Author: David Bandurski

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

Speak Plainly, Mr. Chairman

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was mentioned a single time in the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party back in March, this minuscule event seemed momentous. Up to that point, through 13 dreadful months of a war that had dominated world affairs and claimed the lives of close to 20,000 civilians in Ukraine, the People’s Daily had mentioned Zelensky just once.

Let the absurdity of that fact sink in for a moment.

The People’s Daily is meant to coalesce and communicate the power and vision of the CCP leadership under Xi Jinping, to signal its position on domestic and foreign affairs. It is the authoritative reference book to which observers everywhere turn for a glimpse of what China’s authoritarian strongman and his acolytes, who govern a population of 1.3 billion, are thinking. And yet, for nine months last year, as missiles rained down on millions of innocent Ukrainians, their president merited not a single mention because this violence was being unleashed by China’s staunchest ally, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Last week, as Xi Jinping finally spoke to President Zelensky, four articles materialized in the People’s Daily within half as many days, signaling Xi Jinping’s ambition to position himself as a peacemaker in Ukraine. And as China now claims to be stepping up as a responsible power, it is critical to reflect on the obscure, constrained, and sometimes monstrously insensitive discourse of the Chinese Communist Party — and its possible implications for the world.

Sweeping Up After Lu Shaye?

One popular expert reading in the wake of Xi Jinping’s one-hour phone call last Wednesday with Zelensky, likely the first in 14 months, has been that this was damage control for careless remarks made on French television on April 21 by the Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (卢沙野), in which he outrageously questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states — setting fire to perceptions in the European Union.

Image of Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

But China’s formal statement in late February of its “position” on the settlement of what it still insists on calling the “Ukraine crisis,” which came ahead of a month of active diplomacy that included the brokering of a landmark agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, suggests that however Lu’s antics might have shifted timelines (if at all), Xi Jinping has had peacemaking and its reputational benefits in his sights. In fact, that solitary mention of Zelensky last month, published in the People’s Daily on the very day Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for his state visit with Putin, was likely a little red signal flare, CCP-style.

This game of speaking in code is part of the instrumental language of China’s Leninist ruling party. For generations, CCP leaders have been steeped in this specialized discourse, which serves to construct power, to conceal as it declares, and (as the case of Zelensky shows) to obliterate. In the Xi era, the discursive confections of the CCP have grown more elaborate than at any point in the reform era, as controls on speech have intensified.

In a keynote address at a Beijing summit of world political parties on March 15, Xi Jinping announced the formation of the Global Civilization Initiative (全球文明倡议). The CCP, he claimed, had advanced “the progress of human civilization” with its creation of “Chinese-style modernization as a new form of human civilization.” In turn, this would contribute to a process of global civilizational exchange that would “make the garden of world civilizations more abundant,” and lead us all to what Xi calls “a community of common destiny for humankind.”

This game of speaking in code is part of the instrumental language of China’s Leninist ruling party.

What happens when we pick apart one piece of circuitry in this elaborate verbal machinery? In his political report to the 20th National Congress last year, Xi Jinping elaborated on the promise of “Chinese-style modernization,” and made clear that its most fundamental precondition is “adhering to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.” So there we have it, lurking just behind another fanciful turn of phrase: the raw assertion of power and legitimacy.

These elaborate Russian dolls of rhetoric, painted with pretty phrases like “common prosperity” and “win-win cooperation,” may look to some in the outside world like real plans and strategies, an entire structure of responsible and well-thought-out proposals — even a “China solution” (to use another favored CCP buzzword). But they are always intimately connected to domestic power claims that have no business in practical and earnest deliberations over such important questions as peace in Ukraine.

For the world outside China, the real danger of this language is the way it obscures what China’s leaders have suppressed in their global vision as a reflection of their own repression at home — the individual rights set down in the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Self-determination. Peaceful assembly. Freedom of expression. In China’s formulation, all of these are subordinated to the vague and open-ended promise of “development.” The real concern is for the rights not of individuals but of nation states, which must engage internationally on the rudimentary basis of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference — which despite Xi’s claim to a “new form of human civilization” have all the conceptual freshness for international relations of antediluvian fossils.

Because the core of this language is raw power at home, and its further elaboration and justification through global ambition, even the base blocks can be rearranged when it suits the Party’s interests. China can ignore the catastrophic implications for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine of the war unleashed 14 months ago by its ally, Russia. And it can erase all mention of Ukraine’s president.

Solidity and Pure Wind

Now that Xi Jinping has opened channels to Ukraine and removed the country’s president from its long list of unmentionables, people like myself, who have established careers in the growth industry of decoding the CCP’s regimented language, are called upon to read through the obscurity. We ease back the layers, heeding the wisdom of one of the last century’s consummate readers of CCP-speak, Lászlo Ladányi, who urged us to, “Above all, read the small print!”

Lászlo Ladányi, the Hungarian Jesuit and editor of China News Analysis.

Ladányi also exhorted China watchers not to lose their sense of humor. “A regimented press is too serious to be taken very seriously,” he wrote. For anyone who tackles the April 27 readout on the call with Zelensky — who of course is famous for his sense of humor — this will seem sage advice.

The read-out begins with Xi Jinping thanking the Ukrainian side “for its strong support for the evacuation last year of Chinese citizens.” Immediately, the omissions loom large. Nowhere in the read-out is the word “war” mentioned, or Russia’s invasion, or Russia at all. Why, exactly, was it necessary to evacuate Chinese citizens from Ukraine last year? Can peacemaking really be entrusted to a power that cannot speak the word “war”?

Next comes the obligatory empty talk — which must have brought a chortle from Zelensky — about “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the “political foundation of China-Ukraine relations.” China also claims to have “always stood on the side of peace,” though its role has been complicated, to say the least.

It is in the next line, as the read-out begins to outline China’s call for peace talks, that we descend straight down into remorseless CCP-speak. “We have successively proposed the ‘Four Shoulds,’ the ‘Four Togethers’ and the ‘Three Points for Consideration,’” it reads. China’s leaders cannot resist such formulations, because they can be packed and unpacked, stacked and unstacked, like boxes filled with imaginary things. A “Four Togethers” was already touted last year as Xi Jinping’s answer to online governance, accompanied by “Four Principles” and “Five Propositions.” But never mind. We can always imagine something else in those boxes. Such political language, as George Orwell wrote in an essay on the subject, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Can peacemaking really be entrusted to a power that cannot speak the word “war”?

China’s former foreign minister, Wang Yi (王毅), introduced the “Four Shoulds” in March last year within two weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The concept’s foolishness shone brightly against the bleak backdrop of Mariupol, where mass graves were being dug for the Ukrainians killed under intense Russian bombardment: The sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations should be respected; the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be respected; all countries’ legitimate security concerns should be taken into account; and every effort beneficial to the peaceful resolution of the crisis should be supported.

Meanwhile, as Xi Jinping dialogued closely with Putin, the People’s Daily and other state media parroted Russian narratives about US and NATO culpability for the war, spent weeks on end blatantly spreading Russian disinformation about alleged US biological weapons facilities in Ukraine — and of course, put Zelensky on ice.

We could continue to ease apart the layers of CCP rhetoric. But at the core, we will find the same airy assertions — about a man, we are told, who has revolutionized Marxism for the 21st century, who is piloting his country back to greatness, and who deserves ultimate Party power and a third term as China’s head of state because the world is complicated, and what are we to do without him? Recognizing that the base logic is power, it will not surprise us to find that the Chinese read-out of the Zelensky call last week exploited the exchange to glorify the general secretary: “Zelensky congratulated President Xi Jinping on his re-election, praised China’s extraordinary achievements and said he believed that under his leadership, China would successfully meet all challenges and continue to move forward.”

Frankly Speaking

A Xinhua News Agency read-out of a call between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in June 2022, the second following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and emphasizing the bilateral partnership.

Once we are done squeezing sense and significance out of Xi Jinping’s “Maospeak,” once we turn from the grandiosity of his nonsense, we are left with the same challenging set of questions that stand in the way of peace. We can count on Zelensky, the comedian turned statesman, to treat them with the seriousness and frankness they deserve: “No one wants peace more than the Ukrainian people. We are on our land and fighting for our future, exercising our inalienable right to self-defense,” the President said during his call with Xi. “Peace must be just and sustainable, based on the principles of international law and respect for the UN Charter. There can be no peace at the expense of territorial compromises. The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be restored within the 1991 borders.”

Zelensky, his head beneath the clouds, also made a practical point that chastened China for its tacit support for Russia’s act of aggression. “Russia converts any support — even partial — into the continuation of its aggression, into its further rejection of peace,” he said. “The less support Russia receives, the sooner the war will end and serenity will return to international relations.”

With so much at stake for Ukrainians and the rest of the world, we should certainly welcome all genuine efforts beneficial to the peaceful resolution of the war in Ukraine — to follow, I suppose, the last of China’s “Four Shoulds.” But the Chinese Communist Party’s seeming incapacity to part with its obtuse rhetoric — so bloated with self-glorification, so turgid with over-promise, and so spectacularly arcane — is a serious impediment to international understanding that should itself be a cause for concern as China steps up its bid for global leadership.

Beyond distracting from rights-based values and encoding authoritarian ones in a bait-and-switch fashion (documented in the excellent Decoding China dictionary), this rhetoric invites deadly miscalculation.

In an article for Foreign Affairs in late March, former Beijing Bureau Chief for The Washington Post John Pomfret and former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger wrote on the basis of their expert reading of four recent Xi Jinping speeches that the leader is “preparing China for war” in the Taiwan Strait. The article was an alarm bell. But responding one month later, a group of students, interns and former state media reporters on a well-known Substack account operated from China argued that the conclusions in the Foreign Affairs piece were based on misreadings of China’s politics, its press system and its odd official discourse, and that they fueled “an unnecessary sense of panic.”

The lesson I took from this tremor of discussion was just how impenetrable China’s official discourse in speeches and in the press is — not only to those with a deep experience of the country and fluency in its language as they gaze from the outside, but also to those reading from inside the country. And it occurred to me just how perilous our lack of clarity about China has become, a problem compounded by the CCP’s monopoly on expression domestically, which has obliterated individual voices and their moderating influence, and has condemned ordinary citizens to ignorance about their own society.

During his first months in power, Xi Jinping crafted an image of himself as a down-to-earth man of the people. He pledged an end to formalistic pronouncements and encouraged a more informal style among his fellow officials. This proved to be anti-bluster bluster. Since that time, Xi has compounded China’s political culture of grandiosity, placing himself atop a lofty pyramid of concepts created by a corps of Party discourse engineers below. Because the Party is so fixated on verbal monument-building, it has now even posited a distinctive “Chinese discourse system” for what thinkers like Zhang Weiwei (张维为), a key advisor, say will be a new era of “post-Western discourse.” It talks about a “strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics.”

The distinctiveness of CCP-speak is not a gift to human civilization. In fact, it is a growing international problem. An abyss of potential misunderstanding lies between the reprehensible rantings of Lu Shaye (a style Xi Jinping has nurtured among his diplomats) and the absurd “Maospeak” of mainstream CCP discourse. When experts wanting to know what China is thinking and planning must sort through page after page of florid obsequiousness in the People’s Daily, reading the small print, ours is a more dangerous world.

Speak plainly, Mr. Chairman. What do you mean when you talk about “peace”?

Bringing AI to the Party

Since its launch five months ago, the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT has prompted intense discussion of its ethical and social implications. It was just a matter of time before a serious political response came from China’s ruling Communist Party.

That response came this week from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which said in proposed new rules on generative artificial intelligence that content produced by AI “must reflect the core values of socialism and must not contain material that subverts state power.” The draft rules also made clear that users and service providers would be held responsible for the text, images, sounds, and other content generated through AI, and that security assessments would be mandated.

