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).

Xi Jinping’s Cathedral of Pretense

With all the talk in recent months in China of “new civilizational splendor” (文明新辉煌) in everything from sports to Marxism, heritage protection to village life, it is impossible not to sit up and take notice of the country’s fulsome messaging on culture. Surely, something must be happening. No? As officials emerged last weekend from the latest Chinese Communist Party work conference, the language mounted further. They unveiled yet another eponymous phrase for the country’s top leader: Xi Jinping Thought on Culture (习近平文化思想).

In the Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, a front-page tribute on Wednesday deemed the phrase a “significant milestone” (里程碑意义), suggesting excitedly that the general secretary had “accurately grasped the trend of mutual ideological and cultural agitation worldwide.” What does all of this nonsense mean? Why is China building the rhetoric over culture and civilization to such dizzying heights?

If we avoid becoming distracted by the monumentality of the cathedral of language before us, and gaze past its gothic flourishes, the answer is deceptively simple. Xi Jinping’s obsession with culture is about the need to disguise basic questions of power and legitimacy behind the elaborate stonework of political discourse.

Grab your chisels. Let’s break this down.

The Nine Adheres

According to explications of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” provided this week by the People’s Daily and other official media, Xi’s brand-new cultural concept is actually the culmination of a “series of important speeches” he delivered around two previous meetings on propaganda and ideology.

During these meetings, which have traditionally been called National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conferences (the word “culture” was tellingly added for this latest one), Xi outlined the nature of the CCP’s work on several facets of what can be included under the broader umbrella of culture: “work on literature and the arts” (文艺工作); “the Party’s work on news and public opinion” (党的新闻舆论工作); “cybersecurity and informatization work” (网络安全和信息化工作); “philosophy and social science work” (哲学社会科学工作), and “cultural heritage development” (文化传承发展).

These conferences, in other words, laid the foundation for the “significant milestone” the leadership claims to have reached just six days ago.

Front pages of the CCP’s official People’s Daily from October 8-11 all feature prominent articles on culture and civilization, introducing “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the latest permutation of the leader’s banner term to seal his political legacy.

To better understand the foundations of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we can unpack the first of these conferences, held in August 2018, during which Xi Jinping laid out what he called the “Nine Adheres” (九个坚持).

Not surprisingly, given that they are important components of the “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the “Nine Adheres” have been dragged out again this week by Party-run media, and even graphically represented. They are drawn from various speeches Xi has made during his time as the Party’s top leader, including during his first meeting on ideology in August 2013.

Read through the “Nine Adheres” and you will be hard-pressed to find anything whatsoever related to culture or civilization outside the guardrails of political power. There is nothing to do with the arts or artists, with cinema or filmmakers, with publishing or writers, with choreography or dancers. There is nothing to do with music or melodies — save for references to the “main melody” (主旋律), a phrase about the imperative of ensuring the CCP’s voice is dominant.

In coverage this week of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the CCP’s official broadcaster, China Central Television, includes a graphic explanation of the “Nine Adheres.”

This point, that the CCP’s driving motivation is the control of culture, may seem painfully obvious. But it is crucial, nevertheless, to clearly acknowledge the foundations. The danger, otherwise, is that we read too much into the elaborate discourse of civilization, and imagine China under the CCP is tipping toward a cultural renaissance, or trying to empower one, rather than cynically leveraging culture to legitimize a one-party authoritarian dictatorship under an emerging cult of personality.

In this vein, one cautionary tale comes from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who after a visit to China in 2009 in which he was inundated with the latest CCP-speak on “cultural sector reforms” claimed in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that the country was in the constructive throes of a “New Cultural Revolution.”

So let’s look at the “Nine Adheres,” which the People’s Daily tells us is foundational to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture.” I include the full list below, with remarks.

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  • Adhering to the CCP’s leadership authority over ideological work.

This should be self-explanatory. It is the claim by the CCP under Xi’s leadership to have an exclusive and ultimate say over matters concerning ideology, which encompasses the entire universe of ideas and their expression through media, the internet, the arts, philosophy, the social sciences, and so on.

  • Adhering to the fundamental task of the “Two Reinforcements” (两个巩固) in ideological work.

Here, a catchphrase is used to explain a catchphrase, again reminding us that its important to pick apart the edifice of CCP discourse, brick by brick. This refers to “reinforcing the guiding role of Marxism in the ideological sphere” and “reinforcing the common ideological foundation for unity and struggle by the whole Party and the entire people.” The explication by the People’s Daily Online also mentions Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the need for both “a correct political orientation and guidance of public opinion,” the first self-explanatory and the second an explicit reference to the need for CCP control of the media and information to maintain political control.  

  • Adhering to the use of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era to arm the entire Party, and to educate the people.

Here within the cathedral, in the chapel dedicated to “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” we see the recurrence of the motif that gives purpose to the entire cathedral — the god-like dominance of Xi Jinping. The CCP’s leadership is established first, followed by the guiding role of Marxism, and then the emphasis on the leadership of Xi and his inspirational contributions to the governance and belief system — at base, a claim to his legitimacy as top Party leader.

  • Adhering to the cultivation and fulfillment of socialist core values.

This is, yet again, about obedience to the Party-led value system. For more on “socialist core values” and their rigid interpretation, see “The Battle of Brick Lane.”

  • Adhering to cultural confidence as the foundation.

This is where Xi Jinping’s claim to legitimacy, a bare-bones structure of power assertions to buttress his leadership and that of the Party, is filled out with the finer details of traditional Chinese culture. This is not really about culture, however. It is about the populist appeal to the inspirational nature of Chinese culture — populist because it is about affirming China’s rise in the contemporary world against a backdrop of historical exploitation and disrespect (a key part of the CCP narrative). “Chinese civilization” (中华文明) is referenced here, using a May 2022 passage from Xi Jinping, to advance the notion that the CCP has a cultural-political claim on the entire global Chinese population, including the diaspora. “Chinese civilization . . . is the spiritual tie that binds all the Chinese of the world, and a treasure of Chinese cultural innovation.” Civilizational pride is a keystone of Xi’s claim to legitimacy in his third leadership term.

  • Adhering to the communication power, leading power, and influence power of news and public opinion.

Now that the list of adheres has established the dominance of the CCP, Marxism, and Xi Jinping, and filled this hard superstructure with frescos of cultural/civilizational glory, it is time to think about how the messages of the Party can be most effectively communicated. It’s not surprising to find language here about the need for “media convergence development” (媒体融合发展), and the remaking of the “mainstream media” (主流媒体), which in the CCP context refers to Party-run media exclusively. That also means CCP control of the message, of course, and we should note that the language of information control dominates. The People’s Daily Online emphasizes quotes from Xi that stress “adhering to the leadership of the CCP [over news and public opinion],” and the “correct political orientation.”

  • Adhering to the people-centered orientation of creation.

Now that claims to power and its underlying value orientation have been handled in 1-6, the final third of the “Nine Adheres” can deal with more peripheral matters of importance. Here, the CCP insists upon innovation and creation within the guardrails already established. Essentially, within the bounds of control, culture should consider the needs of the population and the proclivities of the audience. This is about “satisfying the spiritual demands of the people.” For more on how the CCP applies the notion of “the people,” see Ryan Ho Kilpatrick’s recent post. We can also note that this combination of control and audience positioning is not new in the reform era. During the Hu Jintao era, for example, it was conveyed through the idea of the “Three Closenesses” (Find out more in the CMP Dictionary).  

  • Adhering to a clear and positive online space.

Through the 1980s and the 1990s, before the rise of the internet as the primary means of communication, enforcing the political and cultural guidelines of the CCP was in many ways a far simpler matter — even if, in the midst of broader social and economic change, it was never simple. Since Xi Jinping came to power, the focus has shifted decisively to the internet when it comes to information control, evidenced by the growing dominance of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), created through an agency shakeup in 2014. The control of cyberspace is now paramount to the Party. The language from Xi Jinping in the People’s Daily Online explainer for the “Nine Adheres” comes from Xi’s speech at the April 2018 work conference on cybersecurity, in which he said the CCP “must strengthen positive propaganda online, [and] adhere with a clear banner to the correct political direction, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and [correct] values orientation.”

  • Adhering to the telling of China’s story well, and the communicating of China’s voice well.

In a new world of mobile digital information, it is no longer sufficient for a ruling political party in an authoritarian system to focus on domestic information and ideological control alone, as the Chinese are potentially exposed to alternative systems and values despite a massive information control infrastructure. Therefore, it is important that the CCP reinforce power and control back home through greater “discourse power” (话语权) on the global stage. So the last of the “Nine Adheres” is fundamentally about soft and sharp power development, and what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣).

While official Party media claim this week that Xi Jinping has “put forward a series of new ideas, new perspectives, and new assertions” that have culminated in the concept of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture,” the hard stone of the “Nine Adheres” reminds us that the foundational assertions are about CCP power and the necessity of cultural control in defense of that power.

Of course, even if Xi was a culturally accomplished president — a Havel, Disraeli, or Franco — the suggestion that he has grasped a “cultural agitation worldwide” would be preposterous. The point, however, is that “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” has nothing whatsoever to do with culture, though we will surely hear in the months to come about Xi’s designs for a cultural refulgence.

To understand this latest new catchphrase, just imagine a soaring cathedral of lavish discourse. The monument, which is named “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” embraces the empty core of CCP power, giving it a seeming solidity. For some time now, there have been five chapels along each side, each a place to worship the god-like achievements of the top leader. There are chapels to foreign policy (习近平外交思想), rule of law (习近平法治思想), the economy (习近平经济思想), environmental policy (习近平生态文明思想), and national defense (习近平强军思想).

Now, in Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term, the monuments must be all the grander to disguise the hollowness at the core and to expand the space for the necessary rituals of power. A new chapel, the sixth, is erected, giving new symmetry to the structure.

Now unveiled, the chapel of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” can be visited, worshipped, and talked about. A grand distraction for China’s grandest leader in generations.

Reading China’s Media Counter-Attack

Last week, the US Department of State released what it called a “landmark report” on China’s propaganda and disinformation efforts, alleging that the Chinese government is using various means — and billions of dollars in investment — to “bend the global information environment to its advantage.” The report drew snarls over the weekend from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which responded in an official release (English here) that the report itself was disinformation and that the United States is “a veritable ‘empire of lies.’”

Look more closely at China’s response to the Department of State report and a revealing pattern emerges. Far from refuting the report’s allegations, the official response from the MFA and state-run media makes the case. It demonstrates systematic control of the narrative by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership at home, even as it employs state-run channels and non-transparent propaganda accounts to reach audiences abroad.

No Discussion on the Home Front

In Chinese state media, all coverage of the Department of State report since last week has closely mirrored the official MFA release and its single-question-single-answer response. In most cases, the MFA release is reported verbatim. No media outlets have grappled with the substance of the report. To do so, after all, would invite public discussion not just of “external propaganda” (外宣), a core and openly stated practice of the CCP, but also of the legitimacy of media controls and propaganda at home.

More revealing still is the fact that the response in China’s official state media has been amplified primarily through those media specifically tasked with conducting external propaganda, suggesting that the leadership views the story as a question of managing foreign public opinion. The text from the MFA was run verbatim, for example, by the China Daily, a newspaper published by the government’s Information Office and intended for foreign consumption. Similarly, it was covered in English, with supporting comments from Chinese experts, by the Global Times, which has a special mandate to address global affairs, and which panders to nationalist sentiment at home and abroad.

The response in China’s official state media has been amplified primarily through those media specifically tasked with conducting external propaganda.

While an official Xinhua rundown of the MFA remarks was posted online over the weekend and made page three of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily on October 1, the news was largely absent from important domestic propaganda outlets, including provincial-level media. It was not reported at all during China Central Television’s official nightly newscast Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) on September 30 or October 1. Further substantiating the point that the story was intended chiefly for external propaganda, the MFA response was reported prominently on CCTV’s Chinese-language international channel, CCTV-4, which targets overseas Chinese audiences, and has more than one million subscribers on YouTube.

A report from CCTV-4, the international Chinese-language news channel of the state-run China Central Television, reports the Ministry of Foreign Affairs response on the US Department of State report.

As the Chinese government rushed to refute the US Department of State report about its construction of “a global information ecosystem,” the very same ecosystem leaped into action. Attention to the issue was carefully managed and suppressed at home, while a combative counter-narrative targeted overseas audiences.

