Author: David Bandurski

Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

Shades of Yellow

Another day, another campaign. On Tuesday, China’s top internet control body announced that it was launching a two-month crackdown on “self-media” (自媒体), referring to social media accounts that are generally operated by members of the public. The action focuses on five categories of self-media content and calls on social media platforms to strengthen controls across the board.

At the top of the list of violations released by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is “self-directed fakery” (自导自演式造假), an unmistakable reference to an online scandal that unfolded earlier this month when an internet influencer was found to have fabricated a video claiming to have located the homework book of a Chinese student that had been lost on winter vacation in Paris. The emotional story had gone viral across the country before its exposure, and the authorities followed by banning the influencer’s account, which they said had “damaged the online ecosystem and wasted public resources.”

Next on the CAC’s list of no-noes is the “no-holds-barred hyping of social hot points” (不择手段蹭炒社会热点), which points broadly to the use of spurious techniques such as fictionalizing events or spreading conspiracy theories to take advantage of trending topics. The CAC reiterates the point that such online stories result in the “waste of public resources” (浪费公共资源).

The hyping of hot points is followed on the CAC list by the “use of generalizations to set the topic” (以偏概全设置话题). This includes the use of controversial or negative terms to create attention-grabbing headlines, and exaggerating negative narratives or making “extreme statements” (偏激言论), which the CAC says is damaging to social consensus.

The latest CAC campaign also targets “new yellow journalism,” but state medai are among the worst culprits. Above, a 2022 story published as part of the “GT Investigates” series at the state-run Global Times sensationalizes the horrors of America’s response to Covid.

Continuing its list of ambiguous no-noes, the CAC next singles out the “generating of personas that go against public order and morals” (违背公序良俗制造人设). Thrown into this grab bag of offenses is the soliciting of public sympathies — as well as charitable donations — by exaggerating one’s miserable situation. At the other end of the spectrum, it also includes accounts that peddle images of extravagant wealth as a means of attracting fans.

Finally, the CAC says its two-month “clear and bright” (清朗) campaign will target the “indiscriminate dissemination of ‘new yellow journalism’” (滥发”新黄色新闻”). A distant reference to the strain of 19th-century American journalism that prioritized sensationalism over factual reporting, this category of violation points to the distribution of content making sensational claims of investigative revelation, with extreme headlines and images meant to draw attention.

The Sensational State

The problem of “new yellow journalism” in Chinese cyberspace, which thrives on and profits from sensationalism, is a serious problem that is not limited to self-media. And yet, the issue has received only a smattering of attention. In many cases, state media are among the worst violators, exaggerating social and political ills in the United States and the West to support the idea of the superiority of China’s system. Examples include “GT Investigates,” a series from the Global Times, a spin-off of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily, that regularly depicts the US and Western media as false and hypocritical; and “Media Unlocked” (起底), a brand under the state-run China Daily that frequently resorts to sensational attacks on the West.

Earlier this month, CMP ran a feature story in cooperation with Initium Media that looked at the racist phenomenon of “zero-dollar shopping” (零元购) videos that depict Black Americans as criminals, and America as a lawless hellscape. Such videos have been viral on China’s internet for years, and state media have joined and encouraged the trend.

A 2022 report from the digital division of the state-run China Daily exaggerates chaos in the US under the theme of “Zero-dollar shopping.” Even the headlines are yellow.

The “clear and bright” campaigns of the CAC are a regular feature of internet control in China. They are also a symptom of China’s movement-style governance under the Chinese Communist Party, which prioritizes the top-down steamrolling through of agendas from superordinate powers — as opposed to the considered and rational implementation of rules and laws.

The CAC’s last “clear and bright” campaign was announced in December last year, and targeted three broad types of content, including “fake information” (虚假信息), “misconduct” (不当行为), and “incorrect concepts” (错误观念). The campaign was at points dizzying vague in its definition of problem content. It militated not only against “soft pornography” (软色情), but also against content that was “pallid yellow” (泛黄), referring to some unknown shade of a color that in China is synonymous with indecency.

Fingertip Formalism

Last month, as Xi Jinping addressed a group of party cadres in the sunshine outside a remote village service center in Hunan province, stressing the importance of poverty alleviation work, one village official rejoiced that they now had fewer government group chats to monitor on the social media platform WeChat — which meant, at long last, that they had time to go out into the real world and meet with struggling residents.

For a ruling party that has actively pushed mobile technology as an efficient solution, the local cadre’s remarks point to an unexpected peril for local governance: mobile phones can be a total time suck.

The inefficiencies that have come with technologies meant to streamline governance are sufficiently serious that they have now become a top priority for the leadership, with the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issuing a related policy back in December, and top-billing in today’s official People’s Daily newspaper, right under the masthead, for the problem of “fingertip formalism” (指尖上的形式主义).

Wiring the Grassroots

For years in China, “government affairs digitalization” (政务数字化) has been a calling card for local governments across the country, encouraged from the highest levels with the conviction that it can build in greater efficiencies and put solutions right at the fingertips of citizens and government officials alike, lowering the cost of addressing the sorts of problems — like poverty — that can create knock-on pressures for local governance.

The digital transformation of local, regional and national governance, a priority since at least 2019 — responding in part to global trends and the UN’s 2018 e-government survey — has essentially meant the use of the internet, big data, cloud solutions, and artificial intelligence (AI) to allow greater openness and responsiveness, and to enable more efficient collaboration across government departments and administrative lines. In its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), drafted in October 2020, China singled out the strengthening of basic digital infrastructure to improve government and public services, social management, and economic governance.

Tencent introduces its “digital countryside” solutions on WeChat at the Big Data Expo 2021.

Major Chinese tech companies have jumped onto the trend, recognizing the immense profit potential of urban and rural areas underserved by technology. Huawei’s “One Stop for Government Affairs” (政务一网通), advertised on its Huawei Cloud platform, says it is focused on “assisting government affairs and the digital transformation of cities.”

Shenzhen-based Tencent offers “Enterprise WeChat” (企业微信), a specialized service interoperable with Tencent’s all-encompassing social media ecosystem that offers extras like the “smart countryside” (智慧乡村) and “smart urban grassroots governance” (智慧城市基层治理) services — and which won an innovation award in 2021.

At China’s Big Data Expo in May 2021, Tencent actively marketed its “Enterprise WeChat” and its built-in “digital countryside” (数字乡村) option as laying down a “fast lane” for escaping poverty and striving for rural wealth. Tencent has continued to market its village-level solutions under the brand “Cun Wei” (村微), a clever Chinese mash-up of the words for “village committee” (村委) and WeChat. The online entry portal offers mobile office functions that promise to “enhance the efficiency of the grassroots work of village cadres.”

But by all accounts, grassroots village cadres across China have been swamped by efficiency.

Death By Notification

By the time the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, otherwise known as the CAC, issued Certain Opinions on Preventing and Combating ‘Fingertip Formalism’ (关於防治“指尖上的形式主义”的若干意见) in December last year, it was already clear to local officials that efficient solutions were demanding too much of their time.

“With the rapid development of e-government, much daily work is done at our fingertips rather than on paper,” one writer remarked in a commentary for a lesser-known CCP-run journal shortly after the opinion came out. “But modern governance technology that should enhance work efficiency has become an ‘added burden’ on grassroots cadres, depleting administrative resources and eroding the efficiency of grassroots work.”

