Author: David Bandurski

Now Executive Director of the China Media Project, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David originally joined the project in Hong Kong in 2004. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

Enforcing the CCP’s Media Leadership

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

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

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

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

“Struggling” to Maintain Party Dominance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policing Pessimism, and Everything Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could You Be Vaguely Specific?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impossible Art of Censorship

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

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

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

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

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

Are we clear?

The Vicious Cycle of Rumor in China

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

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

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

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

If the Public Loses its Fetters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the Local Authorities Say So

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Press Under Xi Jinping Thought

At a ceremony held yesterday in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the most recent recipients of the country’s two most prestigious journalism awards were honored for their contributions — but not to journalism, not exactly.

The award-winning “press workers” (新闻工作者) lined up in neat rows and applauded enthusiastically as Cai Qi (蔡奇), the fifth-ranking member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the former mayor of Beijing, entered to greet them and stress the core tenets of what the Party calls “news and public opinion work” (新闻舆论工作) — an umbrella term for the larger project of press control in the interests of maintaining political stability. 

But the real guest of honor at the awards event was a phrase introduced only last month at a high-level Party work conference — “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (习近平文化思想).

A permutation of Xi’s legitimizing grand concept (the eponymous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”), this phrase now packs together a set of political and ideological obligations for culture, the foremost being the CCP’s unquestioned leadership of ideology. Its appearance in the context of an award ceremony for the China Journalism Awards (中国新闻奖) and the Changjiang Taofen Award (长江韬奋奖) suggests that it will remain front and center as a term signaling the political obligations of journalists and all others working in the cultural sphere.

According to a readout in today’s edition of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper, “the conference demanded that the masses of news workers must take the study of Xi Jinping Thought on Culture as their compulsory course.” Furthermore, they must “deeply understand the significance, rich implications, and practical requirements of this important thought, consciously implementing it throughout the whole process of news and public opinion work, striving to be news workers for the New Era with a sense of feeling, competence, and responsibility.”

Those on the frontlines of journalism (新闻战线) “must strengthen positive propaganda with an emphasis on confidence,” the conference emphasized, according to the release — because official events in China are written about as though they have agency in and of themselves. 

The idea of “emphasizing positive propaganda” (正面宣传), long a key aspect of “news and public opinion work,” emerged in the aftermath of the June 4th crackdown in 1989. Xi Jinping stressed the concept as a lynchpin of news and propaganda policy in both 2013 and 2016. The phrase appears again today in the official release about Cai Qi’s visit with journalists, but it is subordinated to other familiar staples of Xi era press policy, including the demand that the media “tell China’s stories well” (讲好中国故事). 

What does award-winning journalism look like under the umbrella of “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture”? The awards table provided on the website of the All-China Journalists Association (中国记协) for first-prize winners of the China Journalism Awards this year offers a telling glimpse.

A Single Pager on the Biden-Xi Summit

The bottom line in China’s state media today, the day after Xi Jinping met in California with US President Joe Biden, can perhaps be best summed up in just two words: friendly, and firm. On the front page of today’s edition of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper, the visual atmosphere could be described as congenial. The images that draw focus are those of Xi and Biden shaking hands warmly, a smile breaking across Xi’s face, and below of the two men strolling elbow to elbow on the verdant grounds of California’s Filoli Estate — in a frontward facing view, mind you, underscoring the symmetry of the relationship.

We can focus obsessively on the political discourse of the CCP as projected through the carefully calibrated megaphone of the People’s Daily. But these visual elements are a crucial aspect of the framing of the meetings from the Party’s standpoint. In state-crafted propaganda, as in other matters, pictures are worth a thousand words.

Sure, the image directly below the masthead is hardly dynamic, drawing on the all-too-familiar state media trope of the diplomatic conference table, the delegations arrayed stiffly, and again symmetrically, on either side — conveying the seriousness of the high-level business at hand. (As a side note, this choice from Xinhua News Agency photographer Rao Aimin (饶爱民) is an interesting contrast with the more visually pleasing, and often creative choices of Western press photographers like Doug Mills at the Associated Press.)

But we can say in sum that the general sense of good feeling on this People’s Daily front page speaks to the basic tone the CCP leadership would like to strike. It is important not only, in other words, that Biden and Xi had a “frank and in-depth exchange of views,” but that, as the lede report states today, “Xi was warmly greeted by Biden upon his arrival at the Filoli Estate.”

The front page is an expression in layout form of the CCP leadership’s choice in what the report characterizes, relaying Xi Jinping’s words in California, as two competing options facing the US-China relationship:

The world, Xi pointed out, is now experiencing changes not seen in a century, and China and the United States have two choices: one is to strengthen solidarity and cooperation, work together to address global challenges and promote world security and prosperity. The other is to maintain a zero-sum mentality and stir up confrontation between [global] camps, leading the world toward turbulence and division.

