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).

Changes at the Core

Since the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party held its Sixth Plenum last November, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立) has been a crucial phrase within the Party’s discourse, reiterating Xi Jinping’s position as the“core” of the leadership, and underscoring his ideas as the bedrock of China’s future. As the 20th National Congress of the CCP nears, we should expect the phrase to soar into the heavens — an indication of Xi’s unassailable position at the top.

But that is not what is happening. And while the language of the CCP is never a perfect mirror, or a clear one, of the state of politics internally, these upset expectations are cause to reconsider. Is it possible that a combination of factors — including, perhaps, a flagging economy, the constant squeeze of a fanatical adherence to “dynamic zero,” and a miscalculated foreign policy of Russian hand-holding — have rubbed the gild off of what until recently seemed a steadily rising cult of personality around Xi?

Whatever the reasons, and whatever the outcome, which should become clear in the coming weeks, the fizzling of the “Two Establishes” in August, just as senior leaders emerged from the annual summer conclave at the beach resort of Beidaihe, seems to signal a turn or detour of some sort.

So what exactly is the phrase doing?

In fact, the only use of the “Two Establishes” in the People’s Daily today comes prominently on the front page. It is a bone-dry account of the development of China’s “high-quality team” of public servants since the 19th National Congress nearly five years ago. These are the selfless bureaucrats, the article tells us, that have formed “the backbone of governance in the New Era.”

The front page of today’s People’s Daily, an article mentioning the “Two Establishes” marked in red.

The article, which appears on the front pages of many of country’s provincial-level Party newspapers today as well, makes standard use of the “Two Establishes” as it closes with a nod to the upcoming congress:

Under the strong leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, the vast swathe of civil servants firmly defend the “Two Establishes,” resolutely achieve the “Two Safeguards,” remember the fundamental purpose of serving the people wholeheartedly, consciously serving for the prosperity and strength of the country . . . with real actions welcoming the opening of the Party’s 20th National Congress.

This is exactly the sort of signaling of loyalty that in recent months we had come to expect in the pages of the People’s Daily, often in article after article. In June and July, it was not uncommon to have between four and six such articles in a single day — and days without were few and far between.

But the second half of half has been a discourse drought for Xi Jinping when it comes to the “Two Establishes.” With one more edition of the People’s Daily due for the month, here is what the situation looks like for 2022, with numbers of articles plotted on a half-month basis.

The first half of August 2022 saw 34 articles in the People’s Daily using the “Two Establishes.” In the second half? Just 8 so far, with one day to go.

Setting aside the peak of uses for the phrase corresponding to the National People’s Congress in the first half of March, the “Two Establishes” has remained steadily in the 20-30 range since the second half of February. In the second half of August, after starting at the strongest point since the NPC, the phrase has dropped precipitously, returning to the low recorded in early February.

Judging from the trends in CCP discourse, it is difficult not to think that the engine of Xi Jinping’s continued rise has stalled. There is certainly time for a fall rally, and September could accelerate Xi’s race uphill toward a third term. But other scenarios are looking increasingly possible.

A Top Power Buzzword Goes Quiet

Exactly two weeks ago at CMP, we wrote that one crucial term signaling the power and prestige of Xi Jinping, the so-called “Two Establishes,” or liangge queli (两个确立), was trending strongly in the People’s Daily and in Chinese state media generally. The strong trend line for the “Two Establishes,” a phrase that reiterates Xi’s position as the “core” of the CCP, and underscores his ideas as the bedrock of China’s future under the CCP, was to be expected in the discourse build-up toward the 20th National Congress of the CCP, to be held later this fall.

But while extreme caution is warranted when it comes to reading CCP discourse, the trend lines are no longer so clear.

Taking the long view over 2022, the “Two Establishes” seems to be in the midst of an August rise. When we plot the number of articles in the People’s Daily using the term on a half-month basis since January, the following graph results, with 39 articles closing out the first half of August — the same amount recorded for all of June. The huge peak for March corresponds to the National People’s Congress (NPC), which was a major political event, and an opportunity for delegates and other senior officials to butter Xi’s toast with the “Two Establishes.”

SOURCE: The People’s Daily.

But the odd fact is that over the past week, since Xi Jinping re-emerged from the summer conclave at the beach resort of Beidaihe, there have been just two articles in the People’s Daily including the “Two Establishes.”

The first, appearing on page 11 on August 19, was a contribution by Yin Li (尹力), the top CCP leader in Fujian, who praised developments in his own province and took the opportunity to express his loyalty to Xi by saying there was a need for “a deep understanding of the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes.’”

