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).

Xinhua Chief Takes Charge at the ACJA

At a meeting on Monday of the All-China Journalist’s Association (ACJA), former Xinhua News Agency chief He Ping (何平) was formally appointed as the new chairman of the organization, an ostensible “non-governmental organization” that in fact serves as an important layer of exercising CCP control over news organizations and the country’s more than one million registered journalists.

Born in 1957, He Ping has spent his entire career within Xinhua News Agency since graduating from Peking University in 1982, at the outset of the reform and opening period. In 2007, he was appointed editor-in-chief of the agency, and in October 2020 finally became chairman.

In his closing remarks to the meeting, He Ping said that top ACJA officials had met with Xi Jinping and other leaders in the CCP Central Committee, including Huang Kunming (黄坤明), head of the Central Propaganda Department. He Ping told those in attendance that Huang had raised “clear demands” for the work of journalists and the heads of local and regional ACJA chapters. “We must take the concerns of the General Secretary and the CCP Central Committee as a powerful spiritual impetus in better performing the duties and missions entrusted to us by the Party and the people,” said He.

The more concrete instructions for those present, to be conveyed to all journalists working in China, were couched in dense CCP terminologies. He Ping said, for example, that Chinese journalists must enhance their sense of “political nature” (政治性), a reference to maintaining uniformity with the ideology of the Party and the state – including on the Party line and policies, on questions of sovereignty and foreign relations, and so on.

The term “political nature” has been used by the CCP in reference to the obligations of the press since at least since the early 1950s. An article on page two of the People’s Daily on August 26, 1951, criticized the publishing of advertisements in Chinese newspapers that did not follow the Party line, and urged papers across the country to struggle against “lack of political leadership by the editorial board” over advertising decisions.

An article in the People’s Daily in August 1951 criticizes newspaper advertisements that do not follow the CCP line, saying that ads too must have “political nature.”

He Ping also emphasized the need for media to “adhere to correct public opinion guidance” (坚持正确舆论导向), a term that relates directly to CCP control of the media in order to maintain the stability of the regime, and the need for journalists to “serve as disseminators of the Party’s policies and propositions” (做党的政策主张的传播者).

Positive Designs

In the midst of the current outbreak of Covid-19 in Shaanxi, the province’s Chinese Business News (华商报), a leading commercial daily in the locked-down capital city of Xi’an, has drawn national attention for its colorful and creative front page designs – and prompted some nostalgia for the fading era of print media in China.

In a tribute posted on Thursday to its WeChat account, the Media Observer (传媒大观察), a media-related publication run by the state-owned Xinhua Daily Press Group, likened recent pages at Chinese Business News to “a light in the darkness, lighting the way for people in their fight against the epidemic.”

“While paper media are weak, particularly under the serious situation of the epidemic,” the tribute read, “we still see this paper coming out daily with heart and soul.”

The city of Xi’an, with more than 13 million residents, was placed under lockdown in late December following a spike in Covid cases. Within 10 days, the strain on human lives caused by China’s zero-Covid strategy was evident, with residents complaining of inadequate food and other essentials.

But according to the Media Observer, the Chinese Business News has continued to provide inspiration in the midst of desperation.

The post through the Media Observer‘s official WeChat account, “Media Observer Think Tank” (观媒智库), has an undeniable sense of the sentimental about it, focusing on the “positive energy” aspects of the Covid-19 story in Xi’an. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting view of the role of the local newspaper in an era of growing digital dominance.

Here are several of the front-page designs published recently by the Chinese Business News, and singled out for praise by the Media Observer.

HEADLINE: My City, My Xi’an
DATE: December 23, 2020

HEADLINE: Peacefully Waiting in Chang’an
DATE: December 24, 2020

HEADLINE: Lifting the Vegetable Basket
DATE: December 24, 2020

HEADLINE: Hope to Open Hope
DATE: December 27, 2020

HEADLINE: Persist
DATE: December 30, 2020

HEADLINE: Life is Looking Up!
DATE: January 8, 2022

HEADLINE: We Protect Xi’an Together
DATE: January 10, 2022

HEADLINE: Healing is the Best Form of Healing
DATE: January 12, 2022

The Chinese Business News was launched in 1995, at the start of the heyday of modern metropolitan newspapers (都市类报) in China, which saw the creation of hundreds of new magazines and newspapers catering to a rising middle class.

The paper was originally started in Hong Kong in April 1941 by a trio of journalists and political activists including Hu Zhongchi (胡仲特), the famous editor of Shen Bao (申报) and grandfather of Caixin editor-in-chief Hu Shuli, Zou Taofen (邹韬奋), editor of the celebrated Life Magazine (生活周刊,  and Fan Changjiang (范长江), the Ta Kung Pao stringer and later founder of China’s national journalist’s association for whom the country’s official journalism prizes are now named (and who would also become the chief editor of Xinhua News Agency).

In recent years, print media in China have undergone a dramatic contraction as the industry faces a profound transformation brought about by the dominance of new digital platforms. The closure or transformation of traditional newspapers has itself become regular news. In December 2020, just ahead of the new year, 30 publications announced that they would shut down.  

And Then There Were Five

Confidence seems to be proliferating at the top-most levels of the Chinese Communist Party. When Hu Jintao delivered his political report to the Party’s 18th National Congress back in November 2012, the outgoing leader spoke of three points of self-confidence that were to propel the CCP into the future. “The whole party must firmly uphold confidence in the path, in the theory and in the institutions [of socialism with Chinese characteristics],” Hu said.

As the Xi Jinping era dawned, then, there were just “Three Confidences,” or sange zixin (三个自信), at the heart of what has been termed China’s “confidence doctrine.” By 2014, however, a fourth confidence had crept into the formula. The new buzzword was “cultural confidence,” or wenhua zixin (文化自信). The Party needed to have faith not only in the rightness of its policies, governance and theoretical foundations, but also in its identity – to be found in a combination of 5,000-odd years of Chinese culture (中华文化) and the rich revolutionary legacy of the CCP itself.

The “Four Confidences” were affirmed as an integrated formula in Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the CCP in 2016, and at the 19th National Congress the year after they were included in amendments to the Party Charter (党章). The “Four Confidences” have been codified ever since as:

  • “confidence in the path” (道路自信) [of socialism with Chinese characteristics]
  • “confidence in the theory” (理论自信) [of socialism with Chinese characteristics]
  • “confidence in the system” (制度自信) [of socialism with Chinese characteristics]
  • “confidence in the culture” (文化自信) [of socialism with Chinese characteristics]

But this month, confidence has advanced again. The top headline on the front page of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper today included a fifth confidence, marking the further advancement of the confidence doctrine to accommodate this year’s 100th anniversary of the CCP and last month’s Resolution of the Central Committee of the CCP on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century. The new buzzword is “historical confidence,” or lishi zixin (历史自信).

The top half of the front page of today’s People’s Daily, with the phrase “historical confidence” in the main headline highlighted.