So the message of symmetry and friendship is signaled loud and clear on the paper’s front page today. And what about the textual language?

Looking Biden in the Eye

The most important place we need to look today to answer this question is the space directly to the right of the People’s Daily masthead, where we can see four bullet points highlighted in bright red.

This space, known in Party media lingo as the “newspaper eye,” or baoyan (报眼), is of particular value in relaying messages within the CCP political-media culture. It can be used as a space for what we might call executive summaries of key documents and announcements, or it can be used simply to promote reports or commentaries to which the leadership attaches special importance. In the case of commercial publications, or commercializing Party-run publications, the newspaper eye can also be one of the priciest places to advertise — a sign again of its special value.

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

In the newspaper eye of the People’s Daily today we can find the CCP leadership’s distillation of what it regards as the most important points to emerge from the meeting. The first bullet is the point already mentioned above, that the US-China relationship today faces a fundamental choice — simple, in this formulation — between “solidarity and cooperation” (团结合作) on the one hand, and the continuing of “zero-sum thinking” (零和思维) on the other.

The not-too-subtle implication here is that the United States has in recent years chosen the latter path in its relationship with China, which threatens to “lead the world toward turmoil and division” (让世界走向动荡和分裂). This point also speaks out against “great power competition” (大国竞争), which is says “cannot solve the problems of the US and China, nor of the world.”

The second bullet is where the firmness I mentioned at the start begins to come into the picture. It affirms that “China’s development has its own logic and laws,” at once a claim to the country’s distinct and legitimate set of political values, and the stiff-jawed assertion that it will accept no interference on systemic questions. The section states that China is progressing toward “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a key platform of Xi since he came to power in 2012, and also that it is doing so by promoting “Chinese-style modernization” (中国式现代化), an important concept emerging around last year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP which state media have elsewhere called in English “the Chinese path to modernization.”

Concise though it is, at just 96 characters (or about 80 English words), this bullet point invites a great deal of unpacking. One of its key assertions, that “China will not follow the old path of colonial plunder, nor the crooked path that says hegemony must result from national strength,” sounds like an attempt at reassuring the United States. We are not interested in global domination, it says essentially, and we will not seek it. The passage follows immediately by saying that China “will not engage in ideological export” (也不搞意识形态输出).

Keener observers of China’s global ideological push will certainly caution skepticism on this point. Much of China’s external communication — what the CCP still calls “external propaganda” (外宣) — over the past decade not only looks like ideological export but is most often framed in exactly that way by the Party itself, in terms that emphasize the failure of American and “Western” values. Over this, the first year of Xi’s third term, there has been a notable rise in propaganda, both inside and outside China, about the superiority of the political and development model culminating during Xi Jinping’s reign in the late-breaking notion of “Chinese-style modernization” and the related creation of a “new form of human civilization” (人类文明新形势).

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

We should make note in particular of the fact that the short passage for the second bullet stresses only “Chinese-style modernization,” seeming to dwell on those aspects having to do with economics, trade, and development, but does not mention “a new form of human civilization,” which has soared along with “Chinese-style modernization” in China’s domestic and international propaganda over the past year.

This grandiose phrase, which has become inextricably linked with Xi Jinping’s manufacture of power and legitimacy over the past year, is not at all posited merely as a homespun domestic model. Rather, it makes the bold and unmistakable claim that Xi’s China has achieved a civilizational renaissance through a set of new ideas on governance and development. Moreover, it claims that this new form, which combines ancient Chinese civilizational elements with an adaptive new Marxist modernity, has surpassed both modern Western civilization and traditional socialist civilization (whatever that means), presenting the world with a new aspirational model.

Xi’s “new form of human civilization” is being actively promoted as a new global model over and against the failing model of the West, and as an answer to “the ills of Western modernization,” and it is being sold in particular to the Global South. Despite China’s insistence this week that it “has no plans to overtake or replace the United States,” the leadership regularly asserts in its more recent external propaganda that Chinese-style modernization and the related “new form of human civilization” are the “right choice” for developing countries and an alternative to the values espoused by the US-led West.

One interesting question to consider for observers of CCP rhetoric, and of course the development of the US-China relationship going forward, will be how we see the grandiose discourse of civilizational renaissance trending in the coming months. To a considerable extent, as I suggested above, this discourse is entirely reactive, an attempt to construct alternatives that ideologically legitimize Xi and his leadership, and the CCP, against fierce criticism from the US as well as from Europe.

