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).

How to Please China’s Audience of One

This year marks the 10th anniversary in China of the annual “media social responsibility reporting system” (媒体社会责任报告制度), instituted at the start of the Xi Jinping era by the Central Propaganda Department (CPD) and the All-China Journalist’s Association. The system obligates media organizations to make annual self-assessments of their work in the interest of enforcing self-discipline.

While the nominal objective is “social responsibility,” the reports make clear that the primary duties of Chinese media are political in nature.

Begun on a trial basis in 2013, with the first reports appearing from a small number of media outlets the following year, the media social responsibility reporting system encompassed 40 media organizations by 2018, including six at the central level. In the latest reporting cycle, more than 500 media outlets from the central level down to the county level submitted social responsibility reports — more than 100 new outlets added since the last cycle.

The reports offer a revealing glimpse into the enforcement of political priorities in China’s official media, including commercially-run spin-off publications, and even a number of local “convergence media centers” (融媒体中心), which have in recent years supplanted party-state print and broadcasting outlets at the lowest levels. The chief message emerging from all of these reports is that social responsibility is a matter of political conformity.

Politics First

The Table of Contents of the social responsibility report released by Xinhua News Agency, a ministry-level agency directly under the State Council acting as the country’s official newswire, provides the basic line-up of priorities that is generally followed in responsibility assessments across the board.

When it comes to form, there is little room for creativity in these reports, most of which are archived online at the official website of the All-China Journalist’s Association, an ostensible professional organization whose primary role is not to represent media professionals but to regulate and control them.


The Table of Contents of Xinhua’s “Social Responsibility Report” 2022. Topping the list, “political responsibility.”

The preface first sets out the ideological positioning of Xinhua News Agency, and this section is virtually identical in all reports, regardless of the administrative level of the media outlet in question. Xinhua affirms that its work is led by the political thought of Xi Jinping, and by the “Two Establishes” (两个确立), the concept that defines Xi Jinping as the unquestionable “core” leader of the CCP, and his ideas as the Party’s bedrock.

Further, the preface affirms the principles of “Party spirit” (党性), and the Mao Zedong-era notion of “politicians running the newspapers” (政治家办报), essentially the notion that the CCP must directly control the media as opposed to allowing private outlets. This phrase, as we note in our CMP Dictionary, has made a dramatic comeback under Xi Jinping, and it is featured in all of the responsibility reports we reviewed (See the Nanfang Daily report here, for example).

Also of note are the mentions in the Xinhua preface of the need to maintain “guidance of public opinion” (again, media control), to “transmit China’s voice” (传播中国声音) — about the priority of external propaganda and the development of soft power — and to “propagate the Party’s ideas” (宣传党的主张).

The reports offer a revealing glimpse into the enforcement of political priorities in China’s official media, the chief message being that social responsibility is a matter of political conformity.

The preface makes the political nature — or, more accurately, Party nature — of Xinhua explicit from the start. The first section of the report that follows immediately after, called “Political Responsibility,” is the outlet’s opportunity to sound off about all of the good work it was done on the CCP’s behalf.

It is immediately clear that the top priority at Xinhua News Agency is the power and personality of Xi Jinping — and this is mirrored across the board in these responsibility reports. The first line of the section reads: “We took the proper handling of propaganda on the ideas and image of General Secretary Xi Jinping as our top matter of priority and our number one work.”

The first page of the “Political Responsibility” section emphasizing Xinhua’s reporting on Xi Jinping.

The news agency notes — this is an assessment, after all — that it published “more than 17,000 reports” altogether on Xi Jinping throughout the year, including domestic reports that were picked up 52,000 times by other media outlets inside China, and “external reports” (对外报道) that were picked up by 7,400 media outlets overseas.

Xinhua touts several special features and columns, such as “Xi Jinping, Leader on the New Path” (新征程领路人习近平) and “Xi Jinping Stories” (习近平的故事), all of which, according to the news agency, “fully demonstrated the truth power and practical greatness of the General Secretary’s thought.”

The “Political Responsibility” section also covers “major topical reports,” which is Xinhua’s opportunity to praise itself for going all-out on the major story of 2022, which of course was the 20th National Congress of the CCP, where Xi Jinping was handed a third term as general secretary.

Serve the Sheeple

Beyond the prescribed propaganda themes of Xi Jinping and the 20th National Congress, both foregone conclusions well before 2022 dawned, Xinhua congratulates itself on the role it played in “channeling public opinion” (舆论引导), a concept formally introduced by Hu Jintao in 2008 that is about combining proactive news controls (such as keeping more freewheeling commercial media away from the scene of breaking stories) with the active release of state-sanctioned information.

The point of “channeling” is to direct public opinion on sensitive matters toward themes and questions that are more palatable for the leadership. Think of it as the shepherding of public opinion, one of the primary roles of the party-state media. Xinhua notes, for example, with not a whiff of the troubles that plagued China’s economy in 2022, that its coverage of the Central Economic Work Conference (中央经济工作会议) focused on the positives, “boosting confidence” (提振信心).

In a short section on “public opinion supervision” (舆论监督), which refers to the exposure of social and policy ills, Xinhua says that it “cleared up rumors” over the infamous case of the woman found chained in a shed in the city of Xuzhou, which had China’s internet in an uproar in January 2022. In fact, through the course of that case, Xinhua was one of the chief disseminators of official government information that continually dissatisfied and angered the public.

As the Beijing Winter Olympics kicked off, the authorities in China were keen to ensure that the story of the poor and neglected woman in Xuzhou did not turn attention to questions of government negligence. At institutional media, including central party-state media outlets such as Xinhua, there was a notable absence of reporting on the case. Information sources were almost entirely limited to “we-media” accounts on platforms like WeChat.

Xinhua was one of the chief disseminators of official government information that continually dissatisfied and angered the public.

Eventually, Caixin Media did publish a more in-depth report on the story, but public doubts still lingered. Official government releases, meanwhile, failed to provide plausible explanations for the plight of the chained woman, and the gaps between official releases were often long, leaving an information vacuum that in this case was filled by “we-media” posts and internet discussion.

The Struggle for Global Opinion

One of the final points Xinhua notes on “political responsibility” are its active efforts to conduct international communication, disseminating a “credible, lovable, and respectable” image of China to the world — this being a reference to Xi Jinping’s remarks at a collective study session of the Politburo in May 2021.

Xinhua claims to have logged 15.6 million downloads of its English-language news app, and to have reached a total of 270 million fans globally for its various accounts on foreign social media platforms, including those such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that are banned inside China.

In its 2022 responsibility report, the China Daily, an English-language outlet published by the Information Office of the State Council expressly for the purpose of conducting what the CCP still refers to as “external propaganda” (外宣), places a strong emphasis on overseas work. In its “public opinion channeling” sub-section under “political responsibility,” the paper begins by saying: “Based on the requirements of foreign propaganda, we effectively engaged in public opinion struggle and conscientiously safeguarded national interests.”

The term “public opinion struggle” (舆论斗争) is a hardline reference, reminiscent of language from the period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), that suggests that the CCP is locked in a bitter battle for global public opinion with Western governments, media, and critics. The phrase was introduced by Xi Jinping in his first speech on ideology in August 2013.

China Daily promotes its program “Media Unlocked” in its 2022 social responsibility report, saying that it has “exposed the slandering and smearing of China by the US and the West.”

In fact, the China Daily responsibility report takes a more overtly confrontational approach to the West than many other reports, saying that it “profoundly exposed the slandering and smearing of China by the US and the West.”

The report praises the work of “Media Unlocked Studio” (起底工作室), an affiliated social media brand active on domestic platforms like Douyin and shared through China Daily‘s account on YouTube and other platforms. It also mentions “Weihua Talks” (卫华有话说), a social media product that consists of regular interviews with Chen Weihua (陈卫华), China Daily‘s European bureau chief, who is well known for his antagonistic takes on Twitter, which have often included personal attacks on foreign journalists and China experts.