Zhang Xiaogang (张晓刚), a computer engineer in Australia, said the rules, which amounted to “making AI first join the Party” (a reference to Xi Jinping’s broader controls on the media in China), would stymie innovation in the field, resulting in AI with Chinese characteristics that would be “vested more and more with Party spirit” (越来越有党性).

For years now, even as the CCP has actively promoted AI and big data, it has asserted the need for political controls.

How political constraints might shape the development of AI in China is an important and difficult question. But the application of such constraints should not surprise. Nor should we assume that China’s leaders are racing to catch up with the implications of generative AI. For years now, even as the CCP has actively promoted AI and big data, it has asserted the need for political controls.

From the moment of its inception, the political indoctrination of Chinese artificial intelligence was fait accompli. This is a fact writ large in the history of the internet and data regulation in China.

The Party Controls the Data

For nearly 20 years, the phrase “Party control of the media” (党管媒体) has been one of the keystones of the CCP’s conviction that it must maintain political control of information even as the media landscape undergoes a rapid transformation.

While the phrase could be said to have deeper roots in concepts like “Party spirit” reaching back to the Maoist period in the mid-twentieth century, it first appeared in September 2004, when it was included in a plenary decision on strengthening the Party’s “governing capacity.” The concept was closely associated with the notion of “correct public opinion guidance” introduced amid harsh press restrictions in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Crackdown, but in the mid-2000s was a response to the rise of a vibrant commercial press, which could sometimes test the bounds, and developments in the internet sector already enabling new forms of user-generated content.

Not surprisingly, the conviction that “Party control of the media cannot change” (党管媒体不能变) has developed in step with technological changes that have radically altered China’s media landscape. And AI is no exception.

“New Media, New Power,” says an illustration for an article in 2019 on advancing media integration while maintaining the unbreakable principle of “Party-controlled media.”

In August last year, as China unveiled its new cultural development initiative under the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), one centerpiece of the plan was the “promotion of high-quality development in the culture industry” — code for the harnessing of new technologies to develop new products and markets. In a subsection on “promoting science and technology to empower the cultural industry,” the plan said:

[We must] implement the integrated development of publishing, the [technological] upgrading of film production, smart manufacturing in printing, the construction of large audiovisual industrial chains, and other engineering projects that can guide and encourage cultural enterprises to utilize big data, 5G, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, blockchain, ultra-high definition, and other new technologies to transform and upgrade the industry chain, promote the modernization of content production and means of dissemination, and reshape the cultural development model.

AI was not an unwelcome disruption, a weed in the well-tended garden of Party-controlled cultural output. It was the future. And the leadership was counting on it.

But the conditions were also clear. The first line under an opening section of the document on “work principles” made plain that all of the initiatives to follow would unfold under political constraints.

[We must] adhere to the comprehensive leadership of the Party. [We must] adhere to and improve the Party’s institutional mechanisms for leading cultural development, implementing the principles of Party-controlled propaganda, Party-controlled ideology and Party-controlled media, implementing the Party’s leadership in all aspects of propaganda, ideology and cultural work, and providing a fundamental guarantee for the realization of high-quality cultural development.

Empowerment and restraint. This dynamic has been at the heart of media and information in China since the first tentative reforms in the late 1970s. To re-appropriate Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase, the leadership has been crossing the Rubicon of media development while feeling the stones.

Students at Anhui University’s School of Artificial Intelligence take part in a study event on the fourth volume of Xi Jinping’s Governance of China on September 27, 2022.

The leadership has also transformed at every juncture the discursive terms of control.

In the July 2022 edition of the People’s Tribune (人民论坛), published by the People’s Daily, Huang Chuxin (黄楚新), the director of the Digital Media Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote that the concept of “Party-controlled media” (党管媒体) had to change in the face of ongoing technological and geopolitical challenges — what Xi Jinping has broadly referred to as the “new situation”:

With the continuous promotion of China’s comprehensive deepening reform and the rise of emerging technologies such as big data, 5G, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, the arrangements of the national governance system have been adjusted, and the [concept and practice of] “party-controlled media” has been challenged from the inside out by the new situation.

In light of these changes, said Huang, which were “an inevitable trend,” the Party should transition to the concept of “Party-controlled data,” or dangguan shuju (党管数据).

“Currently, China’s data industry development is in a new stage of innovation and transformation, and technology-driven journalism in China is facing serious challenges brought by the new industry pattern,” he concluded. “[The transition] from ‘Party-controlled media’ to ‘Party-controlled data’ would change the actual grounding and real agenda of the Party’s press work in the digital era.”

Huang’s idea was to re-ground what was essentially an outdated notion of press control in a new understanding of how people (and machines?) generate and disseminate information in all of its forms in the third decade of the 21st century.

In fact, this is a key aspect of what China’s leaders mean when they talk about “innovation.” Sure, innovation is about everything it generally calls to mind — about new ideas that transform our products, markets, and way of life. But in China, it is also about revolutionizing the mechanisms of governance and control to preserve the most basic nature of politics: the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Generative AI will certainly bring surprises. Its encounter with the CCP’s deep tradition of public opinion control and propaganda will be an important drama to watch as it unfolds. But we should not expect any dramatic plot shifts — not if the history of media development is any indication of the future.

Welcome to the era of Party-controlled AI.

Mixing Media and Statecraft in Latin America

During a ceremony in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa on March 28, the state-run China Media Group (CMG) inaugurated a new national bureau in what was one of the first formal celebrations between China and Honduras since the Central American country formally broke off relations with Taiwan just two days earlier, on March 26.

Reporting on the event, which took place at the Presidential Palace, under the bright red glare of China’s national flag, CMG’s international broadcasting arm, China Global Television Network (CGTN), said the media conglomerate would now be “positioned to bring more in-depth coverage of Central America to audiences around the world.” The head of the conglomerate’s Latin America division, Zhu Boying (朱博英), told an audience that included Honduran Cultural Minister Anarella Velez that the new bureau would “collaborate with the country’s leading media organizations.”

But the message between the lines of this new bilateral media relationship, coming with astonishing swiftness in the wake of a diplomatic shift that left diplomats in Taiwan reeling, was that official PRC media outlets, far from reporting on the sidelines of international affairs, are active agents in advancing the interests of the Chinese Party-state — well in advance of the story.

The new plaque for the Honduras bureau of China Media Group (CMG), the Party-state media conglomerate directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

The first example of Sino-Honduran media cooperation, the broadcast on Honduran television of a two-part program called “Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future” (携手向未来) looking at the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Honduras, came at lightning speed. It was shown on Canal 8, a state-owned channel operated by the Honduran Ministry of Culture and Telecommunications, at 7 AM Tegucigalpa time on March 26, just 13 hours after Honduras announced that it had cut ties with Taiwan.

“The speed of cooperation was amazing,” one Chinese provincial media outlet, the Qianjiang Evening News, wrote of the broadcast in a report last week, noting also that reporters from Xinhua News Agency, CCTV, and the China Media Group had been “dispatched overnight to Honduras, to bring the Chinese people more local reports.”

But the speed of cooperation was more than just amazing — it was deeply revealing.

The production by the Spanish-language division of CGTN of “Hand-in-Hand Toward the Future,” which includes interviews with ministerial officials from Honduras as well as sources such as a national sales manager for the technology giant Huawei, would have been impossible without early and deep cooperation between the China Media Group, which operates directly under the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, and the country’s diplomatic and intelligence services.

The program itself includes other tantalizing clues to just how closely intertwined Party-state media outlets are with the mechanisms of Chinese statecraft.

Featured in the program is Sun Yanfeng (孙岩峰), director of Latin American research at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (中国现代国际关系研究院), or CICIR. While the international relations institute presents itself publicly as a leading Chinese think tank for “extensive and multifunctional research,” it is in fact closely affiliated with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s chief intelligence agency.

Sun Yanfeng (孙岩峰), director of Latin American research at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, appears in a special CGTN-produced program on Honduran state television.

Back in February, Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper noted the close relationship between CICIR and the Ministry of State Security as it reported that the former head of the CICIR, Yuan Peng (袁鹏), had been appointed as MSS deputy director.

Also shown on screen in the CGTN television spot on China-Honduras relations is Wang Hua (王华), deputy secretary of the China Foundation for Peace and Development (中国和平发展基金会), or CFPD. The foundation, which identifies itself as a non-profit organization, is operated under the International Liaison Department, or ILD, of the CCP Central Committee (中共中央对外联络部), which is tasked with maintaining ties with foreign political parties, organizations, and individuals, and has a vital role in intelligence collection.

The message between the lines of this new bilateral media relationship was that official PRC media outlets are active agents in advancing the interests of the Chinese Party-state — well in advance of the story.

Wang Hua is in fact the former head of the Latin America Office at the International Liaison Department, and at CFPD has actively advanced bilateral relations and exchange between China and partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. In August last year, CFPD signed a friendship and cooperation agreement with the ministry of education in neighboring Nicaragua, which normalized relations with the PRC in 2021, after first recognizing Taiwan in 1990.

Despite its easily ascertainable and completely undeniable link to the Party’s central leadership, CFPD has been treated seriously in even United Nations documents and proceedings as a “non-profit organization” having a purely advisory role.

CFPD is one of China’s many fronts in pushing forward the political goals of the state under the guise of society-level engagement and people-to-people exchange. The media outlets under the China Media Group umbrella similarly perform a sock-puppet role before global audiences in all of the world’s major languages. They appear as a constellation of broadcasters, newspapers, newswires, and digital platforms, while a single hand, that of the CCP Central Committee, is at work behind the scenes.

Late last week, as state media continued to relish the establishment of relations with Honduras, CGTN pushed ahead with its coverage of upcoming elections in neighboring Guatemala, set for June. Just days earlier, the country had reaffirmed ties with Taiwan, but CGTN strung together interviews with “left-wing political party leaders” (左翼政党人士), including the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Party’s Silvia Solorzano, to argue that “voices calling for the government to change its foreign policy and establish diplomatic relations with China are becoming louder and louder.”

A report about the CGTN report from the state-run China Central Television, CGTN’s parent company under the CMG umbrella, relished the fact that CGTN’s Spanish-language anchor Ji Yi (冀艺) had appeared on Guatemala’s Canal+ television network “to emphasize that the Taiwan issue is a core interest of China and that the One China principle is supported by the overwhelming majority of countries in the world.”

CGTN’s Spanish-language anchor Ji Yi appears on Canal+. “China is opposed to any diplomatic interaction between the US and Taiwan,” the caption reads.

Making no attempt to disguise Ji Yi’s role not as a journalist but as a spokesperson for the official position, CCTV gushed about historic firsts. “This is the first time that a CGTN reporter has stated the Chinese government’s position on a Guatemalan TV program,” it said.

As China continues its relentless quest to push Taiwan’s diplomatic allies down into the single digits — the next country on the agenda, with decisive elections later this month, is Paraguay — or to advance other international agendas, its state media are not observing from the sidelines, and they are not waiting in the wings. They are working on the front lines, tools by their own admission of the Party-state from which they are ultimately indistinguishable.

It is a lesson politicians across the world would do well to remember. But as China’s new allies are carried off on the wave of media attention that comes with recognition from China, the puppet show can be a mesmerizing fiction.

One of the more humorous examples of this came last month, on the first full day of the new diplomatic relationship between China and Honduras, as Xiomara Zelaya, President of the International Affairs Commission of the National Congress of Honduras, and daughter of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, toured China beside Eduardo Enrique Reina, the foreign minister. At some point amid the photo ops and selfies, including one with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (秦刚), Zelaya shared a video in which she turned through the major newspapers in Beijing, showing how each had highlighted the new relationship on the front page.