Fujian CCP secretary Yin Li mentions the “Two Establishes” in the People’s Daily on August 19, 2022.

The second appears in the People’s Daily today, in a page-nine article by an official from Guangxi. The article closes by mentioning the same exact phrase used by Yin Li.

By the second half of July, it was typical to see 2 articles per day mentioning the “Two Establishes,” and in the first half of this month, that number was up to 2-3 articles per day.

It is still possible that Xi’s numbers for this phrase could pick up pace over the next week. But if they do not, we would need to reckon with a sharp drop on the graph that could bring numbers back to February levels. Given the ever-nearing 20th National Congress, that would be an odd trend line in the official discourse.

Stay tuned!

China’s Global Soundbite Factory

As we reported yesterday, the People’s Daily provides a fascinating glimpse into how the Taiwan visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though international headline news and a serious point of unhappiness for China, takes third, fourth, or even fifth place against the country’s domestic politics. The top priority in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper is to pave the path for Xi Jinping’s continued elevation at the 20th National Congress in a few months’ time.

Repeating the pattern today, the People’s Daily front page is a one-two-three hit of power signaling for Xi Jinping: a commentary on how the general secretary has led a “great self-revolution” of the Party in a new era of socialism; a Party puff piece about how everything is fine economically thanks to Xi’s “strategizing and raising the flag to point the way”; and a lineup of voices gilding “Xi Jinping Thought” for its coming apotheosis (“A people at the forefront of the times cannot be without theoretical thinking for the times.”)

And Nancy? Once again, she is pushed to page three, where she gets a generous dressing down. The entire page is a register of China’s official pique over the Pelosi visit, most of it drumming over the same points made yesterday.

But the top piece, a compilation of remarks from a grab bag of international voices on the Taiwan question, merits closer scrutiny. It is a textbook example of a key tactic in China’s international communication – the grooming of token voices to relay the CCP’s position on any issue as required, often with quotes that shamelessly mirror official-speak, or are apparently invented out of whole cloth.

Page three of today’s People’s Daily newspaper, with international voices on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit topping the page, at upper-left.

It has long been a priority for the Chinese Communist Party to maintain a network of quotable international sources. These sources often include minor political party leaders, particularly from socialist or other left-leaning parties, as well as scholars and political commentators who appear virtually nowhere outside of Chinese official state media reporting.

Today’s article on page three is called “International Society Fiercely Condemns Pelosi for Hurried Visit to China’s Taiwan Region” (国际社会强烈谴责佩洛西窜访中国台湾地区). So let’s have a look at what this “international society” looks like through the lens of the CCP’s flagship newspaper.

Borrowing Voices

After a brief histrionic summary of the Pelosi visit as a “serious trampling on international law,” the roundup of international voices begins with a hanging, unattributed quote that reads: “Pelosi’s conduct not only damages China-US relations but also amounts to a serious threat to regional and global peace.”

Further down in the article, this quote is attributed to Eduardo Regalado of the International Policy Research Center of Cuba (CIPI), discussed below. Placed at the top, however, the impression is that this comes from United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, who is mentioned first in the story. During a daily press briefing on August 2, Dujarric more or less dodged a reporter’s question on the Pelosi visit, simply pointing them to the 1971 UN resolution 2758: “I mean, the only thing I will say is that the policy of the United Nations on the issue of . . . on this issue is that we are guided by General Assembly resolution 2758 from 1971 on one China.”

The next remark in the piece comes from Ignacio Martinez, an international relations expert from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Martinez calls Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan a serious violation of the one-China principle, and says, curiously echoing China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that “the United States should never play with fire on the Taiwan issue.”

Right at the start, Martinez illustrates the curious nature of China’s international experts. Search “Ignacio Martinez” and “National Autonomous University of Mexico” and you might expect academic results – published papers, research projects, perhaps even a faculty profile. Instead, all 12 of the links on the first page of results dealing with the same “Ignacio Martinez” are reports from Chinese state media and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ignacio Martinez, identified as an international relations expert from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is a regular in Chinese official media coverage on a range of issues, his views unerringly positive about China.

In 2016, Martinez “spoke highly of the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee.” In January 2017, he was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying that Xi Jinping’s New Year’s greeting “reflected China’s confidence and style as a major power.” The report was shared through China Human Rights, the official website of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, a front organization that traces back to the Central Propaganda Department through the website’s publisher, the China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC).

