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).
At a ceremony held yesterday in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the most recent recipients of the country’s two most prestigious journalism awards were honored for their contributions — but not to journalism, not exactly.
The award-winning “press workers” (新闻工作者) lined up in neat rows and applauded enthusiastically as Cai Qi (蔡奇), the fifth-ranking member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the former mayor of Beijing, entered to greet them and stress the core tenets of what the Party calls “news and public opinion work” (新闻舆论工作) — an umbrella term for the larger project of press control in the interests of maintaining political stability.
But the real guest of honor at the awards event was a phrase introduced only last month at a high-level Party work conference — “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (习近平文化思想).
A permutation of Xi’s legitimizing grand concept (the eponymous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”), this phrase now packs together a set of political and ideological obligations for culture, the foremost being the CCP’s unquestioned leadership of ideology. Its appearance in the context of an award ceremony for the China Journalism Awards (中国新闻奖) and the Changjiang Taofen Award (长江韬奋奖) suggests that it will remain front and center as a term signaling the political obligations of journalists and all others working in the cultural sphere.
According to a readout in today’s edition of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper, “the conference demanded that the masses of news workers must take the study of Xi Jinping Thought on Culture as their compulsory course.” Furthermore, they must “deeply understand the significance, rich implications, and practical requirements of this important thought, consciously implementing it throughout the whole process of news and public opinion work, striving to be news workers for the New Era with a sense of feeling, competence, and responsibility.”
Those on the frontlines of journalism (新闻战线) “must strengthen positive propaganda with an emphasis on confidence,” the conference emphasized, according to the release — because official events in China are written about as though they have agency in and of themselves.
The idea of “emphasizing positive propaganda” (正面宣传), long a key aspect of “news and public opinion work,” emerged in the aftermath of the June 4th crackdown in 1989. Xi Jinping stressed the concept as a lynchpin of news and propaganda policy in both 2013 and 2016. The phrase appears again today in the official release about Cai Qi’s visit with journalists, but it is subordinated to other familiar staples of Xi era press policy, including the demand that the media “tell China’s stories well” (讲好中国故事).
What does award-winning journalism look like under the umbrella of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture”? The awards table provided on the website of the All-China Journalists Association (中国记协) for first-prize winners of the China Journalism Awards this year offers a telling glimpse.
The bottom line in China’s state media today, the day after Xi Jinping met in California with US President Joe Biden, can perhaps be best summed up in just two words: friendly, and firm. On the front page of today’s edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, the visual atmosphere could be described as congenial. The images that draw focus are those of Xi and Biden shaking hands warmly, a smile breaking across Xi’s face, and below of the two men strolling elbow to elbow on the verdant grounds of California’s Filoli Estate — in a frontward facing view, mind you, underscoring the symmetry of the relationship.
We can focus obsessively on the political discourse of the CCP as projected through the carefully calibrated megaphone of the People’s Daily. But these visual elements are a crucial aspect of the framing of the meetings from the Party’s standpoint. In state-crafted propaganda, as in other matters, pictures are worth a thousand words.
Sure, the image directly below the masthead is hardly dynamic, drawing on the all-too-familiar state media trope of the diplomatic conference table, the delegations arrayed stiffly, and again symmetrically, on either side — conveying the seriousness of the high-level business at hand. (As a side note, this choice from Xinhua News Agency photographer Rao Aimin (饶爱民) is an interesting contrast with the more visually pleasing, and often creative choices of Western press photographers like Doug Mills at the Associated Press.)
But we can say in sum that the general sense of good feeling on this People’s Daily front page speaks to the basic tone the CCP leadership would like to strike. It is important not only, in other words, that Biden and Xi had a “frank and in-depth exchange of views,” but that, as the lede report states today, “Xi was warmly greeted by Biden upon his arrival at the Filoli Estate.”
The front page is an expression in layout form of the CCP leadership’s choice in what the report characterizes, relaying Xi Jinping’s words in California, as two competing options facing the US-China relationship:
The world, Xi pointed out, is now experiencing changes not seen in a century, and China and the United States have two choices: one is to strengthen solidarity and cooperation, work together to address global challenges and promote world security and prosperity. The other is to maintain a zero-sum mentality and stir up confrontation between [global] camps, leading the world toward turbulence and division.
So the message of symmetry and friendship is signaled loud and clear on the paper’s front page today. And what about the textual language?
Looking Biden in the Eye
The most important place we need to look today to answer this question is the space directly to the right of the People’s Daily masthead, where we can see four bullet points highlighted in bright red.
This space, known in Party media lingo as the “newspaper eye,” or baoyan (报眼), is of particular value in relaying messages within the CCP political-media culture. It can be used as a space for what we might call executive summaries of key documents and announcements, or it can be used simply to promote reports or commentaries to which the leadership attaches special importance. In the case of commercial publications, or commercializing Party-run publications, the newspaper eye can also be one of the priciest places to advertise — a sign again of its special value.
In the newspaper eye of the People’s Daily today we can find the CCP leadership’s distillation of what it regards as the most important points to emerge from the meeting. The first bullet is the point already mentioned above, that the US-China relationship today faces a fundamental choice — simple, in this formulation — between “solidarity and cooperation” (团结合作) on the one hand, and the continuing of “zero-sum thinking” (零和思维) on the other.
The not-too-subtle implication here is that the United States has in recent years chosen the latter path in its relationship with China, which threatens to “lead the world toward turmoil and division” (让世界走向动荡和分裂). This point also speaks out against “great power competition” (大国竞争), which is says “cannot solve the problems of the US and China, nor of the world.”
The second bullet is where the firmness I mentioned at the start begins to come into the picture. It affirms that “China’s development has its own logic and laws,” at once a claim to the country’s distinct and legitimate set of political values, and the stiff-jawed assertion that it will accept no interference on systemic questions. The section states that China is progressing toward “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a key platform of Xi since he came to power in 2012, and also that it is doing so by promoting “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), an important concept emerging around last year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP which state media have elsewhere called in English “the Chinese path to modernization.”
Concise though it is, at just 96 characters (or about 80 English words), this bullet point invites a great deal of unpacking. One of its key assertions, that “China will not follow the old path of colonial plunder, nor the crooked path that says hegemony must result from national strength,” sounds like an attempt at reassuring the United States. We are not interested in global domination, it says essentially, and we will not seek it. The passage follows immediately by saying that China “will not engage in ideological export” (也不搞意识形态输出).
Keener observers of China’s global ideological push will certainly caution skepticism on this point. Much of China’s external communication — what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣) — over the past decade not only looks like ideological export but is most often framed in exactly that way by the Party itself, in terms that emphasize the failure of American and “Western” values. Over this, the first year of Xi’s third term, there has been a notable rise inpropaganda, both inside and outside China, about the superiority of the political and development model culminating during Xi Jinping’s reign in the late-breaking notion of “Chinese-style modernization” and the related creation of a “new form of human civilization” (人类文明新形势).
We should make note in particular of the fact that the short passage for the second bullet stresses only “Chinese-style modernization,” seeming to dwell on those aspects having to do with economics, trade, and development, but does not mention “a new form of human civilization,” which has soared along with “Chinese-style modernization” in China’s domestic and international propaganda over the past year.
This grandiose phrase, which has become inextricably linked with Xi Jinping’s manufacture of power and legitimacy over the past year, is not at all posited merely as a homespun domestic model. Rather, it makes the bold and unmistakable claim that Xi’s China has achieved a civilizational renaissance through a set of new ideas on governance and development. Moreover, it claims that this new form, which combines ancient Chinese civilizational elements with an adaptive new Marxist modernity, has surpassed both modern Western civilization and traditional socialist civilization (whatever that means), presenting the world with a new aspirational model.
Xi’s “new form of human civilization” is being actively promoted as a new global model over and against the failing model of the West, and as an answer to “the ills of Western modernization,” and it is being sold in particular to the Global South. Despite China’s insistence this week that it “has no plans to overtake or replace the United States,” the leadership regularly asserts in its more recent external propaganda that Chinese-style modernization and the related “new form of human civilization” are the “right choice” for developing countries and an alternative to the values espoused by the US-led West.
One interesting question to consider for observers of CCP rhetoric, and of course the development of the US-China relationship going forward, will be how we see the grandiose discourse of civilizational renaissance trending in the coming months. To a considerable extent, as I suggested above, this discourse is entirely reactive, an attempt to construct alternatives that ideologically legitimize Xi and his leadership, and the CCP, against fierce criticism from the US as well as from Europe.
The third bullet in the newspaper eye lays out what will certainly continue to be promoted in the CCP discourse in the coming months, what Xi has called the “Five Pillars” (五根支柱) of the US-China relationship. These are:
These are listed but not elaborated. They have to do essentially with managing the tone of the relationship, adhering to principles such as “mutual respect” (相互尊重), which to the CCP can often mean avoiding criticism on such issues as human rights. The last point, people-to-people exchanges, has been trumpeted loudly by the Chinese state media in recent months, emphasizing (in the midst of rocky relations at the government-to-government level) that a healthy US-China relationship relies on connections at a far more basic level, in areas such as business and trade, the arts, sports competitions and so on.
The importance of people-to-people exchanges is further stressed on page three of the newspaper today, through a full-page special report that highlights tourism, musical performances, and of course the Flying Tigers, the group of American volunteer pilots formed to help oppose the Japanese invasion of China.
China’s leaders have placed a strong emphasis on people-to-people exchanges in recent months, mindful of how they have played an important role in the history of the US-China relationship — most famously in the ping-pong diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the re-establishment of formal relations in 1971. They are also keenly aware of how people-to-people exchanges can help build support from the ground up for closer relations (for example, from the business community). The catch is that the CCP has often micro-managed people-to-people ties, pursuing them in many cases through front organizations and surreptitious support that raise serious questions from the American side about the real motivations that lie behind.
We started by noting the friendly tone and visual symmetry of the People’s Daily front page today, but unfortunately must finish by returning to the shakier ground of the firm. Not surprisingly, that is the question of Taiwan. The fourth bullet in the newspaper eye deals with this issue, which Xi reportedly told his hosts in California is the biggest and most dangerous issue in the bilateral relationship.