In its sub-section on “external communication,” the China Daily notes that its international edition “was distributed to 63 countries and regions around the world, strengthening the coverage of key populations.” The outlet also remarks that it “strengthened cooperation with overseas mainstream media, publishing more than 500 special editions in major media in 26 countries.” In fact, like most Chinese state media conducting “external propaganda,” the China Daily applies the word “cooperation” broadly, including arrangements that are purely pay-for-play, and generally involve the placement of advertising supplements in foreign newspapers.

When CMP looked at the financials for China Daily USA as reported under filings to the US government for the period from June-October 2022, the latest on record, it was clear that the newspaper is supported almost entirely by outlays from the Chinese government. Advertising accounted for just two percent of revenues. [Read more from CMP in “The Ins and Outs of China Daily“].

More than 40 years after its founding, the China Daily continues to rely almost entirely on the use of borrowed channels for which the Chinese government pays immense sums of money every year — or in other cases on the provision of free content to willing partners around the world. In its 2022 social responsibility report, the outlet says that it “strengthened online cooperation and dissemination, landing 17,000 multilingual reports in more than 320 mainstream media worldwide.”

The purpose of this year’s social responsibility report is not, of course, for China Daily to actually reflect on the limitations of its influence or the reasons why it has failed to draw advertisers, operate sustainably, or achieve wider credibility. The point is to signal that the leadership’s priorities are priorities it shares. And these priorities are applied across all media, regardless of size or relevance.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, the CCP’s emphasis on external propaganda has strengthened notably around the concept of “telling China’s story well.” The manufacture of global discourse power has become an obsession with the leadership, and media and officials at every level of the country’s vast bureaucracy must scramble to demonstrate that they are doing their part for what is now a whole-society effort.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, the CCP’s emphasis on external propaganda has strengthened notably.

In its 2022 social responsibility report, the media convergence center for Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the remote northwestern region of Qinghai — which has a population of just 500,000 over a territory almost the size of Germany — also notes its efforts in the area of external communication. But in the case of Haixi, external communication is chiefly about getting local news and propaganda seen at the national level, the closest it can hope to come to broader influence. The report boasts that “nearly 1,600 articles” were picked up by national and provincial-level media platforms, including People’s Daily Online, Xinhua News Agency and Qinghai News, the official site of the provincial government.

The October 17, 2022, edition of China Banking and Insurance News. The big news isn’t banking, it’s . . . . Guess who.

The same claims are made by China Space News (中国航天报), a national industry publication, and by Xinjiang’s Urumqi Evening News (乌鲁木齐晚报), the official CCP mouthpiece of the region’s capital city. The latter, after noting its efforts to “tell Xinjiang’s story well” and “communicate China’s voice well,” explains that 20 of its reports were picked up by the People’s Daily news app, and another 768 by Xinjiang Daily, the region’s official Party newspaper.

Only China Banking and Insurance News (中国银行保险报) seems to have neglected to sing its own praises in the area of external communication. The sub-section is left out of its 2022 report. But the newspaper notes in its “Political Responsibility” section that it actively promoted the 20th National Congress of the CCP and Xi Jinping’s governing concepts “in accordance with the requirements of the Central Propaganda Department.” It shares an image in the report of the front page of its October 17, 2022, edition — a page that looks identical in layout and treatment to thousands of other pages that appeared across the country that day.

We Could Have Done More

For Chinese media under Xi Jinping, the quickest path to social responsibility is one of uniformity and conformity. For all the talk in this annual reporting exercise of opening up new channels and reaching the hearts of the Chinese people, everyone in China’s board rooms and news rooms understands that the most important audience in this process is the same gigantic presence who stands at the center of all news and propaganda. Every assessment turns on the question of how well you have gratified the assessor.

Through their almost ritualistic acts of ingratiation, self-dealing praise, and political narcissism, the social responsibility reports filed by Chinese media across the country offer an illuminating glimpse into one of the most basic flaws of China’s political system, a flaw that has been amplified as Xi Jinping has seized ever greater power at the commanding heights of the CCP.

At the outset of the reform period, China’s media and Chinese society more broadly sought to move away from the “falsehood, bluster and emptiness” (假大空) that had caused so much pain and chaos during the Cultural Revolution [More in the CMP archives]. But in China today, “falsehood, bluster and emptiness” are once again the fuel that feeds politics and the media.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this comes as the various social responsibility reports in this latest assessment round turn to the obligatory question of how they fell short in their work in 2022. In all reports, this is a simple section, usually a single line, called “Insufficiencies” (不足).

The inadequacies reported by the media outlets are nearly uniform in their lack of introspection, most suggesting in a self-complimentary way that there needs to be more of the same — more strong and persuasive articles, and greater influence in international communication. “Some work still needs to be further strengthened, so that news reports better reflect the hopes of the masses,” the Xinhua report says blandly. “In promoting the deepening of [media] convergence and strengthening of external communication there is also need for constant effort.”

“Thoughtful, insightful, and persuasive high-quality masterpieces need to be even greater in number,” says the People’s Daily, noting also that “there is still a lot of work to do in enhancing the effectiveness of international communication.” China Media Group, the conglomerate that encompasses giants like China Central Television and China National Radio, says much the same: “There are still certain insufficiencies in 2022 work. There is still room for improvement chiefly in the building of international communication capacity, and innovation-driven and creative development.”

In this mind-numbing context, innovation seems an impossible ask. And yet, in the era of generative AI, one has to wonder whether these bland statements — and possibly entire social responsibility reports and other documents — might be created through more efficient and innovative means. After all, in a political culture where praise and criticism alike have the uniform purpose of elevating the ruling Party and its leading men, is there any point in taxing human minds with the machine-like process of ingratiation?

Can we not imagine the great new era of ChatCCP?

Fake News on the Front Line

For the hundreds of thousands of Chinese fans who flocked in recent weeks to the video channel of a Russian soldier identifying himself as “Paul Kotzatie,” the man’s first-hand account resonated with truths about the war in Ukraine many surely felt they knew. For more than a year, state media reports had claimed, Russia’s aggression notwithstanding, that it was the United States that was primarily to blame for the conflict. Here, speaking from the front lines, was Paul, claiming to have destroyed American tanks and “captured American soldiers alive.”

As proof, Paul displayed captured weapons and equipment to his viewers, and shared footage of what appeared to be live combat action against the backdrop of Ukraine. By early June, Paul’s online store on Kuaishou, one of China’s top short video platforms, had attracted more than 400,000 fans.

In one video, clearly using a green screen, “Paul” appears with a Ukrainian power station in the background.

But Paul was not Russian, and he was not in Ukraine. The ruse unraveled earlier this month as social media users noted that while Paul’s Russian was halting, he spoke Chinese not just fluently, but with a distinctive Henan accent. Before long, suspicions were confirmed. It was established that his IP address was indeed in Henan province.

As the video account came under widespread scrutiny online, Paul suddenly deleted his previous videos, renaming his account “Wang Kangmei” (王抗美), a false name that translates as “Anti-American Wang.” Soon after, Kuaishou deleted the offending account, and other platforms followed suit.

China’s restrictions on information and content creation in the digital age are formidable, unmatched anywhere in the world. How was it, then, that a patently false account of life on Ukraine’s front lines, rendered with often cringingly poor CGI, was allowed to persist, and even to prosper, for two months?

Under the Cover of the Party’s Dogmatic Truths

A big part of the answer lies in the special powers and privileges enjoyed in China by state media in a tightly controlled media environment — and by the official narratives they peddle to domestic audiences. In China’s media environment, the fundamental core value is that power and its interests must be protected. Falsehood can endure, so long at it cleaves to the dogmatic truths of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Falsehood can endure, so long at it cleaves to the dogmatic truths of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The Party’s notion of the truth provides a level of cover and protection, a kind of information camouflage. Paul’s falsehood could stand unopposed because it accommodated an official Chinese position, and an attitude toward the war in Ukraine. That position, including the notion that the US and its allies are to blame, has been promoted through the country’s most powerful media channels with a basic disregard for the facts, and with routine dishonesty — evidenced not least in the media’s insistence still on referring to the war as a “crisis.”

