood on the side of peace,” though its role has been complicated, to say the least.

It is in the next line, as the read-out begins to outline China’s call for peace talks, that we descend straight down into remorseless CCP-speak. “We have successively proposed the ‘Four Shoulds,’ the ‘Four Togethers’ and the ‘Three Points for Consideration,’” it reads. China’s leaders cannot resist such formulations, because they can be packed and unpacked, stacked and unstacked, like boxes filled with imaginary things. A “Four Togethers” was already touted last year as Xi Jinping’s answer to online governance, accompanied by “Four Principles” and “Five Propositions.” But never mind. We can always imagine something else in those boxes. Such political language, as George Orwell wrote in an essay on the subject, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Can peacemaking really be entrusted to a power that cannot speak the word “war”?

China’s former foreign minister, Wang Yi (王毅), introduced the “Four Shoulds” in March last year within two weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The concept’s foolishness shone brightly against the bleak backdrop of Mariupol, where mass graves were being dug for the Ukrainians killed under intense Russian bombardment: The sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations should be respected; the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be respected; all countries’ legitimate security concerns should be taken into account; and every effort beneficial to the peaceful resolution of the crisis should be supported.

Meanwhile, as Xi Jinping dialogued closely with Putin, the People’s Daily and other state media parroted Russian narratives about US and NATO culpability for the war, spent weeks on end blatantly spreading Russian disinformation about alleged US biological weapons facilities in Ukraine — and of course, put Zelensky on ice.

We could continue to ease apart the layers of CCP rhetoric. But at the core, we will find the same airy assertions — about a man, we are told, who has revolutionized Marxism for the 21st century, who is piloting his country back to greatness, and who deserves ultimate Party power and a third term as China’s head of state because the world is complicated, and what are we to do without him? Recognizing that the base logic is power, it will not surprise us to find that the Chinese read-out of the Zelensky call last week exploited the exchange to glorify the general secretary: “Zelensky congratulated President Xi Jinping on his re-election, praised China’s extraordinary achievements and said he believed that under his leadership, China would successfully meet all challenges and continue to move forward.”

Frankly Speaking

A Xinhua News Agency read-out of a call between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in June 2022, the second following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and emphasizing the bilateral partnership.

Once we are done squeezing sense and significance out of Xi Jinping’s “Maospeak,” once we turn from the grandiosity of his nonsense, we are left with the same challenging set of questions that stand in the way of peace. We can count on Zelensky, the comedian turned statesman, to treat them with the seriousness and frankness they deserve: “No one wants peace more than the Ukrainian people. We are on our land and fighting for our future, exercising our inalienable right to self-defense,” the President said during his call with Xi. “Peace must be just and sustainable, based on the principles of international law and respect for the UN Charter. There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be restored within the 1991 borders.”

Zelensky, his head beneath the clouds, also made a practical point that chastened China for its tacit support for Russia’s act of aggression. “Russia converts any support — even partial — into the continuation of its aggression, into its further rejection of peace,” he said. “The less support Russia receives, the sooner the war will end and serenity will return to international relations.”

With so much at stake for Ukrainians and the rest of the world, we should certainly welcome all genuine efforts beneficial to the peaceful resolution of the war in Ukraine — to follow, I suppose, the last of China’s “Four Shoulds.” But the Chinese Communist Party’s seeming incapacity to part with its obtuse rhetoric — so bloated with self-glorification, so turgid with over-promise, and so spectacularly arcane — is a serious impediment to international understanding that should itself be a cause for concern as China steps up its bid for global leadership.

Beyond distracting from rights-based values and encoding authoritarian ones in a bait-and-switch fashion (documented in the excellent Decoding China dictionary), this rhetoric invites deadly miscalculation.

In an article for Foreign Affairs in late March, former Beijing Bureau Chief for The Washington Post John Pomfret and former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger wrote on the basis of their expert reading of four recent Xi Jinping speeches that the leader is “preparing China for war” in the Taiwan Strait. The article was an alarm bell. But responding one month later, a group of students, interns and former state media reporters on a well-known Substack account operated from China argued that the conclusions in the Foreign Affairs piece were based on misreadings of China’s politics, its press system and its odd official discourse, and that they fueled “an unnecessary sense of panic.”

The lesson I took from this tremor of discussion was just how impenetrable China’s official discourse in speeches and in the press is — not only to those with a deep experience of the country and fluency in its language as they gaze from the outside, but also to those reading from inside the country. And it occurred to me just how perilous our lack of clarity about China has become, a problem compounded by the CCP’s monopoly on expression domestically, which has obliterated individual voices and their moderating influence, and has condemned ordinary citizens to ignorance about their own society.