Perhaps more importantly, the MFA counter-narrative was pushed not just by well-established and overt state outlets such as China Daily, the Global Times, and CCTV-4, but by newer and more covert channels making use of international social media platforms.

New State Media, Under the Radar

One of the few outlets in China to build on the MFA remarks on the US report was Straight News (直新闻), also known as “Zhinews.” On Sunday, Straight News ran an interview with Song Zhongping (宋忠平), a military analyst who is also a program consultant and commentator for CCTV-4 — again, one of just several official television channels that broadcast outside of China, and particularly targeting diaspora communities.

A featured image card for the Straight News interview with military analyst Song Zhongping reads: “How to spread rumors: This is how the United States does it.”

In Song’s interview, re-posted by internet portal sites such as Sina.com, the analyst parroted the criticism of the MFA, accusing the US of “fabricating various forms of propaganda” on issues such as rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. “It must be said that the West holds control on issues of public opinion,” said Song, “and the West has long controlled global public opinion through its own means.”

The interview was shared with the 1.38 million followers of Straight News on Weibo, as well as its 35,000 followers on Facebook. It was also available through the outlet’s dedicated bilingual news app, which has been downloaded close to 700 thousand times on Android, and an unknown number of times from Apple’s App Store.

Who is Straight News?

On its Facebook account, Straight News says only that it is “a Chinese news brand focused on verticals,” and is “produced by a top news production team in China — Shenzhen Satellite TV’s ‘Greater China Live’ team.” Glossing past the remark on “verticals,” an insider reference to content viewed on mobile platforms, the “Greater China Live” program is a production of Shenzhen Media Group (深圳广电集团), or SZMG.

SZMG is directly under the propaganda department of the CCP committee of Shenzhen, a sub-provincial city in China’s southern Guangdong province. This means that both Straight News and SZMG are, strictly speaking, state-controlled.

Attention to the issue was carefully managed and suppressed at home, while a combative counter-narrative targeted overseas audiences.

In the About Us section of its official website, SZMG states unambiguously that it has operated, since its establishment “under the correct leadership of Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the CCP and the Municipal Government, and under the careful guidance of the Propaganda Department of the Shenzhen Municipal Committee of the CCP. And yet, on Facebook, where state-controlled media are labeled as a matter of policy, Straight News manages to fly under the radar.

Straight News is one of thousands of outlets, accounts, and influencers working across the global information space with non-transparent backing from the Chinese Party-state — what the US Department of State report refers to as “covert influence.” First launched in 2018, it is also a prime example of how the role of provincial and sub-provincial media groups in China is transforming under Xi Jinping’s emphasis on international influence and “telling China’s story well” as an urgent national priority.

External Propaganda, Internal Innovations

Global communication and the “struggle” for international discourse power (话语权) have been key priorities under Xi Jinping since his first major speech on ideology in August 2013, less than a year after he came to power. It was in that speech that Xi introduced the phrase “telling China’s story well,” which he defined unmistakably as a banner under which to “innovate” and remake external propaganda. In his February 2016 media policy speech, Xi urged CCP media to “strengthen international communication capacity building, and enhance our international discourse power. To do that, he said, would mean “optimizing our strategic layout, working hard to build flagship external propaganda media with strong international influence.”

The online logo for Zhinews, or “Straight News.”

In talking about the CCP’s “strategic layout,” Xi was referring not just to the central Party-state media generally associated with China’s international communication — the likes of Xinhua, China Daily, and CGTN. His vision was to remake the traditional CCP media infrastructure, from the center down to the cities, prefectures and countires, for the digital and global information age.

More concrete efforts to restructure media enterprises in China to meet this challenge accelerated after the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017. The formation in 2018 of the state media conglomerate China Media Group (CMG) was a part of this process. But an important phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in research on Chinese disinformation — including the recent Department of State report — is the active advancement of this same trend among provincial and sub-provincial media groups, which are now integral to the larger push for international propaganda.  

In a major speech in January 2019, Xi Jinping spoke about the need to promote “media convergence” (媒体融合) at Party-state media across the country, which would allow the CCP to build what he called “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体). In the specialized political discourse of the CCP, the word “mainstream” is synonymous with the enforcement of the Party’s political line, and the term “mainstream media” refers specifically to CCP-run media. Xi’s call, then, was about building a new, Party-led media system focusing on new media technologies and products.

For several years now, media convergence and sectoral restructuring have been happening actively at every level of China’s political system, creating a new generation of media under CCP control — and potentially revolutionizing (or so is the hope) the way propaganda and public opinion control are achieved, both at home and abroad.

Just three months after Xi Jinping’s 2019 speech on media convergence, the Shenzhen Media Group unveiled its own restructuring plan. Part of that plan involved the “upgrading” of the Straight News platform, created the year before, as a full-fledged multimedia brand, with communication focusing not just on Shenzhen and the surrounding areas of Guangdong province, but also on the “Greater Bay Area” (大湾区), which refers to the CCP’s vision of an integrated economic area by 2035 involving nine cities plus Hong Kong and Macau.

An advertisement for the Straight News app reads, at left: “Hot topics from the Greater Bay Area, international current affairs.” At right: “Trends in the Taiwan Strait.”

In July this year, the Shenzhen Media Group took the next step toward realizing Xi’s vision of a reinvigorated national Party media sector armed and ready to carry out external propaganda. It launched a new “international communication center” (国际传播中心), or ICC, whose goal, according to group chief Shang Boying (尚博英) is to “strengthen the building of international communication capacity, to tell the story of Shenzhen, Guangdong, the Greater Bay Area, and China well, and to convey China’s voice to the world.”

According to Shang, one of the international communication center’s three major external propaganda brands at present is Straight News, along with an English-language brand called “Shenzhen Channel,” and the “Greater China Live” television and video program.

For several years now, media convergence and sectoral restructuring have been happening actively at every level of China’s political system, creating a new generation of media under CCP control.

The results so far may seem underwhelming. It is difficult to know what impact, if any, the Straight News repudiation of the US disinformation report may have had on target audiences in Hong Kong, Macau, and beyond. But the Shenzhen ICC is just getting started. According to the city’s propaganda chief, Zhang Ling (张玲), the new center is the culmination of two years of planning that involved the drafting of an “international communication action plan” and the establishment of a “joint working mechanism for external propaganda.” It’s worth noting that Shenzhen, though a sub-provincial city in China, had a GDP of 477.4 billion dollars in 2022, putting it just short of the 30th ranked economy in the world, ahead of Nigeria, and just behind Thailand.

And the Shenzhen ICC is not alone. It is part of a much larger trend that involves leveraging the resources of provincial and sub-provincial media to raise the volume of the CCP’s voice internationally. In July this year alone, four international communication centers were launched, including in Hunan, Jiangsu, and Chongqing. This followed the formation of ICCs in Hubei and Fujian in May and June respectively. By late 2022, ICCs had already been launched in Jiangxi, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan.

Like Shenzhen’s ICC, which will focus products like Straight News on the Greater Bay Area plus Taiwan, Yunnan’s ICC has a regional remit. As I wrote for Taiwan’s Commonwealth magazine back in August, the “Yunnan Provincial International Communication Center for South Asia and Southeast Asian Regions” focuses its communication efforts on the Mekong Delta region as well as South Asia. It involves covert information brands such as the Mekong News Network, which is active across an array of global social media platforms and is working to distribute content to news outlets across the region.

Toward a Chinese Narrative System

Careful readers might note that while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with fury to the Department of State report, its counter-attack did not at all deny that China was seeking, as the report said, to “reshape the global information landscape.” Unless a sea of official ink on the subject is to be doubted, which it is not, this is most definitely the goal. In his political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP last year, which drove the latest push for provincial-level media restructuring and international communication, Xi said that the Party needed to “accelerate the building of a Chinese discourse and Chinese narrative system” to tell the China story and manufacture an “credible, lovable and respectable image of China.”

Channels like Straight News are an important part of the strategy, and it is sobering to think that the expansive Department of State report does not even take into consideration this deep-level national transformation happening across China, the tip of an information iceberg.

On July 13, the China New Media Conference was held in Changsha was held in Malanshan, an area of the Hunan capital of Changsha that is famous for its association with media and culture, and also the glitzy new home of the Hunan Broadcasting System (HBS), the country’s largest state-owned television network. The conference closed with the signing of a document called the “Malanshan Declaration” (马栏山倡议), which called on “all journalists across the country working in international communications” to communicate China’s voice to the world, and steadily raise its “international communication impact.”

The list of signatories to the “Malanshan Declaration” was topped with central-level media including the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Service, CGTN, China Daily, and China News Service. It was filled out with 15 international communication centers at the provincial, sub-provincial and even city level, most less than six months old.

“International communication workers of the New Era!” the Declaration began. As for where it ends, the report from the US offers, to its credit, a fairly accurate assessment.

Gilding the Panda

When it comes to major international film awards, Rotterdam has its Tiger, Berlin has its Golden Bear, and for decades running the most iconic film award in the Chinese-speaking film world has been Taiwan’s Golden Horse. Today, in a bid to expand its global cultural influence, China will award its own animal-themed film prize in the western city of Chengdu. Say hello to the Golden Panda.

Winners of the biennial prize, awarded in four categories (film, television, documentary, and animation), will take home gleaming trophies, each “a cute panda engraved on the top of bamboo joints, which represents the concept of steadily rising quality,” according to the state-run Global Times.

Unlike its namesake, a creature that reproduces with notorious difficulty, the Golden Panda seems to have been born precipitously. With no signaling of plans on the global festival circuit in 2022, the host of the event, the People’s Government of Sichuan Province, announced the prize only on March 25. The narrow application window closed just one month later.

The Golden Panda Awards trophy poses between a pair of festival mascots this month in Chengdu.

In May and June, China tried to generate excitement internationally by coordinating launch events in Hong Kong, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. The buzz, however, barely reached a murmur. None of the world’s major film industry publications seem to have taken notice, and as the festivities kick off this week, mentions of “Golden Panda” or “Panda d’Or” are to be found only in a spate of enthusiastic reports from Chinese state media — discounting ubiquitous online listings for Chinese restaurants from French Polynesia to Simi Valley.

Why are you hearing about the Golden Panda Awards from the China Media Project, and not from Empire or The Hollywood Reporter?

Officials at Center Stage

Haste and lack of professionalism in the planning is likely one important reason for the lack of industry buzz. According to domain registration data, the official website of Golden Panda Awards was created on February 7 this year, which suggests plans were hurried through.

Unlike its namesake, a creature that reproduces with notorious difficulty, the Golden Panda seems to have been born precipitously. 

Look more closely at the promotional events in Hong Kong, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro, and you also spot a gaping issue of perception. No filmmakers were seemingly involved, deepening the sense that this was about neither audiences nor auteurs, but rather about the Chinese state. According to People’s Daily Online, the event in Brazil was addressed by Tian Min (田敏), China’s consul general, as well as Fu Siquan (傅思泉), vice minister of Sichuan’s propaganda department. There was a lot of talk about “promoting cultural exchange in film and television.” But how many Brazilian filmmakers were present? Zero.

In its June report on the promotion events in Hong Kong and Paris, the official Sichuan Daily newspaper noted only that the Hong Kong event had included Lu Xinning (卢新宁), the number-two official in the central government’s Liaison Office, along with Hong Kong’s culture and tourism chief, Kevin Yeung (杨润雄), who has been one of the most vocal proponents in the SAR of Xi Jinping’s external propaganda catchphrase, “telling China’s story well.” In Paris, one of the world’s great cities of cinema, the planners managed to score attendance from UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Ernesto Ottone Ramirez — who, incidentally, is Chilean — but not from a single filmmaker, apparently.

Perhaps more damningly on the planning side, the June report mentioned that “prize selections will take place from September 23-24.” Only on August 26, three weeks ago, was it publicly reported in Chinese state media that “the prize selections for the Golden Panda Awards will take place from September 19-20.” Come again, festival organizers?

On the professional film circuit, such a four-day shift in the schedule announced less than a month before the event would be humiliating news. In this case, it shows us that the organizers never seriously cared for international publicity, not in the professional sense. The publicity needed internally — to score points with higher-ups for advancing China’s “international communication” — was something officials in Sichuan were always at liberty to manufacture on their own.

Starring Sichuan’s Propaganda Department

In fact, Sichuanese official coverage of the event swings another illuminating beam of light onto the nature of the Golden Panda Awards. Aside from a smattering of output in English from CGTN, the international broadcasting arm of the state-run China Central Television, most all the videos available across social media platforms come from “Sharing Sichuan,” a YouTube account whose motto is “experiencing China via Sichuan eyes.”