For the same reason, it is fair to say that Paul’s account was suspended not for committing fabrications per se, but because it was broadly and openly exposed as a fabrication, and because that fabrication also involved commercial profit.

In China’s media environment, truth is not a defense and offers no protection. If a video account from a real Ukrainian soldier on the front lines were to offer an entirely different vantage on Russia’s aggression through Kuaishou or another major Chinese platform, we can be certain the account would face swift removal before it could approach anything close to half a million fans. “Anti-American Wang” is acceptable. “Pro-Ukrainian Wang” is not.

The story of “Paul Kotzatie” is a reminder that in China the right to speak, and the right to be heard, is ultimately controlled by those in power, and by their agendas.

This is a fact whose ramifications we also witnessed last month as the Cyberspace Administration of China announced that it had shut down more than 100,000 fake accounts impersonating official Party-state media organizations and news anchors. Another 25,000 accounts, said the CAC, had impersonated public institutions, while some 13,000 had impersonated official military accounts, with names like “Chinese Red Army Command.”

Why would fraudsters pretend to be state media, public institutions, or the military?

The answer should be obvious. The Party, the government, and the military are the three manifestations of power in China, all ultimately under the leadership of Xi Jinping and the CCP. In this New Era, when the leadership has moved to re-consolidate its control over the channels of communication, association with the institutions of power is really the only way to ensure that what one says, however false and self-serving, will be heard, perpetuated — and protected.

The World in Xi Jinping’s Court

Throughout the first three decades of China’s reform period, the presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors was a routine affair, hardly meriting special attention in the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily. This has changed dramatically in Xi Jinping’s New Era, as CMP noted in some detail our most recent monthly report on CCP discourse in cooperation with Sinocism.

Once consigned to the inside pages, such reports have risen to the front page, portraying Xi Jinping as a leader of imperial proportions, at the center of his diplomatic universe. Conscientiously constructed by party-state media, this image recalls the glorious dynastic past that Xi has so often invoked — when envoys, having traveled the Silk Road, would arrive in the capital to pay tribute to the emperor presiding over his court (万邦来朝).

The June 14, 2023, edition of the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper. The report on the appointment of ambassadors is highlighted.

Yesterday’s edition of the People’s Daily offered a glimpse of the reverse side of this same trend, the imperial treatment of Xi’s appointment of his own ambassadors.

Perhaps unnoticed by those who ignore the visual vocabulary of propaganda, the prominent treatment of diplomatic appointment news makes a simple but important point: that Xi Jinping’s centrality, significance and legitimacy as a national leader is bolstered by his genius as a commanding global leader.

Never in the time of Xi’s predecessors did announcements like that yesterday in the People’s Daily — of Xi’s appointment of new ambassadors to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Estonia — make it to the front page, much less to the “newspaper eye” (报眼), the space immediately to the right of the newspaper’s masthead. This coveted position has for decades been reserved (like the space below the masthead), for the most crucial of party news and announcements.

As a general point for observers of CCP discourse, such layout decisions in the People’s Daily and other official Party media are never incidental or aesthetic. They are intentional, and as such reflect decision-making and prioritization — being indispensable to how the Party speaks.

How have ambassadorial appointments been handled in the past?

When Diplomacy Was Just Diplomacy

Turning back to the 1980s, we find that appointment news was routinely published on page four of the People’s Daily. In the image below, from the paper’s archives, you can see three such stories in September and October 1988, reporting appointments at the time by Yang Shangkun (杨尚昆), who had been appointed as president (国家主席) of the PRC that same year. All of these announcements are published on page four.

Announcements of ambassadorial appointments in the People’s Daily in September and October 1988.

Moving on to the 1990s, we find that the same pattern prevailed still, with the notable difference that appointments were made by the top leader, Jiang Zemin, in his capacity as head of state, a position that from 1993 onward was held by the CCP general secretary.

Layout decisions in the People’s Daily and other official Party media are never incidental or aesthetic.

With just a few exceptions in the Hu Jintao era, this treatment of appointments in the People’s Daily remained consistent.

Such notices were never front-page news. Page four, certainly. Page two, possibly.

Announcements of ambassadorial appointments in the People’s Daily in 2009 and 2010.

In 2013 and 2014, the first two full years of Xi Jinping’s rule, the old pattern persisted. In the archived articles below, you can see that ambassadorial appointments were published consistently on page three.

Announcements of ambassadorial appointments in the People’s Daily in 2013 and 2014.

Bronze Mirrors for Xi 

In 2015, common practice suddenly changed. When Xi made appointments of Chinese ambassadors to countries like Moldova, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Singapore, these announcements appeared almost uniformly on page one of the People’s Daily.

Announcements of ambassadorial appointments in the People’s Daily in 2015, with all but one on page 1.

By 2017, with the approach of the 19th National Congress and Xi’s second term in office, there were no longer exceptions to the front-page rule. Xi Jinping’s appointments were sometimes pushed out of the most coveted spots — by news of foreign visits and so on — but they were always among the top few stories.

Announcements of ambassadorial appointments in the People’s Daily in 2017 — front-page news, without exception.

From 2017 onward the elevation of appointment announcements continued in the People’s Daily.

Though a matter of educated speculation, it is likely that the prominent treatment of Xi’s diplomatic centrality was from the beginning about harnessing China’s international ambitions under Xi — seen in the trashing of Deng’s long-held bide-our-time policy — to further rationalize his personal grab for power.

In 2018, particularly, as the CCP scrapped presidential term limits, privately a profound concern to many within the Party, the need to manufacture sources of legitimacy was keen. By 2021 and 2022, it was not uncommon to spot announcements in the “newspaper eye,” such as this page (right) from May 13, 2021.

The sense in the official state media that Xi is holding audiences at court has been accentuated in recent years with pomp and symbolism on the ground as well. When French President Emmanuel Macron made an official visit to China in back in April, the symbolism at times reached absurd proportions. At one point after Macron’s arrival, the two were pictured standing stiffly at attention on an elevated red stage along the course of the red carpet, under a red pavilion with gold tassels and glistening gold railing. As Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, noted, “[even] Macron himself seemed slightly embarrassed by the pageantry.”

Considering the imperial point Xi Jinping was trying to make, of course, none of these flourishes were too extravagant or too outlandish. Visually, as politically, the general secretary must be enlarged.

His Authorship, Xi Jinping

For most writers and publishers in China today, opportunities for expression have dwindled in the face of overt and covert repression and creeping political hypersensitivity. As one long-time publisher summed up the tight squeeze recently: “You cannot say China is bad, and you cannot say that foreign countries are good.”

On the reverse side, this repression can be seen saliently in the return of the use of the press as a tool of personal political power. In the digital age, Xi Jinping may be unable to create, as Mao Zedong once did, a media monoculture to serve his narrow political ambitions. But in an echo of the pre-reform era, when Mao‘s supremacy was trumpeted through the so-called “Two Newspapers and One Journal” (两报一刊), Xi Jinping now dominates not just the headlines — but often, as in the case of the CCP’s leading theoretical journal, the bylines.

The top two pieces on the front page of the June 12 edition of the People’s Daily both deal with separately published volumes from Xi.

The same is true when it comes to books. Xi Jinping is far and away the most published Chinese leader in four generations. Not since the time of Chairman Mao and his pervasive “Little Red Book” has any leader’s voice commanded the presses so convincingly.

Consider: In yesterday’s edition of the People’s Daily, the front page was topped with two separate announcements of books published in Xi’s name. Before the so-called New Era, Xi’s predecessors could wait a full year, or as much as three years, for a single volume of any description.