During his first months in power, Xi Jinping crafted an image of himself as a down-to-earth man of the people. He pledged an end to formalistic pronouncements and encouraged a more informal style among his fellow officials. This proved to be anti-bluster bluster. Since that time, Xi has compounded China’s political culture of grandiosity, placing himself atop a lofty pyramid of concepts created by a corps of Party discourse engineers below. Because the Party is so fixated on verbal monument-building, it has now even posited a distinctive “Chinese discourse system” for what thinkers like Zhang Weiwei (张维为), a key advisor, say will be a new era of “post-Western discourse.” It talks about a “strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics.”

The distinctiveness of CCP-speak is not a gift to human civilization. In fact, it is a growing international problem. An abyss of potential misunderstanding lies between the reprehensible rantings of Lu Shaye (a style Xi Jinping has nurtured among his diplomats) and the absurd “Maospeak” of mainstream CCP discourse. When experts wanting to know what China is thinking and planning must sort through page after page of florid obsequiousness in the People’s Daily, reading the small print, ours is a more dangerous world.

Speak plainly, Mr. Chairman. What do you mean when you talk about “peace”?

Bringing AI to the Party

Since its launch five months ago, the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT has prompted intense discussion of its ethical and social implications. It was just a matter of time before a serious political response came from China’s ruling Communist Party.

That response came this week from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which said in proposed new rules on generative artificial intelligence that content produced by AI “must reflect the core values of socialism and must not contain material that subverts state power.” The draft rules also made clear that users and service providers would be held responsible for the text, images, sounds, and other content generated through AI, and that security assessments would be mandated.

Zhang Xiaogang (张晓刚), a computer engineer in Australia, said the rules, which amounted to “making AI first join the Party” (a reference to Xi Jinping’s broader controls on the media in China), would stymie innovation in the field, resulting in AI with Chinese characteristics that would be “vested more and more with Party spirit” (越来越有党性).

For years now, even as the CCP has actively promoted AI and big data, it has asserted the need for political controls.

How political constraints might shape the development of AI in China is an important and difficult question. But the application of such constraints should not surprise. Nor should we assume that China’s leaders are racing to catch up with the implications of generative AI. For years now, even as the CCP has actively promoted AI and big data, it has asserted the need for political controls.

From the moment of its inception, the political indoctrination of Chinese artificial intelligence was fait accompli. This is a fact writ large in the history of the internet and data regulation in China.

The Party Controls the Data

For nearly 20 years, the phrase “Party control of the media” (党管媒体) has been one of the keystones of the CCP’s conviction that it must maintain political control of information even as the media landscape undergoes a rapid transformation.

While the phrase could be said to have deeper roots in concepts like “Party spirit” reaching back to the Maoist period in the mid-twentieth century, it first appeared in September 2004, when it was included in a plenary decision on strengthening the Party’s “governing capacity.” The concept was closely associated with the notion of “correct public opinion guidance” introduced amid harsh press restrictions in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown, but in the mid-2000s was a response to the rise of a vibrant commercial press, which could sometimes test the bounds, and developments in the internet sector already enabling new forms of user-generated content.

Not surprisingly, the conviction that “Party control of the media cannot change” (党管媒体不能变) has developed in step with technological changes that have radically altered China’s media landscape. And AI is no exception.

“New Media, New Power,” says an illustration for an article in 2019 on advancing media integration while maintaining the unbreakable principle of “Party-controlled media.”

In August last year, as China unveiled its new cultural development initiative under the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), one centerpiece of the plan was the “promotion of high-quality development in the culture industry” — code for the harnessing of new technologies to develop new products and markets. In a subsection on “promoting science and technology to empower the cultural industry,” the plan said:

[We must] implement the integrated development of publishing, the [technological] upgrading of film production, smart manufacturing in printing, the construction of large audiovisual industrial chains, and other engineering projects that can guide and encourage cultural enterprises to utilize big data, 5G, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, blockchain, ultra-high definition, and other new technologies to transform and upgrade the industry chain, promote the modernization of content production and means of dissemination, and reshape the cultural development model.

AI was not an unwelcome disruption, a weed in the well-tended garden of Party-controlled cultural output. It was the future. And the leadership was counting on it.

But the conditions were also clear. The first line under an opening section of the document on “work principles” made plain that all of the initiatives to follow would unfold under political constraints.

[We must] adhere to the comprehensive leadership of the Party. [We must] adhere to and improve the Party’s institutional mechanisms for leading cultural development, implementing the principles of Party-controlled propaganda, Party-controlled ideology and Party-controlled media, implementing the Party’s leadership in all aspects of propaganda, ideology and cultural work, and providing a fundamental guarantee for the realization of high-quality cultural development.

Empowerment and restraint. This dynamic has been at the heart of media and information in China since the first tentative reforms in the late 1970s. To re-appropriate Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase, the leadership has been crossing the Rubicon of media development while feeling the stones.

Students at Anhui University’s School of Artificial Intelligence take part in a study event on the fourth volume of Xi Jinping’s Governance of China on September 27, 2022.