The text of the fourth bullet is the firmest and most direct of the list. It reads:
The question of Taiwan has always been the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations. China attaches importance to the positive statement made by the United States during the Bali meeting. The United States should translate its statement of non-support for Taiwan’s independence into concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will be reunified eventually and inevitably.
In the days leading up to the meeting between Biden and Xi, Chinese state media repeatedly emphasized the phrase “returning to Bali, heading to San Francisco” (重返巴厘岛，通往旧金山). An important insinuation behind that phrase is the imperative, from China’s standpoint, of hearing more clarity from the United States on Taiwan and the “one China” principle. One year ago in Bali, Biden and Xi engaged in tough discussions over Taiwan, which Xi Jinping called “the first red line” which must not be crossed.
The readout from the White House on the meeting between the two leaders suggests Biden did not give Xi the reassurances he sought. Biden emphasized that “our one China policy has not changed and has been consistent across decades and administrations.” But he reiterated the need for the peaceful resolution of “cross-strait differences” and said that “the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”
On this “red line” issue, it seems, the lines are firm. Behind the smiles and the handshakes — marking progress in the relationship that has been long, long awaited — everyone will be wondering anxiously what China means by “eventually and inevitably.”
As the news broke internationally last Friday of the death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), one word in the headlines seemed to condense the political significance of his passing. That word was “sidelined.”
Many outlets told the story of a determined reformer, a “moderate technocrat,” who within the torrid climate of Xi Jinping’s political rise had been increasingly marginalized — left out on the cold frontier of pragmatism as the country’s new emperor showered himself with glory, and surrounded himself with the kind of yes-men Li was not.
When it comes to Li’s exposure in the official Party-state media, a preponderance of evidence supports this basic storyline.
Li’s marginalization within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was often salient as we compiled our regular monthly reports on official discourse in the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper through to March this year, by which time the outgoing premier merited barely a whisper. Most months for more than two years running, Li Keqiang logged a meager 30 or so articles to Xi Jinping’s imperial 700-plus-or-minus. And while no one in the PSC could touch Xi’s numbers, it was often the case that Li, though nominally number two, trailed behind his closest peers.
Even when he was compellingly human, like that time in August 2020 when he trudged knee-deep through clay-colored floodwaters in Chongqing, Li Keqiang could not turn the spotlight from his immaculate superior, something we looked at more closely in “Li Keqiang in the Muck.”
In death, it seems, Li Keqiang has been sidelined too.
Li’s life had been “a life of revolution, a life of struggle, a life of glory, a life of serving the people wholeheartedly, a life dedicated to the cause of communism,” it said, words that might have been lifted directly from the June 2007 obituary of Huang Ju (黄菊), a Politburo Standing Committee member who passed before completing his term as first-ranked vice premier.
Li had been “an outstanding proletarian revolutionary and politician, and an outstanding leader of the Party and the State,” the text added — language perfectly mirroring that following the June 2015 death of Qiao Shi (乔石), and the July 2019 death of Li Peng (李鹏) — before adding the terse details of his death. In Shanghai. Ten minutes past midnight on October 27, owing to “a sudden heart attack.”
Who was at his bedside? What grieving family members are now left behind?
Such earthy and human details can never be included in the CCP’s formal accounts of death. They would distract from the Party’s unassailable centrality. Instead, Li the faithful servant is treated as though the ruling Party was the pulsing center of every act of love he ever made, that “from the time he was a teenager, he loved the Party, loved the motherland, and loved the people.” (This is identical language, mind you, to that marshaled for the death last year of Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist and inventor celebrated for first developing hybrid rice varieties.)
In the People’s Daily, the treatment was predictable. Li’s official obituary was published as expected on October 28, the day after his death, and it was handled exactly as the July 2019 obituary for Li Peng, also at the time a former premier.
Looking at the three front pages for the obituaries of former top leader Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Li Peng, and finally Li Keqiang, we can see clearly that Jiang — like Deng Xiaoping before him — is given marquee treatment. The entire page for Jiang goes black, including the bright-red People’s Daily masthead.
What was done for Jiang would of course not be done for Li Keqiang, very much his junior in status. Like Li Peng, Li Keqiang is put in his proper place and filed away with the proper honorifics.
A Quick Burial for the News Cycle
But even as it remained in keeping with the Party’s terse traditions, Li Keqiang’s paint-by-number treatment in the official Party-state media, including the brief initial announcement on the 27th and the official obituary on the 28th, closely mirrored the former premier’s sidelining by the leadership under Xi Jinping. This likely reflects plans at the top to ensure that Li’s death can be made to pass swiftly, with due respect and properly stage-managed solemnity.
Xi and his acolytes surely hope that all possible political inferences stemming from Li’s death can be quickly buried, particularly as they might relate to and intersect with questions of economic governance — and, for many Chinese, real economic pain.
Through the day on October 27, the day of Li’s death, mentions in the state media were downplayed, and sometimes not at all visible. The image to the left shows the homepage of People’s Daily Online, a site majority controlled by the flagship People’s Daily newspaper. The headline about Li’s death (highlighted) is literally sidelined — placed to the right, below a massive headline about the city of Wuhan as a hub for high-tech development, and a smaller headline about Xi Jinping meeting with California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Below the homepage image is a screenshot of the full text of the terse announcement of Li’s passing, ending with a note that his “obituary is forthcoming.” For more than 24 hours, this official Xinhua News Agency release was the only word on Li at all, an unsatisfying place-holder.
On Xinhua’s own news portal, the story was similarly shoved to the side, not appearing in the featured slideshow or in the prominent top headline.
The top story at Xinhua was again about Xi’s meeting with California’s Newsom, and in second place, just above the clipped Li Keqiang headline, was a story about the publication of yet another collection of Xi’s remarks on a policy issue, this time “civil affairs work” (民政工作).
Even this tinder-dry news might easily have been linked to Li’s time in office — but the intention is to quickly move past the story, not to plumb it for its deeper significance. In a Chinese political context, there is always a great deal of forgetting in every act of remembrance.
Even more striking, however, was the way Li Keqiang’s fuller obituary the next day was shoved right out of the news on many prominent websites despite the undeniable newsiness of the news.
Neither Xinhua nor Shanghai’s The Paper (澎湃新聞), a relatively popular digital news outlet under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, played news of Li’s death in a prominent position. The top story instead was the most recent meeting of the CCP Politburo, led by Xi Jinping to discuss the revitalization of China’s northeast. Also in a prominent position on the site, the first story appearing in the featured slideshow of top news, was the Xinhua report of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) in Washington.
The Paper ran its mention of the Li Keqiang obituary just below the headline about the Politburo meeting but with no visual presence for the departed former premier. Visually, the focus was on Wang Yi and Jo Biden.
At websites and on social media in particular, the strategy was to draw attention away from Li Keqiang, because conversation and commentary are more liable in these more interactive channels to develop in unpredictable ways — the same way things have unfolded offline as ordinary Chinese have expressed their heartfelt (and often subtext-laden) condolences to Li, voiced their hunger for justice, and sometimes dissolved with palpable grief.
The hot topics list on the social media platform Weibo on Saturday, the day of Li’s death, was unaccountably topped by news of the Politburo meeting, which was displayed as “hot” — almost certainly through artificial promotion. A slate of social stories and entertainment scandals followed, including the case of “Crazy Little Yang” (疯狂小杨哥), an online influencer and founder of the Three Sheep Network who reportedly shocked some internet users recently with his vulgar language and behavior online. Number three, according to the list, was a Xinhua News Agency retrospective on the country’s space program.
The thread on Li Keqiang, leading again only to the terse announcement of the former premier’s death and pending obituary, was toward the bottom at number nine on the list. Chinese, it would seem on the basis of this hot list, are so focused on the stars above and the influencers down below that they have little interest in the passing of a popular senior official. But this of course is social media engineering at work, what the cyberspace authorities in China call “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导).
The search results on Sunday for “Li Keqiang” on Weibo were another illustration of the effort to encourage ceremony over real emotion and remembrance. The top results were all from major official Party-state media, including Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, and all shared the brief initial announcement. For these state media Weibo posts, however, the comments were strangely unexpressive for a comment culture that can often be extraordinarily clever.
Under a top post by the state-run CCTV, the numbers said that more than 44,000 users had already commented. The only words posted to successive pages of comments, however, were “Wishing you well on your journey” (一路走好), a common phrase with which to bid farewell to those who have passed on.
These uniform comments, differing only in the number of burning candle emoticons typed to one side, were a transparent ruse.
Posts below those of central state media were largely from foreign embassies in Beijing, likely promoted because they dealt with foreign relations rather than more delicate domestic issues.
These posts differed refreshingly — at least, in terms of detail — from those of the state media. The Embassy of the United Kingdom, for example, highlighted Li’s audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2014. “Li will be remembered for his contribution to the people of China and his contribution to strengthening the bilateral relationship between the UK and China,” the post read.
The comments under these posts were also more varied, their relative diversity reiterating the falseness of the homogenous comment threads under the posts from state media. They seemed to enjoy slightly greater latitude, possibly because the authorities and Weibo enforcers were a tinge more sensitive to the fact that these accounts were overseen by foreign missions. “The scale in the hearts of the people is the fairest of all,” said one comment, an oblique reference to the respect many Chinese feel for Li Keqiang as a leader who, from time to time, could surprise with his frankness on issues such as poverty that matter to the people.
Others were more direct, even criticizing the official handling of Li’s death. “Finally, someone is posting condolences and remembrances. In the domestic media, aside from repostings of the [official] obituary, there are no memorial videos or articles,” said one post on October 28.
As the leadership hurries grief behind the curtain, this act of dismissal has not gone unnoticed, a reminder of the perils on the flip side of control. The above comments, and many others, went tiptoeing to the heart of the issue: the fact that the country’s authoritarian Party regime (of which, it bears reminding, Li Keqiang was very much a part) cannot allow the public to open their hearts, except in ways that are scripted and unhuman.
For the Chinese Communist Party, every official death is a moment of ceremony, and a reminder of power, stripped of its humanity. Unfortunately, for the leadership, the acknowledgment of death is something deeply and viscerally human, and its intersection with memory is ineradicable. At such times, as the insistent memorials online and offline make clear, human beings require words and acts that pulse with life — and silences that are meaningful.