Five Pillars

The third bullet in the newspaper eye lays out what will certainly continue to be promoted in the CCP discourse in the coming months, what Xi has called the “Five Pillars” (五根支柱) of the US-China relationship. These are:

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

These are listed but not elaborated. They have to do essentially with managing the tone of the relationship, adhering to principles such as “mutual respect” (相互尊重), which to the CCP can often mean avoiding criticism on such issues as human rights. The last point, people-to-people exchanges, has been trumpeted loudly by the Chinese state media in recent months, emphasizing (in the midst of rocky relations at the government-to-government level) that a healthy US-China relationship relies on connections at a far more basic level, in areas such as business and trade, the arts, sports competitions and so on.

The importance of people-to-people exchanges is further stressed on page three of the newspaper today, through a full-page special report that highlights tourism, musical performances, and of course the Flying Tigers, the group of American volunteer pilots formed to help oppose the Japanese invasion of China.

China’s leaders have placed a strong emphasis on people-to-people exchanges in recent months, mindful of how they have played an important role in the history of the US-China relationship — most famously in the ping-pong diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the re-establishment of formal relations in 1971. They are also keenly aware of how people-to-people exchanges can help build support from the ground up for closer relations (for example, from the business community). The catch is that the CCP has often micro-managed people-to-people ties, pursuing them in many cases through front organizations and surreptitious support that raise serious questions from the American side about the real motivations that lie behind.

Firm Lines

We started by noting the friendly tone and visual symmetry of the People’s Daily front page today, but unfortunately must finish by returning to the shakier ground of the firm. Not surprisingly, that is the question of Taiwan. The fourth bullet in the newspaper eye deals with this issue, which Xi reportedly told his hosts in California is the biggest and most dangerous issue in the bilateral relationship.

The text of the fourth bullet is the firmest and most direct of the list. It reads:

The question of Taiwan has always been the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations. China attaches importance to the positive statement made by the United States during the Bali meeting. The United States should translate its statement of non-support for Taiwan’s independence into concrete actions, stop arming Taiwan and support China’s peaceful reunification. China will be reunified eventually and inevitably.

In the days leading up to the meeting between Biden and Xi, Chinese state media repeatedly emphasized the phrase “returning to Bali, heading to San Francisco” (重返巴厘岛,通往旧金山). An important insinuation behind that phrase is the imperative, from China’s standpoint, of hearing more clarity from the United States on Taiwan and the “one China” principle. One year ago in Bali, Biden and Xi engaged in tough discussions over Taiwan, which Xi Jinping called “the first red line” which must not be crossed.

The readout from the White House on the meeting between the two leaders suggests Biden did not give Xi the reassurances he sought. Biden emphasized that “our one China policy has not changed and has been consistent across decades and administrations.” But he reiterated the need for the peaceful resolution of “cross-strait differences” and said that “the United States opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side.”

On this “red line” issue, it seems, the lines are firm. Behind the smiles and the handshakes — marking progress in the relationship that has been long, long awaited — everyone will be wondering anxiously what China means by “eventually and inevitably.”

Sidelined in Death, as in Politics

As the news broke internationally last Friday of the death of former Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克强), one word in the headlines seemed to condense the political significance of his passing. That word was “sidelined.”

Many outlets told the story of a determined reformer, a “moderate technocrat,” who within the torrid climate of Xi Jinping’s political rise had been increasingly marginalized — left out on the cold frontier of pragmatism as the country’s new emperor showered himself with glory, and surrounded himself with the kind of yes-men Li was not.

When it comes to Li’s exposure in the official Party-state media, a preponderance of evidence supports this basic storyline.

Li’s marginalization within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was often salient as we compiled our regular monthly reports on official discourse in the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper through to March this year, by which time the outgoing premier merited barely a whisper. Most months for more than two years running, Li Keqiang logged a meager 30 or so articles to Xi Jinping’s imperial 700-plus-or-minus. And while no one in the PSC could touch Xi’s numbers, it was often the case that Li, though nominally number two, trailed behind his closest peers.

Even when he was compellingly human, like that time in August 2020 when he trudged knee-deep through clay-colored floodwaters in Chongqing, Li Keqiang could not turn the spotlight from his immaculate superior, something we looked at more closely in “Li Keqiang in the Muck.”

In death, it seems, Li Keqiang has been sidelined too.

Commonplace Superlatives

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

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

Li’s life had been “a life of revolution, a life of struggle, a life of glory, a life of serving the people wholeheartedly, a life dedicated to the cause of communism,” it said, words that might have been lifted directly from the June 2007 obituary of Huang Ju (黄菊), a Politburo Standing Committee member who passed before completing his term as first-ranked vice premier.