A graphic special from the CAC explaining its December 2024 policy to combat “fingertip formalism.”

Examples of time-suck included government affairs apps that worked at cross purposes (变味走样的政务APP), the over-involvement of different departments through the sin of convenience (各个部门的系统录入), repetition of online and offline procedures (网上网下重复走程序), the uploading of mobile photos to log attendance or task completion (截图上报) — and of course, work-related WeChat groups that dinged incessantly with notifications (响个不停的微信群).

For nearly a century, the Chinese Communist Party, even though it has emphasized the imperative of rule-abiding, has fought and fulminated against the scourge of what it calls “formalism” (形式主义). This is the enduring concernraised by Mao Zedong as early as the 1930s — that real action toward a specific government function or policy objective is replaced with the almost ritualistic practice of formalities for the sake of formalities. Officials may ceaselessly attend ostensibly work-related banquet dinners, dart from this to that political meeting, or regurgitate the official-speak of superiors.

The government is busy, yet nothing gets done.

“Fingertip formalism” is the 21st-century manifestation, or augmentation, of this scourge on real productivity and public service. In many cases, it is a direct result of the drive to use technology to work around formalism in its classic sense — to design the killer algorithm that might send formalism to its grave.

The government is busy, yet nothing gets done.

Not mentioned in any of the official coverage of “fingertip formalism,” for example, is the Xi Jinping study app rolled out by the Central Propaganda Department in 2019 to re-enforce obedience through the regular practice of ideology. The app was seen early on as a tool to fight back against formalism, but much to the chagrin of its creators (and here), its use rapidly became an exercise in formalism, with users (or their children) working out cheats by which they could earn the requisite amount of points without allowing the app to consume them.

Governing the Efficiency Tools

In a strong indication of the burden such technologies have placed on officials at the local level, the CAC announcement of December last year said, “‘fingertip formalism’ is a mutation and variation of formalism in the context of digitalization, and is one of the main manifestations of the increased burden on the grassroots.”

Among the stipulations laid out in the policy was the need to strengthen integrated planning (加强统一规划) of government apps, chats, and other tools — which was tantamount to an admission that efficiency technologies were pushed from the start without sufficient government guidance. In fact, such sloppy policy rollouts are frightfully common under China’s political system, which often works by the mechanism of “campaign-style governance” (运动式治理), with measures urged through slogans from on high that are simply repeated, and variously and inconsistently enacted.

The CAC policy called for greater oversight of apps and other technology for governance moving forward and for the wholesale elimination of apps with low utility or overlapping functionality. It also prevented the forced use of government apps, as well as the use of apps or other systems with ranking functions.

The next few months will almost certainly bring a spate of closures and integration among government service apps. A report on “fingertip formalism” running prominently under the masthead of today’s edition of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper noted that the city of Shanghai ceased operation on April 1 of its standalone “Shanghai Transport Police” (上海交警) app, moving the related services under a separate city app.

The “Shanghai Transport Police” app, one of many casualties of the push to bring efficiency to the technologies that promised efficiency.

Another focus of the blood-letting, now happening across the country under local “burden reduction” (减负) measures following the CAC opinion, has been governmental public accounts as well as work-related group chats on platforms like WeChat.

According to the People’s Daily report, these efforts have already been deeply appreciated by local officials who have been overburdened by the push for digital engagement. “We now have more time to communicate face-to-face with village residents, and can also organize offline activities more often,” one cadre from Zhejiang’s Zunlin Township was quoted as saying. “Working together, we’ve tossed out a lot of ‘golden ideas’ on how to promote the revitalization of the countryside,” he added gleefully.

The People’s Daily report finished with a feel-good line about how “unloading the burden of the fingertip” and “reducing the unnecessary labor of grassroots cadres in the digital age” could result in a better system of digital government, more effectively serving the needs of the masses. But one question lingered that no one was bound to ask, at least not openly.

To what extent has the push for digital efficiency up to this point been a massive waste of public resources?

Golden Opportunities

Last week, the Star Media Group (SMG), one of Malaysia’s largest integrated media conglomerates, announced a partnership with China’s Contemporary World magazine, an outlet directly under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In a press release on the cooperation that made no mention of the magazine’s government ties, SMG said that “both media companies agreed to collaborate on news sources and explore further cooperation opportunities.”

The tie-up is just the latest example of China’s determined push to enhance its influence across Southeast Asia through media diplomacy, partnerships, journalism outreach programs, and state-led external propaganda initiatives — in many cases without any public transparency whatsoever about the Chinese entities involved.

SMG’s Chan Seng Fatt (陳成發), who stepped into the CEO spot at the group only last month, called the partnership a “golden opportunity” to bridge divides between China and Southeast Asia through what he called “concerted media collaboration.” He also hinted at the complexities in a region where views of China remain mixed. “In the context of China’s efforts in Southeast Asia, we see challenges and opportunities,” he said. “Language barriers, cultural misunderstandings and differing political landscapes pose significant challenges.”

“Contemporary World: Cultural Exchange” roundtable discussion at Asian International Arbitration Centre, Kuala Lumpur. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.

While the event was about cooperation between two media companies, including one of Malaysia’s largest listed media groups, the diplomatic role of the partnership — and its larger framing around China’s official state discourse on information — was the elephant in the room.

For China, media diplomacy is a crucial vehicle through which to influence public perceptions abroad and lay the groundwork for productive bilateral friendships — a goal distinct from the core media business of informing audiences. Betraying this primary interest in his speech to the event in Kuala Lumpur, Contemporary World (当代世界) editor-in-chief Lu Xuejun (吕学军) emphasized Xi Jinping’s meeting last year with Malaysia’s prime minister, suggesting to his audience that the goal of the media was to “implement the consensus advocated by our leaders.”

That consensus focused on the need, highlighted by Chan in his remarks, to amplify the voices of developing nations in the international community. “The need to enhance the representation and the voice of Global South countries has never been more critical,” said the CEO.

This position perfectly dovetails with China’s official stance under Xi Jinping, who has argued that China suffers from a deficit of soft power on the world stage, and therefore must work to “tell China’s story well.” Despite its apparent fore-fronting of Chinese narratives, which might seem to empower individual Chinese voices, Xi’s notion of China’s story is more singular than pluralistic — emphasizing the need for state control, and happening against the backdrop of increased domestic repression.

Know Your Partner

Who exactly is Contemporary World, the magazine SMG has partnered with?

Launched in 1981, the magazine is operated by the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP’s Central Committee (中共中央对外联络), the agency responsible for maintaining relations with foreign organizations and political parties, a key aspect of what the Party calls “united front work.” The ILD’s importance as a tool of China’s foreign policy has grown over the past decade under Xi Jinping.

Beijing company registration files show that Contemporary World magazine’s publisher, Contemporary World Publishing Co., Ltd., has one shareholder: China’s State Council.

In its coverage of the new SMG cooperation, The Star, an online outlet under the Malaysian media group, refers to Contemporary World only as a magazine, and as a “media company.” Inside China, however, the role of Contemporary World as an instrument of Chinese foreign policy is completely unambiguous. The publication’s chief role of late is to propagate the notion of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想).