Last year, Martinez told Xinhua, in a piece published on the Chinese government’s website, that “China will play a crucial role” in sustainable infrastructure, environment, and technology. In March this year, Martinez told the China Daily, published by the government’s Information Office, that “China does not just talk about multilateralism, but has taken real actions.” Three months later, he was interviewed by CGTN and railed against the “so-called democratic criteria” of the United States.

Next in the People’s Daily lineup to represent “international society” is José Luis Centella, the president of the Communist Party of Spain, who says (though quotation marks are never used) that Pelosi’s “provocative behavior” (挑衅行为) in visiting Taiwan exposes “the consistent hegemonic thinking of the United States in international relations.”

Centella, too, is no freshman when it comes to amplifying positive views of China’s leadership. Commanding virtually no attention in the international media, he is a regular in China’s state media. Like many leaders of minor political parties, Centella has obliged China by participating in its regular “political parties summit,” an opportunity for the CCP to develop contacts – and external propaganda sources – through a sub-national level exchange. He was among the “many political leaders” in July 2021 who “lauded the governing experience” of the CCP, according to an article published online by the State Council Information Office.

In a video produced by GLOBALink, Xinhua News Agency’s global news service, Centenella was among several party leaders praising China to celebrate the centennial of the CCP. And most recently — before his Pelosi potshot in the People’s Daily — he appeared in a Xinhua special this week in which “political parties of various countries” opposed the House Speaker’s visit.

Centenella appears in a GLOBALink video celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CCP.

The pattern persists when we come to Eduardo Regalado of the International Policy Research Center of Cuba (CIPI), whose unattributed quote tops today’s People’s Daily article.

In October 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the PRC taking its seat at the United Nations, Regalado told Xinhua that “China is sending a strong message to the international community about the importance of multilateralism and international cooperation.” In January this year, ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Regalado heaped praise on the CCP as he spoke to the China Daily, saying that the “leadership and role of the Communist Party of China has been fundamental for the development of the Chinese society in the sports arena and the country as a whole.”

In May, Regalado was a guest at the Chinese Embassy in Cuba as it celebrated “International Chinese Language Day 2022.” Just days earlier, he was quoted by Xinhua stressing that China is “fundamental to the development of Caribbean countries in the coming years” – the article appearing also on the news agency’s Spanish-language channel.

Regalado has published scholarship outside the fishbowl of China’s external propaganda apparatus. His book China and its International Relations (China y sus relaciones internacionales), a collection of writings on China’s foreign policy, was published in April 2021. But his penchant for sounding off with positivity about any and every event that China hosts, and every news event that troubles its leaders, can be astonishing.

In November last year, as Xinhua cast about for an expert to praise the 4th China International Import Expo (CIIE) about to open in Shanghai, the Cuban scholar, presumably not attending, was happy to oblige with all the gusto of a marketing agency: “This fair will be a fundamental platform for exhibitors, business people, and government officials from the entire world to come together,” he said.

Pluck any personality out of today’s People’s Daily story and you will find similar paper trails across Chinese state media. There is Luciana Santos, chairwoman of the Brazilian Communist Party, who tells us that “Pelosi ignored repeated serious warnings from China.” You can find her on China National Radio (CNR) praising China’s “construction of modern socialism led by the CCP.” Or on Xinhua’s GLOBALink, insisting that “China would not see the tremendous growth and development achieved in society today without the Communist Party of China.”

There is Bambang Suryono, chairman of the Asia Innovation Study Center, an Indonesian think tank, whose state media credits are a mile long. And Ghassan Youssef, a Syrian political analyst and frequent state media soundbiter, who told Xinhua late last year that China’s economic achievements in Xinjiang are “undeniable,” and that the US is manipulating public opinion about the region for “political goals.”

None of this is to say there are no real voices in the world that oppose Pelosi’s Taiwan visit for reasons strategic, political, or personal. Real voices, however, are not the stuff external propaganda is made of. China’s leaders grumble that they cannot control the stage, that they lack sufficient “discourse power” to hold the realm of ideas. But shadow puppetry — that they can do.

Putting Pelosi in the Corner

On a day when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is headline news all over the world, with commentators everywhere speculating on how China will react, it might seem strange that the story does not top the front page of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily.

In fact, the first article on the paper’s front page to mention Pelosi at all is tucked away in the bottom-right corner, fifth in order of importance – after an article about Xi Jinping’s recent meeting with provincial officials; an article about scientific farming techniques used in Jilin province; an article about provincial leaders studying the spirit of an “important speech” (重要讲话) by Xi; and an article about the critical importance of “united front work.”

