Author: David Bandurski

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

The Histrionics of Cultural Promotion

In the ferment of the late 1980s, when artistic and literary revival became a political agenda, liberals within the Chinese Communist Party needed the right sort of newcomer to offer fresh ideas. The task fell to Wang Meng (王蒙), a 51 year-old writer who had spent much of his adult life through the Mao era doing physical labor in far-flung Xinjiang – penance for critical writings including his 1956 short story, “The Young Newcomer to the Organization Department,” which put a spotlight on bureaucracy and inaction within the CCP.

“Now, Chinese literary politics have come full circle,” the Los Angeles Times said as it reported the news of Wang’s appointment in June 1986. The notion of a cultural renaissance was in the air in China. Zhu Houze (朱厚泽), the country’s liberal minister of propaganda, urged young cadres to break out of the Marxist mold and learn from Western political ideas. Not long after Wang’s appointment, Zhu wrote in the People’s Daily that a wave of “culture is hot” (文化热) had swept over China. “Culture is a big issue,” he said. “We must think farther and more broadly on how to improve the cultural literacy of the whole nation. [We must] push small culture on to great culture, and with great culture promote the full development of our society, politics and economy.”

By June of 1989, China had once again gone full circle. The brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989, spelled the end of more open cultural experimentation. And Wang Meng was among several liberal officials removed from his post in September that year.

China is now in the midst of another push for cultural greatness. Since 2019, Xi Jinping has stressed the need for “cultural confidence” (文化自信), which he has said is “a matter that concerns the fate of a nation.” Xi has also spoken of the need to safeguard “cultural security” (文化安全). More so even than in the Hu Jintao era, when “cultural soft power” was bandied about as a key component of China’s comprehensive national power (CNP), culture has been defined by the CCP in strategic terms. “Especially for a large nation, a large country, and a large political party like ours,” Xi has said, “if we are culturally passive and lose our independence, then the independence of our system and sovereignty will be taken away from us.”

In recent years, there has been a concerted push to capitalize on this new confidence, and to work toward the “building of a cultural power” (文化强国建设), including through funding for “cultural” projects. But what are the real implications for cultural activity, for the creation of artistic works and the celebration and appreciation of expressive acts, when culture becomes a matter of political urgency – more about apparatchiks than about artists?

It is against the backdrop of this most recent push for “cultural confidence” in China that we should read the latest remarks from Wang Meng, the former cultural minister, who penned an essay last month for the WeChat public account “Chang’an Street Book Club” (长安街读书会). The essay, “Cultural Treasure and Cultural Bubbles,” is a prime example of the “Spring and Autumn Style” of writing (春秋笔法), which subtly and indirectly criticizes, avoiding (or so is the idea) direct censure.

The danger with promoting a whole-society, whole-politics approach to culture, Wang warns, is that this does not give rise to cultural treasures that enrich all, but rather results in a “cultural bubble,” as corporate and political interests rush to capitalize on national priorities.


Cultural Treasures and Cultural Bubbles

Wang Meng

Chang’an Street Book Club

When an entire society prioritizes and awaits the development and flourishing of culture, the result may be a positive situation that can give rise to cultural treasures (文化瑰宝) worthy of a great era and deep traditions. But the result may also be the creation of a cultural bubble by muddling through, or by resorting to histrionic fakery.

What are cultural treasures? This is a matter of what sort of path, insight, spiritual enjoyment and life wisdom we offer the audience. For example, we might interpret traditional culture in ways that align it with the achievements of modern human civilization. For example, we might [introduce] a better way of thinking about education and the future prospects of our nation — ultimately leaving behind the restrictions of a fill-in-the-blank, test score mentality. For example, [we might see] the emergence of writing and artistic achievement of true value that has the potential to go down in history. Or [we might have] theoretical innovations, scientific and technological innovations, and institutional innovations that unleash the imagination and creativity of the entire nation with the new horizons they make possible.

What is a cultural bubble?

It might, for example, appear as the staking out of [cultural] territory, trying to gain footholds, extending loans. The more people lack imagination when it comes to culture, the easier it is to financialize (财务化) and infrastructuralize (基建化) culture, making it about interests and simplistically materializing it. Everywhere [now], we see the building of cultural ecology parks (文化生态园), cultural memorial parks (文化纪念园), cultural celebrity parks (文化名人园), cultural bases (文化基地), cultural squares (文化广场) . . . . Some of these have been done well. But others have simply sought loans in the name of culture, building ostensible stages to culture on which the economy is meant to sing.

I’ve already seen quite of few of these “gardens” and “pavilions,” which claim to be about the commemoration of some cultural celebrity, but which in fact deal at most around 10 percent with this aspect in terms of area, and perhaps one percent in terms of funding. The exhibits are old and dilapidated, and no one visits them.

As so-called value-adding, extension businesses they offer restaurants and catering, accommodation, spas, massages, wedding services, chess and gambling (or gambling on the down-low), karaoke and so on. I’ve even seen how one company has entirely renovated a cultural monument, taking over control of an entire street of stores from the government.

My proposal is that inspections and clean-ups be made of existing cultural facilities everywhere, and that management and supervision be strengthened over parks, pavilions, sites, plazas and companies that fly the banner of culture by are not really about culture.

We see on the one hand that our existing cultural heritage is not being cherished, and is sometimes being destroyed, and on the other hand that false monuments are being fabricated and constructed at will.

The thinking here is to identify culture as something symbolic, and to use culture as a business card. This way of thinking isn’t exactly without reason. For trademark design, tourism advertising, investment promotion and general popularization globally of a culture that is not in the world mainstream, using [culture] as a symbol, brand or calling card may work – add the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, a panda bear, a cheongsam or exotic Chinese characters . . . . and then China is represented. Not exactly a bad thing. But this is only a superficial understanding, and sometimes it can become a cheapening, oversimplifying and repackaging of Chinese culture. Sometimes the distance between cultural symbolism and the cultural bubble is just a single step.

For certain popular art to invent certain cultural symbols is acceptable. But some people, influenced by such popular art, grow ever more foolish and extravagant, the result being shallowness. For example, [the idea that] the Chinese people are descendants of the dragon, and so on. In Chinese traditional culture, the dragon is a precious creature, a totem of kingship, a symbol either of spirits or of the sea and rain. Or it can be a name, or the way a feng shui master describes a mountain, and so on. But there is no evidence that the dragon has ever been ancestor or totem of the Chinese nation. 

Aside from the lyrics of the popular song “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人) by Taiwanese musician Hou Dejian (侯德健), there is no other evidence. This song is full of nationalistic passion, and it is well loved by audiences on the mainland, but to take this and decide we are [the dragon’s] descendants, or that it is a totem of our people, a final word on Chinese culture, and to loudly proclaim that “dragon culture” has arrived, or to oppose it on such grounds, is incredibly foolish.

Then, during the opening ceremonies of major sporting events, we again see quite a number of serious and fabricated cultural symbols.  We see the odd spectacle of long-extinct Chinese instruments coming out en masse. This is all quite eye-catching, and something certainly up to the discretion of the great director. But we cannot seriously think that strangeness and mystery, the gigantic and the ancient represent the real Chinese culture.  As for hanging up red lanterns as a sign of favoring wives and concubines, this is even more laughable.

The word “make a show” (作秀) derives from the English word “show,” and in Hong Kong it has been translated as “flirtatiousness” (骚) [NOTE: The first character here, 秀, in Chinese means “elegant” or “graceful”]. Whether “elegant” or “flirtatious,” it is a popular and mass spectacle, something entirely different from the true meaning of cultural “performance.” The works of the genius director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) are careful to “show” symbols of traditional Chinese culture, but though the symbols abound [in his work], this stuff consists mostly of cheap landmarks newly invented by the genius director’s imagination, and their value as real Chinese culture is limited. My apologies, but I can’t help but say this.

The problem is that our uncoordinated cultural experts can’t themselves say clearly what these “symbols” mean, and are instead pulled along by videos and popular songs, and sometimes can’t avoid making fools of themselves.

An even bigger instance of the cultural bubble is the [phenomenon of] treating culture as a mere formality, going after huge scale in cultural events, spending huge amounts of money on culture, but missing the spirit of culture entirely. Parties and banquets are held, song and dance numbers are performed, scores or hundreds of people from the arts participate, and the audience swells into the millions, with ratings extremely high, and even using various high-technology approaches. The upshot is that there are “selling points” for all – beautiful women, handsome men, stuntmen, the spectacular use of vocal chords, swimwear, martial arts, water curtains, special lighting, smoke . . . . But no consideration, no thought, no passion, no  love and hate, good and evil, no depth, no educational benefit, no spiritual nutrition, and no fullness or sublimation of feeling. This sort of culture is an empty culture, a pallid and soulless culture, a lamentable culture.

A gala held on Henan TV for the Mid-Autumn Festival in September 2021 pulls out all the stops when it comes to cultural spectacle.

Then there are certain of our blockbusters, which though they are big, come off as puffed up and lacking any spiritual depth or intensity.

In terms of cultural content, American blockbusters do not exceed the average [cultural understanding] of their audiences. The problem is that our blockbusters often fall shorts [in terms of cultural content], falling far below the average cultural awareness of our audiences. The intellect of our audiences is rising, but the content of our blockbusters remains impaired.

As a matter of government management and cultural policy, any cultural activity that does not violate the law is permissible. We can also feel thankful and make allowances for cultural events and arts programs that are enjoyable and make audiences laugh. At the same time, what we call for and what we want are cultural treasures, not cultural bubbles. We absolutely must not continue to encourage such froth. On this point we must not vacillate in the least.

In literature too, why is it that discussions of the literary aspects of literature grow thinner and thinner, while the hype about sales and bestsellers grows louder and louder? While sales can result in enormous benefit for authors and publishers, in no place in the world does this equal literary value.

We should also be wary of certain specious, fanciful and showy claims about culture. Culture is wisdom, history, lifestyle and a spiritual pillar. Culture is not about fanciful rhetoric and lyrical recitation, about tasteless posturing. It is not about flirting with your charms. The more commonsensical principles are presented in ways people can’t understand, the more we must refuse to believe them.

Searching for Peng Shuai

The case of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai (彭帅) entered a bizarre new phase last week as the overseas accounts of Chinese state-media and associated media personalities made an apparently concerted effort to allay growing concerns internationally about the athlete’s wellbeing. But the extreme nature of the restraints on speech about Peng, and the appropriation of her voice by the organs of external propaganda, should be sufficient proof that she is now subject to serious restraints on her personal freedom.

“The Thing People Talked About”

On November 18, more than two weeks after Peng’s November 2 post accusing former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli (张高丽) of sexual assault, CGTN, the international arm of the state-run China Media Group, posted a letter to Twitter that Peng Shuai had reportedly sent to Steve Simon, the chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). In the letter, Peng seemed to claim that she was “not missing, nor am I unsafe.” “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine,” the letter said.

Far from easing growing concerns over the tennis star’s wellbeing, the letter ratcheted up suspicions.

The original post made to Peng Shuai’s social media account in China on November 2 alleges sexual assault by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

The next day, as the CGTN letter became the focus of international speculation, the WTA having rejected it as credible proof that Peng was safe, Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin apparently sought to quell concerns by writing on Twitter that foreign media were engaging in senseless speculation. Hu seemed unable even to speak frankly about the case, however: “As a person who is familiar with Chinese system,” he wrote, “I don’t believe Peng Shuai has received retaliation and repression speculated by foreign media for the thing people talked about.”

