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).

Profound Transformations

It is likely that for months if not years to come, observers of Chinese history and current affairs will weigh the significance of an article making the rounds on China’s internet this past Sunday. Appearing on scores of official Party-state media websites and commercial internet portals, the article is penned by a virtually unknown blogger named Li Guangman (李光满), who claims that revolution is in the air in China, with profound transformations to be felt by all.

“This change will wash away all the dust, and the capital market will no longer be a paradise for capitalists to grow rich overnight,” he writes. “The cultural market will no longer be a paradise for effeminate stars, and the press will no longer be a place for the worship of Western culture.” The author’s next line reeks of Maoist nostalgia: “The red has returned, the heroes have returned, and the grit and valor have returned.”

The article opens with a summary of recent moves by the Chinese authorities to bring the entertainment industry in check and curb the influence of celebrities, coming on top of the suspension last year of the blockbuster IPO of China’s Ant Group, the fining of Alibaba, and the crackdown on “fandom culture” (饭圈文化). All of these moves have come amid intensified calls by Xi Jinping, and in the state media, for the country to pursue a renewed form of “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕).

Li also mentions recent actions taken directly against music composer Gao Xiaosong (高晓松) and the actress Zhao Wei (赵薇), noting with seeming glee that both have been yanked from major internet portal sites, and that “Zhao Wei’s name has been expunged from the [online video platform] iQiyi.”

The red has returned, the heroes have returned, and the grit and valor has returned.

Li Guangman

Such punitive actions, which have now set the internet and entertainment industries trembling, are apparently what Li means by “grit and valor,” or xuexing (血性), a term that references an attitude of toughness and combativeness that has been actively encouraged within the People’s Liberation Army since 2013. “[All] of this tells us,” Li says, summing up the zeitgeist, “that China is undergoing a major change. From the economic sphere to the financial sphere, from the cultural sphere to the political sphere, a profound transformation is underway – or, one might say, a profound revolution.”

The article from Li Guangman appears on the website of the official Xinhua News Agency on August 29.

This talk of “revolution” quickly dominated discussion on many chatrooms and social media threads through Monday. Such language, appearing on the odd social media account, might ordinarily be dismissed as the ravings of a Maoist outlier. But this post, though attributed to Li’s own public account, “Li Guangman Freezing Point Commentary” (李光满冰点时评), was shared on the websites of eight major Party-state media on August 29, and on scores of commercial sites, all with the same headline: “Everyone Can Sense That a Profound Change is Underway!” (每个人都能感受到, 一场深刻的变革正在进行!)

The re-publishing by Party-state media of an article from so-called “self-media” or “We media” (自媒体), a term referring to digital social media platforms such as WeChat that integrate self-publishing with chat and other services, is a very rare occurrence. The assumption many observers have naturally made, therefore, is that the joint posting of this WeChat article across Party-state media websites must have been coordinated by the Central Propaganda Department and other relevant offices.

In the social media comment sections this week, the concern has been palpable. “A movement has begun,” one user commented underneath a Weibo post on the Li Guangman article. “They’re blowing a wind to see what fish they can stir up,” said another. A third comment was more portentous: “History is being repeated,” it said.  

A Weibo post about Li Guangman’s “revolution” article draws concerned comments about political movements and the repeating of history.

No one need ask what history we are talking about here. The fear is that the central leadership has effectively green-lit a “Cultural Revolution-style” article, as one user on the Zhihu question-and-answer platform wrote, and that China might be sliding inexorably toward another political movement that would be destructive to the relative openness of the past four decades. Another user on Zhihu wrote of Li Guangman: “This is extreme rhetoric, murderous in tone. To hear him is to return again to that catastrophe of 50 years ago. Any country that wants long-term peace and stability must be moderate internally. And moderation does not mean permissiveness, but rather the resolution of problems in a reasonable and practical manner.”

A New Resolution on History?

In fact, the exact nature of this apparent joint release of the Li Guangman commentary remains a matter of speculation – even for the author himself. On Monday, in the wake of the widespread posting of his article, Li commented on the phenomenon, giving his post the giddy headline: “People’s Daily Online, Xinhua Online, CCTV.com, China Military Online, Guangming Online and Other Central Media As Well as Scores of Provincial, Regional and Municipal Media All Place A ‘Li Guangman Freezing Point Commentary’ Article in a Prominent Position!” (人民网, 新华网, 央视网, 中国军网, 光明网等央媒及数十家省区市媒体集中在重要位置转发”李光满冰点时评”文章!). Li’s apparent surprise and speculation about the attention given to his article suggests he was unaware of any broader propaganda strategy around the piece. “Obviously, this was a unified arrangement by the news and propaganda departments and the Cyberspace Administration of China, generating an extremely strong propaganda outcome,” he wrote.

But is it really so obvious? “It’s hard to imagine,” one media analyst in Beijing said in an exchange over e-mail, “that propaganda departments and the CAC would demand that websites run this piece.”

The fact remains, however, that the Li Guangman article has been widely promoted. There can be little doubt of the article’s importance as a harbinger of something. But of what, exactly? Why would such an article be encouraged and supported at this time?

One possible explanation concerns the possibility that we are about to witness the release of a new “resolution,” or jueyi (决议), on the history of the CCP. Given practices within the Party in the past, such a step would seem necessary if Xi Jinping is serious about defining the current period as a “new era” (新时代), which would go further in making the case for his leadership beyond the 20th National Congress of the CCP in 2022.

A Xi Jinping resolution on history would be the third in a century for the CCP. In 1945, at the 6th Plenary Session of the 7th CCP Central Committee, Mao Zedong issued the “Resolution on Certain Historical Issues of the CCP” (关于党的若干历史问题的决议), the CCP’s first historical resolution, which established and consolidated Mao’s ideology and position. Nearly four decades later, in June 1981, Deng Xiaoping led the passage at the 6th Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee of the “Resolution on Certain Historical Questions Since the Founding of the Nation” (关于建国以来党的若干历史问题的决议), which established Deng Xiaoping as the “core” of the second leadership generation and defined his opening and reform policies as the direction of the era.

A number of scholars and observers in recent years have predicted the release of just such a resolution. Analyst Gao Xin (高新) wrote in 2018 that Xi Jinping’s release of a third resolution on history was “simply a question of time.” The same year, Deng Yuwen (邓聿文), the Chinese journalist and former Study Times editor, wrote in the New York Times that if Xi wished to “truly open a ‘new era’ belonging to himself,” then “he must carry out a ‘correct’ summarization of the historical experiences of the past 40 years of reform and opening.”

“The current state of affairs is again a delicate one,” Deng wrote at the time, amidst the elevation of Xi Jinping’s banner term. “While the 19th National Congress of the CCP proclaimed a new era, it is not altogether clear what the essential characteristics of this new era are.”

This week, in light of the Li Guangman article, Deng has again suggested that a new resolution from the Party on its history is imminent, and could be unveiled at the 6th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in November this year. In fact, there may be some clues in the language emerging from yesterday’s Politburo session.

It was pointed out at the meeting that, by learning from history, we can understand [the laws] of rise and decline. Summarizing the major achievements and historical experiences of the Party in its century-long struggle to build a modern socialist nation century of struggle is necessary to persist in the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, is necessary to enhancing a political mindset, a macro-mindset, a ‘core’ mindset, and a mindset of compliance, to maintaining confidence in the path, confidence in [the Party’s] theories, confidence in the system, confidence in our culture, and to firmly maintaining General Secretary Xi Jinping’s status as the core of the party center and the entire party . . . .

In this passage we can clearly see, despite the thickness of the rhetoric, the link between the protection of Xi Jinping’s “core” status and the reading and summarizing of the Party’s “century-long struggle.” It may be difficult to see what social and political changes lie ahead for China. But a new resolution re-framing the Party’s history is not difficult to foresee – and history has certainly shown that such political acts can have profound implications.

__________

Who is Li Guangman?

Li Guangman has described himself as a columnist for CWZG.cn (察网) – which describes itself on its  Weibo account as“the most influential patriotic portal in the country,” despite the fact that its URL seems inactive – and as an editor and freelance journalist. He also claims to be involved with the Kunlunce Research Center (昆仑策研究院), an online platform that claims association with the likes of political scientist Zhang Weiwei (张为为), who led the June collective study session of China’s Politburo, and Guo Songmin (郭松民), a leftist commentator and former air force pilot who has repeatedly raged against “historical nihilists.”

