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).

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.

Policing Pessimism, and Everything Else

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has struck again. In the latest move in a “clear and bright” (清朗) campaign that has unfolded relentlessly this year, the country’s top internet control body said Tuesday that it would target a range of undesirable attitudes and values in short videos. 

The release from the CAC outlines three broad types of content, including “fake information” (虚假信息), “misconduct” (不当行为), and “incorrect concepts” (错误观念). And while some of the language points vaguely to instances of misbehavior that could have real implications for the public, much of it looks like regulatory compulsion from a system that simply cannot stop clarifying itself — to the point that nothing is clear.

The section on fake information begins with what might seem legitimate prohibitions, such as against using AI technology to make fake short videos that impersonate others. Immediately, however, political demands crash onto the scene. The third caution, dealing with “reckless falsification and fabrication,” says short videos must not “alter or take out of context authoritative information issued by government offices.”

“Quoting out of context” is a hatchet applied to speech that is generally unfavorable to the Party. 

This raises, just to illustrate the point, the unanswerable question of what you can and cannot do to an official Xinhua News Agency press release. Where does simple sharing stop and ironic commentary begin?

The Chinese phrase “quoting out of context” (断章取义), used here, has a special place in official CCP discourse as a hatchet applied to speech that is generally unfavorable to the Party. It could mean anything, but generally foreign media commit these contextual crimes, as Foreign Affairs did last year. Punitive uses of the phrase are commonplace. Several years ago the Party’s flagship newspaper applied it more generally to the new world of social media, where “everyone has a microphone.” “With rampant taking things out of context,” it said, “people hurt themselves, and there are no winners.”

Everyone understands the subtext, that the Party alone decides the proper context. To say so in a short video, however, would risk committing what the CAC here calls “reckless falsification and fabrication.”

Could You Be Vaguely Specific?

In the section on “incorrect concepts,” the CAC descends further into non-specificity as it seeks to uphold a general climate of positivity. On top of a precaution against “gender antagonism” — which we covered last month with yet another CAC action — the section speaks against content that is “negative and pessimistic” (消极厌世). This phrase, like much else in this prescriptive document, seems impossible to pin down. The word yàn shì (厌世) essentially points to a negative pessimism, and can sometimes refer also to suicidal feelings.

Prohibitions like these are grasping at air. What do they mean in the topsy-turvy world of short video and streaming content, where millions of people are making spur-of-the-moment decisions and clicking “share”? Is it not OK not to feel exuberant?

The latest notice from China’s top cyberspace control body is clear about just one thing — the absurdity that ensues when an authoritarian system tries to be specific about everything it wants to erase, and everything is doesn’t.
A search online for fàn huáng (泛黄), or pale yellow, turns up a range of faded scenarios. How would you apply the standard to online indecency?

Another prohibition is against “intentionally infringing on national customs and traditions”? Even if the infringement can be determined — something subjective and doubtful, given the wonderful way traditions have of slipping — how will intention be identified?

The “misconduct” section of the CAC notice specifies the problem of pornographic content. Easy, right? We all know pornography when we see it. But this notice is trying to force order on the guileful and messy world of cyberspace. So it emphasizes the need to combat “soft pornography” (软色情), and beyond that the problem of “touching the line” (擦边) — which is basically about users teasing the edges of violations that have no clear boundaries.

My personal favorite in the CAC notice, though, might be the caution against fàn huáng (泛黄), content that is vaguely, non-specifically, or pallidly “yellow” — a color synonymous in China with indecency. How are video hosts, consumers, or anyone supposed to make out the hazy yellow lines of censorship in cyberspace?

If nothing else, this latest CAC notice has made real innovations when it comes to the vocabulary of vagueness.

The Impossible Art of Censorship

If your head is spinning with uncertainty, try to imagine now that you are one of the many tens of thousands of content moderators working at a major video platform in China. Acceptable videos to the left, unacceptable to the right. Go!

The obvious problem with such a lack of specificity is that it leads to confusion and overreach. And as it happens, the CAC notice offers a glimpse of the agency’s headaches in this respect.

After the CAC has laid out its three broad landscapes of violation, there is a section on “strengthening the management of video platforms.” In a bolded subsection called “strengthening platform grasp of the review process” (强化平台审核把关), the agency says: “Efforts must be made to resolve the problem of irregular review systems and insufficient comprehensiveness of review at platforms.” So video platforms should go hard on censorship, right? Not exactly.