The same day, Shen Shiwei (沈诗伟), a Paris-based reporter for Hu Xijin’s newspaper, shared photos on Twitter that she claimed were from Peng Shuai’s WeChat account. They showed Peng apparently playing happily with her pet cat, surrounded by a collection of plush toys. Replying to Shen’s Twitter post, Hu Xijin said he was “willing to believe the authenticity of these photos.”

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin comments on a tweet by CGTN editor Shen Shiwei suggesting that tennis star Peng Shuai is safe. Nevertheless, the star remains unreachable.

Hu Xijin’s next attempt to leverage his overseas following on Twitter came late in the day on November 20, as he posted a pair of videos he had obtained from unidentified sources. “I acquired two video clips, which show Peng Shuai was having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant. The video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday Beijing time,” Hu wrote.  

On Sunday, November 21, Hu posted a video of Peng attending the finals of a youth tennis competition and waving to unseen spectators. “Global Times photo reporter Cui Meng captured her at scene,” Hu wrote.

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin posts a video attributed to a “photo reporter” at his newspaper on November 21, purporting to show that Peng Shuai is safely attending public events.  

Hu attempted to turn the tables on the Western media who refused to accept at face value attempts to offer evidence of Peng Shuai’s wellbeing that seemed clearly staged. “Can any girl fake such [a] sunny smile under pressure?” he asked. “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside. There must be many forced political performances in their countries.”

In a November 21 post to Twitter, Hu Xijin suggests that Peng Shuai must be fine because she is smiling while attending a youth tournament.

Leaving aside the ugly fact that here is a privileged male within a closed media system dominated by the ruling political party speaking diminishingly of a professional woman, age 35, as a “girl,” how could Hu’s denials and counterattacks possibly convince journalists, politicians and audiences globally? After all, Peng Shuai had not yet spoken. She had nodded at a dinner table, in a carefully edited video in which another male had spoken, ludicrously, about what day it was. She had turned, masked, in another video from which the audio had been entirely removed (the camera lingering on a date posted on the door). The overriding fact here was that Peng’s voice could not be heard. She was unreachable, even though the letter to the WTA shared through the overseas social accounts of state media had quoted her as asking the organization to verify any future news with her first, and “release it with my consent.”

In the latest gambit to prove that everything is fine, and that the world can simply move on when it comes to Peng Shuai and her allegations on November 2, the International Olympic Committee revealed Monday that its president had spoken to Peng Shuai by video on Sunday and confirmed that the tennis star is “safe.” The IOC announcement prompted further skepticism outside China, the organization accused by some as having involved itself in a “publicity stunt.”

External Propaganda, Internal Darkness

The most damning fact in the Peng Shuai case is that all information about the tennis star, her allegations and her personal wellbeing has been completely expunged from media and the internet. The comments made by Hu Xijin and others associated with Chinese state media may seem like the advance front of a global narrative to counter the concerns of the world – Peng is fine, there is nothing to see (我很安全) – but there is in fact no core narrative at all, no real and convincing alternative explanation for what has unfolded this month.

Even the letter, the images and videos that Hu and CGTN have deployed in an attempt to convince the world do not exist in the alternate universe of Chinese information. They have been scrubbed from the internet. They have not been shared or referenced at all in mainstream media coverage.

One Weibo user said it well yesterday when they posted a message referring to Peng Shuai only as “PS,” because her name has become a blocked keyword: “Opening up Twitter today, I see that the first name in the headlines is [Peng Shuai]. The world is speaking for her, but we can’t even hear it.”

A Weibo user posts on November 22 that Twitter is full of headlines showing that the world is concerned about Peng Shuai, but that “we [in China] can’t hear them.”

Surely, Hu Xijin must have posted something to Weibo, where he has more than 24 million fans? Since November 18, Hu has posted about US-China relations and the recent Biden-Xi video meet. He has posted about alleged bias in the Western media, focusing on a report by Reuters about a Chinese professor at a European university working with a Chinese military laboratory, which on Twitter was accompanied by an image of Chinese soldiers (prompting an apology from the news agency). He has written about Lithuania “undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and violently interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

But there is nothing, not a word about Peng Shuai.

A search in the Baidu search engine for “Hu Xijin” and “Peng Shuai,” selecting for web pages from the past week only, turns up just two pages. But these are not from the past week, nor do they have anything to do with Peng Shuai’s wellbeing. The first is a link to, the official website of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper – not to any particular page, but rather to an archived homepage from January 2014.

A search in Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” returns just two results, neither current and neither of course relevant to the Peng Shuai case.

The top headline on this archived homepage is for a featured profile, appearing at the time in the provincial-level Henan Daily, of Xi Jinping as a county-level leader in the 1980s.

The second search result generated through Baidu is an instance in which both “Hu Xijin” and “Peng Shuai” appear. But it is not recent news, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Peng’s recent whereabouts, or Hu Xijin’s remarks on the issue. Instead, it is a single inside page of the October 1, 2012, edition of the China Business Journal, a newspaper published under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The bottom half of the page is occupied by an article called, “Idle Talk of Traitors” (休话汉奸), that discusses, with a slightly admonishing tone, the flippant use by online nationalists of the label “traitor” against Chinese participating in various international events. They included Li Na (李娜), who in 2011 won the French Open, becoming the first Asian-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Li Na was being branded a traitor online for taking part in a tournament in Japan in the midst of disputes over the Senkaku Islands. But Peng Shuai was spared similar treatment at the time. “Making the same remarks, how is it that Li Na is a traitor and Peng Shuai is not?” the article asked. “What logic is this?”

A lone search result on Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” is not about Hu’s recent remarks on Peng’s case, but an incidental appearance of both on a newspaper page from 2011.

The superficial link with Hu Xijin comes as a “Sina Weibo” column on the right-hand side of the page highlights a number of recent Weibo posts that have drawn attention online. One of these is a post from the Global Times editor-in-chief urging Brazil to demolish its favellas ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio – or at the very least to give them a new paint job.

Has the Global Times in fact reported anything about Peng Shuai as Hu Xijin has taken to Twitter to argue that everything is fine? No. Nothing. This is clear from a search of the paper’s website over the past week.

Hu Xijin has been outspoken about Peng Shuai on Twitter. But his newspaper has reported nothing in the past week.

A search for “Peng Shuai” and “Global Times” in Baidu turns up plenty, but the coverage all dates from 2014 and 2015, as though six years have gone missing.

A search “Peng Shuai” and the “Global Times” turns up results from 2014 and 2015.

A search for just “Peng Shuai” in Baidu again turns up old coverage of Peng’s tournament play, headlines from 2010, 2012, 2013, and one from 2020.

A search for “Peng Shuai” in the Baidu search engine turns up results that at years old.

Select for the past week and there is nothing at all.

A search in Baidu for “Peng Shuai” and “Hu Xijin” over the past week turns up 0 results.

What about China’s official Xinhua News Agency? It is generally meant to lead official coverage, along with the People’s Daily, setting the standard for “public opinion guidance” and offering news releases that other media can safely run. Any reporting about Peng Shuai over the past week?

No. Again, nothing.

A search of the website of the official Xinhua News Agency, generally the source of authorized statements, turns up nothing on “Peng Shuai.”

And then we have, the official website of the state-run broadcaster, whose CGTN has posted actively on Twitter about Peng Shuai, suggesting there is no need at all to search for her. Surely, CCTV has made its position known to the domestic audience and to the world through its powerful platform.

Once again, a search of reveals no coverage whatsoever of Peng Shuai over the past week.

There has been no mention of “Peng Shuai” on the official CCTV website in the past week as the international discussion of her predicament has crested.

But perhaps this is the result of online content blocks? Perhaps there has been coverage offline, in Chinese newspapers? A search over the past week in the Wisers database for Chinese language media outside the PRC, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, turns up more than 70 reports related to Peng Shuai.

A total of 70 articles are returned for “Peng Shuai” in Chinese-language media outside the PRC. Source: Wisers.

So let’s select for mainland newspapers. What do we find? Once again, total silence. Not a single result is returned for the past week using the name “Peng Shuai” in the more than 300 papers available in the database.

A search for the past week of more than 300 PRC newspapers turns up no mention of “Peng Shuai.” Source: Wisers.

The crucial point we can glean from this fruitless search for “Peng Shuai” in the Chinese information space is that the tennis star is really and truly missing, despite the assurances provided by state media and associated individuals through international social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Which is to say that there is no real way for Peng to speak openly about the accusations she made earlier this month against a powerful political figure, and there is no space for a broader conversation, or any conversation, within the Chinese media and information environment about the implications of her case.

Civilizing Cyberspace

Officials and representatives from China’s internet industry are gathering in Beijing today for the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference.” The conference, hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Beijing Municipal CCP Committee and the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization (中央文明办), a body directly under the Central Propaganda Department, addresses a single theme: “Gathering the power to move upward toward goodness, building an internet civilization together” (汇聚向上向善力量,携手建设网络文明).

The significance of this inaugural conference lies in the answer to a simple question: What do the authorities mean when they talk about “goodness” and “civilization” in cyberspace?

Announcing the conference on November 16, Sheng Ronghua (盛荣华), deputy head of the CAC, said the mission of the conference would be to “promote all sectors of society in unifying their thoughts and actions with the decisions and deployments of the Central Committee on the construction of online civilization.” The event would, he said, serve as a platform to promote the concept of “online civilization,” and ensure the “civilized” conduct of all parties, from internet platforms to users.

The impetus of the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference,” said Sheng, was to build on the cleanup efforts undertaken in 2021. In particular, Sheng emphasized the advances he said had been made this year in “cleaning up chaos in fandom [culture]” online. He stressed that there was now much stricter and more regularized “strong oversight” of fandoms, and that online platforms had a much stronger sense of responsibility. To date, he said, the fandom cleanup campaign had resulted in the deletion of more than 400,000 pieces of “negative and harmful information.” Moreover, 20,000 illegal accounts and more than 6,500 group operators (群主) had been shut down.

In fact, the notion of “online civilization,” or wangluo wenmin (网络文明), first emerged in the late Jiang Zemin era, around 2001, associated closely with familiar concepts having less to do with moral consensus and more to do with political control. Looking back on that language, we can note that ideological control was generally in close company with moral justifications, the CCP being the ultimate arbiter of the good and the bad.

Moral Imperatives, Political Ends

In the 2001 Outline on the Establishment and Implementation of Citizen Morality, the CCP emphasized that the media had an obligation to adhere to “positive propaganda” and to “firmly grasp correct public opinion guidance” in order to advance “civilization construction” (文明建设). At this point, the internet was still a relatively new medium, but the same passage of the document noted that “[we must] lead online institutions and the web population in strengthening consciousness of online morality, building online civilization together.”

On the opposite side of “online civilization” were arrayed “certain people with ulterior motives” (一些别有用心者), those who spread “harmful information” (不良信息), a trend that necessitated the general education of the people in the “building of online civilization” (SEE:  共同建设网络文明).