Pelosi touching down in Taiwan has brought full-throated condemnation from China along with threats of retaliation. Is this story really of secondary importance to farming techniques in China’s northeast?

Mention of a visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is placed in the bottom right-hand corner of today’s People’s Daily newspaper.

Things become clearer when we understand that these stories about provincial leaders and farming techniques are ultimately stories about the most important matter before the country  – the power and prestige of its top leader, Xi Jinping, and his elevation at the upcoming 20th National Congress of the CCP.

Even what some are calling the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis could not break through the rigidity of purpose at the People’s Daily.

The article on farming? A nod to Xi Jinping’s inspection there two years ago, and a testament to the miracles that can happen when “the wishes of the general secretary are borne in mind.” The articles on the meetings of provincial leaders? Both emphasize Xi’s pre-eminence, the first concluding: “Let us more firmly unite around the Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core, upholding Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics as our guide.”

Recognize the power dynamics at play behind the scenes in China and you’ll understand one of the most important factors that will guide China’s leadership in responding to Pelosi’s visit in the coming weeks.

A Parade of Official Statements

So how has the People’s Daily covered the Pelosi story? The lineup in the newspaper today is a rather typical gathering of condemnations from various ministries and committees, all following a commentary from the paper (本报评论员) that relays the view of the leadership.

The commentary is called “The Determination of the Chinese government and the Chinese People to Realize the Reunification of the Motherland is Rock-solid” (中国政府和中国人民实现祖国统一的决心坚如磐石). It begins with a laundry list of solemn violations and outrages that are echoed in the pieces that come after, on page three of the newspaper:

For US House Speaker Pelosi to visit China’s Taiwan region in spite of China’s strong opposition and serious representations seriously violates the one-China principle and the stipulations of the three joint communiqués between China and the US, and has a serious impact on the political foundation of US-China relations. [It] is a serious violation of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a serious breach of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and sends a gravely wrong signal to the separatist forces of ‘Taiwan independence.’

After running through China’s official position on the matter, the commentary addresses reunification as an inevitable matter of the public will. “Public opinion cannot be violated, and the great trend cannot be turned back,” it says. “The motherland must be unified, and it will be unified.”

A notice printed below the commentary then points readers to page three of today’s newspaper and five separate statements. These are from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA); the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress; the CCP’s Taiwan Work Office; the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC); and the Ministry of National Defense.

The sixth Taiwan-related story on page three is a statement about planned “joint military operations” (联合军事行动).

At the top of page three is the Xinhua release on the response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, emphasizing that “Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory,” and that “the government of the People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China.” The release begins with a stern condemnation of Pelosi’s visit, which it labels a “violation of the one-China principle” (一个中国原则):

On January 2, 2012, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan despite China’s strong opposition and solemn representations. It sends a serious wrong signal to the separatist forces of ‘Taiwan independence’ (“台独”分裂势力). China resolutely opposes and severely condemns this, and has made serious representations and strong protests to the US side.

The statement is stacked with formalized language familiar to anyone who has observed China’s protestations over the Taiwan issue through the years. Matters concerning Taiwan are China’s internal affairs (中国内政), in which the US has no right to interfere. The US must desist from playing the “Taiwan card” (台湾牌), and “using Taiwan to control China” (以台制华). Taiwan is of course referred to as “China’s Taiwan region” (中国台湾地区). The word “separatist forces” (分裂势力) is used repeatedly in the release.

Page three of today’s People’s Daily, with five statements on Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and one announcement of military exercises.

Directly below the MOFA-related story is a Xinhua transcript of a “talk” by a spokesperson from the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) “on behalf of the NPC Standing Committee” that again registers China’s opposition to Pelosi’s visit – making largely the same points as the first piece.

But the NPC Standing Committee statement also suggests more clearly that the Pelosi visit is the latest in a series of actions that go against the “solemn commitments” (郑重承诺) the US has made to China on Taiwan. “In its actions,” the statement says, “[the US] has continued to enhance substantive relations and official contacts between the United States and Taiwan, connived to support the separatist forces of ‘Taiwan independence,’ and engaged in ‘controlling China with Taiwan.’”