This phrase was mentioned by Xi Jinping in his “important speech” (重要讲话) this week to the latest “democratic life meeting” (民主生活会), an event at which members of the CCP Politburo are meant to criticize and assess their own performance. In the speech, promoted in today’s People’s Daily, Xi stressed the importance of “drawing wisdom and strength from the Party’s century-long history.”

The appearance of “historical confidence” in a front-page headline in the People’s Daily signifies its emergence in strength, as a phrase likely to continue to rise in 2022. But the first prominent appearance of the phrase came in mid-November as Huang Kunming (黄坤明), the head of the Central Propaganda Department, used it to convey the “spirit” of the 6th Plenum in a video conference with propaganda leaders across the country. Prior to Huang’s address in November, “historical confidence” had appeared just once in the People’s Daily, in an essay published in July 2016 and written by Huang Yibing (黄一兵), the deputy director of the Third Research Department of the Central Party History Research Office.           

The “Five Confidences” (五个自信) is definitely a phrase to look out for in 2022.

Struggling for Historical Truth

The firing on Thursday of a teacher at a vocational college in Shanghai who, according to state media made the “erroneous remarks” on the number of victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, has prompted a fierce struggle online over the right to explore historical truths. But censorship by the authorities has effectively silenced voices in support of the teacher, sending the message that nuance about CCP orthodoxy on history will not be accepted – and that teachers should beware of student informants in the classroom.

The storm began on December 15 as a short video circulated online – apparently shared by a student “informant” – of a lecture in which Song Gengyi (宋庚一) questioned the 300,000 official number given by the Chinese government for the number of victims in the Nanjing Massacre, a tragedy that unfolded on December 13, 1937, as the Imperial Japanese Army captured the capital city of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Song made the remarks during her December 14 “News Interview” (新闻采访) course at Shanghai’s Aurora College, held the day after nationwide commemoration of the massacre’s anniversary.

On the afternoon of Thursday, December 16, the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily, the CCP’s flagship newspaper, weighed in on Song’s remarks. The tone of the post, which called the 300,000 number “iron-clad fact” (铁证如山), was severe. It said that Song was “errant as a teacher” (枉为人师) for “questioning historical truth,” and that she was “errant as a compatriot” (枉为国人) for “forgetting hardships and denying the evil deeds of another country.”

A post to the official Weibo account of the People’s Daily newspaper on December 16, 2021, sharply criticizes Aurora College teacher Song Gengyi.

Within hours news came of Song’s firing. According to a notice issued on Thursday evening by Aurora College, Song, whose position was formally with the college’s Eastern Film Academy (东方电影学院), had “spoken erroneously” (错误言论) during her class on news reporting, and had been fired on the grounds that the incident had been “a major teaching accident generating a serious negative social impact.” She had been fired, the notice said, on the basis of two internal college guidelines, on disciplinary measures for teaching staff and on the “handling of teaching accidents” (教学事故).

A post to the official Weibo account of Shanghai’s Aurora College on December 16, 2021, announces the firing of professor Song Gengyi.

Song is a veteran journalist who has served as the deputy head of the journalism and communication program at Aurora College (震旦学院), a vocational college founded in Shanghai’s French Concession in 1905 by Chinese Jesuit Mao Xiangbao (馬相伯). In addition to teaching, she has published academically on communications, including a 2019 paper on the impact of “network supervision” (网络监督) in calling attention, and sometimes driving remediation, in cases of social injustice.

In her paper, Song concluded that “rational and standardized” network supervision, meaning the posting through social media and other channels of cases of malfeasance and unfairness, “would promote social development and progress.” But she ended the paper with a caution that now seems prescient given her case. “Where network supervision is concerned, online violence cannot be ignored,” she wrote. “In replies to many hot-button issues on the internet, the words of netizens often include violent language such as ‘die’ or ‘kill,’ or employ obscene language. The internet has become an outlet for emotions. Network supervision has become a pressure valve for emotions, lacking rationality, and in some cases has even led to ‘internet trials’ (网络审判) that impact judicial justice.”

An academic paper written by Song Gengyi about “network supervision” in China.

Mirroring the process she describes in her paper, criticism of Song was swift, vicious and retributive. Online nationalists pried into her past, posted her personal information online, and called her a “traitor.” One post over the weekend referred to Song and other “public intellectuals” (公知) as “pests” hiding amongst the people.

But Friday, however, voices in support of Song Gengyi were swelling too. Protests against the injustice of Song’s treatment grew in volume as a full version of the classroom video was circulated, giving her remarks fuller context. It clearly showed Song discussing the verification of historical facts as possible and important, characterizing the 300,000 figure as arising from a particular historical and political context – and making the point that more could probably be discovered, with proper research, about even the specific identities of the victims. Nothing seemed to show Song in any way minimizing the Nanjing Massacre or its historical importance. A number of media veterans in particular voiced their support for Song. Pursuing the facts, they said, was the first rule of journalism, and Song’s attitude showed a strong respect for academic rigor.

Many of these voices were quickly removed from the internet, even as posts and comments attacking Song Gengyi proliferated. Legal experts, meanwhile, took to social media to encourage Song Gengyi to take legal action against Aurora College. Yan Tong (冉彤), a Chinese rights lawyer, told RFA: “Everyone feels that this was a normal way of teaching. It’s just that right now, leftist trends in society are on the rise, and teachers who speak the truth are seen as having problems.”

Several lawyers, Yan said, had tried to reach Song to offer legal representation, but she could not be located – a possible sign, they felt, that she had been detained and was being kept away from the media.

By Friday also, the attacks on Song Gengyi prompted a “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索) wave counter-attacking the student alleged to have informed on the teacher. Personal information about one suspected student, identified as “Dong Xun,” was posted on social media in China and overseas, calling on others to dig deeper and to “let the world know.” The following post to Twitter, one of hundreds appearing Friday, shared the student’s mobile number and social media account details, calling them “rotten goods” (烂货).

A post to Twitter on Friday, December 17, exposes the student alleged to have informed on Song Gengyi.

Many posts on Twitter were personal attacks on Dong Xun, calling for retribution. At least one post, however, pointed out that the online struggle between the two sides was a distraction from real causes. “Dong Xun directly destroyed a teacher, school leaders indirectly destroyed a teacher, and so we all go and destroy a student together?” one user wrote. “Why don’t we destroy these ruinous rules instead?”

The post shared the screenshot of a text apparently sent to Dong Xun on the student’s now very public personal mobile number:

Why did you inform on a teacher? People going to class is a normal form of academic freedom, and how they speak is their own business. You playing this informing game is so crude, disgusting and shameless. If you don’t agree with her views then you can have a discussion! Why must you inform! This is so immoral!

Screenshot of a message sent to a student accused of informing on Shanghai professor Song Gengyi, with mobile number redacted.

“Dong Xun is a beast, not a human being,” another Chinese user wrote on Twitter.  

In addition to the human flesh search against the student thought to have been behind the campaign against Song Gengyi, a number of prominent academics and journalists apparently reached out to reprimand the student through the mobile number provided online. According to one professor, whose communications were viewed by CMP, they suffered a wave of counter-attacks online, including posting of their own personal information, after sending a text to the student’s number.