A History of Common Prosperity

Talk of wealth redistribution is in the air in China. And two words, “common prosperity,” uttered by Xi Jinping earlier this month at a meeting of the senior commission responsible for economic coordination, have condensed hopes and fears over the changes to come.

The phrase “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕), was given prominence in the media coverage that attended the August 17 meeting of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs ( 中央财经委员会). Both the headline of the official Xinhua release coming out of the meeting and the lower-third text during the evening broadcast of CCTV’s Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) included the newly significant words, imbedded in the longer phrase “promoting common prosperity in high-level development” (在高质量发展中促进共同富裕).

As Bloomberg noted in a recent report on “common prosperity,” however, Xi Jinping’s use of the phrase has soared this year, well before the August meeting, reflecting his stated commitment to addressing income disparity in China, which has come with efforts to restrain “unreasonable income” and to encourage the super-rich to give back to society.

Bloomberg’s conclusions on the basis of Xi’s speeches are borne out again when we look at use of “common prosperity” in the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper. The graph below shows the number of articles in the newspaper since January 2020 that use the term “common prosperity” in the headline.

SOURCE: People’s Daily Database.

But the phrase “common prosperity” is much older than the recent wave of attention might seem to indicate. So where does the phrase “common prosperity” originate within the history of CCP discourse, and what can this history tell us about the present struggle to define the direction of China’s development?

Collective Resources for Common Prosperity

The phrase “common prosperity” first appeared in the People’s Daily on September 25, 1953, as the paper published a list of 65 approved slogans for the commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Slogan number 38 was less a slogan, in fact, than a lengthy spill of exclamations:

Male and female peasants! [We must] work to increase production and save! [We must] work for the fall harvest, reducing losses and doing everything possible to enlarge the harvest!  [We must] work at autumn planting, preparing for winter-time production, striving for a rich harvest next year! [We must] work on water conservation, on plowing and sowing deeply, on improving seeds, increasing fertilizer accumulation, and reasonable fertilizer application to increase yield per unit area! . . . . Men and women of the agricultural production mutual support teams! Men and women of the agricultural production cooperatives!

United together, [we must] bring into play the spirit of collectivism, improving productivity, increasing production of grain and other crops, increasing income, striving for lives of common prosperity, according to the principles of willingness and mutual benefit . . . .

The first use of “common prosperity” in the People’s Daily appears in September 1953 in a list of slogans for the PRC’s fourth anniversary.

The first article using “common prosperity” in a headline in the People’s Daily was published on December 12, 1953, part of a series in the paper called “Promoting the General Line to the Peasants” (向农民宣传总路线). The choice before the people was simple, it argued. There were just two possible paths forward. One was capitalism, described as “a road of a few getting rich, while the vast majority are poor and destitute” (资本主义的路是少数人发财、绝大多数贫穷破产的路). The other was of course socialism.

The article, “The Path of Socialism is the Path to Common Prosperity” (社会主义的路是农民共同富裕的路), made clear that “common prosperity” could only happen through collective ownership, meaning that the resources of production – including land, large farm equipment, major livestock and so on – were held in common. By the end of 1952, land reforms in the young People’s Republic of China had nearly been completed, and preparations were being made in the leadership for the nation’s first Five-Year Plan, modeled on the planned economy of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

While the main focus on the First Five-Year Plan was to be on industrialization, the CCP also sought to transform the agricultural sector. Collectivization was the order of the future, beginning with the reorganizing of Chinese society into mutual help teams. “When the means of production are publicly owned, there will be no more exploitation of people by people,” said the People’s Daily article. Common prosperity, therefore, meant that resources were held in common.  

Therefore, the development of mutual aid teams and cooperatives can not only avoid division among the peasants and avoid the path of capitalism, but can also enable peasants to achieve common prosperity step by step and finally reach a socialist society.

A poster from 1954 reads: “Joining the Mutual Aid Team Means Walking the Road to Common Prosperity.” Image from Chineseposters.net.

On December 16, 1953, four days after the above-mentioned article, the CCP released its “Resolution on the Development of Agricultural Production Cooperatives” (关于发展农业生产合作社的决议), which is often cited as the origin of the term “common prosperity” in its earliest, Maoist, understanding.

Overcoming Egalitarianism

The 1950s dismissal of capitalism as “a road of a few getting rich” when it came to the question of “common prosperity” was turned on its head in the late 1970s, as Deng Xiaoping came to power and pursued a new economic development strategy, “reform and opening,” or gaige kaifang (改革开放). The changes that came in the wake of the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee in December 1978 brought about a radical rethinking of the notion of “common prosperity” that in fact encouraged “a road of a few getting rich” as a means of enriching all.

The theoretical basis of Deng Xiaoping’s approach to regional economic development was that “common prosperity” could be reached by allowing certain regions and groups of people to get rich first. This idea was summed up best in the phrase “permitting a few peasants to get rich first” (允许一部分农民先富起来), which allowed more industrious and better-connected households to accrue wealth rapidly. Various permutations of this phrase can be found in the official press from around 1979, referring first to “peasants” (农民) and to “commune members” (社员).  The phrase became popularized internationally in reference to “people” only after Deng told visiting New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange in March 1986: “Our policy is to let some people and some regions get rich first, in order to drive and help the backward regions, and it is an obligation for the advanced regions to help the backward regions.”

The link between “get rich first” and “common prosperity” was there from the very beginning of the debate over the substance of reform and opening in the late 1970s.

The first mention of the “get rich first” concept in the People’s Daily came on February 19, 1979, in an article to the right of the masthead that reported the remarks of the top leader in Gansu province, following the “good policies” of the central leadership. The leader was reported as having told a group of commune members shortly after the Spring Festival that certain highly productive members  “can get rich first, taking first steps forward in agricultural modernization” (可以先富起来,在农业现代化上先走一步).

An article on page one of the People’s Daily on February 19, 1979, right of the masthead, discusses the policy of letting some peasants “get rich first.”

The change in policy was reportedly welcomed by some. “This idea was accepted by more and more teams and became the guiding idea for some team cadres and masses as they made plans and introduced measures to increase productivity in the spring production,” the article said.

But the more controversial aspects were plainly visible in a second article appearing on page two of the same edition of the paper. The article, bearing the headline, “A Portion of Peasants Getting Rich First Should Be Encouraged” (一部分农民先富起来应受到鼓励), sought to argue through the restrictions that had been placed on production in the name of socialism, and to dispel fears that changes in the system of wealth distribution meant a return to capitalism.

After a political potshot against Lin Biao (林彪) and the then much-derided “Gang of Four” (四人帮), the article rejected outright the previous notion of “common prosperity” as spelled out and practiced in the Mao era. “What was originally intended to guide commune members down a road to ‘common prosperity,’ in the end made a rich team poor, and then poorer and poorer,” it said.

An article on page two of the People’s Daily on February 19, 1979, at far left, says some peasants should be encouraged to “get rich first,” and rejects the previously defined path to “common prosperity.”  

Far from marking a return to capitalism, empowering the individual forces of production could lead, the article said, to greater wealth for all. The alternative was an empty political devotion to principles of collectivism that dragged everyone down (to paraphrase).

We engage in socialism, not to limit or refuse to meet the needs of individuals, but to constantly improve and enhance the needs of the material and cultural life of the working people. That practice of talking only emptily about politics and shutting up about the material interests of the people is in no way a principle of socialism.

The article suggested that one of the chief problems limiting progress toward prosperity was the failure to recognize that there were in fact gaps in income distribution among peasants in the socialist era. The “Gang of Four” had “used restrictions to keep rich teams down, so that they could not step forward,” thereby depriving socialism of its vitality. Restrictions had been carried out in the name of egalitarianism (平均主义), which was now, clearly, to be a dirty word:

First of all, [we must] acknowledge [income] gaps, oppose egalitarianism, and allow and encourage the allocation of more to members of advanced teams with higher collective income, allowing them to live better, and to take the lead for poorer teams, serving as models and allowing poorer teams to be encouraged and see hope.