The third article in the page three series today is the statement, again released by Xinhua, from the Taiwan Work Office of the CCP Central Committee. The article, which begins by calling Pelosi’s visit “an escalation of Taiwan-US collusion, its nature terrible and its consequences dire,” focuses more than the other two pieces on the issue of reunification. Twice the article references Xi Jinping’s notion of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” First, it accuses the US of “obstructing the complete reunification of China and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” Pelosi’s visit being the latest and most egregious example. Second, it calls “Taiwan separatism” the greatest obstacle to the “reunification of the motherland” (祖国统一),  and the “hidden danger for national rejuvenation” (民族复兴的严重隐患).

The Taiwan Work Office article concludes:

We urge the US side to look at the historical details of the Taiwan issue, recognizing the fact that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China, and to take practical action to abide by the one-China principle and fulfill the three US-China joint communiqués – not sliding further and further down the wrong path.

The fourth article on page three of the People’s Daily today is the statement from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (全国政协外事委员会). Like the others, it voices “strong condemnation” (强烈谴责) of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and emphasizes the inviolability of the one-China principle. Like the MOFA statement, it warns against “underestimating” the determination of the Chinese people on this issue: “No one should underestimate the strong determination, the firm will, and the powerful ability of the Chinese people to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity!”

Fifth comes the statement from China’s Ministry of National Defense (国防部) that again voices “strong condemnation” and “firm opposition” (坚决反对) to the Pelosi visit. The statement reads:

China has repeatedly made clear the serious consequences of the visit to Taiwan, but Pelosi has knowingly and maliciously provoked and created a crisis, seriously violating the one-China principle and the provisions of the three US-China joint communiqués, seriously impacting the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations, and seriously damaging the relationship between the two countries.

The statement says that the People’s Liberation Army is now in “high readiness” (高度戒备), and that it plans “a series of targeted military operations to counteract [the move], and defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Last, but certainly not least, comes the statement about “joint military operations” that are reportedly underway “around the island of Taiwan.” “The actions,” the release says, “are a serious deterrent against recent negative and escalating moves by the US on the Taiwan issue.”

As for the rest of the newspaper, there are two full pages on the glories of the “New Era.” There is, in “important news,” an entire page about “Studying Xi Jinping” (学习习近平). When it comes to what, or who, amounts to news – this is not a time for doubt, or for questions.

The Didi National Security Mystery

In a short question-and-answer transcript on Thursday, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s chief internet monitoring and control agency, answered a number of basic questions about its action against the Chinese vehicle-for-hire company Didi, which included a fine of 1.2 billion dollars. Left conspicuously unanswered by the transcript, and the flood of Chinese media coverage of the Didi case, however, is the exact nature of the company’s alleged national security violations.

The CAC said it found “egregious” violations of data security laws relating to the collection and handling of personal customer data in its investigation of Didi, announced in July last year, just days after the company’s New York IPO. The company had illegally gathered user data – including location and facial recognition data as well as mobile phone camera data — since 2015, the CAC said.

As some analysts have noted, one curious aspect of the Didi decision is that two of the three laws the company is said to have violated actually took effect after the launch of the investigation in early July 2021. These are the Data Security Law (数据安全法), which took effect on September 1, 2021, and the Personal Information Protection Law (个人信息保护法), which did not take effect until November 2021. The CAC has also said that Didi violated the 2017 Cybersecurity Law (网络安全法).

But another point of curiosity in the decision against Didi is the question of national security violations. While the original grounds for the investigation centered on “national security and the public interest,” the CAC has not provided details about the exact nature of the government’s national security concerns.

On this issue, the agency’s question-and-answer transcript reads:

Previously, a cybersecurity review also found that certain data processing activities at Didi seriously impacted national security, and that it had refused to comply with the clear requirements of regulatory authorities, openly assenting but quietly violating, as well as other violations of laws and regulations such as the malicious evasion of oversight. The illegal and non-compliant operations of Didi have posed serious security risks to the security of critical national information infrastructure and data security.

The justification for silence on the nature of Didi’s national security violations is, well, national security. “As these relate to national security, they are not disclosed in accordance with the law,” the transcript said.

Rewarding Compliance

On July 12, the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), the government-led official organization for media workers in the country, announced its preliminary selections for the 32nd annual China Press Awards (中国新闻奖), which it advertises as China’s “highest award for outstanding national journalism.”

Under China’s press system, which in recent years has redoubled its emphasis on the Marxist View of Journalism, putting the China Communist Party and its interests at the center of journalism, what exactly does the ACJA mean by “outstanding”?