“At around 4:50PM I sent a message to the student informing on the Shanghai film academy professor according to the mobile number online, saying they had engaged in shameful bullying,” the professor wrote. “Tonight I’ve been attacked by spammers, getting close to a hundred calls threatening and cursing me, and saying they are reporting me.”

A Chinese university professor from Beijing reports receiving threatening calls after sending a text to the student accused of informing on Shanghai professor Song Gengyi.

Late on Friday, the student accused of informing on Song Gengyi made a post to Weibo in which they attempted to explain their decision to post the video that had kicked up the storm to begin with. They explained that they were an “ordinary student” in Xi’an, and that they had not in fact taken the video in question.

The day before yesterday, I saw the video of Ms. Song in a QQ chat, the full 5:35 [minute] version. And after watching the video, really angry, I posted it to Weibo, hoping that these erroneous remarks [from Ms. Song] could be corrected, hoping to engrave a correct view of history. Afterward, I paid no attention.

Yesterday, the matter started to accelerate, and Aurora College started to investigate, making the decision to handle it. Someone sent me a private message saying they had taken the video, that the school was already handling the matter, and that they hoped I could delete my Weibo post. Out of respect for the video source, that’s what I did, thinking this would end things.

But my mobile started exploding with messages, and at the same time the trolling telephone calls came non-stop, seriously impacting my normal life. But I didn’t realize the seriousness of the matter, and I didn’t realize my privacy had been violated. It was only today, as I received an endless number of disturbing messages and trolling calls, that I realized my privacy had been violated. At the same time, I received a lot of help from many web users who have not forgotten history and who uphold justice. With their help I had the courage to struggle against them. I have already notified the police, and I’m sure with their power this matter will end.

China’s Party-state media, including official public accounts such as that of the People’s Daily, have issued no further response on the Song Gengyi case since last Thursday, despite the fact that a fuller account has emerged, putting the short video in context, and despite that fact that more people have spoken up in support of Song. Meanwhile, voices supporting Song continue to be removed from social media, while accounts of her allegedly “erroneous remarks” are apparently allowed to remain.

The Xi’an student targeted by furious internet users for allegedly informing on Shanghai professor Song Gengyi posts his view of the situation on Friday, December 17.

In post to WeChat about Song’s case on Friday, Wang Yongzhi (王永智), who writes under the penname “Wang Wusi” (王五四), said the current public opinion climate in China was “pandemonium,” and that while “reasonable people dare not speak out at all, unreasonable people constantly point to deer and called them horses, with no reason and no sense of the law.”

The simple words, ‘You are not patriotic,’ can lead to a thousand accusations, and nothing you say makes any difference,” said Wang.

That post too has now been deleted.

A message on WeChat says that a recent post supportive of Song Gengyi by “Wang Wusi” has been removed because it “violates regulations.”

Those interested in learning more about the recent history of students informing on their teachers for political transgressions, and about the formal system of “student informants,” can turn to CMP’s 2018 article, “Informants in the Chinese Classroom.”

Good Bye Hu Xijin

In a lengthy profile this week, The Guardian took an in-depth look at Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进) and his outsized voice overseas, where his “endless stream of quotable insults and invective stands out amid a sea of bland official statements.” Hu, hated or loved, has indeed loomed large as a voice from the nationalistic fringes of China’s official Party-state press, and as a global provocateur constantly bickering with China’s critics. “For now, Hu fights on,” The Guardian profile concluded.

This long-read will likely prove, however, to be one of the first notes of the outspoken editor’s swan song. In a Weibo post at 12:03PM today, Beijing time, Hu confirmed rumors swirling yesterday that his retirement was imminent. Sources tell CMP that Hu was in fact removed for reasons that are not yet clear, perhaps stemming from unhappiness over his highly visible international remarks in recent days or weeks.

A report yesterday in Hong Kong’s Tsingtao Daily News, shared by several other media, announced Hu’s pending retirement and said that the central leadership was keen to “strengthen [the paper’s] political guidance” (政治导向). This language seemed to suggest there might be concerns at the top about Hu, or the Global Times, as loose cannons firing against the discipline coming from above. Could something in his recent spate of posts about tennis star Peng Shuai – which sometimes seemed a clumsy operation run from a back office at the Global Times – have fallen afoul of powerful figures in the Party?

Through yesterday, however, there was no reliable confirmation of any change to Hu’s status at the helm of the pugnacious national tabloid – and Hu had, in any case, faced similar rumors in the past, including a report in Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao back in June reporting that Wu Qimin (吴绮敏), deputy head of the international desk at the paper’s parent People’s Daily, was being prepared for Hu’s post.

In his Weibo post today, Hu Xijin writes that, at 62, “the time has come to retire.” He says that he has already submitted the paperwork for his retirement, and that he will “no longer serve in the position of Global Times editor-in-chief.” He adds, however, that he plans to continue writing for the paper as a “special commentator,” and that he will continue to “do my utmost for the news and public opinion work of the Party.”

Hu Xijin announces his retirement as editor-in-chief of the Global Times today.

As the questions begin about the possible nature of the Global Times after the departure of the “troll king,” it is a good time to look at the two people who are rumored to be Hu’s replacements.

According to some reports, including that at the Tsingtao Daily News, the rumored shake-up at the Global Times will create a new director (社长) position, to be held by Fan Zhengwei (范正伟), currently a deputy head of the commentary department at the People’s Daily. The purpose of this position would presumably be to exercise greater direct control over the editorial line at the Global Times. Although the full situation is yet unclear, something worth emphasizing again, it might be that CCP leaders feel the Global Times is due for more “party spirit” and a bit less Hu Xijin spirit, even though Hu has in many ways been an exemplary servant of Party-state.

Who Is Wu Qimin?

In addition to Fan Zhengwei’s arrival, Hu’s position as editor-in-chief will reportedly be taken on by Wu Qimin, the People’s Daily international desk deputy head who was rumored as a replacement last June. Wu joined the international department at the People’s Daily in 1991, and has since filed hundreds of reports from around the world on wide-ranging issues, from US-China trade to China-Africa relations. She is the author of a 2013 book, published by the People’s Daily, called ​Special Reports on High-Level Diplomacy (大国外交第一现场), which gathers many of her reports.

In one article from August 2018, as Wu reports on the China-Africa Think Tank Forum held in Beijing, her focus is clearly on the issue of “discourse power” (话语权), and the need for China and African nations to strengthen their voices through development. Her writing shows a penchant for florid and overwrought language, and of course (par for the course in Party-state media) hyperbole. Development opportunities as a result of the Belt and Road Initiative are “unlimited,” and “the light of hope shines.”

The adjustment of the world’s discourse system can be called the inevitable result of the adjustment of the world economic landscape. In today’s world, the places where rapid economic development can be most readily seen is in those emerging market countries and developing countries, and particularly in those areas where the “Belt and Road” initiative is providing unlimited opportunity. Among them, China and Africa are both hotbeds of development where the light of hope shines.