But exactly how does Xi stack up?

To find out, I made a headline search in the People’s Daily for the phrase “published and distributed” (出版发行), and then cross-referenced for mentions of Xi Jinping and his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin — defining 10-year periods for each corresponding to their time in power. This allowed the isolation of instances of book publication related to each leader, including the release of special volumes, collected writings, and so-called “single-volume editions” (单行本), printed versions of major speeches and policies.

Xi Jinping is far and away the most published Chinese leader in four generations.

The gap I found between Xi Jinping and his predecessors in this arena is substantial. During his first decade in power, Xi published an average of 12 unique titles per year, all given rather prominent treatment in the People’s Daily. By comparison, Hu Jintao published just 1.5 titles per year. Jiang Zemin? Just 1.4.

Behind these numbers is also a clear transformation in the relationship between publishing and power. The bottom line: While the publishing of books and special volumes was not central to the exercise or consolidation of power for Xi Jinping’s predecessors, it has become a crucial means over the past decade to signal the centrality and essentialness of Xi and his ideas — and therefore the legitimacy of his grip on power.

Jiang Zemin: Book Dedicator in Chief

Jiang Zemin, in fact, was prolific in dedicating books by others, and in penning calligraphic titles for such works. Related news could be found in the pages of the People’s Daily several times a year through the 1990s. Jiang, however, was rarely ever the center of attention, and he and his ideas were never — so far as I could find — the focus of the books in question. More often, they dealt with past leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, sending a message of continuity rather than making claims of historic breakthrough.

Revealingly, Jiang Zemin’s peak year of more personal, legacy-related political publishing was 2001, the year ahead of the 16th National Congress of the CCP that would mark the appointment of Hu Jintao as general secretary. These volumes were about putting the final punctuation on Jiang’s time in power as he prepared to step aside, and about consolidating his contributions to the CCP canon.  

In marked contrast to Xi Jinping, whose Governance of China was published during only his second full year in power, Jiang Zemin’s On the ‘Three Represents’ (论三个代表), the book dealing with his legacy phrase, was not published until October 2001, one year before he left office.

Hu Jintao: Anniversaries and Commemorations

Nearly all of Hu’s published volumes in 2006, one of his modest peak years (4), were anniversary commemorations — of the 85th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, and the 70th anniversary of the Long March. While the volumes were published in the name of General Secretary Hu, they were primarily about the milestones being commemorated.

Former President Hu Jintao is removed from the Great Hall of the People ahead of Xi Jinping’s address to the 20th National Congress of the CCP in 2022.

The two other volumes published that year were not focused on Hu at all. They included a special volume of Hu’s reflections on his predecessor, Jiang, who had just published his collected writings, and Hu’s speech to commemorate the 120th birthday of Zhu De (朱德), the former commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who had died in 1976.

Hu Jintao peaked again in 2009 and 2010, with a series of published volumes commemorating various anniversaries, such as the one-year anniversary of the Wenchuan Earthquake, and the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. But the only published volume with a clear relation to Hu Jintao’s political legacy was a single-volume edition (单行本) of his speech at a conference on the implementation of the Scientific View of Development (科学发展观), Hu’s banner term. This was already April 2010, as speculation simmered about possible successors, including Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, or even, possibly, Bo Xilai.

Xi Jinping: A Power Tower of Books

With zero titles, the first full year of what would soon be touted as Xi Jinping’s New Era, 2013, was a slow one. But things picked up quickly the next year, putting Xi already on par with Hu Jintao’s historical publishing highs with volumes including a collection of his “important speeches” in June (followed soon after by translations into multiple ethnic dialects), and of course the Chinese-language edition in September of his Governance of China (习近平谈治国理政).

In 2015, I could find a total of 10 book titles, including special volumes, that gathered together Xi’s thoughts on various policy areas (such as governing the nation in accord with the law), as well as volumes that were plainly adulatory in nature. One example of the latter was Xi Jinping’s Allusions (习近平用典), which gathered together and explained 135 allusions — for example to classical literature — used by Xi in his official speeches.

The book Xi Jinping’s Allusions is promoted at the People’s Daily in February 2015.

Quite distinct from the past at this point, the focus was not just on meetings and special occasions, but on the inherent specialness of Xi Jinping. The Party-state media seemed to feed — and of course this was by design — on the character and cleverness of the general secretary, who according to the narrative had a genius for revolutionary ideas, delivered in language that could be down-to-earth, profound, or shrewdly historical.

Another example of this mode of publish-and-promote as a means of charismatic power construction was Xi Jinping Tells Stories (习近平讲故事), released in June 2017. The book, which, according to the People’s Daily (also the publisher) “selects more than 100 stories that embody his new concepts and philosophy for governing the nation,” again treated Xi as a font of Chinese wisdom (中国智慧).

From 2017 onward, following Xi Jinping’s formal designation as China’s “core” leader in the fall of 2016, the publication of Xi-related volumes steadily climbed, as can be seen in the graph further up.

The focus was not just on meetings and special occasions, but on the inherent specialness of Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping’s books consolidated his “talks” and “speeches” on virtually every topic imaginable — from his ideas on media and journalism to the economy, diplomacy, Party history, and even women and children. Some were “study outlines “ (学习纲要) as the country was gripped — or so it seemed in the CCP’s own headlines — by a fever of Xi study. There were special volumes for his official tours: Xi Jinping in Zhejiang; Xi Jinping in Ningde; Xi Jinping in Fuzhou; Xi Jinping in Xiamen.

In 2021, the year in the run-up to the 20th National Congress, there were 28 Xi titles promoted in the People’s Daily. Many of these were also foreign language editions, as the CCP sought to advertise Xi Jinping’s ideas, such as “building a community of shared destiny for mankind,” as visionary not just for China but for the entire world.

The dip in titles seen in 2022 is likely a short-term trend, like that previously seen in 2016. We can expect special volumes on Xi Jinping’s views on civilization, on “Chinese-style modernization,” on “whole-process democracy,” on “high-quality development,” and so on. The number of Xi volumes published and announced during the first five months of this year (11) already matched the total for 2019, and surpassed levels seen for 2017 and 2018.

Now in his unprecedented third presidential term, His Authorship will ensure that for years to come, there will be a veritable torrent of Xi Jinping-related books to publish — and not a drop to read.

How a Massacre Shaped China’s Media

When Xi Jinping addressed Chinese journalists on February 19, 2016, emphasizing loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party as the fundamental condition of their work, he spoke a phrase that has echoed across the now 34 years since the brutal murder of innocent students and citizens by government savagery on June 4, 1989. “Adhering to correct public opinion guidance,” said Xi, “is the heart and soul of propaganda and public opinion work.”

This concept that Xi describes as the “heart and soul” of press and information control in today’s China is about cutting out the real heart and soul of the people — ensuring not that the voices and demands of the population are heard, but that the undeviating voice of the Party dominates the life and politics of the country.

The lead editorial on the front page of the April 26, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily characterizes the peaceful protests in Beijing as destructive “riots” (动乱) that are “an attack on the Chinese Communist Party and the socialism system.”

Underpinning all work to control information and public opinion today, from the latest commentary in a state-run newspaper to every comment on the most popular social media platform, “public opinion guidance” (正确舆论导向) reaffirms and focuses the CCP’s conviction that media control is essential to regime stability.  

The concept emerged in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre, as the new leadership under Jiang Zemin (江泽民) — who as Party Secretary of Shanghai had played a central role in the April shutdown of the country’s most liberal newspaper, the World Economic Herald (世界经济导报) — identified the factors leading to the unrest in Beijing and across the country. The leadership’s assessment centered on a meeting that Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), the ousted liberal premier, had held with his top propaganda officials on May 6, 1989, ten days after the People’s Daily had published the infamous April 26 commentary (shown above) taking an attitude of zero tolerance and branding the protests as “an attack on the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system.”