If SMG’s cooperation agreement was indeed signed with the publishing company immediately behind Contemporary World, its contract partner would be Contemporary World Publishing Co., Ltd. Business reporters at The Star might start by pulling the company’s registration records in Beijing. They will quickly find that the company has but one shareholder — China’s State Council.

Winning Hearts on a Korean Island

On a cool day in late March this year, more than a hundred guests filed into a photo exhibition on South Korea’s Jeju Island, a popular holiday destination. The images on display in the hall were not of the island’s impressive lava tube system, which in 2007 earned World Heritage Site status. Nor did they explore Jeju’s rich and colorful shamanistic traditions.

Not about Jeju Island at all, the exhibition showcased the beauty and appeal of a region far away in China’s northwest, where the UN Human Rights Office has said that the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic Uyghurs may constitute crimes against humanity. In smiling rejection of a preponderance of supporting facts, the title of the Jeju exhibition said it all: “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land” (新疆是个好地方).

Facing tough criticism globally of its harsh crackdown in the Xinjiang region, where first-hand accounts from Uyghurs have corroborated accusations of human rights abuses from international organizations and the United Nations, China has pushed back with a concerted campaign of global propaganda. This has included guided tours for foreign journalists (front-loaded with official lectures), television co-productions focusing on culture and tourism, carefully planned diplomatic junkets, and even a broad and elaborate campaign of pre-planned videos from purported residents in the far-flung northwestern region.

The photo exhibition on Jeju Island further underscores the extreme lengths to which China will go to take the case of its innocence, and even benevolence, in Xinjiang directly to foreign populations.

Portraits of Peace and Happiness

Images showcased at the exhibition, focused on the natural beauty of Xinjiang and on colorful cultural elements such as Uyghur music and traditional dance, sought to portray the region as peaceful and prosperous. In a speech opening the event, China’s local consul general, Wang Luxin (王鲁新), told those gathered that Xinjiang had in recent years enjoyed “sustained economic development, social harmony and stability,” and that the lives of people in the region had immeasurably improved.

The photo exhibition was accompanied by a tourism promotion event, encouraging businesses and tour groups to visit Xinjiang and seek mutual opportunities.

In a further sign of the importance China attaches to such efforts at media diplomacy on Xinjiang and other key propaganda efforts, a report on the event was promoted on page three of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper on March 25.

The photo exhibition followed another China-sponsored event in Jeju, the South Korea-China Youth Dialogue Forum, on November 30 last year, co-hosted with a local news agency on the island. That event was planned by the South Korea-China Youth Friendship Association (韩中青年友好协会), a legal entity registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea that maintains a close relationship with China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The association was previously known as the Northeast Korea Cultural Exchange Association (韩国东北文化交流协会), which according to the Chinese Embassy in South Korea has historically held "wide-ranging friendly exchanges and cooperation with relevant associations, localities, and enterprises in China."

Local Outreach on a Global Scale

Official Chinese live events under the “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land” banner have been held in numerous locations globally over the past few years — including Russia, Liberia, Cameroon (and other African nations), Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Osaka, Hong Kong, and Macau. A video advertisement on the propaganda theme, produced by the state-run China News Service, was pushed to users of TikTok in July last year.

In July 2022, a “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land” video conference was held in the Tunisian capital, highlighting the “prosperity and progress” experienced in the region. The event, which gathered Tunisian government officials, journalists, and think-tank representatives for presentations on government development policies and life in Xinjiang, emphasized that events in Xinjiang are a matter of China’s internal affairs (中国内政).

"Recently, I read on the internet that America and Western countries say that we in Xinjiang are subjected to 'forced labor,’ and this big lie has made me very angry,” one speaker on video, identified in state media reports as a local worker from Xinjiang, told China’s Tunisian guests. "It has been my dream since I was a child to earn money for a better life through the skills I have learned and hard work, and there is no need for forced labor."

A similar event to that on Jeju Island was held in Belgium in December 2021, billed as “Xinjiang Online Culture and Tourism Week.” Like the recent South Korean event, it included both images and themed propaganda short videos on Xinjiang’s natural beauty and rich culture, and on its continued economic development.

When the ByteDance CEO Groveled

Earlier this month, lawmakers in the United States passed a bill that would mean a nationwide ban of TikTok if ByteDance, its parent company, does not sell its stake within six months. The legislation, which casts the popular social media platform as a threat to national security, now moves on to the US Senate, where its passage is by no means assured — but where support for action against TikTok is coming from strong voices like Virginian democratic Senator Mark Warner.

In much coverage from media in the US and Europe this week, one key question has been the extent to which TikTok is actually Chinese. The company was incorporated in California in 2015, has never operated its app inside China — though its sister app Douyin is popular there — and has a Singaporean CEO. What evidence is there that TikTok is under the thumb of the Chinese leadership?

In one of the most helpful takes this week, professor Li Shaomin of Old Dominion University writes in the Detroit Free Press that the answer to the question of whether ByteDance is an agent of the Chinese state is “complicated.” Li notes that, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, “the entire country is a giant corporation, with the ruling party as its management.” He refers to this as “China Inc.,” a corporatized political structure and politicized corporate structure in which the Party is ultimately on top.

Facing tough questioning from US lawmakers, TikTok’s Singaporean CEO Shou Zi Chew refused to back down. When the boss of TikTok’s parent company faced criticism from China’s government in 2018, it didn’t just buckle — it bowed, scraped, and groveled. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the implications of this dynamic have already played out quite dramatically in China.

One of the best answers to the question of whether and how ByteDance is beholden to the Chinese leadership came six years ago when its founder and CEO Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) was forced to issue a painfully abject political apology, which at the time we translated in full at CMP.

This stunningly compliant text, direct from the leadership at ByteDance, is one of the best tools available today to break right through the tangled debates about the loyalties and priorities of TikTok’s parent company — and the risks it might pose.

So Sorry, China Inc.

Posted to the WeChat platform on April 11, 2018, Zhang Yiming’s apology was a response to a clearly concerted attack from Chinese media, including the state-run broadcaster CCTV, against Jinri Toutiao, a ByteDance-created content creation and aggregation platform that was accused of lax content controls. The official media attack was followed quickly by a notice from a state content regulator announcing that both Jinri Toutiao and Kuaishou, a live-streaming service, would be subject to “rectification measures.”

But Zhang’s apology was much more than a simple mea culpa to reassure regulators. It fell solidly within China’s dark tradition of the political self-confession, or jiantao (检讨) — an act of submission to those in power.

In coverage of TikTok and the US House Bill that threatens a ban, Vox teases out the question of the app’s “Chineseness.”

For anyone reading Zhang’s apology, it should be painfully clear that this was made under extreme political pressure. The CEO, an engineer by background, signals that he will fall into line by ticking off all of the obligatory ideological boxes, just as the most craven of Party cadres would.

“I earnestly apologize to regulatory authorities, and to our users and colleagues,” he begins. “Since receiving the notice yesterday from regulatory authorities, I have been filled with remorse and guilt, entirely unable to sleep.”