Once the “Gang of Four” had been smashed, said the article, communes had begun to “correct the egalitarianism of equality between those who work more and those who work less” (纠正干多干少一个样的平均主义).

Such opposition to egalitarianism, while upholding the wealth-generating vitality of the individual, was part and parcel of the effort in the early reform period to reframe Chinese socialism and set the country on a new path of development that could lead to a “common prosperity” re-defined. All of these concepts could be seen readily in an article appearing on April 15, 1979, in the People’s Daily, bearing the headline: “A Few Getting Rich First and Common Prosperity” (一部分先富裕和共同富裕). The article laid out the CCP’s new approach to “common prosperity” in clear terms:

Our Party’s leading of the peasants along the path of socialism is about ‘making all rural people achieve common prosperity.’ Allowing some peasants to get rich first is a practical policy to achieve common prosperity.

我们党领导农民走社会主义道路,就是‘要使全体农村人民共同富裕起来’。允许一部分农民先富起来,正是为了达到共同富裕的一项切合实际的政策。

The previous notion of “common prosperity,” panned as a legacy of the period when “Lin Biao and the ‘Gang of Four’ ran amok,” was a stultifying egalitarianism. “[If] we practice egalitarianism, artificially limiting wealth in order to safeguard the poor, taking from the wealthy to make amends for the poor, ‘eating from a big pot of rice,’” the article said, “then the hope of reaching common prosperity under socialism can only be a flower in the mirror, or a pie in a picture.”

A People’s Daily article in December 1979 (共同富裕不是平均富裕) was even more explicit in its drawing of lines: “Socialism is not egalitarianism, and common prosperity does not mean equal wealth,” it said.

Re-redefining “Common Prosperity”

Understand the above history, and Deng-era criticisms of “pie in a picture” notions of egalitarianism, and you can begin to understand the anxieties arising in China today around the re-surfacing of the notion of “common prosperity” over the past year. Deng Xiaoping enabled and empowered new forces of practicality and productivity that led China into an era of unprecedented growth, creating substantial wealth through much of Chinese society.

So Xi’s recent emphasis on wealth redistribution, and his re-opening of the question – visible throughout the Party-state media – of how to promote “common prosperity,” naturally begs the question of whether, and to what extent, he plans to unravel the support for private enterprise that has marked the reform era.  Is he a “pie in a picture” idealist, determined, as some investors fear, to drag a vibrant private sector into an ideological campaign for social values over commercial ones? Is he promoting a new egalitarianism?  

A Xinhua News Agency special on August 21 bears the headline: “How to Promote Common Prosperity? Here Are the Deployments the General Secretary is Making.”  

“Chinese experts have increasingly expounded upon the idea of common prosperity in the media, while Chinese firms scramble to join in the ideological edification,” analyst Sara Hsu wrote recently in The Diplomat. “Whether China’s flourishing private sector can continue to grow under such a heavy hand has yet to be seen.”

Nikkei Asia wrote on August 18, in an article headlined, “Xi Moving Away From ‘Get Rich First,’” that “President Xi Jinping has called for stronger ‘regulation of high incomes’ in the latest sign that a 10-month campaign targeting China’s largest technology companies is rapidly expanding to encompass broader social goals.”

It was concerns like the above, responding to the historical baggage of “common prosperity,” that prompted Han Wenxiu (韩文秀), executive deputy director of the General Office of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission, to speak to the issue at a briefing in Beijing earlier this week held by the Central Propaganda Department to promote a published volume called The Historical Mission, Action and Values of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党的历史使命与行动价值). At the briefing, Han sought to allay fears that efforts to tackle inequality might stifle the economy and discourage entrepreneurialism and investment.

Common prosperity means doing a proper job both of expanding the pie and dividing the pie, on the foundation of the comprehensive building of a moderately prosperous society, energetically promoting high-quality development,” Han said. Invoking Deng’s language about letting a few “get rich first,” he emphasized:  

[We] must encourage hard work to get rich, entrepreneurship and innovation to get rich, and permit some people to get rich first, and after getting rich helping others to grow richer. [We] will not ‘kill the rich to help the poor.’

要鼓励勤劳致富、创业创新致富,允许一部分人先富起来,先富带后富、帮后富,不搞 ‘杀富济贫.’

Echoing the language from the late 1970s that rejected egalitarianism as a value inhibiting development, Han described Xi’s concept of “common prosperity” as “not a pure and simple egalitarianism, but a common prosperity in which there is still some disparity.” This in turn was echoed by Xinhua News Agency in an English-language release yesterday in which it stressed that “common prosperity is not egalitarianism.”

Casting about for a scapegoat for what was clearly also a serious internal messaging problem, coming in conjunction with its recent string of sweeping purges of large private enterprises in China, the Xinhua release pointed a finger at reports outside of China, stressing that common prosperity was “by no means robbing the rich to help the poor as misinterpreted by some Western media.”

But what “common prosperity” really means for Xi Jinping and the current leadership of the CCP is a question that will have to remain open for now. There can be little doubt that the changes suggested by the leadership would require, at the very least, as Professor Pan Helin (盘和林), argues in today’s China Youth Daily, require “a change in people’s ideas of self-interest.” And in the absence of a vibrant civic space, such changes to the ideas that underpin society are a difficult, and potentially intrusive, proposition. As with the development of this phrase in the past, the meaning of “common prosperity” will become clearer in future rhetoric as well as in future practice.

State Media Post on Taliban Prompts Backlash

In recent days, the Taliban’s seizure of control in Afghanistan and its capital, Kabul, amid the rapid withdrawal of US military forces has topped the international news headlines, prompting concerns about possible reprisals on the local population from the Islamic militant group. In remarks yesterday, UN Secretary General António Guterres said he had received “chilling reports of severe restrictions on human rights” across the country.

For its part, China, which in recent weeks has closely engaged with the Taliban, even hosting a delegation in the city of Tianjin in late July, seemed to embrace developments in Afghanistan. Asked at a press conference yesterday how China viewed events in the country, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying (华春莹) responded by saying, as though change had not been brought about by armed Taliban fighters: “We respect the will and choice of the Afghan people.”

But one of the oddest responses came yesterday in a post by the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party to its official Weibo account. At 3PM Beijing time, the People’s Daily issued a post titled, “What Kind of Organization is the Taliban” (塔利班是什么组织) in which it briefly described the origins and development of the organization. The post suggested the Taliban had arisen as a group comprising “students in refugee camps” (难民营的学生). The Taliban had begun, it said, as a group of around 800 people, but then had grown owing to popular support. “Because it received the support of the poor,” the People’s Daily Weibo post said, “the strength of the Taliban grew dramatically.”

The post quickly rose to the top of the trending posts roster, becoming the fifth-ranked post on Weibo by late afternoon yesterday. It also quickly drew the ire of many internet users in China, who viewed it as a whitewash of an organization with a violent past.

“Why no mention of terrorism?” one user asked in a Weibo comment on the post. “So it’s a good thing to behead people?” Another asked, referring to frequent reports of such conduct from the group in the past. A third user wrote: “You endorse such an anti-human regime. How true to form!”

Referring to the destruction by the Taliban in 2001 of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas, dating back to the 6th and 7th centuries AD, and to the group’s treatment of women, one user raged: “I really don’t understand this. Who deprives women of their legitimate rights as human beings? Who arrests people and beheads them in the streets? Who is the most recognized terrorist organization in the world? Who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas?”

The outpouring of critical comments on the post prompted the People’s Daily to delete the post about four hours after it appeared.

The online controversy was summarized in a WeChat article today called “People’s Daily Post on Taliban Flops in Face of User Comments” (人民日报发博塔利班 网民评论大翻车). The post, however, was deleted with 5-6 hours, leaving only the following warning:

As Disaster Strikes, Xi Takes the Headlines

One story has dominated the hearts and minds of people across China today, as harrowing scenes of record flooding in the city of Zhengzhou have proliferated on social media. The scenes shared on WeChat and Weibo in the past 24 hours have been heart-wrenchingly human – passengers trapped in subway cars as the underground floodwaters swell up to their chests, and lifeless bodies lying out on the Shakou Road subway platform.