In a Twitter video on March 26, Xiomara Zelaya, the daughter of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, shares the news of Sino-Honduran relations as it dominates the front pages . . . . of closely-linked CCP-run media.

First came the Global Times. Presumably, Zelaya had no idea the paper was published by the CCP’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, directly under the Central Propaganda Department. Next came Reference News (参考消息). Did she know that this foreign relations news staple was published by Xinhua, the official government news agency ranking as a ministerial-level institution under the State Council? And finally came China Daily, an English-language paper published by the Information Office of the State Council, the very same body as the Central Propaganda Department.

The lesson here was not that Honduras had arrived at the center of a new global narrative, and opened a bright new chapter. It was, quite simply, that China controlled the story.

Faking the Fake News Debate in Cambodia

Addressing an audience in Phnom Penh last month, the chairman of the Cambodia-China Journalists Association (柬中记协), Liu Xiaoguang (刘晓光), urged his colleagues in the media to uphold “a spirit and attitude of professionalism” as they worked to combat fake news. But Liu, who is also editor-in-chief of the local Chinese-language outlet The Commercial News (华商日报), quickly confounded this professional call with a flagrant political agenda.

“As media people, we must at the same time be alert to the fact that Western media still have a strong measure of discourse power in the international arena,” he said. “They still mainly favor their own countries . . . . as they report international news, and they criticize, smear and spread disinformation against countries that do not listen to the West or have different views.”

To support his point about Western bias, Liu accused the American mainstream media of blatant double standards in their downplaying of the serious environmental impact of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and in their outright suppression of a report by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh alleging US government involvement in the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea.

There was just one problem — both of these case studies in American media hypocrisy were fake news cooked up on the kooky fringes of the internet and gleefully picked up and amplified by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and state media.

With its fakery about fake news, the Phnom Penh forum was itself a case study of how China is exploiting professional associations and what it calls “people-to-people exchanges” to advance its global media agenda. At the heart of that agenda is undermining the credibility of Western journalism and by extension its critical, and sometimes even adversarial, relationship with power.

During the February forum, Liu Xiaoguang told participants they must consider the fact that 2023 is an election year in Cambodia, and that the country will also host the Southeast Asia Games. “Therefore it is hoped,” he said, “that domestic media personnel across the board will have a professional attitude, truly and objectively reporting on the achievements and development transformation achieved by Cambodia, working together to safeguard the peace and stability of the nation, and further raising Cambodia’s international image.”

Liu Xiaoguang (first from right) attends a February 2023 forum on fake news in Phnom Penh alongside the director of the Center for Chinese Studies, Royal Academy of Sciences of Cambodia (first from left), and a Cambodian information official.

Liu’s sentiments were seconded by a top Cambodian information official, who said at the forum that the government would step up its efforts to combat fake news ahead of the July national election, when Hun Sen, the former military commander who since the 1997 coup d’etat has established and steadily consolidated authoritarian rule in the country, will seek yet another five-year term in office.

At the heart of [China’s] agenda is undermining the credibility of Western journalism and by extension its critical, and sometimes even adversarial, relationship with power.

Implicit in these remarks about the need for the media to safeguard “peace and stability” are definitions of both journalistic professionalism and “fake news” that favor authoritarian regimes in China and Cambodia. Journalists act with a “professional attitude” when they praise the achievements of their national leaders, defending them against hypocritical Western media bent on demonization.

Praise is truth; criticism is fakery.

Telling China’s Story in Cambodia

This upended understanding of journalistic truth, so reminiscent of press policy in China, where Xi Jinping has told media that they must “love, protect and serve the Chinese Communist Party,” was enshrined at the Cambodia-China Journalists Association from the time of its formation on May 6, 2019. During a formal ceremony attended by Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith as well as Zuo Wenxing (左文星), the Counsellor for Political Affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh, it was made clear that the association would play a diplomatic role and “promote the overall development of Cambodia-China relations.” 

The founding of the association was a big affair for China’s government, widely reported by official Party-state media, including the People’s Daily. According to CCJA Chairman Liu Xiaoguang, negative reporting and commentary about China was the concern that prompted the creation of the association. Repeatedly in 2019, he characterized this as a question of “fake news.” 

In October 2019, as CCJA signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia to jointly “tell the China story,” Liu explained to the Jian Hua Daily (柬华日报) that the primary goal of the CCJA was to “make more local people understand the contribution of Chinese enterprises and Chinese people in Cambodia,” and to “curb the occurrence of fake news and events that defame Chinese people and Chinese enterprises, thereby reducing confrontation between the two countries, so that they can tell the ‘China story’ together.” 

Liu Xiaoguang’s political sympathies were garishly on display on July 1, 2021, as he appeared in a video address to congratulate the Chinese Communist Party for its 100th anniversary on behalf of the CCJA. “Without the correct leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China would not have obtained the major achievements it has,” he said, perfectly mirroring state propaganda. 

Screenshot of a video posted on July 1, 2021, by the Cambodia-China Journalists Association, in which chairman Liu Xiaoguang (刘晓光) praises the Chinese Communist Party to mark its centennial.

At the February forum on “fake news” in Phnom Penh, Liu’s remarks on journalistic professionalism similarly echoed the official narratives of the Chinese government, which in the days prior to the forum had actively sought to frame the Biden administration’s February 4 decision to shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as an overreaction that exposed the US as a nation in decline.

Attacks on the credibility of the American media were a key part of this strategy. If the US media lacked the integrity to report truthfully on major stories like the Ohio train derailment and the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline — if they merely disseminated fake news to cover up the dirty deeds of their own government — how could their reports and criticisms of Chinese surveillance be taken seriously?

The Fake News Pipeline

In recent years, one of China’s most frequent tactics in dealing with international criticism has been to introduce false and misleading memes through the regular press conferences of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Very often sourced from fringe sources on Western social media, or from Russian state media, these are rapidly, even sometimes instantly, picked up and reported by Chinese state media — and are then amplified in the Chinese-language public discourse inside China and beyond. Constructed around base messages about Western hypocrisy, or threats to Chinese national dignity, these memes encourage a reductive and emotional view of international stories as they go viral through mobile platforms.

Attacks on the credibility of the American media were a key part of this strategy. If the US media lacked the integrity to report truthfully on major stories . . . . how could their reports and criticisms of Chinese surveillance be taken seriously?

Before the memes about the suppression of the Ohio and Nord Stream stories surfaced at the Cambodia-China Journalists Association event in Phnom Penh, this is precisely the pattern they followed.

In the case of the Ohio train derailment, one of the earliest references came from Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunyin (华春莹), who posted to Twitter on February 14 to liken the train derailment to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster with the hashtag #OhioChernobyl. This was Hua’s direct appropriation of claims on the internet fringe. As the New York Times has since reported (also in Chinese), the notions of a “Chernobyl 2.0” and a widespread media cover-up were part of the whirlwind of conspiracy theories whipped up, often by right-wing commentators, on platforms like Twitter and Telegram in the wake of the train derailment.

Hua’s rehashed “Chernobyl 2.0” meme was picked up by the Global Times, which reported the day after her tweet that the scale of the disaster in Ohio was being hidden. The story quoted an unidentified internet user as lamenting: “Chernobyl 2.0 has happened in Ohio, but the traditional media are shamefully silent.”

In fact, many days before the Global Times piece ran online, the adequacy and professionalism of media coverage of the Ohio incident was receiving lively and much-deserved discussion in the US — exactly what should happen in a self-critical professional media environment, where there is always room for improvement. Just days after Hua’s tweet and a series of take-down stories in the Chinese state media, the New Republic wrote in an in-depth look at coverage in Ohio: “The truth of the matter is that the story is getting robust coverage, especially where it matters: locally.”

For journalists at the center of the story, the suggestion of a cover-up in Ohio was a source of frustration. Joe Donatelli, the digital director of Cleveland’s News 5, tweeted on February 15, the same day as the Global Times report. “To say it’s not being covered at all is wrong if you know how to Google.”

But conspiracy theories were taken up eagerly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media in China — where the Google search engine is of course not readily accessible — because they suited the broader narrative of US hypocrisy and incompetence, offering convenient material to undermine the credibility of the West and its values, particularly after the sting of the surveillance balloon fiasco.

The Global Times story was widely shared by Chinese-language outlets, from Hong Kong’s CCP-linked Wen Wei Po to Youth.cn, a site operated by the Chinese Communist Youth League. A viral video from the Global Times video service Global Video (环视频), which has more than 4.3 million fans on Weibo alone, emphasized that “mainstream media in the US have played down [the incident].” 

Inflated Accusations

It was again China’s foreign ministry that pushed the narrative during the first half of February that a report by American investigative reporter Seymour Hersh had been actively suppressed by mainstream media in the US, hiding from the public allegations that the US government was behind the September bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline.

At a press conference on February 10, MOFA spokesperson Mao Ning cited the Hersh investigation as she called on the US to “give a responsible explanation to the world” about its possible involvement in the sabotage of the pipeline, and she advanced accusations about a media cover-up. “It proves that some US media outlets do not care what the truth is,” she said. “They are deaf to the truth that really matters, and what is loudly hyped by them is often not the truth, but a false narrative.”

Contrary to the allegation that it had been downplayed in the Western media, Hersh’s story was feverishly consumed and furiously debated through a variety of channels, both mainstream and non-mainstream, in and outside the United States. 

Reuters reported the story, along with a lengthy review of Hersh’s starred career as an investigative journalist, and duly noted (as it should) the controversies that have harried his journalism in recent years. Similarly, Business Insider looked at Hersh’s self-published article with critical eyes, noting that his work in recent decades had been “poorly-sourced, conspiratorial, and over-reliant on anonymous sources.” Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, a well-regarded investigative journalism and fact-checking group based in the Netherlands, called Hersh’s story “thinly sourced garbage.”

But the story, which was based on a single anonymous source, received attention nevertheless, shared, though often critically, by The Times, Politico, and other outlets — while many others chose, understandably given real questions about sourcing, to hold back on the allegations given the further reporting they would certainly have demanded. 

Hersh, meanwhile, appeared on multiple outlets to discuss his Substack post. He spoke about the story in great depth with Amy Goodman, the host of the independent Democracy Now! program, which is broadcast daily across the US, including on PBS and through local radio stations. 

Contrary to the allegation that it had been downplayed in the Western media, Hersh’s story was feverishly consumed and furiously debated through a variety of channels. 

The Chinese government and state media maintained nonetheless that the Hersh story had been silenced, and that this exposed the falsehood of the American mainstream media. China’s clear attempt to sow confusion on the matter prompted a Bloomberg reporter to ask Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) during a press conference on February 15 how he responded to the fact that “Chinese diplomats, state media outlets and social media influencers appear to be making efforts to exaggerate and misrepresent a chemical leak in the US and a report that the US military blew up the Nord Stream pipeline.”

Impervious, Wang responded by doubling down on the suggestion that Hersh’s story, though relying on a single anonymous source, should receive special treatment, and that the failure to simply accept its conclusions was evidence of endemic and longstanding media bias:

Immediately after the explosions of the Nord Stream pipelines, we saw extensive coverage in Western media with one-sided speculations on who was ‘responsible’ for the sabotage. What we see now, however, is that these media, hailed as free, professional and impartial, have fallen silent over Seymour Hersh’s investigative report. Doesn’t this call for concern and reflection?

The foreign ministry statements continued to spawn coverage from state media outlets. “People are fully aware who is trying to deflect public attention: Chinese FM,” read the headline of one story from the official China News Service, quoting Wang. Essentially the same story from the Global Times was headlined: “Why Western media is deaf over [the] Nord Stream incident, Ohio train derailment: Chinese FM.” 