The same subsection follows with, well, a clarification: “Over-simplification, cutting all at one stroke, going through the motions during manual review, and other such practices must be avoided.”

Go hard. But not too hard. Cut this, but not that. Back off, but wait — not so much. Squeeze tighter, but do not strangle.

Are we clear?

The Vicious Cycle of Rumor in China

In its latest action to rein in errant behavior on social media platforms in China, the country’s top internet control body announced this week that it had shut down 1,660 online accounts, alleging they had either disturbed social order or “fabricated public policies.” 

Posting a statement to its website on Wednesday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) paired news of the crackdown with eight typical cases from platforms including Weibo, the popular microblogging site, and the short-video sharing platform Kuaishou, to illustrate the nature of the violations. 

As is typical of regulatory language on information in China, the notice couched the actions in metaphors of health and safety, urging the need to prevent the spread of fake information to “purify the online environment.” But a closer look at the cases cited by the CAC suggests a real public interest in issues such as safety, food security, regulatory overreach, and the rights of gig economy workers — and an appetite for related information that is not mediated and controlled by the Party-state.

Are the public opinion controls of the CCP fighting rumors, or feeding them?

If the Public Loses its Fetters

In fact, unverified information is often shared through social media channels in China precisely because controls on information are stringent, and citizens have little faith that CCP-controlled “mainstream media” will factually report breaking stories that are clearly in the public interest.

In one of the more outstanding cases earlier this year, social media attention to a fire at Beijing’s Changfeng Hospital, including eyewitness video accounts, was obliterated online, so that no news about the incident was available for more than eight hours — even though the fire had occurred in a populous urban area. Only after an official news bulletin was released by the Beijing Daily, a newspaper under the control of the city’s CCP committee, did media reporters begin a trickle of related reports.

In the aftermath of the Changfeng Hospital fire, there was talk of the need to prevent rumors, and the obligation of the public to “speak correctly” (正确发声). But the context was the need to create a “positive energy public opinion climate” (正能量的舆论氛围) — a Xi Jinping-era reference that placed the political prerogatives of the CCP ahead of real questions of fact.

In cases like the Changfeng Hospital fire, the robust information controls exercised by the CCP to “guide public opinion” and maintain social and political control, which are routinely conflated with rumor-busting, have inflated the value of rumors (as unverified but potentially true information) in the public imagination. 

An excerpt from an article in the August 2020 edition of Shaanxi’s Television Industry Outlook warns of the danger of online rumors hijacking the CCP’s control of “public opinion guidance.”

In the official discourse, including the official academic discourse, the Party-state is quite open about the fact that “online rumors” are rumors simply because they have not been issued by an authoritative government agency, or by CCP-led media.

The August 2020 edition of the official magazine Television Industry Outlook (视界观), published by the local broadcast authority in Shaanxi province, warned against the threat that “public opinion guidance” (i.e., media control) might be hijacked in the internet era by “online rumors” emerging from the public (民众), rather than from the Party. “When online rumor [is capable of] channeling online public opinion, and this becomes a situation where the public is responsible for [the process of] channeling,” read an article by Li Shiyu (李诗雨), a professor at Xinyang Normal University in Henan, “the internet will cloak and mask the people, and this unusual mechanism will inevitably mean that users of the internet will lose their fetters.”

In this passage, online rumor is equal to unbridled online speech. The crux is not whether information online is factual, but whether or not it agrees with the CCP’s public opinion control objectives. Even if an “online rumor” is substantially true, and could be verified by professional news reporting, it is politically false because its existence poses a threat to the Party’s construction of a harmonious, incident-free cyberspace — in which, mind you, internet users should be fettered, according to Li.

If the Local Authorities Say So

The second of the eight cases cited in this week’s notice from the CAC, and highlighted in a report by the English-language China Daily, sends worrying signals not just about the risks for citizens in speaking out online in China, but also about the central leadership’s apparent over-reliance on local authorities when it comes to information verification.

The case concerns rumors that “students have gone missing from a school in Lanzhou” (兰州某学校有学生失踪). The rumor apparently spread on the internet this week, but the notice states that police in Lanzhou found, upon investigation, that “the information shared online was a rumor.” In response, the police detained a man and woman, aged 18 and 19 respectively (and both surnamed Zhang) — and placed them under administrative detention.