In rather stark contrast, the story in the Party-state media has been far more subdued, and in some cases backgrounded entirely, as the authorities have sought to ­­­­downplay the images of chaos.

On the front page of the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper today scenes of flooding were not to be seen at all. Instead, coverage to the right of the masthead focused on the translation into “many languages” of Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Below the masthead, the focus was on revisions to family planning law to legitimize the three-child policy.

The front page of the July 21, 2021, edition of the People’s Daily. Floods? What floods?

Only on page seven did the CCP’s flagship newspaper finally offer coverage of flooding in Henan, focusing on the all-out effort, the images depicting resolute action. The headline gave nothing away: “Henan Suffers Heavy Precipitation, Departments in Many Areas Take Countermeasures: In Rescue Efforts, All Parties Going All Out”  (河南遭遇强降水,多地多部门采取应对措施 抢险救援 各方全力以赴).

Page 7 of the July 21, 2021, edition of the People’s Daily. Finally, floods get mention.

At People’s Daily Online the focus today, in the large headline across the top of the photo slideshow, was on Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” concerning rescue efforts in Henan (more on that below). The images were again of rescue teams making preparations. The news stories to the right, however, all dealt with other matters, including the publication of Xi’s CCP centennial speech in foreign language editions, and the third article in a special series on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

On the website of the official Xinhua News Agency, this pattern of coverage was repeated. The top headline dealt with Xi’s “important instructions,” coming over the top of a tame image of passengers waiting outside Zhengzhou East Station.

Coverage to the right again dealt with Xi Jinping’s July 1 speech, and with other official matters, such as new regulations from the Cyberspace Administration of China on child internet celebrities (网红儿童) and changes to family planning policy.

Xinhua News Agency headlines Xi’s “important instructions” in the flooding in Henan, but the stories below Xi’s image at right deal with other government matters.

At regional Party papers, coverage of the flood was either downplayed (usually, news of Xi’s “important instructions” only) or not visible at all. One might think that the Henan Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in the province most seriously impacted by the flooding, would be right on top of the story. On the paper’s website, however, the top story today was a propaganda piece for the CCP’s centennial called “A Century of Struggle, Setting Sail on a New Journey (奋斗百年路 启航新征程). This was followed by a special on Xi Jinping called “Keeping the Mandate in Mind, Advancing as Guided by the General Secretary” (牢记嘱托 沿着总书记指引的方向前进).

Did coverage of the flooding follow behind these these propaganda set pieces? No, it did not. The story that followed was about China’s first hybrid motorcycle rolling off the line in Luoyang. Next came a story about a ceremony held for the province’s first styrene project.

The website of Henan Daily, the official CCP mouthpiece in Henan province, covers much else before dealing at all with the disaster immediately at hand.

At Nanfang Daily, the CCP paper in Guangdong province, the translation of Xi Jinping’s centennial speech into foreign languages was the top story. Below that came another article about the Party’s “century-long struggle” for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.” Next came changes to the family planning policy, followed by an article about the response to a typhoon in Guangdong.

The front page of today’s edition of the official Nanfang Daily.

Xi Over Li

Between the lines of this toned-down coverage of the floods in Henan, however, is what is perhaps an important political story in the making – the complete sidelining of Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) in official reporting of the flood response.

It is general practice in the case of major disasters for the general secretary and the premier, the heads of the Party and the government, to jointly “issue important instructions” (重要指示) and “make written comments” (批示). We talk a bit more about these two important phrases in the CMP Dictionary. For example, following a deadly gas explosion in the central Chinese city of Shiyan last month, Xinhua and the People’s Daily reported both Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” and (in a smaller headline just below) Li Keqiang’s “written comments,” reflecting concerted action from these two top leaders.

In the June 14, 2021, edition of the People’s Daily, a report below the masthead mentions both Xi’s “important instructions” and Li’s “written comments” regarding the gas explosion in Shiyan.

It is quite unprecedented today to see Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” on flooding in Henan without mention of Premier Li.

The only mention we have at all of Li today concerns an Executive Meeting of the State Council, which dealt with financial sector opening (金融业开放), and at which the premier also mentioned flood relief efforts. On tonight’s official nightly newscast, Xinwen Lianbo, mention of Li’s meeting came only at around the 15 minute mark.

We would generally always expect Xinhua News Agency reports mentioned “important instructions” to also mention “written comments.” What we might be seeing in the case of the Henan floods is a change to this unwritten rule, which related to Xi Jinping’s dominating position within the Party.

Seeking China’s New Narratives

Earlier this week, the Center for China and Globalization (全球化智库), which has advertised itself as a “leading non-governmental think-tank in China,” held an event in Beijing to discuss “new narratives on China” (中国新叙事), and to launch a new book on external communication called I Talk About China to the World (我向世界说中国). A summary of the event released by CCG through its official WeChat public account provides an interesting glimpse into discussions in China’s think-tank sector on what Xi Jinping has called “telling China’s story well.”

The Center for China and Globalization, often referred to as “CCG,” was founded in Beijing in 2008 by Wang Huiyao (王辉耀), an economist and State Council advisor who is currently the organization’s president, and Mabel Miao (苗绿), the current vice-president and secretary-general. They are the authors of the new CCG book, which deals with the question of “how to create new narrative methods and models” (如何打造新的叙事方式和模式) for China.

A new book on China’s external communication, I Talk About China to the World (我向世界说中国), was released by CCG this month.

CCG has emphasized its independence, calling itself China’s “largest independent think-tank.” The group’s claim to independence has frequently invited skepticism, and many sources have noted in particular Wang Huiyao’s apparent association with the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which became a point of controversy in 2018 as he was dropped from the list of participants in a Wilson Center event, and his strong Party affiliations. CCG’s rebuttal in 2018 of an article in Foreign Policy highlighting his United Front ties is well worth a read for its discussion of the registration requirements facing civil society organizations and think-tanks.

Setting aside such thorny questions of affiliation and independence, what can we glean in terms of substance from the recent CCG event on external communication? The discussion, in fact, so far as can be ascertained from the summary posted to CCG’s official WeChat public account, was more nuanced than many official writings on “telling China’s story,” external propaganda, soft power and so on, including discussion of the failures and shortcomings of efforts to now. The following is a summary of the views offered by just four of the speakers present at the CCG event

Chu Yin (储殷)
Professor, University of International Relations (UIR)

Chu says that “telling China’s story well” has passed through three different development stages, from the 1) “survival in the cracks” (夹缝求生) stage, during which China tried to convey its own voice within a discourse system dominated by the West; to the 2) “Belt and Road” (一带一路) phase, focusing on BRI as a medium for promoting the “going out” (出海) of Chinese culture in order to foster greater recognition of China’s culture and values in different countries around the world; to the 3) current phase in which the government is leading various aspects of society (社会各界) in building a “great outreach structure” (构建新时代下的大外宣格局) – which could alternatively be translated as a “great external propaganda structure.” Through this process, said Chu, one could witness China steadily raising its international communication capacity (国际传播能力), adjusting its avenues of communication (调整传播路径) to suit changing circumstances, and working to create a comprehensive (全方位), broad (宽领域) and multi-layered (多层次) external propaganda structure (外宣格局).

Chu’s criticism of China’s external communication efforts to date is actually refreshing within the often oxygen-deprived atmosphere of external propaganda talk, which can often focus on repetition of official-speak at the top, concerned more with signaling loyalty to the leadership than grappling realistically with the outside world. At present, says Chu, China must be wary in its international communication efforts of the “trap” (陷阱) of “mirroring internal propaganda in external propaganda” (外宣内宣化), meaning that there is little differentiation between messaging for China’s domestic audience and messaging for global audiences. This, indeed, is an endemic problem for China’s political system and for its Party-centered media culture, which often in practice emphasize “political discipline” and maintaining official lines over flexible and strategic thinking – so that the real audience reflexively becomes the CCP itself.

Chu does not, at least in least in the CCG summary, address these deeper institutional and political pitfalls, but he does says that China must “place a high emphasis on the communication environment and context,” as well as on the formats and rules of communication overseas.