Wu concludes that the “new pattern of joint development between China and Africa” indicates that there is “a huge space for both sides to enhance their discourse power.” This is her takeaway from the Beijing forum.

Wu Qimin, deputy head of the international department at the People’s Daily, speaks at the 10+3 Media Cooperation Forum in 2018.

Reports back in June this year cited sources in Beijing as calling Wu “competent,” “rational” and “modest.” The last of these qualities would perhaps set her apart from Hu Xijin, who has in many respects been a noisy self-promoter.

Who Is Fan Zhengwei

A native of the city of Suide (绥德), in Shaanxi province, Fan was born in 1980. Between 1999 and 2006, Fan studied for both his bachelors and masters degrees at Peking University – first in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature and later in the university’s School of Law. According to the WeChat public account “Media Training Camp” (传媒特训营), people in the Chinese media familiar with Fan Zhengwei have described him as “young, handsome, modest and meticulous about his work.”

According to reports from Xinhua News Agency, Fan Zhengwei was among a small number of People’s Daily staff members who personally met with Xi Jinping during his visit to the paper on February 19, 2016, during which the leader clearly outlined his media policy and emphasized the need for all media to “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party.”  

Fan Zhengwei appears in a report on China Central Television. Screenshot from “Media Training Camp.”

Fan joined the People’s Daily shortly after his graduation in 2006 (by which time Hu Xijin had been in editor-in-chief of the Global Times for less than a year), and his first bylines as a reporter appear in the flagship CCP newspaper at this time. By 2008, however, Fan was regularly writing commentaries, his first, on May 16, about the spirit of solidarity in the aftermath of the disastrous Sichuan earthquake. “Disaster relief is a battle against time, but also a lasting psychological war,” Fan wrote. “Earthquakes can shake down houses and bridges, but they cannot break our psychological defenses. We believe that with more psychological intervention teams rushing to the disaster area, with the unity of the people and support from all sides, people in the disaster area will be able to get out of the psychological shadow as soon as possible, rebuild a better home, and rebuild a better life.”

In a commentary on March 2, 2009, in what in retrospect seems like a more open period in terms of information policy (See CMP’s interview with Zhan Jiang), Fan wrote about an online dialogue staged between Hu Jintao and Chinese netizens.

“[As the saying goes] ‘What the people worry about, I think about; what the people think about, I do.’ In the face of the most difficult year for the economy in the new century, leading cadres at all levels should pay more attention to the voice of the people, pay attention to the rights and interests of the people, grasp the full range of social and public opinion through various channels, including the internet, and gather strength and overcome difficulties together in the resonance of the national will and the will of the people.”

Through January 2019, covering a period of more than 10 years, Fan’s commentaries, like the one above, frequently appeared in the “People’s Forum” (人民论坛) section on page four of the newspaper. Since his first commentary in 2008, Fan has written 119 personally bylined commentaries in the People’s Daily, though he has certainly been involved in other commentaries written under various official bylines. He is thought to be one of the chief members of the team of editorial writers behind the byline “Ren Zhongping” (任仲平), not a person but a name standing in for key official commentaries from the flagship paper.

Fan’s commentaries have of course closely mirrored, as they must, the political positions at the top of the leadership. In November 2019, Fan was among several journalists from the People’s Daily named as recipients of a “special prize” at the 29th annual China News Awards for a commentary series called, “A Great Change That Made History: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening.”

One of Fan’s pieces that is perhaps most reflective of the current era and its politics was a commentary appearing on October 20, 2017, right on the heels of the 19th National Congress of the CCP. Called “A New Thought, A Great Power to Change China” (新思想, 改变中国的伟力), it was the second installment in a series called “New Thought(s) to Lead a New Journey” (新思想引领新征程). The piece was not in fact about ideas at all, but rather about a single “Thought” – Xi Jinping’s newly-introduced and rather unwieldly banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

If, as we can anticipate, Xi’s banner term is shortened in the coming months to the potent “Xi Jinping Thought,” it could indeed be Fan Zhengwei who is hailing the momentous occasion as director of the Global Times.

The Trouble With Influence

In its latest crackdown on social media influencers, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced yesterday that it had shut down around 20,000 “top online influencer accounts” (头部账号), including the account of a well-known former magazine editor who was detained back in October on charges that he had “insulted heroes and martyrs.”

The CAC notice, which was also posted to its social media account “CAC China” (网信中国), cited a range of violations, and emphasized that such accounts must abide by “correct guidance,” a phrase that points to the CCP’s policy of exercising control of the agenda through control of the media, ultimately ensuring the stability of the regime. In the Xi era, the language of “guidance,” which once applied more directly to traditional media, has expanded to apply to all of cyberspace, meaning that individual users are now bound by its mandate. Four years ago new CAC rules on online chat groups explicitly stated that “providers of information services through internet chat groups on the internet, and users, must adhere to correct guidance, promoting socialist core values.”

In the CAC notice, the accounts in question were explicitly accused of having “spread erroneous guidance” (传播错误导向). The notice also mentioned that the accounts have “media properties and a social mobilization function,” language clearly indicating that influence is now a primary criterion in considering disciplinary action against online accounts.

The notice said a number of “top online influencers” had “insulted heroes and martyrs,” a reference a law adopted in 2018 – and designed to promote patriotism and “socialist core values” – that made it a crime to question the authenticity of CCP narratives such as that of the soldier Lei Feng (雷锋), who since the early 1960s has been a poster boy of selfless dedication to the Party.

Among those accounts singled out for censure on these grounds was that of Luo Changping (罗昌平), a former investigative reporter and editor for Caijing magazine who in October was detained by police in Hainan province for a commentary on social media that was critical of The Battle at Lake Changjin, the war epic on Chinese volunteer soldiers fighting in the Korean War. As the news of Luo’s detention was reported in domestic media in October, including the Global Times, his background as a professional journalist was elided, and he was identified only as an “online influencer.”

Other influencers had, according to the notice, “recklessly created and spread rumors, interfering with orderly internet communication.” Still other accounts were shut down due to allegations of tax evasion and “such illegal activity.”

“The internet is not a land outside the law,” the notice said, employing a phrase that has been oft-repeated in the Xi Jinping era, becoming a regular feature of high-level discussions about cyberspace, but which first appeared around 2006 as the Information Office of the State Council discussed ways to “govern the internet according to the law” (依法管网).

Small Steps for “Xi Thought”

In the game of Chinese Communist Party discourse, words matter. They are used by the leadership to signal power and priorities, and by subordinates to signal loyalty and compliance. Though it is never quite a uniform and straightforward reflection of the Party’s will, the flagship People’s Daily newspaper can be seen as an indicator of how the language game of politics is playing out.

Two small signals were sent out on the front page of the People’s Daily yesterday and today, through the inclusion in headlines of the phrase “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想), the first headline references in the key arena of economic decision-making to Xi’s so-called banner phrase, or qizhiyu (旗帜语), the long-winded “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想).