Zhao Ziyang had called for the rescinding of the April 26 editorial, which had angered protesters and further intensified an already tense situation. According to an account in China Comment (半月谈), a leading CCP journal:  

In the afternoon, Zhao Ziyang spoke with officials from the Central Propaganda Department and others responsible for the ideological work of the Party. “Open things up just a bit. Make the news a bit more open. There’s no big danger in that,” he said, adding. “By facing the wishes of the people, by facing the tide of global progress, we can only make things better.”

In the aftermath of the massacre, it was the assessment of the new leadership, as reported in China Comment, that this moment between Premier Zhao and his top propaganda ministers had marked a fundamental failure. What happened next? According to the journal:

Once Zhao’s words were conveyed to news media through comrades Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen, support for the student movement rapidly seized public opinion and wrongly guided matters in the direction of chaos. Several large newspapers, television and broadcast stations in the capital offered constant coverage of the students’ wishes. Subsequently, movements nationwide begin to gather strength, and the numbers of participants swelled. Headlines and slogans attacking and deriding the Party also multiplied in papers of all sizes, the content becoming more and more reactionary in nature.

In this passage, we see the notion of “public opinion guidance” emerge as a renewed conviction on the part of a hardened leadership that the control of the press is essential to the maintenance of social and political stability. For the hardliners who prevailed in that fateful political moment, the upheaval that spring was first and foremost a failure of media policy. And that perceived failure would shape the Party’s approach to media and information for decades to come, right through Xi Jinping’s undisguised declaration of media subservience in 2016.

For the hardliners who prevailed in that fateful political moment, the upheaval that spring was first and foremost a failure of media policy.

The Heart of the People

Looking back today, what can we see of China’s press at this critical juncture? What did this “constant coverage of the students’ wishes” in major newspapers actually look like?

To get a glimpse, we pulled just one page from the People’s Daily, dated May 18, 1989, and labeled “domestic news.” It is a page full of heart and soul, reporting the voices on the ground as China faced critical questions about national affairs that impacted everyone.

Page two of the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily.

At the top of the page is a large photograph of protesters marching with a banner that reads: “People’s Daily journalists.” It is an image of the same group of protesters from the newspaper pictured at the top of this article. The caption in the lower right-hand corner of the image reads: “On May 17, a number of workers from this paper march in the streets, expressing solidarity with the university students.”

To the left of the image, a story bears the headline: “The Heartfelt Patriotic Demands of the Students Are Reasonable, and We Hope the Central Leadership Addresses Them As Soon as Possible.” This was a continuation of calls published on the front page of the newspaper, expressing the hope that central leaders would respond substantively to the demands being made by students who were now on hunger strikes that had begun five days earlier on May 13.

Page one of the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily, will top to bottom coverage of the pro-democracy protests.

The wishes in the article were those of the parents and teachers of students on hunger strike, who were sought out by the People’s Daily, and who expressed understanding for the students’ actions. “I think the students’ actions are justified and patriotic,” Zhu Renpu (朱仁普), a teacher from the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, told the newspaper. “It should be said that the central government is fully capable of satisfying [their demands], and should do so.”

In a personal expression of political conviction that would be unthinkable in any Chinese medium today, Zhu spoke about how he had come to sympathize with the position of the students, and to be moved by the nature of their actions. “At first, I didn’t understand the student movement, thinking they were being irrational,” he said. “But after going to Tiananmen Square several times, I found their slogans and orderliness to be truly moving. Not only were they rational, but they were also restrained. Their sense of concern and responsibility about the future and fate of the country is something we in the older generation should learn from.”

Such talk of “orderliness” went directly against the allegations in the April 26 editorial, which portrayed the students as destructive and chaotic. At this point, in any case, top Chinese leaders were nowhere to be seen. A key message in this report, as in many in the May 18 edition of the paper, was that they should come to Tiananmen Square and see for themselves.

“I sincerely hope that the main leaders of the central government will come out immediately to talk to the students,” Zhu Renpu was quoted as saying.

This extraordinary news story was written by Zhang Jinli (张锦力), who subsequently made a reputation for himself as a television presenter and expert in history — and now has a history-related channel on the short video platform Watermelon. At the time, Zhang was a young economics reporter for the People’s Daily, having joined the paper in 1986.

Can’t Leaders Guide By Listening?

Chinese author Bing Xin (冰心), who wrote an article for the May 18, 1989, edition of the People’s Daily calling for top leaders to listen to student demands.

In the upper right-hand corner of page two on May 18 was an article called, “We Are Called the Parents of the People, So We Can Protect Our Children and Grandchildren.” This small contribution was written by the author Bing Xin (冰心), who at the time was, rather symbolically in retrospect, 89 years old. She had been born in Fujian in 1900, and had published her first essay 70 years earlier in 1919 in Shanghai’s The Morning Post, which had launched the previous year.

The headline of Bing’s article in the People’s Daily was taken from a couplet posted above the gate of a temple in her hometown when she was a young girl. “Now there are hundreds of thousands of my children and grandchildren suffering in Tiananmen Square,” Bing wrote. “When will this suffering end?” A parenthetical note at the end of the article read: “Urgently written on May 17, 1989.”

Bing Xin voiced her agreement with an open letter published by the presidents of 10 Beijing universities, calling on top Party and government leaders to meet with the students and hear their demands. She pointed the way to a form of “guidance” markedly different from the one that would emerge from the tragedy of June Fourth just over two weeks later:

I think that if only one or two major leaders of the Party and the government show up at Tiananmen Square now and say even one or two words of sympathetic understanding and knowledge to the hundreds of thousands of people, they will guide things in the direction of sanity and order, and then our children and grandchildren will not have to pay an unnecessary and heavy price.

As the journalists of the People’s Daily took to the streets to report on the demonstrations, and as they sought out parents, teachers, intellectuals, and others, it was clear that the heart and soul of the capital, the heart and soul of the nation, was with the students.

For the leaders who came to power in the wake of June Fourth, this was the lesson to be taken from the tragedy they never acknowledged: that “guidance” had to be the heart and soul — that it was perilous to let the people speak their minds.

… that brief moment in time when the People’s Daily was truly the people’s daily.

. . . . . .

In remembrance of the horrors of June 4, 1989, we finish with a humble celebration of that brief moment in time when the People’s Daily was truly the people’s daily.

The piece that follows, which appeared at the center of page two of the People’s Daily on May 18, 1989, just below the image of protesting journalists, is called simply, “They Must Come Out to See the Children” (应该出来见见孩子们).

_______________

At 2 PM on the 17th, this reporter’s car was stopped in mid-journey by a group of marchers. When I walked into the Yong’an Xili Neighborhood Committee in Chaoyang District [about four kilometers east of Tiananmen Square], several female cadres there were gazing out the window at the stream of people on Chang’an Avenue shouting slogans in support of the students. Anxiously, she said: “The central leadership should hurry up and come out to meet the children!”

If Premier Zhou [Enlai] was still alive, he would have come out earlier,” said Liang Yanyi (梁晏怡), director of the family planning committee of the neighborhood committee. Late last night, around 3:30 AM, she was still unable to sleep, and every time she heard the cry of an ambulance out on the street, she was saddened. “On the radio this morning, [I heard that] more than 600 of the university students going on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square had collapsed. They freeze in the black of night, and roast during the day. How can anyone who raises children feel anything but pain?!”

“I watch TV, and as soon as I see the university students being loaded onto ambulances, I break out into tears,” said Xu Fangling (徐芳玲), the neighborhood committee mediation director. “It is not easy for the country to train a college student. Their patriotic actions and the words they say arise from the hearts of the people and represent the masses. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and Premier Li Peng should come out quickly and meet the students who are on hunger strike in the square!”