“At last,” said another Chinese comment after the UK embassy remembrance, with what seemed an immense sigh of relief, “a post that speaks a human language.”
When two men arrived outside the gates of a coal processing enterprise in the city of Zhengzhou back in May this year and began filming video, the company’s boss demanded to know their business. The men explained that they were journalists from Henan Economic News (河南经济报), and that they were documenting his company’s failure to comply with environmental standards.
From there, the conversation moved quickly beyond the facts of their planned report to a more practical question — how the company could make it disappear.
If the boss wished not to have his company’s violations reported publicly, a simple arrangement was possible. For 12,000 yuan (about 1,600 dollars) transferred directly to a designated account, the journalists could shelve the report. The transaction would be disguised as a payment for a company subscription to Henan Economic News. The men could even provide an invoice bearing the media outlet’s official stamp.
Understanding the adverse impact a news report might have on his company, the boss readily agreed and processed the transfer. Only months later, as police in Zhengzhou pried open the lid on other cons committed by the two men, would the boss come to realize that they were not in fact journalists at all.
The Big Business of “News Extortion”
The “gag fee” (封口费) offered by the Zhengzhou company in exchange for silence was just one of many documented examples this year of a practice known as “news extortion,” or xinwen qiaozha (新闻敲诈). In a special report aired earlier this month, the state-run China Central Television highlighted this and other cases, reporting that since early this year police across the country have launched a special operation to “strike fakes [and] stop extortion” (打假治敲).
In fact, news extortion has persisted in China, ugly and stubborn, since the rise of the commercialized media industry in the mid-1990s. The idea behind the practice is frightfully simple, and the practice frightfully common, though cases are rarely reported in China’s media and the true scale of the problem is unknown. Essentially, media dangle the threat of negative revelations in front of a company or individual before presenting paid-for silence as an alternative path.
The question of who exactly these media are — who is real, who is fake, and why this distinction is meaningful at all — is a complicated one, going to the heart of how China regulates and controls the press. But despite decades of official attention to news extortion, including regular government campaigns and notices (some lumping the practice together with “critical reporting”), cases are by all accounts staggeringly commonplace.
Over the past few months, local governments from the cities of Heihe and Zhaodong in the north, close to the Russian border, to Zhoukou in the central province of Henan, down to Yunnan in the country’s southwest, have all issued various statements, campaigns or cases involving news extortion. This year and last, the China Association for Public Companies (中国上市公司协会) warned listed companies to be alert to the practice, even dealing with the issue in a closed-door session in April with senior propaganda officials.
Shortly after the airing of the CCTV report this month, police in Chongqing reported that they had uncovered two cases since August, both involving legally registered culture and media companies that had launched unauthorized news websites — Chongqing Reports Online (重庆报道网) and China Digital News (中国数字报).
Local authorities warned the public to remain alert to the “three press fakes” (新闻三假), including “fake media” (假媒体), “fake reporting stations” (假记者站), and “fake journalists” (假记者), and said that “news extortion not only infringes on the interests of the public and interferes with order at the grass-roots level, but also undermines the standardized and orderly press and public opinion environment, which is very harmful.”
Given the fact that China’s ruling Communist Party maintains stringent controls over the press in every conceivable form, the obvious question raised by this stream of fraud and fakery is: Why?
Serving Power and Profit
To its credit, the special report this month on CCTV did raise the question, though in a way that seemed almost baffled and plaintive: “Why, still, are there people who run the risks and constantly step over the red line?”
Sit back, CCTV.
The simple and obvious answer, which China’s leadership is unable to concede, is that it has created the conditions for media corruption by making power the only standard of truth that truly matters. Crooks and crooked reporters, whether they hold valid press cards or not, understand that their power as journalists arises not from their ability to expose the facts to the public, but from their share, real or perceived, of state power. They thrive commercially on the threat of journalism as a function of state power — and on the promise of silence on the flip side.
The practice of news extortion, and all other forms of media corruption, is quietly and insistently reinforced by the calculus at the heart of state-led journalism. As a matter of Party practice and doctrine, media in China are not agents of transparency and accountability, with their own reserves of hard-earned credibility, but rather servants of the ruling Party’s truth. This means facts and revelations must constantly be buried in the push to “emphasize positive news” and “tell China’s story well.”
In this sense, China’s entire commercialized media sector, which is tied directly to Party and government institutions, operates on a gag-fee principle so all-embracing that it remains generally unseen. The deal is this: Do the bidding of the leadership, keeping negative news under wraps as you praise its positives, and you will be allowed to profit and prosper. The government will license your media, and issue press cards to your reporters.
When media serve power rather than hold it to account, it stands to reason that they are vulnerable to the same distortions and excesses as unaccountable power. There are, moreover, no independent professional mechanisms to hold media to the highest standards, precisely because power defines the parameters of professionalism. The Party’s tight grip invites loose professional standards. Within media that are licensed — and therefore legitimate in the eyes of the state — journalists will see the false dealing behind the scenes, and understand the ultimate pointlessness (and even danger) of reporting the truth. Meanwhile, outside the formal media scene, or proximate to it, unscrupulous characters will rightly see how media power translates into commercial gain.
This is the secret behind the persistence of news extortion and other forms of media corruption in China — and the answer to CCTV’s question.
The Lie of the Fake
Is it the answer CCTV offered to its viewers? Of course not. China’s authorities and state media are trapped in an endless loop when it comes to explaining and combatting media corruption because understanding the real root causes would mean doing what they cannot — confronting thorny questions of institutional power head-on.
Instead, the perennial focus when questions of media corruption arise is on those instances of outright fakery that happen outside formal and accepted media. These cases support the necessary thesis that the root problem is the “fake” journalist, media, or reporting station, which reinforces the Party-state as the locus of the genuine.
Despite this framing, the uncomfortable truth is that Party-run media have historically been among the worst offenders when it comes to cases of media corruption, including news extortion. Such cases rarely come to light, for reasons that should be obvious. But the handful of examples we do have are outstanding. There is the 2007 court case prosecuting the many sins of Meng Huaihu (孟怀虎), the Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times — a Beijing-based business paper published by the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC). There is the 2008 cover-up of a mining disaster in Shanxi after journalists from scores from official media, and several imposters too, accepted pay-offs from the mine boss.
The most famous, and perhaps most egregious, media corruption case was uncovered more than two decades ago, in July 2002, when China Youth Daily reporter Liu Chang (刘畅) found that eleven reporters, including four from the government’s official Xinhua News Agency, had accepted gag fees (including cash and gold nuggets) to cover up news about an explosion in which 37 workers had died, their bodies stuffed away into a mine shaft while family members were forcibly detained.
It is no accident that these cases, which received rare attention in the nationwide media, all pre-date Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” emerging at a time when journalists like Liu Chang (who faced harsh internal pressure over his story) could manage to find space, despite controls, to pursue their own professional ideals. That space has contracted rapidly over the past decade amid renewed political controls on the media, and an overbearing emphasis on uplifting propaganda, or what Xi Jinping calls “positive energy.”
Concerns today over news extortion and the need to maintain an “orderly press and public opinion environment” focus on the depredations of imposters outside the system — which brings us back to the perpetrators of the con mentioned at the start of this story.
Not only had the two men presented themselves as reporters from a genuine newspaper in Henan, but they had also, in order to bamboozle other companies, created an online outlet called Mirror News (镜相新闻) through a locally registered culture and media company that kept its offices in a well-known Zhengzhou media complex. Using Mirror News as a front, the men had managed to secure a “news fee” (新闻费) of 130,000 yuan, about 18,000 dollars, from yet another Zhengzhou coal processing enterprise.
This time the process started with a negative report on the company published online, which was then amplified through social media channels until it got the attention of that company’s boss. The men followed up with a visit, identifying themselves as journalists for Mirror News, and this time claimed they could work behind the scenes, given their media connections, to ensure that the original story was taken down, and related social media posts expunged. Beyond these services, they said, they could offer ongoing protection against negative press.
The company boss agreed to the arrangement and was only tipped off that something was awry when he noticed that the negative posts remained online as the weeks passed.
But the account broadcast this month by CCTV revealed another important clue. In fact, the network reported, the boss had initially been skeptical of the two men in his office. He had never heard of Mirror News. The tricksters, of course, had another card up their sleeve to coax the boss past his skepticism. They told him that Mirror News was associated with The Paper (澎湃新闻), a Party-run digital news outlet operated by the powerful Shanghai United Media Group.
CCTV reported: “As these two men name-dropped a well-known media outlet to trick him and earn his confidence, and as he urgently wanted to remove these online posts . . . . the boss agreed to what the men proposed.”
Apparently, the boss’s instincts about the two men and this unfamiliar outlet Mirror News had been spot on. The imagined association with The Paper, however, changed his mind.
In the official Party-state media in China, design is driven by politics — and it is a crucial aspect of the political discourse. Want to see this principle in action? Today’s edition of the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offers a prime example.
The oddest and most prominent feature of the front page of the People’s Daily today is the large vertical headline running down the left-hand side. The headline, which announces that top leader Xi Jinping met with international leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, ties the rest of the headlines on the page together. All are announcements of separate meetings, each with a different foreign leader.
As has been the case all week in the official state media in China, the top story is the Belt and Road. Coverage has touted its great benefits for participating countries, and for the entire world — emphasizing the growing economic and political centrality of China and its top leader.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the global infrastructure development and trade promotion program, which has been a pillar of China’s foreign policy, and the forum this week is the year’s most prominent opportunity for state-run media to roll out related domestic and international propaganda.
They have not missed the chance. Coverage of the Belt and Road Forum has eclipsed all other stories, including one of the world’s most pressing concerns, the unfolding conflict in Gaza and its potentially disastrous implications for security in the Middle East.
For related coverage of how China has sidelined news of Israel and Gaza this week, see our analysis in the latest Lingua Sinicanewsletter on Substack.
The rest of the coverage on the People’s Daily front page today — from the “newspaper eye” (报眼) to the right of the masthead all the way down — are separate reports on Xi’s meetings with foreign leaders visiting Beijing. The result of this approach is that China’s top leader is placed at the front of every headline on the page, ten in all, leading to an odd and unmistakable repetition.