Li had been “an outstanding proletarian revolutionary and politician, and an outstanding leader of the Party and the State,” the text added — language perfectly mirroring that following the June 2015 death of Qiao Shi (乔石), and the July 2019 death of Li Peng (李鹏) — before adding the terse details of his death. In Shanghai. Ten minutes past midnight on October 27, owing to “a sudden heart attack.”

Who was at his bedside? What grieving family members are now left behind?

Such earthy and human details can never be included in the CCP’s formal accounts of death. They would distract from the Party’s unassailable centrality. Instead, Li the faithful servant is treated as though the ruling Party was the pulsing center of every act of love he ever made, that “from the time he was a teenager, he loved the Party, loved the motherland, and loved the people.” (This is identical language, mind you, to that marshaled for the death last year of Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist and inventor celebrated for first developing hybrid rice varieties.)

In the People’s Daily, the treatment was predictable. Li’s official obituary was published as expected on October 28, the day after his death, and it was handled exactly as the July 2019 obituary for Li Peng, also at the time a former premier.

Looking at the three front pages for the obituaries of former top leader Jiang Zemin (江泽民), Li Peng, and finally Li Keqiang, we can see clearly that Jiang — like Deng Xiaoping before him — is given marquee treatment. The entire page for Jiang goes black, including the bright-red People’s Daily masthead.

What was done for Jiang would of course not be done for Li Keqiang, very much his junior in status. Like Li Peng, Li Keqiang is put in his proper place and filed away with the proper honorifics.

A Quick Burial for the News Cycle

But even as it remained in keeping with the Party’s terse traditions, Li Keqiang’s paint-by-number treatment in the official Party-state media, including the brief initial announcement on the 27th and the official obituary on the 28th, closely mirrored the former premier’s sidelining by the leadership under Xi Jinping. This likely reflects plans at the top to ensure that Li’s death can be made to pass swiftly, with due respect and properly stage-managed solemnity.

Xi and his acolytes surely hope that all possible political inferences stemming from Li’s death can be quickly buried, particularly as they might relate to and intersect with questions of economic governance — and, for many Chinese, real economic pain.

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

Through the day on October 27, the day of Li’s death, mentions in the state media were downplayed, and sometimes not at all visible. The image to the left shows the homepage of People’s Daily Online, a site majority controlled by the flagship People’s Daily newspaper. The headline about Li’s death (highlighted) is literally sidelined — placed to the right, below a massive headline about the city of Wuhan as a hub for high-tech development, and a smaller headline about Xi Jinping meeting with California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Below the homepage image is a screenshot of the full text of the terse announcement of Li’s passing, ending with a note that his “obituary is forthcoming.” For more than 24 hours, this official Xinhua News Agency release was the only word on Li at all, an unsatisfying place-holder.

On Xinhua’s own news portal, the story was similarly shoved to the side, not appearing in the featured slideshow or in the prominent top headline.

The top story at Xinhua was again about Xi’s meeting with California’s Newsom, and in second place, just above the clipped Li Keqiang headline, was a story about the publication of yet another collection of Xi’s remarks on a policy issue, this time “civil affairs work” (民政工作).

Even this tinder-dry news might easily have been linked to Li’s time in office — but the intention is to quickly move past the story, not to plumb it for its deeper significance. In a Chinese political context, there is always a great deal of forgetting in every act of remembrance.

In a Chinese political context, there is always a great deal of forgetting in every act of remembrance.

Even more striking, however, was the way Li Keqiang’s fuller obituary the next day was shoved right out of the news on many prominent websites despite the undeniable newsiness of the news.

Neither Xinhua nor Shanghai’s The Paper (澎湃新聞), a relatively popular digital news outlet under the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, played news of Li’s death in a prominent position. The top story instead was the most recent meeting of the CCP Politburo, led by Xi Jinping to discuss the revitalization of China’s northeast. Also in a prominent position on the site, the first story appearing in the featured slideshow of top news, was the Xinhua report of the meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) in Washington.

The Paper ran its mention of the Li Keqiang obituary just below the headline about the Politburo meeting but with no visual presence for the departed former premier. Visually, the focus was on Wang Yi and Jo Biden.

At websites and on social media in particular, the strategy was to draw attention away from Li Keqiang, because conversation and commentary are more liable in these more interactive channels to develop in unpredictable ways — the same way things have unfolded offline as ordinary Chinese have expressed their heartfelt (and often subtext-laden) condolences to Li, voiced their hunger for justice, and sometimes dissolved with palpable grief.