As she saw groups of workers marching along Chang’an Avenue, the women’s director of the neighborhood committee, Dai Baozhu (戴保竹), said with concern: “We’re all so anxious. Thousands of families are concerned about national affairs. When the elder brother (the workers) has come, can his sister-in-law feel at peace? For the life of me, I can’t figure out why they [the leaders] won’t come out to see them. You can’t just hide. You can hide from today, but you can’t hide from tomorrow. The more you hide, the bigger the problem becomes!”

As she cut hair for local residents, Yue Zhimei (越志梅), the director of public security, chimed in: “The head of the central government should not be afraid of the masses. He should go to the square and see for himself the students who are starving.”

“We hope that the leaders become one with the masses,” local resident Ren Zangfen (任藏芬) said.

As we were all conversing, Dong Wenying (董文瑛), the director of the neighborhood committee, returned from an emergency meeting at the sub-district office. “We support the children’s patriotic actions,” she said. “The head of the central government must receive the children as soon as possible. They must be more responsible for the nation’s future. There must be no more delay.”

“Otherwise, they will be responsible for the future of China!”

China’s Rush to Ratify

It’s an iron rule and a cautionary note for anyone attending a forum hosted by the Chinese government or its proxy institutions, including state media: You will be ratifying a declaration of principles, whether you have reviewed the text or not.

So, after news executives from five Central Asian states met in the Chinese capital with the editor-in-chief of Xinhua News Agency earlier this week to discuss “strengthening media cooperation” and “working toward the building of a China-Central Asian community of destiny,” the men around the table, with a phalanx of national flags standing sternly behind, sealed the deal — with a declaration.

Initiated and hosted by Xinhua, a news agency directly under the government and the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the forum was billed in media reports as an important “result” of the inaugural China-Central Asia Summit held in Xi’an on May 19-20, and attended by Xi Jinping. The Xinhua event was attended by executives from Kazakhstan’s Central Communication Services, Kyrgyzstan’s Kabar national news agency, the Khovar National Information Agency of Tajikistan, the Turkmenistan Oriental News Service (ORIENT), and the Uzbekistan National News Agency. All are official news services under the control of their respective governments.

What exactly does the China-Central Asia News Agency Forum Beijing Consensus say? The full text of the document has not been released. And perhaps no one will ever know exactly what the declaration says. But even so, it has served its purpose — seeking apparent public recognition of the political principles underlying China’s media policies and strategies.

It is general practice in the case of such forums for China to reference the “ratification” (通过) of various statements and declarations (and even supposed mutual charters of quasi-institutions hosted by the Chinese partner) with full fanfare in the state-run media, even though they may never see the light of day.

The broader objective is to give run-of-the-mill exchanges and ad hoc events an elevated diplomatic air, the semblance of multilateral diplomacy, while political language is slipped in to suggest that China’s concepts are making international inroads. The symbolic “ratification” of the CCP’s political principles is ultimately what matters. No surprise, then, that while the Beijing Consensus with Central Asian media leaders was mentioned by scores of official media outlets this week and appeared on more than 100 other websites, all of these were iterations of a single official news bulletin from forum host Xinhua.

Based on what we can glean from the official Xinhua release, there are two basic principles underlying the Beijing Consensus “ratified” on May 23.

Joining Hands for Media Control

First, the document says, according to Xinhua, that “the media of China and the five Central Asian countries have unique advantages and play a bridging role in telling the stories of China and the five Central Asian countries well, enhancing mutual understanding and trust among people, promoting exchanges and mutual appreciation of civilizations, and advancing the construction of the China-Central Asia community of destiny.”

With its reference to “telling stories well,” this passage validates a CCP worldview in which the media’s primary role is to uphold a positive view of the national leadership and maintain social and political stability. It is a view that militates against all criticism, arguing that this undermines “mutual understanding.” The reference to a “community of destiny” in the above passage is language central to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy — rejecting universal values such as human rights in favor of state-centered multilateral exchanges.

In practical terms, China hopes not just that it can achieve stronger relations with Central Asian states at the formal diplomatic level, but that it can have the cooperation of media in the region to ensure that domestic public opinion about China is conducive to its ambitions as a global power and as a regional trade and security partner.

The West is Out to Get Us

Next, the document says, according to the Xinhua release, that the world is now in a turbulent state, and “the times and history are unfolding in an unprecedented manner.” This is a stock Xi Jinping phrase that is now routinely used in the state media to justify governing with a strong hand, including on media policy. It signals that these are times to uphold unity and eliminate dissent. The phrase is used in this context to suggest also that China is a strong and dependable pilot in the storm.

“The media of China and the five Central Asian countries should pool their efforts and make a concerted voice to enhance the discourse of emerging markets and developing countries and promote international equity and justice,” the Xinhua summary of the declaration continues. This passage reflects the official CCP view that the international discourse environment, dominated by what China generalizes as “Western media,” disadvantages the country and its leadership, shaping a predominately negative global view of China.

Foreign news executives are listed as members of the “Presidium” for the WMS in 2013.

The Beijing Consensus solicits sympathy for this view among Central Asian media partners, with the subtext that they must together resist the depredations of “Western” news values. This is interwoven with a statement of concern for the welfare of developing countries — long a pillar of Chinese foreign policy.

Continuing Cooperation

Beyond the above language, the Xinhua readout of the Beijing Consensus indicates that the parties present agreed to strengthen their cooperation “under the framework of multilateral mechanisms.” Tellingly, the report includes in this category events such as the World Media Summit (世界媒体峰会), which was first held in 2009 in order to bring major global media outfits into Xinhua’s orbit.

As CMP reported more than a decade ago, the first World Media Summit (WMS) emerged from a central CCP directive that was enacted by Xinhua. As Li Congjun (李从军), a former propaganda official who was then at Xinhua’s helm, wrote in 2009 in the Party’s official Seeking Truth journal:

[We must] actively seek out new horizons, new mechanisms, new channels and new methods in the area of external dialogue and cooperation, particularly, as by the demands of central party leaders, successfully organizing the first meeting of the World Media Summit, building a platform for dialogue among first-rate international media (国际一流媒体), further raising the capacity of Xinhua News Agency to make its voice heard in the international news and information sector.

At the first summit, Li Congjun was styled as “WMS Executive President,” which made him head of a “presidium” comprising top executives from News Corporation, The Associated Press (AP), Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Google, Al Jazeera Media Network, and the New York Times Company. WMS headquarters, state media said, was located inside Xinhua.

The summits continued on a regular basis from 2009, foreign media executives naively obliging their Xinhua hosts, as though oblivious to their real intentions. Chinese state media even reported at one point that there were plans for a subsequent WMS event at the New York Times.

Beyond the embarrassing (for foreign media executives) efforts by Xinhua to brand the WMS as a multilateral media organization with real participation and real values, successive summits have introduced declarations. The third WMS, held in Doha in March 2016, concluded with a “Doha Statement” that conveyed, according to Xinhua, “the consensuses reached by the world media leaders.”

In a telling statement of just how little such statements matter substantively, the full text of the statement, which was once carried on the official website of the WMS, hosted on Xinhua servers, is now unavailable.  

What happened to the much-touted “Doha Statement” emerging from the 2016 World Media Summit? It’s no longer where it once was. The message below the original link reads: “We’re sorry, the link you wish to visit has already been deleted!”

In late 2013, after I wrote a rather confrontational bit of context for the Second World Media Summit, calling out executives for international news media taking part, a Hong Kong-based executive for a major Western newswire met me for drinks at the Foreign Correspondence Club. He confided that media executives had seen the event merely as a networking opportunity — a chance to shake hands, and hopefully open doors in an environment mostly closed to international media. Moreover, he said, the event had been hastily planned by China. They had only learned about it perhaps two weeks before, and China had pushed them hard to attend.

Not much time, then, to have a careful look over that declaration.