Chu identifies the following three “communication predicaments” (传播困境) resulting from “mirroring internal propaganda in external propaganda,” as follows: 1) Such messaging “increases discourse conflict and cultural misinterpretation” (增加话语冲突和文化误读); 2) Such messaging “reduces the professionalism of the Chinese narrative, resulting in an inability to properly convey China’s meaning” (降低了中国叙事的专业性,导致无法正确传递中国的意思表示); 3) In the internet era, characterized by “impetuousness” (浮躁的气息), attempts to promote a positive image of China can often “backfire” (反噬).

One good example (mine, not Chu’s) of this third predicament can be seen in the backlash in the Philippine’s in April 2020 to a Chinese-produced music video promoting friendship between the two countries and praising frontline workers during the pandemic. The video, with lyrics written by the Chinese ambassador, met with scorn from hundreds of thousands of Filipinos (212,000 dislikes against just 3,700 likes), who focused instead on sensitive territorial issues between the two countries in the West Philippine Sea.

Finally, Chu praised CCG’s I Talk About China to the World, which he said responded to the question of how to properly tell the China story to the world, and how to enhance global dialogue and understanding.

Dong Guanpeng (董关鹏)
Director, School of Government and Public Affairs at Communication University of China (CUC)

According to Dong Guanpeng, one major problem with China’s external propaganda is that China “talks too much and listens too little” (说的太多,而听的太少). He praised I Talk About China to the World for listening as well as talking, before defining three  “extremely serious pain points” (痛点) in China’s international communication: 1) An extreme asymmetry between China’s comprehensive national power (综合国力) and international status and its international communication image (国际传播形象); 2) The vast majority of China’s voices cannot be heard by most groups and mainstream audiences in the West; 3) Many of the things put out for the outside world cannot earn trust (在外界得不到信赖). On the third point, Dong said that not only do these external communication efforts fail to earn trust, but in fact in many cases intensify the sense of fear (恐惧) about China, and invite counter-attacks.

Dong said that CCG’s ability to engage with US lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and to earn credibility, was no easy task. The CUC professor said that one clear message he had drawn from I Talk About China to the World was that “international communication is not international propaganda” (国际传播不是国际宣传), and China could not rely only on the propaganda system (宣传系统) in today’s international communication. Instead, it would have to really on everyone. This point, that external communication, or “telling China’s story well,” is a matter for a wide range of Chinese actors, is similar to a point expressed at an event two weeks ago by Zhang Jian (张建), Secretary General of the Center for the Study of World Political Parties and Politics at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS).

Echoing Chu Yin’s point about the problem of “mirroring internal propaganda in external propaganda” (外宣内宣化), Dong Guanpeng said that international dialogue is not “international autobiography” (国际自述), or the insistent expression of one’s own view of oneself. At present, said Chu, there was too much one-sided telling of the China story, and he hoped there could be more application of CCG’s model of listening and talking (又听又说). Finally, Dong said that telling China’s story well required “action by the whole of society rather than the government taking on everything” (全民行动而非政府包揽).

Dong’s points about non-governmental involvement and the need for more multi-faceted approaches are both fair assessments of key weaknesses thus far in China’s external communication strategy, similar to Chu’s point about “mirroring internal propaganda.” The more crucial question, however, is whether a Party-state increasingly focussed on uniformity and obedience will be capable of the institutional flexibility, and the tolerance toward creative forces in society and the media, that will be necessary to empower such responsive narratives.

He Weiwen (何伟文)
CCG Senior Fellow, former economic and commercial counsellor for China in New York and San Francisco

Among the perspectives shared at the CCG event, those of He Weiwen, a senior fellow at CCG, seem more typical of narrow official conceptions of external propaganda that fail to grasp the full complexity of societies and audiences outside China, and insist on viewing “Western media” as a united wave of anti-China animus. “External propaganda workers” (外宣工作者), said He, need to take a more “cellular” approach (做好细胞) and “win on the details” (赢在细节). This is essentially the idea that the propaganda apparatus can and should become more scientific in how it assesses foreign audiences and their receptiveness to various messages. While this may sound superficially viable, anyone who has worked professionally in media and marketing could tell you that this is far, far easier said than done – and all the more so in a centralized and sensitive bureaucracy.

He Weiwen sounds jejune as he suggests Chinese diplomats might have dealt last year with the Washington Post labelling of China the “sick man of East Asia” – in fact, this was the Wall Street Journal, where many reporters and editors internally protested against the headline – through “principled engagement with Western media in the role of friend, in this way resolving the issue.” This statement shows a most basic ignorance of journalism cultures in the West and how they perceive themselves in relation to people in positions of power and influence.

Huang Rihan (黄日涵)
Director, Research Center for Global Cultural Dialogue, Huaqiao University

As one might expect of a scholar from a university directed by the United Front Work Department of the CCP Central Committee, Huang comes across as more hawkish in his views on external propaganda. Huang begins by praising the host, CCG, saying that the organization had been an “exemplary model over the years in actively carrying out international dialogues and shaping a positive image of China.” He then makes several recommendations on the building of China’s international communication: 1) China must be “clear in its position” (要厘清立场), coping calmly with “the malicious smears of Western hostile forces against China”; 2) China must use contemporary, widely accepted and innovative forms of communication to package its content, using China’s rich cultural elements to create a three-dimensional, comprehensive and true image of the country; 3) Finally, China must rely on diverse platforms, both online and offline, to strengthen international dialogue, and it must better tell China’s story through new media methods.

The view that “hostile forces” are arrayed against China with malicious intent is a long-standing feature of internal propaganda in the PRC, and can be taken as a sure sign that a speaker is simply mirroring domestic talking points and not thinking strategically about the rest of the world (that they are not listening, to bring back Dong Guanpeng’s point). It is not surprising, then, that the substitute for real strategic thinking is provided by technology – as though “new media methods” provide the means to repackage what He calls China’s “external propaganda products” (外宣作品) as “grounded” (接地气) and “popular” (聚人气).

Strategies for the China Story

China’s strategic thinkers expend a lot of time and a lot of ink these days on the question of how the country can project a positive image across the world. The basic idea is that if China can strengthen its “discourse power” (话语权) by “telling China’s story well” – Xi Jinping’s catchphrase in the arena of public diplomacy and soft power – then its strategic priorities globally can move ahead smoothly.

If there is one underlying flaw in all of this strategizing, however, it may be the fundamental difficulty China’s planners have in grappling honestly with the country’s own conduct and framing as a possible source of global perception problems.

Recently, the Shanghai Institute of International Studies cooperated with the Liaison Department of the CCP Central Committee and other official organizations to hold a seminar on “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) and “theoretical innovation of the Party’s foreign work” (对外工作). A number of the presentations at the seminar were published through the official WeChat public account of SIIS as a related series, and these were cross-shared at The Paper, a digital newspaper run by the Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG), which is controlled by the Shanghai committee of the CCP.

The Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) is one of China’s most important government-affiliated think tanks on foreign policy. As David Shambaugh has explained, SIIS, like many government institutions dealing with international affairs, performs a “dual function,” both projecting Chinese talking points (as part of a general “soft power” push) and “[collecting] views and intelligence from foreign experts and officials.”

Reading through the recent SIIS series published at The Paper, one certainly gets the impression that China’s think-tankers are talking. But are they listening?

Nearly all the pieces in the series repeat official CCP talking points, emphasizing the pre-eminence of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) and its component concepts, including “a community of common destiny” (人类命运共同体). They reaffirm rather than question claimed achievements like the Belt and Road Initiative, whose shared benefits, they say, “are more and more obvious.”

In fact, official think-tankers seem far more preoccupied with projecting loyalty upward – with talk of “maintaining the authority of the CCP Central Committee as the commander” (维护党中央权威为统领), and so on – than with thinking intelligently and outwardly about foreign audiences and their concerns. At times, one could be forgiven for thinking that the real audience, for all the chatter about “telling China’s story” to the world, is a single man at the top of the Party’s ranks.

To the extent China’s failings in external communication are acknowledged at all, these are chalked up to prevailing prejudices about China and the CCP, and to the “suppression” of China’s voice by “Western countries” or by “anti-China forces.” No consideration is given to whether it might be problematic that the “China story” and the “story of the CCP” have become so intertwined that they are impossible to untangle, and that narratives of the Party’s greatness and infallibility may do more to encourage skepticism than to inspire respect.