Laundering Lies

The forum on “fake news” hosted in February by the Cambodia-China Journalists Association in Phnom Penh reveals another crucial link in the chain of Chinese government disinformation on international affairs that often begins with the foreign ministry. The circumstances of the association’s founding suggest it was conceived in 2019 not as a true professional organization, but rather as an extension of China’s official diplomatic efforts in Cambodia — as a means of exerting influence among local journalists and media.

Meeting with members of the CCJA in January 2020, the Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, Wang Wentian (王文天), expressed his gratitude to the organization “for their support and cooperation with the embassy’s work.” Referring to the strategic partnership agreement signed between China and Cambodia in 2010, Wang said: “As the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Cambodia has been elevated to a new stage, I hope the [journalists] association will promote the dissemination of more good stories of friendly exchanges, and continue to make its contribution to the development of China-Cambodia relations.”

For his part, the association’s chairman, Liu Xiaoguang, offered reassurance that the CCJA was ready to fulfill its mission. He informed the ambassador of the association’s plans for the coming year, and said it would “continue to fulfill the media’s social responsibility, promoting friendship between Cambodia and China, and transmitting even more positive energy.”

The idea of “transmitting positive energy,” or zhengnengliang (正能量), has been an important phrase in the Xi Jinping era to refer to information controls and official messaging, both domestically and internationally. And the forum on “fake news” in Phnom Penh, with its agenda premised on a foundation of disinformation directly from China’s foreign ministry, underscores just how crucial strategic negativity about the United States and the West has become within this strategy of “transmitting positive energy.”

That strategic negativity can be powerful enough when amplified through Chinese state media and across the internet and social media platforms. But such lies can be even more powerful when they are laundered through ostensible professional organizations that can reach media professionals at a personal level across Southeast Asia and around the world.

A Model Opera at Lujiang Middle School

A firestorm of controversy broke out online in China late last month after a short video clip went viral along with allegations that Chen Hongyou (陈宏友), an associate professor from Hefei Normal University, had made offensive off-the-cuff remarks ahead of a lecture at Lujiang Middle School (庐江中学) in Anhui province.

“The goal of academic study is to make money,” Professor Chen reportedly said. “Don’t talk about ideals and ambitions; money is power, money is everything.” He apparently added injury to insult by suggesting that academic performance brought opportunities for “gene optimization” (基因优化), meaning broader horizons in finding a mate. Chen’s own son had studied in the United States and found a foreign girlfriend there — so Chen’s future grandchildren would have better genes.

Chen’s crass remarks so infuriated one student that he leaped onto the stage and grabbed the microphone from the professor, shouting him down with Chinese Communist Party slogans. “There is only money in his eyes,” the student, Jiang Zhenfei (蒋振飞), shouted, “and so he says we study only to get rich! He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!” (崇洋媚外). The student’s coup de grace was a bullet of Xi Jinping jargon fired point-blank at Professor Chen: “The goal of our study,” Jiang shouted after a smattering of applause, “is for the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!” 

It was a call for China to stand up confidently and reclaim its strong voice and standing in the world. But the words themselves illustrate how individuals’ voices are erased and replaced with the voice of the Party, and how the collective voice of a billion people can still sound so feeble on the global stage.

So far, beyond the proliferation of the short viral video of Jiang Zhenfei’s tirade and related comments, nothing is known about the real context. The few media outlets in China that have attempted to report on the case with more nuance have been harshly criticized by netizens for not simply siding with the students. The whole affair has been steeped in a sense of intergenerational conflict — as if this was a simple moral tale about retrogressive middle age versus idealistic youth. On top of it all, the CCP’s censorship engine kicked in quickly, preventing substantive discussion and fact-sharing. 

“He reveres the foreign and panders to foreign powers!”

High school student Jiang Zhenfei on associate professor Chen Hongyou

But two fundamental and related issues are rather salient in the Chen Hongyou affair. First and foremost, we can witness the complete hollowing out of public discourse in China, which has systematically robbed the Chinese people of their voices, substituting the heckling voice of Party propaganda. Second, we can see how this act of voice theft is reflexively pinned on foreign powers and foreignness, disguising the real crime. The ultimate outcome is that voicelessness and powerlessness are recast as the assertion of national power and greatness — an affirmation of “China’s voice.” 

For many netizens, Jiang’s march onto the stage was an act of self-assurance, and he was quickly praised as a “role model.” Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper, took to Weibo to call the student‘s actions a “show of courage.” But as Jiang makes his theatrical show of strength in the video, the only words he has to rise to the moment are pre-packaged slogans, spiritless for all of the teen’s spiritedness. He spits them out reflexively, and his classmates in the audience echo with ritual hurrahs. Who do these words actually belong to? 

Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin writes on Weibo on February 21 that student Jiang Zhenfei’s response to Chen Hongyou was “a show of courage” and should be praised. 

Unscripted though it might have been, the scene reminded me of the revolutionary operas popularized across China during the Cultural Revolution, with their moral depictions of heroes and villains, always absent all shades of nuance. In these operas, peerless proletarian characters, cleansed of all bourgeois contagion, are pitted against cruel and oppressive class enemies whose motives have been utterly corrupted. Away in the shadows are the real enemies feeding domestic depravity — the foreign imperialists and their bourgeois values. 

This model opera in Anhui apparently worked its magic upon millions responding online, a sign of how effectively the Party has managed to dominate public discourse, conditioning the responses Chinese are meant to have to substantive issues. Surely, plenty of Chinese must see through the phoniness of this model opera. Many likely recognize that the protagonist, Jiang Zhenfei, is merely correcting Professor Chen’s vulgar individual view of education in favor of the elevated vulgarity of Party supremacy — how in both cases, the critical process of learning is defined only as a means to power. But while a handful of such observations may circulate inside China, discussed quietly in private groups, the pervasiveness of political controls on the media, the internet, education, and society have virtually eliminated the precious space that might have existed in years past between Chen Hongyou’s crudely self-interested view of study and the CCP’s moral of self-sacrifice to the state as the highest form of personal conviction.

Jiang Zhenfei’s grabbing of the microphone may be seen by many Chinese as a triumph of the voice. But the cruel truth is that the teen’s voice has been stolen by the Party-state. He speaks the Party’s convictions in the Party’s voice. Beyond this, he has nothing to say that is not captive to the Party’s political will, scripted into a narrative of national greatness. The Party defines the objectives of idealism, and it demarcates the language of idealism. All efforts, in school and in industry, must serve the “Great Rejuvenation,” the heart of which is CCP rule and the “core” power of General Secretary Xi. 

This act of thievery is disguised at the same time by an ingenious act of shifting the blame. Why is Jiang’s tirade so inspiring to others? Because he has dared to stand up for China against the real villains in the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School, the ones standing in the shadows behind the scurrilous professor — the foreign powers who have robbed the nation of its voice. 

Chen’s real crime is to “revere the foreign and pander to foreign powers,” a phrase that was common during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s and 70s, the People’s Daily and other publications regularly carried reports about how Mao’s political enemies, including “Liu Shaoqi and his associates,” “revered the foreign and pandered to foreign powers.” Chinese were urged to “break through the slavishness of reverence for the foreign.” In July 1976, two months before the death of Mao, the purged Deng Xiaoping and his oddball economic ideas remained a symbol of this slavish mentality, even though within a few short years they would lead to a dramatic turnaround in the country’s fortunes. The People’s Daily mocked Deng’s Four Modernizations and the idea of introducing new foreign technologies to China. “This is classic reverence for the foreign and pandering to foreign powers, a big policy of surrendering and betraying the country.”

A scene from the revolutionary opera “Red Detachment of Women,” one of eight classic operas (八个样板戏) performed widely in China during the Cultural Revolution. Image by Byron Schumaker, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license. 

Just as in the 1960s and 70s, the moral of the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School is that all must rise to the prevailing political program, sacrificing their own voice for the voice of Party power, which promises to lead them to strength and self-sufficiency in a world where the foreigners are bent on infiltration and corruption. The alternative is surrender and betrayal. 

But the revolutionary opera at Lujiang Middle School also holds the real secret of the chronic weakness of China’s collective voice in global public opinion, despite nearly constant sloganeering by the CCP about the need to confidently develop “discourse power” and “tell China’s story well,” and despite the investment by the Party of billions upon billions of dollars for external communication. 

Xi Jinping has spoken insistently about “cultural confidence” and the need to make China’s voice better heard and better understood. China needs a voice, says Xi, that matches its national strength and international status in a world — so goes the official narrative — of “Western-dominated global public opinion.” But when a billion voices are effectively replaced, and erased, by a system of discourse that serves the narrow values of a single ruling party, embodied in a single charismatic leader, public discourse is not enriched or strengthened. It becomes instead a public monologue, shouted in wooden and spiritless language through a microphone that has been snatched away. 

Co-Producing with the CCP

As China has pursued greater influence over public opinion globally, responding to Xi Jinping’s call to “tell China’s stories well,” foreign media have been crucial channels for the state to reach audiences overseas. In some cases, state media have borrowed exposure through drop-in content, paying for the direct insert of state propaganda. But another important and perhaps more effective tactic has been the covert or non-transparent placement of state-produced messages through content sharing and co-production deals. These deals expose foreign audiences to programming from the Chinese state — often without the knowledge of even overseas media partners.

One of China’s most potent actors in this arena has been the China International Communication Center (五洲传播中心), or CICC, also known in Chinese as the China International Press (五洲传播出版社), and China Intercontinental Press Media (五洲传播出版传媒), or CIPM. CICC is housed directly under the Information Office of China’s State Council, whose main task is to produce foreign propaganda. The Information Office is essentially twinned with the Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD), a phenomenon known in Chinese as “one office, two signs on the door.” CICC’s physical offices are at the CPD office in central Beijing.

The company listing for CICC (五洲传播出版传媒有限公司) shows that it is fully held by China’s State Council.

Dong Qing (董青), the current CEO of CICC, is a veteran official within the Central Propaganda Department, having previously served as chief editor of China Culture Online, a website jointly operated by the Central Propaganda Department and its Central Civilization Office, otherwise known as the Central Steering Committee for Spiritual Civilization Construction. Go back 10 years and Dong served as the deputy chief of the First Bureau of the Central Civilization Office, whose top official is typically a deputy minister of the CPD.

But despite its clear and direct association with the Central Propaganda Department, CICC has presented itself globally as a media group ready to do business, providing foreign outlets with film and documentary content about China, and offering access to China’s vast film and television market.

Silk Road Stories in Southeast Asia

One of the many foreign media to cooperate with CICC is the Malaysian Chinese-language channel 8 TV, whose parent company, Media Prima Berhad, signed a strategic cooperation agreement in 2017 for the broadcasting of a series of documentaries under the label “Silk Road Time” (丝路时间), also known as “USilk.” While the documentaries ostensibly offered Malaysian viewers an opportunity to better understand Chinese culture, the products on offer, produced entirely by CICC, fully accommodated China’s larger foreign policy and trade goals, seeking to build support and sympathy for Xi Jinping’s signature “Belt and Road” initiative.

Despite its clear and direct association with the Central Propaganda Department, CICC has presented itself globally as a media group ready to do business.

The partnership began with a pilot broadcast of nine episodes of “USilk” supported by CICC during the first year, but both sides spoke of longer-term cooperation. “The partnership will not be time-limited, and building on the launch of the documentary series on the Silk Road, the two sides can develop further cooperation in the future,” Media Prima Berhad CEO Dato’ Kamakali said at the time.

Founded in 2003, Media Prima Berhad (首要媒体有限公司) is a privately-owned company with a portfolio spanning television, newspaper, radio, outdoor advertising, and online media. It claims to be Malaysia’s largest integrated media company.

CICC executive Jing Shuiqing attends the signing ceremony with Malaysia’s Media Prima Berhad in 2017.