Here is the page again, this time with all instances of “Xi Jinping” outlined in red to make this absurd effect clear.
Why would the People’s Daily treat stories this way? Do the editors and designers completely lack creativity?
The fact is that creativity is not an option. It is not the way that the visual vocabulary of the CCP’s official political discourse works. The People’s Daily applies this odd approach on the front page because this is the most valuable piece of political real estate in the entire Chinese media. The space must be used to achieve one goal: signaling the power of the CCP Central Committee and its top leader.
Unlike most professional media globally, the focus cannot be on news readers as we generally understand them, as an audience of citizens who demand that their time is rewarded with relevant and informative news content. Consider, by way of contrast, how the Financial Times reported this week on US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. The focus in that case was on Biden’s message of caution to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Imagine that the Belt and Road Forum were to be reported strictly as news in the People’s Daily. It would not be necessary to treat each meeting with a foreign leader separately. Instead, the story would focus on the key points of relevance — the who, what, when, where and WHY. And in this case, a background paragraph would be sufficient to report attendance by leaders from Egypt, Cambodia, Thailand, Congo, and so on.
Why are all of these meetings published as separate but virtually identical stories with the same Xi Jinping headline?
Once again, the key reason is power signaling — the most crucial role of political discourse in China. Separate stories are an opportunity to stress and re-stress the centrality of Xi himself. Think of them as drumrolls or trumpet calls. The key audience is not the Chinese public, but rather the CCP bureaucracy.
A secondary reason is to stress bilateral relations, and make political nods to foreign leaders, as though to say: “We prioritize you.” This is done with the same hierarchical approach that applies to top CCP leaders, with Xi always mentioned first (and repeatedly) and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) mentioned only after and with far less prominence.
No other members of the PSC or other senior leaders are mentioned on either the front page or page two of the People’s Daily today. It is only on page three that we finally see mention of Wang Yi (王毅), Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Premier He Lifeng (何立峰). Both are in tiny headlines down toward the bottom right-hand side of page three.
When visits are reported between China’s top leader and multiple foreign leaders in a single edition of the People’s Daily, the visual treatment of these visits can often reveal the CCP’s prioritization of various bilateral relationships. Putin may have top billing, for example, as was the case in yesterday’s edition of the newspaper — a reflection of the closeness of the relationship in recent years.
On today’s front page, pride of position is given to Mongolia’s leader, with coverage in the space to the right of the masthead, including a photo of Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh shaking hands with Xi Jinping. This layout choice is likely a reflection of the priority China has lately given to its relations with countries in Central Asia.
For perhaps the same reason, the report directly under the masthead is about Xi’s exchange with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who stepped down as president of Turkmenistan last year.
Of course, reading the People’s Daily is also about closely analyzing the text. This does not mean translating the content from Chinese to another language, a common misapplied approach. If your question is simply, “What is the report about?” — you will be missing the most crucial aspects of the discourse and merely flitting across the surface. Or worse, what you present to others as analysis might simply amplify the talking points of the Chinese leadership without promoting a deeper understanding of its agenda.
To understand how this deeper analysis is done, we can look more closely at the Berdymukhamedov report. What can you notice about how he is introduced?
He is referred to in the headline, as well as in the body of the report, as the “nation’s leader of Turkmenistan” (土库曼斯坦民族领袖). This phrase, mínzú lǐngxiù, is an unusual honorific, suggesting charismatic power. It is rarely used, so it is something important to pick up on. Both Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen, for example, have been called “leader of the Chinese nation” (中华民族领袖), but over the past year in the People’s Daily the phrase has generally not been used.
Details like this can be important clues for the analyst of CCP discourse. As you “read” the People’s Daily and other official CCP media, it is crucial to zero in on specialized terminologies, or tífǎ (提法), and then work to understand their deeper meanings and histories. You can think of them as stacking blocks that are being constantly stacked and unstacked by those in power to achieve their political objectives, to signal power and to focus the Party around different policy objectives.
One recent example of language to be unstacked is the new grand buzzword “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (習近平文化思想). To better understand what this phrase means, and why it is important, read our analysis last week, in which we pulled the phrase apart to get at its core meanings.
With all the talk in recent months in China of “new civilizational splendor” (文明新辉煌) in everything from sports to Marxism, heritage protection to village life, it is impossible not to sit up and take notice of the country’s fulsome messaging on culture. Surely, something must be happening. No? As officials emerged last weekend from the latest Chinese Communist Party work conference, the language mounted further. They unveiled yet another eponymous phrase for the country’s top leader: Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (习近平文化思想).
In the Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, a front-page tribute on Wednesday deemed the phrase a “significant milestone” (里程碑意义), suggesting excitedly that the general secretary had “accurately grasped the trend of mutual ideological and cultural agitation worldwide.” What does all of this nonsense mean? Why is China building the rhetoric over culture and civilization to such dizzying heights?
If we avoid becoming distracted by the monumentality of the cathedral of language before us, and gaze past its gothic flourishes, the answer is deceptively simple. Xi Jinping’s obsession with culture is about the need to disguise basic questions of power and legitimacy behind the elaborate stonework of political discourse.
Grab your chisels. Let’s break this down.
The Nine Adheres
According to explications of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” provided this week by the People’s Daily and other official media, Xi’s brand-new cultural concept is actually the culmination of a “series of important speeches” he delivered around two previous meetings on propaganda and ideology.
During these meetings, which have traditionally been called National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conferences (the word “culture” was tellingly added for this latest one), Xi outlined the nature of the CCP’s work on several facets of what can be included under the broader umbrella of culture: “work on literature and the arts” (文艺工作); “the Party’s work on news and public opinion” (党的新闻舆论工作); “cybersecurity and informatization work” (网络安全和信息化工作); “philosophy and social science work” (哲学社会科学工作), and “cultural heritage development” (文化传承发展).
These conferences, in other words, laid the foundation for the “significant milestone” the leadership claims to have reached just six days ago.
To better understand the foundations of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we can unpack the first of these conferences, held in August 2018, during which Xi Jinping laid out what he called the “Nine Adheres” (九个坚持).
Not surprisingly, given that they are important components of the “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the “Nine Adheres” have been dragged out again this week by Party-run media, and even graphically represented. They are drawn from various speeches Xi has made during his time as the Party’s top leader, including during his first meeting on ideology in August 2013.
Read through the “Nine Adheres” and you will be hard-pressed to find anything whatsoever related to culture or civilization outside the guardrails of political power. There is nothing to do with the arts or artists, with cinema or filmmakers, with publishing or writers, with choreography or dancers. There is nothing to do with music or melodies — save for references to the “main melody” (主旋律), a phrase about the imperative of ensuring the CCP’s voice is dominant.
This point, that the CCP’s driving motivation is the control of culture, may seem painfully obvious. But it is crucial, nevertheless, to clearly acknowledge the foundations. The danger, otherwise, is that we read too much into the elaborate discourse of civilization, and imagine China under the CCP is tipping toward a cultural renaissance, or trying to empower one, rather than cynically leveraging culture to legitimize a one-party authoritarian dictatorship under an emerging cult of personality.
In this vein, one cautionary tale comes from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who after a visit to China in 2009 in which he was inundated with the latest CCP-speak on “cultural sector reforms” claimed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that the country was in the constructive throes of a “New Cultural Revolution.”
So let’s look at the “Nine Adheres,” which the People’s Daily tells us is foundational to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture.” I include the full list below, with remarks.
Adhering to the CCP’s leadership authority over ideological work.
This should be self-explanatory. It is the claim by the CCP under Xi’s leadership to have an exclusive and ultimate say over matters concerning ideology, which encompasses the entire universe of ideas and their expression through media, the internet, the arts, philosophy, the social sciences, and so on.
Adhering to the fundamental task of the “Two Reinforcements” (两个巩固) in ideological work.
Here, a catchphrase is used to explain a catchphrase, again reminding us that its important to pick apart the edifice of CCP discourse, brick by brick. This refers to “reinforcing the guiding role of Marxism in the ideological sphere” and “reinforcing the common ideological foundation for unity and struggle by the whole Party and the entire people.” The explication by the People’s Daily Online also mentions Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the need for both “a correct political orientation and guidance of public opinion,” the first self-explanatory and the second an explicit reference to the need for CCP control of the media and information to maintain political control.
Adhering to the use of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era to arm the entire Party, and to educate the people.
Here within the cathedral, in the chapel dedicated to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we see the recurrence of the motif that gives purpose to the entire cathedral — the god-like dominance of Xi Jinping. The CCP’s leadership is established first, followed by the guiding role of Marxism, and then the emphasis on the leadership of Xi and his inspirational contributions to the governance and belief system — at base, a claim to his legitimacy as top Party leader.
Adhering to the cultivation and fulfillment of socialist core values.
This is, yet again, about obedience to the Party-led value system. For more on “socialist core values” and their rigid interpretation, see “The Battle of Brick Lane.”
Adhering to cultural confidence as the foundation.
This is where Xi Jinping’s claim to legitimacy, a bare-bones structure of power assertions to buttress his leadership and that of the Party, is filled out with the finer details of traditional Chinese culture. This is not really about culture, however. It is about the populist appeal to the inspirational nature of Chinese culture — populist because it is about affirming China’s rise in the contemporary world against a backdrop of historical exploitation and disrespect (a key part of the CCP narrative). “Chinese civilization” (中华文明) is referenced here, using a May 2022 passage from Xi Jinping, to advance the notion that the CCP has a cultural-political claim on the entire global Chinese population, including the diaspora. “Chinese civilization . . . is the spiritual tie that binds all the Chinese of the world, and a treasure of Chinese cultural innovation.” Civilizational pride is a keystone of Xi’s claim to legitimacy in his third leadership term.
Adhering to the communication power, leading power, and influence power of news and public opinion.