Of the talks in the SIIS series at The Paper, one in particular stands out for its attempt to address the current state of China’s external communications efforts, and their limitations, though some of these familiar patterns are also visible. In his remarks, Zhang Jian (张建), Secretary General of the Center for the Study of World Political Parties and Politics at SIIS, moans about the negative “narrative forms employed toward China by the US and the West,” as though reading China’s own rigid and centralized approach to narrative formation into complex democratic political cultures and societies. He decides that the “severe suppression” (严重打压) of China’s overseas communication platforms, such as Confucius Institutes, is again conspiratorial.

But it is interesting to see Zhang admitting at one point that even “the perceptions that developing countries have of China are also becoming complicated.” And he does, unlike many of his colleagues, attempt to offer strategic points, though these are broad-brush and not exactly original. He outlines six points that China should heed in its effort to be “accepted by the international community.” These include, for example, using “differentiated storytelling approaches” for different countries and regions; attempting to “localize” (在地化) stories, making them more palatable and relevant to audiences; and complementing the “grand narrative” (宏大叙事) with more concrete examples, in the form of case studies, of Chinese approaches in various policy areas and how these have succeeded.

This last point brings us to another fundamental contradiction at the heart of China’s external propaganda work – the insistence on offering Chinese lessons and experiences as a form of soft power even as China’s leadership is emphatic that these stories must serve a propaganda role, making the case for the capable leadership of the CCP. When the starting point is political and ideological, and narratives must conform to political objectives, this can, or should, raise serious issues of credibility for foreign audiences.

A translation of Zhang Jian’s remarks in the SIIS series follows.

__________ 

Along with China’s growing strength and its entry into the center of the world stage, the perception of China in the international community has taken on greater complexity. Judging from the international situation in recent years, and particularly from interactions between China and the United States and the West, the narrative forms (叙事方式) employed toward China by the US and the West have tended toward the negative, whether we are talking about power structures or about opinion in society – to the extent that even the perception and understanding of China in some developing countries has been affected. Against this background, in order to tell the story of China (the Chinese Communist Party) in the New Era, we must first clearly recognize the macro environment we currently face, and then move on to the question of how to proceed.

In terms of the current macro environment, the first [issue] is that interactions between China and the West have become more complex. The question of how to recognize, understand and accept a socialist China that has emerged as a major power in the world with a vastly different system is a common “point of difficulty” for the West as it faces China. The perception of China in the West is relatively negative, with perceptions in 14 developed countries having reached their lowest point. Although the West is in the minority in terms of the number of countries [in the world], their influence remains the greatest. At the same time, our own perception of the West has reached its lowest point.

The second [issue] is that the US and the West are exerting pressure on China in the ideological field, and our overseas communication platforms have been severely suppressed (严重打压). If we can say that previously arrangements and deployments overseas, and particularly in Western countries were conducive to speaking and telling the China story, in recent years Confucius Institutes, Chinese-invested enterprises, Chinese associations, Chinese media and others have been suppressed, and our overseas communication has been substantially hindered.

The third [factor] is that a conflicted psychology in the perception of China is on the rise among developing countries. Influenced by various forms of Western incitement (煽惑), by internal political contradictions and struggles, and by gaps in development levels and governance capabilities, the perceptions that developing countries have of China are also becoming complicated.

While the international environment facing China is becoming increasingly complex, as China provides more and more public goods to the international community and as China plays an increasingly positive role in international affairs, there are more and more people in the international community who look at China rationally and objectively, and more and more people who praise China. As General Secretary Xi Jinping has said, “Time and momentum are on our side, and this is where our determination and stamina come from, as well as our resolve and confidence.” To be accepted by the international community, socialist China must expend even greater effort.

In the face of this complex macro environment, when telling China’s story abroad, we must first adopt a differentiated storytelling approach and tell targeted stories from the perspective of the other’s situation and needs. Small and medium-sized countries, and developing countries and regions should be the key areas for spreading China’s story under the tightening conflict and struggle between China and the West.

Secondly, it [is important to] combine grand narratives and subtle emotions, paying special attention to the emotional receptivity of the grassroots and the general public.

Third, telling the China story is the responsibility of every single one of us. In addition to propaganda departments, the main body of external propaganda can be expanded to include concrete individuals, including scholars, grassroots units and individuals, as well as various platforms. All of them can preach (宣讲) the China story and the story of the Chinese Communist Party.  In particular, we scholars in the humanities and social sciences should give full play to our strengths and advantages in international exchanges, and should tell the international community a more diverse story of China and story of the CCP.

Fourth, telling the Chinese story should be localized (在地化). China’s story is not something to be put out in a singular manner. For the international community to know, recognize and understand, the China story must be more integrated with the stories of the local countries, so that China’s story becomes integrated into the society and life of the local country.

Fifth, [there is a need to be] concrete about [China’s] governance practices, linking up the grand narrative (宏大叙事) with China’s concrete experiences in governance. For example, the editing of a collection of cases could be organized that selects governance cases at various levels, particularly at various levels of society — dealing, for example, with ecological governance, the environment, concretization of governance, combining the grand narrative with the concrete practice of China’s governance, for example, can organize the preparation of a collection of cases, selecting cases of governance at all levels, especially at all levels of society, such as ecological governance, the environment, grassroots construction, and even with neighborhood committees and so on. This is more suited to target countries and more relevant to the various social problems they face. It also make [these lessons] easier to absorb in experience.

Finally, [we need to use] professional and scientific language to tell China’s story. Scientists, professional groups and social organizations can tell [the story] on different levels, and can also provide public products on China’s development to the international community in the form of popular science materials, raising understanding and awareness [of China].

Historical Revisions

Celebrated with great fanfare last week, the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial and Xi Jinping’s “important speech” left behind a wealth of clues to be picked over in the coming weeks, helping to answer the question: What core values define Xi Jinping’s CCP in the 21st century?

Beyond the general secretary’s July 1 speech, however, one document that has received less attention is “Major Events in 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party” (中国共产党一百年大事记), a chronicle of the Party’s most important milestones over the past century, organized by year and date, that was published in the People’s Daily on June 28. The document, featured on the newspaper’s front page, sprawled through several interior pages.

“Major Events” is the most important recent official text we have on the CCP’s contemporary view of its history. And several omissions from that history should be noted as glaring signs of shifting priorities.

How can we know there have been omissions? When the Party commemorated its 90th anniversary back in 2011, a similar list of major dates and developments was compiled and published in the Party’s flagship newspaper. This year’s document is more than just an update that brings the chronicle up through June 2021. It is also a revision of the previous chronicle.

“Major Events in 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party” is published in the People’s Daily on June 28, 2021.

Political Reform

For years at CMP, we have followed the official discourse on the topic of “political reform” (政治体制改革), including in 2011, when Wen Jiabao mentioned the urgency of political reform during a speech to the World Economic Forum, capping a series of such mentions in 2010. Even if there were few signs of real action on reform of the political system – such as introducing greater measures for “intraparty democracy” – the phrase could be traced through official discourse. In the Xi Jinping era, however, the term has almost entirely vanished.

It is perhaps not surprising to note, then, that “political reform” has been scrubbed from the most recent version of “Major Events,” having appeared in two separate entries in the 2011 document.

Ten years ago, an entry for August 18, 1980, in “Major Events” noted that Deng Xiaoping had given a speech called “Reform of the Party and State Leadership System” (党和国家领导制度的改革), which had “become the programmatic document guiding the reform of our political system.” An entry for 1986 noted that on four separate dates in September and November that year, Deng Xiaoping had “spoken about the issue of political reform four times and elaborated on the necessity, main contents and goals of political reform.”

These are quite glaring omissions of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy on the question of political reform in the 1980s, and their absence, not at all incidental, reflects how the topic of political reform, pushed with some urgency, though sporadically, in the decade before Xi came to power, is now essentially taboo.

Human Rights

Over the years, quite a number of scholars have noted changes to China’s 1982 Constitution through amendments in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004, and these changes have often been viewed as a process of maturation. Xu Shang, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, noted in a 2016 volume, for example, that the inclusion in 2004 of the language “the state respects and protects human rights,” was “more evidence of the maturation of the 1982 Constitution.”