Attending the signing ceremony in Malaysia in 2017 was Jing Shuiqing (井水清), named in local media reports as the deputy director of CICC’s Center for Media Promotion. Often identified publicly outside of China as the vice-president or editor-in-chief of CICC, Jing has made regular appearances at bona fide international film and television production events and festivals, like Asian Side of the Doc (where he hosted an event on “USilk” in 2020), or France’s Sunny Side of the Doc marketplace. In 2019, he was in Qatar to sign a cooperation agreement, again under the “USilk” label, with Al Jazeera.

But make no mistake: Though Jing may wear a hat overseas as a film and television executive, his executive position at the propaganda department-affiliated CICC places him among China’s most senior propaganda officials. He is also the legal representative of its private commercial subsidiary, China Intercontinental Co., Ltd (五洲传播有限公司).

The company listing for China Intercontinental Co., Ltd (五洲传播有限公司), a CICC subsidiary, shows Jing Shuiqing as the legal representative.

During the signing ceremony in 2017, Jing directly referenced the “Belt and Road” initiative, saying that he hoped cooperation with media like 8 TV would mean that “more and more stories of the Silk Road will be brought to the world.”

8 TV is reportedly the first company in Malaysia to cooperate with CICC, though CICC has cooperated with other media groups in the region, including Singapore-based Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific since 2015. Just last year, the group announced it was cooperating with National Television of Cambodia (柬埔寨国家电视台) to co-produce a 30-minute documentary called Sino-Cambodian Feeling Through Thick and Thin (患难与共中柬情), which emphasized China’s aid to Cambodia during the global pandemic. The deal was proudly promoted through the official website of the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia, which noted that the process had been led by the Overseas Promotion Office of the Central Propaganda Department.

The promotional poster for the documentary “Sino-Cambodian Feeling Through Thick and Thin,” co-produced by CICC, Guangxi province’s state-run television broadcaster, and National Television of Cambodia.

Propaganda Goes Private

China’s quasi-privatization of its domestic propaganda and media control structures, along with close links between government and commercial actors (such as Tencent and iQiyi), has enabled it to muddy the waters when it comes to international cooperation and co-production. In many cases, foreign partners have little notion when dealing with partners like CICC that they have effectively contracted with the CCP and government agencies, and that they have opened their channels and audiences to the external messaging of the Chinese state.

The “USilk” series has been rolled out through broadcasters in countries across the world. Most recently, its documentaries have been played on Bulgarian National Television (BNT), the country’s national public service broadcaster, and on Macau’s TDM. In 2021, CICC announced that it had “cooperated in the building of the ‘USilk’ television program [series]” with Kordia, a broadcaster owned by the New Zealand government. Typical of China’s broad understanding of the notion of “cooperation,” this meant only that CICC had managed to license its content to Kordia.

China’s quasi-privatization of its domestic propaganda and media control structures has enabled it to muddy the waters when it comes to international cooperation and co-production.

That content included individual programs like Return to the Red Flag Canal (重返红旗渠), a sentimental documentary in which French film producer Jérôme Clément, the founder and former CEO of the European public service channel Arte, is led on an official tour of Henan’s Red Flag Canal. As Clément visits the site, “impressed by the visible changes in China,” he and the documentary’s viewers are treated to a sanitized story of heroism and sacrifice, recounting the construction of the canal between 1960 and 1969, an episode that has become integral to the CCP’s construction of its history as a series of legendary feats.

The promotional poster for “Return to the Red Flag Canal” shows that it is produced by CICC, China Education Television, a unit under the government’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), and private companies whose links to the government are unclear.

Long fallen into disrepair, the Red Flag Canal has today become a “red tourism” attraction, held up as “a patriotic model of the Communist spirit” under Mao Zedong Thought. But Clément’s present-day tour, woven in awkwardly with a manufactured narrative strand about the artistic journey of young female pianist Wang Chen (“You have to know yourself very well and listen to your inner voice,” the former Arte CEO at one point advises her), is meant to shoeshine the Red Flag Canal myth — and the message that for China, which strives tirelessly under CCP leadership, nothing is impossible.

In some cases, CICC productions intersect even more blatantly with the international propaganda objectives of the CCP. In December 2020, two full years before the chaotic and long overdue ending of China’s “zero Covid” policy, CICC was behind the production of the documentary Covid-19: Battling the Devil (新冠肺炎: 与魔鬼的战斗), a ringing endorsement of the government’s handling of the epidemic outbreak in Wuhan. The production, a cooperation with the private Chinese video platform Bilibili, was distributed outside China by the Discovery Channel, enabling it to reach a massive global audience. According to CICC, the documentary was aired in more than 200 countries.

The documentary “Covid-19: Battling the Devil,” produced by CICC and distributed by Bilibili and Discovery, is a victory song for the Chinese leadership in grappling with Covid.

In other cases, the messaging is far more subtle, aimed at showcasing Chinese traditional culture and modernity while emphasizing cooperation and friendship. In China: Mission Sojourney (跟我走吧朋友), a reality show produced by CICC and the film and television division of Sina, the Nasdaq-listed Chinese internet company, a group of domestic and international personalities are brought together to explore Chinese culture and create collaboratively. They include Chilean-born American interior designer Juan Pablo Molyneux, Chinese pop idol Xiao Rainco (肖宇梁), and French contemporary dancer Cindy Villemin. “I want to express the Chinese culture through Western eyes,” Molyneux says at one point.

State media have claimed that the series reached an audience of 600 million people in more than 40 countries around the world after premiering on the South Korean nationwide pay television network TVN.

A Media Group with a Foreign Policy Role?

Beyond CICC’s individual agreements with media groups across the world, the group’s multifaceted and ambiguous role can be seen plainly in its initiation of the so-called “Belt and Road” Media Cooperation Union (“一带一路”媒体传播联盟), an ostensibly non-government partnership of media organizations that directly serves China’s foreign policy and communication goals.

It is a common tactic of the Chinese government and association institutions to invite foreign participants to professional and business forums, and then to lend these forums an official and summit-like air, even admitting guests — who might suppose they are simply in town for a conference or networking opportunity — as “members” in a formal alliance of supposed common interests. Another prime example of this is the “Belt and Road” News Network (“一带一路”新闻合作联盟), or BRNN, led by the CCP’s official People’s Daily, with its website hosted on the newspaper’s servers.

Formed in April 2016, the CICC’s “Belt and Road” Media Cooperation Union claims to bring together more than 150 media from 43 countries and regions to promote what CICC calls “diversified media cooperation programs.” From the beginning, the MCU’s support from the State Council Information Office was openly acknowledged, and officials made clear that the group was an extension of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative. The opening address at the MCU’s formation was delivered by Cui Yuying (崔玉英), a deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department and deputy chief of the State Council Information Office.

Cui Yuying, a deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department, addresses the MCU in 2016.

17 partner media agencies reportedly “signed” the MCU in 2016, including the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and the History Channel (all three channels under Discovery Networks Asia-Pacific, whose collaboration with CICC reaches back to 2004). Singapore’s Channel NewsAsia, or CNA, the multi-language news outlet under the national public broadcaster MediaCorp, also signed on.

CICC launched its “USilk” program at the same 2016 meeting under the auspices of the newly-formed MCU, meaning that the media group could effectively leverage a government-backed global forum to push commercial interests overlapping with the external propaganda objectives of the state. By 2018, the MCU claimed 60 members and reported that mainstream media from more than 20 countries were already running “USilk” content in 14 languages. Aside from Malaysia’s 8 TV, partners in Southeast Asia included National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT), the broadcasting arm of Thailand’s government.

Co-Production as Usual

CICC has continued to strike up partnerships with media in every region of the world, effectively distributing factual and entertainment content to global audiences, all the while presenting itself as just another professional partner for co-productions.

Last year, the BBC released a six-part series called China on Stage, produced by CICC, Bilibili and the UK production company Lion TV. One episode of that series artfully played up the Shanghai premiere of the original Chinese musical “On the Road,” which lionizes the hard work and selflessness of China’s delivery riders during the pandemic. The host of the episode at one point calls the musical “a tribute to the long hours, hard work, and dedication of delivery couriers.” But the musical is also an official production by a state-run arts group, expressly intended to “sing the main melody” (唱出主旋律), a reference to media and cultural activity in China that sticks to the main political line of the CCP.

While one could certainly argue that the China on Stage treatment of “On the Road” does not broadly impact views of China in the UK, it makes for an awkward contrast with professional news coverage of the plight facing many gig workers in China, including the BBC’s own coverage of the extreme and unnecessary difficulties facing delivery riders.

It also offers a glimpse of the ingenious ways China now manages to use coverage of arts and culture to convey more subtle political messages. The fostering of such ingenuity is part of the formation story of CICC. Before its transformation into the commercial enterprise CICC in 2011, China Intercontinental largely produced material “with a strong propaganda tone” that was, according to documentary filmmaker Ming Yu, “incapable of communicating China’s image to the world, nor of influencing the world.”

CICC’s commercialization and internationalization enabled it to capitalize not just on foreign distribution channels, but also on foreign production know-how that took better account of overseas audiences. As global interest in China grew dramatically from the late 2000s onward, CICC was also in a unique position to foster international co-productions, as it was “responsible for not only promoting Chinese culture globally but also supervising and issuing filming permission to international broadcasters and media companies.”

More than a decade later, the results of that change can be seen in the polished, glittering mediocrity of many CICC productions.

Take for example the six-episode series Journey of Warriors (勇敢者的征程), produced by CICC along with Tencent Video and Discovery. It follows five celebrities as they attempt arduous treks – à la Naked and Afraid – along routes traversed by the Red Army during the Long March in 1934-1935 and during China’s struggle against the invading Japanese army. CICC and Chinese state media quite nakedly promoted the series as a celebration of the Party’s centennial, but millions of viewers in Discovery markets across the world were none the wiser. The Central Propaganda Department’s direct role in the production was never mentioned by the American company [See CMP’s “Warriors on the Red Road”].

CICC’s commercialization and internationalization enabled it to capitalize not just on foreign distribution channels, but also on foreign production know-how that took better account of overseas audiences.

Whatever commercial partners like Discovery, CNA, and the BBC might imagine they are engaged in, the CICC and its “Belt and Road” Media Cooperation Union are fronts for the Chinese Party-state and its communication goals — from the control of access to the “China story,” to the determined export of sanitized stories that suit and serve the “main melody.”

Nevertheless, co-production continues as usual. By maintaining the pretense that CICC is just another commercial production enterprise with its finger on the pulse of the Chinese market, China’s global media partners are complicit in supporting the messages and values of the Party-state — including the robust controls on information that arise from the conviction that the CCP must have a monopoly on the “China story.”

When the American mass media holding company Gannett announced its partnership with CICC in June last year for a series of documentaries called “Sister City,” to be released by USA TODAY Studios, it referred to the Chinese group as simply “an international communication company” dedicated to “high-quality factual programs.” Similarly, as her company inked a co-production deal with CICC and Insight TV for a factual adventure series on the Great Wall, Bomanbridge Media CEO Sonia Fleck praised CICC as “such an innovative leader and dependable partner for top factual content in the premium China market.”

The image may seem to fit when factual programming deals with the wonders of ancient history, the rhythms of nature, or the most adorable and enduring of foreign policy distractions: the giant panda. But it is a huge disservice to global television audiences who deserve the facts about how the cultural products they consume are made, whether about pandas or pandemics.

Getting Personal With State Propaganda

Imagine you are a member of the international recruitment team at the University of Worcester in the UK, responsible for managing exchange programs with universities from China; or, alternatively, you are the president of the University of Northern Iowa, which has actively developed exchanges with Chinese universities. In either case, you would naturally expect your partners to engage in international exchanges, including yours, in good faith. You would expect them to uphold basic ethical and academic standards.