The leadership has also transformed at every juncture the discursive terms of control.

In the July 2022 edition of the People’s Tribune (人民论坛), published by the People’s Daily, Huang Chuxin (黄楚新), the director of the Digital Media Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote that the concept of “Party-controlled media” (党管媒体) had to change in the face of ongoing technological and geopolitical challenges — what Xi Jinping has broadly referred to as the “new situation”:

With the continuous promotion of China’s comprehensive deepening reform and the rise of emerging technologies such as big data, 5G, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, the arrangements of the national governance system have been adjusted, and the [concept and practice of] “party-controlled media” has been challenged from the inside out by the new situation.

In light of these changes, said Huang, which were “an inevitable trend,” the Party should transition to the concept of “Party-controlled data,” or dangguan shuju (党管数据).

“Currently, China’s data industry development is in a new stage of innovation and transformation, and technology-driven journalism in China is facing serious challenges brought by the new industry pattern,” he concluded. “[The transition] from ‘Party-controlled media’ to ‘Party-controlled data’ would change the actual grounding and real agenda of the Party’s press work in the digital era.”

Huang’s idea was to re-ground what was essentially an outdated notion of press control in a new understanding of how people (and machines?) generate and disseminate information in all of its forms in the third decade of the 21st century.

In fact, this is a key aspect of what China’s leaders mean when they talk about “innovation.” Sure, innovation is about everything it generally calls to mind — about new ideas that transform our products, markets, and way of life. But in China, it is also about revolutionizing the mechanisms of governance and control to preserve the most basic nature of politics: the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Generative AI will certainly bring surprises. Its encounter with the CCP’s deep tradition of public opinion control and propaganda will be an important drama to watch as it unfolds. But we should not expect any dramatic plot shifts — not if the history of media development is any indication of the future.

Welcome to the era of Party-controlled AI.

Mixing Media and Statecraft in Latin America

During a ceremony in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on March 28, the state-run China Media Group (CMG) inaugurated a new national bureau in what was one of the first formal celebrations between China and Honduras since the Central American country formally broke off relations with Taiwan just two days earlier, on March 26.

Reporting on the event, which took place at the Presidential Palace, under the bright red glare of China’s national flag, CMG’s international broadcasting arm, China Global Television Network (CGTN), said the media conglomerate would now be “positioned to bring more in-depth coverage of Central America to audiences around the world.” The head of the conglomerate’s Latin America division, Zhu Boying (朱博英), told an audience that included Honduran Cultural Minister Anarella Velez that the new bureau would “collaborate with the country’s leading media organizations.”

But the message between the lines of this new bilateral media relationship, coming with astonishing swiftness in the wake of a diplomatic shift that left diplomats in Taiwan reeling, was that official PRC media outlets, far from reporting on the sidelines of international affairs, are active agents in advancing the interests of the Chinese Party-state — well in advance of the story.

The new plaque for the Honduras bureau of China Media Group (CMG), the Party-state media conglomerate directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

The first example of Sino-Honduran media cooperation, the broadcast on Honduran television of a two-part program called “Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future” (携手向未来) looking at the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Honduras, came at lightning speed. It was shown on Canal 8, a state-owned channel operated by the Honduran Ministry of Culture and Telecommunications, at 7 AM Tegucigalpa time on March 26, just 13 hours after Honduras announced that it had cut ties with Taiwan.

“The speed of cooperation was amazing,” one Chinese provincial media outlet, the Qianjiang Evening News, wrote of the broadcast in a report last week, noting also that reporters from Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and the China Media Group had been “dispatched overnight to Honduras, to bring the Chinese people more local reports.”

But the speed of cooperation was more than just amazing — it was deeply revealing.

The production by the Spanish-language division of CGTN of “Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future,” which includes interviews with ministerial officials from Honduras as well as sources such as a national sales manager for the technology giant Huawei, would have been impossible without early and deep cooperation between the China Media Group, which operates directly under the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, and the country’s diplomatic and intelligence services.

The program itself includes other tantalizing clues to just how closely intertwined Party-state media outlets are with the mechanisms of Chinese statecraft.

Featured in the program is Sun Yanfeng (孙岩峰), director of Latin American research at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (中国现代国际关系研究院), or CICIR. While the international relations institute presents itself publicly as a leading Chinese think tank for “extensive and multifunctional research,” it is in fact closely affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s chief intelligence agency.

Sun Yanfeng (孙岩峰), director of Latin American research at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, appears in a special CGTN-produced program on Honduran state television.

Back in February, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper noted the close relationship between CICIR and the Ministry of State Security as it reported that the former head of the CICIR, Yuan Peng (袁鹏), had been appointed as MSS deputy director.