In the confessionary text that follows, Zhang locates the root of the problem, tellingly, in his company’s failure to uphold the central political line of the day, the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识). This formula demands awareness of four basic tenets that translate into obedience to the Party under Xi’s leadership. They are the need to 1) maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms (with a mind to political and national security) 3) uphold the leadership core (in other words, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.

“Since receiving the notice yesterday from regulatory authorities, I have been filled with remorse and guilt, entirely unable to sleep.”

ZHANG YIMING, april 2018 Wechat post

In the same passage, Zhang next identifies the failure at ByteDance to live up to “socialist core values” and the company’s “deviation from public opinion guidance.” This last catchphrase has in fact circumscribed the official policy on media control, and its essential role in maintaining CCP power, ever since the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in China in June 1989.

“All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention,” Zhang writes.

The jarring case of Zhang Yiming’s ByteDance apology, coming just 17 months after the company launched TikTok overseas and years before the app became a concern to lawmakers and governments globally, is one of the clearest illustrations we have of the risks that arise from China’s control-obsessed political system.

No one reading this plea for atonement can entertain seriously the idea that Chinese companies whose products have potentially strategic implications can resist the demands of the government. When push comes to shove, Xi Jinping, as the chairman of China Inc., is the only CEO whose agency matters.

The Ugly Politics of Media Obstruction

When push comes to shove in China, it is the powerful state-run news networks that get to dominate the story, with the blessing of the country’s leaders. But a case yesterday of real-life pushing and shoving involving the country’s official broadcaster, China Central Television, has stirred uncharacteristic questions about the role of journalists and their relationship to the public — and what rights they should and do have.

The scene unfolded yesterday as a news reporter from CCTV, the chief state broadcaster under the party-run China Media Group (CMG), and her filming crew were hustled away from the scene of a deadly gas explosion in Yanjiao (燕郊), a town in the central province of Hebei, about 50 kilometers east of Beijing. Video of the live broadcast on CCTV-2, which has been shared widely across social media in China, shows the reporter, clearly holding a microphone labeled “CCTV,” speaking calmly from outside the scene of the explosion when she is suddenly surrounded by uniformed personnel who block the camera and interrupt the broadcast.

As the live broadcast cuts back to the studio in Beijing, the anchors, clearly caught off guard, blandly remark on the need to, “Mind your safety.” Such a scene would be jarringly unusual to Chinese television audiences accustomed to more scripted and uneventful exchanges on official news programs.

As the clip made the rounds on social media, it drew anger from some, who criticized the actions of the local authorities. “As an old journalist myself, I am very supportive of the CCTV reporters who rushed to the scene of the Yanjiao explosion site this evening to report live,” wrote Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper. “At the same time, I resolutely object to local police obstructing the report and expelling the reporter.”

Stills from a live CCTV broadcast from the scene of an explosion in Hebei on Wednesday show uniformed officers approaching the reporter from all sides, and the startled reaction of the anchors back in the Beijing studio.

For others, mindful of the special privileges that have been historically enjoyed by state media journalists, the incident was a wake-up call to a problem suffered for decades by more professional news outlets in China that have attempted to do real reporting in the face of formal press restrictions from the Chinese Communist Party leadership above, and frequent intimidation down below.

One post to WeChat and other platforms that shared images of the scuffle between the China Media Group crew and local police and other uniformed personnel bore the headline: "Finally, even the CCTV Reporter is Thrown Off the News Story."

Some noted that the intimidation and abuse of journalists from more professional outlets like those in Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily group — notable among them publications like Southern Weekly — has gone mostly unpunished for years. “There have been plenty of instances in recent years of journalists arrested and held in small black rooms, being searched and even beaten, all without causing any waves,” said one reflection from a social media public account called “Urban Land” which drew more than 13,000 comments on Netease alone.

“Local media are even subjected to online abuse if they openly report the ills they face,” said the post. “What they receive is not sympathy, but rather — oh, you Nanfang Group media . . . . this is what you deserve!”

Police in Yanjiao manhandle a CMG crew member.

The post suggested the incident in Yanjiao, on the outskirts of the small city of Langfang, was a further sign of a generally worsening situation for the press in China, saying it marked “a new phase” (一个新阶段) in which no media, including the generally obedient outlets directly under party-state control, are safe from intimidation and interference.

Former Southern Weekly journalist Chu Chaoxin (褚朝新) made the same case as he said the harassment of the CCTV reporters had brought a moment of unfortunate equalization. “This time in Langfang, we journalists are equal at last. Not equal in our freedom to access the scene for reporting, but equal in being denied reporting from the scene of the explosion," he wrote.

Dominating the Front Lines

As press controls have tightened over the past decade, it has become much harder for journalists, particularly those from less influential commercial outlets, to report breaking news from the scene. 

Beginning under President Hu Jintao in 2008, reporting by central state media of “sudden-breaking incidents,” or tufa shijian (突发事件), was encouraged as a means of exercising tighter control of sensitive news reporting. The idea, coming under Hu's notion of "public opinion channeling" (舆论引导) was to ensure state media could fill information vacuums with "authoritative" reporting to prevent destabilizing public speculation. Meanwhile, regional and commercial newspapers and magazines — which in the proceeding decade had earned a reputation for often doing more free-wheeling coverage — could be held back from the scene of breaking stories with explicit orders and bans. This avoided coverage into deeper into questions of responsibility, what propaganda authorities often call "reflecting back."

Despite the leadership's attempts to rein in more open reporting of sudden-breaking incidents, professionally-minded outlets continued to push the bounds into the early 2010s. The Wenzhou train collision in the summer of 2011 was one of several outstanding cases that underscored the limits of Hu Jintao's vision of responsive press control.

Those limitations all but evaporated after 2013, as Xi Jinping boldly reasserted control over the press and social media platforms, even going so far as to explicitly ban the promotion of "the West's view of journalism" in a communiqué that year that came to be known as "Document 9."

The complete dominance of official media reporting in the wake of the Oriental Star tragedy in June 2015, in which a tour boat capsized on the Yangtze River, killing more than 400 people, was a graphic illustration of the silencing of China's professional press on sudden-breaking stories. Front pages in usually more outspoken papers carried identical content, images and layouts to Party-run newspapers, all drawing on official news releases, or tonggao (通稿), from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Three usually more adventurous commercial newspapers on June 3, 2015, report on the Oriental Star tragedy with the same images and content from Xinhua.

Xi Jinping offered an even more direct and robust vision of CCP control of the media in February 2016, as he visited the offices of the People's Daily newspaper and CCTV and stated that media must "love the Party, serve the Party and act for the Party."

It's Official: Local Governments Control the News

It is generally observed, and broadly true, that Xi Jinping now exercises much tighter control over the reins of power in China. He has tightened the CCP's control of the government. He has tightened the Party's control over the country's financial system. But when it comes to news and information, the tightening process has resulted in a dangerous devolution to local governments.

This may be the most important lesson to draw from yesterday's kerfuffle on live television.

For years, the process of reporting every manner of news story at the local level — from the country and city up to the province — has come to be highly concentrated with local authorities and their information operations, precisely because media have been neutered from the top down to the bottom. The situation is worsened by the fact that Xi Jinping has emphasized the power of Party institutions and modeled a strong-arm approach to governance. Local authorities have almost certainly been further emboldened by the extended exercise in strict social and political control afforded by Xi's "zero Covid" lockdowns.