On yesterday’s front page, an article in the bottom-left corner, structured around the Chinese character for “beauty” (美), included “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” in the subhead. But we can also note that the article is advertised as part of a series, labeled as the first of several “reviews” of Xi’s economic governing concept.

An article at the bottom-left of the front page of the People’s Daily on December 5, 2021, includes a subhead with the phrase “Xi Jinping Economic Thought.”

Not surprisingly, then, the same basic layout is repeated on the front page of the People’s Daily today. But this time the article, the second in the series, is moved up from the corner, given slightly more prominence even than yesterday.

An article on the left-hand side of the front page of the People’s Daily on December 6, 2021, again includes a subhead with the phrase “Xi Jinping Economic Thought.”

Though these headline appearances may also have something to do with the upcoming annual Central Economic Work Conference (中央经济工作会议), there can be little doubt that they are important steps toward the formal introduction of the potent “Xi Thought” — putting Xi on par with Mao.

As CMP has noted repeatedly, the shortening of Xi’s banner phrase to the far more potent “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) is an important step to watch for in the run-up to next year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP. While the phrase “Xi Jinping Thought” has been used regularly outside China to refer to the leader’s legacy set of governing ideas (here it is in the headline of an article by Kevin Rudd in the Wall Street Journal), it is crucial to understand that this shortening has not actually been achieved in Chinese.

The change, which would formally put Xi’s banner term on a level with that of Mao Zedong, is a step that is surely taken seriously within the CCP, and which cannot be taken lightly – seeing as it might be perceived as a discursive power-grab, a sign of cult-of-personality ambitions. So what we have seen in recent months, and in fits and starts since the 19th National Congress back in the fall of 2017, is the shortening first of various permutations of Xi’s banner term as it is applied to different policy areas. Two of the most frequently-used permutations have been those for the legal system and for foreign policy, which are “Xi Jinping Thought on Rule of Law” (习近平法治思想) and “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想).  The first of these has appeared previously in headlines in the People’s Daily, the latest instance having been on November 27, 2021. In the vast majority of cases, however, Xi’s full banner term appears in headlines in the paper, despite its inconvenient length.

Another shortened form of Xi’s banner has been applied to environmental policy, “Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Civilization” (习近平生态文明思想). This phrase appears also in a headline in the People’s Daily today, though on page 13.

The Histrionics of Cultural Promotion

In the ferment of the late 1980s, when artistic and literary revival became a political agenda, liberals within the Chinese Communist Party needed the right sort of newcomer to offer fresh ideas. The task fell to Wang Meng (王蒙), a 51 year-old writer who had spent much of his adult life through the Mao era doing physical labor in far-flung Xinjiang – penance for critical writings including his 1956 short story, “The Young Newcomer to the Organization Department,” which put a spotlight on bureaucracy and inaction within the CCP.

“Now, Chinese literary politics have come full circle,” the Los Angeles Times said as it reported the news of Wang’s appointment in June 1986. The notion of a cultural renaissance was in the air in China. Zhu Houze (朱厚泽), the country’s liberal minister of propaganda, urged young cadres to break out of the Marxist mold and learn from Western political ideas. Not long after Wang’s appointment, Zhu wrote in the People’s Daily that a wave of “culture is hot” (文化热) had swept over China. “Culture is a big issue,” he said. “We must think farther and more broadly on how to improve the cultural literacy of the whole nation. [We must] push small culture on to great culture, and with great culture promote the full development of our society, politics and economy.”

By June of 1989, China had once again gone full circle. The brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989, spelled the end of more open cultural experimentation. And Wang Meng was among several liberal officials removed from his post in September that year.

China is now in the midst of another push for cultural greatness. Since 2019, Xi Jinping has stressed the need for “cultural confidence” (文化自信), which he has said is “a matter that concerns the fate of a nation.” Xi has also spoken of the need to safeguard “cultural security” (文化安全). More so even than in the Hu Jintao era, when “cultural soft power” was bandied about as a key component of China’s comprehensive national power (CNP), culture has been defined by the CCP in strategic terms. “Especially for a large nation, a large country, and a large political party like ours,” Xi has said, “if we are culturally passive and lose our independence, then the independence of our system and sovereignty will be taken away from us.”

In recent years, there has been a concerted push to capitalize on this new confidence, and to work toward the “building of a cultural power” (文化强国建设), including through funding for “cultural” projects. But what are the real implications for cultural activity, for the creation of artistic works and the celebration and appreciation of expressive acts, when culture becomes a matter of political urgency – more about apparatchiks than about artists?

It is against the backdrop of this most recent push for “cultural confidence” in China that we should read the latest remarks from Wang Meng, the former cultural minister, who penned an essay last month for the WeChat public account “Chang’an Street Book Club” (长安街读书会). The essay, “Cultural Treasure and Cultural Bubbles,” is a prime example of the “Spring and Autumn Style” of writing (春秋笔法), which subtly and indirectly criticizes, avoiding (or so is the idea) direct censure.

The danger with promoting a whole-society, whole-politics approach to culture, Wang warns, is that this does not give rise to cultural treasures that enrich all, but rather results in a “cultural bubble,” as corporate and political interests rush to capitalize on national priorities.

_____________

Cultural Treasures and Cultural Bubbles

Wang Meng

Chang’an Street Book Club

When an entire society prioritizes and awaits the development and flourishing of culture, the result may be a positive situation that can give rise to cultural treasures (文化瑰宝) worthy of a great era and deep traditions. But the result may also be the creation of a cultural bubble by muddling through, or by resorting to histrionic fakery.

What are cultural treasures? This is a matter of what sort of path, insight, spiritual enjoyment and life wisdom we offer the audience. For example, we might interpret traditional culture in ways that align it with the achievements of modern human civilization. For example, we might [introduce] a better way of thinking about education and the future prospects of our nation — ultimately leaving behind the restrictions of a fill-in-the-blank, test score mentality. For example, [we might see] the emergence of writing and artistic achievement of true value that has the potential to go down in history. Or [we might have] theoretical innovations, scientific and technological innovations, and institutional innovations that unleash the imagination and creativity of the entire nation with the new horizons they make possible.

What is a cultural bubble?

It might, for example, appear as the staking out of [cultural] territory, trying to gain footholds, extending loans. The more people lack imagination when it comes to culture, the easier it is to financialize (财务化) and infrastructuralize (基建化) culture, making it about interests and simplistically materializing it. Everywhere [now], we see the building of cultural ecology parks (文化生态园), cultural memorial parks (文化纪念园), cultural celebrity parks (文化名人园), cultural bases (文化基地), cultural squares (文化广场) . . . . Some of these have been done well. But others have simply sought loans in the name of culture, building ostensible stages to culture on which the economy is meant to sing.

I’ve already seen quite of few of these “gardens” and “pavilions,” which claim to be about the commemoration of some cultural celebrity, but which in fact deal at most around 10 percent with this aspect in terms of area, and perhaps one percent in terms of funding. The exhibits are old and dilapidated, and no one visits them.