Now that the list of adheres has established the dominance of the CCP, Marxism, and Xi Jinping, and filled this hard superstructure with frescos of cultural/civilizational glory, it is time to think about how the messages of the Party can be most effectively communicated. It’s not surprising to find language here about the need for “media convergence development” (媒体融合发展), and the remaking of the “mainstream media” (主流媒体), which in the CCP context refers to Party-run media exclusively. That also means CCP control of the message, of course, and we should note that the language of information control dominates. The People’s Daily Online emphasizes quotes from Xi that stress “adhering to the leadership of the CCP [over news and public opinion],” and the “correct politicalorientation.”
Adhering to the people-centered orientation of creation.
Now that claims to power and its underlying value orientation have been handled in 1-6, the final third of the “Nine Adheres” can deal with more peripheral matters of importance. Here, the CCP insists upon innovation and creation within the guardrails already established. Essentially, within the bounds of control, culture should consider the needs of the population and the proclivities of the audience. This is about “satisfying the spiritual demands of the people.” For more on how the CCP applies the notion of “the people,” see Ryan Ho Kilpatrick’s recent post. We can also note that this combination of control and audience positioning is not new in the reform era. During the Hu Jintao era, for example, it was conveyed through the idea of the “Three Closenesses” (Find out more in the CMP Dictionary).
Adhering to a clear and positive online space.
Through the 1980s and the 1990s, before the rise of the internet as the primary means of communication, enforcing the political and cultural guidelines of the CCP was in many ways a far simpler matter — even if, in the midst of broader social and economic change, it was never simple. Since Xi Jinping came to power, the focus has shifted decisively to the internet when it comes to information control, evidenced by the growing dominance of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), created through an agency shakeup in 2014. The control of cyberspace is now paramount to the Party. The language from Xi Jinping in the People’s Daily Online explainer for the “Nine Adheres” comes from Xi’s speech at the April 2018 work conference on cybersecurity, in which he said the CCP “must strengthen positive propaganda online, [and] adhere with a clear banner to the correct political direction, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and [correct] values orientation.”
Adhering to the telling of China’s story well, and the communicating of China’s voice well.
In a new world of mobile digital information, it is no longer sufficient for a ruling political party in an authoritarian system to focus on domestic information and ideological control alone, as the Chinese are potentially exposed to alternative systems and values despite a massive information control infrastructure. Therefore, it is important that the CCP reinforce power and control back home through greater “discourse power” (话语权) on the global stage. So the last of the “Nine Adheres” is fundamentally about soft and sharp power development, and what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣).
While official Party media claim this week that Xi Jinping has “put forward a series of new ideas, new perspectives, and new assertions” that have culminated in the concept of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the hard stone of the “Nine Adheres” reminds us that the foundational assertions are about CCP power and the necessity of cultural control in defense of that power.
Of course, even if Xi was a culturally accomplished president — a Havel, Disraeli, or Franco — the suggestion that he has grasped a “cultural agitation worldwide” would be preposterous. The point, however, is that “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” has nothing whatsoever to do with culture, though we will surely hear in the months to come about Xi’s designs for a cultural refulgence.
To understand this latest new catchphrase, just imagine a soaring cathedral of lavish discourse. The monument, which is named “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” embraces the empty core of CCP power, giving it a seeming solidity. For some time now, there have been five chapels along each side, each a place to worship the god-like achievements of the top leader. There are chapels to foreign policy (习近平外交思想), rule of law (习近平法治思想), the economy (习近平经济思想), environmental policy (习近平生态文明思想), and national defense (习近平强军思想).
Now, in Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term, the monuments must be all the grander to disguise the hollowness at the core and to expand the space for the necessary rituals of power. A new chapel, the sixth, is erected, giving new symmetry to the structure.
Now unveiled, the chapel of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” can be visited, worshipped, and talked about. A grand distraction for China’s grandest leader in generations.
Last week, the US Department of State released what it called a “landmark report” on China’s propaganda and disinformation efforts, alleging that the Chinese government is using various means — and billions of dollars in investment — to “bend the global information environment to its advantage.” The report drew snarls over the weekend from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which responded in an official release (English here) that the report itself was disinformation and that the United States is “a veritable ‘empire of lies.’”
Look more closely at China’s response to the Department of State report and a revealing pattern emerges. Far from refuting the report’s allegations, the official response from the MFA and state-run media makes the case. It demonstrates systematic control of the narrative by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership at home, even as it employs state-run channels and non-transparent propaganda accounts to reach audiences abroad.
No Discussion on the Home Front
In Chinese state media, all coverage of the Department of State report since last week has closely mirrored the official MFA release and its single-question-single-answer response. In most cases, the MFA release is reported verbatim. No media outlets have grappled with the substance of the report. To do so, after all, would invite public discussion not just of “external propaganda” (外宣), a core and openly stated practice of the CCP, but also of the legitimacy of media controls and propaganda at home.
More revealing still is the fact that the response in China’s official state media has been amplified primarily through those media specifically tasked with conducting external propaganda, suggesting that the leadership views the story as a question of managing foreign public opinion. The text from the MFA was run verbatim, for example, by the China Daily, a newspaper published by the government’s Information Office and intended for foreign consumption. Similarly, it was covered in English, with supporting comments from Chinese experts, by the Global Times, which has a special mandate to address global affairs, and which panders to nationalist sentiment at home and abroad.
While an official Xinhua rundown of the MFA remarks was posted online over the weekend and made page three of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily on October 1, the news was largely absent from important domestic propaganda outlets, including provincial-level media. It was not reported at all during China Central Television’s official nightly newscast Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) on September 30 or October 1. Further substantiating the point that the story was intended chiefly for external propaganda, the MFA response wasreported prominently on CCTV’s Chinese-language international channel, CCTV-4, which targets overseas Chinese audiences, and has more than one million subscribers on YouTube.
As the Chinese government rushed to refute the US Department of State report about its construction of “a global information ecosystem,” the very same ecosystem leaped into action. Attention to the issue was carefully managed and suppressed at home, while a combative counter-narrative targeted overseas audiences.
Perhaps more importantly, the MFA counter-narrative was pushed not just by well-established and overt state outlets such as China Daily, the Global Times, and CCTV-4, but by newer and more covert channels making use of international social media platforms.
New State Media, Under the Radar
One of the few outlets in China to build on the MFA remarks on the US report was Straight News (直新闻), also known as “Zhinews.” On Sunday, Straight News ran an interview with Song Zhongping (宋忠平), a military analyst who is also a program consultant and commentator for CCTV-4 — again, one of just several official television channels that broadcast outside of China, and particularly targeting diaspora communities.
In Song’s interview, re-posted by internet portal sites such as Sina.com, the analyst parroted the criticism of the MFA, accusing the US of “fabricating various forms of propaganda” on issues such as rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “It must be said that the West holds control on issues of public opinion,” said Song, “and the West has long controlled global public opinion through its own means.”
The interview was shared with the 1.38 million followers of Straight News on Weibo, as well as its 35,000 followers on Facebook. It was also available through the outlet’s dedicated bilingual news app, which has been downloaded close to 700 thousand times on Android, and an unknown number of times from Apple’s App Store.
Who is Straight News?
On its Facebook account, Straight News says only that it is “a Chinese news brand focused on verticals,” and is “produced by a top news production team in China — Shenzhen Satellite TV’s ‘Greater China Live’ team.” Glossing past the remark on “verticals,” an insider reference to content viewed on mobile platforms, the “Greater China Live” program is a production of Shenzhen Media Group (深圳广电集团), or SZMG.
SZMG is directly under the propaganda department of the CCP committee of Shenzhen, a sub-provincial city in China’s southern Guangdong province. This means that both Straight News and SZMG are, strictly speaking, state-controlled.
In the About Us section of its official website, SZMG states unambiguously that it has operated, since its establishment “under the correct leadership of Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the CCP and the Municipal Government, and under the careful guidance of the Propaganda Department of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the CCP. And yet, on Facebook, where state-controlled media are labeled as a matter of policy, Straight News manages to fly under the radar.
Straight News is one of thousands of outlets, accounts, and influencers working across the global information space with non-transparent backing from the Chinese Party-state — what the US Department of State report refers to as “covert influence.” First launched in 2018, it is also a prime example of how the role of provincial and sub-provincial media groups in China is transforming under Xi Jinping’s emphasis on international influence and “telling China’s story well” as an urgent national priority.
External Propaganda, Internal Innovations
Global communication and the “struggle” for international discourse power (话语权) have been key priorities under Xi Jinping since his first major speech on ideology in August 2013, less than a year after he came to power. It was in that speech that Xi introduced the phrase “telling China’s story well,” which he defined unmistakably as a banner under which to “innovate” and remake external propaganda. In his February 2016 media policy speech, Xi urged CCP media to “strengthen international communication capacity building, and enhance our international discourse power. To do that, he said, would mean “optimizing our strategic layout, working hard to build flagship external propaganda media with strong international influence.”
In talking about the CCP’s “strategic layout,” Xi was referring not just to the central Party-state media generally associated with China’s international communication — the likes of Xinhua, China Daily, and CGTN. His vision was to remake the traditional CCP media infrastructure, from the center down to the cities, prefectures and countires, for the digital and global information age.
More concrete efforts to restructure media enterprises in China to meet this challenge accelerated after the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017. The formation in 2018 of the state media conglomerate China Media Group (CMG) was a part of this process. But an important phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in research on Chinese disinformation — including the recent Department of State report — is the active advancement of this same trend among provincial and sub-provincial media groups, which are now integral to the larger push for international propaganda.
In a major speech in January 2019, Xi Jinping spoke about the need to promote “media convergence” (媒体融合) at Party-state media across the country, which would allow the CCP to build what he called “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体). In the specialized political discourse of the CCP, the word “mainstream” is synonymous with the enforcement of the Party’s political line, and the term “mainstream media” refers specifically to CCP-run media. Xi’s call, then, was about building a new, Party-led media system focusing on new media technologies and products.
For several years now, media convergence and sectoral restructuring have been happening actively at every level of China’s political system, creating a new generation of media under CCP control — and potentially revolutionizing (or so is the hope) the way propaganda and public opinion control are achieved, both at home and abroad.
Just three months after Xi Jinping’s 2019 speech on media convergence, the Shenzhen Media Group unveiled its own restructuring plan. Part of that plan involved the “upgrading” of the Straight News platform, created the year before, as a full-fledged multimedia brand, with communication focusing not just on Shenzhen and the surrounding areas of Guangdong province, but also on the “Greater Bay Area” (大湾区), which refers to the CCP’s vision of an integrated economic area by 2035 involving nine cities plus Hong Kong and Macau.