What are we to make, then, of the fact that while the 2011 “Major Events” document in the People’s Daily did make note of this amendment as a milestone adopted by the second session of the 10th National People’s Congress on March 14, 2004, this has been dropped wholesale from the 2021 version of history?

The only appearance of the words “human rights” at all in the 2021 version is an entry, shared with the 2011 version, dating back to May 1, 1941, when a document for the protection of human rights and property rights was introduced in the Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region.

It seems difficult not to read the omission of the important constitutional amendment in 2004 as being part of a general rejection of international human rights discourse by China’s current leadership.

Civil and Political Rights

Where the international discourse on rights is concerned, the role of the United Nations is paramount. So how does the UN appear in this year’s “Major Events”?

There is mention of Dong Biwu (董必武), the communist revolutionary, attending the founding session of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. There is mention also of the restoration of the PRC’s “legal rights” in 1971, as it was recognized by General Assembly Resolution 2758 as the “only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.” There is mention of various leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, attending UN sessions and giving speeches, of China’s deployment in 1992 of a 400-strong peacekeeping force in Cambodia, and of its signing in 2003 of the UN Convention against Corruption.

But one key milestone that is missing from the 2021 version of “Major Events” is China’s signing on October 5, 1998, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a key part of the International Bill of Human Rights. China has indicated on a number of occasions since signing the ICCPR that it intends to ratify it, but to date it has failed to do so. The decision to drop the signing of the human rights treaty from its chronicle of key events hardly suggests the country’s leaders are ready to move forward.

As it may be helpful for researchers to do their own searches and comparisons of the 2011 and 2021 historical chronicles, we include downloadable PDF versions of both below.

Bowing to the Chief

Among provincial-level officials in China, one of the most outwardly loyal to Xi Jinping has been Li Hongzhong (李鸿忠), the CCP secretary of Tianjin municipality. It was Li who said himself back in 2016 that, “If loyalty is not absolute, then it is absolutely not loyalty.”

But on Tuesday this week, Secretary Li outdid himself in his praise of Xi Jinping. At a special CCP history learning session held in Tianjin to commemorate the Party’s centennial, Li began with more run-of-the-mill loyalty signaling. He urged those present to uphold the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). These three phrases, known collectively as the “442” formula, are critical to the consolidation of Xi Jinping’s personal power at the leader of the CCP.

The “Four Consciousnesses” refer to the 1) need to maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core (in other words, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership. Skipping past the “Four Confidences,” more explanation being available here, the “Two Protections” are: 1) protecting, once again, the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, and 2) protecting the central, unified leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP.

Li Hongzhong did not stop at the “442,” however. As he spoke about the “Two Centenaries” (两个一百年), the idea promoted by Xi Jinping that the China will 1) become a “moderately well-off” by the first centennial celebration, the Party’s anniversary this year, and 2) will successfully become a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country” by 2049, the centennial of the PRC, here is what Li actually said:

It is the good fortune of our Party, our country and the Chinese nation to have had General Secretary Xi Jinping at the helm and steering the ship on the new journey to realize the Chinese nation’s rise to strength. We have closely followed General Secretary Xi Jinping in seizing our great victory in struggling toward the first centenary goal, and now we will continue to unswervingly follow him as we strive toward the realization of the second century goal and the great leap to realize the strengthening of the Chinese nation.

This is a lofty compliment indeed from Li. He is essentially saying that having now led China to the achievement of the first centenary goal during his second term, Xi Jinping can continue leading the CCP toward the achievement of the second goal. That would necessitate Xi remaining in office far beyond the 20th National Congress of the CCP in 2022. To make the October 1, 2049, celebration of the PRC centennial, Xi Jinping would have to be well past his 96th birthday. For comparison, Deng Xiaoping was 92 years old when he passed away on February 19, 1997.

The Blade That Kills Bloodlessly

When Xi Jinping delivers his speech this week to commemorate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party, his theme will be history. Not as a factual question for thoughtful and critical exploration, mind you, but as the incontestable foundation of the Party’s rule, bereft of uncertainties and ambiguities. For their part, the Chinese media will remain compliant. The cost of dissent is too high at such moments of historical gravity. But how, if we look back on history, returning to the facts, did the Party’s early leaders understand the role of the press and its relationship to the public?

On January 11, 1946, an essay by Lu Dingyi (陆定一) was published in the Xinhua Daily (新华日报), a newspaper that had been launched exactly eight years earlier by Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and other Party leaders. In the essay, Lu Dingyi sharply criticizes authoritarian means of controlling the press, and argues for the fundamental importance of journalists seeking “real information” that “the people need to know.”

Lu, a leader who had taken part in the Long March and was a member of the Party’s Propaganda Department from 1934 onward, was a key figure within the Party’s intellectual culture at the time. In 1942, he had become editor-in-chief of the Liberation Daily, the CCP paper launched the previous year in Yan’an. In 1943, he wrote a long essay called “Our Basic Views on Journalism” (我们对于新闻学的基本观点), in which he highlighted what he viewed as the problems with “bourgeois journalism” and answered the fundamental question of “how news can be true.” It was in this work that Lu Dingyi emphasized facts as the basis of journalism along the lines of dialectical materialism. “The origin of the news is the material itself, the facts – and these are the facts that occur in the struggle between humankind and the natural world, and in the midst of social struggle,” he wrote. “Therefore, the news can be defined as the reporting of facts as they have newly occurred.”

Lu’s argument in his January 1946 essay in the Xinhua Daily, the first CCP newspaper to be distributed openly nationwide in China during the Republican Era (up until its closure by the Kuomintang government on February 28, 1927), can be seen as part of a deeper tradition supporting the idea of the “people nature,” or renminxing (人民性) of the media, as opposed to the “Party nature,” or dangxing (党性), which holds that the media fundamentally serve the CCP. This debate has emerged at various points in the Party’s history, in fact, such as in the 1980s, when the question was bitterly argued by Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), the liberal People’s Daily editor who supported greater press independence, and Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), the hardliner who insisted that “Party nature” was supreme, and that “people nature” arose from it.

More recently, Xi Jinping’s February 2016 speech on the media, in which he emphasized that media must be “surnamed Party” (姓党), was an unambiguous affirmation of the Hu Qiaomu line of thought, and contemporary CCP theorists since have stressed the “unity of the Party nature and the people nature.”

Lu Dingyi’s 1946 essay is certainly food for thought at a time when the intellectual content of the CCP’s history is itself subject to strict controls – and when red slogans drown out all nuance. At one point, Lu colorfully refers to the newspaper under authoritarian control, which spreads lies and disinformation, to “a steel blade that kills bloodlessly.” Our translation follows:

A journalist from Xin Min Po (新民报) asked me: “Some people think that Chinese journalists aren’t as good a British and American journalists. What is your opinion?” I responded by saying: “I don’t think so. Chinese journalists are no less capable than the journalists of other countries. Journalists from Britain and America certainly have their strengths. But for Chinese journalists to be able, under such immense pressures, to expose real information to the people that they need to know – that kind of experience, that kind of ability, is far beyond the reach of British and American journalists. If a tree, let’s say, grows on a flat stretch of land, it may grow to be very tall and very straight. That’s easy. But if it grows in rocky and twisted terrain, even if it becomes stunted, this is no small feat.” When I talk about Chinese journalists here I’m talking mostly about those who are working in the vast backcountry.

Why have modern newspapers emerged in the world? This is because the masses demand to know real information (真实的信息). Modern newspapers are the product of capitalist societies, and perhaps they emerged at the same time as democratic ideas. Authoritarians do not want the people to be intelligent or to understand things. They only want them to be foolish as wild beasts. And so they really don’t like modern newspapers. New authoritarians, or fascists, are more advanced even than their forebears. Goebbels’ principle is to take all newspapers, magazines, radio, television and everything, and rule it all together, so that disinformation is complete, and everything the people see with their eyes or hear with their ears is fascist disinformation, with no exceptions. In Goebbel’s hands, newspapers undergo a change contrary to their original intention, as lies take the place of real information. When people read such newspapers, not only can they not become intelligent, but moreover, quite the contrary, they become more and more confused. Look at Germany. Were there not many tens of thousands willing to become cannon fodder for Hitler?