In 2006, the notion of “online civilization” became closely tied to Hu Jintao’s laundry list of moral instructions for China, known as the “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” (八荣八耻), which was also closely connected with the application of online censorship around Hu’s concept of “civilized operation of the internet, civilized use of the internet” (文明办网, 文明上网). By 2007, these ideas about the political control of online speech as a broader social imperative had coalesced into the idea that China was creating, under the CCP, an “online culture with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色网络文化). The idea, as laid out by then propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (刘云山), was that the construction and control of cyberspace should proceed in tandem – “one hand grasping construction, the other hand grasping management,” as he said.

This model of internet development, said the propaganda chief, would ensure the “strengthening of online public opinion guidance, and the consolidation and development of positive, healthy and improved mainstream public opinion.” Combined here with the idea of “mainstream” public opinion, which is synonymous in CCP discourse with the Party-state line, the notion of “improved,” or xiangshang (向上), is the same language we see in the theme of today’s “Internet Civilization Conference.”

A Strong (and Moral) Internet Power

The talk of “online civilization” today, just as in the Hu era, is fundamentally about the political imperative of “public opinion guidance” cloaked in the language of moral goodness. The difference in the Xi era is that “online civilization” is now part of the broader idea of China as a “strong internet power” (网络强国), subsumed within the idea of creating a “modern socialist nation.” An article on page four of today’s People’s Daily, “Building a Better Spiritual Home Online,” mentions “Xi Jinping’s important thoughts on [building China as] a strong internet power,” and says that “strengthening the building of an online civilization has become an important task in accelerating the building of a strong internet power, and fully building a modern socialist nation.”

Xi’s focus is on leveraging “rule of law” related to online civilization (such as the 2017 Cybersecurity Law) in order to achieve a vibrant cyberspace – for so the thinking goes – that maintains the political discipline that the CCP demands. This is not so different at all from Liu Yunshan’s talk back in 2007 of two hands grasping, construction proceeding along with management. And in fact, old and familiar CCP discourse about speech control imperatives is as plain as day in the present-day talk of “online civilization.”

In discussing the concept today, the People’s Daily lifts a quote from Xi Jinping’s speech back in April 2016 to the Work Conference for Cybersecurity and Informatization:

Cyberspace is a common spiritual garden for hundreds of millions of people. Having a clear sky and crisp air, having a good ecology in cyberspace conforms to the people’s interests. A pestilent atmosphere and a deteriorating ecology in cyberspace do not conform to the people’s interest [China Copyright and Media].

As much as Party-state media would like to trumpet Xi Jinping’s theoretical innovativeness as a kind of philosopher-in-chief, this is classic Jiang Zemin, polished up for the era of cyberspace primacy, with environmental language thrown in for the sake of currency.

It was back on September 26, 1996, while  visiting the People’s Daily, that Jiang, the same leader who originated the concept of “public opinion guidance” in the wake of the June 4 crackdown, elaborated the concept in terms of its benefit to the regime and to the people: “Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party and the people,” said Jiang. “Incorrect guidance of public opinion means calamity for the Party and the people.”

As officials, academics and internet representatives meet today at the “Internet Civilization Conference,” the essence of their discussions can still be summarized best by Jiang’s so-called “theory of weal and woe” (福祸论), which has only been re-animated by Xi Jinping’s words and their claim to moral rightness.

Remembering Zuo Fang

Zuo Fang (左方), one of the most formative figures of China’s press in the reform era, passed away on November 3 in Guangzhou. Zuo’s legacy was closely to that of Southern Weekly (南方周末), which through the 1990s and into the new century carved out a reputation as a standard-bearer of professional journalism in China through its in-depth and investigative reporting of social and political issues. As Caixin noted in a tribute to Zuo on November 5, the newspaper has been “[known] as one of China’s most influential media outlets,” which has “actively advocated China’s market-oriented reforms and closely followed the country’s social developments.”

The fate of Southern Weekly at the outset of the Xi era is a story well known to observers of China, a sign, many would say, of a new phase of press repression following two decades during which journalists in the country made substantial, albeit always unstable, gains. The newspaper persists today, but is a shadow of its former self in terms of its influence both inside and outside China.

The newspaper’s ups and downs were long a snapshot of media transformations, and growing pains, since the 1980s. When Nanfang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Guangdong CCP leadership, launched Southern Weekly in 1984, media reforms had just begun in China. Southern Weekly was an experiment in market-driven media. Zuo Fang’s vision was to create a new kind of publication that parted ways with the Soviet “Pravda model” – the newspaper as a propaganda tool. Zuo envisioned Southern Weekly as a platform for social enlightenment. The newspaper, he famously said, could not always tell the whole truth, but it would resolutely not tell lies.

As a tribute to Zuo and his impact on the development of journalism in China, we offer a translation of a profile of Zuo’s memoir, How Steel is Not Made (钢铁是怎样炼不成的), that appeared in Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine in June 2014. The book had recently been published in Hong Kong, and Zuo was in the city to attend a launch event hosted by the China Media Project. Asia Weekly was along for a very memorable Saturday sojourn to Cheung Chau Island that included a number of Southern Weekly veterans.

Many of Zuo’s observations and concerns about China’s development seem as fresh and relevant today as they did seven years ago.

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Exclusive Interview with Southern Weekly Founder Zuo Fang

Yazhou Zhoukan
Saturday, June 28th

The day after he held an event for the release of his new book, Mr. Zuo Fang and his old friends went to Cheung Chau Island, a narrow outlying island that has a long-standing reputation in Hong Kong. But from the Central Pier all the way to the island with its fishing harbor, the bright sunshine and the azure sea scarcely attracted Zuo Fang’s attention. From beginning to end he was engaged in conversation with historian Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤) and media scholar Qian Gang (钱钢) about contemporary Chinese history, politics and the press.

On Cheung Chau Island, the only photo he volunteered to take was as he stood beside the street billboard of a Hong Kong legislator, which read, “Defend Press Freedom” (捍卫新闻自由). Zuo straightened his shirt and stood leaning on the fence, and the camera registered the light and shadow. What the camera could not record were his solemn words: “This is my Chinese dream.”

A Broken Utopia

Zuo Fang was in Hong Kong this time because of his new book. This book has a very particular name, How Steel is Not Made. At a dinner party with his old friends, Zuo Fang said in a perplexed tone, “I don’t know what sense there is in this book of mine coming out.” Upon which the essayist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) broke in: “The Stalinism we accepted back then was actually utopianism plus totalitarianism, and your experience has a special meaning for the future generation under a different system.” Qian Gang’s view was that, “This is a prehistory of Southern Weekly.”

How Steel is Not Made was not something Zuo Fang originally planned to publish. He believed that too many people had talked about the story of Southern Weekly. “There are things online, and I don’t have anything to add.” And there were countless contemporaries with experiences similar to his. “Leave it to the young people to put it out there,” [he had said].

It was a set of 45 questions brought to him by [the writer] Shen Hong (沈洪) that made him decide finally to make an oral history of his own life. After the book was completed, the Sanlian Bookstore expressed interest in publishing it, but Zuo Fang’s original title of the book became the biggest difficulty. Sanlian Bookstore wanted to change the title, but this title clearly had deep value for Zuo Fang, and he was determined.

“The reason I chose this title How Steel is Not Made is because I wanted to use my life experience to explain the bankruptcy of the Stalinist utopian political movement,” Zuo Fang said. And in his youth, Zuo Fang had considered the famous Soviet work How Steel is Made to be a classic.

This meant the book was difficult to publish. His former colleague at Southern Weekly, University of Hong Kong scholar Qian Gang, finally realized the book project in Hong Kong with the support of HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. Zhu Xueqin, the scholar of history who has long researched the [transition] “from the Cultural Revolution to reform,” told Asia Weekly that Zuo Fang’s oral history was not only a template for the research of Southern Weekly, but “even more detailed historical material for the research of the history of the Cultural Revolution in Guangdong.”

Zuo Fang confessed: “I participated in all of the political movements after the founding of the nation. In some political movements I was a blind follower, in other political movements I was an ignorant victimizer, and in still other political movements I was an innocent victim. Utopian ideology and the doctrine of class struggle followed along with me for half my life.”

Zhu Xueqin places considerable value on this book as it covers the six years during which Zuo Fang was assigned to work in the reference materials room (资料室) after being censored for a second time after the Cultural Revolution. The end of the Cultural Revolution, and the shattering of utopian ideals, and real oppression, nothing caused Zuo Fang to give up on himself. “He arrived at a great enlightenment in that reference room,” Zhu Xueqin said.

In his book, Zuo Fang recalls in detail the metamorphosis of his thinking. During the six years he was sent to the reference room, he kept thinking about two questions: “Why was the path of the international communist movement so tortuous?”, and “Why is the road to revolution in China so tortuous?”

All of those “gray books,” which were “distributed internally for criticisms,” became Zuo Fang’s window onto the road to freedom. During these years, Zuo Fang engaged in thorough reflection, and the doctrines that had profoundly influenced him — communism, Leninism, the Soviet-style planned economy, the theory of surplus Value, the theory of class struggle, and revolutionary theory — all were subjected, one by one, to his penetrating analysis.

This “great enlightenment” not only transformed Zuo Fang from a utopian communist believer to a liberal, but also ignited his ideals about improving China (改良中国) – returning to the democratic enlightenment that had been interrupted by the revolution. It was the heart-stopping prelude that would eventually provide the inerasable tune of Southern Weekly.

Chinese-Style Newspaper Publishing

“I’m a hopeless idealist,” Zuo Fang said, raising his voice as he sat in a reclining chair in a small seaside store. He continued, “But I hate to rush.” This was change brought about after all of the political movements, and Zuo Fang poured it entirely into the Southern Weekly newspaper.

To this day, Jiang Yiping, who later served as editor-in-chief of Southern Weekly, still remembers one of Zuo’s outbursts. It was during a weekly meeting after the publication of the newspaper, and the younger journalists were furious that many stories could not be published. “They were very vehement, saying that instead of this, there was no need to fear that the newspaper would be beheaded, because it was like cutting leeks anyway, and there was one crop after another,” Jiang Yiping recalled to Asia Weekly.

“But Old Zuo was really angry, and he said, this newspaper is not just our own. Every one of us has a responsibility to treasure this newspaper,” Jiang Yiping said. “Old Zuo’s concern was with how to maintain hold of the limits, so that we could speak what we wanted to speak, but at the same time continue to exist.”

From the very beginning, Zuo Fang had a precise positioning for Southern Weekly: “Enlightenment is the soul of Southern Weekly, and the mission of Southern Weekly is to wave the flag for reform and opening.” This strategy allowed the newspaper to survive successive storms and live up to its mission.

In 1989 Southern Weekly exploded internally, but through Zuo Fang’s insistence “not a single word or picture was published.” When an American journalist interviewed Zuo Fang, he was incredulous. Zuo Fang showed him back issues of the newspaper, which surprised the reporter and his preconceived notions about Southern Weekly.

“I don’t advocate behavior that is too radical. Especially after the two marches, the students had originally resumed classes. But then there was the hunger strike action. According to my judgment, there were some extreme members who in order to prevent the students from resuming classes who actually acted in a way that was like hijacking.  While I understood them, having been young myself, I did not agree with this approach.”