A March 14 official release from Xinhua News Agency on the explosion in Hebei offers little information beyond the basics.

In today's China, the release of news and information has come to rely more than ever on a growing official ecosystem of public accounts operated by local authorities, from city police departments to provincial information offices. As a result, the local authorities with the most to gain from suppression of the truth are nearly always the primary source of information that is then dutifully repeated and disseminated by party-state media through official news releases, as "authoritative."

Much of the debate over the pushing and shoving yesterday in Hebei has centered on the question of "reporting." But it is hardly an exaggeration to say that real reporting in such cases is frighteningly scarce anywhere in China in recent years.

The Yanjiao explosion has thus far been no exception. Reports on the incident this morning on major news websites relied on central state media releases that were themselves entirely reliant on information provided by local “relevant departments” (有关部门) — and made little or no apparent effort to speak to other sources on the ground. A report on the Chinese-language website of the Global Times, sourced from CCTV, revealed only that an explosion had occurred in the town of Yanjiao in Sanhe at 7:54 PM on March 13, caused by a gas leak, and that it had so far killed 7 and injured 27, with 14 already released from hospital. Site cleanup and investigation, it added, were ongoing.

When it comes to news and information, the process of tightening has resulted in a dangerous process of devolution to local governments.

An official news release this morning from China's official Xinhua News Agency relied solely again on information released from emergency response authorities in Sanhe, noting after repeating the same details included in the CCTV/Global Times missive, that "the cause of the accident is under investigation." A nearly identical report in English was also released by Xinhua early this morning. (For more insight into the dangers of the news release system and the loss of professional reporting, see our 2022 report "Mystery Kills" about how false rumors of the pending arrest of Alibaba founder Jack Ma sent shares tumbling 10 percent in Hong Kong.)

The dearth of real reporting on the explosion in Yanjiao, a revealing counterpoint to the outrage over the harassment of a reporter on the scene, brings us to the next twist in the CCTV story — the initial response given by the All-China Journalists Association (中华全国新闻工作者协会), or ACJA.

Rights, and Wrongs

Though the ACJA is ostensibly a professional association representing the media sector in China, it is a Party-affiliated organization overseen by the Central Propaganda Department, and its Charter commits it primarily to such political demands as "adhering to and strengthening of the overall leadership of the Party." Rarely in the past has the ACJA — which also plays a critical role in training and licensing reporters as adherents to Party control under the auspices of the "Marxist View of Journalism" — come to the defense of working journalists.

But as the CCTV incident broke on the internet late Wednesday, the ACJA became the unlikeliest of dissenting voices on the rights of journalists.

In a statement posted sometime after 9 PM, the association was unusually direct and stern, saying that the authorities must not, in the interest of controlling public opinion, "simply and brutally obstruct media reporters from performing their normal duties." "If the video circulating online is authentic, we raise three questions," the ACJA statement read after a rundown of the situation based on the video circulating online.

To the first question, "Should journalists engage in reporting?" the statement responded in uncharacteristically concise language:

They should. In the case of such a major public safety incident, the public looks forward to knowing more information. Journalists use their professional lenses to record the actual situation of the disaster and the rescue process, responding to public concerns and stopping the spread of rumors to the greatest extent possible.

To the second question, "Was the journalist adding to the confusion?"

They were not. When journalists report truthfully on the situation at the scene, reporting calmly, professionally and objectively, abiding by the ethical code of journalism, this can maximize the relief of public anxiety and protect the people's right to know.

A Google search for the statement from the All-China Journalist's Association returns a result on the ACJA website, but the content has already been removed.

In both of these responses, the emphasis was not just on professionalism but on the public's right to know (知情权), a concept that has been seen only rarely in the official discourse in recent years — and that has appeared just once on the ACJA's website over the past year.

It was the third question, however, that was most provocative. It touched on the nature of the Party-led news system and its reliance on the authoritative release: "Can official news releases truly replace live reporting?"

They cannot. If there were no media reporters, how could the public find answers? The first way would be to look at official releases, and the second would be to look at a wide array of information circulating on the internet. However, the official release will not be all-inclusive, and the information on the internet might breed rumors, so it is important for the media to supplement information.

Adding mystery and inconsistency to the drama, the ACJA statement was removed at some point today from the association's website (above), even as it remained available on its WeChat account. But the statement has already touched — wittingly, or not? — on the core issue facing journalists in China today and their relationship to the public and its right to know.

That issue, the obstruction of the news by those in power, has now been dramatized on national television in the case of the Yanjiao explosion. But as professional journalists have known painfully for years, and as CCTV reporters should know better than most, having pledged their allegiance to Xi Jinping and the Party in dramatic form almost exactly eight years ago, that obstruction is not an aberration — it is policy.

The Local Game of Global Propaganda

In January this year, executives from the state-run China Daily newspaper took the stage with top propaganda officials from southwest Yunnan province to launch a new regional media network meant to strengthen Chinese state narratives and agendas in Southeast Asia. The formation of the South and Southeast Asian Media Network is the latest move in a broader effort by China’s leadership to mobilize media and propaganda resources at the provincial level to achieve more effective regional and international messaging.

Addressing the gathering, Yunnan’s top propaganda official, Zeng Yan (曾艳), said the purpose of the network was to build “a platform and mechanisms for dialogue and practical cooperation between media of various countries” in the region. Yunnan shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, and has strong and growing economic and development ties across Southeast Asia.

Zeng Yan, the head of the Provincial Propaganda Office of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the CCP.

According to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency published in the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper on February 1, the South and Southeast Asian Media Network (南亚东南亚媒体联盟) has been formed as a joint initiative of China Daily and the Yunnan International Communication Center for South and Southeast Asia (云南省南亚东南亚区域国际传播中心), an office under the provincial propaganda department launched in May 2022.

As CMP has detailed in previous research over the past year, provincial-level international communication centers, or ICCs, are spearheading efforts promoted by the leadership since 2018, and accelerating over the past two years, to “innovate” foreign-directed propaganda under a new province-focused strategy. In June 2023, provincial and city-level ICCs in China created a mutual association to better coordinate work nationwide. The process of integrating the ICCs both horizontally and vertically, including with central state media, has begun to emerge as a core strategy in the CCP’s remaking of its overall propaganda matrix.

The cooperation between China Daily and Yunnan’s provincial-level ICC should be viewed as a concrete effort to establish vertical links between central-level media and the broadly defined goals of what the CCP terms “external propaganda” (外宣) — explicitly linked by Xi Jinping in 2013 to the notion of “telling China’s story well” — and regional media and propaganda resources. Published by the State Council Information Office, the chief information arm of the Chinese government and the same office essentially as the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, the China Daily’s chief role is to reach overseas audiences with Chinese government messaging.

The cooperation between China Daily and Yunnan’s provincial-level ICC should be viewed as a concrete effort to establish vertical links between central-level media and regional media and propaganda resources.

In this case, the cooperation and vertical integration will focus on South Asia and Southeast Asia, drawing on Yunnan’s geographic, trade, and cultural links to countries to its south. In recent years, Yunnan has sought to expand its media cooperation and presence in neighboring Southeast Asian countries in particular and has published several bilingual magazines since 2016, including Khmer (高棉) in Cambodia, Champa (占芭) in Laos, and Mekong River (湄公河) in Thailand.