The hot topics list on the social media platform Weibo on Saturday, the day of Li’s death, was unaccountably topped by news of the Politburo meeting, which was displayed as “hot” — almost certainly through artificial promotion. A slate of social stories and entertainment scandals followed, including the case of “Crazy Little Yang” (疯狂小杨哥), an online influencer and founder of the Three Sheep Network who reportedly shocked some internet users recently with his vulgar language and behavior online. Number three, according to the list, was a Xinhua News Agency retrospective on the country’s space program.

The thread on Li Keqiang, leading again only to the terse announcement of the former premier’s death and pending obituary, was toward the bottom at number nine on the list. Chinese, it would seem on the basis of this hot list, are so focused on the stars above and the influencers down below that they have little interest in the passing of a popular senior official. But this of course is social media engineering at work, what the cyberspace authorities in China call “public opinion channeling” (舆论引导).

The search results on Sunday for “Li Keqiang” on Weibo were another illustration of the effort to encourage ceremony over real emotion and remembrance. The top results were all from major official Party-state media, including Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, and all shared the brief initial announcement. For these state media Weibo posts, however, the comments were strangely unexpressive for a comment culture that can often be extraordinarily clever.

Under a top post by the state-run CCTV, the numbers said that more than 44,000 users had already commented. The only words posted to successive pages of comments, however, were “Wishing you well on your journey” (一路走好), a common phrase with which to bid farewell to those who have passed on.

These uniform comments, differing only in the number of burning candle emoticons typed to one side, were a transparent ruse.

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

Posts below those of central state media were largely from foreign embassies in Beijing, likely promoted because they dealt with foreign relations rather than more delicate domestic issues.

These posts differed refreshingly — at least, in terms of detail — from those of the state media. The Embassy of the United Kingdom, for example, highlighted Li’s audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2014. “Li will be remembered for his contribution to the people of China and his contribution to strengthening the bilateral relationship between the UK and China,” the post read.

The comments under these posts were also more varied, their relative diversity reiterating the falseness of the homogenous comment threads under the posts from state media. They seemed to enjoy slightly greater latitude, possibly because the authorities and Weibo enforcers were a tinge more sensitive to the fact that these accounts were overseen by foreign missions. “The scale in the hearts of the people is the fairest of all,” said one comment, an oblique reference to the respect many Chinese feel for Li Keqiang as a leader who, from time to time, could surprise with his frankness on issues such as poverty that matter to the people.

Others were more direct, even criticizing the official handling of Li’s death. “Finally, someone is posting condolences and remembrances. In the domestic media, aside from repostings of the [official] obituary, there are no memorial videos or articles,” said one post on October 28.

As the leadership hurries grief behind the curtain, this act of dismissal has not gone unnoticed, a reminder of the perils on the flip side of control. The above comments, and many others, went tiptoeing to the heart of the issue: the fact that the country’s authoritarian Party regime (of which, it bears reminding, Li Keqiang was very much a part) cannot allow the public to open their hearts, except in ways that are scripted and unhuman.

For the Chinese Communist Party, every official death is a moment of ceremony, and a reminder of power, stripped of its humanity. Unfortunately, for the leadership, the acknowledgment of death is something deeply and viscerally human, and its intersection with memory is ineradicable. At such times, as the insistent memorials online and offline make clear, human beings require words and acts that pulse with life — and silences that are meaningful.

“At last,” said another Chinese comment after the UK embassy remembrance, with what seemed an immense sigh of relief, “a post that speaks a human language.”

China’s Fake Press Problem

When two men arrived outside the gates of a coal processing enterprise in the city of Zhengzhou back in May this year and began filming video, the company’s boss demanded to know their business. The men explained that they were journalists from Henan Economic News (河南经济报), and that they were documenting his company’s failure to comply with environmental standards.

From there, the conversation moved quickly beyond the facts of their planned report to a more practical question — how the company could make it disappear.

If the boss wished not to have his company’s violations reported publicly, a simple arrangement was possible. For 12,000 yuan (about 1,600 dollars) transferred directly to a designated account, the journalists could shelve the report. The transaction would be disguised as a payment for a company subscription to Henan Economic News. The men could even provide an invoice bearing the media outlet’s official stamp.

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

Understanding the adverse impact a news report might have on his company, the boss readily agreed and processed the transfer. Only months later, as police in Zhengzhou pried open the lid on other cons committed by the two men, would the boss come to realize that they were not in fact journalists at all.

The Big Business of “News Extortion”

The “gag fee” (封口费) offered by the Zhengzhou company in exchange for silence was just one of many documented examples this year of a practice known as “news extortion,” or xinwen qiaozha (新闻敲诈). In a special report aired earlier this month, the state-run China Central Television highlighted this and other cases, reporting that since early this year police across the country have launched a special operation to “strike fakes [and] stop extortion” (打假治敲).