After Zuo Fang saw the difference between Zhao Ziyang’s statement at the ADB annual meeting and the official editorial in the People’s Daily, he judged, based on his understanding of Chinese politics, that the student movement would definitely end tragically. “As far as I understood it, Deng Xiaoping’s character being what it was, he would never back off. What Zhao Ziyang proposed, he could never accept. Well then, the student movement could only end in tragedy. I didn’t want Southern Weekly to be martyred for a student movement that was bound to fail,” Zuo Fang told Asia Weekly.

After that point, China’s politics tightened as never before, and the openness of the 1980s vanished. All at once the circulation of Southern Weekly was cut in half from 400,000 copies. At a time when the whole country was in a state of silence, Zuo proposed his own strategy to his colleagues, and he recalled his three-act play in his book How Steel is Not Made his “three play” strategy – “play with human nature, play with words, play with page layouts” (玩人性, 玩文字, 玩版面).

This allowed Southern Weekly to quickly emerge from the nadir in the market to become a leader on the national media scene. Many years later, Zhang Xiangchun (张向春), the senior art editor who presided over the design and layout of Southern Weekly, recalled to Asia Weekly: “At that time, my design and layout was completely free of rules and restrictions, and Old Zuo fully supported me. Southern Weekly was a million plus circulation newspaper, and from our million plus circulation you could see how confident we were at the time.”

After Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” the latitude allowed to Southern Weekly slowly liberalized, and Zuo Fang’s strategy was to “let sensitive people write non-sensitive articles, and non-sensitive people write sensitive articles.” At that time, Southern Weekly often reported on Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), who was the editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily and proposed that “the People’s Daily is the people’s newspaper” (人民的报纸) and worked to promote the drafting of a press law for China.  At that time, this newspaper figure was a staunch supporter of Zhao Ziyang and opposed the crackdown. Afterward, he was removed from all positions and put on probation for two years, a sensitive word for the Chinese regime.

“He was a most sensitive figure, but when I was chatting with Hu Jiwei at his home it didn’t matter what day, he was always a leader among us journalists. But if sensitive people write sensitive articles that those at the top have an eye on, this poses a major risk to the newspaper. But I wanted Hu Jiwei to be seen in Southern Weekly,” Zuo Fang told Asia Weekly.

So with his “ulterior motives,” Zuo Fang published [a chronicle” of Hu Jiwei’s travels in Sichuan and other nostalgic articles in Southern Weekly, and even published an article on how Hu Jiwei had married his wife. “Hu Jiwei said he took a rich woman, and I published that. How would this rich woman marry Hu Jiwei?”

Although this was a gossip story that was not at all sensitive, the appearance of Hu Jiwei in the newspaper could draw notice from readers across the country. For sensitive issues, meanwhile, he chose to find young, lesser-known scholars to write about these. “Superiors just skipped over these,” [said Zuo Fang]. “But anyhow what needed saying was all said.”

Already retired in 1994, after he returned to work for Southern Weekly, Zuo Fang still made regular “risk assessments” for the newspaper. At that time, the frontpage headlines of Southern Weekly were mostly all “major cases” of sensitivity that built up the circulation and reputation of Southern Weekly, but caused unease for Zuo Fang: “I felt things had to change, but I couldn’t figure out clearly how to change, so I called everyone together to discuss it.”

This meeting in 1998 was one of the few times that Zuo Fang grew angry again. “Many young journalists like major stories, and they disapproved. The day before [the meeting] they drank a lot, and at the meeting the next day many of them dragged in slowly, more than half an hour late,” Zuo Fang recalled. Zuo Fang had a background in the military, and Qian Gang had a vivid memory of his fury at the time. “He said, fortunately I am not the editor-in-chief right now, otherwise I would drag a few of you out and shoot you myself!”

This was Zuo Fang’s last year working at Southern Weekly as a retired employee, and not long after Zuo Fang would become a mere spectator, watching Southern Weekly enter another era. Before this, Zuo Fang had already built two teams at Southern Weekly with his own hands.

A Two-Team Jigsaw Puzzle

Jiang Yiping had been working at the Nanfang Daily Group [the publisher of Southern Weekly] for several years before she took charge of Southern Weekly, which was then the most envied in the whole group. “It was a place many people wanted to get into, but this was really hard.”

When Jiang Yiping was promoted to lead the [group’s] committee, making her responsible for Southern Weekly, she didn’t fell that she was there as a leader. “I was there to follow Old Zuo and learn. I revered him from afar, because I knew he had founded Southern Weekly.”

At that time, Zuo Fang, who had returned to the job [from retirement], had to lead two teams, one for editorial and one for operations, and he focused on advertising operations. Jiang Yiping was impressed by Zuo Fang’s business acumen: “He had a special sense of the market.”

She still remembers Zuo Fang’s vivid description of market-oriented media — the “three wheels” theory, in which “the front wheel is editorial, the left [rear] wheel and the right [rear] wheel circulation and advertising, with editorial pulling circulation along, and circulation pulling advertising along. In the early 90s there were not many newspapers that could express their business philosophy in this way.”\

Zuo Fang was adept at conveying the values of Southern Weekly to the management team, and everyone on the team soon became dedicated disseminators of the Southern Weekly brand. As Jiang Yiping recalled to Asia Weekly: “They were able to tell Southern Weekly‘s customers very accurately what kind of newspaper Southern Weekly was. It was like they were brainwashed by Old Zuo. And as the idea was passed along to customers, they too identified with these values.”

In the era when the newspaper had just undergone market-oriented reforms, the importance of the management team went without saying, and Zuo Fang always paid his managers quite well, something one of Southern Weekly‘s deputy editors was quite upset about at one point. “Why do you pay your managers such high salaries?” [they asked. Zuo Fang responded nonchalantly: “No problem, you can also come over to the business side.” This [attitude] meant that Zuo Fang’s “two rear wheels” spun very fast.

And at the same time there was the other team, which Zuo Fang also did not neglect. He found a partner for Jiang Yiping [on the editorial side, and Southern Weekly‘s senior team was realized.

He dedicates one chapter in his new book How Steel is Not Made, called “Three Invitations for Qian Gang” (三请钱钢), to the recollection of [what he calls] three humble visits to a thatched cottage [a reference to a famous episode in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, referring here to Zuo calling on Qian Gang to draw him to the paper]. But Qian Gang recalls an episode not recorded in the book.

At that time, Qian Gang worked for the CCTV news investigation program “News Probe” as a chief planner, and he had long had Southern Weekly in his sights. Qian Gang remembers that the newspaper’s slogan at the time was, “A Northern Expedition in Newspaper Publishing” (报业的北伐). He remembers that at the time Southern Weekly could print as many as 100,000 copies in Beijing alone. The year before Qian Gang arrived at CCTV, Zuo Fang had already invited him once to join [the newspaper], making what Qian Gang felt was a prophetic statement.

“He said to me, this knife that is Southern Weekly must be sharpened, and whose head should it remove in the future? It should be directed at crony capitalism. That’s incredible, that in 1994 this was already his thinking. He had already seen how China would change,” Qian Gang recalled.

Later Qian Gang was transferred to CCTV, which made Zuo Fang’s invitation even more difficult. “I was treated very well by everyone in CCTV, and I was also the older brother, so this little environment was great. Actually, I didn’t want to leave CCTV,” [Qian Gang said]. But after each issue of the newspaper, Jiang Yiping would ask Qian Gang, still at CCTV, to comment on the issue. Zuo Fang would also continue to invite Qian Gang, until finally he employed a small “deception” to ensure Qian Gang joined [the paper].

“One time, out was out filming with my film crew, and on the way to the filming, I received a call from Zuo Fang. His voice seemed old and frail. He said to me, Qian Gang, I recently injured my leg. I’m bedridden and can’t come down. I just want to say one thing. Southern Weekly is a good opportunity. You should come, and do this newspaper together with Jiang Yiping.”

“It was the feeling I had from the sound in his voice that really moved me. I said, OK, I’ll go, I’ll go to Southern Weekly. Only later did I learn that he was tricking me. He hadn’t been injured at all. This was just a ploy, tricking me into going and joining Jiang Yiping,” Qian Gang recalled.

This champion jigsaw puzzle readied Southern Weekly for a period of flourishing, but the retired editor-in-chief, having returned to the paper, still had no real position. The employees just called him Old Zuo, or sometimes Mr. Zuo. Sometimes, when he was talking business with advertisers, Yan Lishan over in the editorial department thought he was too noisy. “So when we held editorial meetings we would kindly ask him to find another small room.”

Zuo Fang never cared about such things [as titles], and he hated all bureaucratic forms of address. But there was one thing that always nagged him. And what happened later confirmed to a great extent Zuo Fang’s concerns.

The Problem of the Layout Change

[Editor’s Note: This section refers to the changes that occurred at Southern Weekly followed the January 2013 “Southern Weekly Incident.”]

In 1998, Zuo Fang left Southern Weekly for good after an order against rehiring him was issued. Soon after, in 2001, Jiang Yiping and Qian Gang were also ordered to leave Southern Weekly. Zuo Fang said that after 2001, Southern Weekly entered a new era.

At that time, Southern Weekly began to change its layout, something that still haunts Zuo Fang, who values strategy. Previously, according to Zuo Fang’s plan, Southern Weekly was regarded as supplemental to Nanfang Daily [the official Guangdong paper]. “I don’t care what sort of meetings you are holding. July 1. October 1. I don’t care what meetings you’re holding. July 1. Or October 1. Because there is already a Nanfang Daily. I am a supplement, and I will pursue the role of being close to the readers and enlightening [others].”

“But young people considered Southern Weekly to be irregular, because it was a compilation of special topical pages. They said that as a paper with over a million circulation, it should be a weekly newspaper bringing together current affairs, the economy, society and culture.”

Zuo Fang’s concern is not only about his dissatisfaction with the changes he’s seen in “my own children.” He spoke especially to Asia Weekly about the restrictions of China’s political system. “I’m not against running a weekly newspaper. I also appreciate that they are doing well now, that they are developing. But you can create a new one. You don’t need to change Southern Weekly. Don’t change it. Because as long as [the question of] China’s political system has not been resolved, and the question of space for journalism has not been resolved, a newspaper like South Weekly should exist. I positioned South Weekly as a compilation of topical columns and special issues, so that we can keep a certain distance from politics, which may be more beneficial to China’s progress.”

“To define it now as a special edition on politics, frankly speaking, it’s very difficult to do without speaking falsehoods, and without speaking empty words. I led Southern Weekly, and I dare say I never told a lie, I never spoke an empty word. Today’s Southern Weekly, they wouldn’t dare say such a thing. There’s no way,” said Zuo Fang.

Jiang Yiping shares Zuo Fang’s concern, telling Asia Weekly, “Old Zuo isn’t rejecting it, but he believes that as a newspaper with the mission of enlightenment, [Southern Weekly] could continue on. It’s already effectively applied concepts of running a newspaper that have been proven in the marketplace. Why can’t that be taken further?”

“Later young people felt that Southern Weekly was a standard news broadsheet, and they’ve seen a lot of foreign newspapers, economic, lifestyle and entertainment publications. . . . So they also want these things. It should be said that after 2000, China’s newspaper industry was strongly influenced by Western newspapers.”

“But the vitality before was that if politics tightened, I could lean a little more towards entertainment, and once things relaxed, I could highlight the political side more. Later on, with various different templates set up, this is a bit like confining yourself to circles drawn on the ground, and if you dance in them you’re not free,” Jiang Yiping said.