So, there are two kinds of newspapers. One kind is the newspaper for the masses, which tells the people real information, inspiring the idea of people’s democracy, and urging the people to intelligence. Another kind of newspaper is the newspaper of the new authoritarian, which tells the people lies, closes off the people’s thoughts, and causes the people to become foolish. The first kind is good for a society and a people, and without it what we call civilization is truly unimaginable. The second kind is the opposite. It is poisonous to society, to humanity, and to the people of a nation. It is a steel blade that kills bloodlessly.

And so also, there are two kinds of journalists. The first kind of journalist serves the people, and tells the masses information the masses must know. He lifts up the opinions of the masses as public opinion. Another kind of journalist serves the authoritarian, and his task is disinformation, disinformation and more disinformation.

There are certain people in China who combine both the new and old styles of authoritarianism. On the one hand they use newspapers to sow disinformation, and on the other they prohibit other types of newspaper that expose real information. They fear the real journalist, because they have secrets they cannot tell people. So they prefer to do things in an underhanded way, so that people do not to take notice. If someone knows what they have done, and openly reports it, or takes what they did and honestly ‘exposes’ it, then they become furious. They will use any means necessary [to put a stop to it]. They put foreign journalists on blacklists, and they use visible and invisible means to threaten Chinese journalists, telling them, ‘Be careful! Be careful!’ . . . .

The journalist should be careful. But this carefulness should not be used to serve the authoritarian, but rather to serve the people, to become a servant of the people. The people are the most honored masters of the journalist. If [a journalist] serves this honored master, then of course there is need for caution. But this “caution” is not about whether one is permitted to publish real information, but quite the contrary, it is about doing everything possible to ensure that information is completely true – so that speech can truly represent the views of the people. In the midst of the Anti-Japanese War, who were the people? They were the workers, the peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, the liberal bourgeoisie, the enlightened gentry, and all those who love our country. They are the true masters of our nation. Authoritarians oppress the people, plunder the people, and make it such that the people have no path to salvation.

Influencers, Activists and Diplomats

In the latest edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s official journal Seeking Truth (求是), released last week, Xi Jinping topped the table of contents – as now seems to be mandated practice. But another prominent byline was that of Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), the head of China Media Group, or “Voice of China,” the official media conglomerate directly under the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) that was created in 2018 to serve as the umbrella group for state media as they sought greater influence internationally.

In fitting form as the 100th anniversary of the CCP approaches, Shen’s article was essentially an act of declaration (表态), expressing loyalty to Xi Jinping, to the Party and to its principles. In a series of deferential remarks greased with the phrase “General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out” (习近平总书记深刻指出), Shen stressed the glories of CCP history, and the great gifts bequeathed to the Chinese people in the form of “red traditions” (红色传统) and “red genes” (红色基因).

Shen revealed little, however, about China’s push to expand its international “discourse power” (话语权), the strategy that was the focus at the May 31 collective study session of the Politburo. On this issue, the media chief offered only a bland re-statement of purpose: the CCP must “build a new type of first-class international mainstream media with a strong capacity to lead, communicate and influence.”

But how do Shen Haixiong and the China Media Group hope to actually achieve this broad objective? To answer this question, we must look beyond Shen’s hymn on Party history in Seeking Truth to a speech he gave back on June 3 as he chaired a “thematic session” (专题会议) to convey the “spirit” of Xi Jinping’s remarks at the May 31 collective study session.

Shen, who is also a deputy minister at the CPD, emphasized at the June 3 session that “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事), and showing a “true, three-dimensional and comprehensive China” (展示真实立体全面的中国) necessitates the creation of “international discourse power that matches our country’s comprehensive national power.” One crucial point of breakthrough in reaching this objective, said Shen, was to create “a studio for influencers in multiple languages” (多语种网红工作室).

Beyond the usual buzzwords in the realm of external propaganda (外宣) and public diplomacy (公共外交), which often become indistinguishable in CCP strategizing, this talk of an “Influencer Studio” (网红工作室) is an intriguing clue. Generally, the phrase “influencer studio” can refer online in China to the space where influencers, as they hock the latest eyeliner, halter top or body cream, appear to their dedicated fans. It might be a backdrop that reads Danish modern or Japanese spa. But in this context, Shen Haixiong is talking instead about a state-supported training program for online influencers that would, at least in theory, allow the leadership to better capitalize on new media platforms as they are used by millennials.

The bottom line here is that CCP planners are strategizing about how to better reach younger media consumers globally, designing external propaganda for the next decade. And that means that China’s external messaging, even as it strictly adheres to political “red lines,” must learn to be youthful and viral.

Back in August 2019, these priorities were addressed openly at the China Media Group as it announced the formation of the International Communications Planning Bureau (国际传播规划局), the new buzzing hive of the CCP’s external propaganda planning, execution and assessment. In his speech introducing the International Communications Planning Bureau (ICPB), Shen Haixiong said that China Media Group must “actively explore new methods of external communication, including the Influencer Studio (网红工作室), and creating a ‘mobile app cluster in multiple languages’ and a ‘cluster of overseas social media platform accounts,’ thereby steadily raising our influence among young people and mainstream people.”

A chart from the WeChat public account of the official People’s Daily explains the merger of major state media entities into China Media Group in 2018.

Here we can glimpse three distinct approaches at the China Media Group. First, a program to train and support online influencers that could be attractive for foreign audiences on social media platforms, all the while “maintaining political discipline” (坚持政治导向), the prerequisite for all content. These influencers, says in his recent speech on June 3, should be instrumental in reporting on “headline projects” (头条工程) and major topics (重大主题) – think initiatives like Belt and Road, and issues like Hong Kong – and training must be strengthened, he says, for influencers in “priority regions and priority languages” (重要地区重点语言).

The second distinct approach is to develop a cluster of information apps that can engage foreign audiences, whatever language they speak. Thirdly, the China Media Group must capitalize on overseas social media platforms to reach foreign users, particularly young users, who increasingly connect and engage through such tools. The focus in Shen’s speech on “young people and mainstream people” is a reminder of just how broadly the CMG conceives of this campaign – the goal being a groundswell of changing perception internationally on China.

We might respond that China’s state media have tried this last tactic before, launching accounts on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But the formation of China Media Group’s ICPB, which has nine subsidiary departments, suggests more concerted planning along several key lines. The departments now include: the 1) General Division (综合处); the 2) Project Coordination Division (项目统筹处); the 3) Overseas Brand Promotion Division (海外品牌推广处); the 4) Asia Division (亚洲处); the 5) West Asia and Africa Division (西亚非洲处); the 6) Europe and Latin America Division (欧洲拉美处); the 7) Americas and Oceania Division (美洲大洋洲处); 8) the Chinese Language Promotion Division (汉语推广处); and the 9) Overseas Evaluation and Verification Division (海外评估核查处).

Though little information is so far available about the ICPB and its subsidiary departments, this restructuring suggests that the China Media Group is gearing up for a sustained external propaganda campaign that is both concerted and to some extent responsive, considering regional differences and languages and also evaluating impact. In his June 3 speech, as he highlighted the urgency of fostering influencers in multiples regions and languages, Shen also said there was a need for “refined classification” (细化分类), “content deepening” (深耕内容) and “differential development” (差异化发展). The group is striving, at least, to break free of the one-size-fits-all thinking that for years has plagued China’s external communication efforts – and is still very much in evidence.

Two further clues can be spotted in Shen Haixiong’s June 3 speech. As the CMG chief talks about building up the team to conduct international communication (队伍建设), he says that journalists overseas should act as “diplomats” (外交家) and “social activists” (社会活动家). Shen in fact used both of these terms in another address back in October last year, when he spoke of “communication for a favourable impression” (好感传播), which should be taken as further proof that the talk of being “lovable” in the May collective study session was neither fresh nor an indication, as some reported, of a planned change in tone.

The term “social activist” may seem odd here, bringing to mind an individual working for social change through intentional action. In a Chinese political context, however, this refers instead to engagement with more ordinary social actors to further the Party’s agenda and convey its voice, which of course is “China’s voice.” The reference to “diplomats,” meanwhile, suggests CMG journalists internationally should be conveying and defending the official line, particularly to those who are themselves in positions of relative influence in foreign countries, in both leadership and the media.