In July this year, the Shenzhen Media Group took the next step toward realizing Xi’s vision of a reinvigorated national Party media sector armed and ready to carry out external propaganda. It launched a new “international communication center” (国际传播中心), or ICC, whose goal, according to group chief Shang Boying (尚博英) is to “strengthen the building of international communication capacity, to tell the story of Shenzhen, Guangdong, the Greater Bay Area, and China well, and to convey China’s voice to the world.”
According to Shang, one of the international communication center’s three major external propaganda brands at present is Straight News, along with an English-language brand called “Shenzhen Channel,” and the “Greater China Live” television and video program.
The results so far may seem underwhelming. It is difficult to know what impact, if any, the Straight News repudiation of the US disinformation report may have had on target audiences in Hong Kong, Macau, and beyond. But the Shenzhen ICC is just getting started. According to the city’s propaganda chief, Zhang Ling (张玲), the new center is the culmination of two years of planning that involved the drafting of an “international communication action plan” and the establishment of a “joint working mechanism for external propaganda.” It’s worth noting that Shenzhen, though a sub-provincial city in China, had a GDP of 477.4 billion dollars in 2022, putting it just short of the 30th ranked economy in the world, ahead of Nigeria, and just behind Thailand.
And the Shenzhen ICC is not alone. It is part of a much larger trend that involves leveraging the resources of provincial and sub-provincial media to raise the volume of the CCP’s voice internationally. In July this year alone, four international communication centers were launched, including in Hunan, Jiangsu, and Chongqing. This followed the formation of ICCs in Hubei and Fujian in May and June respectively. By late 2022, ICCs had already been launched in Jiangxi, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan.
Like Shenzhen’s ICC, which will focus products like Straight News on the Greater Bay Area plus Taiwan, Yunnan’s ICC has a regional remit. As I wrote for Taiwan’s Commonwealth magazine back in August, the “Yunnan Provincial International Communication Center for South Asia and Southeast Asian Regions” focuses its communication efforts on the Mekong Delta region as well as South Asia. It involves covert information brands such as the Mekong News Network, which is active across an array of global social media platforms and is working to distribute content to news outlets across the region.
Toward a Chinese Narrative System
Careful readers might note that while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with fury to the Department of State report, its counter-attack did not at all deny that China was seeking, as the report said, to “reshape the global information landscape.” Unless a sea of official ink on the subject is to be doubted, which it is not, this is most definitely the goal. In his political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP last year, which drove the latest push for provincial-level media restructuring and international communication, Xi said that the Party needed to “accelerate the building of a Chinese discourse and Chinese narrative system” to tell the China story and manufacture an “credible, lovable and respectable image of China.”
Channels like Straight News are an important part of the strategy, and it is sobering to think that the expansive Department of State report does not even take into consideration this deep-level national transformation happening across China, the tip of an information iceberg.
On July 13, the China New Media Conference was held in Changsha was held in Malanshan, an area of the Hunan capital of Changsha that is famous for its association with media and culture, and also the glitzy new home of the Hunan Broadcasting System (HBS), the country’s largest state-owned television network. The conference closed with the signing of a document called the “Malanshan Declaration” (马栏山倡议), which called on “all journalists across the country working in international communications” to communicate China’s voice to the world, and steadily raise its “international communication impact.”
The list of signatories to the “Malanshan Declaration” was topped with central-level media including the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Service, CGTN, China Daily, and China News Service. It was filled out with 15 international communication centers at the provincial, sub-provincial and even city level, most less than six months old.
“International communication workers of the New Era!” the Declaration began. As for where it ends, the report from the US offers, to its credit, a fairly accurate assessment.
When it comes to major international film awards, Rotterdam has its Tiger, Berlin has its Golden Bear, and for decades running the most iconic film award in the Chinese-speaking film world has been Taiwan’s Golden Horse. Today, in a bid to expand its global cultural influence, China will award its own animal-themed film prize in the western city of Chengdu. Say hello to the Golden Panda.
Winners of the biennial prize, awarded in four categories (film, television, documentary, and animation), will take home gleaming trophies, each “a cute panda engraved on the top of bamboo joints, which represents the concept of steadily rising quality,” according to the state-run Global Times.
Unlike its namesake, a creature that reproduces with notorious difficulty, the Golden Panda seems to have been born precipitously. With no signaling of plans on the global festival circuit in 2022, the host of the event, the People’s Government of Sichuan Province, announced the prize only on March 25. The narrow application window closed just one month later.
In May and June, China tried to generate excitement internationally by coordinating launch events in Hong Kong, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. The buzz, however, barely reached a murmur. None of the world’s major film industry publications seem to have taken notice, and as the festivities kick off this week, mentions of “Golden Panda” or “Panda d’Or” are to be found only in a spate of enthusiastic reports from Chinese state media — discounting ubiquitous online listings for Chinese restaurants from French Polynesia to Simi Valley.
Why are you hearing about the Golden Panda Awards from the China Media Project, and not from Empire or The Hollywood Reporter?
Officials at Center Stage
Haste and lack of professionalism in the planning is likely one important reason for the lack of industry buzz. According to domain registration data, the official website of Golden Panda Awards was created on February 7 this year, which suggests plans were hurried through.
Look more closely at the promotional events in Hong Kong, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro, and you also spot a gaping issue of perception. No filmmakers were seemingly involved, deepening the sense that this was about neither audiences nor auteurs, but rather about the Chinese state. According to People’s Daily Online, the event in Brazil was addressed by Tian Min (田敏), China’s consul general, as well as Fu Siquan (傅思泉), vice minister of Sichuan’s propaganda department. There was a lot of talk about “promoting cultural exchange in film and television.” But how many Brazilian filmmakers were present? Zero.
In its June report on the promotion events in Hong Kong and Paris, the official Sichuan Daily newspaper noted only that the Hong Kong event had included Lu Xinning (卢新宁), the number-two official in the central government’s Liaison Office, along with Hong Kong’s culture and tourism chief, Kevin Yeung (杨润雄), who has been one of the most vocal proponents in the SAR of Xi Jinping’s external propaganda catchphrase, “telling China’s story well.” In Paris, one of the world’s great cities of cinema, the planners managed to score attendance from UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramirez — who, incidentally, is Chilean — but not from a single filmmaker, apparently.
Perhaps more damningly on the planning side, the June report mentioned that “prize selections will take place from September 23-24.” Only on August 26, three weeks ago, was it publicly reported in Chinese state media that “the prize selections for the Golden Panda Awards will take place from September 19-20.” Come again, festival organizers?
On the professional film circuit, such a four-day shift in the schedule announced less than a month before the event would be humiliating news. In this case, it shows us that the organizers never seriously cared for international publicity, not in the professional sense. The publicity needed internally — to score points with higher-ups for advancing China’s “international communication” — was something officials in Sichuan were always at liberty to manufacture on their own.
Starring Sichuan’s Propaganda Department
In fact, Sichuanese official coverage of the event swings another illuminating beam of light onto the nature of the Golden Panda Awards. Aside from a smattering of output in English from CGTN, the international broadcasting arm of the state-run China Central Television, most all the videos available across social media platforms come from “Sharing Sichuan,” a YouTube account whose motto is “experiencing China via Sichuan eyes.”
“Sharing Sichuan” is one of several official accounts on overseas social media operated by something referred to as the Sichuan International Communication Center (SICC). As it happens, this is a new office under the provincial propaganda department and the CCP’s official Sichuan Daily that is meant to consolidate media resources to more effectively “build an international communication matrix, and continuously improve patterns of large-scale foreign propaganda.” The mandate, laid out in late 2020 as part of the province’s response to China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, includes using “major economic and cultural exchange events to assist in enlarging propaganda and promotion, vividly telling the Sichuan chapter of China’s story.”
This language puts the Golden Panda Awards in their proper context, as an event intended primarily to advance Sichuan’s external propaganda objectives. Speaking to the Huaxi Metropolis Daily, a major tabloid under Sichuan Daily, China Film Critics Association President Rao Shuguang (饶曙光) indicated as much when he said the Golden Pandas were “an important way to expand the international influence of Chinese films,” and “achieve better international dissemination.”
But the language also clues us into an important overarching trend in CCP propaganda, namely the mobilization of provincial media groups to serve the broader external propaganda goals of the party-state. Sichuan’s SICC is one of at least 11 such “international communication centers” (国际传播中心) formed since 2020. Six of these have been formed only since May of this year, responding to instructions on “advancing propaganda and ideology work” laid out by Xi Jinping in 2016 (and most recently in May 2021).
Over the summer, these ICCs — as you will hear us call them here on out at CMP — created a mutual association to better coordinate work nationwide. The process of integrating the ICCs both horizontally and vertically (with central state media) is clearly a strategy in the CCP’s remaking of its overall propaganda matrix.
As is often the case with China’s efforts at international communication, the results are mixed, largely because of shortcomings in planning and professionalism coded politically into the DNA of such efforts — their “red genes,” to appropriate a CCP catchphrase.
One clear example of the sub-par is the SICC’s recruitment of foreign exchange students in Sichuan to comment on the Golden Panda Awards in an effort to demonstrate the event’s international nature. This ethically problematic tactic is not only common in China, but in some cases has been formalized through cooperation agreements such as that struck earlier this year between the CCP-run China Media Group and Jiangxi’s Nanchang Aviation University, which defined foreign students as “resources” for external communication.
Now that ICCs are getting off the ground, tasked in some cases with regional work, such as in Southeast Asia (see my recent piece in Commonwealth), we can expect to see more creative approaches to the CCP’s external propaganda, through social media accounts outside China that are branded non-transparently (“Center” and “C-Video” are two more SICC labels).
How Civilized You Are!
One final elucidating note on the Golden Panda Awards deals with their framing as an event of civilizational proportions, in keeping with China’s focus since last year’s 20th National Congress on “civilization” as a source of leadership legitimacy at home and soft power appeal abroad [See “China’s ‘Xivilizing’ Mission“].