Comedy, Under the Watchful Eye of the State

On Tuesday this week, China’s official Xinhua News Agency harshly criticized comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who is alleged to have insulted the People’s Liberation Army with a joke during a performance over the weekend. In the latest development, the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA), which identifies itself as a non-profit social organization voluntarily formed by performance operators and practitioners, issued a strongly-worded statement late yesterday calling on all members to boycott Li — effectively ending his career as an artist in China.

A statement on the Li Haoshi incident, released on May 17 by the CPAA.

The statement from CAPA alleges that “circumstances emerged [in Li’s performance] that insulted the people’s military, with nasty social consequences,” and it reminds all performers and enterprises in the culture space of their obligations to uphold decency and abide by the country’s laws and regulations.

But what exactly is the CAPA? And how does such a voluntary professional association have the power to enforce a ban on an individual performer?

Reading behind the news of the CAPA statement, which is being reported across official media today, can offer a glimpse into how the Chinese Communist Party exercises political and ideological control over culture and entertainment — and indeed many other areas — through organizations that apply Party-state power while seeming on the surface to represent broader interests.

A Professional Front

Formed in 1988, the CAPA began as an association of managers in the performing arts, and in 1993, as China’s media and culture industries entered a new period of development, the association morphed into a group also purporting to represent individual performers, with special divisions for areas like dance, drama, tourism performance and so on.

Like all professional associations in China, the CAPA claims to be voluntary (自愿) in nature. However, as the Li Haoshi case demonstrates, it clearly has a mandate to enforce political and cultural guidelines in ways that underline its quasi-official status. It is best understood, therefore, as an enforcement body of the Chinese state that networks with performers and enterprises in order to more closely apply political guidelines (the real goal of the “professional” front). At the same time, whenever necessary, the professional association can sanitize official actions, giving them the appearance of having emerged from professional consensus.

The organization’s official charter provides one of the first clues to its crucial role in enforcing CCP guidelines for the arts, and more fundamentally upholding the leadership of the Party.

Article 3 of the charter lays out the ideological commitments of the association — to Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the “Three Represents,” the Scientific View of Development, and of course to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era. Article 4 states the association’s commitment to “adhering to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” as well as ensuring the operation of a Party organization and related activities within the association.

But neither is this, as some might imagine, a self-governing organization making commitments in principle to the tenets of CCP rule. The leadership structure of the CPAA ensures that it can be readily operationalized as a front to control the performance industry. In Article 5, we finally see clearly how the CPAA plugs into the government bureaucracy, despite its pretense of being a non-profit social organization. The language subjects the CPAA to the “oversight and control” of its sponsoring institution (业务主管单位), the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

And what about the association’s leadership? Should we expect it to be led by active cultural performers and entrepreneurs — perhaps even a comedian or two? Who is Association President Liu Kezhi (刘克智)?

No bio is given for Liu Kezhi on the association’s website, but he is easy enough to track down. In fact, he is a top official in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and we can find him involved in a range of issues, including dealing with stranded foreign tourists at the start of the pandemic in February 2020 and conveying safety procedures that year for Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

CAPA President Liu Kezhi is also a bureau chief at China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Liu Kezhi has even dealt frequently over the past two decades with issues concerning tourism between China and Taiwan. He appeared during a 2006 press conference held by the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, for example, to address cross-strait tourism. And 10 years later, as 26 Chinese tourists in Taiwan died when their chartered bus caught fire, Liu Kezhi was quoted in an official Xinhua news release expressing his “strong discontent” (强烈不满) with how Taiwan handled the incident. It was Liu Kezhi who “demanded that Taiwan must thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident.”

But there is a final, revealing, aspect to the Taiwan story that relates to the broader question of China’s operationalizing of ostensibly independent associations.

At the time of the 2016 tourism bus fire, Liu Kezhi had a government position as Director of the Department of Hong Kong-Macau-Taiwan Tourism Affairs at China’s National Tourism Administration. Why, then, would he be identified in official press reports as “Secretary-General Liu Kezhi” (秘书长刘克智)?

Well, at the time, you see, Liu Kezhi was also the number-one man at the Association for Tourism Exchange Across the Taiwan Straits (海峡两岸旅游交流协会). It will not surprise you to learn that the Association for Tourism Exchange Across the Taiwan Straits is a “non-profit organization” — or that it has offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung.

China has watchful eyes on every stage.

Slogan Not Funny (Not a Bit), State Media Say

During a meeting with top military officials 10 years ago, Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed to mold the People’s Liberation Army into a world-class fighting force “able to win battles, with first-rate style” (能打胜仗, 作风优良). Apparently, the general secretary was not joking.

News broke yesterday that Li Haoshi (李昊石), a Chinese stand-up comedian who goes by the nickname “House,” has been suspended indefinitely after a joke during a performance on May 13 alluded to the above slogan — which has frequently been used by the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese state media in recent years to signal Xi Jinping’s resolve in reaching “the goal of a powerful military” (强军目标).

The phrase “able to win battles, with first-rate style” is part of a full propaganda phrase that begins with the injunction to “listen to the Party,” emphasizing the leadership of the military by the Chinese Communist Party, an unquestionable tenet of regime security. With its allusion to “first-rate style,” the phrase invokes for some the image of a fighting force that is buttoned-up and in tip-top shape, rigidly goose-stepping toward greatness.

A response to the Li Haoshi incident from Xinhua News Agency says the pro-PLA slogan must not be derided.

During his performance, however, Li Haoshi apparently committed the sin of turning this image into a parody. He quipped to his audience that he had adopted two stray dogs that showed great determination whenever a squirrel crossed their path. “When these two dogs chase a squirrel, they launch after it like artillery shells,” Li said. “Usually, you see dogs and you think how cute they are, and your heart melts . . . . When I see these two dogs, my heart flashes with the words: ‘Able to win battles, with first-rate style.’”

In a strongly-worded response yesterday amid a barrage of attacks from state-run media accounts on the internet, the official Xinhua News Agency did not mince words: “The people’s army protects the country, and must have the reverence of all. ‘Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style.’ Not a word [of this phrase] must be derided!”

The incident has reportedly prompted an official investigation into Li Haoshi’s employer, Shanghai Xiaoguo Culture Media (上海笑果文化傳媒有限公司), which has already said publicly that it has “severely criticized” (严肃批评) the comedian. According to Caixin Global, the Li Haoshi incident has “sparked an online debate about the boundaries of talk show jokes in China.”

But defining the boundaries of funny and not-funny is likely to prove a difficult, if not impossible, task in a political culture already flooded with bluster and hyperbole that can, with the slightest tilt of the head, come off as hilariously disjointed from real life.

High-Level Black, Low-Level Red

The “bit” in comedy — as stand-up performers know only too well — is a comedic take on reality. And reality in Xi Jinping’s “New Era” has become so drenched in the viscid syrup of seriousness that it can be a real challenge to take seriously. It’s a problem endemic to seriousness: that upon reaching its upper limits, it tends to descend rapidly into farce.

Somewhere beneath its mask of seriousness, this is a lesson the Chinese Communist Party recognizes only too painfully.

In recent years, the terms “high-level black” (高级黑) and “low-level red” (低级红) have focused the CCP‘s anxiety over its insistence on political and ideological seriousness on the one hand, and its inability to police and ensure the authenticity of that seriousness on the other. The first term, gaojihei, which is not unlike the proverbial “smile that hides a dagger” (笑里藏刀), refers to the act of using humorous language to criticize and satirize. It can often be used to describe extreme expressions of praise and obedience that use the Party’s own overworked discourse to surreptitiously signal criticism.

The second term, dijihong, refers to the other end of the spectrum — the cheap expression of obedience, pro-Party feeling, or nationalism that, while perhaps genuine, becomes a public embarrassment. This phrase became popular in November 2018, following an incident in which long-distance runner He Yinli (何引丽) was interrupted during the last stage of the Suzhou marathon by a volunteer trying to force a national flag into her hands. As a result, He fell back in the race, which drew scorn from internet users who felt this was a stupid and self-defeating display of nationalism.