Revamping the format learning from Western journalism of course can make the paper more professional and atmospheric. But the thing Zuo Fang worried about kept happening, and the most recent storm was the Southern Weekly New Year’s Greeting Incident of early 2013.

Since then, staff at Southern Weekly have been leaving in droves, and as many people in the newspaper industry grow pessimistic, Zuo Fang has a slightly different view.

No Pessimism for Southern Weekly

After all the turmoil that followed the Southern Weekly New Year’s Greeting Incident in early 2013, Yan Lieshan said Southern Weekly New Year’s dedication event in early 2013, Yan Lishan said sorrowfully: “It doesn’t matter what Southern Weekly is like in the future. For 30 years, Southern Weekly represented the yearnings of the people. So many people with journalistic ideals have come through. This is where it’s strength lies.”

But Zuo Fang doesn’t feel this way. He remembers Southern Weekly after 1989 as a comparison: “I think its normal for a newspaper sometimes to sink and then rise. When I was at Southern Weekly, we once dropped from 400,000 copies to 200,000 copies, and at the time I kept things going by playing the game. Because the political situation in China is sometimes tight, sometimes loose, so it’s nothing for newspapers to have their ups and downs.”

His confidence comes from the newcomers at Southern Weekly, who have come to him in admiration. These new journalists told Zuo Fang that they were going into journalism to push for Southern Weekly‘s future. “Southern Weekly is not something you can just change by sending a leader there. You can control it, but its ideas, these are something you cannot change.”

Meanwhile, the rules set when Zuo was in charge remain in place. One recently arrived leader ordered the editor to publish a piece written by his friend in Southern Weekly, asking that it appear in the next issue. But the editor in charge of the page wrote on the article instead: “This article is not suitable. Return it.”

The angry leader approached the editor, who told him, “Old Zuo set the rules, ‘prioritize the paper, not the money; prioritize the article, not the person.’ While a leader coming down from Nanfang Daily does have the right to kill an article, they do not have the right to order one to be published. This rule has not been scrapped.”

Zuo Fang’s even greater confidence comes from the power of the market. He told Asia Weekly: “In the marketplace, we have already established our own group of readers. They accept this concept of publishing a newspaper, and that’s why they buy Southern Weekly. If you want to change entirely, this means throwing out your market. Southern Weekly not only creates a great deal of revenue every year for the Nanfang Daily Group, but also has huge brand power.

After the Southern Weekly Incident of 2013, most of Southern Weekly’s core journalists and editors resigned and left, but Zuo Fang believes this is a good thing. “Lin Chufang (a famous mainland journalist and current editor of IRead magazine, formerly at Southern Weekly) said to me that after the departures from Southern Weekly nearly half of the journalists now doing market-oriented media are people who came from Southern Weekly. When I heard that I was really happy. If they take the concept of Southern Weekly outside, that means promoting social reform.”

“China’s road to modernization is still long, and there is no reason for Southern Weekly to abandon its mission.” And for now, Zuo Fang hopes that fresh blood continuing to flow into Southern Weekly, and a new group of young people being influenced by Southern Weekly, will help maintain and increase momentum.

Southern Dreams

As the sun sets on Cheung Chau Island, Zhu Xueqin tells Zuo Fang a story about how Taiwanese view communism. “Taiwanese are afraid, and say, ‘Communists don’t recognize their own relatives.’ Old Zuo did you ever have that feeling in the 1950s?”

Zuo Fang nods and muses. He tells a story about his mother. “When I was 15 or 16, I had to join the army to fight against the United States and aid North Korea. My mother was widowed in her 30s and raised me on her own. She didn’t agree about me going, which I now think is understandable. At the time I had a huge fight with her and broke off our relationship.””If I had really made it to North Korea, there is an eight-to-nine out of ten chance that I I would have perished there. My mother worked so hard raising a child, and how hard would the rest of her life have been. So when my mother died, and when her body was pushed out at the memorial service, I suddenly couldn’t control myself and knelt down and cried all at once, blocking the way. This was the only time in my life that I took a knee . . . . “

This is a story Zuo Fang has told many times before, and he continued in a solemn tone: “So many died, in what was gained? Look at how North Korea is now!” A thorough reflection on Stalinism is the biggest reason why he decided to write his thoughts on the current situation today in the last chapter of How Steel is Not Made.

In the last chapter of the book, Zuo Fang elaborates his thoughts on China’s future: “It is now at a critical moment . . . . reform through the decade if it succeeds, it will achieve a new generation of great people, but if it fails reform and opening will go into a total regression, and we will have a dark country ruled by police and secret agents, leading to a new round of revolution. How it will end is something only history can answer.”

Unpacking the 6th Plenum Communique

The Sixth Plenum has finished, culminating with the release yesterday, November 11, of the much-awaited Communique, an appetizer offering a taste of the heftier document to be expected in coming days. Surprises could yet arrive with the release of the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle, the third resolution on history since the founding of the CCP. But as we await the full resolution, and detailed observations from the many experts picking through the communique, let us run quickly through the essentials.

We do not yet have, in the Communique itself, the shortening of Xi Jinping’s “banner term,” or qizhiyu (旗帜语), as the five-character “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) from the more ponderous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” a crucial step in the consolidation of his power and legacy. This is something to look out for as the full “Resolution” is released, but it is likely in fact that the shortening will be achieved fully at next year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP, following the pattern set by Mao, whose “Mao Zedong Thought” emerged at the 7th National Congress of the CCP in April-June 1945, following on the heels of the introduction of the first historical resolution during the 7th Plenum of the 6th Central Committee, concluding in April 1945.

In any case, we can clearly see the laying down of the foundation for this elevation of Xi next year, and his continued leadership of the Party, in the most important passage of the Communique. We offer the official translation with a couple of casual bolded notes on translations that seemed to slightly vary from the original Chinese:

Comrade Xi Jinping, through meticulous assessment [scientific judgement] and deep reflection on a number of major theoretical and practical questions regarding the cause of the Party and the country in the new era, has set forth a series of original new ideas, thoughts, and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times: what kind of socialism with Chinese characteristics we should uphold and develop in this new era, what kind of great modern socialist country we should build, and what kind of Marxist party exercising long-term governance we should develop, as well as how we should go about achieving these tasks. He is thus the principal founder (主要创立者) of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century. It embodies the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough [a new leap] in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context. The Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee (核心地位) and in the Party as a whole and defined the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.


This passage is the culmination within the Communique itself, coming after a rather lukewarm assessment of the contributions of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It portrays Xi Jinping as a strong and innovative leader — the “principal founder” (主要创立者) of Xi Jinping Thought . . . . — who has rewoven the fabric of Chinese governance, and it should be read as an advance notice of two facts: “Xi Jinping Thought” will hatch from the egg of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”; and Xi Jinping will continue as the unassailable leader of the Party beyond 2022.   

Deciding History, Sealing the Future

This week’s Sixth Plenum will be historic. Which is to say not that it comes at a historic juncture, or that it is momentous of its own nature, but rather that the event will re-mold and re-shape China’s understanding and consensus on history as a reflection of the party’s dominant priorities. Those priorities can ultimately be summarized in a single name: Xi Jinping.

The Sixth Plenum will bring a tempest of political discourse in the form of a document called Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), to be “examined and approved,” or shenyi (审议), during this week’s session. But the essential function of all of this verbiage, make no mistake, will center on the person and power of Xi Jinping, defining his leadership as the way forward, on the basis of an understanding of history that defines his core agenda.

Back on October 18, at a meeting of the CCP Politburo, the country’s top leaders discussed, according to the official People’s Daily, “the documents to be submitted for examination and approval by the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee.” It was at this point that the full name of the upcoming “Resolution” was publicly revealed. That report said that all those present at the meeting “fully affirmed the draft resolution, and were unanimously in favor of the framework structure and main content of the draft resolution, holding that the draft resolution was factual, showed respect for history, was thematically clear and comprehensive in its summary.” So the “Resolution” was by that point a fait accompli — and the plenum’s process of shenyi is a meaningless gesture, a mere affirmation.

There will be nothing to examine or approve this week. The “Resolution” will be unveiled in full to the world, so that we can all pick apart its finer points – beyond, that is, Xi Jinping’s blunt claim to power. But we can prepare for the release of the “Resolution” with a bit of historical context. What do such resolutions mean? And why should we care about them at all?

First of all, this week’s “Resolution” will be the third such resolution on history since the founding of the CCP. This resolution, however, will be different in the sense that it is not a resolution on historical “problems” or “questions,” or wenti (问题). Instead, it centers on “major achievements” (重大成就) and “historical experience” (历史经验), as the title of the document clearly indicates. As such, we can say that this week’s resolution is not a third CCP resolution on “historical questions.” It is not meant to be, as the previous resolutions were, a corrective to certain “errors” within the CCP.

The first history-related resolution within the CCP was the 1945 Resolution on Certain Historical Issues (关于若干历史问题的决议), which unfolded against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Yan’an Rectification Movement, the first ideological mass movement within the Party, which began in 1941. By March 1943, Mao had gained real supremacy over the Party, and had proceeded to carry out a purge of elements within the Party opposed to his rule. The first resolution was meant to summarize the lessons of the political movement under the CCP since its founding, focusing on the period from the 4th Plenum of the 6th Central Committee (January 1931) and the supposed damage brought about by “left-leaning opportunism” (左倾机会主义).

The second resolution, the so-called Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China (关于建国以来党的若干历史问题的决议), was introduced in 1981 as a corrective to the “questions” raised by the Cultural Revolution. This resolution began:

The Communist Party of China has traversed sixty years of glorious struggle since its founding in 1921. In order to sum up its experience in the thirty-two years since the founding of the People’s Republic, we must briefly review the previous twenty-eight years in which the Party led the people in waging the revolutionary struggle for New Democracy.

The document focused on “Left errors” in the principles governing economic and political work, on the “confusing of right and wrong,” which resulted in extensive suffering that the resolution acknowledged, with grudging admission of Mao’s culpability, without undermining his revolutionary role. “Chief responsibility for the grave ‘Left’ error of the ‘cultural revolution,’ an error comprehensive in magnitude and protracted in duration, does indeed lie with Comrade Mao Zedong,” said the document. “But after all it was the error of a great proletarian revolutionary.”

By contrast with these previous two resolutions, the “Resolution” introduced this week will be far more expansive in time frame. While the first resolution covered a period of around 14 years, and the second covered “thirty-two years since the founding” of the PRC, Xi Jinping’s “Resolution” will cover the period from the CCP’s founding a hundred years ago up through the present day.

The effect of this expansive history will be to focus the CCP’s experiences, achievements and historical legitimacy in the present-day glories of Xi himself. As such, all previous top leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, will be phantoms (都是虚的, as one knowledgeable observer explained), and Xi Jinping’s achievements and experiences will become the overriding facts of Chinese politics.

There will be much language to unpack and debate this week, naturally. But the simplest conclusion to be drawn from this moment of historical and discursive significance can be summed up in just two Chinese characters: 连任. Xi Jinping will seek a third term in power.

NOTE: Those wishing today to unpack the significance of the Plenum from the CCP’s own perspective, might begin with this summary, posted yesterday by the app of the official People’s Daily.