In fact, news extortion has persisted in China, ugly and stubborn, since the rise of the commercialized media industry in the mid-1990s. The idea behind the practice is frightfully simple, and the practice frightfully common, though cases are rarely reported in China’s media and the true scale of the problem is unknown. Essentially, media dangle the threat of negative revelations in front of a company or individual before presenting paid-for silence as an alternative path.

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

The question of who exactly these media are — who is real, who is fake, and why this distinction is meaningful at all — is a complicated one, going to the heart of how China regulates and controls the press. But despite decades of official attention to news extortion, including regular government campaigns and notices (some lumping the practice together with “critical reporting”), cases are by all accounts staggeringly commonplace.

Over the past few months, local governments from the cities of Heihe and Zhaodong in the north, close to the Russian border, to Zhoukou in the central province of Henan, down to Yunnan in the country’s southwest, have all issued various statements, campaigns or cases involving news extortion. This year and last, the China Association for Public Companies (中国上市公司协会) warned listed companies to be alert to the practice, even dealing with the issue in a closed-door session in April with senior propaganda officials.

Shortly after the airing of the CCTV report this month, police in Chongqing reported that they had uncovered two cases since August, both involving legally registered culture and media companies that had launched unauthorized news websites — Chongqing Reports Online (重庆报道网) and China Digital News (中国数字报).

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

Local authorities warned the public to remain alert to the “three press fakes” (新闻三假), including “fake media” (假媒体), “fake reporting stations” (假记者站), and “fake journalists” (假记者), and said that “news extortion not only infringes on the interests of the public and interferes with order at the grass-roots level, but also undermines the standardized and orderly press and public opinion environment, which is very harmful.”

Given the fact that China’s ruling Communist Party maintains stringent controls over the press in every conceivable form, the obvious question raised by this stream of fraud and fakery is: Why?

Serving Power and Profit

To its credit, the special report this month on CCTV did raise the question, though in a way that seemed almost baffled and plaintive: “Why, still, are there people who run the risks and constantly step over the red line?”

Sit back, CCTV.

The simple and obvious answer, which China’s leadership is unable to concede, is that it has created the conditions for media corruption by making power the only standard of truth that truly matters. Crooks and crooked reporters, whether they hold valid press cards or not, understand that their power as journalists arises not from their ability to expose the facts to the public, but from their share, real or perceived, of state power. They thrive commercially on the threat of journalism as a function of state power — and on the promise of silence on the flip side.

The practice of news extortion, and all other forms of media corruption, is quietly and insistently reinforced by the calculus at the heart of state-led journalism. As a matter of Party practice and doctrine, media in China are not agents of transparency and accountability, with their own reserves of hard-earned credibility, but rather servants of the ruling Party’s truth. This means facts and revelations must constantly be buried in the push to “emphasize positive news” and “tell China’s story well.”

The practice of news extortion, and all other forms of media corruption, is quietly and insistently reinforced by the calculus at the heart of state-led journalism.

In this sense, China’s entire commercialized media sector, which is tied directly to Party and government institutions, operates on a gag-fee principle so all-embracing that it remains generally unseen. The deal is this: Do the bidding of the leadership, keeping negative news under wraps as you praise its positives, and you will be allowed to profit and prosper. The government will license your media, and issue press cards to your reporters.

When media serve power rather than hold it to account, it stands to reason that they are vulnerable to the same distortions and excesses as unaccountable power. There are, moreover, no independent professional mechanisms to hold media to the highest standards, precisely because power defines the parameters of professionalism. The Party’s tight grip invites loose professional standards. Within media that are licensed — and therefore legitimate in the eyes of the state — journalists will see the false dealing behind the scenes, and understand the ultimate pointlessness (and even danger) of reporting the truth. Meanwhile, outside the formal media scene, or proximate to it, unscrupulous characters will rightly see how media power translates into commercial gain.

This is the secret behind the persistence of news extortion and other forms of media corruption in China — and the answer to CCTV’s question.

The Lie of the Fake

Is it the answer CCTV offered to its viewers? Of course not. China’s authorities and state media are trapped in an endless loop when it comes to explaining and combatting media corruption because understanding the real root causes would mean doing what they cannot — confronting thorny questions of institutional power head-on.

Instead, the perennial focus when questions of media corruption arise is on those instances of outright fakery that happen outside formal and accepted media. These cases support the necessary thesis that the root problem is the “fake” journalist, media, or reporting station, which reinforces the Party-state as the locus of the genuine.