Also shown on screen in the CGTN television spot on China-Honduras relations is Wang Hua (王华), deputy secretary of the China Foundation for Peace and Development (中国和平发展基金会), or CFPD. The foundation, which identifies itself as a non-profit organization, is operated under the International Liaison Department, or ILD, of the CCP Central Committee (中共中央对外联络部), which is tasked with maintaining ties with foreign political parties, organizations, and individuals, and has a vital role in intelligence collection.

The message between the lines of this new bilateral media relationship was that official PRC media outlets are active agents in advancing the interests of the Chinese Party-state — well in advance of the story.

Wang Hua is in fact the former head of the Latin America Office at the International Liaison Department, and at CFPD has actively advanced bilateral relations and exchange between China and partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. In August last year, CFPD signed a friendship and cooperation agreement with the ministry of education in neighboring Nicaragua, which normalized relations with the PRC in 2021, after first recognizing Taiwan in 1990.

Despite its easily ascertainable and completely undeniable link to the Party’s central leadership, CFPD has been treated seriously in even United Nations documents and proceedings as a “non-profit organization” having a purely advisory role.

CFPD is one of China’s many fronts in pushing forward the political goals of the state under the guise of society-level engagement and people-to-people exchange. The media outlets under the China Media Group umbrella similarly perform a sock-puppet role before global audiences in all of the world’s major languages. They appear as a constellation of broadcasters, newspapers, newswires, and digital platforms, while a single hand, that of the CCP Central Committee, is at work behind the scenes.

Late last week, as state media continued to relish the establishment of relations with Honduras, CGTN pushed ahead with its coverage of upcoming elections in neighboring Guatemala, set for June. Just days earlier, the country had reaffirmed ties with Taiwan, but CGTN strung together interviews with “left-wing political party leaders” (左翼政党人士), including the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Party’s Silvia Solorzano, to argue that “voices calling for the government to change its foreign policy and establish diplomatic relations with China are becoming louder and louder.”

A report about the CGTN report from the state-run China Central Television, CGTN’s parent company under the CMG umbrella, relished the fact that CGTN’s Spanish-language anchor Ji Yi (冀艺) had appeared on Guatemala’s Canal+ television network “to emphasize that the Taiwan issue is a core interest of China and that the One China principle is supported by the overwhelming majority of countries in the world.”

CGTN’s Spanish-language anchor Ji Yi appears on Canal+. “China is opposed to any diplomatic interaction between the US and Taiwan,” the caption reads.

Making no attempt to disguise Ji Yi’s role not as a journalist but as a spokesperson for the official position, CCTV gushed about historic firsts. “This is the first time that a CGTN reporter has stated the Chinese government’s position on a Guatemalan TV program,” it said.

As China continues its relentless quest to push Taiwan’s diplomatic allies down into the single digits — the next country on the agenda, with decisive elections later this month, is Paraguay — or to advance other international agendas, its state media are not observing from the sidelines, and they are not waiting in the wings. They are working on the front lines, tools by their own admission of the Party-state from which they are ultimately indistinguishable.

It is a lesson politicians across the world would do well to remember. But as China’s new allies are carried off on the wave of media attention that comes with recognition from China, the puppet show can be a mesmerizing fiction.

One of the more humorous examples of this came last month, on the first full day of the new diplomatic relationship between China and Honduras, as Xiomara Zelaya, President of the International Affairs Commission of the National Congress of Honduras, and daughter of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, toured China beside Eduardo Enrique Reina, the foreign minister. At some point amid the photo ops and selfies, including one with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦刚), Zelaya shared a video in which she turned through the major newspapers in Beijing, showing how each had highlighted the new relationship on the front page.

In a Twitter video on March 26, Xiomara Zelaya, the daughter of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, shares the news of Sino-Honduran relations as it dominates the front pages . . . . of closely-linked CCP-run media.

First came the Global Times. Presumably, Zelaya had no idea the paper was published by the CCP’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, directly under the Central Propaganda Department. Next came Reference News (参考消息). Did she know that this foreign relations news staple was published by Xinhua, the official government news agency ranking as a ministerial-level institution under the State Council? And finally came China Daily, an English-language paper published by the Information Office of the State Council, the very same body as the Central Propaganda Department.

The lesson here was not that Honduras had arrived at the center of a new global narrative, and opened a bright new chapter. It was, quite simply, that China controlled the story.

Faking the Fake News Debate in Cambodia

Addressing an audience in Phnom Penh last month, the chairman of the Cambodia-China Journalists Association (柬中记协), Liu Xiaoguang (刘晓光), urged his colleagues in the media to uphold “a spirit and attitude of professionalism” as they worked to combat fake news. But Liu, who is also editor-in-chief of the local Chinese-language outlet The Commercial News (华商日报), quickly confounded this professional call with a flagrant political agenda.

“As media people, we must at the same time be alert to the fact that Western media still have a strong measure of discourse power in the international arena,” he said. “They still mainly favor their own countries . . . . as they report international news, and they criticize, smear and spread disinformation against countries that do not listen to the West or have different views.”