Propaganda Success Stories

When a branch campus of the Nanjing University of Science and Technology organized a study session for Chinese Communist Party cadres last month, the men huddled in a small conference room drew inspiration from a number of sources. Foremost, of course, were the speeches of Xi Jinping. But when the time came to address the study of Party history one source was noted in particular – a three-part documentary series extolling the virtues of Xi Jinping’s governance of China and his new concepts of development.

The most extraordinary thing about the series in question was not its unvarnished praise of the CCP chairman. That was a given. Rather, it was the fact that this documentary series was a glossy production that had first been aired on Discovery, one of the most widely distributed subscription channels in the United States and across the world. In research elsewhere, I have detailed the circumstances of the production and release of China: Time of Xi (习近平治国方略:中国这五年), a program produced by a UK-based company, but in fact backed by a major communication group operated by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.

The use of the documentary in Nanjing recently offers a fascinating look at how a production that is essentially “mainstream” by Chinese political standards – meaning in this context that it fully accords with the CCP’s ideology, orientation and goals – can manage to be distributed as entertainment content to audiences in living rooms across several continents.

A promotional poster for China: Time of Xi, the three-part documentary series released globally from 2017.

Official sources make clear that China: Time of Xi has been the subject of keen study within the CCP for several years, viewed and discussed in study sessions on CCP ideology and history at all levels across the country, and serving ultimately to consolidate Xi Jinping’s hold as the “core” of Chinese political life. Back in July 2020, for example, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s macroeconomic management agency, held a collective study session on the second installment of the documentary, dealing with governance. According to a release from the commission, participants “uniformly believed” that the documentary “fully explained China’s new development concept and its successful practice.”

And given its broad distribution outside China, the documentary has also been viewed as a textbook example of the successful telling of “China’s story” — this being the key CCP buzzword in the Xi era for the effective application of the older concept of “external propaganda,” or waixuan (外宣). In an article earlier this week, Culture and Tourism China (文旅中国), an official website operated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, wrote that China: Time of Xi had, “compared with other similar documentaries, created a new paradigm for political documentaries ‘telling China’s story well.'”

“Documentaries are an important media in the transmission of the national image,” said the CTC article. And the Discovery series, produced by the UK’s Meridian Line Films, had “used suspense, a point by point [structure], showing large [concepts] from details . . . . in order to present China from an objective point of view and expand the breadth of ‘telling China’s story well.'”

American designer Danny Forster, one of the sources interviewed for the three installments of China: Time of Xi. The documentary is shown here on the state broadcaster, CCTV.

This application of the word “objective,” coming right on the heels of talk of projecting a positive national image, naturally follows the CCP’s understanding of the concept – as avoiding facts or observations that lead to critical, or negative, views of the issues discussed. Within the prevailing CCP discourse, the CCP’s framing of issues is by definition “objective.”

The article goes on to analyze the documentary series in detail, explaining the techniques used and the content covered in each of the three parts. The article concludes:

This film leaps beyond the traditional political propaganda model, and through multiple narrative perspectives, story-based themes and international forms of expression . . . . to successfully tell China’s story. Moreover,  it supports the wisdom of China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative and the ‘building a community of shared destiny for mankind’ and the opportunities they have brought for the world. [The film] has created a new paradigm for the political documentary in ‘telling the China story well,’ and has blazed a path forward for the international communication of China’s national image and for the construction of China’s international discourse system. It deserves more in-depth study by the [media] sector and by academia.

Such talk of “China’s international discourse system” around a documentary series released by an American multinational media conglomerate is astonishing — and for some, perhaps, sobering — in the wake of the much-publicized collective study session of China’s Politburo back in June this year. That study session was led by the director of Fudan University’s Institute for Chinese Studies, Zhang Weiwei (张维为), who back in 2013 spoke of a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语) that would entail the rise of a “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系).

If China: Time of Xi is truly a textbook example of how products emerging from a “Chinese discourse system” might attract global audiences and be compelling, what does this say about the role of foreign media distribution channels and production cultures in the manufacture of such success stories?

In fact, China’s claims, like those in the CTC article, about the successes of external propaganda often reveal the weakness of such approaches when one digs between the lines. One such example can be found in the CTC article as it talks up the international reception of China: Time of Xi. After mentioning that episode 2 of the documentary series aired first in the United States, the article reveals that it was also shown at the Golden Tree International Documentary Film Festival in Frankfurt, Germany.

Certainly, a public screening at an international documentary festival would seem to further substantiate the fact that the series was a critical success. But the Golden Tree International Documentary Festival is the creation of Germany’s DCM Deutsch-Chinesische Medien GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Huayun Shangde International Culture Communication (北京华韵尚德国际文化传播有限公司), a Beijing-based company that by its own description “principally provides expert exchange, publicity, planning and business consultation services for governments, associations and individuals.” For several years running the company was designated by China’s Ministry of Commerce as a “Priority Enterprise for National Cultural Export” (国家文化出口重点企业).

Both companies are run by Wang Libin (王立滨), who has directly mentioned Xi-era concepts of cultural diplomacy in interviews with Chinese state media. In June 2018, Wang told Xinhua News Agency in an exclusive interview that Golden Tree was held every year in order “both to tell the China story well through this platform, and to promote cultural trade.” Whatever the relationship on the China side, Wang’s company has clearly capitalized on the official agenda of “going out,” and more recently on “telling the China story.”

Everywhere, it seems, there is China’s gloved hand. The subsidiary of an enterprise operated by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department strikes up a deal with the Discovery channel to produce a documentary praising Xi, marketed by Chinese government-backed media as something independent, and this production is shown at a festival in Europe that again has the external publicity goals of China at heart.

State media have frequently turned to Wang Libin and Huayun Shangde as proponents of smart external publicity that foreigners can relate to. Wang’s company was also behind “Laikanba,”  a cultural program that was aired by the private, Dusseldorf-based broadcasting company NRW.TV from 2010, and that Chinese media promoted at the time as the “first and only Chinese topical TV program to enter the mainstream media in Europe.” In a 2019 profile, Wang offered her views on international communication: “Telling the China story in a way that others can accept can happen more quietly,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be about saying how good we are, or how great we are. As we go through the process, every action represents the Chinese temperament and the Chinese character.”

Xi Jinping is promoted as an unparalleled leader through the official account of the CCP’s Xinhua News Agency on Twitter on November 6, 2021.

What would it mean on the international stage to have a “Chinese discourse system”? What would it look like, and how would others in the world participate? What would the values be to which humanity could aspire? These are broad and difficult questions. But the answers so far, glimpsed through productions like China: Time of Xi, are narrow and self-serving. The values are those of the CCP as refracted through the personality of a single powerful leader — closed vision we are simply to accept as it insinuates itself into the global open spaces of media and culture.

Quietly though they may emerge, these productions do speak volumes about the temperament and character of “China’s story.” And as such they should watched and heeded.

Cracking Down on Fandoms

Echoing Mao Zedong before him, Xi Jinping regularly stresses the Party’s domination of all aspects of life. “East, west, south, north and center, Party, government, military, society and education—the Party rules all,” as he has said. The latest target of this drive to domination is “fandom culture,” or fanquan wenhua, which refers to online youth communities that coalesce around shared obsessions with celebrity idols. According to the Cyberspace Administration of China, “toxic idol worship” threatens to poison the minds of future generations. Last month, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department warned that internet addiction among teenagers “results in health risks that cannot be ignored.”  

This effort to control fandom culture comes against the backdrop of a crackdown on youth entertainment in China, including harsh restrictions on online gaming. But all this talk of rescuing Chinese youth from their own appetites is in fact a smokescreen for a far more serious purpose. Closer scrutiny of China’s recent internet crackdown suggests these moves are part of a broader effort to reassert the Party’s control over the internet as a key battleground for political and ideological security. The struggle, which touches on the future of the regime, is for the hearts and minds of China’s Generation Z. For policymakers considering how to respond to China’s crackdown on online freedoms, it is vital to understand the full scope of its efforts to consolidate power, which go far beyond just the tech industry to include online culture.  

In the eyes of the Party, the country’s hitherto vibrant internet and entertainment sector is a thing to be tamed, and the official backlash facing fandom culture in recent weeks is one of the clearest examples of how even apparently benign aspects of the internet can run afoul of a leadership obsessed with control. Just as the Xi regime has sought to bring the country’s technology companies to heel, it also seeks to control online culture more deeply, and this does not bode well for the long-term development and vibrancy of China’s internet sector. 

From stargazing to collective action 

For many young people in China, particularly those born after the 1990s, fandom culture—which can be traced back to the idol worship of the 1980s and 1990s—has offered a rare avenue for identity formation and community building in a society where associations of all kinds are subject to strict government control. As networked and often highly organized communities of fans rallying around their beloved idols, “fandoms” have enabled close parasocial interactions in which fans feel a kind of intimacy with the object of their shared interest, as well as a sense of active participation that can be empowering and identity forming.  

Examples of fandom culture include the hit show “Idol Producer,” which launched in January 2018 on the online video platform iQiyi and empowered fans to select and promote their favored contestants from among 100 aspiring performers. The ultimate goal of the program was to select nine performers to form a brand-new male idol group. As fans organized to promote their favored idols through social media platforms, their interactions were fueled by Gen Z-focused services like live-streaming and live commerce.  

Fandoms have become big business in China. A report published by iResearch Consulting Group put the market value of the fan economy in China at close to $620 billion in 2019 and estimated that the fan economy would grow a further 50 percent by 2023. 

It would be easy to dismiss fandoms as shallow and celebrity-obsessed, but the highly organized online communities forming around China’s fandoms have already demonstrated their potential for both social activism and political organization. Perhaps the most prominent example of online fandom communities’ potential for political expression came in 2016, when the so-called “Diba expedition” saw thousands of highly organized cyber-nationalists, mostly “fan girls,” mob the Facebook account of Taiwan’s newly elected leader, Tsai Ing-wen.  

A definition of the term “fandom girls” shared online in China. The text next to the image of young women wearing red scarves and brandishing a keyboard reads: “[The term] does not refer specifically to a group of fans of a particular celebrity. Unlike the traditional fandom culture, they gather spontaneously and use their own fandom culture to discuss and mock Western media on overseas social media.” Source: Matters

Fandoms and their capacity for collective action were also one of the largely untold stories of China’s fight against the COVID-19 epidemic in its early stage. In January 2020, as it became clear that an epidemic had emerged in Wuhan and surrounding areas, the government response was far too slow in many key areas, including the provision of protective equipment. By contrast, the networks already formed within fandom culture—the same that allowed mobilization in support of chosen idols—enabled the rapid marshalling of resources. On Jan. 21, 2020, one day after China confirmed human transmission of COVID-19, the fan network of Zhu Yilong, a young actor originally from the city of Wuhan, mobilized funds to purchase more than 200,000 protective masks. These and other supplies were delivered to Wuhan within 24 hours, offering much-needed support for medical personnel and others on the front lines. The aid offered by the Zhu Yilong network is just one of many examples of how online groups provided a crucial means of support amid a rapidly unfolding crisis.  

Perhaps more worrying for the CCP has been their potential for mobilization on a global scale. Within 10 days of China’s formal acknowledgement of the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, a group of 27 fandoms from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan known as the “666 Alliance,” had sourced nearly half a million-yuan worth of medical supplies for use in Wuhan. As one Chinese scholar wrote of fandoms in 2020: “They are a huge population, are well-organized, and have a clear division of labor, giving them an explosive power many would find astonishing.”  