As so-called value-adding, extension businesses they offer restaurants and catering, accommodation, spas, massages, wedding services, chess and gambling (or gambling on the down-low), karaoke and so on. I’ve even seen how one company has entirely renovated a cultural monument, taking over control of an entire street of stores from the government.

My proposal is that inspections and clean-ups be made of existing cultural facilities everywhere, and that management and supervision be strengthened over parks, pavilions, sites, plazas and companies that fly the banner of culture by are not really about culture.

We see on the one hand that our existing cultural heritage is not being cherished, and is sometimes being destroyed, and on the other hand that false monuments are being fabricated and constructed at will.

The thinking here is to identify culture as something symbolic, and to use culture as a business card. This way of thinking isn’t exactly without reason. For trademark design, tourism advertising, investment promotion and general popularization globally of a culture that is not in the world mainstream, using [culture] as a symbol, brand or calling card may work – add the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, a panda bear, a cheongsam or exotic Chinese characters . . . . and then China is represented. Not exactly a bad thing. But this is only a superficial understanding, and sometimes it can become a cheapening, oversimplifying and repackaging of Chinese culture. Sometimes the distance between cultural symbolism and the cultural bubble is just a single step.

For certain popular art to invent certain cultural symbols is acceptable. But some people, influenced by such popular art, grow ever more foolish and extravagant, the result being shallowness. For example, [the idea that] the Chinese people are descendants of the dragon, and so on. In Chinese traditional culture, the dragon is a precious creature, a totem of kingship, a symbol either of spirits or of the sea and rain. Or it can be a name, or the way a feng shui master describes a mountain, and so on. But there is no evidence that the dragon has ever been ancestor or totem of the Chinese nation. 

Aside from the lyrics of the popular song “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人) by Taiwanese musician Hou Dejian (侯德健), there is no other evidence. This song is full of nationalistic passion, and it is well loved by audiences on the mainland, but to take this and decide we are [the dragon’s] descendants, or that it is a totem of our people, a final word on Chinese culture, and to loudly proclaim that “dragon culture” has arrived, or to oppose it on such grounds, is incredibly foolish.

Then, during the opening ceremonies of major sporting events, we again see quite a number of serious and fabricated cultural symbols.  We see the odd spectacle of long-extinct Chinese instruments coming out en masse. This is all quite eye-catching, and something certainly up to the discretion of the great director. But we cannot seriously think that strangeness and mystery, the gigantic and the ancient represent the real Chinese culture.  As for hanging up red lanterns as a sign of favoring wives and concubines, this is even more laughable.

The word “make a show” (作秀) derives from the English word “show,” and in Hong Kong it has been translated as “flirtatiousness” (骚) [NOTE: The first character here, 秀, in Chinese means “elegant” or “graceful”]. Whether “elegant” or “flirtatious,” it is a popular and mass spectacle, something entirely different from the true meaning of cultural “performance.” The works of the genius director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) are careful to “show” symbols of traditional Chinese culture, but though the symbols abound [in his work], this stuff consists mostly of cheap landmarks newly invented by the genius director’s imagination, and their value as real Chinese culture is limited. My apologies, but I can’t help but say this.

The problem is that our uncoordinated cultural experts can’t themselves say clearly what these “symbols” mean, and are instead pulled along by videos and popular songs, and sometimes can’t avoid making fools of themselves.

An even bigger instance of the cultural bubble is the [phenomenon of] treating culture as a mere formality, going after huge scale in cultural events, spending huge amounts of money on culture, but missing the spirit of culture entirely. Parties and banquets are held, song and dance numbers are performed, scores or hundreds of people from the arts participate, and the audience swells into the millions, with ratings extremely high, and even using various high-technology approaches. The upshot is that there are “selling points” for all – beautiful women, handsome men, stuntmen, the spectacular use of vocal chords, swimwear, martial arts, water curtains, special lighting, smoke . . . . But no consideration, no thought, no passion, no  love and hate, good and evil, no depth, no educational benefit, no spiritual nutrition, and no fullness or sublimation of feeling. This sort of culture is an empty culture, a pallid and soulless culture, a lamentable culture.

A gala held on Henan TV for the Mid-Autumn Festival in September 2021 pulls out all the stops when it comes to cultural spectacle.

Then there are certain of our blockbusters, which though they are big, come off as puffed up and lacking any spiritual depth or intensity.

In terms of cultural content, American blockbusters do not exceed the average [cultural understanding] of their audiences. The problem is that our blockbusters often fall shorts [in terms of cultural content], falling far below the average cultural awareness of our audiences. The intellect of our audiences is rising, but the content of our blockbusters remains impaired.

As a matter of government management and cultural policy, any cultural activity that does not violate the law is permissible. We can also feel thankful and make allowances for cultural events and arts programs that are enjoyable and make audiences laugh. At the same time, what we call for and what we want are cultural treasures, not cultural bubbles. We absolutely must not continue to encourage such froth. On this point we must not vacillate in the least.

In literature too, why is it that discussions of the literary aspects of literature grow thinner and thinner, while the hype about sales and bestsellers grows louder and louder? While sales can result in enormous benefit for authors and publishers, in no place in the world does this equal literary value.

We should also be wary of certain specious, fanciful and showy claims about culture. Culture is wisdom, history, lifestyle and a spiritual pillar. Culture is not about fanciful rhetoric and lyrical recitation, about tasteless posturing. It is not about flirting with your charms. The more commonsensical principles are presented in ways people can’t understand, the more we must refuse to believe them.

Searching for Peng Shuai

The case of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai (彭帅) entered a bizarre new phase last week as the overseas accounts of Chinese state-media and associated media personalities made an apparently concerted effort to allay growing concerns internationally about the athlete’s wellbeing. But the extreme nature of the restraints on speech about Peng, and the appropriation of her voice by the organs of external propaganda, should be sufficient proof that she is now subject to serious restraints on her personal freedom.

“The Thing People Talked About”

On November 18, more than two weeks after Peng’s November 2 post accusing former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli (张高丽) of sexual assault, CGTN, the international arm of the state-run China Media Group, posted a letter to Twitter that Peng Shuai had reportedly sent to Steve Simon, the chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). In the letter, Peng seemed to claim that she was “not missing, nor am I unsafe.” “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said.

Far from easing growing concerns over the tennis star’s wellbeing, the letter ratcheted up suspicions.

The original post made to Peng Shuai’s social media account in China on November 2 alleges sexual assault by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

The next day, as the CGTN letter became the focus of international speculation, the WTA having rejected it as credible proof that Peng was safe, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin apparently sought to quell concerns by writing on Twitter that foreign media were engaging in senseless speculation. Hu seemed unable even to speak frankly about the case, however: “As a person who is familiar with Chinese system,” he wrote, “I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.”

The same day, Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟), a Paris-based reporter for Hu Xijin’s newspaper, shared photos on Twitter that she claimed were from Peng Shuai’s WeChat account. They showed Peng apparently playing happily with her pet cat, surrounded by a collection of plush toys. Replying to Shen’s Twitter post, Hu Xijin said he was “willing to believe the authenticity of these photos.”