To support his point about Western bias, Liu accused the American mainstream media of blatant double standards in their downplaying of the serious environmental impact of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and in their outright suppression of a report by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh alleging US government involvement in the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea.

There was just one problem — both of these case studies in American media hypocrisy were fake news cooked up on the kooky fringes of the internet and gleefully picked up and amplified by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and state media.

With its fakery about fake news, the Phnom Penh forum was itself a case study of how China is exploiting professional associations and what it calls “people-to-people exchanges” to advance its global media agenda. At the heart of that agenda is undermining the credibility of Western journalism and by extension its critical, and sometimes even adversarial, relationship with power.

During the February forum, Liu Xiaoguang told participants they must consider the fact that 2023 is an election year in Cambodia, and that the country will also host the Southeast Asia Games. “Therefore it is hoped,” he said, “that domestic media personnel across the board will have a professional attitude, truly and objectively reporting on the achievements and development transformation achieved by Cambodia, working together to safeguard the peace and stability of the nation, and further raising Cambodia’s international image.”

Liu Xiaoguang (first from right) attends a February 2023 forum on fake news in Phnom Penh alongside the director of the Center for Chinese Studies, Royal Academy of Sciences of Cambodia (first from left), and a Cambodian information official.

Liu’s sentiments were seconded by a top Cambodian information official, who said at the forum that the government would step up its efforts to combat fake news ahead of the July national election, when Hun Sen, the former military commander who since the 1997 coup d’etat has established and steadily consolidated authoritarian rule in the country, will seek yet another five-year term in office.

At the heart of [China’s] agenda is undermining the credibility of Western journalism and by extension its critical, and sometimes even adversarial, relationship with power.

Implicit in these remarks about the need for the media to safeguard “peace and stability” are definitions of both journalistic professionalism and “fake news” that favor authoritarian regimes in China and Cambodia. Journalists act with a “professional attitude” when they praise the achievements of their national leaders, defending them against hypocritical Western media bent on demonization.

Praise is truth; criticism is fakery.

Telling China’s Story in Cambodia

This upended understanding of journalistic truth, so reminiscent of press policy in China, where Xi Jinping has told media that they must “love, protect and serve the Chinese Communist Party,” was enshrined at the Cambodia-China Journalists Association from the time of its formation on May 6, 2019. During a formal ceremony attended by Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith as well as Zuo Wenxing (左文星), the Counsellor for Political Affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, it was made clear that the association would play a diplomatic role and “promote the overall development of Cambodia-China relations.” 

The founding of the association was a big affair for China’s government, widely reported by official Party-state media, including the People’s Daily. According to CCJA Chairman Liu Xiaoguang, negative reporting and commentary about China was the concern that prompted the creation of the association. Repeatedly in 2019, he characterized this as a question of “fake news.” 

In October 2019, as CCJA signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia to jointly “tell the China story,” Liu explained to the Jian Hua Daily (柬华日报) that the primary goal of the CCJA was to “make more local people understand the contribution of Chinese enterprises and Chinese people in Cambodia,” and to “curb the occurrence of fake news and events that defame Chinese people and Chinese enterprises, thereby reducing confrontation between the two countries, so that they can tell the ‘China story’ together.” 

Liu Xiaoguang’s political sympathies were garishly on display on July 1, 2021, as he appeared in a video address to congratulate the Chinese Communist Party for its 100th anniversary on behalf of the CCJA. “Without the correct leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China would not have obtained the major achievements it has,” he said, perfectly mirroring state propaganda. 

Screenshot of a video posted on July 1, 2021, by the Cambodia-China Journalists Association, in which chairman Liu Xiaoguang (刘晓光) praises the Chinese Communist Party to mark its centennial.

At the February forum on “fake news” in Phnom Penh, Liu’s remarks on journalistic professionalism similarly echoed the official narratives of the Chinese government, which in the days prior to the forum had actively sought to frame the Biden administration’s February 4 decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as an overreaction that exposed the US as a nation in decline.

Attacks on the credibility of the American media were a key part of this strategy. If the US media lacked the integrity to report truthfully on major stories like the Ohio train derailment and the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline — if they merely disseminated fake news to cover up the dirty deeds of their own government — how could their reports and criticisms of Chinese surveillance be taken seriously?

The Fake News Pipeline

In recent years, one of China’s most frequent tactics in dealing with international criticism has been to introduce false and misleading memes through the regular press conferences of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Very often sourced from fringe sources on Western social media, or from Russian state media, these are rapidly, even sometimes instantly, picked up and reported by Chinese state media — and are then amplified in the Chinese-language public discourse inside China and beyond. Constructed around base messages about Western hypocrisy, or threats to Chinese national dignity, these memes encourage a reductive and emotional view of international stories as they go viral through mobile platforms.