Despite this framing, the uncomfortable truth is that Party-run media have historically been among the worst offenders when it comes to cases of media corruption, including news extortion. Such cases rarely come to light, for reasons that should be obvious. But the handful of examples we do have are outstanding. There is the 2007 court case prosecuting the many sins of Meng Huaihu (孟怀虎), the Zhejiang bureau chief for China Commercial Times — a Beijing-based business paper published by the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (ACFIC). There is the 2008 cover-up of a mining disaster in Shanxi after journalists from scores from official media, and several imposters too, accepted pay-offs from the mine boss.

The Shanxi gold mine where dozens died in 2002.

The most famous, and perhaps most egregious, media corruption case was uncovered more than two decades ago, in July 2002, when China Youth Daily reporter Liu Chang (刘畅) found that eleven reporters, including four from the government’s official Xinhua News Agency, had accepted gag fees (including cash and gold nuggets) to cover up news about an explosion in which 37 workers had died, their bodies stuffed away into a mine shaft while family members were forcibly detained.

It is no accident that these cases, which received rare attention in the nationwide media, all pre-date Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” emerging at a time when journalists like Liu Chang (who faced harsh internal pressure over his story) could manage to find space, despite controls, to pursue their own professional ideals. That space has contracted rapidly over the past decade amid renewed political controls on the media, and an overbearing emphasis on uplifting propaganda, or what Xi Jinping calls “positive energy.”

Concerns today over news extortion and the need to maintain an “orderly press and public opinion environment” focus on the depredations of imposters outside the system — which brings us back to the perpetrators of the con mentioned at the start of this story.

Not only had the two men presented themselves as reporters from a genuine newspaper in Henan, but they had also, in order to bamboozle other companies, created an online outlet called Mirror News (镜相新闻) through a locally registered culture and media company that kept its offices in a well-known Zhengzhou media complex. Using Mirror News as a front, the men had managed to secure a “news fee” (新闻费) of 130,000 yuan, about 18,000 dollars, from yet another Zhengzhou coal processing enterprise.

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

This time the process started with a negative report on the company published online, which was then amplified through social media channels until it got the attention of that company’s boss. The men followed up with a visit, identifying themselves as journalists for Mirror News, and this time claimed they could work behind the scenes, given their media connections, to ensure that the original story was taken down, and related social media posts expunged. Beyond these services, they said, they could offer ongoing protection against negative press.

The company boss agreed to the arrangement and was only tipped off that something was awry when he noticed that the negative posts remained online as the weeks passed.

But the account broadcast this month by CCTV revealed another important clue. In fact, the network reported, the boss had initially been skeptical of the two men in his office. He had never heard of Mirror News. The tricksters, of course, had another card up their sleeve to coax the boss past his skepticism. They told him that Mirror News was associated with The Paper (澎湃新闻), a Party-run digital news outlet operated by the powerful Shanghai United Media Group.

CCTV reported: “As these two men name-dropped a well-known media outlet to trick him and earn his confidence, and as he urgently wanted to remove these online posts . . . . the boss agreed to what the men proposed.”

Apparently, the boss’s instincts about the two men and this unfamiliar outlet Mirror News had been spot on. The imagined association with The Paper, however, changed his mind.

Real power can have that effect on people.

The Visual Language of China’s Official Press

In the official Party-state media in China, design is driven by politics — and it is a crucial aspect of the political discourse. Want to see this principle in action? Today’s edition of the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offers a prime example.

The oddest and most prominent feature of the front page of the People’s Daily today is the large vertical headline running down the left-hand side. The headline, which announces that top leader Xi Jinping met with international leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, ties the rest of the headlines on the page together. All are announcements of separate meetings, each with a different foreign leader.

As has been the case all week in the official state media in China, the top story is the Belt and Road. Coverage has touted its great benefits for participating countries, and for the entire world — emphasizing the growing economic and political centrality of China and its top leader.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the global infrastructure development and trade promotion program, which has been a pillar of China’s foreign policy, and the forum this week is the year’s most prominent opportunity for state-run media to roll out related domestic and international propaganda.

They have not missed the chance. Coverage of the Belt and Road Forum has eclipsed all other stories, including one of the world’s most pressing concerns, the unfolding conflict in Gaza and its potentially disastrous implications for security in the Middle East.

For related coverage of how China has sidelined news of Israel and Gaza this week, see our analysis in the latest Lingua Sinica newsletter on Substack.

The rest of the coverage on the People’s Daily front page today — from the “newspaper eye” (报眼) to the right of the masthead all the way down — are separate reports on Xi’s meetings with foreign leaders visiting Beijing. The result of this approach is that China’s top leader is placed at the front of every headline on the page, ten in all, leading to an odd and unmistakable repetition.