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin comments on a tweet by CGTN editor Shen Shiwei suggesting that tennis star Peng Shuai is safe. Nevertheless, the star remains unreachable.

Hu Xijin’s next attempt to leverage his overseas following on Twitter came late in the day on November 20, as he posted a pair of videos he had obtained from unidentified sources. “I acquired two video clips, which show Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time,” Hu wrote.  

On Sunday, November 21, Hu posted a video of Peng attending the finals of a youth tennis competition and waving to unseen spectators. “Global Times photo reporter Cui Meng captured her at scene,” Hu wrote.

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin posts a video attributed to a “photo reporter” at his newspaper on November 21, purporting to show that Peng Shuai is safely attending public events.  

Hu attempted to turn the tables on the Western media who refused to accept at face value attempts to offer evidence of Peng Shuai’s wellbeing that seemed clearly staged. “Can any girl fake such [a] sunny smile under pressure?” he asked. “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside. There must be many forced political performances in their countries.”

In a November 21 post to Twitter, Hu Xijin suggests that Peng Shuai must be fine because she is smiling while attending a youth tournament.

Leaving aside the ugly fact that here is a privileged male within a closed media system dominated by the ruling political party speaking diminishingly of a professional woman, age 35, as a “girl,” how could Hu’s denials and counterattacks possibly convince journalists, politicians and audiences globally? After all, Peng Shuai had not yet spoken. She had nodded at a dinner table, in a carefully edited video in which another male had spoken, ludicrously, about what day it was. She had turned, masked, in another video from which the audio had been entirely removed (the camera lingering on a date posted on the door). The overriding fact here was that Peng’s voice could not be heard. She was unreachable, even though the letter to the WTA shared through the overseas social accounts of state media had quoted her as asking the organization to verify any future news with her first, and “release it with my consent.”

In the latest gambit to prove that everything is fine, and that the world can simply move on when it comes to Peng Shuai and her allegations on November 2, the International Olympic Committee revealed Monday that its president had spoken to Peng Shuai by video on Sunday and confirmed that the tennis star is “safe.” The IOC announcement prompted further skepticism outside China, the organization accused by some as having involved itself in a “publicity stunt.”

External Propaganda, Internal Darkness

The most damning fact in the Peng Shuai case is that all information about the tennis star, her allegations and her personal wellbeing has been completely expunged from media and the internet. The comments made by Hu Xijin and others associated with Chinese state media may seem like the advance front of a global narrative to counter the concerns of the world – Peng is fine, there is nothing to see (我很安全) – but there is in fact no core narrative at all, no real and convincing alternative explanation for what has unfolded this month.

Even the letter, the images and videos that Hu and CGTN have deployed in an attempt to convince the world do not exist in the alternate universe of Chinese information. They have been scrubbed from the internet. They have not been shared or referenced at all in mainstream media coverage.

One Weibo user said it well yesterday when they posted a message referring to Peng Shuai only as “PS,” because her name has become a blocked keyword: “Opening up Twitter today, I see that the first name in the headlines is [Peng Shuai]. The world is speaking for her, but we can’t even hear it.”

A Weibo user posts on November 22 that Twitter is full of headlines showing that the world is concerned about Peng Shuai, but that “we [in China] can’t hear them.”

Surely, Hu Xijin must have posted something to Weibo, where he has more than 24 million fans? Since November 18, Hu has posted about US-China relations and the recent Biden-Xi video meet. He has posted about alleged bias in the Western media, focusing on a report by Reuters about a Chinese professor at a European university working with a Chinese military laboratory, which on Twitter was accompanied by an image of Chinese soldiers (prompting an apology from the news agency). He has written about Lithuania “undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and violently interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

But there is nothing, not a word about Peng Shuai.

A search in the Baidu search engine for “Hu Xijin” and “Peng Shuai,” selecting for web pages from the past week only, turns up just two pages. But these are not from the past week, nor do they have anything to do with Peng Shuai’s wellbeing. The first is a link to People.com.cn, the official website of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper – not to any particular page, but rather to an archived homepage from January 2014.

A search in Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” returns just two results, neither current and neither of course relevant to the Peng Shuai case.

The top headline on this archived homepage is for a featured profile, appearing at the time in the provincial-level Henan Daily, of Xi Jinping as a county-level leader in the 1980s.

The second search result generated through Baidu is an instance in which both “Hu Xijin” and “Peng Shuai” appear. But it is not recent news, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Peng’s recent whereabouts, or Hu Xijin’s remarks on the issue. Instead, it is a single inside page of the October 1, 2012, edition of the China Business Journal, a newspaper published under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The bottom half of the page is occupied by an article called, “Idle Talk of Traitors” (休话汉奸), that discusses, with a slightly admonishing tone, the flippant use by online nationalists of the label “traitor” against Chinese participating in various international events. They included Li Na (李娜), who in 2011 won the French Open, becoming the first Asian-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Li Na was being branded a traitor online for taking part in a tournament in Japan in the midst of disputes over the Senkaku Islands. But Peng Shuai was spared similar treatment at the time. “Making the same remarks, how is it that Li Na is a traitor and Peng Shuai is not?” the article asked. “What logic is this?”

A lone search result on Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” is not about Hu’s recent remarks on Peng’s case, but an incidental appearance of both on a newspaper page from 2011.

The superficial link with Hu Xijin comes as a “Sina Weibo” column on the right-hand side of the page highlights a number of recent Weibo posts that have drawn attention online. One of these is a post from the Global Times editor-in-chief urging Brazil to demolish its favellas ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – or at the very least to give them a new paint job.

Has the Global Times in fact reported anything about Peng Shuai as Hu Xijin has taken to Twitter to argue that everything is fine? No. Nothing. This is clear from a search of the paper’s website over the past week.

Hu Xijin has been outspoken about Peng Shuai on Twitter. But his newspaper has reported nothing in the past week.

A search for “Peng Shuai” and “Global Times” in Baidu turns up plenty, but the coverage all dates from 2014 and 2015, as though six years have gone missing.

A search “Peng Shuai” and the “Global Times” turns up results from 2014 and 2015.

A search for just “Peng Shuai” in Baidu again turns up old coverage of Peng’s tournament play, headlines from 2010, 2012, 2013, and one from 2020.

A search for “Peng Shuai” in the Baidu search engine turns up results that at years old.

Select for the past week and there is nothing at all.

A search in Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” over the past week turns up 0 results.

What about China’s official Xinhua News Agency? It is generally meant to lead official coverage, along with the People’s Daily, setting the standard for “public opinion guidance” and offering news releases that other media can safely run. Any reporting about Peng Shuai over the past week?

No. Again, nothing.

A search of the website of the official Xinhua News Agency, generally the source of authorized statements, turns up nothing on “Peng Shuai.”

And then we have CCTV.com, the official website of the state-run broadcaster, whose CGTN has posted actively on Twitter about Peng Shuai, suggesting there is no need at all to search for her. Surely, CCTV has made its position known to the domestic audience and to the world through its powerful platform.