“Sharing Sichuan” is one of several official accounts on overseas social media operated by something referred to as the Sichuan International Communication Center (SICC). As it happens, this is a new office under the provincial propaganda department and the CCP’s official Sichuan Daily that is meant to consolidate media resources to more effectively “build an international communication matrix, and continuously improve patterns of large-scale foreign propaganda.” The mandate, laid out in late 2020 as part of the province’s response to China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, includes using “major economic and cultural exchange events to assist in enlarging propaganda and promotion, vividly telling the Sichuan chapter of China’s story.”

An English-language video from the SICC interviews foreign exchange students after a pre-arranged screening at the Golden Panda Awards.

This language puts the Golden Panda Awards in their proper context, as an event intended primarily to advance Sichuan’s external propaganda objectives. Speaking to the Huaxi Metropolis Daily, a major tabloid under Sichuan Daily, China Film Critics Association President Rao Shuguang (饶曙光) indicated as much when he said the Golden Pandas were “an important way to expand the international influence of Chinese films,” and “achieve better international dissemination.”

But the language also clues us into an important overarching trend in CCP propaganda, namely the mobilization of provincial media groups to serve the broader external propaganda goals of the party-state. Sichuan’s SICC is one of at least 11 such “international communication centers” (国际传播中心) formed since 2020. Six of these have been formed only since May of this year, responding to instructions on “advancing propaganda and ideology work” laid out by Xi Jinping in 2016 (and most recently in May 2021).

Over the summer, these ICCs — as you will hear us call them here on out at CMP — created a mutual association to better coordinate work nationwide. The process of integrating the ICCs both horizontally and vertically (with central state media) is clearly a strategy in the CCP’s remaking of its overall propaganda matrix.

As is often the case with China’s efforts at international communication, the results are mixed, largely because of shortcomings in planning and professionalism coded politically into the DNA of such efforts — their “red genes,” to appropriate a CCP catchphrase.

The Golden Panda Awards . . . . [are] intended primarily to advance Sichuan’s external propaganda objectives. 

One clear example of the sub-par is the SICC’s recruitment of foreign exchange students in Sichuan to comment on the Golden Panda Awards in an effort to demonstrate the event’s international nature. This ethically problematic tactic is not only common in China, but in some cases has been formalized through cooperation agreements such as that struck earlier this year between the CCP-run China Media Group and Jiangxi’s Nanchang Aviation University, which defined foreign students as “resources” for external communication.

Now that ICCs are getting off the ground, tasked in some cases with regional work, such as in Southeast Asia (see my recent piece in Commonwealth), we can expect to see more creative approaches to the CCP’s external propaganda, through social media accounts outside China that are branded non-transparently (“Center” and “C-Video” are two more SICC labels).  

How Civilized You Are!

One final elucidating note on the Golden Panda Awards deals with their framing as an event of civilizational proportions, in keeping with China’s focus since last year’s 20th National Congress on “civilization” as a source of leadership legitimacy at home and soft power appeal abroad [See “China’s ‘Xivilizing’ Mission“].

The Golden Pandas, we are told by the Global Times, “are committed to promoting exchanges and mutual learning among global civilizations.” They are, says the original announcement for the prize, about “building a community of shared destiny for mankind” and promoting “civilizational exchange.”

Fun Fact: Since 2019, the government of Sichuan has also given out Golden Panda Awards separately both for online literature (left) and “international communication” through television (right). Are we reaching golden panda saturation?

This language places the festivities happening today in Chengdu solidly within the context of legitimacy formation for Xi’s unprecedented third leadership term. It is no coincidence that the Golden Pandas were initiated just five days after Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the CCP’s Dialogue with World Political Parties in Beijing, during which he unveiled his Global Civilization Initiative (GCI).

The focus on “civilization” might seem just to put a grandiose patina on that simpler word, “culture.” But for the CCP in the present political moment, it is so much more, wrapped up in the recent claim that Xi Jinping’s “New Era” marks an historic culmination, the creation of a “new form of human civilization.” The Party’s general secretary stands with his feet planted on two great summits — the first the apex of China’s “excellent traditional culture,” the second the acme of Marxism for the 21st century. This, at present, is the CCP’s recipe for legitimacy, its latest confection: a civilization to make all Chinese proud and encourage the world to look on in awe.

As CGTN declares in its corny promotional video for the Golden Panda Awards, narrated in the distinctive baritone of Chinese state television, and cut in with shots of Times Square and the Eiffel Tower: “This is a bridge for mutual learning among civilizations. Communicate with other civilizations and embrace the world.”

During a collective study session of the Politburo on propaganda and ideology in May 2021, Xi Jinping reminded Party leaders that “telling China’s story well” meant that the country’s image should be “trustworthy” (可信) and “honorable” (可敬), but also “lovable” (可爱).

The question is how to make lovable happen. And the answer is always: gild the panda.

What Does Xi Jinping Mean By “Forever”?

During a dialogue with African leaders and ministers on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg on Thursday last week, Xi Jinping pledged to support local industrialization in developing nations in Africa. As this news was reported in party-state media back home, the stress was on the Chinese leader’s language about China’s “developing nation” status. “China has always shared the fate of developing nations,” said Xi. “It has been, is now, and will forever be a member of the developing world!”

Forever is a very long time. And for critics internationally who contend that China is an economic giant receiving undue preferential treatment — including billions in World Bank loans — by virtue of its designation by the United Nations as a “developing nation,” forever will certainly raise questions.

What exactly does Xi Jinping mean?

The Foreverness Wave

Xi Jinping’s address during the Thursday dialogue was front-page news across China the next day. The CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper highlighted the key points, including the language about China’s “developing nation” status, in bright red bullets on the right-hand side of the masthead. Treatments in all other central and provincial-level outlets were virtually identical, with even local Party news shoved to the background.

From left to right, first and second pages on August 25, 2023, in 1) the People’s Daily, 2) Fujian Daily, 3) Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily, and 4) Hunan Daily.

But as the wave of BRICS coverage was focused through the lens of online and digital outlets, separating the essentials from the verbiage about “win-win cooperation” and a “community of shared destiny,” a single line came through: “China will forever be a member of the developing nations.”

On the news app of The Paper (澎湃), a digital outlet launched in 2014 under the state-run Shanghai United Media Group, this line was the headline and the news brief: “At morning local time on August 24, President Xi Jinping said that China will forever breathe together with the developing nations, share their fate, and that [China] has been, is now, and will forever be a member of the developing world!”

A report on Xi’s BRICS remarks on August 24 by Shanghai’s The Paper.

This coverage was echoed in media outlets across the country. In Liaoning province’s official North Country (北国网) portal, run by the Liaoning Daily, on the official Douyin account of The Beijing News, and way down south in Yunnan’s Kaiping News (开屏新闻网). The same was true at Haiwai Online (海外网), a website affiliated with the overseas edition of the official People’s Daily, and on official portal sites in cities across the country, like Changsha.

Forever Since When?

In fact, Xi’s language about the foreverness of China’s developing nation status dates back to at least early April this year, shortly after the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that supported the removal of China’s “developing nation” label at international organizations.

On April 12, a piece in the People’s Daily written by Shi Qing (史青), a pseudonym likely for an official writing group at the newspaper reflecting the central leadership’s view, argued for China’s current status as a developing nation on the basis of various economic measures, before stating in no uncertain terms that the country will forever be “developing” in a political sense. “For China, developing country status has a special political nature,” the commentary said. 

A few days after the People’s Daily commentary, Chinese blogger Lao Ding (老丁) broke the Shi Qing argument down further, pointing out its curious inconsistency with China’s clearly stated ambition to achieve strong and continued development.

“So does ‘forever a member of the family of developing nations’ mean that China intends to ‘lie flat’ and continue to be a developing country?” Lao Ding asked, referencing a recent popular online meme that rejects the call to strive forward, preferring instead a life of sufficiency and balance. “Well, if that’s the case, what is the reason in our current economic efforts? Doesn’t the political report to the 20th National Congress say that by 2035 one of the goals of our country’s development is to reach the level of a mid-range developed nation?”

Lao Ding was not wrong. Xi Jinping’s political report to the 20th National Congress of the CCP had said exactly that, in a section on the Party’s “Missions and Tasks.” By 2035, China was to become a “mid-range developed nation” (中等发达国家).

“I understand it when it comes to love,” wrote Lao Ding. “But what does forever mean?”

He found his answer in the People’s Daily passage about the “political nature” (政治属性) of the “developing nation” label, which included this bit of history:

In 1964, the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD I) identified the vast number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America that had achieved national liberation after the Second World War and had taken the path of autonomous development as ‘developing countries’ as opposed to developed countries.

The “political nature” of the developing nation, in other words, is about the history and ongoing identity of liberation. Like so much in the Xi era, this political identification is to a great extent a repackaging of longstanding CCP concepts. The notion that China is essential to liberation from colonialism, imperialism and hegemonism has been a centerpiece of China’s foreign policy ever since Mao Zedong sought to unite the “Third World” — now an offensive term, mind you — against the United States and the Soviet Union, and to rally the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to form a new international order.

“I understand it when it comes to love. But what does forever mean?”

– Chinese blogger Lao Ding

Understanding this political definition, it becomes clear why Xi Jinping and the CCP are embracing the “developing nation” label so steadfastly. The label is essential to China’s vision of itself as the central protagonist in the creation of another “new international order” (国际新秩序) that according to Party-state media is more equitable and reasonable, what China and Russia outlined in a joint statement just 20 days before the latter invaded Ukraine.

So, you see, China likely is not now, or at least very soon will not be, a developing nation in an economic sense. Even so, China’s core international identity as a defender against imperialism and hegemonism means for the CCP that it will always have “developing” status politically — regardless of economic development or the improvement of its international status.

One might rightly protest that liberation forever means liberation never. That, however, would prioritize logic over political necessity. For the CCP, there is a distinct political advantage to a global crown of thorns that never slips, no matter how high they tower over their developing cousins.

Telling Ukraine’s Story of the Russian Invasion

David Bandurski: Needless to say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been devastating and disruptive to people’s lives in your country. So first off, I just want to wish safety and security to everyone there. Our thoughts are with you.

Vita Golod: Thank you for your wishes. Right after the full-scale invasion, we got so many messages from our colleagues – sinologists from all over the world. Polish colleagues were conspicuous. Fifty-two Polish sinologists signed a support letter. Through the horror of the first weeks of the invasion, I can still remember the kind words of support. I appreciate this solidarity and the sincere desire to help.

David Bandurski: Maybe you could start off by telling us a bit about the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, where you are Chairman of the Board.

Vita Golod: The Association was founded in November 2003. This year we celebrate our 20th anniversary. It is a non-government organization, a Ukrainian think tank focused on China studies and Ukrainian-Chinese relations. We unite more than 200 experts in different disciplines, like economics, international relations, political science, history, culture, linguistics, philosophy, literature, and so on. Most of us speak Mandarin and have a live-in-China background. Our goal is to promote the development of research on China in Ukraine and the development of Chinese studies, and we popularize modern knowledge about China.

Ukrainian Association of Sinologists

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David Bandurski: I know the war must have transformed the work that you and other sinologists and China experts do in Ukraine. Part of that for you has been building better communication. Could you talk about that?

Vita Golod: I was among those Ukrainians who did not believe that there would be a full-scale invasion. The next issue of the Ukraine-China journal was almost ready. We were going to dedicate it to the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and China. In one moment everything changed.

So, on the twenty-fourth of February, 2022, the day of the invasion — it was around 9:45 PM, I remember — I put a message in our social media group of interpreters about the idea of how our knowledge and expertise could be useful for Ukraine in wartime. All of us have WeChat accounts, and many of us have Weibo and Douyin accounts. It might work, I thought. We would just need more followers.

Ukrainian Association of Sinologists board member Kyrilo Chuyko, speaks directly to Chinese viewers in a video the day after Russia’s invasion. “Please publicize this video, we really need your help!” the message below in Chinese reads. Chuyko teaches Chinese simultaneous interpretation courses at the A.Y. Krymsky Institute of Oriental Studies, NAS of Ukraine.

Every day we translated the official Ukrainian news and spoke Chinese to explain what was going on in Ukraine, replying to the comments. It was tough emotionally and needed a lot of time. We also organized live sessions with bloggers inside and outside China that have a large number of followers. We knew there were no Ukrainian media in China, so we hoped our work could at least present the Ukrainian view of events, which was hidden by Chinese authorities due to different reasons. 