Now consider: How would you respond if you discovered that a Chinese university you partnered with had launched a specialized research center in partnership with that country’s Central Propaganda Department, whose purpose was to actively utilize foreign exchange students as “resources” for global propaganda?

Audacious though it may seem, such a scheme is already underway in China. It is one of the more egregious examples of how a range of actors in the country — including high-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bodies, state media, local governments, and universities — are responding to the top-down mandate from the CCP leadership to pursue greater “discourse power” around the world as a whole-society effort.

International Resources

Last month, Nanchang Aviation University (南昌航空大学), located in China’s southern Jiangxi province, announced that it had launched the “Jiangxi International Communication Research Center” (江西国际传播研究中心) in cooperation with the China Media Group, the state media conglomerate formed in 2018 directly under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. According to coverage by China Education Daily, a newspaper directly under the Ministry of Education, the new center is an experiment in combining central CCP media and universities (央媒+高校) to carry out international communication by using the “overseas student resources” (留学生资源) of the university.

Nanchang Aviation University has so far established cooperation with more than 70 universities in 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine. It reports that it currently has more than 1,600 international exchange students studying on campus in China. But the existence of the new center, and its exploitation of programs undertaken in the spirit of exchange, could also mean that Chinese students in programs overseas — like those in Worcester and Iowa — are enlisted for state communication work having no relation to their studies.

According to the China Education Daily report, the university had “taken the initiative in cooperating with the ‘international communication national team’ of China Radio International to invest lasting power in the university’s efforts at international communication capacity building.”

China Radio International (CRI) is China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster, which has now branched out into the production of multimedia content for the country’s external communication objectives. In order to achieve what Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), enhancing the CCP’s influence on public opinion globally, CRI has partnered with local media abroad, and in some cases has sought to covertly influence content.

Exploiting Foreign Friends

Some of the products already created through Nanchang Aviation University’s utilization of the foreign student population may seem harmless enough. One example is the online video “Jingdezhen in the Eyes of Foreign Friends” (外国友人眼中的景德镇), in which Nanchang Aviation University graduate students “Muheet” (李想) and “Jonas” (吉达), both studying civil engineering, introduce local pottery-making traditions. Another is “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” (带你认识不一样的南昌), a city promo video that introduces the ancient history of Nanchang and promotes the city’s modern achievements as “creating new brilliance.”

The final credits of the promotion video “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” list Nanchang Aviation University alongside China News Service and the official Jiangxi Daily as producers.

But as a formal arrangement for the use of foreign students in Party-state propaganda, under the auspices of the state-run China Media Group and the Central Propaganda Department, the Nanchang Aviation University center is clearly a cause for concern. It is a fundamental corruption of the university’s educational mission and its relationship with students, which should be about providing high-quality programs. And it is a corruption of the spirit of international exchange among educational institutions globally, which should be undertaken with integrity, thinking first and foremost of the development and well-being of students.

The credits for “Bringing You a Different Nanchang” are visual proof of how these relationships and exchanges have been co-opted by the Chinese state for its own purposes. They make clear that the promo film was produced jointly by Nanchang Aviation University, the official China News Service (CNS), another China Media Group unit with responsibility for overseas propaganda, and Jiangxi Daily, the official CCP mouthpiece of Jiangxi province.

The so-called “Jiangxi International Communication Research Center” should also serve as a cautionary note about the transactional way the Chinese state conceives friendship and exchange. For decades, the “foreign friend” has been central to how Chinese leaders understand international relations and communication. CCP officials and diplomats have typically viewed friendship through a narrow frame of “goodwill” and “mutual friendship,” favoring those who have remained obligingly acritical and whose actions are seen to have advanced the Party’s own agendas.

Last October, in the midst of the 20th National Congress, China’s Foreign Languages Press released a book looking back on the positive views of China and the CCP propagated overseas by such friends as the journalist Edgar Snow and former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The book, Together on a Shared Journey: 100 Stories of the Communist Party of China in International Communication, was promoted during a foreign ministry press conference, thanks to a softball question from a local Shenzhen television station. And the state-run China Today plugged the book by quoting from another trusted foreign friend, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who said in typical softball fashion: “Considering China’s role in the world today, foreigners should know and appreciate the real China.”

Making Propaganda Personal

In coverage of the new communication center, Nanchang Aviation University said the venture implemented the concept of “international communication by all” (人人国际传播), which emerged in Chinese strategic circles in 2022.

Speaking on Zhang Weiwei’s “China Now” (这就是中国) program on October 17, 2022, Guo Ke (郭可), the head of the School of Journalism and Communication at Shanghai Foreign Languages University, linked the idea of “international communication by all” to his own concept of “international communication +N” (国际传播+N). This was essentially the idea, “N” denoting an infinity of voices, that China’s global communication strategy must rely not just on state-run media and centralized messaging, but must be carried out by individual Chinese on a broad scale.

Guo Ke (郭可) speaks on the “China Now” program in October 2022, as international communication guru Zhang Weiwei looks on.

Guo spoke about the need for China to find new ways to communicate in the world in light of changes in technology and global engagement. No longer, said Guo, is international communication about traditional media such as newspapers, television, and radio. In the digital age, it intersects with the social realm. “Only when people all participate in the work of international communication can we resolve the challenges facing international communication. Only then can we use our attitude of self-confidence to build our discourse system with Chinese characteristics.”

The Nanchang Aviation University center is apparently the first application at the university level of the concept of “international communication by all.” The university said in the China Education Daily report that it “encouraged everyone to become microphone-wielding communicators,” affirming that “everyone can participate in the production and singing of the main melody of good China stories.”

Chinese Propaganda, In a Local Paper Near You

Raising the effectiveness of international communication has been a top political priority for China’s leaders since the late 2000s, rooted in the sense that the country’s comprehensive national power (CNP) and capacity for global influence are hampered by a deficit of soft power. In the Xi era, the sense of strategic urgency has deepened, with concern among Chinese Communist Party leaders that “the general pattern in international public opinion of western strength against our own weakness remains unchanged.”

Xi Jinping’s bid to close China’s gap in global discourse power (话语权) with the West has focused on remolding older CCP approaches to external propaganda (对外宣传) around the notion of strategic storytelling. The objective, first outlined in August 2013, is to “tell China’s story well,” which will enable the more effective transmission of “China’s voice.”

But crafting a credible and compelling narrative and finding ways for that narrative to effectively reach diverse audiences with widely varying demands is far easier said than done. As we approach the ten-year anniversary of Xi’s injunction to “tell the China story well,” it is not clear that China has become better or more effective in conducting external communication — even if it has become far more determined.

Global Delusions of Grandeur

Last month, as the CCP’s official People’s Daily reflected back on its accomplishments for 2022, it ran several articles on the issue of “comprehensively raising the effectiveness of international communication.” This included a December 22 article laying out the CCP’s strategic approaches to external communication, and a December 28 special feature detailing the ways the People’s Daily had applied its own efforts.

The pieces, juxtaposing policy approaches and concrete cases, offer a revealing summary of how the Party and its flagship newspaper approach the issue of external propaganda. And one clear takeaway for those who observe the broader question of Chinese influence is that core Party media have made little notable progress in developing their own international channels for communication since “going out” was defined as a key goal in the late 2000s.

Core Party media have made little notable progress in developing their own international channels for communication since “going out” was defined as a key goal in the late 2000s.

The first piece, “Raising the Communication Power and Influence of Chinese Civilization” (增强中华文明传播力影响力), mirrors language first introduced with boldness at the May 2021 collective study session of the CCP Politburo. One priority at that session, following the thinking of the invited speaker Zhang Weiwei (张维为), a known proponent of Chinese exceptionalism, was the creation of a unique “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系) that could be deployed with confidence globally. Another was the building of a “strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics” (具有鲜明中国特色的战略传播体系), a phrase that since that time has been taken seriously by CCP officials and commentators.

Both of these phrases, strategic though they may sound on the surface, are prime examples of a malady endemic to CCP policy-making. As formulas, they may sound purposeful, but they are utterly vacant when it comes to strategic content.

Zhang Weiwei may talk until he is blue in the face — and he and others do — about the new global dominance of a “Chinese discourse system” and a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语). But these are little more than slogans used to mobilize toward broadly-defined objectives, often without any apparent consideration of audiences globally and their values and interests. As we shall see in the next section, they do not generally result in fresh approaches to the practice of international communication.

This is the way CCP’s movement-style governance often works. Concepts and slogans delivered from the top, some fresh and others recycled — think “common prosperity” —package and repackage official priorities. These priorities are then broadly applied by actors throughout the political system, including various Party and government bodies, the Party-led media, academia, and even private and state-run businesses, which have a vested interest in signaling compliance.

The process certainly holds for the CCP’s international communication objectives, which under Xi Jinping have been defined as a whole-society effort in which even individuals are to be mobilized as communicators of the Party’s global agenda.

It all sounds very grandiose. To many in the growing global community of researchers of so-called “Chinese influence” around the world, it may also sound sinister and dangerous. But when we take a closer look at the activities China pursues globally, what we often see is a pattern of changing official discourse to describe the intent behind tactics that have largely remained unchanged, and that have questionable effectiveness.

A Chinese Strategic Communication System?

The December People’s Daily piece on raising the power and influence of Chinese civilization offers a good look at this gap between newly wrought CCP discourse and unchanging CCP strategies. The piece contains this choice and revealingly empty passage:

Only with a strategic communication system with Chinese characteristics can we effectively coordinate our resources, give full play to our collective effect, and focus on improving the influence of international communication, the appeal of Chinese culture, the affinity and strength of China’s image, the persuasive power of Chinese discourse, and the guiding power of international public opinion. Building a strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics is a systematic project that requires systematic thinking and overall planning.

The Party must, this passage tells us, be systematic as it works toward a strategic communication system. This system, moreover, irrespective of the obvious strategic need to take into consideration other cultures and discourses, must be distinctively Chinese. In statements like this, we can see China’s official discourse turning in on itself. What does any of this mean? More importantly, how does it have any reference or relevance to a television audience in Nairobi, or to newspaper readers in Brazil?

This is not to say that the CCP’s strategic intentions should not be taken seriously. They certainly should be. But taking them seriously also means recognizing their limitations. Anyone with a background in media or strategic communication can tell you how challenging it can be to advance agendas effectively in any communication environment. Do we really imagine the CCP can simply do so by sloganeering about systems to communicate its cultural greatness, confidence, and uniqueness?

Immediately after the inflated passage above, the People’s Daily runs briefly through concrete strategies for international communication, exposing the CCP’s reliance on old and familiar approaches pre-dating the Xi era and having precursors even in the pre-reform era:

[We must] better employ high-level experts, using important international conferences and forums, foreign mainstream media, and other platforms and channels to speak. [We must] prioritize the use of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese-invested enterprises, international friends, and others in international communication. [We must] be tactful in the strategy and art of the international public opinion struggle, widely making friends, uniting and winning the majority, grasping international discourse power, and consciously safeguarding the dignity and image of the Party and the state.

The cultivation of “international friends” and use of “international conferences and forums” and “foreign mainstream media” are tactics that would be familiar to any propaganda official in the 1950s, when, for example, the official journal People’s China (人民中国) was launched by the Central Propaganda Department with editions in 49 countries to “let the people of the world understand China,” and to serve as a front for people-to-people exchanges with willing partners abroad, such as the Japan-China Friendship Association, linked to the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

The 1963 delegation by the Foreign Languages Press to Tokyo, Japan, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Japanese-language edition of the People’s China journal.

The creation of a new generation of Chinese media outlets overseas — echoing the rollout of People’s China in the 1950s and 60s — was defined as a core objective beginning in 2008, around the time of the Beijing Olympic Games. China invested heavily in the global expansion of state media ventures throughout the 2010s, with outlets like Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, CCTV, and China Radio International (CRI) expanding their global presence. Notice, however, that the above list of priorities does not even include the building of more direct communication channels overseas through the “going out” of Party-state media. These direct efforts have resulted so far in few real gains for Chinese media in foreign markets. And so, revealingly, the People’s Daily article prioritizes the exploitation of foreign mainstream media as well as international conferences and forums.