Here is the page again, this time with all instances of “Xi Jinping” outlined in red to make this absurd effect clear.

Why would the People’s Daily treat stories this way? Do the editors and designers completely lack creativity?

The fact is that creativity is not an option. It is not the way that the visual vocabulary of the CCP’s official political discourse works. The People’s Daily applies this odd approach on the front page because this is the most valuable piece of political real estate in the entire Chinese media. The space must be used to achieve one goal: signaling the power of the CCP Central Committee and its top leader.

Unlike most professional media globally, the focus cannot be on news readers as we generally understand them, as an audience of citizens who demand that their time is rewarded with relevant and informative news content. Consider, by way of contrast, how the Financial Times reported this week on US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. The focus in that case was on Biden’s message of caution to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Financial Times coverage of Biden’s visit to Israel focuses on relevance and key takeaways — not on a Biden cult of personality.

Imagine that the Belt and Road Forum were to be reported strictly as news in the People’s Daily. It would not be necessary to treat each meeting with a foreign leader separately. Instead, the story would focus on the key points of relevance — the who, what, when, where and WHY. And in this case, a background paragraph would be sufficient to report attendance by leaders from Egypt, Cambodia, Thailand, Congo, and so on.

Why are all of these meetings published as separate but virtually identical stories with the same Xi Jinping headline?

Once again, the key reason is power signaling — the most crucial role of political discourse in China. Separate stories are an opportunity to stress and re-stress the centrality of Xi himself. Think of them as drumrolls or trumpet calls. The key audience is not the Chinese public, but rather the CCP bureaucracy.

A secondary reason is to stress bilateral relations, and make political nods to foreign leaders, as though to say: “We prioritize you.” This is done with the same hierarchical approach that applies to top CCP leaders, with Xi always mentioned first (and repeatedly) and other members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) mentioned only after and with far less prominence.

Power signaling [is] the most crucial role of political discourse in China.

No other members of the PSC or other senior leaders are mentioned on either the front page or page two of the People’s Daily today. It is only on page three that we finally see mention of Wang Yi (王毅), Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Vice-Premier He Lifeng (何立峰). Both are in tiny headlines down toward the bottom right-hand side of page three.

When visits are reported between China’s top leader and multiple foreign leaders in a single edition of the People’s Daily, the visual treatment of these visits can often reveal the CCP’s prioritization of various bilateral relationships. Putin may have top billing, for example, as was the case in yesterday’s edition of the newspaper — a reflection of the closeness of the relationship in recent years.

On today’s front page, pride of position is given to Mongolia’s leader, with coverage in the space to the right of the masthead, including a photo of Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh shaking hands with Xi Jinping. This layout choice is likely a reflection of the priority China has lately given to its relations with countries in Central Asia.

For perhaps the same reason, the report directly under the masthead is about Xi’s exchange with Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who stepped down as president of Turkmenistan last year.

Of course, reading the People’s Daily is also about closely analyzing the text. This does not mean translating the content from Chinese to another language, a common misapplied approach. If your question is simply, “What is the report about?” — you will be missing the most crucial aspects of the discourse and merely flitting across the surface. Or worse, what you present to others as analysis might simply amplify the talking points of the Chinese leadership without promoting a deeper understanding of its agenda.

Close readings of the political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are about more than textual language.
CCP discourse can be stacked and unstacked. Understanding any given terminology can requiring pulling the entire structure apart.

To understand how this deeper analysis is done, we can look more closely at the Berdymukhamedov report. What can you notice about how he is introduced?

He is referred to in the headline, as well as in the body of the report, as the “nation’s leader of Turkmenistan” (土库曼斯坦民族领袖). This phrase, mínzú lǐngxiù, is an unusual honorific, suggesting charismatic power. It is rarely used, so it is something important to pick up on. Both Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen, for example, have been called “leader of the Chinese nation” (中华民族领袖), but over the past year in the People’s Daily the phrase has generally not been used.

Details like this can be important clues for the analyst of CCP discourse. As you “read” the People’s Daily and other official CCP media, it is crucial to zero in on specialized terminologies, or tífǎ (提法), and then work to understand their deeper meanings and histories. You can think of them as stacking blocks that are being constantly stacked and unstacked by those in power to achieve their political objectives, to signal power and to focus the Party around different policy objectives.

One recent example of language to be unstacked is the new grand buzzword “Xi Jinping Thought on Culture” (習近平文化思想). To better understand what this phrase means, and why it is important, read our analysis last week, in which we pulled the phrase apart to get at its core meanings.

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.


  • 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, 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.