Once again, a search of CCTV.com reveals no coverage whatsoever of Peng Shuai over the past week.

There has been no mention of “Peng Shuai” on the official CCTV website in the past week as the international discussion of her predicament has crested.

But perhaps this is the result of online content blocks? Perhaps there has been coverage offline, in Chinese newspapers? A search over the past week in the Wisers database for Chinese language media outside the PRC, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, turns up more than 70 reports related to Peng Shuai.

A total of 70 articles are returned for “Peng Shuai” in Chinese-language media outside the PRC. Source: Wisers.

So let’s select for mainland newspapers. What do we find? Once again, total silence. Not a single result is returned for the past week using the name “Peng Shuai” in the more than 300 papers available in the database.

A search for the past week of more than 300 PRC newspapers turns up no mention of “Peng Shuai.” Source: Wisers.

The crucial point we can glean from this fruitless search for “Peng Shuai” in the Chinese information space is that the tennis star is really and truly missing, despite the assurances provided by state media and associated individuals through international social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Which is to say that there is no real way for Peng to speak openly about the accusations she made earlier this month against a powerful political figure, and there is no space for a broader conversation, or any conversation, within the Chinese media and information environment about the implications of her case.

Civilizing Cyberspace

Officials and representatives from China’s internet industry are gathering in Beijing today for the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference.” The conference, hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Beijing Municipal CCP Committee and the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization (中央文明办), a body directly under the Central Propaganda Department, addresses a single theme: “Gathering the power to move upward toward goodness, building an internet civilization together” (汇聚向上向善力量,携手建设网络文明).

The significance of this inaugural conference lies in the answer to a simple question: What do the authorities mean when they talk about “goodness” and “civilization” in cyberspace?

Announcing the conference on November 16, Sheng Ronghua (盛荣华), deputy head of the CAC, said the mission of the conference would be to “promote all sectors of society in unifying their thoughts and actions with the decisions and deployments of the Central Committee on the construction of online civilization.” The event would, he said, serve as a platform to promote the concept of “online civilization,” and ensure the “civilized” conduct of all parties, from internet platforms to users.

The impetus of the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference,” said Sheng, was to build on the cleanup efforts undertaken in 2021. In particular, Sheng emphasized the advances he said had been made this year in “cleaning up chaos in fandom [culture]” online. He stressed that there was now much stricter and more regularized “strong oversight” of fandoms, and that online platforms had a much stronger sense of responsibility. To date, he said, the fandom cleanup campaign had resulted in the deletion of more than 400,000 pieces of “negative and harmful information.” Moreover, 20,000 illegal accounts and more than 6,500 group operators (群主) had been shut down.

In fact, the notion of “online civilization,” or wangluo wenmin (网络文明), first emerged in the late Jiang Zemin era, around 2001, associated closely with familiar concepts having less to do with moral consensus and more to do with political control. Looking back on that language, we can note that ideological control was generally in close company with moral justifications, the CCP being the ultimate arbiter of the good and the bad.

Moral Imperatives, Political Ends

In the 2001 Outline on the Establishment and Implementation of Citizen Morality, the CCP emphasized that the media had an obligation to adhere to “positive propaganda” and to “firmly grasp correct public opinion guidance” in order to advance “civilization construction” (文明建设). At this point, the internet was still a relatively new medium, but the same passage of the document noted that “[we must] lead online institutions and the web population in strengthening consciousness of online morality, building online civilization together.”

On the opposite side of “online civilization” were arrayed “certain people with ulterior motives” (一些别有用心者), those who spread “harmful information” (不良信息), a trend that necessitated the general education of the people in the “building of online civilization” (SEE:  共同建设网络文明).

In 2006, the notion of “online civilization” became closely tied to Hu Jintao’s laundry list of moral instructions for China, known as the “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” (八荣八耻), which was also closely connected with the application of online censorship around Hu’s concept of “civilized operation of the internet, civilized use of the internet” (文明办网, 文明上网). By 2007, these ideas about the political control of online speech as a broader social imperative had coalesced into the idea that China was creating, under the CCP, an “online culture with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色网络文化). The idea, as laid out by then propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (刘云山), was that the construction and control of cyberspace should proceed in tandem – “one hand grasping construction, the other hand grasping management,” as he said.

This model of internet development, said the propaganda chief, would ensure the “strengthening of online public opinion guidance, and the consolidation and development of positive, healthy and improved mainstream public opinion.” Combined here with the idea of “mainstream” public opinion, which is synonymous in CCP discourse with the Party-state line, the notion of “improved,” or xiangshang (向上), is the same language we see in the theme of today’s “Internet Civilization Conference.”

A Strong (and Moral) Internet Power

The talk of “online civilization” today, just as in the Hu era, is fundamentally about the political imperative of “public opinion guidance” cloaked in the language of moral goodness. The difference in the Xi era is that “online civilization” is now part of the broader idea of China as a “strong internet power” (网络强国), subsumed within the idea of creating a “modern socialist nation.” An article on page four of today’s People’s Daily, “Building a Better Spiritual Home Online,” mentions “Xi Jinping’s important thoughts on [building China as] a strong internet power,” and says that “strengthening the building of an online civilization has become an important task in accelerating the building of a strong internet power, and fully building a modern socialist nation.”

Xi’s focus is on leveraging “rule of law” related to online civilization (such as the 2017 Cybersecurity Law) in order to achieve a vibrant cyberspace – for so the thinking goes – that maintains the political discipline that the CCP demands. This is not so different at all from Liu Yunshan’s talk back in 2007 of two hands grasping, construction proceeding along with management. And in fact, old and familiar CCP discourse about speech control imperatives is as plain as day in the present-day talk of “online civilization.”

In discussing the concept today, the People’s Daily lifts a quote from Xi Jinping’s speech back in April 2016 to the Work Conference for Cybersecurity and Informatization:

Cyberspace is a common spiritual garden for hundreds of millions of people. Having a clear sky and crisp air, having a good ecology in cyberspace conforms to the people’s interests. A pestilent atmosphere and a deteriorating ecology in cyberspace do not conform to the people’s interest [China Copyright and Media].

As much as Party-state media would like to trumpet Xi Jinping’s theoretical innovativeness as a kind of philosopher-in-chief, this is classic Jiang Zemin, polished up for the era of cyberspace primacy, with environmental language thrown in for the sake of currency.

It was back on September 26, 1996, while  visiting the People’s Daily, that Jiang, the same leader who originated the concept of “public opinion guidance” in the wake of the June 4 crackdown, elaborated the concept in terms of its benefit to the regime and to the people: “Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party and the people,” said Jiang. “Incorrect guidance of public opinion means calamity for the Party and the people.”

As officials, academics and internet representatives meet today at the “Internet Civilization Conference,” the essence of their discussions can still be summarized best by Jiang’s so-called “theory of weal and woe” (福祸论), which has only been re-animated by Xi Jinping’s words and their claim to moral rightness.