Chinese paramilitary police stand at attention at a propaganda event in April 2021. The words on top of the building read: “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style.” Image: 81.cn.

So sensitive is the Chinese Communist Party not just to criticism but to the predations of overwrought praise that in February 2019 it released an opinion on “strengthening political construction” that was the first high-level official document to include “high-level black” and “low-level red.” The document dealt with the need to safeguard the seriousness of the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护), a buzzword that refers to the need to 1) reinforce the rule of Xi Jinping, and 2) reinforce the dominance of his guiding ideology.

The 2019 document was not at all kidding when it said: “[We] must with correct understanding and correct actions resolutely enact the ‘Two Safeguards,’ firmly preventing and correcting all erroneous statements that diverge from the ‘Two Safeguards,’ and [we] must not allow any form of ‘low-level red’ or ‘high-level black,’ permitting no form of two-faced outer devotion and internal opposition toward the Party’s Central Committee, any double-dealing or ‘false reverence.’”

As the Li Haoshi incident demonstrates, China’s highly sensitive political environment has very real implications for journalists, writers, performers, and ordinary citizens (to say nothing of Party officials themselves.) Between the perilous sincerity of “low-level red” and the treacherous pretense of “high-level black” there lies a minefield of language unfolding in reality. Potential crimes are a matter of perception, weighed by the risk psychology of China’s leadership and its media attack dogs — whizzing like artillery shells after the squirrels of disgrace.

It’s a problem endemic to seriousness: that upon reaching its upper limits, it tends to descend rapidly into farce.

China’s state media have put on a stern face this week over the Li Haoshi incident, letting the world know that the phrase, “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style,” is not to be taken lightly. Since Xi first mentioned the phrase a decade ago, it has been used faithfully within the PLA to focus and re-focus China’s resolve to build world-class armed forces.

How, we may wonder, has the PLA fared with the line between the serious and the ridiculous?

Many examples to add to the ongoing online debate about boundaries might be found in the PLA’s own use of the phrase, including an over-the-top PLA-produced musical, and a cheesy PLA comic strip. But we leave you with a personal favorite — a PLA-produced illustration that appeared on the military’s official website, 81.cn, on August 1, 2016, marking its 89th anniversary.

A cartoon published on August 1, 2016, to commemorate the PLA’s 89th anniversary.

The illustration depicts musical notes aloft on the winds with the seagulls — or are those doves of peace? — as a sailor extends an open hand. A soldier at the center brandishes his AK-56 rifle, the bayonet attached, as the words “Listening to the Party, able to win battles, with first-rate style” fly over his head, in yellow characters across the five-star flag.

But it’s the final flourish that really hammers home the full dignity of the phrase, and the profound import of this talk of “first-rate style.” On the right side of the illustration, an air force pilot plays gleefully with a toy airplane, even making a flying motion with his hand.

Who says propaganda can’t be serious fun?

Extinguishing a Scandal at Zhengzhou University

Last night, in a harrowing post to Chinese social media, an anonymous user laid out serious accusations against a male professor at Zhengzhou University, the country’s largest public university, alleging that he raped and manipulated her 11 years ago when she was just 16 — and that he later accompanied her to the hospital for an abortion.

“Hello, Professor,” the post read. “It’s been 11 years. Are you surprised I’m still alive? I’m so sorry to disappoint you. Do you still remember me? I’m the girl you brainwashed, that you mentally controlled for two and a half years, that you violated, that you destroyed.”  

The original post from “UnclePeterPan” on Weibo accuses a professor at Zhengzhou University’s School of Marxism of rape and abuse.

The professor was identified in the post as a faculty member at the university’s School of Marxism, who taught courses on contemporary Chinese Marxism and the theory and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics. His accuser wrote that she had not previously come forward because she had been gripped by fear, shame, and hopelessness. “I know that justice will never come,” she wrote. “I compose this letter with the certainty of death, knowing that once the heat has passed, he will still be who he is. He will be the same professor who writes so well about socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The post trended rapidly on social media. By early Wednesday, a chat thread for “Zhengzhou University Wang _____,” identifying the accused by name, had received more than 100 million views. A related thread on Weibo reached number eight on the list of hottest searches nationwide, gaining 1.2 million views and listed as “boiling” (沸) — marking it as one of the hottest trending topics on the platform [archived hashtag].

The list at Weibo of the hottest searches on the platform at 12 PM on May 10, 2023.

But even as it went viral, the plateauing of information about the Zhengzhou University case offered a salient illustration of how such posts are contained by the authorities in China — with the broader objective of guiding public opinion and ensuring discussions do not entertain deeper questions about the abuse of authority.

In the early hours of Wednesday, close on the heels of the original post, Zhengzhou University issued a response through its official Weibo account. The notice, issued by the Teachers Work Department of the university’s Party Committee, said that it had given the matter high priority, setting up a special task force to investigate. “The university attaches great importance to the construction of morals and styles among our teachers,” the notice said, “and has zero tolerance for moral misconduct.”

A notice from Zhengzhou University dated May 10, 2023, first posted around midnight.

As the story was picked up early Wednesday morning by scores of media outlets, the coverage parroted the Zhengzhou University notice posted to Weibo and the university’s website. The majority of stories listed the source directly as the “Zhengzhou University Website,” or sourced identical news items from other media channels that referred to the Zhengzhou University notice.

Examples of this treatment of the story can be seen at The Paper, a Shanghai-based digital outlet under state-owned Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG); Global Times Online, the website of the Global Times newspaper published under the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily;  CE.cn, the website of the Economic Daily, a state-owned newspaper managed by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department; the Shanghai-based news portal Guancha.cn (观察者); China National Radio; the official website of the Hangzhou city government — over 1,000 kilometres away — and so on.

Screenshots of coverage of the Zhengzhou University scandal at The Paper and Global Times Online, both citing the notice from the university — and neither offering further information.

The complete lack of follow-up by Chinese media, and the near uniformity of treatment, suggests that restrictions on the story were already in force by early Wednesday morning, instructing editors to use the Zhengzhou University notice only, and to avoid independent reporting. This would effectively mean the story was finished before it ever had the opportunity to develop — for example, through direct and personal interviews with the author of the Weibo post.

The complete lack of follow-up by Chinese media, and the near uniformity of treatment, suggests that restrictions on the story were already in force

There were only the slightest variations among the above-listed news sources. The story from China National Radio, for example, repeated the university notice verbatim after a simple lead that noted that “a web user revealed on the internet that 11 years ago they were PUA’d for two and a half years by a Zhengzhou University professor.” The term “PUA,” short for “pickup artists,” is popular slang on the Chinese internet for men who use cruel tactics to pursue women.

The version at the Global Times Online included a 10-second video that simply displayed the notice from Zhengzhou University and summarized the story based on the university’s release.

Of the news reports available online, the report from Shanghai’s Guancha.cn went furthest in reporting the nature of the allegations, noting after a lead repeating the university notice (and tip-toeing around the mention of rape):

On May 10 at around 00:00, a netizen posted on Weibo that she had been mentally controlled by a teacher at Zhengzhou University for two and a half years 11 years ago, and that he had taken her to the hospital for an abortion after a violation leading to pregnancy.

This small addition to the story, based on the original Weibo post, at least offered some indication, unlike most other versions online, of the exact nature of the accusations to which the university was responding. But the information was also inaccurate. The original post had been made hours earlier.

The only other point of slight variation in coverage came in the headlines added by some media channels to their reports as they copy-and-pasted the Zhengzhou University notice. At Phoenix Online, for example, nothing was added beyond the official university response. Nevertheless, editors did their utmost to grab the audience, stuffing as much sensationalism as they could into the headline of a story that deserved sensitivity and humanity.

“Woman Pregnant After Assault by Marxism Teacher? Zhengzhou University Responds.”

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”?