The creation of a new generation of Chinese media outlets overseas was defined as a core objective beginning in 2008.

The reality of China’s reliance on foreign communication channels is difficult to square with the CCP’s determined language about the need for a “strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics.” And the December 28 full-page feature in the People’s Daily paints a much clearer picture of this reliance as the newspaper touts its foreign propaganda victories.

Turning Inward While Going Out

According to the December 28 feature, “Improving the Overall Effectiveness of International Communication” (全面提升国际传播效能), the People’s Daily reported “cumulative annual views” of nearly 20 million internationally in 2022 for content produced by its 39 overseas bureaus. How was this achieved?

The newspaper claimed to have provided around 3,000 news products in 13 languages to foreign mainstream media, with 35,000 “media drops” (落地) in more than 1,000 foreign media. If these numbers are reliable — though we should remember that the People’s Daily has a vested interest in boasting to those above — it means that the newspaper group produced roughly 3,000 distinct articles or news products that were placed in foreign media outlets 35,000 times, either with payment for inserts or through media cooperation. In many cases, then, identical pieces of People’s Daily news copy would have been shared with around 11.6 media outlets in different languages, with an average of just under 100 “media drops” per day.

The People’s Daily also claimed to have cooperated with media from 24 countries to introduce 169 special sections (主题专版) that reached more than 100 million readers (this likely being a calculation based on total circulation figures for these publications). Finally, the People’s Daily said it cooperated with mainstream media in Mexico, Japan, Egypt, Korea and Nigeria to create regular columns providing continuous updates on Chinese news, with annual views of nearly 20 million.

Page 13 of the December 28, 2022, edition of the People’s Daily profiles the newspaper’s international communication efforts in 2022, with images of foreign news pages.

In what sense was this content from the People’s Daily strategic? Did it take into consideration the needs or values of local audiences? Did it focus on human stories or voices, taking cues from Xi’s notion of “telling China’s story well, transmitting China’s voice well” — a phrase that ran down the center of the page, in the midst of images of international newspaper pages?

The answer is no. The examples the People’s Daily provided are entirely in line with the themes to be found in domestic propaganda. As the newspaper explained:

We focused on the interpretation of President Xi Jinping’s major diplomatic events and series of important speeches. President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the 2022 annual meeting of the Boao Forum for Asia and his speech at the 14th meeting of the leaders of BRICS countries were published in full in foreign media. In line with President Xi Jinping’s major diplomatic activities, more than 50 special pages were launched in cooperation with foreign media.

Examples included a commentary under the official pseudonym “He Yin” called “Working Together to Create a Better Future for Humanity” (携手开创人类更加美好的未来), which spoke of China as a positive force for world peace and prosperity, drawing heavily on CCP jargon. The article was published through Detikcom (点滴网), one of Indonesia’s largest online news portals. Another example was “The Vivid Embodiment of ‘Discussing, Building and Sharing Together'” (“共商共建共享”的生动体现), an article published through Saudia Arabia’s Al Riyadh (利雅得报) newspaper during Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East that spoke glowingly of China’s involvement in the Jizan Port.

The December 28 review of external propaganda quoted Al Riyadh editor-in-chief Hani Farid Wofaa as praising the timing of the publication of the Jizan Port article in his paper. “We are looking forward to long-term cooperation with the People’s Daily,” he said. But neither of the abovementioned articles was written with any consideration of domestic audiences in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Both were domestic propaganda appearing first in the pages of the People’s Daily.

“We are looking forward to long-term cooperation with the People’s Daily.”

Al Riyadh editor-in-chief Hani Farid Wofaa

Other titles emphasized by the newspaper give a sense of the content transmitted to foreign audiences, and suggest little effort beyond the mirroring of propaganda priorities at home in translated external propaganda. The paper “actively promoted the spirit of the 20th Party Congress,” it said, by “cooperating with foreign mainstream media” to launch 50 special pages on such themes as “An Extraordinary Decade, China’s Achievements” (非凡十年·中国成就), and “Making the Manufacturing Sector Superior and Strong” (把制造业做实做优做强).

The People’s Daily is almost certainly applying the word “cooperation” only in the loosest sense here. There might be cases of real cooperation between the newspaper and foreign outlets. But most of the so-called “media drops” are likely instances of paid advertising or inserts, coming at immense aggregate cost when the sheer volume of drops is considered.  

The December 28 review includes, for example, the image of a full page of content published in Egypt’s Al-Ahram (Pyramid), the country’s second-oldest and most widely circulating newspaper. The stories, which are clearly labeled at the top of the page as coming from the People’s Daily, deal with Chinese infrastructure projects, including renewable energy, corresponding to the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), of which Egypt was the host.

Egypt’s Al-Ahram (Pyramid), the country’s second-oldest and most widely circulating newspaper, runs a special page on China, labeled at the top with a People’s Daily logo.

According to advertising rates available online, a daily full-page advertisement (4 colors) in Al-Ahram was listed in 2018 at over 19,000 US dollars.

Rates of course vary from publication to publication. Covering a 2021 People’s Daily review of its own foreign propaganda blitz around the National People’s Congress, CMP noted that advertising rates for that year posted by the French magazine l’Opinion (one of the publications featured) showed that full-page advertisements ran between 18,000 and 30,000 euros (21-36,000 US dollars).

The many thousands of placements in foreign newspapers alone by the People’s Daily in 2022 would likely translate into many tens of millions of dollars, an immense investment.

The Korea Economic Daily, a conservative daily business newspaper in South Korea, publishes a full-page insert of People’s Daily content. The content is labeled with a People’s Daily logo, but no indication to readers that this content is from the Chinese government.

In addition to newspaper “drops,” the People’s Daily claimed to have pushed its propaganda through overseas websites. In the December 28 review, the group took credit for an English-language illustrated series called “China: The Numbers of a Decade” (数说中国这十年), which it said ran on “close to 200 websites in the US, France, Germany, and India.” It quoted “Isabel,” identified as a “news editor for the Manila Bulletin, voicing a sentiment suspiciously in line with official CCP views about the unique advantages of the China Model for developing nations: “Through reading People’s Daily articles we can profoundly feel that China has successfully taken a path to development that is different from that of the West. China’s tremendous development achievements are amazing.”

But these claims for “China: The Numbers of a Decade” hardly stack up against the evidence online. The series, which seems to have been a China Media Group production in which CGTN, the international arm of China’s state-run broadcaster, took the lead, was promoted through PR Newswire, the release sharing a link to the series on the CGTN news website. The same release can be found pasted to other sites, including Padova News, a free news site that advertises itself as the first online daily newspaper in Padua, the independent news outlet India Shorts, and the options trading site Benzinga. CGTN also plugged the content through Twitter, receiving 5 retweets and just 11 likes.

The claim that the series ran on “close to 200 websites” around the world is a blatant and self-deceptive exaggeration based on the casual re-posting of a free press release by scores of websites on the internet periphery. Moreover, the interactive product itself is created in such a way that it is hard to imagine its appeal to international audiences. The product essentially offers blocks of text-heavy propaganda about China’s economy and society in a slow-loading digital format that is cumbersome to navigate — and is likely to be incompatible with most websites internationally.

Screenshot of the Economy section of CGTN’s interactive series “China: The Numbers of a Decade,” promoted by the People’s Daily as a propaganda triumph.

Nevertheless, the People’s Daily insisted with tone-deaf conviction on the appeal of this and other media products: “Reading and understanding China, and reading and understanding the Chinese Communist Party, is the common wish of many overseas audiences,” the December 28 review concluded.

Is it really, though? What efforts have Chinese Party-state media made to actually understand overseas audiences and their wishes and interests?

China insists that it is ready to speak more loudly and compellingly in the world and that it wishes to convey a “real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China” (真实, 立体, 全面的中国). But this goal is ultimately thwarted by its inability to listen, and its insistence on repressing diverse and human voices in favor of the one-dimensional and self-gratifying voice of the state.

These 35,000 media drops reported by the CCP’s flagship newspaper, just drops in the sea of a broader campaign to influence global public opinion, suggest that China — for all its talk of “a strategic communication system with distinctive Chinese characteristics” — has made few real advancements in terms of strategy or substance. It still relies overwhelmingly on the credible avenues offered by local and international media outside of China.

This is a testament, on the one hand, to the failure of the mission set by Hu Jintao nearly 15 years ago, to create the country’s own effective international communication channels through a process of “going out.” On the other hand, it does not mean that such tactics should not be taken seriously, or watched closely. As China’s media “going out” strategy proves ineffective, state media and other actors, including Chinese missions overseas, will continue to exploit foreign media channels and online platforms in ways that have a potentially corrosive effect on open discussions of China and its role, particularly in less free media environments. And they are likely to double-down on more covert and coercive means to co-opt agendas and silence China’s critics.

But China’s communication failures also represent an opportunity that should be recognized and responded to. Beyond raising awareness of the efforts of the Chinese Party-state to influence international agendas, free and open societies around the world should find new ways to work collaboratively on media projects that respond to local needs and concerns, and that encourage media literacy and media production in ways that are professional, participatory, and creative.

For all our talk of asymmetries in global communication, and related vulnerabilities for liberal democracies as opposed to authoritarian states, it remains true that openness is an asset and a strength. It enables us to do that thing so fundamental to the act of communication, which China has consistently shown itself unwilling to do. It enables us to listen.

Whitewashing China’s Record on Covid

China’s leaders have been at pains in recent days to defend their handling of Covid-19 in the face of tough criticism both at home and abroad, with cases soaring and concerns rising among international experts and foreign governments that China is under-reporting cases and fiddling with the facts — the type of obfuscation, it could be said, that got the world into this mess in the first place.

Published yesterday in the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, the latest official commentary from “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), an official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its view, is one of the more egregious examples of how determined CCP leaders are to present their handling of the pandemic over three years as evidence of strong global leadership.

The latest commentary from “Zhong Sheng” appears on page three of yesterday’s People’s Daily.

On the question of responsibility, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary turns legitimate concerns on their head. “To smear a China that has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic is disrespectful to the facts, disrespectful to science, and irresponsible in the face of history,” the column says.

While China’s most recent about-face on Covid, a chaotic unraveling of strict lockdown measures with little apparent preparation and a woeful lack of transparency, has drawn criticism from a wide range of sources globally, including governments, health experts and the World Health Organization, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary” heaps blame on its favorite scapegoat — the foreign media.

It is regrettable that some Western media have turned a blind eye to the above facts and have blatantly smeared China, which has made important contributions to the global fight against the pandemic. Without reason, they have smeared China’s adjustment of its pandemic prevention and control policies. This practice is a complete departure from the professional conduct expected of the news media, a disrespect for the facts, a disrespect for science, and an irresponsibility to history.

Doubling down on hypocrisy, the same newspaper that in January and February 2020 neglected coverage of the pandemic for more than six weeks, choosing instead to focus on the major propaganda objectives set out for the new year, suggests that “[since] the outbreak of the pandemic, China has always been open and transparent.”

This most recent “Zhong Sheng” commentary, “Ignoring China’s Contribution to the Fight Against the Pandemic is Irresponsible to History,” exposes the CCP’s desperate bid to maintain its grasp on the broader narrative about China and Covid.

China’s economy has floundered, held back throughout 2022 by rolling outbreaks met with uncompromising lockdowns as part of Xi Jinping’s “dynamic zero” policy. Despite the official talk of these lockdown policies as “scientific” and “rational,” they were often disruptive of life in ways that were unnecessary, painful, and even tragic. The examples are numerous, from the horrors of the Shanghai lockdown in the spring to the fatal crash of a quarantine transport bus in Guizhou in September. The deadly fire in an apartment block in Xinjiang in November was for many Chinese the final straw, prompting unprecedented street protests.