Attacks on the credibility of the American media were a key part of this strategy. If the US media lacked the integrity to report truthfully on major stories . . . . how could their reports and criticisms of Chinese surveillance be taken seriously?

Before the memes about the suppression of the Ohio and Nord Stream stories surfaced at the Cambodia-China Journalists Association event in Phnom Penh, this is precisely the pattern they followed.

In the case of the Ohio train derailment, one of the earliest references came from Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunyin (华春莹), who posted to Twitter on February 14 to liken the train derailment to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster with the hashtag #OhioChernobyl. This was Hua’s direct appropriation of claims on the internet fringe. As the New York Times has since reported (also in Chinese), the notions of a “Chernobyl 2.0” and a widespread media cover-up were part of the whirlwind of conspiracy theories whipped up, often by right-wing commentators, on platforms like Twitter and Telegram in the wake of the train derailment.

Hua’s rehashed “Chernobyl 2.0” meme was picked up by the Global Times, which reported the day after her tweet that the scale of the disaster in Ohio was being hidden. The story quoted an unidentified internet user as lamenting: “Chernobyl 2.0 has happened in Ohio, but the traditional media are shamefully silent.”

In fact, many days before the Global Times piece ran online, the adequacy and professionalism of media coverage of the Ohio incident was receiving lively and much-deserved discussion in the US — exactly what should happen in a self-critical professional media environment, where there is always room for improvement. Just days after Hua’s tweet and a series of take-down stories in the Chinese state media, the New Republic wrote in an in-depth look at coverage in Ohio: “The truth of the matter is that the story is getting robust coverage, especially where it matters: locally.”

For journalists at the center of the story, the suggestion of a cover-up in Ohio was a source of frustration. Joe Donatelli, the digital director of Cleveland’s News 5, tweeted on February 15, the same day as the Global Times report. “To say it’s not being covered at all is wrong if you know how to Google.”

But conspiracy theories were taken up eagerly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media in China — where the Google search engine is of course not readily accessible — because they suited the broader narrative of US hypocrisy and incompetence, offering convenient material to undermine the credibility of the West and its values, particularly after the sting of the surveillance balloon fiasco.

The Global Times story was widely shared by Chinese-language outlets, from Hong Kong’s CCP-linked Wen Wei Po to, a site operated by the Chinese Communist Youth League. A viral video from the Global Times video service Global Video (环视频), which has more than 4.3 million fans on Weibo alone, emphasized that “mainstream media in the US have played down [the incident].” 

Inflated Accusations

It was again China’s foreign ministry that pushed the narrative during the first half of February that a report by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had been actively suppressed by mainstream media in the US, hiding from the public allegations that the US government was behind the September bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline.

At a press conference on February 10, MOFA spokesperson Mao Ning cited the Hersh investigation as she called on the US to “give a responsible explanation to the world” about its possible involvement in the sabotage of the pipeline, and she advanced accusations about a media cover-up. “It proves that some US media outlets do not care what the truth is,” she said. “They are deaf to the truth that really matters, and what is loudly hyped by them is often not the truth, but a false narrative.”

Contrary to the allegation that it had been downplayed in the Western media, Hersh’s story was feverishly consumed and furiously debated through a variety of channels, both mainstream and non-mainstream, in and outside the United States. 

Reuters reported the story, along with a lengthy review of Hersh’s starred career as an investigative journalist, and duly noted (as it should) the controversies that have harried his journalism in recent years. Similarly, Business Insider looked at Hersh’s self-published article with critical eyes, noting that his work in recent decades had been “poorly-sourced, conspiratorial, and over-reliant on anonymous sources.” Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, a well-regarded investigative journalism and fact-checking group based in the Netherlands, called Hersh’s story “thinly sourced garbage.”

But the story, which was based on a single anonymous source, received attention nevertheless, shared, though often critically, by The Times, Politico, and other outlets — while many others chose, understandably given real questions about sourcing, to hold back on the allegations given the further reporting they would certainly have demanded. 

Hersh, meanwhile, appeared on multiple outlets to discuss his Substack post. He spoke about the story in great depth with Amy Goodman, the host of the independent Democracy Now! program, which is broadcast daily across the US, including on PBS and through local radio stations. 

Contrary to the allegation that it had been downplayed in the Western media, Hersh’s story was feverishly consumed and furiously debated through a variety of channels. 

The Chinese government and state media maintained nonetheless that the Hersh story had been silenced, and that this exposed the falsehood of the American mainstream media. China’s clear attempt to sow confusion on the matter prompted a Bloomberg reporter to ask Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) during a press conference on February 15 how he responded to the fact that “Chinese diplomats, state media outlets and social media influencers appear to be making efforts to exaggerate and misrepresent a chemical leak in the US and a report that the US military blew up the Nord Stream pipeline.”