Though he offered few specifics, Qu Yingpu (曲莹璞), the president and editor-in-chief of the China Daily, said — according to a report in the newspaper he heads — that the establishment of the network had received "a positive response from mainstream media in South Asia and Southeast Asia, and will certainly create a new model of media cooperation in Asia.”

Yunnan province is an important part of this new model. In a policy statement released on January 31 just as the China Daily cooperation was being announced in Beijing, the Yunnan provincial government laid out its approach to international communication in line with Xi Jinping's demands. Its actions in recent years in terms of “system building” (建体系) and “platform construction” (搭平台), it said, offered new insights for what it termed "local international communication" (地方国际传播).

FOR MORE ON ICCs FROM CMP:

"What Does It Mean to Understand China?" / January 4, 2024

"Desert Power, Discourse Power" / November 2, 2023

"Reading China's Media Counter-Attack" /October 5, 2023

"Gilding the Panda" / September 20, 2023

Human Rights Heist at the United Nations

As an examination of China’s human rights record kicked off under the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism in Geneva last month, a number of sideline events hosted by ostensibly independent organizations offered a brighter alternative to the dismal facts on China reported by international human rights groups, which cited among their criticisms crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and the deterioration of rights and protections in Hong Kong. 

Held on January 24 at the five-star InterContinental Geneva, one event was called “Chinese-Style Modernization and Human Rights Protection,” a nod to one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s latest political concepts. The forum reportedly gathered together Uyghur and Tibetan scholars, as well as “many professionals and scholars in human rights related fields.”

A Swiss participant in the forum was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that the “achievements” in China’s report to the UN had left a deep impression, and that “the people of China should feel proud.” The event was hosted by the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS), which according to its official website is a non-governmental organization and “China’s largest academic group on human rights.” 

A forum hosted by the China Society of Human Rights Studies is held in Geneva last month. Source: Xinhua.

In fact, these and other “sideline meetings,” or bianhui (边会), offer a glimpse into the mechanics of how China seeks to manipulate the global human rights system, promoting a self-serving alternative view of human rights that critics have called rights-free development. At the same time, they reveal how China is able to leverage the UN to support the narratives promoted in international reporting by the country’s state-run media. 

Far from offering real expert alternatives on the question of human rights, groups like CSHRS are a part of a network linked to the Chinese party-state whose primary purpose is to distract attention away from China-related criticism, to the detriment of human rights everywhere. 

CoNGO Con Job

On its official “About Us” page, the China Society of Human Rights Studies emphasizes its status as “a non-governmental organization with special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and a member of the United Nations Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (CONGO).” Formed in 1948, the same year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was created, CoNGO is an independent international membership association meant to promote the involvement of non-governmental organizations from around the world in the UN system, and to “draw civil society into an enduring partnership with the world body.”

Including civil society in the rights-related work of the UN was crucial from the start because states, while they may make national commitments to the principles set out in the UDHR, cannot be depended upon to provide transparency and accountability. Speaking at CoNGO’s 75th anniversary celebrations in December last year, Sophie Torelli-Chironi, head of the UN’s NGO liaison unit, emphasized that the purpose of the association, key to the protection of human rights globally, was “to reinforce the participation of civil society in multilateral processes in Geneva.” 

The China Society of Human Rights Studies (CSHRS) began participating in the human rights mechanisms at the UN in the 1990s, ostensibly as a representative of Chinese civil society. The group was formed in March 1993, just three months before the World Conference on Human Rights took place in Vienna, making the first concrete recommendations for strengthening human rights protection through the UN. As these processes took shape in the 1990s, China already emphasized its relativistic approach, arguing that “countries naturally differed in their emphasis in the promotion and protection of human rights.” 

Since the 1990s, CSHRS has played a key role in promoting China’s relativistic approach within the UN, and the organization seems to have been expressly created by the Chinese party-state with this purpose in mind. According to the “About Us” section of the CSHRS website, the organization is primarily funded by the China Human Rights Foundation (中国人权发展基金会), which is directly operated by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, and by the Information Office of the China’s State Council. Under China’s party-state system, these two are actually the same office.

In other words, while the China Society of Human Rights Studies claims to be a non-governmental organization, it is run directly by the CCP and the Chinese government. More to the point, in fact, it is run by the office within China’s government primarily responsible for its external propaganda to the world. 

Another of China’s “non-governmental” organizations active at the UN is the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (中国民间组织国际交流促进会), or CNIE, which held a sideline event in Geneva on January 22, the day before China’s UPR, called “Putting Development at the Center of the Agenda: safeguarding Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” 

Since the 1990s, CSHRS has played a key role in promoting China’s relativistic approach within the UN.

Consistent with the relativistic view of human rights China has promoted since the 1990s, the CNIE event placed its emphasis on the “right to development” (发展权) over the civil and political rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and focused on economic, social and cultural rights as the sole object of human rights protection.

Who is CNIE?  

Founded in 2005, the group describes itself variously as a “non-profit social organization” and a “consortium of civil society organizations” (民间组织联合体). But it is directly operated by the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the agency under the Central Committee tasked with maintaining close relations with foreign organizations and political parties — and now one of the most active means for the party-state to exert influence, often covertly, around the world. 

Telling China’s Story Inside the UN

By hosting these and other events through NGO front organizations on the sidelines of the UPR — as well as on a regular basis — China amplifies its official talking points on human rights through what might seem to some a legitimate part of the UN consultative process with civil society. It seeks to legitimize state-aligned experts as independent voices, while amplifying the voices of foreign participants to counteract fact-based human rights concerns. 

The account of the state-run Beijing Review on X promotes the comments of Swiss national Peter Hediger as reportedly shared at a forum in Geneva hosted by the China Society for Human Rights Studies.

The CSHRS event in Geneva drove a wave of virtually identical foreign-language reports in state media, most focusing on the remarks of Peter Hediger, identified as “a Swiss sinologist, historian and international security policy expert.” Hediger’s credentials as a sinologist are unclear, but he has been identified in Chinese state media and elsewhere as “a former senior analyst for defense and security policy in the Swiss Ministry of Defense.” While Hediger has made several appearances in Chinese state media since 2022, cited in support of China’s views on topics from human rights to international security (including at a human rights forum in Beijing last year), he has rarely appeared in other public forums — outside of a lecture one year ago on Chinese security policy to a group at the Swiss-Chinese Association (瑞中协会). 

The report from the official Xinhua News Agency on the CSHRS event in Geneva, “Global Experts Applaud China’s Achievements in Human Rights Protection,” was promoted through the agency’s YouTube channel, and was shared by many other official outlets, including the government-run news portal China.org.cn, and the Beijing Review (which also promoted the story through Twitter). The report was re-run by overseas outlets with close connections to the Chinese government, including the Rwanda-based news website China-Africa Review

The English-language website of the Global Times, an outlet published by the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, ran its own report on the CSHRS side event, quoting Xinjiang professor Remina Xiaokaiti as saying that “human rights in Xinjiang have made tremendous progress in the cause of Chinese modernization,” and that “Xinjiang has made unrelenting efforts to safeguard social equity and to promote the holistic growth of individuals.” 