Despite these obvious failures, never openly acknowledged, China’s leaders have insisted that the country’s response to Covid since 2020 has demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility, both domestically and to the world. They have suggested consistently, ever since strict lockdowns took effect, that “China’s struggle against the epidemic has shown the advantages of the Chinese system.” Even in late September, within days of the fatal crash of a quarantine bus in Guizhou province, the official Xinhua News Agency argued that China’s real actions on Covid and the economy demonstrated “the correct leadership of the CCP Central Committee” and “gave full play to the superiority of the socialist system.”

China’s Covid policies, no matter how ruinous or ill-advised, must not be associated with failure. The CCP leadership has too much invested politically. And so the ultimate act of irresponsibility for the leadership is to suggest that it has not acted responsibly.

This bottom line played out over the weekend as Sina Weibo, one of China’s top social media platforms, shut down more than 1,000 accounts on the grounds that they had been critical of Covid policies. The platform said it had logged close to 13,000 posts violating regulations by leveling criticism at the government and medical experts.

This cartoon appeared on Chinese social media in early January. It shows coffins being marched into a building labeled “The People’s Crematorium.” The caption at the upper-left reads: “The first wave of revenge spending after opening.”

For all its talk about the need for “reason” from the media, the CCP is clearly not prepared to grapple with the facts when it comes to China’s record on Covid.

Relaying the view from the top in China, the “Zhong Sheng” commentary carps about respect for science, and about the need to be responsible toward history. But we must remember that in the CCP’s understanding, both history and science are beholden, like much else, to the limitations of politics. Sprinkled throughout official CCP discourse today, references to the policies and actions of the leadership as “scientific” are little more than a claim to the legitimacy of anything and everything the Party does.

This is why, in the earliest days of the epidemic in Wuhan, medical experts attempting to call attention to the emergence of worrisome respiratory cases were sharply disciplined by local officials and warned instead to “speak politics.”

Notes taken of an internal hospital meeting by Wuhan doctor Jiang Xueqing on January 3, 2020, with the note (highlighted) to “speak politics.”

Surely, one of the most critical lessons to be drawn from the past three years is that when politics reigns supreme over science, this can have profound and far-reaching implications for the health and security of the entire world.

Whatever “Zhong Sheng” may say, professional conduct by the news media, in China and around the world, should be all about unsettling and pulling apart the reductive narratives imposed by political power, and foiling with factual reporting their attempts to whitewash history. Anything less would be irresponsible.

Reporting Achievements

Earlier this month, Chinese Journalist (中国记者), an official journal on media published by Xinhua News Agency, ran an article laying out the essential role to be played by news agency journalists in the coming years. Attributed to the agency’s president, Fu Hua (傅华), the article is an illuminating look at just how cowed Party-run media have become under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Perhaps more definitively than at any point in China’s reform era, the mission of CCP media today is about whitewashing the record of the general secretary and the top leadership, building the case that a “great transformation” has been underway in China.

Fu begins by emphasizing the so-called “Five Firm Grasps” (五个牢牢把握), one of the key catchphrases emerging from the recent 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. In particular, Fu stresses that the first of the “Five Firm Grasps” defines the way forward for Xinhua. The news agency, he writes, “will firmly grasp the significance of the work of the past five years and the great transformation of the new era, carefully organizing achievement reports and model propaganda.”

“Achievement reports,” or chengjiu baodao (成就报道), are news stories that amplify the successes of the leadership, often around important milestones and commemorations. Such reports are not new, but in Xi’s “New Era,” when every day is a fresh opportunity to declare victory, they have become far more routine.

Special Occasions

In the Party’s official People’s Daily, references to achievement reports go back to the early 2000s and the run-up to the 16th National Congress, when Jiang Zemin’s theory of the “Three Represents” was being feted ahead of its inclusion in the Party Charter. In September of that year, a special series of articles appeared in the News Frontline (新闻战线), another core CCP media journal, in which editors from the Economic Daily, Nanfang Daily, and other newspapers discussed “how to innovate achievement reports.”

It was a time of media experimentation. Propaganda was changing too. In January 2003, the new propaganda chief, Li Changchun (李长春), would introduce the “Three Closenesses” (三贴近), an approach to media control that at the same time recognized the need to commercialize the sector and make media products more attractive to ever more savvy audiences.

Talk of the need to transform media and propaganda had already been in vogue for a number of years, on the back of a media commercialization process already well underway. In one article for an obscure academic journal published in September 2000, Pan Shanwu (潘善武), a local television producer in the city of Shaoxing, had written of the need to breathe life into the achievement report.

In recent years, achievement reports have become a ‘prescribed action’ for all media. In order to ensure the proper dedication of space, many media outlets set up special columns, dealing with the achievements for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, or of the 15th and 20th anniversaries of reform and opening. . . . In all fairness, however, there are few compelling reports on achievements in the media. We must devote further thought and study to the content, subject matter, and form used for the ‘prescribed action’ of the achievement report.

Generally speaking, achievement reports were prescribed for special occasions. And this prescriptive approach, Pan suggested, invited a mechanical response, when in fact media should emphasize “individuality” (个性特色). Pan referred at the time to the novelty of the idea that media were offering “products” to readers.

in a 2000 paper, television producer Pan Shanwu (潘善武) bemoans a lack of “individuality” in achievement reports by CCP media.

Innovated or not, achievement reports continued to be a focus of CCP media planning around special events. From time to time there were even achievement reports for achievement reports. As the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC approached in 2009, the People’s Daily ran an article praising its work hyping the event. The paper boasted that it had created a whole series of achievement reports that had “helped the masses of readers deeply understand the establishment and development of our great motherland.”

The New Era: Special All the Time

In the Xi era, achievement reports seem to have become a topic for constant hand-wringing and consideration as propaganda officials and communications experts fall over themselves to strategize for the build-up of China’s discourse power — and as the Party-state media enter a period of renewed emphasis on obedience and positivity.

During his first major meeting on propaganda and ideology in August 2013, Xi Jinping introduced the notion of “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), finding new ways to conduct propaganda, both domestically and overseas. He also spoke of the need to “transmit positive energy” (传播正能量) — in other words, to promote uplifting messages about China and its ruling party as opposed to critical or negative ones.

Xi Jinping’s focus on propaganda innovation and positivity naturally invited a reconsideration of the achievement report.

In November of that year, just weeks after Xi attended the Central Forum on Arts and Literature with more messages about the need for obedient journalists and online writers, Zou Xianqi (邹贤启), the president of the Hubei Daily Media Group, wrote in the People’s Daily to discuss the “innovation” of front pages at CCP newspapers. He praised the work of his group’s flagship Hubei Daily, claiming that it had trailblazed with a series of front-page reports touting local economic growth, new investment policies, and so on. The paper, he said, had “broken through the simple narrative mode of achievement reporting.”

Xi’s further elevation during the 19th National Congress in 2017 fueled a continued upsurge in achievement reporting. As China Central Television reflected back on its work in 2018, the network’s deputy chief editor, Wei Quhu (魏驱虎), became over-excited with war metaphors, telling the Cyberspace Administration of China’s New Media magazine that “in the battlefield of the 19th National Congress coverage, CCTV entered the field early, broadened the front, focused its attack, occupied the high ground, and achieved remarkable war results.”

CCTV’s ammunition? The achievement report, naturally. Wei noted, first and foremost, that CCTV had “strengthened the intensity of achievement reports,” touting China’s victories in the fight against poverty, improving people’s livelihoods, and protecting the environment.

But at its heart, achievement reporting wasn’t really about the substance of the country’s vaunted achievements at all. It was about obedience to Xi Jinping and the CCP Central Committee. This priority had become the intensely new order of the day, taking precedence over all content-related decision-making, following the general secretary’s February 19, 2016, speech on media policy, which had been accompanied by visits to the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and China Central Television.

In his speech, Xi insisted that all Party media were “propaganda positions” of the Party and that they must “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party.” Ultimately, the media must recognize before all other priorities their “partyness” (党性), that they were, as Xi made clear, “surnamed Party” (姓党). This took precedence over the notion of “peopleness” (人民性), that the media were meant to serve the people. To serve the Party, in fact, was the only way to serve the people.

As Xi Jinping’s power within the Party grew, “partyness” was increasingly Xi-ness. Telling the China story meant trumpeting the Party’s achievements under the inspirational guidance of Xi as the “core” leader. As Wei Quhu wrote at CCTV:

In the specific act of creation, the CCTV News Center’s production team clearly realizes that in order to make such loftily atmospheric and weighty thematic achievement reports really enter the hearts of viewers to trigger the resonance of ideas and emotional resonance, we must follow the spirit and requirements of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech on February 19 [2016], adhering to the unity of party spirit and the people spirit . . .

For all the talk of “resonance,” Xi Jinping’s media policy has been a recipe for divorce from the audience and from reality.

If the Chairman Says So

Even as China’s economic problems mounted this year amid painfully restrictive Covid policies, the story of Xi Jinping’s economic genius had to take precedence. As Party media readied themselves over the summer for a rush of positive reporting ahead of the 20th National Congress, the Economic Daily reported the release in late June by the Central Propaganda Department of a “study guideline” for “Xi Jinping Economic Thought” (习近平经济思想), the phrase meant to signal the strength of the general secretary’s economic policy approaches.

The newspaper, published by the same Central Propaganda Department, pledged itself to three actions in promoting the economic work of the Party at a time of historic changes “such as have not been seen in a century.” First, it must abide by the principle of “politicians running the newspapers” (政治家办报), maintaining a high level of unity with “Xi Jinping as the core” in both politics and action. Second, it had to “create new heights in the propagation of Xi Jinping Economic Thought.” And finally, it had to promote the “vivid practice and living experience” of Xi Jinping Economic Thought by organizing topical propaganda and achievement reports.

When the People’s Daily published a notice on October 19, 2020, to congratulate groups and individuals — but mostly the Party itself — for achievements in poverty alleviation, it included the Emergency News Division of the Central Propaganda Department’s News Bureau, for “coordinating achievement and model reports on poverty alleviation policies and achievements,” which had “opened the great curtain on propaganda work” for 2020.

The Emergency News Division had indeed “opened the great curtain” in 2020. And so heavy was the curtain, in fact, that it had shoved aside coverage of the emerging global pandemic for two months.

In the People’s Daily, that coverage included a series called “The General Secretary Came to My Home” (总书记来过我的家), highlighting Xi’s official trips into the impoverished countryside. Writing about the CCP’s concerted propaganda push in early 2020, as the global pandemic raged, CMP co-director Qian Gang said that the Xi Jinping series, “with its feel-good reminiscences aggrandizing Xi Jinping as a man of the people, stands as a historical record of propaganda ugliness that cannot be whitewashed away.”

Fu Hua’s article in Chinese Journalist reminds us that now, more than at any point since the Cultural Revolution, whitewashing is the official policy in the Chinese media. Fu runs an ostensible news agency that understands its chief responsibility as looking back at the past and manufacturing its glories. This is the essence of the first of the “Five Firm Grasps” emerging from the October congress. All Chinese must “firmly grasp the significance of the work of the past five years and the great transformation of the new era.” For the media, this means embracing the achievement report as the primary form of news reporting. For Party officials and citizens, it means suspending doubt and swallowing criticism.

“History illuminates the future, and the journey has no end,” Fu wrote in the soaring conclusion to his song of obedience. But when history conveys no real lessons, when its primary business is to construct models of achievement and greatness, what it reveals instead is the rottenness at the core of the politics that have wrought it.