The day after the invasion, my colleague Kyrilo Chuyko posted a video in which he addressed the Chinese audience directly, expressing the feelings of people who were invaded, and who were experiencing fear and despair. It was a call for humanity.

David Bandurski: Did the video get a strong response? 

Vita Golod: It went viral. The video was viewed by more than seven million people in just the first month of the war. Then, it gathered millions of comments and reposts on WeChat in China. That’s how this volunteering project started. About one-hundred people contributed their time and efforts translating news, making videos and captions, communicating with state and non-state organizations, and spreading hundreds of files through Chinese social media. We called the project an “informational defense of Ukrainian sinologists against Russian propaganda in Chinese social media.” 

 We did it voluntarily outside our main jobs, from all different parts of Ukraine — even from the occupied places like Borodyanka and Bucha, under the sirens and during evacuation. We have kept some of the products in an online archive on the association’s website. Our work can also be found on the Stand with Ukraine (烏克蘭需要你的支持) YouTube channel.

David Bandurski: I see that one of the projects the association has been involved in is a news and information website called Ukraine Online (乌克兰在线), which includes current reports about politics and society in Ukraine in the Chinese language. Could you tell us more about the thinking behind that and how it got started?

Vita Golod: The Ukraine Online platform was launched this summer. We were thinking about how to develop the volunteer activity we’ve done over the past year into a real long-lasting product. This project was organized by the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists and the Institute for Contemporary China Studies named after Borys Kurts, a Ukrainian historian, orientalist, and teacher. The editor-in-chief of the online platform is Yevheniia Hobova, a board member of our association. She’s a Ph.D. in linguistics, and is now a junior researcher at the A. Yu. Krymskyi Institute of Oriental Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

As I mentioned before, there are no Ukrainian media in China, and Russian influence on Chinese state narratives is harmful to us. So, we have translated and promoted news about Ukraine in Mandarin daily, aiming to reach Sinophone audiences around the world. The website presents the Ukrainian view on events, and sometimes it is very different from the one available from the media inside China because of Russian influence.

There are no Ukrainian media in China, and Russian influence on Chinese state narratives is harmful to us. . . . It is essential to show the side of Ukraine that may not be visible in mainstream Sinophone media.

While the Russian-Ukrainian war is certainly the central topic for all world tabloids, we try to cover the events from various angles — including politics, social issues, the economy, culture, and the people’s personal stories. It is essential to show the side of Ukraine that may not be visible in mainstream Sinophone media. Also, we publish news on our Weibo and Twitter accounts. Soon we will be on WeChat too. The website can be opened in China without a VPN. So, we’d like more people from the Sinophone world to know about this platform. I hope this interview can help us reach a wider audience.

David Bandurski: Just now you mentioned the importance of personal stories. Is there any particular story that has stood out for you?

Mariupol resident Elvira Borts tells the story of what she witnessed during the Russian invasion — translated into Chinese by members of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists. “President Putin, just think, stop this massacre!” she says in this screenshot.

Vita Golod: Every family in Ukraine was touched by this war. Everyone has their own story of evacuation, loss, fear, and depression. So many of them. The personal stories of the people from Bucha, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, who lost everything and people they loved, every time made me cry. We have translated many of those stories.

The interview with Elvira Borts, an old woman who narrowly escaped the horrors of Mariupol and survived, is a particular one. We shared her story, subtitled in Chinese.

I live in the Bucha area, but closer to Kyiv. My village luckily wasn’t occupied by Russians, even though they were very close and we heard the sounds of battles. I still remember how empty Kyiv was in March 2022, a city of 3.8 million citizens. I once passed through Khreschatyk Street, the main street running through Kyiv, in the middle of the day, and my car was the only one in both directions. I stopped at the red light and then realized there was no sense in it. I can’t even describe how sad I felt seeing abandoned streets, and house pets roaming around. The air was toxic.

Some of our colleagues have joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I’d like to mention Oleksyi Koval, the only Ukrainian professional journalist-sinologist, who reported from five Chinese Communist Party Congresses and worked with key Chinese media. His example deserves respect.

David Bandurski: Do you have any indication of how Chinese audiences have responded to these stories?

Vita Golod: When we went on WeChat with the stories, messages, or pictures, many new Chinese social media users started to invite us to the pro-Ukrainian WeChat groups. I was joined by 20 different groups with 500-700 users. My colleagues even more. We posted news there and let them share it on their channels. We never knew how many users were involved, but it was everyday work. Daryna Ustenko, another association member, contributed the most to this communication. After some groups were banned, our supporters created new ones. Some groups are still working up to now.

When we went on WeChat with the stories, messages, or pictures, many new Chinese social media users started to invite us to the pro-Ukrainian WeChat groups.

Another example of our work was a live session Kyrilo organized with a DW journalist in April 2022. Our colleagues also joined to share their feelings with the global Chinese-speaking community. We have kept the video with all the comments and wishes. It’s very informative.

David Bandurski: I noticed that you’ve also interacted with Chinese outside of the media. For example, you sat down with artist Xu Weixin (徐唯辛). Could you tell us more about that?

Vita Golod: A few months after the full-scale invasion, we realized that Chinese artists were the most supportive vocally of Ukraine. They helped us to promote true information about the war through their art, music, and poems. Some stories were published on our website. Deng Kangyan wrote several poems dedicated to Ukraine and our heroic people.

Li Qiang was the first artist who contacted me in April 2022. His WeChat group was the most productive in supporting Ukraine. He couriered to Kyiv one of his works — a portrait of President Zelensky, depicting his face after learning of the Bucha massacre, along with a letter to him. We passed it along with the portrait to the president’s office.  

Li Qiang’s personal letter to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo courtesy of Vita Golod. 

Xu Weixin is another example. He lives in the US now. Every day since April 15, 2022, he has sketched war scenes, the faces of politicians, soldiers, activists, and ordinary Ukrainians. Xu has created 539 works in total so far. The first time I interviewed him was in the fall of 2022 for an issue of the Ukraine-China journal. Then I visited twice his studio in New York. He said he would not stop his project until our victory, even though he got tired. We agreed one day that he would sketch my brother’s portrait as well. He is in Donbas now. Everyone who fights this war is a hero.

David Bandurski: How do you think the war has impacted the relationship between China and Ukraine? How do the people of Ukraine feel about China?

Vita Golod: According to opinion polls, Ukrainians have the most positive view of the responses to the invasion by Poland, the UK, and the US. That is completely understandable. The 32 countries that have shown neutrality in their UN votes toward Russian aggression can’t be considered favorably.

Ukrainians’ expectations of China playing a mediating role in the settlement of the conflict are gradually melting. China’s official neutrality, its peacekeeper image, and its rapprochement with Russia at the same time are confusing to Ukrainians. Our media pay attention to the role of China in this war, letting the Ukrainian audience hear the different points of view.

Ukrainians’ expectations of China playing a mediating role in the settlement of the conflict are gradually melting.

We have media freedom in Ukraine, which is one of our great achievements. But fact-checking and professionalism should take priority over clickbait. I would like to say, the number of non-professional comments on China has been rising in Ukraine, particularly since China announced its so-called peace plan. Sometimes, Ukrainian media, unfortunately, invite people to comment on China with zero relation to Chinese studies or even foreign policy. That provokes incorrect or even deliberately negative perceptions of the situation.

A sketch by Chinese artist Li Qiang of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky waits to be delivered to the president. Photo courtesy of Vita Golod. 

Since the invasion, President Zelensky personally and his office have taken on full responsibility for the foreign policy of Ukraine. He sees that China could play a role as a mediator in this war, and he very much welcomed the mission of China’s envoy, Li Hui, to Ukraine. This visit as well as the online meeting between Ukrainian and Chinese leaders were widely covered in the Ukrainian media and had a positive effect. Future bilateral relations will depend on China’s real actions on the peacemaking mission in Ukraine. For now, it’s ambiguous. I still truly hope Ukrainian foreign policy remains independent and won’t be designed somewhere in Brussels or Washington.

David Bandurski: In terms of Chinese coverage and discussion of the war, what do you and your colleagues observe today? Is there any change? And what would you say to the Chinese, and the Chinese media?

Vita Golod: I’d like to mention one important date. On April 11, 2022, the People’s Daily newspaper published the first big article about, as they call it, the “Ukrainian crisis,” in which it said that Ukraine was a pawn in the geopolitical game of the United States. Since then, China’s main narrative has remained unchanged.

Two days after the People’s Daily article, we published a response in three languages on our website — signed by the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists — and this was circulated through our international network. We publicly addressed intellectuals and policymakers in the Chinese-language world to make clear that the “Ukrainian crisis,” as they called it, arose as a result of Russia’s direct armed aggression against Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom and independence. Of course, we didn’t expect any reaction from officials in Beijing. It was our position, to call for fairness and justice.

David Bandurski: At CMP we looked quite a bit at the People’s Daily’s official treatment of the war, the “crisis,” and even how for months and months President Zelensky himself is never mentioned. But it’s also true that some Chinese media have tried to tell a slightly more nuanced version. We’ve covered that too. Assuming there’s room somehow for finding new ways to reach Chinese who are willing to listen, what other ways do you think your group can reach them?

One achievement we’re quite proud of in the past year is that we launched the Ukrainian Platform for Contemporary China. We succeeded in gathering prominent international sinologists for four round tables. I appreciate your contribution to one of those as well. Why was that important? We created a platform for professional dialogues on China, where Ukrainian audiences could see and hear well-known China experts, ask questions, and get some takeaways. It was important for us as well to share our concerns and find a consensus on sensitive topics. This platform helped us to create a network with different universities, think tanks, and media — including Chinese.

When War Isn’t War

CMP COVERAGE OF CHINESE OFFICIAL REPORTING ON UKRAINE

I’m glad we are building relations with a new generation of Chinese scholars. Slowly, they have started to see Ukraine as a European country, not a part of the post-Soviet sphere. Last month an assistant professor from Peking University spent three weeks in Ukraine. We are preparing an article on how China sees Ukraine now versus then. As he said in one of our conversations — now I know there is a real war in Ukraine, not a Ukrainian “crisis” or a Ukrainian “issue.”

I hope more young Chinese researchers come to Ukraine. We are interested in a dialogue with young Chinese intellectuals. In fact, more Chinese journalists are coming to Ukraine now. One example was a group of reporters from CGTN who came in February this year. They spent two weeks in different parts of Ukraine. Not everything we did together or we recommended was published. But some episodes I’ve seen. They are really good. I know about CGTN’s Russian office, which shows the opposite news. Anyway, I was glad our colleagues were a source of help to show and tell the true story. 

Vita Golod guides visiting journalists from the state-run outlet CGTN in February 2023, there to mark the one-year anniversary of the war.

David Bandurski: As I’m sure you’re aware, the question of Taiwan’s security is often raised in discussions of the war in Ukraine. Sitting here in Taipei, I have to ask: Do you have any thoughts on that?

I spent a year of my life in Taiwan. That was a long time ago, and since then I’ve seen a crucial re-evaluation of Taiwanese identity. The tensions in the Taiwan Strait became a big media interest in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Some people have put both cases into a single basket. To clarify some of the related issues, I published an article with Dmytro Burtsev, another member of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow of the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. We posted it to Ukrinform, a platform of Ukraine’s national news agency.

I hope more Chinese young researchers come to Ukraine. We are interested in a dialogue with young Chinese intellectuals.

Most Ukrainians, including journalists, have little knowledge of Taiwan. Sometimes, falsely overconfident “experts” and even officials use this as a manipulation tool, which is harmful to Ukrainian diplomacy, especially in wartime. When I mentioned in an interview that there are direct flights between Taiwan and China, and many Taiwanese factories are located in the eastern and southern Chinese provinces, the journalist doing the interview was genuinely surprised.

David Bandurski: Has the association been involved in outreach to Taiwan also to tell your story?

A taxi in Taipei carries the slogan, “Be brave like Ukraine.”

In July last year, actually, we successfully launched an advertising campaign in Taiwan called “Be brave like Ukraine.” This is a well-known project of Ukraine’s Presidential Office. Many cities worldwide supported it, including London, Rome, New York, Amsterdam, Washington, and Stockholm. In Taiwan, it became possible because of the funding provided by six private companies, organized by Dentsu Taiwan through Dentsu’s Ukraine office.