How’s that for relativity? 

Another source quoted by the outlet was Xiao Wu, a professor at the Human Rights Research Institute of China’s Southwest University of Political Science and Law. Founded in 2011 to “actively serve the government’s human rights strategy,” the institute is operated under the supervision of the propaganda department of the provincial-level Chongqing municipality and has close links with CSHRS and its Central Propaganda Department-backed funder, the China Human Rights Foundation. 

While reports on the CSHRS event in Geneva did not seem to catch on internationally outside of a handful of Chinese state media, they received blanket exposure inside China, appearing on hundreds of websites

A State-First Model of Human Rights

But these sideline events likely have a longer-term impact in gathering support for China’s position on rights-free development globally, and in normalizing its alternate human rights discourse, particularly among Global South states.

Among the participants in the forum hosted on January 22, the day before China’s UPR, by the CCP-run China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) was Haydar Ali Ahmad, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations Office in Geneva. Ali Ahmad was not just quoted by the government-run China Daily, Xinhua and others, voicing his support at the meeting for China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,” but employing terms specific to China’s alternate discourse on human rights — including “people-centered” (以人民为中心) decision making.

While the “people-centered” principle may sound superficially appealing, suggesting the agency of citizens, it actually means the opposite, and tacitly supports China’s assertion that nation states — not individual citizens or civil society — must play a primary role in determining human rights standards. Within the political discourse of the CCP, “people-centered” is explicitly subordinated to the principle that “the Party governs all” (党领导一切).

This position on the primacy of the state over individual rights runs entirely counter to the original spirit of civil society inclusion in the rights-related work of the United Nations through independent mechanisms like CoNGO. 

As China’s UPR was held the day after the CNIE event, Haydar Ali Ahmad was the Syrian representative speaking at the UN in defense of China’s human rights record, saying, “We commend China’s commitments to the cause of human rights globally, and its initiatives to promote constructive dialogue.” Consistent with China’s focus purely on social, economic and cultural rights, Ali Ahmad focused his remarks on China’s efforts to improve living standards, employment and housing (2:32). 

These sideline events likely have a longer-term impact in gathering support for China’s position on rights-free development globally.

In fact, China’s alternate vision of human rights as rights-free development guaranteed through the economic acts of the state was echoed by the vast majority of countries making their submissions to the UPR on January 23 — in ways that suggest they have directly adopted China’s official language about “putting development at the center of the agenda.”

Iran’s delegate said that his country “appreciates the economic plans implemented by the government of China with the aim of supporting social, economic and cultural rights in China” (1:14). Nepal’s delegate said that his country “commends China for the socio-economic progress achieved particularly in the reduction of poverty with positive impact on the broader realization of human rights” (1:42). Lebanon praised China’s progress since the last UPR, “especially as regards socio-economic rights” (1:25). Liberia too “[commended] the steps taken by China since the last cycle, particularly towards economic and social development” (1:27). 

While it is legitimate to promote economic, social, and cultural rights, the issue is the exclusion of the civil and political rights also set out clearly in the UDHR. For more on China’s alternative vision of human rights, see the related entry by Malin Oud in the Decoding China dictionary.

Setting his country apart in the brazen adoption of China’s human rights discourse, the delegate from Mali remarked that he “[commended] China’s efforts which led to its achieving the first goal of the century within the set timeline, which was building a moderately prosperous society in all areas as foreseen by the 2030 sustainable development program” (1:32). 

This is conspicuous CCP-speak, corresponding directly to the political goals of Xi Jinping, and it can only have been supplied directly by China. 

An NGO representative from Brazil is taken on a tour of a tea plantation in Zhejiang as part of a junket promoting China’s view of human rights in 2023.

Disempowering Societies

China’s messaging on human rights has been pushed and cultivated consistently and relentlessly, and its “non-governmental” front organizations, including CNIE and the China Society for Human Rights Studies, have played a critical role in this process. 

Consider that in June last year, as submissions for China’s UPR were in progress, an in-country tour was planned for 16 international NGOs from Brazil, Pakistan and Tunisia, as well as journalists, who were to witness the country’s human rights achievements first-hand. They visited tea plantations in Zhejiang, and assembled paper lanterns in Chongqing (where they met with the aforementioned Human Rights Research Institute, the academic center with Chongqing propaganda office backing). The tour was arranged by CNIE, directly paid for by the CCP’s International Liaison Department. Nevertheless, the official People’s Daily called it a “civil society mission.” 

One of the many events hosted last year by CSHRS was the China-Europe Seminar on Human Rights (中欧人权研讨会), held in Rome in September, which drew participation from scholars and government representatives from across Europe. The event’s co-sponsor was the law department at Sapienza University of Rome. According to a report posted to China Human Rights Online (humanrights.cn), the official website of CSHRS, the event aimed to “dispel misunderstanding” about human rights in China, and advocate for “diversity” in the understanding of human rights concepts. The report quoted Neil Davidson, a member of the UK House of Lords (and a frequently quoted source in China’s state media), as urging against efforts to “weaponize” the human rights debate.

A little-known fact about the humanrights.cn website is that it is operated by the China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC), which like the China Human Rights Foundation is directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department and State Council Information Office. 

Since the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, China has consistently promoted the idea that efforts to press for accountability on human rights are “arrogant,” “biased” and “politicized.” The focus in assessments, it says, should shift instead to broad social, economic and cultural measures as endorsed by states. The basic and fatal flaw in such an approach is that it disempowers individuals and communities, systematically erasing their voices in the global process of human rights development.

Once exposed, the disingenuous activities of front organizations like CNIE and CSHRS make clear it is China playing politics with human rights. Its organizations, indistinguishable from the regime, undermine the integrity of the very UN system put in place to ensure the robust participation of civil society — even as they promote a self-serving vision of human rights in which civil society organizations have no real place or power.

Telling China’s Story in Stockholm

The Nordic Chinese Times (北欧时报), or NCT, is a print newspaper and website that claims to reach overseas Chinese communities and others interested in China across 20 cities in the five Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland — as well as across Europe. “Let the world appreciate China and let China embrace the world,” a banner across the top of the site reads

But pay the Nordic Chinese Times a visit this week and you may be surprised to discover that its top headline is a dull piece of propaganda from China’s Guangxi Daily (广西日报), the official Communist Party mouthpiece of the southern region. It reports on the delivery of Guangxi’s government work report by the local Party chief, CCP chairman Lan Tianli (蓝天立).

What accounts for this odd choice of news in a Stockholm-based media outlet? What could connect a Chinese newspaper based in Sweden with political events in Guangxi?

Screenshot of the website of the Nordic Chinese Times on January 25, 2024.

According to our research, the Nordic Chinese Times was launched in 2009 by He Ru (何儒), a native of Guangxi who arrived in Sweden in 2006 and is now president of the Copenhagen-based Nordic-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (北欧中国商会). He Ru told China’s official state broadcaster CCTV in 2019 that after arriving in Sweden he realized that “it was hard to find news about China in the local media, and if there was news it was largely negative.”