“[This] unusual mechanism will inevitably mean that users of the internet lose their fetters.”

Administrative detention (行政拘留) is a measure police are authorized to take in China for non-criminal offenses under the Public Security Administration Law. The action, which is frequently used to punish unspecified political offenses against those such as rights defenders who are seen as a threat to public order, affords the police broad administrative powers, and can mean individuals are detained for extended periods without formal arrest.

What exactly did the Zhangs say, and why? Is it not possible that they are young parents or relatives responding, more out of real concern than malice, to chatter about an incident at a local school in Lanzhou?

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. True or false, the goal of the authorities in Lanzhou would certainly have been to shut down speculation online and ensure that any incident was handled quietly, keeping local agitation to a minimum. In such cases, local and national media might step in to provide credible reporting, replacing speculation with facts. But in the Xi era — more so than at any time in the past four decades — the local authorities now dominate this process. News media have been defanged across the country in favor of a national infrastructure of official public accounts (公号) whose pronouncements are often taken at face value as authoritative.

Reporting on the case yesterday, Shanghai’s The Paper, a popular official online news outlet, deferred entirely to the WeChat public account of authorities in the Lanzhou New Area (兰州新区), a state-level development under the direct control of the municipal government. The same was true of all government news portals (many simply amplifying the report from The Paper) and other official state media. In the rare cases where media added anything to the Lanzhou New Area account, as in the case of the once-respected Beijing News (新京报), the only embellishment was to add a note of condemnation from the CAC.

The recipe here for public mistrust — and therefore, the exaggerated appetite for alternative information sources — is simple. Citizens in the PRC, as has been noted in other authoritarian regimes, have a well-documented mistrust of local authorities (those they deal with more intimately) as opposed to a relatively high level of trust in the central authorities. And yet, as the production of “authoritative” information has increasingly devolved to local leaders, and more independent reporting by the media has been supplanted by the demand for Party loyalty, Chinese are still being asked simply to trust.

The purified online environment of the CCP-led information system has assured beyond any doubt that rumors will fly.

China’s Press Under Xi Jinping Thought

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.

A Single Pager on the Biden-Xi Summit

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.

Images from the head of the meeting table by AP photographer Doug Mills (left) in a report from the Guardian, and from Xinhua News Agency photographer Rao Aimin (right)

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 in propaganda, 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).

Much of China’s external communication over the past decade not only looks like ideological export but is most often framed in exactly that way by the Party itself.

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.

Five Pillars

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:

  1. Working jointly to establish correct perceptions of the bilateral relationship (共同树立正确认知)
  2. Jointly and effectively managing differences (共同有效管控分歧)
  3. Jointly promoting mutually beneficial cooperation (共同推进互利合作)
  4. Jointly shouldering the responsibilities [of both sides] as major powers (共同承担大国责任)
  5. Jointly promoting people-to-people exchanges (共同促进人文交流)

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.

Firm Lines

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.”

Sidelined in Death, as in Politics

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.

Commonplace Superlatives

As is typical in China, where the deaths of Communist Party officials are never personal but must be properly filed within a careful pecking order of prevailing political calculations, the leadership honored Li over the weekend with straight-from-the-box superlatives.

During the floods in Chongqing in August 2020, Li Keqiang’s visit to the scene (above) was systematically downplayed. Official media focused instead on Xi Jinping standing around and explaining stuff.

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.

The homepage of the People’s Daily Online on October 27, with a headline on Li’s death getting secondary treatment to leading political news focusing on Xi Jinping.

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.

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.

The search results on Sunday for “Li Keqiang” on Weibo were another illustration of the effort to encourage ceremony over real emotion and remembrance.

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.”

China’s Fake Press Problem

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.

An invoice appearing to be from the Henan Economic News, and bearing what looks like its official seal, is shown in a television report from China’s CCTV.

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.

In fact, news extortion has persisted in China, ugly and stubborn, since the rise of the commercialized media industry in the mid-1990s.

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).

A police investigator from Zhengzhou explains to CCTV reporters how his team uncovered cases of news extortion.

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.”

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.

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 Shanxi gold mine where dozens died in 2002.

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.

An office backdrop for the “fake” Mirror News, used in Zhengzhou to extort fees from unsuspecting companies.

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.

Real power can have that effect on people.