Impervious, Wang responded by doubling down on the suggestion that Hersh’s story, though relying on a single anonymous source, should receive special treatment, and that the failure to simply accept its conclusions was evidence of endemic and longstanding media bias:

Immediately after the explosions of the Nord Stream pipelines, we saw extensive coverage in Western media with one-sided speculations on who was ‘responsible’ for the sabotage. What we see now, however, is that these media, hailed as free, professional and impartial, have fallen silent over Seymour Hersh’s investigative report. Doesn’t this call for concern and reflection?

The foreign ministry statements continued to spawn coverage from state media outlets. “People are fully aware who is trying to deflect public attention: Chinese FM,” read the headline of one story from the official China News Service, quoting Wang. Essentially the same story from the Global Times was headlined: “Why Western media is deaf over [the] Nord Stream incident, Ohio train derailment: Chinese FM.” 

Laundering Lies

The forum on “fake news” hosted in February by the Cambodia-China Journalists Association in Phnom Penh reveals another crucial link in the chain of Chinese government disinformation on international affairs that often begins with the foreign ministry. The circumstances of the association’s founding suggest it was conceived in 2019 not as a true professional organization, but rather as an extension of China’s official diplomatic efforts in Cambodia — as a means of exerting influence among local journalists and media.

Meeting with members of the CCJA in January 2020, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian (王文天), expressed his gratitude to the organization “for their support and cooperation with the embassy’s work.” Referring to the strategic partnership agreement signed between China and Cambodia in 2010, Wang said: “As the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Cambodia has been elevated to a new stage, I hope the [journalists] association will promote the dissemination of more good stories of friendly exchanges, and continue to make its contribution to the development of China-Cambodia relations.”

For his part, the association’s chairman, Liu Xiaoguang, offered reassurance that the CCJA was ready to fulfill its mission. He informed the ambassador of the association’s plans for the coming year, and said it would “continue to fulfill the media’s social responsibility, promoting friendship between Cambodia and China, and transmitting even more positive energy.”

The idea of “transmitting positive energy,” or zhengnengliang (正能量), has been an important phrase in the Xi Jinping era to refer to information controls and official messaging, both domestically and internationally. And the forum on “fake news” in Phnom Penh, with its agenda premised on a foundation of disinformation directly from China’s foreign ministry, underscores just how crucial strategic negativity about the United States and the West has become within this strategy of “transmitting positive energy.”

That strategic negativity can be powerful enough when amplified through Chinese state media and across the internet and social media platforms. But such lies can be even more powerful when they are laundered through ostensible professional organizations that can reach media professionals at a personal level across Southeast Asia and around the world.

A Model Opera at Lujiang Middle School

A firestorm of controversy broke out online in China late last month after a short video clip went viral along with allegations that Chen Hongyou (陈宏友), an associate professor from Hefei Normal University, had made offensive off-the-cuff remarks ahead of a lecture at Lujiang Middle School (庐江中学) in Anhui province.

“The goal of academic study is to make money,” Professor Chen reportedly said. “Don’t talk about ideals and ambitions; money is power, money is everything.” He apparently added injury to insult by suggesting that academic performance brought opportunities for “gene optimization” (基因优化), meaning broader horizons in finding a mate. Chen’s own son had studied in the United States and found a foreign girlfriend there — so Chen’s future grandchildren would have better genes.

Chen’s crass remarks so infuriated one student that he leaped onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from the professor, shouting him down with Chinese Communist Party slogans. “There is only money in his eyes,” the student, Jiang Zhenfei (蒋振飞), shouted, “and so he says we study only to get rich! He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!” (崇洋媚外). The student’s coup de grace was a bullet of Xi Jinping jargon fired point-blank at Professor Chen: “The goal of our study,” Jiang shouted after a smattering of applause, “is for the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!” 

It was a call for China to stand up confidently and reclaim its strong voice and standing in the world. But the words themselves illustrate how individuals’ voices are erased and replaced with the voice of the Party, and how the collective voice of a billion people can still sound so feeble on the global stage.

So far, beyond the proliferation of the short viral video of Jiang Zhenfei’s tirade and related comments, nothing is known about the real context. The few media outlets in China that have attempted to report on the case with more nuance have been harshly criticized by netizens for not simply siding with the students. The whole affair has been steeped in a sense of intergenerational conflict — as if this was a simple moral tale about retrogressive middle age versus idealistic youth. On top of it all, the CCP’s censorship engine kicked in quickly, preventing substantive discussion and fact-sharing. 

“He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!”

High school student Jiang Zhenfei on associate professor Chen Hongyou

But two fundamental and related issues are rather salient in the Chen Hongyou affair. First and foremost, we can witness the complete hollowing out of public discourse in China, which has systematically robbed the Chinese people of their voices, substituting the heckling voice of Party propaganda. Second, we can see how this act of voice theft is reflexively pinned on foreign powers and foreignness, disguising the real crime. The ultimate outcome is that voicelessness and powerlessness are recast as the assertion of national power and greatness — an affirmation of “China’s voice.” 