Getting it done took a long negotiation process. Many people and organizations were involved. After getting the permissions we needed, a member of our team selected fonts for the Chinese traditional characters. Then we started to communicate with different Taiwan institutions, including at higher levels, who might support us — but this failed. In the end, personal business contacts helped us to realize the project. All six Taiwanese companies received appreciation letters signed by Mykhailo Fedorov, then deputy prime minister and minister of digital transformation of Ukraine.

Anyone in Taiwan at the time might have noticed the big billboards, as well as stickers on taxis in Taipei, Hualian, and other cities. It even made the local news. However, I expected a bigger impact, to be honest. Anyway, I hope the Taiwanese will never face the same tragedy we have faced — I hope they never have to be brave like Ukraine.

Code Pink, Code Red

In a months-long investigation published earlier this month, The New York Times explored the links between a “lavishly funded influence campaign” pushing Chinese state propaganda narratives and American millionaire Neville Roy Singham, long a champion of far-left causes. The report touched on the increasing involvement in China-related work of the anti-war activist organization Code Pink — whose co-founder, the American political activist Jodie Evans, married Singham in 2017.

As the Times report and other sources have noted, Code Pink was openly critical of China’s human rights record prior to 2017. The organization has since moderated that critical stance and the China page of its website focuses on a campaign called “China Is Not Our Enemy,” also the title of a regular webinar series hosted by Evans since 2021, and a dedicated Twitter (X) account.

The campaign’s object is simple enough: taking action to advocate for peace with China in the face of bilateral relations that have grown dangerously strident, and calling for greater dialogue to reduce the risk of conflict. The premise of the campaign is more problematic. Relations have worsened, Code Pink claims, because politicians and media in the United States have stoked confrontation. The group never seriously addresses the legitimate concerns many Americans have about China, including its worsening one-party authoritarian politics, its illiberal approach to human rights, and its broad repression of civil society.

A Code Pink protester interrupts a hearing of the US House Select Committee in February 2023.

Instead, as Evans explained in a March interview with the often saber-rattling Global Times, a paper published directly under the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily (which is by its own admission an organ of propaganda), Americans “have been watching US propaganda, which drives hatred and fear around China.”

The “China Is Not Our Enemy” campaign drew wider attention back in February this year as a pair of Code Pink demonstrators charged into a House Select Committee hearing on strategic competition with China bearing protest signs with the slogan.

For state-run outlets like the China Daily, published by the government’s Information Office (functionally the same office as the Central Propaganda Department), this and other “China Is Not Our Enemy” protests have shown that there is growing popular resistance to anti-China policies in the US. This was also, wittingly or unwittingly, the reporting frame used by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which cited the Select Committee hearing protest as evidence that “frustration with [the] status quo and recognition of [the] high cost of conflict extends beyond seasoned China watchers.”

This might have been wishful thinking. Or it might have been an effort to shift the narrative. In any case, there is no popular revolt over China policy in the US, and current polling shows that a large majority of Americans are concerned about China’s role in the world.

Relations have worsened, Code Pink claims, because politicians and media in the United States have stoked confrontation. 

How, then, should we understand the China-related peace activism of Code Pink? What are its real objectives, affinities, and vulnerabilities?

The growing body of reporting on Singham’s network and its amplification of what are clearly Chinese state propaganda talking points should already encourage skepticism about the integrity of Code Pink’s peace-focused China mission. That skepticism only deepens upon closer scrutiny of the goals and language of the organization’s “China Is Not Our Enemy” campaign.

Curious Companions

On the question of Code Pink’s associations with the Singham network, the New York Times reports that based on non-profit records close to a quarter of the organization’s donations since 2017, totaling more than 1.4 million dollars, have come from linked groups. As the Times and others have documented — the 2022 story at New Lines magazine being a must-read — Singham’s network has supported not just progressive causes but has consciously and conscientiously echoed the talking points of the Chinese party-state, including its brutal treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in the far western Xinjiang region.

Even without secondary reporting, however, many of Singham’s associations with the CCP’s external propaganda mechanism, and its movers and shakers, are simple enough to track down. A quick search in Chinese turns up his attendance last month of a forum in Shanghai focusing on “innovating the international image of the Chinese Communist Party,” and “breaking through the Western monopoly on culture and discourse.”

Singham, first on the right, attends a July 2023 forum in Shanghai on how to innovate China’s external propaganda strategy.

This forum is the “Communist Party workshop” referenced by the Times in its story.

The host of the event was Fudan University’s China Institute, whose director, Zhang Weiwei (张维为), is one of the key architects of Xi Jinping’s external propaganda strategy, and was the keynote speaker at the May 2021 collective study session of China’s Politburo that dealt with the topic of external communication.

For years, Singham has pushed pro-CCP messaging far beyond such private strategy sessions. The Times report tracks funds from non-profits backed by Singham to media around the world that have disseminated what looks and feels like Chinese state propaganda. Examples include Brasil de Fato, a Brazilian online newspaper and video channel that centers on social movements in the country but has regularly published content that praises the Chinese leadership — even running a promo for Xi Jinping’s books on governance.

A quick jump down the rabbit hole of “Tings Marco,” the video series on China run by Brasil de Fato, turns up an “international online forum” held in May 2021 with participation from the Shanghai-based outlet Guancha.cn (观察者网), founded by the Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li, which is known for its penchant for state-aligned nationalism (and hosts a regular column by the above-mentioned Zhang Weiwei). The forum, which dealt broadly with the China-Brazil relationship in the context of China-US tensions, was organized by No Cold War and Tricontinental, both Singham-backed groups.

For years, Singham has pushed pro-CCP messaging far beyond such private strategy sessions. 

Among the online forum participants was Wang Wen (王文), a professor at Renmin University of China’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a “new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics” founded in 2013. Wang has been a strong proponent for innovative forms of state communication, and in 2018 spoke about a more prominent role for Chinese think-tanks like his within the CCP’s external propaganda. Also attending were the hosts of the “Tings Marco” program at Brasil de Fato, Marco Fernandes and Tings Chak (翟庭君), listed as researchers for Singham’s Tricontinental.

Chak identifies herself on her Twitter (X) account as a Tricontinental researcher, and also a member of “Dongsheng News,” an outlet that the Times story reported was edited by a team in China, under Tricontinental, but had an address linked to the People’s Forum, a New York event space funded by Singham. Chak, who is named by Shanghai’s The Paper as a “joint founder” of Dongsheng News, is also a columnist for Guancha.cn.

Chak, like Singham, has associated closely with CCP entities working directly on external propaganda. In July 2021, she attended an online forum called “Guaranteeing Labor Rights and Good Living for All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang,” where she spoke on the need to “tell China’s story well” to the Global South. The forum was hosted by the China Foundation for Human Rights Development (中国人权发展基金会), a group overseen, as its 1994 charter makes clear, by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

The threads in Singham’s global network can at times seem complex, but they are the weft and warp of a single fabric. When China’s deputy consul general of Sao Paulo, Tian Yuzhen (田玉震), met with “the Brazilian media Dongsheng News” in December 2022, the representative there to take the meeting was Marco Fernandes, the Tricontinental researcher and co-host of “Tings Marco.”

Another thread in the fabric is Code Pink’s “China Is Not The Enemy” campaign.

Tings Chak and Marco Fernandes of Singham’s Tricontinental Institute for Social Research appear on Jodie Evan’s Code Pink webinar on China in April 2021.

In one of her many “China Is Not Our Enemy” webinars, Jodie Evans hosted Tings Chak and Marco Fernandes, presenting the pair as authoritative sources on “what is true about China.” The chat was co-branded with the People’s Forum, Singham’s New York event space, and also Qiao Collective, an avowedly Leftist online outlet associated with Singham that idealizes China as a communist country and uncritically accepts the frames of its state media.

“We are showered with lies and distortion,” Evans said at the start of the April 2021 webinar. She then yielded the stage to Chak and Ferdandes, who offered glowing assessments of China’s enlightened governance through its policy of “targeted poverty alleviation,” a high-profile political campaign formally announced by Xi Jinping in July 2015, with the goal of lifting 70 million Chinese out of extreme poverty by 2020, within six years. Among other measures, the campaign called for the creation of anti-poverty leading groups at all levels of the national bureaucracy, with officials responsible for meeting quotas.

Swallowing the Hook on the Party Line

The achievements of China’s anti-poverty campaign have been closely intertwined with Code Pink’s China-related advocacy since the launch of the “China Is Not Our Enemy” in 2020. The organization has lionized the country’s anti-poverty efforts, accepting uncritically the facts and talking points of the party-state — as in this TikTok video, which argues that while the US is focused only on individual prosperity, “China is focusing on people and collective prosperity.”

While there have no doubt been measured positive developments as a result of China’s poverty alleviation campaign, the full story is much more complicated. The campaign, which has required Xi Jinping’s consolidation of control over society, is typical of movements pursued in China’s past through “campaign-style governance,” a symptom of poor institutionalization in communist regimes. In such cases, the powerful leader commands action from the top, and the effects ripple down as cadres rush to demonstrate their loyalty and obedience.

One scholar studying China’s poverty alleviation policy in 2019 wrote that “the political assignment is so tough that local governments have had to mobilize almost their entire workforce of cadres and all their resources to carry it out.” This can have unfortunate consequences as political priorities and resources shift myopically to the problem at hand. In June 2019, for example, the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin learned from local trade union officials in Sichuan province that they were unaware of a serious ongoing case of unpaid wages for construction workers, and had taken no action, because the demands of poverty alleviation had become all-consuming:

I think your suggestions [about collective bargaining] are very good, yet we have a heavy burden with poverty alleviation right now. All officials in the western rural areas have to participate in it, not just trade union officials, but all government officials now.

This is one of many cases of this kind that the group has documented through direct contact with officials in the national union bureaucracy — with an impact on the livelihoods of workers that should be obvious.

Another serious drawback of “campaign-style governance” is that it necessitates society-wide propaganda to sustain the movement, manufacture and amplify successes, and disguise failures. What Chinese leaders have termed a “comprehensive victory in the battle over poverty” is a tale not just of political will but of determined and pre-planned propaganda.

This too can be documented. In January 2021, shortly after Xi Jinping formally declared victory in his push to eradicate poverty, CMP tracked the making of local myths from the mid-2010s like that of Dong Heqin (董贺勤), a once impoverished farmer from Anhui province who had managed to dramatically turn his fortunes around with the help from local anti-poverty officials. In fact, from 2017 onward, China’s government made an active push to foster the creation of “poverty alleviation and prosperity leaders” (脱贫致富带头人) in poor areas across the country, seen as critical to the overall poverty alleviation strategy, which itself included a section on “adhering to propaganda models.”

But for Code Pink, drinking liberally from the fountain of the Singham network, the tales, however tall, are demonstrably true. “China’s successful efforts to lift millions of people out of poverty” are the real story, and any reporting or context that suggests otherwise is evidence of a broader conspiracy of US censorship and bias — also a strikingly familiar theme for those who specialize in China’s official discourse.

In November 2020, not long after the launch of the “China Is Not Our Enemy” Twitter account, the Los Angeles Times ran an in-depth news feature with factual news reporting that complicated the CCP’s triumphal narrative about its poverty eradication victories.

Code Pink’s “China Is Not Our Enemy” account on Twitter criticizes a report from the LA Times on China’s anti-poverty campaign.

Sharing a post from the Singham associated Qiao Collective, Code Pink responded hotly that the US media were “threatened by an alternative to capitalist, imperialist hegemony.” Soon after, Code Pink shared another post from Qiao Collective that unquestioningly passed along a press release from the Information Office of the State Council. It referred readers to a list of additional state media sources, including CGTN, the international broadcasting arm of the CCP’s official China Central Television — which is directly under the China Media Group (CMG) and Central Propaganda Department — and the CCP-run journal Seeking Truth (求是), which since 2018 has topped each of its issues with a speech from Xi Jinping.

Also among the Qiao Collective recommendations shared by Code Pink was the documentary Voices from the Frontline: China’s War on Poverty, which would quickly become a key advocacy point for the organization’s China work.

The hourlong documentary, which purports to tell “the inside story of China’s race to eradicate all extreme poverty by the end of the year 2020,” is directed by Emmy Award-winning director Peter Getzels, and co-produced by the Los Angeles-based foundation of international corporate strategist Robert Lawrence Kuhn and the local affiliate of the publicly-funded Public Broadcasting Service, PBS SoCal.

Alleging that the film had been “censored in the US,” Code Pink responded with a petition campaign asking supporters to write PBS with their objections. 