The Golden Pandas, we are told by the Global Times, “are committed to promoting exchanges and mutual learning among global civilizations.” They are, says the original announcement for the prize, about “building a community of shared destiny for mankind” and promoting “civilizational exchange.”
This language places the festivities happening today in Chengdu solidly within the context of legitimacy formation for Xi’s unprecedented third leadership term. It is no coincidence that the Golden Pandas were initiated just five days after Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the CCP’s Dialogue with World Political Parties in Beijing, during which he unveiled his Global Civilization Initiative (GCI).
The focus on “civilization” might seem just to put a grandiose patina on that simpler word, “culture.” But for the CCP in the present political moment, it is so much more, wrapped up in the recent claim that Xi Jinping’s “New Era” marks an historic culmination, the creation of a “new form of human civilization.” The Party’s general secretary stands with his feet planted on two great summits — the first the apex of China’s “excellent traditional culture,” the second the acme of Marxism for the 21st century. This, at present, is the CCP’s recipe for legitimacy, its latest confection: a civilization to make all Chinese proud and encourage the world to look on in awe.
As CGTN declares in its corny promotional video for the Golden Panda Awards, narrated in the distinctive baritone of Chinese state television, and cut in with shots of Times Square and the Eiffel Tower: “This is a bridge for mutual learning among civilizations. Communicate with other civilizations and embrace the world.”
During a collective study session of the Politburo on propaganda and ideology in May 2021, Xi Jinping reminded Party leaders that “telling China’s story well” meant that the country’s image should be “trustworthy” (可信) and “honorable” (可敬), but also “lovable” (可爱).
The question is how to make lovable happen. And the answer is always: gild the panda.
During a dialogue with African leaders and ministers on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on Thursday last week, Xi Jinping pledged to support local industrialization in developing nations in Africa. As this news was reported in party-state media back home, the stress was on the Chinese leader’s language about China’s “developing nation” status. “China has always shared the fate of developing nations,” said Xi. “It has been, is now, and will forever be a member of the developing world!”
Forever is a very long time. And for critics internationally who contend that China is an economic giant receiving undue preferential treatment — including billions in World Bank loans — by virtue of its designation by the United Nations as a “developing nation,” forever will certainly raise questions.
What exactly does Xi Jinping mean?
The Foreverness Wave
Xi Jinping’s address during the Thursday dialogue was front-page news across China the next day. The CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper highlighted the key points, including the language about China’s “developing nation” status, in bright red bullets on the right-hand side of the masthead. Treatments in all other central and provincial-level outlets were virtually identical, with even local Party news shoved to the background.
But as the wave of BRICS coverage was focused through the lens of online and digital outlets, separating the essentials from the verbiage about “win-win cooperation” and a “community of shared destiny,” a single line came through: “China will forever be a member of the developing nations.”
On the news app of The Paper (澎湃), a digital outlet launched in 2014 under the state-run Shanghai United Media Group, this line was the headline and the news brief: “At morning local time on August 24, President Xi Jinping said that China will forever breathe together with the developing nations, share their fate, and that [China] has been, is now, and will forever be a member of the developing world!”
This coverage was echoed in media outlets across the country. In Liaoning province’s official North Country (北国网) portal, run by the Liaoning Daily, on the official Douyin account of The Beijing News, and way down south in Yunnan’s Kaiping News (开屏新闻网). The same was true at Haiwai Online (海外网), a website affiliated with the overseas edition of the official People’s Daily, and on official portal sites in cities across the country, like Changsha.
Forever Since When?
In fact, Xi’s language about the foreverness of China’s developing nation status dates back to at least early April this year, shortly after the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that supported the removal of China’s “developing nation” label at international organizations.
On April 12, a piece in the People’s Daily written by Shi Qing (史青), a pseudonym likely for an official writing group at the newspaper reflecting the central leadership’s view, argued for China’s current status as a developing nation on the basis of various economic measures, before stating in no uncertain terms that the country will forever be “developing” in a political sense. “For China, developing country status has a special political nature,” the commentary said.
A few days after the People’s Daily commentary, Chinese blogger Lao Ding (老丁) broke the Shi Qing argument down further, pointing out its curious inconsistency with China’s clearly stated ambition to achieve strong and continued development.
“So does ‘forever a member of the family of developing nations’ mean that China intends to ‘lie flat’ and continue to be a developing country?” Lao Ding asked, referencing a recent popular online meme that rejects the call to strive forward, preferring instead a life of sufficiency and balance. “Well, if that’s the case, what is the reason in our current economic efforts? Doesn’t the political report to the 20th National Congress say that by 2035 one of the goals of our country’s development is to reach the level of a mid-range developed nation?”
Lao Ding was not wrong. Xi Jinping’s political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP had said exactly that, in a section on the Party’s “Missions and Tasks.” By 2035, China was to become a “mid-range developed nation” (中等发达国家).
“I understand it when it comes to love,” wrote Lao Ding. “But what does forever mean?”
He found his answer in the People’s Daily passage about the “political nature” (政治属性) of the “developing nation” label, which included this bit of history:
In 1964, the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD I) identified the vast number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that had achieved national liberation after the Second World War and had taken the path of autonomous development as ‘developing countries’ as opposed to developed countries.
The “political nature” of the developing nation, in other words, is about the history and ongoing identity of liberation. Like so much in the Xi era, this political identification is to a great extent a repackaging of longstanding CCP concepts. The notion that China is essential to liberation from colonialism, imperialism and hegemonism has been a centerpiece of China’s foreign policy ever since Mao Zedong sought to unite the “Third World” — now an offensive term, mind you — against the United States and the Soviet Union, and to rally the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to form a new international order.
Understanding this political definition, it becomes clear why Xi Jinping and the CCP are embracing the “developing nation” label so steadfastly. The label is essential to China’s vision of itself as the central protagonist in the creation of another “new international order” (国际新秩序) that according to Party-state media is more equitable and reasonable, what China and Russia outlined in a joint statement just 20 days before the latter invaded Ukraine.
So, you see, China likely is not now, or at least very soon will not be, a developing nation in an economic sense. Even so, China’s core international identity as a defender against imperialism and hegemonism means for the CCP that it will always have “developing” status politically — regardless of economic development or the improvement of its international status.
One might rightly protest that liberation forever means liberation never. That, however, would prioritize logic over political necessity. For the CCP, there is a distinct political advantage to a global crown of thorns that never slips, no matter how high they tower over their developing cousins.
David Bandurski: Needless to say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been devastating and disruptive to people’s lives in your country. So first off, I just want to wish safety and security to everyone there. Our thoughts are with you.
Vita Golod: Thank you for your wishes. Right after the full-scale invasion, we got so many messages from our colleagues – sinologists from all over the world. Polish colleagues were conspicuous. Fifty-two Polish sinologists signed a support letter. Through the horror of the first weeks of the invasion, I can still remember the kind words of support. I appreciate this solidarity and the sincere desire to help.
David Bandurski:Maybe you could start off by telling us a bit about the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, where you are Chairman of the Board.
Vita Golod: The Association was founded in November 2003. This year we celebrate our 20th anniversary. It is a non-government organization, a Ukrainian think tank focused on China studies and Ukrainian-Chinese relations. We unite more than 200 experts in different disciplines, like economics, international relations, political science, history, culture, linguistics, philosophy, literature, and so on. Most of us speak Mandarin and have a live-in-China background. Our goal is to promote the development of research on China in Ukraine and the development of Chinese studies, and we popularize modern knowledge about China.
David Bandurski:I know the war must have transformed the work that you and other sinologists and China experts do in Ukraine. Part of that for you has been building better communication. Could you talk about that?
Vita Golod: I was among those Ukrainians who did not believe that there would be a full-scale invasion. The next issue of the Ukraine-China journal was almost ready. We were going to dedicate it to the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and China. In one moment everything changed.
So, on the twenty-fourth of February, 2022, the day of the invasion — it was around 9:45 PM, I remember — I put a message in our social media group of interpreters about the idea of how our knowledge and expertise could be useful for Ukraine in wartime. All of us have WeChat accounts, and many of us have Weibo and Douyin accounts. It might work, I thought. We would just need more followers.
Every day we translated the official Ukrainian news and spoke Chinese to explain what was going on in Ukraine, replying to the comments. It was tough emotionally and needed a lot of time. We also organized live sessions with bloggers inside and outside China that have a large number of followers. We knew there were no Ukrainian media in China, so we hoped our work could at least present the Ukrainian view of events, which was hidden by Chinese authorities due to different reasons.
The day after the invasion, my colleague Kyrilo Chuyko posted a video in which he addressed the Chinese audience directly, expressing the feelings of people who were invaded, and who were experiencing fear and despair. It was a call for humanity.
David Bandurski: Did the video get a strong response?
Vita Golod: It went viral. The video was viewed by more than seven million people in just the first month of the war. Then, it gathered millions of comments and reposts on WeChat in China. That’s how this volunteering project started. About one-hundred people contributed their time and efforts translating news, making videos and captions, communicating with state and non-state organizations, and spreading hundreds of files through Chinese social media. We called the project an “informational defense of Ukrainian sinologists against Russian propaganda in Chinese social media.”
We did it voluntarily outside our main jobs, from all different parts of Ukraine — even from the occupied places like Borodyanka and Bucha, under the sirens and during evacuation. We have kept some of the products in an online archive on the association’s website. Our work can also be found on the Stand with Ukraine (烏克蘭需要你的支持) YouTube channel.
David Bandurski: I see that one of the projects the association has been involved in is a news and information website called Ukraine Online (乌克兰在线), which includes current reports about politics and society in Ukraine in the Chinese language. Could you tell us more about the thinking behind that and how it got started?
Vita Golod: The Ukraine Online platform was launched this summer. We were thinking about how to develop the volunteer activity we’ve done over the past year into a real long-lasting product. This project was organized by the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists and the Institute for Contemporary China Studies named after Borys Kurts, a Ukrainian historian, orientalist, and teacher. The editor-in-chief of the online platform is Yevheniia Hobova, a board member of our association. She’s a Ph.D. in linguistics, and is now a junior researcher at the A. Yu. Krymskyi Institute of Oriental Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
As I mentioned before, there are no Ukrainian media in China, and Russian influence on Chinese state narratives is harmful to us. So, we have translated and promoted news about Ukraine in Mandarin daily, aiming to reach Sinophone audiences around the world. The website presents the Ukrainian view on events, and sometimes it is very different from the one available from the media inside China because of Russian influence.