For many netizens, Jiang’s march onto the stage was an act of self-assurance, and he was quickly praised as a “role model.” Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, took to Weibo to call the student‘s actions a “show of courage.” But as Jiang makes his theatrical show of strength in the video, the only words he has to rise to the moment are pre-packaged slogans, spiritless for all of the teen’s spiritedness. He spits them out reflexively, and his classmates in the audience echo with ritual hurrahs. Who do these words actually belong to? 

Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin writes on Weibo on February 21 that student Jiang Zhenfei’s response to Chen Hongyou was “a show of courage” and should be praised. 

Unscripted though it might have been, the scene reminded me of the revolutionary operas popularized across China during the Cultural Revolution, with their moral depictions of heroes and villains, always absent all shades of nuance. In these operas, peerless proletarian characters, cleansed of all bourgeois contagion, are pitted against cruel and oppressive class enemies whose motives have been utterly corrupted. Away in the shadows are the real enemies feeding domestic depravity — the foreign imperialists and their bourgeois values. 

This model opera in Anhui apparently worked its magic upon millions responding online, a sign of how effectively the Party has managed to dominate public discourse, conditioning the responses Chinese are meant to have to substantive issues. Surely, plenty of Chinese must see through the phoniness of this model opera. Many likely recognize that the protagonist, Jiang Zhenfei, is merely correcting Professor Chen’s vulgar individual view of education in favor of the elevated vulgarity of Party supremacy — how in both cases, the critical process of learning is defined only as a means to power. But while a handful of such observations may circulate inside China, discussed quietly in private groups, the pervasiveness of political controls on the media, the internet, education, and society have virtually eliminated the precious space that might have existed in years past between Chen Hongyou’s crudely self-interested view of study and the CCP’s moral of self-sacrifice to the state as the highest form of personal conviction.

Jiang Zhenfei’s grabbing of the microphone may be seen by many Chinese as a triumph of the voice. But the cruel truth is that the teen’s voice has been stolen by the Party-state. He speaks the Party’s convictions in the Party’s voice. Beyond this, he has nothing to say that is not captive to the Party’s political will, scripted into a narrative of national greatness. The Party defines the objectives of idealism, and it demarcates the language of idealism. All efforts, in school and in industry, must serve the “Great Rejuvenation,” the heart of which is CCP rule and the “core” power of General Secretary Xi. 

This act of thievery is disguised at the same time by an ingenious act of shifting the blame. Why is Jiang’s tirade so inspiring to others? Because he has dared to stand up for China against the real villains in the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School, the ones standing in the shadows behind the scurrilous professor — the foreign powers who have robbed the nation of its voice. 

Chen’s real crime is to “revere the foreign and pander to foreign powers,” a phrase that was common during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s and 70s, the People’s Daily and other publications regularly carried reports about how Mao’s political enemies, including “Liu Shaoqi and his associates,” “revered the foreign and pandered to foreign powers.” Chinese were urged to “break through the slavishness of reverence for the foreign.” In July 1976, two months before the death of Mao, the purged Deng Xiaoping and his oddball economic ideas remained a symbol of this slavish mentality, even though within a few short years they would lead to a dramatic turnaround in the country’s fortunes. The People’s Daily mocked Deng’s Four Modernizations and the idea of introducing new foreign technologies to China. “This is classic reverence for the foreign and pandering to foreign powers, a big policy of surrendering and betraying the country.”

A scene from the revolutionary opera “Red Detachment of Women,” one of eight classic operas (八个样板戏) performed widely in China during the Cultural Revolution. Image by Byron Schumaker, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license. 

Just as in the 1960s and 70s, the moral of the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School is that all must rise to the prevailing political program, sacrificing their own voice for the voice of Party power, which promises to lead them to strength and self-sufficiency in a world where the foreigners are bent on infiltration and corruption. The alternative is surrender and betrayal. 

But the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School also holds the real secret of the chronic weakness of China’s collective voice in global public opinion, despite nearly constant sloganeering by the CCP about the need to confidently develop “discourse power” and “tell China’s story well,” and despite the investment by the Party of billions upon billions of dollars for external communication. 

Xi Jinping has spoken insistently about “cultural confidence” and the need to make China’s voice better heard and better understood. China needs a voice, says Xi, that matches its national strength and international status in a world — so goes the official narrative — of “Western-dominated global public opinion.” But when a billion voices are effectively replaced, and erased, by a system of discourse that serves the narrow values of a single ruling party, embodied in a single charismatic leader, public discourse is not enriched or strengthened. It becomes instead a public monologue, shouted in wooden and spiritless language through a microphone that has been snatched away.