PBS SoCal aired the documentary on May 11-12, 2020, but by month’s end had launched an internal review of the film after PBS said it failed to meet its editorial standard of objectivity. The fundamental issue was the involvement in the film project of CGTN. As the public editor at PBS, Ricardo Sandoval-Palos, explained in a response following hundreds of furious letters on both sides of the issue, the Kuhn-hosted film had gone “a step too far” by giving “the co-production role to China Global Television Network, the nation’s principal and government-run broadcaster.” It appeared to Sandoval-Palos, moreover, that “the filmmaker downplayed CGTN’s co-producer role with an unobtrusive mention near the end of the credit roll.”

We Are Appalled, PBS

Alleging that the film had been “censored in the US,” Code Pink responded with a petition campaign asking supporters to write PBS with their objections. The form letter from Code Pink, still one of the organization’s top China campaigns, asked how PBS can “censor a documentary by a widely respected public intellectual,” which moreover has “done us a service by laying out the techniques and the 5 levels of government that coordinated to bring 800 million people out of extreme poverty.” Further, the letter expressed shock that PBS would give credence to allegations from “the conservative publication The Daily Caller,” which had called the film “pro-China.”

In an August 2023 commentary in the CCP’s People’s Daily, Robert Lawrence Kuhn makes Xi Jinping the center of his story of “people-to-people” exchange, even repeating the story of Fuzhou’s Kuliang, which has been a hot point of state external and internal propaganda this summer.

On the first issue raised by Code Pink, the question of Kuhn as “an expert on China,” many long-time China observers would twist uncomfortably. Kuhn seems most in his element when parroting the language of his official contacts and state media handlers, and his sycophancy toward the Chinese leadership can be nauseating. For an unctuous case in point, look no further than his article this month in the People’s Daily, in which he praises Xi Jinping a grand total of 14 times as he urges the need for “people-to-people” exchanges to improve US-China relations.

But what matters more than the question of Kuhn’s expertise is the plain fact of his long-standing association with the state-run CGTN, where he is a regular columnist and program host. That fact goes to the heart of the issue Sandoval-Palos raised about the objectivity and goals of the film.

If, as the public editor at PBS suggested, Voices from the Frontline was indeed co-produced by CGTN rather than independently by Kuhn and his director, Peter Getzels, then concerns about the program’s objectivity owing to the direct involvement of a Chinese state-run media outlet under the guidance of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department would have to be taken seriously. The question of whether the film has “done us a service” also hangs on this crucial point.

So what do we know about the production of Voices from the Frontline? As it happens, we do not require the conservative grumblings of The Daily Caller to tell us the film is “pro-China.” China spells it out for us in Chinese, even if the issue is not so readily communicated in English.

In an article on external propaganda in late 2020, Li Bo (李波) of Fudan University’s China Institute — which readers may recall hosted the event Singham attended last month — wrote that the core of telling China’s story was telling the CCP’s story. Kuhn’s documentary, he suggested, was a fine example: “With the support of the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the film’s host and contributor, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, accompanied the US filming crew in visiting impoverished families in Guizhou, Gansu, Shanxi, Sichuan, Hainan, and Xinjiang, and interviewed leading Party members and cadres at all levels, from the central government to townships, to tell truly touching stories.”

At roughly the same time, China Report, a magazine published by the state-run China International Communications Group, interviewed Kuhn, who told much the same story about the film: “Our international crew, led by award-winning US director Peter Getzels, worked with the Organization Department of the CCP’s Central Committee, the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, and our production partner, CGTN, to travel across China in an unprecedented way and delve deeper into large-scale poverty alleviation projects.”

This high-level CCP involvement in the production of the film is clear enough from the jacket of the video as it was released in China in April 2019, more than a year ahead of its PBS SoCal airing. It lists as producers the State Council Leading Group along with the China Media Group (CMG), the CCP media conglomerate that encompasses CCTV and its international arm, CGTN. Kuhn is identified only as a host and writer.

If there is any suggestion that these entities simply assisted in the production of what was an otherwise independent project by providing access to villages in China, this is called into question by a description of current work on the website of director Peter Getzels’ production company, updated sometime between March and September 2017, according to Wayback Machine. There Getzels mentions that he is “currently in production on a third series of CHINA’S CHALLENGES, as well as a one-off documentary about poverty for China Global Network Television (the English-speaking branch of CCTV).”

Getzels’ language makes clear that this was a CGTN project from the get-go, and we know from the Organization Department involvement that the priority was high and senior. The timing is also significant. It places the start of the Voices from the Frontline project in the months leading up to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, at exactly the time when promotion efforts for the poverty-alleviation campaign were heating up as a key component of Xi Jinping’s bid for continued power consolidation. In China, the trumpet blows before the victory.

None of these facts, in all likelihood, could put a kink in the Code Pink narrative. The tall tale came again last month as Jodie Evans was interviewed for a podcast program called The Bridge:

A United States capitalist went to China to understand how China took everyone out of poverty. He hired an award-winning filmmaker. He took him to China. They took a lot of footage. They came back and edited it in the United States, got PBS (which is funded by US taxpayer money) to produce the video — and they showed it one time, and have now censored it. Because, Oh my God, it makes Beijing look too good.

Too good, indeed.

Podcast listeners who are interested can tune in to the rest of Evans’ interview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or YouTube. They might wish to know, however, in the interest of transparency, informed choice, and integrity, who is really behind the program. No, not Singham. But close. The Bridge is funded by CGTN.

The Gaze of Exile

David Bandurski: Thanks for sitting down to reminisce about independent documentaries. It’s been a decade of rather dramatic change. As it happens, we’ve both landed in Taipei. But perhaps you could begin by reflecting back on where independent film in China stood in 2013 when things started to really shift. And what was so special about these films?

Huang Wenhai: The Exile Gaze: Witnessing Independent Documentary Film in China, the book we cooperated on, actually covers events up through 2013, when YunFest was forced to shut down. That year, the Beijing Independent Film Festival in Songzhuang managed to make all of the scheduled screenings, despite facing major pressure, and being under strict surveillance. The Independent Spirit Award that year went to Ai Weiwei (艾未未), I remember. He was under residential surveillance at the time. 

That was in August 2013, exactly 10 years ago. Who could have known that would be the last time an independent film festival was held in China? By 2014, the Songzhuang event had become a “film festival without films” (沒有電影的電影節). So this year marks a full decade since independent film festivals in China have been banned. 

Huang Wenhai (黄文海) filming in Beijing in 2009.

DB: Give us just a sense, if you would, of how these documentaries had developed up to that point.

WH: China remains a one-party dictatorship, and mainstream films (主流電影) today, as at that time, are tools of political propaganda. But after 1989, alternatives began to emerge as independent directors like Zhang Yuan (張元) and Wu Wenguang (吳文光) produced independent films that took on elements of personal experience. Toward the end of the 1990s, as pirated films appeared in China, this was a new path for ordinary people to learn more about film. At around the same time, the emergence of inexpensive and practical DV cameras greatly lowered production costs, making it possible for individuals to complete documentaries independently.

It was in 2001 that local independent visual forums emerged and offered a platform for independent filmmakers to interact with local audiences. At that point, Chinese independent documentaries were completely free, from production to distribution, from the shackles of the official system. They could operate all on their own. The result was unprecedented development in terms of sheer variety of subject matter, depth, and sensitivity — and in terms of the number of independent filmmakers involved too.

At that point, Chinese independent documentaries were completely free, from production to distribution, from the shackles of the official system.

The directors who took up their DV cameras in the 2000s were ordinary Chinese, the “underclasses describing the underclasses” (底層人描述底層人). They exposed an inside world that up to that point had been invisible to the outside world, and they said things those living through these experiences hadn’t yet found the means to say. They expressed the complexity of the world around them through direct and effective visual vocabularies.

DB: I’m going to ask a question that is perhaps naive. Actually, definitely naive. Why was this a problem for the government? 

WH: You can now say that independent film in China is the most actively suppressed form of artistic expression in China. One key reason for this shift was the entry into the field by the mid-2000s of public intellectuals like Ai Weiwei and Ai Xiaoming (艾曉明). They focused their attention on hot-button social issues and used the internet as a communication tool, which linked independent documentaries with social movements in China. This not only affected the development and outcome of incidents in society, but also inspired more people to participate in the production and sharing of visual material. 

Filmmaker and former Sun Yat-sen University professor Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明).

You could say this became the “power of the powerless.” Examples include the farmers of Wukan Village in Guangdong Province, who filmed and shared their experiences, turning a case of illegal land seizure into an international news story. This ultimately enabled the villagers to democratically elect a new village committee — though in the course of time it would not be a happy ending. Independent documentary also played an important role in the case of the trial of the “Three Netizens” (三網友) in the Mawei District People’s Court in the city of Fuzhou, in Fujian province, which developed from online appeals by netizens to offline protest marches outside the court building. 

DB: Just then you referenced the 1978 book The Power of the Powerless by the Czech political dissident and statesman Václav Havel. It all connects, of course. Because that political essay was among the writings of Havel translated into Chinese in the 2000s by Cui Weiping (崔衛平), the Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic. To help make the connection to social movements, could you talk a bit more about some of the standout films at the time and the topics they addressed?

WH: In 1999, the filmmaker Hu Jie (胡杰) resigned from his post with the Nanjing bureau of the official Xinhua News Agency in order to shake off official pressure and concentrate on his historical documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (尋找林昭的靈魂). Lin Zhao, who was imprisoned and executed during the Cultural Revolution, was seen as a taboo subject by the government — and still is. Hu’s transition was a major step for Chinese independent directors. The importance of this act of “severing of ties” (決絕) can hardly be overstated. It encouraged independent filmmakers to root their documentaries more deeply, and more empathetically, in the soil of reality. The filming also became much freer, with less self-censorship. 

Filmmaker Hu Jie (胡杰).

I also think the emergence and development of independent documentary filmmaking in China was related to the citizen’s movement in China (中國公民運動), that it was a product of the expansion of civil society as a “second space” (第二空間). Not only did documentary filmmakers witness the awakening of citizens — they also joined the ranks of resistance. Their works generally had a strong sense both of bearing witness and of actively resisting. One good example is the film Petition (上訪) by Zhao Liang (趙亮). You mentioned the scholar Cui Weiping. She once called Petition “one of the most powerful films in China since images were available.” 

Ai Weiwei’s film Disturbing the Peace (老媽蹄花) documented at great personal risk his struggles with local police, and it encouraged many people to take up their mobile phones and DV cameras and monitor public power through video. Among those inspired was Zhang Jianxing (張建興), a farmer from Wukan Village, who used a camera the villagers bought by pooling resources to film Wukan, Wukan! (烏坎, 烏坎!), a documentary about their struggle to defend their land. The film boosted the confidence of Wukan villagers in defending their rights, and it changed the course of events in the village.

DB: As someone involved for many years during that decade in producing Chinese independent films, I have pretty vivid personal memories of when I felt things had started to shift. I know you know the story of how I arrived in France for a festival and I learned you wouldn’t be coming because the Chinese Embassy in France had pressured the festival organizers. That was in 2010. When did you first begin to notice obvious changes in the official attitude toward these films?

WH: Independent films have always been a struggle in China. Prior to 2010, the filming and screening of independent documentaries in China had still not been easy, and activities were often suppressed. The government had passed restrictive regulations on digital video already in 2006, for example. The unfortunate fact is that any independent and free enterprise in China is effectively a criminal act. And yet, all things being equal, those years were nearly a “golden age” in comparison to the current situation. 

According to my research, 2010 was a real turning point in the citizen’s movement. The “Three Netizens” case in Fujian province that I alluded to earlier was widely regarded as a landmark event in the government’s crackdown on freedom of expression on the internet. As the case went to trial at the Mawei District People’s Court in Fuzhou, netizens from all over the country showed their solidarity online, but more than 200 people also showed up outside the court to protest. That meant the citizen’s movement in China had evolved to the point where appeals on the internet could translate into real action on the streets. 

Artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei attends the Beijing Independent Film Festival, accompanied by film critic and organizer Li Xianting (栗宪庭).

At the end of 2010, the Jasmine Revolution broke out in Tunisia. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played an important role in fueling the mass demonstrations that culminated in the overthrow of the regime of then-President Ben Ali. The Jasmine Revolution was also a mobile internet revolution. Government fears in China of an “internet revolution” (互聯網革命) brought increased repression of both group activities and new media. 