Screenshot of coverage by Shanghai’s Jiemian News of the “666 Alliance” of fandom groups and its work sourcing supplies for the fight against Covid-19.  

Guiding Gen Z 

The Chinese leadership understands the immense impact youth movements have had in the country’s political past—from the May Fourth Movement at the start of the 20th century, to the chaos wrought by Mao’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, to the large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. It may seem a stretch to compare such historical upheavals to the myriad iterations of online youth culture in China today. But it is important to recall that the most enduring lesson Party leaders took away in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre was the imperative of mastering the social zeitgeist, ensuring especially that the thoughts and ideas driving China’s youth can be directed through effective controls on culture and the media. As China’s reform-minded premier, Zhao Ziyang, was shoved aside in the wake of the massacre, and as Jiang Zemin assumed leadership of the Party, the project of ensuring the control of news and ideology to preserve regime stability was given a new catchphrase: “guidance of public opinion.” The phrase came directly from language in the Party’s assessment, published in the journal China Comment, of Premier Zhao’s failings of that spring.  

Meeting with propaganda leaders in May 1989, as pro-democracy demonstrations continued to grab international attention, Zhao had urged the officials to open things up a bit. “Make the news a bit more open. There’s no big danger in that,” he said. “By facing the wishes of the people, by facing the tide of global progress, we can only make things better.” The consensus from the start of the Jiang era was that Zhao’s tolerant approach had “guided matters in the direction of chaos,” hence the phrase that came to dominate the project of media and internet control for decades to come.  

The CAC’s Aug. 27 notice on fandom communities—“Notice on the Further Strengthening of the Management of ‘Fandom Chaos’”—describes the political objectives driving this clean-up of “fandom chaos.” The notice says that “all regions must further improve their political stance,” or zhengzhi zhanwei, which is a term that came to prominence in 2018 to signal allegiance to Xi Jinping and the CCP. The term is a distillation of what is known as the “Four Consciousnesses,” which is fundamentally about Xi Jinping’s “core” status. Crucially, the notice urges government authorities in all regions of the country to govern “fandom chaos” in order to “preserve online political security and ideological security and create a clear online space.” This spells out far more clearly—by the standards of China’s often obscure political rhetoric, anyway—the urgency of controlling fandom culture in order to maintain the stability of the regime. There is also explicit language about the need for platforms that host fandom activity to take on a “guiding responsibility,” a subtle yet unmistakable reference to the aforementioned media control phrase and the events of 1989.  

China’s leadership has been pushing insistently for better “guidance” of fandom culture since at least the second half of 2020. Fandoms came under much greater official scrutiny from February to July of 2020 following an online controversy centering on Xiao Zhan, an actor and internet idol. When AO3, a fan fiction site outside China played host to an overtly homoerotic work of fan fiction about Xiao and a former co-star, some of Xiao’s millions of fans were enraged. They retaliated by reporting the fan site to government authorities, who answered with a wholesale blocking of the site from inside China. This prompted bitter reprisals against Xiao Zhan fans, including name-calling and doxing, from other fandoms dedicated to AO3. Xiao quickly became a toxic figure for major brands like Cartier and Estée Lauder, who backed out of endorsement deals

The online storm around Xiao Zhan became known as the “227 Incident” (referring to the date it began, Feb. 27) and brought a wave of official criticism in the Party-state media. One official newspaper wrote via its news app in early May 2020 that fandom culture is a “highly-organized” threat to ideological security. The role of fandoms in “self-identity construction” had caused them to “constantly intrude upon or subsume other ideologies to form a fierce and aggressive and highly-organized machine.” Fandoms’ “potential social influence in broader arenas” cannot “be underestimated,” the paper warned. Following an initial apology in March, Xiao Zhan again issued a mea culpa in July 2020, using the Party’s own language of ideological control: “I do have a duty to guide correctly and to actively advocate [for the correct values].”  

By July 2020, the stage was set for this year’s curbs on fandom culture as part of a much larger crackdown on China’s internet. From that point on, “fandom chaos” was a regular topic in the official media. A headline that month in Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily read: “Relevant Departments Focus on ‘Fandom’ Chaos: Media and Celebrities Must Properly Carry Out Guidance of Public Opinion.” 

Idolizing the general secretary 

Attacks on fandom culture and online entertainment in China’s state media this year have continued to dwell on the impact on the health and well-being of young people and on the damage supposedly done to the country’s “online ecology.” But accepting this official rationalization for the crackdown on fandoms requires that we turn a blind eye to the most defining trend in Chinese domestic politics today—namely, the Party’s push to build a culture of loyalty, and even infatuation, around the person of Xi Jinping. Celebrity worship may be on the way out in China. But strongman worship is the order of the day. By cracking down on fandoms, the Party seeks to ensure that the vigor of celebrity worship is re-directed toward Xi Jinping himself, as the embodiment of Chinese ethics and values.  

Despite all the chatter in the official state media about the “chaos” of fandoms, the push to make China’s internet giants to give back, the need to safeguard data privacy and official morality, and so on, the most fundamental driver behind wave after wave of new internet restrictions this year has been far more basic: the need for the Chinese Communist Party and its charismatic leader to shore up the foundation for political and ideological stability. On Aug. 24, just three days before the Cybersecurity Advisory Committee issued its new regulations on fandom culture, China’s Ministry of Education announced that the study of Xi Jinping’s personal governing concept will be incorporated into the official education curriculum, helping China’s youth “build faith in Marxism.” Primary school children in China—now restricted to their two hours of online gaming per week—will now also be obligated to study not just the governing concepts of Xi Jinping, but to study and internalize the stories of Xi’s life and deeds. The country’s leaders may decry a commercial internet culture in which everyone is “striving for eyeballs.” But the fundamental point here is that the Party too is striving for eyeballs. And its future, it knows, will depend on China’s obsessed youth.  

This article previously appeared at Brookings TechStream, and is republished here with permission.

China Updates Rules on News Reposting

It has long been a basic maxim of public opinion control under the Chinese Communist Party that one of the chief means of restricting information is to limit those outlets having the right to report the news. The state-granted privileges allowing media to conduct news reporting have been referred to as “news gathering rights,” or xinwen caifangquan (新闻采访权), and these rights have been vested with trusted media that are in various ways tethered to official institutions.

As the internet became increasingly central in the distribution and consumption of information in China, the authorities maintained strict limitations on “news gathering rights.” For example, when the Regulations on the Administration of Internet News Information Services (互联网新闻信息服务管理规定) were promulgated in 2005, they stipulated clearly that commercial news portals (such as Sina, Sohu and QQ) did not have “news interview rights” and therefore could not directly produce original news content. What properly licensed websites could do, however, was to repost, or zhuanzai (转载), news on current affairs.

In the chaotic world of the rapidly developing internet, now supercharged by social media and big data, it has been crucial for China’s leadership to maintain control over the process of zhuanzai. The hope, with the goal of ensuring CCP “guidance of public opinion,” is that news content remains clear at the source, produced by politically trusted sources, and that it does not become murky, or politically toxic, as it makes its way downstream through the expanding digital media terrain. One important means of mastering zhuanzai has been to clearly demarcate the sources of reposted news content that can be safely used.

The release yesterday by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) of a new and updated version of its Internet News Information Source List (互联网新闻信息稿源单位名单) has precisely this goal in mind. The CAC document, an update of the first version released in July 2016, about five months after Xi Jinping’s speech urging a re-consolidation of CCP media controls, provides a comprehensive list of the news “units” – 1,356 in all – that are approved as “report sources,” or gaoyuan (稿源).

What does this mean? Essentially, the existence and enforcement of the list means that digital media of all stripes are prohibited from reposting current affairs and breaking news stories originating with sources other than those appearing on the “Source List,” including international media as well as public accounts on major platforms like WeChat and Weibo. Website and portals that do not keep strictly to the “Source List” in republishing news “will be punished according to law and regulations,” according to the CAC, which also said that it would closely watch “source units” (稿源单位), ensuring that they did not have “information security liability incidents and other issues.”

Why is the list being updated and released now? This is perhaps the more interesting question, given that these restrictions on sourcing of news stories are not particularly new. The CAC release, and coverage by the Party-state media, explains that the new “Source List” is about “adapting to the new situation, new changes and new demands of internet communication, further consolidating the foundation of internet communication management, and enriching the supply of internet news information.”

The “new situation” and “new changes” are really about the proliferation of digital media since the introduction of the last list in 2016, including the transformation of the Party-state led digital media infrastructure. One of the most noticeable differences between the two lists, in fact, is the addition today of many hundreds of official public accounts, or gongzhong zhanghao (公众账号), these being accounts operated by licensed and politically trusted media at the national, provincial and prefectural levels on China’s most crucial social media platforms, WeChat and Weibo.

The addition of public accounts is the primary reason why the sheer number of “units” on the updated “Source List” has expanded so notably since 2016. So what we can see here is an effort to maintain and reinforce the Party’s control over news at the source on the one hand, and to expand sourcing on the other hand in a way that befits broader changes to the country’s information landscape. So much activity in terms of official reporting and commentary – in other words, CCP and government messaging at all levels – is now happening through public accounts. Therefore, the scope of official sourcing must be expanded in order to authorize these “units” while also amplifying them, maintaining strict propaganda controls throughout.

Among the three notable priorities on the CAC list, named by the CAC itself and by Party-state media in their reporting today, control is not surprisingly at the top. The CAC notes, first and foremost, that the list “adds a group” (新增一批) of trusted sources, the goal having been to ensure that sources on the list “adhere to a correct political orientation, [adhere to] public opinion guidance, [adhere to the correct] value orientation.” Secondly, the CAC notes that the list “verifies a group” (核校一批), meaning simply that the list needed to be updated to reflect closures, name changes, changes to “sponsoring institutions” (official sponsors, essentially) and so on, resulting in some cases from institutional reform over the past five years.

Finally, the CAC notes that the new list “eliminates a group” (剔除一批). Listen in as it explains this key priority:

Units from the 2016 version of the source list that are no longer eligible, have poor regular performance, or lack influence have been removed from the list to effectively maintain its seriousness and credibility.

Define “seriousness” and “credibility.”

In fact, the absences themselves offer the best explanation of how the CAC has applied its standard of credibility and seriousness. Scrolling down past the expanded list of “central news websites” and “central news units,” past the likes of the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, and their various websites and public accounts, then past the list for CCP and government organs and other official organizations, we come at last to the group from Beijing – the first of a long string of listings categorized by province and municipality.

On the 2021 “Source List” for Beijing, there are a total of 15 media units, including seven websites and eight other news organizations. The list of websites include those for the official Beijing Daily (北京日报网), The Beijing News (新京报网), the website of the Beijing chapter of the Chinese Communist Youth League (北青网), and so on.

The Beijing listing for the updated “Source List” for 2021 released by the CAC.

These websites are all to be expected, and we can note that all but two (The Beijing News and Beijing News Radio) now have official WeChat public accounts that are also authorized sources for zhuanzai.

But if we refer to the 2016 “Source List,” we immediately find our first instance of a media unit that seems to belong to the “elimination” group. The website in question is Caixin Online (财新网), regarded by many readers outside China, and certainly inside too, as one of the country’s most credible and serious sources of news reporting.

Caixin Online appears in the Beijing section of the 2016 “Source List.”