He Ru was reportedly incensed by Western media coverage ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. According to the CCTV report, he launched the Nordic Chinese Times the next year, urging his colleagues to “stick to the principle of impartiality.”

While the Nordic Chinese Times continues to call itself a “neutral media” (中立媒体), our survey of all 31 news reports in the website’s “China News” section on January 24 found that 100 percent of these were sourced directly from Haiwainet (海外网) — the official website of the overseas edition of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily — which lists its mission as “spreading China’s voice and serving our compatriots around the world.”

The overseas edition of the People’s Daily reported in October 2016 that it had signed a cooperation agreement with the Nordic Chinese Times, reaching “a consensus on in-depth cooperation.” According to the agreement, the Nordic Chinese Times would run four full pages of People’s Daily content in each of its daily editions, and would “use multimedia means to radiate [the paper’s content] out from the Swedish capital of Stockholm out to the five Nordic countries.” That cooperation is now reflected by the inclusion of the People’s Daily logo on the paper’s masthead.

Nordic Chinese Times founder He Ru is a frequent commentator on China Central Television on affairs related to the Nordic countries and China.

In the same article, the newspaper praised its partner in Stockholm for its active role in supporting the interests of China in Europe. “Over the past eight years, the newspaper has always been committed to active and positive reports, publicizing China, and has actively taken part in and reported on various exchanges between China and northern Europe,” it said.

In such official contexts, the phrase “positive reporting” (正面报道) generally refers to news reporting that abides by “public opinion guidance” and suits the interests of the CCP leadership. Since 2013, the notion of “emphasizing positive reporting” (正面报道为主) has been closely associated with the older press control phrase “emphasizing positive propaganda” (正面宣传为主) — and as one communications scholar at a Chinese university wrote in 2018, “the meanings are essentially the same.”

Radiating his partial view of impartiality in October 2021, He Ru’s website ran his enthusiastic comments on the CCP’s 20th National Congress, which inaugurated Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term at the top of the Party. He Ru’s remarks were also printed in the pages of Guangxi Daily. “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech,” said the publisher, noting remarks Xi had made to the Guangxi delegation, “made my heart pound like a spring breeze.”

Enforcing the CCP’s Media Leadership

Last week, the Chinese Communist Party held its National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference (全国宣传部长会议), an annual gathering of top media control officials that lays out key priorities and sets the agenda for the coming year. This year, as last year, the main address to the conference was delivered by Cai Qi (蔡奇), the fifth-ranked member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee.

As is typical practice, the official Xinhua News Agency issued a read-out of the conference that also appeared the next day on the front page of the People’s Daily newspaper. The read-out was not forthcoming about the concrete details of the work plan for propaganda officials, reportedly conveyed at the meeting by propaganda chief Li Shulei (李书磊). Instead, it dwelled on general objectives such as “raising the [Party’s] capacity for public opinion leadership” (提高舆论引导能力).

The read-out from this year’s National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference appears on the front page fo the People’s Daily on January 4, 2024.

Given the limited release of information about the National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference, it is difficult to know the specifics of plans and discussions at the event — though further details could emerge in the official media in the coming weeks, as implementation is ongoing. However, several changes between the 2023 and 2024 read-outs of the conference are worth noting.

“Struggling” to Maintain Party Dominance

Most noteworthy is the repeated emphasis during the conference on the need to implement, uphold, and adhere to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (习近平文化思想). This phrase is a permutation of Xi’s political banner phrase that emerged very recently, in October 2023. At the time, Party-state media strongly promoted the phrase as a “significant milestone” (里程碑意义) in the elaboration of CCP theory on culture and ideology. As we pointed out in our related analysis at the time of the term’s emergence, Xi’s ideas on culture and civilization have little to do with culture and center on the imperative of its control by the CCP.

“Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” appears four times in the short Xinhua read-out from last week’s conference, and the phrase will likely continue to have a major role both in reiterating Party control over all aspects of culture, including the media, and in asserting the idea that Xi himself has been instrumental in leading China toward a civilizational revitalization.

Also emphasizing the highly political nature of culture under Xi Jinping’s CCP, the read-out this year references the need to “maintain the Party’s cultural leadership” (坚持党的文化领导权), as well as the urgency of guarding against “ideological risks” (意识形态风险). Neither of these phrases was included in the read-out from the 2023 National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference. Also newly included in this year’s read-out was language about the CCP maintaining the “will to struggle” (斗争意志) on political matters, chief among these obedience to Xi — the clear focus of last year’s meeting.

A total of 34 national meetings of the country’s top propaganda ministers have been convened by the CCP leadership since the middle of the 1980s when the gathering was regarded as necessary to set the tone for propaganda and ideology under the broad changes introduced since the late 1970s when China had embarked on a new program of economic reform and opening.

Cai Qi addresses the National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference on January 3, 2024. Source: Xinhua.

The first — and to date the longest — was held from November 15 to December 2, 1984, when CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), who was active at the time in promoting key political reforms, encouraged propaganda leaders to push the so-called “Four Modernizations” (四个现代化) adopted in 1977, which defined the path of economic reform and invigoration but stopped short of democratization. During the Democracy Wall protests of 1978, former Red Guard and prominent dissident figure Wei Jingsheng (魏京生) proposed democracy as China’s “Fifth Modernization,” and was eventually arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

But by January 1988, when the second National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference was convened in Beijing, led by Hu Qili (胡启立), the first secretary of the CCP Secretariat, political reform was on the agenda. It was a time of intense debate within the CCP leadership, epitomized on media and propaganda issues by the debate between the liberal editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily newspaper, Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), and the hardline press official Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木), the former personal secretary of Mao Zedong (and an early opponent of reforms) who in the 1980s was a speechwriter and propagandist for Deng Xiaoping. Hu Jiwei, a proponent of political reform, argued that in doing journalism the “people’s spirit” (人民性) of the media should be primary — meaning essentially that the media should report truthfully because it represented the interests of the people. This idea of the role of the media was firmly rejected by Hu Qiaomu, who argued for the primacy of the “party spirit” in media and journalism, meaning that CCP control should be emphasized and enforced.

It is a tension that remains at the heart of the broader question of propaganda and the role of the media in China, though the hardline approach of Hu Qiaomu has notably dominated under Xi Jinping, whose insistence in 2016 that all media be “surnamed Party“ (姓党) — meaning that they must serve the CCP’s interests at all times — is a reference to the notion of “party spirit.”

Two conferences of national propaganda ministers were held in 1988, the second coming in October of that year, six months before the death of Hu Yaobang ignited pro-democracy demonstrations across the country, culminating in the brutal crackdown of June 4. The events of 1989 had a dramatic impact on press policy and practice in China, and on the course of political reform [Read more in “How a Massacre Shaped China’s Media”]. When the next National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference was convened in July 1989, the objective was to reassert the Party’s control over the media and propaganda, on the premise that misguidedly open media policies under Premier Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) in the spring of that year had contributed to the “chaos” [See “Guidance of Public Opinion”].  

Since 1989, the National Propaganda Ministers Work Conference has been held consistently in January of each year, though meetings were not held in 1993 and 1994, a period during which the country was undergoing another radical reform shift following Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” in January-February 1992, which was already underway as ministers met in Beijing on January 22-25, 1992.