The unfortunate fact is that any independent and free enterprise in China is effectively a criminal act.

Also that year, there was a dramatic shift in the [government] perception of independent documentary, and there was a development from the suppression of individual films for their content to the suppression of independent film more broadly as a new medium.

DB: We can maybe fast-forward from 2010 to 2013, when April brought the shutdown of YunFest. Were you in Yunnan when that happened? What do you remember about that time?

WH: I wasn’t there, but in September, several months later, I went to Kunming to interview some of the people involved in YunFest, including Yi Sicheng (易思成) and He Yuan (和淵). You’ll recall that I was working at the time on The Exile Gaze, so I was very aware of the situation with the festival, and much of it is there in a chapter called “The Forced Demolition of Film” (被強拆的影像). 

What made a deep impression on me at the time were Yi Sicheng’s words. They ring back to me now like a warning bell for independent film. “Independent film has become a sensitive word,” he said. “This is not about incidental factors as in the past, about a certain film or filmmaker. It’s all-encompassing, and it’s risen to the national level.”

DB: It’s been 10 years, but so many things have happened it can feel like an eternity. You eventually made it to Hong Kong, and we worked together on the book. And then you witnessed the changes there too. What reflections do you have on your time in Hong Kong? 

WH: After I moved to Hong Kong in 2013, I met both the exiled director Ying Liang (應亮) and the dissident Zeng Jinyan (曾金燕) there. Both were engaged in independent documentary filmmaking and curating in China. As independent film festivals were being shut down in China, we were all talking about what we could do in the “land of the free” [that Hong Kong was at the time]. We decided we could organize festivals, so eventually we formed the China Independent Documentary Association (中國獨立紀錄片研究會). Our first screening was of Dialogue (對話), a film in which Chinese human rights lawyers and dissident writers speak online with the Dalai Lama. 

Huang Wenhai gathers with film enthusiasts in Hong Kong for a screening and discussion organized by the China Independent Documentary Association.

At the China Independent Documentary Association we eventually screened more than 100 films in Hong Kong. And we invited more than 50 Chinese independent filmmakers to visit Hong Kong and have post-screening discussions with audiences. We were able to continue showing films even beyond the demolition of festivals across the border. Some of the discussions we had with visiting filmmakers are now collected in a book called Images in the Gloom: Discussion Chinese Independent Documentary in Hong Kong (在幽昏中顯影:港中對話中國獨立紀錄片). 

As for myself, during my seven years in Hong Kong from 2013 to 2020, I did my utmost to take advantage of the “land of the free.” I made four films: We the Workers (凶年之畔), Women Workers (女工), Outcry and Whisper (喊叫與耳語), and In Exile (在流放地). I wrote The Exile Gaze to gather together the history of China’s independent filmmakers. I published a book of photography called Existent (存在的). And I organized a film retrospective called Rejection/Determination: Chinese Independent Documentary Film after 1997 (決絕:1997年以來的中國獨立紀錄片回顧展). Needless to say, none of this work could have been completed had I been in China.

DB: What have you been doing here in Taiwan? Have you managed to remain connected to China and what’s going on there?

WH: After the anti-extradition protest movement in 2019, and the national security law that followed in 2020, it was no longer possible for us to continue the China Independent Documentary Association. So in 2021, we disbanded.

Since 2019, I’ve been working with National Chung Cheng University and SPOT Cinema to hold five tours of Chinese independent documentaries to schools in Taiwan. I’ve also worked with National Tsing Hua University and National Chung Cheng University to build up collections of Chinese independent documentaries. While I was in Hong Kong, I worked with the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong to collect more than 400 independent Chinese documentaries. The political situation in Hong Kong is such now that it is impossible to preserve and study these precious film resources, so my hope is to establish a “Research Center for Independent Chinese Documentary Film” (中國獨立紀錄片研究中心) in Taiwan — and to begin the process again of collecting and protecting these films.

My work is all about China, and I’ve been in touch with independent directors in China. I’ve been trying to find whatever opportunities I can to screen and introduce independent documentaries. Most recently, I’ve organized a course called “Paths in Film: Witness, Awakening, and Resistance in Chinese Independent Documentaries” (影之道—中國獨立紀錄片的見證、覺醒與抗爭) at the National Association for the Advancement of Community Colleges (NAACC), with the aim of presenting a different image of China to the Taiwanese people through independent documentaries.

DB: What is the situation today with independent documentaries in China? Are there murmurings of activity?

WH: The Chinese government’s continued suppression of independent documentaries has created a deep sense of sadness within the independent documentary community over the past few years. Independent documentaries have always led a troubled existence in China — something so clear to me as I wrote The Exile Gaze. As we’ve said, independent film festivals have been banned for ten years now. But there have also been many cases of independent directors being arrested and imprisoned for making films. This has obviously impacted the development of the industry as a whole, and it’s clear there are fewer and fewer directors working on independent documentaries, and there are precious few films out there.

The Chinese government’s continued suppression of independent documentaries has created a deep sense of sadness within the independent documentary community over the past few years.

The general environment, the policies and so on, have in fact not changed at all. But the people have changed. And I want to emphasize how decisively important the initiative of people can be. Without the precious efforts of a core group of independent directors — around 100 people, I would say — there never would have been such an accumulation of films, running to over one thousand or so. All together, they have built a new tradition of Chinese documentary. 

In 2017, at a forum on the future of independent documentaries in China held at King’s College in London, I remember saying that as the political situation in China has become more and more serious, more and more directors have moved overseas — and this geographic change has inevitably brought a major shift in terms of creativity. It’s my personal view that this change will inevitably follow the same three directions we witnessed in the case of Chinese literature after 1989, where we had official literature, underground literature, and literature in exile.

I still believe, in spite of the official suppression and the disappearance of independent film festivals in China, that independent directors haven’t lost their creative spirit, and strong films continue to emerge. For example, Li Wei (李維), a young director born in 1994, made the documentary Dusty Breath (塵默呼吸), which bravely touched on the taboo subject of black lung disease and presented the difficult situation the continues to face migrant workers. And independent directors that have gone into exile — including the likes of Ai Weiwei, He Yang (何楊), and of course your former collaborator Zhao Dayong (趙大勇) — have in many cases continued to produce and screen their work.

The new situation continues to evolve, and I still believe in the future of independent documentaries. We’ll see what happens.

China’s Foreign Minister is Sacked, and Erased

When China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for Mao Zedong’s rivals or others who had fallen out of political favor to simply vanish from the photographic record. Now, in an odd digital echo of the pre-reform era, articles about China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang (秦刚), who was formally removed from his post on Tuesday, have been expunged within the website of the foreign ministry.

Searches within the web address of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for “Qin Gang” on Wednesday returned scores of headlines from January to June, topped by “Qin Gang Meets With Russian Deputy FM Rudenko,” and “Qin Gang Holds Talks with US Secretary of State Blinken.” However, all of these official MFA news releases are now removed from the site, yielding a message that reads: “The page you are visiting does not exist or has been deleted.”

On the left, a Google search on the MFA website for “Qin Gang.” At right, a message showing that the first headline story, about Qin meeting the Russian deputy foreign minister, no longer exists.

Curiously, the same official releases remain available at other official media sites, including that of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily, and commercial media websites such as that of China Business Network.

Based on our analysis, it seems that of the hundreds of posts to the MFA website during Qin Gang’s seven-month tenure in office, only reports prior to February 2 were available as of 3 AM Beijing time on Wednesday. But these were disabled soon after, and the website’s section on “Minister’s Events” showed only a message that read: “Information being updated . . . . “

The section of the MFA website for “Minister’s events,” which previously listed news items related to Qin Gang, as well as Wang Yi going back several years, shows only “Information being updated . . . . ” early Wednesday morning.

It seemed that information related to Qin Gang was being actively removed from the MFA site early on Wednesday. Qin Gang’s bio was listed under “Minister’s Resume“ as late as 4 AM, but was also being “updated” 15 minutes later, along with sections such as “Minister’s Path.”

All reports on the MFA site visible through the Google in-site search linked to pages with page-not-found messages. For example, a report on Qin’s meeting on May 30 with Elon Musk, archived here, is no longer found.

Qin Gang meets with Elon Musk in early May 2023, another report now missing from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The same is true of Qin’s meeting on May 8 with US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, which is archived here.

It is not clear what purpose the removal of all Qin-related content from the MFA website would serve, particularly as many (if not all) of these reports are available through other online channels. But it seems to be a further sign of turmoil within the ministry, which has spent several weeks offering no elaboration on the fate of its top leader.

The reasons for Qin’s removal remain unclear, an unsettling reminder of the murky and unpredictable nature of China’s politics and political system.

State media finally reported on Tuesday that China’s top legislative body had removed Qin Gang from his post and that he had been replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi (王毅), who since January has served as director of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP Central Committee.

The reasons for Qin’s removal remain unclear, an unsettling reminder of the murky and unpredictable nature of China’s politics and political system. China had earlier said that Qin, who had been missing from public events for more than three weeks, was absent for “health reasons.” His continued absence, with no clarification forthcoming from the foreign ministry or state media, fueled speculation that the 57-year-old official — regarded as close to General Secretary Xi Jinping — is facing an official investigation or has fallen out of favor.

The MFA site deletions would seem to discount continued speculation among some experts on Tuesday that Qin Gang’s absence and now removal might still be due to serious health issues. Even if health issues had necessitated Qin’s removal as foreign minister, there is no reason this would lead to the deletion of the past record of his meetings within the MFA site.

When clarifications arrive in the coming weeks and months from state media, those headlines will likely encourage further speculation as to the full picture. And what is missing from the headlines — that may tell us something too.

Onstage and Online, It’s the Party’s Rules

Over the past three years, as the global pandemic and China’s strict lockdown policies closed the curtain on performances at live venues across the country, the spotlight turned instead to streaming platforms, which offered a new way for performing artists to be seen and heard. By June 2022, the audience in China for live online performances through streaming and short video platforms reached 469 million, more than double the audience at the start of the Covid lockdown just two years earlier.

Those numbers point to a market rapidly on the rise. But last week, a state-backed professional organization for the performing arts sector offered a more mixed assessment as it issued a set of new standards for live performance on streaming platforms.

“The rapid development of live online performances has played a positive role in boosting consumption, especially during the difficult period during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), which doubles as a control and regulatory body for the performing arts sector. “However, it has also led to problems and negative events. The healthy environment for live online performance needs to be strengthened.”

In December 2021, at the height of the pandemic, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that more than 20 million Chinese attended an online concert for the Irish pop group Westlife.

In China, where content controls online have long been sold by the authorities as a matter of public health, this language is code for a tightening of political restrictions on livestreaming. CAPA and state media have argued that new consumer protections are necessary, but regulators are clearly keen to avoid breaches like that committed back in May by comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who offended the People’s Liberation Army by repurposing a propaganda slogan for a joke about his dogs. Read our in-depth analysis of CAPA and the Li Haoshi incident.

As China continues to emerge, sluggishly, from three years of Covid lockdown, the government is keen to ensure that live performances, both online and offline, adhere to political discipline — even as they contribute much-needed consumer activity.

The growth of digital platforms has opened up new space for a digitally empowered cultural creation, driving what official party-state media have called “the transformation, upgrading and high-quality development of the cultural industries.” The result has been a new online landscape of “digital performance products” (数字演艺产品) and “digital literary works” (数字文艺作品), including events like “online theater” (线上剧场) and “online concerts” (线上演唱会).

A Range of Censors Backstage

The new CAPA rules — which follow a set of definitions released back in March — broaden the association’s authority over livestreaming platforms and influencers, a reminder again of how the Chinese Communist Party leadership utilizes ostensible professional organizations (CAPA calls itself a “non-profit social organization”) to enforce its political line.

The growth of digital platforms has opened up new space for a digitally empowered cultural creation.

The rules make clear, first and foremost, that the content of live online performances on streaming platforms will be closely examined and regulated. This includes, according to a summary by the government’s official China Daily, the language online influencers use, how they present themselves (a broad standard), and the comments left by audience members. Comment moderation and deletion will also extend to the so-called danmu (弹幕), or “bullet comments,” scrolling on top of livestream performances.

Beyond platforms and influencers, the agencies that manage online performers will also be regulated and held responsible for managing the online influencers they represent. The net result of these measures will be greater caution on the part of platforms, agents, and influencers, which will be anxious to avoid running afoul of the authorities as they capitalize on a market that continues to grow as consumers emerge from the lockdown slump.