While the Russian-Ukrainian war is certainly the central topic for all world tabloids, we try to cover the events from various angles — including politics, social issues, the economy, culture, and the people’s personal stories. It is essential to show the side of Ukraine that may not be visible in mainstream Sinophone media. Also, we publish news on our Weibo and Twitter accounts. Soon we will be on WeChat too. The website can be opened in China without a VPN. So, we’d like more people from the Sinophone world to know about this platform. I hope this interview can help us reach a wider audience.
David Bandurski: Just now you mentioned the importance of personal stories. Is there any particular story that has stood out for you?
Vita Golod: Every family in Ukraine was touched by this war. Everyone has their own story of evacuation, loss, fear, and depression. So many of them. The personal stories of the people from Bucha, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, who lost everything and people they loved, every time made me cry. We have translated many of those stories.
The interview with Elvira Borts, an old woman who narrowly escaped the horrors of Mariupol and survived, is a particular one. We shared her story, subtitled in Chinese.
I live in the Bucha area, but closer to Kyiv. My village luckily wasn’t occupied by Russians, even though they were very close and we heard the sounds of battles. I still remember how empty Kyiv was in March 2022, a city of 3.8 million citizens. I once passed through Khreschatyk Street, the main street running through Kyiv, in the middle of the day, and my car was the only one in both directions. I stopped at the red light and then realized there was no sense in it. I can’t even describe how sad I felt seeing abandoned streets, and house pets roaming around. The air was toxic.
Some of our colleagues have joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I’d like to mention Oleksyi Koval, the only Ukrainian professional journalist-sinologist, who reported from five Chinese Communist Party Congresses and worked with key Chinese media. His example deserves respect.
David Bandurski: Do you have any indication of how Chinese audiences have responded to these stories?
Vita Golod: When we went on WeChat with the stories, messages, or pictures, many new Chinese social media users started to invite us to the pro-Ukrainian WeChat groups. I was joined by 20 different groups with 500-700 users. My colleagues even more. We posted news there and let them share it on their channels. We never knew how many users were involved, but it was everyday work. Daryna Ustenko, another association member, contributed the most to this communication. After some groups were banned, our supporters created new ones. Some groups are still working up to now.
Another example of our work was a live session Kyrilo organized with a DW journalist in April 2022. Our colleagues also joined to share their feelings with the global Chinese-speaking community. We have kept the video with all the comments and wishes. It’s very informative.
David Bandurski: I noticed that you’ve also interacted with Chinese outside of the media. For example, you sat down with artist Xu Weixin (徐唯辛). Could you tell us more about that?
Vita Golod: A few months after the full-scale invasion, we realized that Chinese artists were the most supportive vocally of Ukraine. They helped us to promote true information about the war through their art, music, and poems. Some stories were published on our website. Deng Kangyan wrote several poems dedicated to Ukraine and our heroic people.
Li Qiang was the first artist who contacted me in April 2022. His WeChat group was the most productive in supporting Ukraine. He couriered to Kyiv one of his works — a portrait of President Zelensky, depicting his face after learning of the Bucha massacre, along with a letter to him. We passed it along with the portrait to the president’s office.
Xu Weixin is another example. He lives in the US now. Every day since April 15, 2022, he has sketched war scenes, the faces of politicians, soldiers, activists, and ordinary Ukrainians. Xu has created 539 works in total so far. The first time I interviewed him was in the fall of 2022 for an issue of the Ukraine-China journal. Then I visited twice his studio in New York. He said he would not stop his project until our victory, even though he got tired. We agreed one day that he would sketch my brother’s portrait as well. He is in Donbas now. Everyone who fights this war is a hero.
David Bandurski: How do you think the war has impacted the relationship between China and Ukraine? How do the people of Ukraine feel about China?
Vita Golod: According to opinion polls, Ukrainians have the most positive view of the responses to the invasion by Poland, the UK, and the US. That is completely understandable. The 32 countries that have shown neutrality in their UN votes toward Russian aggression can’t be considered favorably.
Ukrainians’ expectations of China playing a mediating role in the settlement of the conflict are gradually melting. China’s official neutrality, its peacekeeper image, and its rapprochement with Russia at the same time are confusing to Ukrainians. Our media pay attention to the role of China in this war, letting the Ukrainian audience hear the different points of view.
We have media freedom in Ukraine, which is one of our great achievements. But fact-checking and professionalism should take priority over clickbait. I would like to say, the number of non-professional comments on China has been rising in Ukraine, particularly since China announced its so-called peace plan. Sometimes, Ukrainian media, unfortunately, invite people to comment on China with zero relation to Chinese studies or even foreign policy. That provokes incorrect or even deliberately negative perceptions of the situation.
Since the invasion, President Zelensky personally and his office have taken on full responsibility for the foreign policy of Ukraine. He sees that China could play a role as a mediator in this war, and he very much welcomed the mission of China’s envoy, Li Hui, to Ukraine. This visit as well as the online meeting between Ukrainian and Chinese leaders were widely covered in the Ukrainian media and had a positive effect. Future bilateral relations will depend on China’s real actions on the peacemaking mission in Ukraine. For now, it’s ambiguous. I still truly hope Ukrainian foreign policy remains independent and won’t be designed somewhere in Brussels or Washington.
David Bandurski: In terms of Chinese coverage and discussion of the war, what do you and your colleagues observe today? Is there any change? And what would you say to the Chinese, and the Chinese media?
Vita Golod: I’d like to mention one important date. On April 11, 2022, the People’s Daily newspaper published the first big article about, as they call it, the “Ukrainian crisis,” in which it said that Ukraine was a pawn in the geopolitical game of the United States. Since then, China’s main narrative has remained unchanged.
Two days after the People’s Daily article, we published a response in three languages on our website — signed by the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists — and this was circulated through our international network. We publicly addressed intellectuals and policymakers in the Chinese-language world to make clear that the “Ukrainian crisis,” as they called it, arose as a result of Russia’s direct armed aggression against Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom and independence. Of course, we didn’t expect any reaction from officials in Beijing. It was our position, to call for fairness and justice.
David Bandurski: At CMP we looked quite a bit at the People’s Daily’s official treatment of the war, the “crisis,” and even how for months and months President Zelensky himself is never mentioned. But it’s also true that some Chinese media have tried to tell a slightly more nuanced version. We’ve covered that too. Assuming there’s room somehow for finding new ways to reach Chinese who are willing to listen, what other ways do you think your group can reach them?
One achievement we’re quite proud of in the past year is that we launched the Ukrainian Platform for Contemporary China. We succeeded in gathering prominent international sinologists for four round tables. I appreciate your contribution to one of those as well. Why was that important? We created a platform for professional dialogues on China, where Ukrainian audiences could see and hear well-known China experts, ask questions, and get some takeaways. It was important for us as well to share our concerns and find a consensus on sensitive topics. This platform helped us to create a network with different universities, think tanks, and media — including Chinese.
I’m glad we are building relations with a new generation of Chinese scholars. Slowly, they have started to see Ukraine as a European country, not a part of the post-Soviet sphere. Last month an assistant professor from Peking University spent three weeks in Ukraine. We are preparing an article on how China sees Ukraine now versus then. As he said in one of our conversations — now I know there is a real war in Ukraine, not a Ukrainian “crisis” or a Ukrainian “issue.”
I hope more young Chinese researchers come to Ukraine. We are interested in a dialogue with young Chinese intellectuals. In fact, more Chinese journalists are coming to Ukraine now. One example was a group of reporters from CGTN who came in February this year. They spent two weeks in different parts of Ukraine. Not everything we did together or we recommended was published. But some episodes I’ve seen. They are really good. I know about CGTN’s Russian office, which shows the opposite news. Anyway, I was glad our colleagues were a source of help to show and tell the true story.
David Bandurski: As I’m sure you’re aware, the question of Taiwan’s security is often raised in discussions of the war in Ukraine. Sitting here in Taipei, I have to ask: Do you have any thoughts on that?
I spent a year of my life in Taiwan. That was a long time ago, and since then I’ve seen a crucial re-evaluation of Taiwanese identity. The tensions in the Taiwan Strait became a big media interest in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Some people have put both cases into a single basket. To clarify some of the related issues, I published an article with Dmytro Burtsev, another member of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow of the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. We posted it to Ukrinform, a platform of Ukraine’s national news agency.
Most Ukrainians, including journalists, have little knowledge of Taiwan. Sometimes, falsely overconfident “experts” and even officials use this as a manipulation tool, which is harmful to Ukrainian diplomacy, especially in wartime. When I mentioned in an interview that there are direct flights between Taiwan and China, and many Taiwanese factories are located in the eastern and southern Chinese provinces, the journalist doing the interview was genuinely surprised.
David Bandurski: Has the association been involved in outreach to Taiwan also to tell your story?
In July last year, actually, we successfully launched an advertising campaign in Taiwan called “Be brave like Ukraine.” This is a well-known project of Ukraine’s Presidential Office. Many cities worldwide supported it, including London, Rome, New York, Amsterdam, Washington, and Stockholm. In Taiwan, it became possible because of the funding provided by six private companies, organized by Dentsu Taiwan through Dentsu’s Ukraine office.
Getting it done took a long negotiation process. Many people and organizations were involved. After getting the permissions we needed, a member of our team selected fonts for the Chinese traditional characters. Then we started to communicate with different Taiwan institutions, including at higher levels, who might support us — but this failed. In the end, personal business contacts helped us to realize the project. All six Taiwanese companies received appreciation letters signed by Mykhailo Fedorov, then deputy prime minister and minister of digital transformation of Ukraine.
Anyone in Taiwan at the time might have noticed the big billboards, as well as stickers on taxis in Taipei, Hualian, and other cities. It even made the local news. However, I expected a bigger impact, to be honest. Anyway, I hope the Taiwanese will never face the same tragedy we have faced — I hope they never have to be brave like Ukraine.