In fact, Caixin, which was founded in 2009 by the highly-respected editor Hu Shuli (胡舒立), has itself sought to prevent the zhuanzai of its content without permission, and much the outlet’s coverage is paywalled. Nevertheless, the outlet’s absence from the 2021 “Source List” effectively means that its news content cannot be shared by other outlets even if permission has been secured from Caixin.

Bloomberg has reported this morning, just as this short analysis was wrapping up, that the Caixin exclusion amounts to an “ouster,” and that the move “means its articles cannot appear on the internet platforms such as that are popular ways for the Chinese public to consume news.” This may risk an overstatement of the significance of the exclusion for Caixin, for the reasons I just mentioned. This “Source List” has little to do with curbs the outlet might face as it attempts to report breaking news stories, or to carry out in-depth investigative reporting.

But whatever the case, the exclusion is certainly indicative of the Party’s continued consolidation of control over the upstream and downstream distribution of news and information in China.

China’s Leftist Prophet Speaks Again

Last month, a blog article declaring China to be in the midst of a “profound revolution” fueled speculation online after it was republished by several Party-state media outlets. In the comparatively moderate intellectual climate of the 1990s or early 2000s, such a leftist screed, with its talk of a “red return,” would have been beneath the notice of the majority of news media and readers in China, suited only to fringe online forums like Utopia (乌有之乡). But the high-profile official treatment of the post, written by a virtually unknown blogger named Li Guangman (李光满), seemed to signal a more profound leftward slide in China’s politics at the top.

In a post to his WeChat public account on October 9, Li Guangman doubled-down on his September thesis, citing two recent media-related cases to support his conviction that a “profound transformation” is underway in China, with deep implications for politics, business, culture and the media.

The first of these cases was the release by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top macroeconomic management agency, of new draft rules unambiguously prohibiting the involvement of all “non-public capital” (非公有资本) – meaning private capital of any kind, domestic or foreign – in news gathering, production and dissemination. While restrictions on news content and its production are of course not news in China, these new rules are so salient and broad in their prohibitions that they seem to remove all strategic ambiguity.

The second media case cited by Li Guangman was the detention on October 7 in Hainan of well-known entrepreneur and former professional journalist Luo Changping (罗昌平), who was charged with insulting and defaming the martyrs of Chinese history by criticizing a new film about China’s involvement in the Korean War. Luo’s detention, widely reported by state-run media, underscores the resolve of the Chinese Communist Party leadership in policing the bounds of the CCP’s official narratives, the stories and mythologies that undergird its power and legitimacy.

Goodbye, Private Capital?

In his October 9 post, Li Guangman in fact reviewed four major events he claimed had “symbolic significance” (标志性意义). In addition to the new NDRC rule and Luo Changping’s detention, these included the recent antitrust fine against the shopping platform Meituan, the second major penalty so far this year against a Chinese internet firm, and the withdrawal of plans for a 1.6 billion dollar listing by Lenovo Group on the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Li Guangman begins his post by repeating the line for which he has become so well known: “We are right now going through a profound transformation!” This ecstatic declaration is followed immediately by his rundown of the NDRC draft rules on media investment. After reviewing the language of the NDRC release, he summarizes:

We can note first of all that non-public capital here should include all domestic and foreign non-public capital. Second, news collection, editing, broadcasting and distribution businesses here cover all aspects of the news, including print news media, television news media, and internet platform news media, including traditional news media and new media. In summation, the entire news sector will be closed to non-public capital, and only public capital will be permitted to participate in related operations, without exceptions. I would also like to emphasize that there are no exceptions in the formulation here — the entire news sector is to be brought under the operation of public capital.

Li’s reading of the letter of the NDRC draft rules is certainly not wrong. The release tells us clearly that the rules “raise prohibitions on the illegal (违规) development of business related to the news media.” And the language is actually quite expansive in defining the relevant areas of media activity – the clear point being that “non-public capital may not invest in the establishment and operation” (非公有资本不得投资设立和经营) of such entities. This includes traditional and new media, so that the rules would seem to prohibit outright, for example, a Tencent investment in Caixin Media, the professional outlet founded by veteran editor Hu Shuli (胡舒立), as much as an investment from a smaller online gaming company in a youth-oriented history or sports news product distributed through an app or WeChat public account. In terms of media type, the rules would seem to prohibit private capital across the spectrum — if they were implemented to the letter.

And what about content? Li Guangman revels in the expansiveness of the rules in terms of content coverage as well, and his glee is not misplaced. The rules include a laundry list of activities, checking all the boxes for content in key areas, including politics and current affairs, culture, science and technology, military affairs, foreign affairs, health, education and sports. And the draft adds to the concrete areas of content prohibition for “non-public capital” the dragnet language “and other activities that concern political orientation, guidance of public opinion and value orientations.”

The language here about “guidance of public opinion” will be familiar to seasoned observers of China’s press policy. It is the concept, underpinning press controls since the beginning of the 1990s, that the CCP’s concerted control of all media is essential to the maintenance of regime stability. The term dates back to June 1989 and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators,  and came from the consensus after the crackdown, as Jiang Zemin took on the top leadership position, that Premier Zhao Ziyang had “guided matters in the direction of chaos” by urging propaganda leaders in May 1989 to “open things up a bit” (China Comment, June 1989).

“Political orientation,” another important catchphrase here, is more squarely about obedience to the political line of the CCP Central Committee, but especially to the leadership of Xi Jinping. If “guidance” is about ensuring that public ideas and sentiment are managed through control and direction of the media , “political orientation” is more about enforcing the political and ideological dominance of Xi and his CCP, of his rebranding of the Party for the 21st century. Think of his overarching banner term, the ponderous “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” which could in due course be distilled into the potent “Xi Jinping Thought.” But think also of the populist notion of “common prosperity” (共同富裕), which turned heads (with concern) in early August this year, coming months into a broad crackdown on the tech sector that has shamed the scions of Chinese entrepreneurialism and innovation into pledging allegiance to Xi’s project of red revival.

Here too is where the talk of “value orientations” comes in. Along with the crackdown on the internet sector and tech sectors – here, Li Guangman’s mention of the recent Meituan fine is apropos – the use of big data and so on, have come restraints on many aspects of internet culture that have been regarded of late as effete, excessively materialistic, even morally objectionable. With volleys against “fandom culture” and online gaming, and moralistic attacks on online influencers such as “Buddhist beauties,” China seems to be sliding into an era of rule by shame when it comes to social values. The right values combinea kind of stiff-faced adherence to CCP political values (manly and heroic) with a healthy attitude toward consumerism that eschews excess materialism and its effeminacy. Tech gurus are the first and obvious casualties of this “profound revolution” (to borrow again Li Guangman’s words) because they have profited from and super-fueled a tech-driven consumer and lifestyle revolution that has placed in their grasp the data of a billion lives. They epitomize commercial and technological power, and they impel the social and cultural transformations that could undermine the Party’s position at the center.

In a nutshell, these rules are abominable. But still, one crucial question remains: Will they be implemented according to their letter, or will they simply be applied in an ad hoc manner? In fact, similar rules regarding private capital involvement in traditional publishing have been around since 2005, and in 2017 the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s top internet control body, also issued prohibitions on private capital involvement in news reporting. Given the focus in the past on traditional publishing, and given a history of selective enforcement, the feeling at media outlets with financing from private companies may be that strategic relationships remain most critical, and that the most important factor will be ensuring no red lines are crossed (or crossed egregiously) in terms of coverage.

This is cold comfort against the backdrop of recent actions against internet platforms in China. Sure, it is likely that a chill will run first through those media products on platforms like WeChat, including those with financing from internet firms like Tencent and Alibaba, before the temperature drops for legacy media. But the rules are explicit, and at the very least they are likely to drive private capital further away from media ventures and promote the continued consolidation of Party control over information products across the board.

In his latest gleeful declaration of “profound revolution,” Li Guangman also finds encouragement in the fact that these rules come from the NDRC, and not from the CAC or other propaganda agencies. “There is definite wisdom in the fact that this time public capital is taking back the right to news and public opinion not through departments in charge of news, public opinion and propaganda, but through the DRC’s ‘Negative List of Market Access,'” he writes. “As soon as this “negative list” is released and implemented, a profound transformation will occur in our country’s news sector.”

Policing the Faith

Will Li Guangman’s “profound transformation” in the Chinese media come to pass? Right now, it is impossible to say with certainty. But we should also view the NDRC rules in the light of how “political orientations” and “value orientations” are being policed in China. When we consider how the media atmosphere lately has been electrified with “red gene” jingoism and demands for fealty to the ideals of the CCP, the medium-term outlook does not give cause for optimism. Arriving at Shenzhen’s Bao’an Airport wearing her bright red dress last month, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟) epitomized this prevailing ethos as she delivered her speech on the tarmac, amid the fluttering of bright red national flags: “If faith has a color,” she said, “it must be Chinese red” (如果信念有颜色,那一定是中国红). Or think of the way that Wang Xing (王兴), the billionaire CEO of the Chinese shopping giant Meituan (美团) said during his group’s second-quarter earnings call in September that “common prosperity is rooted in Meituan’s genes.”

Woe be to those who lack the faith. And the fate last week of Luo Changping is an egregious case in point. Luo’s alleged crime is “infringing the reputation and honor of national martyrs” in violation of a 2018 law that criminalized criticism of “heroes and martyrs” with the stated goal of “cultivating and practicing core socialist values, and inspiring the glorious spiritual force of the realization of the China dream of the great renewal of the Chinese nation.”

Luo’s crime, specifically, was to question the authenticity of the story of Chinese soldiers during the Korean War as portrayed in the new blockbuster film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (长津湖), released in theaters last month. A notice from police in Hainan on Friday said that Luo’s comments on the Weibo platform had slandered China’s volunteer soldiers and had “serious negative consequences.” The internet, it said, was not a “land outside the law,” and it hoped that “the majority of Chinese internet users would consciously follow laws and regulations.”  

Police issue a notice on October 8 announcing the arrest of “Luo X Ping,” later confirmed to be former journalist Luo Changping, for defaming China’s heroes and martyrs.

The fact that Luo’s case has been widely reported by Party-state media suggests he is being pursued in order to set an example to others – not least to online influencers (Luo has more than two million followers) who have the potential to impact public opinion.

For Li Guangman, who cites Luo Changping’s detention as further evidence of the “profound transformation” underway in China, action against public intellectuals is long overdue. For too long, he says, the country’s martyrs have been neglected. The situation has improved since the implementation of the 2018 law, but still “people like Luo Changping have not hesitated to test the law.” Li quotes from Jun Zhengping (钧正平), a writer at the People’s Liberation Army Daily, who said in a recent commentary venting outrage at Luo Changping’s remarks that, “We must not let those who malign the martyrs do whatever they want with impunity.”

Concluding his recent post, Li Guangman rails against private capital, which he says has “monopolized public opinion on China’s internet.” But the transformation now underway, he says, is “changing our society, our ideas, our concepts and our lives,” and is “destroying certain people and forces, and healing Chinese society.”

“What we are seeing and feeling now is the tremendous power brought by this change,” he writes. “Although it is one event after another in different arenas, the changes brought by these events to our society are comprehensive, profound and long-term, and each of us should face this profound change, be awake to change, and have the courage to accept change.”