The fear that prompts such caution is the primary mechanism of political controls on media and content in China, and a strong case could be made that Li Haoshi’s punishment in May was a classic case of killing a chicken to frighten the monkeys (杀鸡吓猴) — a warning to a performance industry emerging from lockdown that the way forward to profit was the path of political discipline.

Offline Performances Make a Comeback

The new rules for live online performances come as livestreaming influencers face growing competition from offline concerts and events. In late March, China announced an end to a three-year suspension of concerts and performances from outside the country, signaling that the market was now open to (well-behaved) acts of all kinds.

During the first half of this year, there were a total of 193,000 live cultural performances in China — a number that does not include performances at so-called “entertainment venues” (娱乐场所) such as dance halls, karaoke establishments, and other locations offering popular entertainment. The number of cultural performances was up more than 400 percent from the same period in 2022, with total box office revenue reaching 16.8 billion RMB, or about 2.3 billion dollars (a nearly 700 percent increase), according to Henan’s Dahe Daily (大河报).

In a series of reports this month, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily reviewed what it called the “concert economy” (演唱会经济). It noted that tickets for a concert performance by Jacky Cheung (张学友), the Hong Kong singer and actor, had been snatched up within minutes.

Fear that prompts caution is the primary mechanism of political controls on media and content in China.

The Tianjin Daily reported on July 18 that as “the impact of the epidemic fades away,” there has been an eagerness on the part of the authorities and local governments across the country to reinvigorate the live performance scene, including with “policy guidance and incentives.” As Liu Kezhi (刘克智), head of CAPA and a focus of our in-depth look at the organization in May, told the Dahe Daily, large-scale concerts and music festivals have led the way in promoting local culture and tourism. When Taiwanese singer-songwriter Jay Chou (周杰伦) made a stop in Haikou on his 2023 World Tour, said Liu, this attracted more than 150,000 tourists to the city, at least 60 percent from outside Hainan province.

The Tianjin Daily raised the question of whether digital performances might face a dilemma as live performance venues roared back to life, or whether conversely, they might prove a competitive alternative, “ushering in a new chapter.”

Livestreamed performances are certainly here to stay, particularly for the small to mid-scale livehouse scene that filled a crucial gap online during the pandemic lockdown, and which has struggled to ride the post-pandemic wave in the midst of rising costs.

But once again, China’s leadership is setting the tone and turning up the volume on political and ideological controls. There is plenty of money to be made, and plenty of fun to be had — so long as everyone remembers who ultimately manages the stage.

13 Unlucky Rules for Cyberspace

With nearly constant notices these days of new rules, draft rules, and clean-up campaigns, these are busy times for the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet and information control body. 

In the most recent development, the Financial Times reported Tuesday that the CAC will require licenses for the release of generative artificial intelligence systems. This should not come as a surprise. As CMP wrote back in April, following the release of draft rules for AI applications and that emphasized “socialist core values,” the CCP has long prepared for the harnessing of AI developments. Just as was the case for traditional media outlets as they commercialized and developed in the 1990s, licensing is an obvious and crucial line of control for generative AI.

Released on Monday, the CAC’s list of 13 new rules to strengthen oversight of so-called “self-media” or “we-media” (自媒体), individual user accounts on social media platforms like WeChat that publish self-produced content, are more of a mixed bag. 

Licensing is an obvious and crucial line of control for generative AI.

It might be easiest to think of this latest round of regulations as a set of upgrades to the existing regime of controls — like a set of patches or fixes. These fixes are both regulatory and political in nature. While some could be applied to curtail conduct in cyberspace that is truly harmful to the public, many work solely to enforce Party dominance of information. 

Let’s go quickly through a number of the regulations. 

The Power of Impersonation

The first of the 13 regulations concerns “imitative and counterfeit behavior” (假冒仿冒行为). It deals specifically with the problem of accounts that resemble or mimic official accounts operated by CCP organs, government agencies, official state media, and military offices. This type of behavior was specifically mentioned in the draft rules earlier this year, the CAC announcing at the time that it had shut down more than 100,000 fake accounts impersonating Party-state media and news anchors alone.

As we noted in “Fake News on the Front Line,” the astonishing extent of such fake official accounts, which probably just scratches the surface, can best be explained as an unintended result of CCP controls on information. As we wrote, “association with the institutions of power is really the only way to ensure that what one says, however false and self-serving, will be heard, perpetuated — and protected.” 

The new rules seek to curb this behavior by mandating “manual review” (人工审核) of any registered accounts on social media platforms that contain apparent references to official organs. It will likely be an uphill battle, given that controls themselves have created strong market demand for the privileges that come through association with official bodies. So long as the CCP and its institutions have a monopoly on expression, accounts seeking to profit and survive will find ways to join in that privilege.

Credentials for Containment

The second regulation offers a prime example of how what might at first seem like regulatory moves in the public’s interest are hobbled by a control mentality. This deals with the “strengthening of credential display” (强化资质认证展示). 

Specifically, self-media dealing with areas such as finance, education, healthcare, and the law which might be regarded strictly as professional fields are now required to be “strictly verified” (严格核验) by platform providers. This means that their “service qualifications” (服务资质), “professional qualifications” (职业资格), or “professional background” (专业背景) must be verified and clearly specified. 

If that sounds fair to you, and you imagine it might offer suitable protection for consumers who deserve reliable information, consider the recent case of 8am HealthInsight (八点健闻), a “think-tank-type media” (智库型媒体) specializing in health coverage that was shut down by the authorities earlier this month for unspecified violations. 

8am HealthInsight, a self-media account shut down by authorities in July 2023.

Launched in 2019, 8am HealthInsight was long known for its strong coverage of health issues in China, including planned reforms to national healthcare. In late 2022, the account, founded by former journalists working on the health beat, was named one of China’s “ten most innovative” information products. An introduction from Shanghai’s The Paper said the account “aims to provide professional and credible industry information for China’s medical and healthcare community.”

It is probable that 8am HealthInsight was shut down because it fell afoul either of the authorities directly, or of key vested interests in the healthcare industry in China who were unhappy with the account’s reporting. In either case, its closure is a clear loss for China’s public in terms of reliable health-related information and consumer protections. 

The CAC’s new “credential display” requirement does not at all guarantee that the public will have access to better information. What it does is remove the filter provided by professional journalism and information services more broadly. This is a typical autocratic move, one that has flourished in the digital era, allowing the party-state to communicate its “authoritative” information directly to the public.

The CAC’s new “credential display” requirement does not at all guarantee that the public will have access to better information. 

8am HealthInsight and accounts like it will be disqualified because their reporting teams and content creators — however professional they are where it counts for consumers, in the reliability of information — will be unable to pass the strict verification test. The regulations will instead leave the field open only to licensed medical professionals and service providers in the healthcare industry, many of whom serve the government’s interests or their own commercial interests. 

Imagine, for example, a self-media account with healthcare service qualifications running misleading information about its treatments or other products. That is not a problem under these regulations, because what matters to the authorities is that the account is credentialed. Credibility and authority are subordinated to this credentialing process. Why? Because those who are credentialed can be trusted politically. That, in any case, is the operating assumption.

Requiring credentials, particularly for these sensitive areas, means those operating self-media accounts will already be within Party-controlled professional regimes. To understand how professional organizations in China work to control and restrain members, not to ensure professionalism, we recommend our recent analysis in “Comedy, Under the Watchful Eye of the State.” 

Sources of Contention

Related to this issue of the “authoritative” and credible as being about political trust, the third regulation from the CAC this week demands that self-media clearly label sources of information when releasing news related to domestic and international current affairs, public policies, and incidents in society —and that platforms insist on strict labeling standards. This is one point that Caixin Global mentioned prominently in its report on the rules, and this makes sense given the outlet’s own history with official restrictions on sourcing. 

In principle, being clear about the sourcing of information is a basic matter of professionalism. It makes sense, right? Knowing where your information comes from should be as essential as knowing where the food you put in your body comes from. But the treatment of this issue historically by the authorities makes it clear that the real priorities lie elsewhere. 

Caixin founder Hu Shuli, seen here at the World Economic Forum in 2012, has created one of China’s most credible news outlets. But when it comes to information control, the authority of facts must take a back seat to loyalty. Source: Wikimedia Commons / CC.

When the CAC, for example, issued its updated list in October 2021 of official authorized domestic sources for internet news providers that can be reposted and reprinted, Caixin was removed from the list despite the fact that it is generally regarded as one of the most professional and reliable journalism outfits. The real question dealt not with Caixin’s authority, but whether it could be trusted, when necessary, not to report the truth. 

The requirement on sourcing is likely to be applied in an expedient manner, with the assumption that official Chinese sources such as Xinhua News Agency and other state and provincial media (all licensed and connected to the system) are “authoritative” sources. If your source is a foreign news outlet such as the Associated Press, you are not going to label that source because accessing and using it at all is not permitted. You will have to avoid labeling the source, and therefore risk falling afoul of the regulation, or avoid posting the information at all.

If platforms strictly enforce this requirement on source labeling, this will strongly favor the use of official sources, which again will achieve the overarching political goal of reinforcing a party-state monopoly on information.

Who Decides? 

The question of authority again comes to the fore in the next three CAC regulations, which apply foggy content standards whose enforcement will be the prerogative of the content platforms hosting individual accounts. Because their primary interest is in compliance in order to maintain their business positions, we can safely assume that platforms will apply a sledgehammer approach as opposed to a surgical one. Making actual determinations to protect content that might not be a violation would be expensive, after all.

Platforms are required under the fourth regulation to “strengthen truthfulness management” (加强信息真实性管理). What does that mean? They are to crack down on practices such as “making something out of nothing” (无中生有), “interpreting out of context” (断章取义), “distorting the facts” (歪曲事实), and (this has to be a favorite) “patchwork editing” (拼凑剪辑).

The first three of these concepts have routinely been applied in China as sledgehammer attacks on information that is authentic and factual. In the Global Times, for example, it is Western media and the US Congress that have “made something out of nothing” in the case of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. In May last year, the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily attacked the American magazine Foreign Affairs for “distorting the facts” and “interpreting out of context” regarding the status of Taiwan — the terms appearing side-by-side in the report. 

The interest is avoiding violations that impact business. The Party line is the bottom line.

In the right environment, in which the principles of professionalism and accuracy are upheld, such terms might point to a real debate about fake news and misinformation. But the CCP’s primary interest, salient in every declaration of media policy, is to uphold what it calls “correct guidance of public opinion,” meaning that information must follow the Party line. We have to assume, therefore, that it is the Party’s standard of the truth that platforms will be pressed to enforce.

Similarly, regulations five and six deal with “false information intended to mislead” (争议信息), and with rumors.

The CCP has a long history of using the accusation of “rumor” to target inconvenient truths, when in fact, as the communications scholar Hu Yong (胡泳) wrote more than 12 years ago, controls on information are one of the primary reasons why rumor runs rampant on the internet and social media. “Under the policy of ‘correct guidance of public opinion,’ the traditional media only selectively report major social and political events, and the standards are entirely within their hands,” Hu wrote. “Whatever is regarded as negative, destructive, causing chaos, or smearing is not permitted, and everything that is regarded as positive, constructive, encouraging and praising is openly proclaimed.”

The regulations on “false information” and “rumors” are certain to fall into the same political trap as the stipulations in the fourth regulation, to the detriment of real protections for information consumers. 

The vagaries of CAC regulation continue in the seventh item on the list, dealing with the “regulation of account business activity” (规范账号运营行为). This seems a particular area where a regulator, as opposed to a political actor, might do some good to protect information consumers. But the language is again hopelessly vague. Platforms must prevent accounts from “gathering negative information” (集纳负面信息), “hyping hot incidents in society” (蹭炒社会热点事件), and “commercializing disasters and accidents” (消费灾难事故).

Any one of those might describe some form of real abuse detrimental to the public. But their real intent is in fact to criminalize any genuine interest the public might have in consuming independent information on news stories and broad issues of social concern. If audiences show a keen interest in a given topic, or if they crave information on a breaking story, why shouldn’t self-media accounts compete to gather information on these “hot incidents”? Why must related reporting or opinion be seen as “negative”?

The answers to these hypothetical questions are surely obvious to our readers. When China’s cyber chieftains muddle the issue, however, it’s important to be absolutely clear: These regulations are hopelessly entangled with strict political controls on information, the overriding objective being to defend the Party’s interests — and this fact subverts any value they might otherwise have as regulations to protect the public interest.