The current China Press Awards are the first to apply new criteria since the ACJA revised its selection methods back in June. The awards now focus on 20 categories rather than the previous 29. Most crucial, however, are the “Award Goals,” given as follows:  

The China Press Awards adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, adhere to the correct political direction, [correct] public opinion guidance, and [the correct] value orientation, and they have a role in demonstration and leadership for excellent journalistic works . . . .

Excellence, in other words, is conditional on compliance. To be considered, journalistic works must abide by Xi Jinping’s call for media to “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party.” They must adhere to the principle of “public opinion guidance,” the notion linking press control and political stability that dates back to the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989.

The “Award Goals” also specify that works should serve to “enhance the ‘Four Consciousnesses,’ firm up the ‘Four Confidences’ and achieve the ‘Two Protections.’” These are phrases, known collectively as the “442 formula,” that explicitly denote Xi’s power and dominance.

Excellent journalism, in this context, is all about Xi Jinping. And so the China Press Awards jury can assert all at once, without the least sense of contradiction, that the works under consideration are “of high quality” (质量水平高) and that they “focus on the important conference activities and speeches of General Secretary Xi Jinping, the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP, and the study and education of Party history.”

Excellent journalism, in this context, is all about Xi Jinping. 

While the ACJA has said that it encourages submissions from media organizations “with news gathering and editing business qualifications” at all levels, from the central down to local, and from both print and digital media, it is revealing to note that none of the entries selected from the first round are from commercial media with more professional ambitions – the likes of Caixin, or the 21st Century Business Herald.

The top ten selections in the first round of the China Press Awards. Half are from the official Xinhua News Agency.

The China Press Awards recognize the best in compliance with the CCP’s demands for journalism in Xi’s New Era, during which the leadership has explicitly rejected notions of more independent media activity as “the West’s idea of journalism.”

The awards actually have their origin in the so-called “On the Scene Short News” (现场短新闻) competition, launched in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. As the leadership focused on the disobedience of the press in the spring of that year as a key cause of political unrest, they sought to uphold a view of journalism that was at once obedient and suited to the spirit of the reform era. Announcing a full awards program in June 1990 on the back of the short news competition the previous year, Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan (李瑞环) stressed the need to “adhere to a focus on positive propaganda,” but emphasized at the same time the need for readability.

Taking China’s Global Cyber Body to Task

For nearly a decade, since its inaugural session in 2014 under the now-disgraced former cyber czar Lu Wei (鲁炜), the World Internet Conference (WIC) has sought a place as a globally influential forum on cyberspace development – and a platform for China’s state-centered vision of the future around the concept of cyber sovereignty. The path has not been smooth.

The first WIC quickly sank into ignominy as the “ridiculous draft” of a one-sided declaration calling for cyber sovereignty was slipped under the hotel room doors of attendees shortly before midnight. Among the draft’s stipulations was “respect for the cyber sovereignty of all nations.” The next year, an address to WIC by Xi Jinping was streamed on YouTube, a platform banned in China, and attendees were issued special passes allowing them to bypass the Great Firewall. One report shrugged the event off as “the world’s most confusing tech conference.”

This week, amid the latest WIC in Zhejiang province, China has announced the formation of an organizational body to promote the core agendas the conference has – poorly, to date – advocated.

The “World Internet Conference International Organization” (世界互联网大会国际组织), headquartered in Beijing, will likely become a permanent point of international activism on the cyberspace-related agendas of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A report from the official Xinhua News Agency described its mission thus:

. . . building a platform for global internet discussion, construction, and sharing, promoting international community responses to the trends of digitalization, networking and [artificial] intelligence, meeting security challenges, seeking development benefits, and building a community of shared destiny in cyberspace.

In a congratulatory message Tuesday on the founding of the organization, Xi Jinping said that cyberspace “concerns the destiny of mankind” (人类命运), a reference to one of his core foreign policy concepts, and that “the future of cyberspace must be created jointly by all countries of the world.”

What exactly does all of this mean?

Essentially, this is about China’s leadership seeking to influence the foundational values of the global internet, turning the emphasis in internet governance to state interests over individual rights to access, freedom and participation. This vision of cyber sovereignty, which China has championed in particular with Russia, has both domestic and international implications, ultimately making for an internet that is “less open and free,” and more amenable to the agendas of authoritarian states (making specious authoritarian claims to democracy as state-centered multilateralism).

Specifically, the legitimation of China’s value standards for cyberspace globally would mean green-lighting the full range of approaches the CCP now takes to information control and surveillance, throwing off international criticism on the grounds of rights violations. Rights, after all, would be vested in the state.

Preliminary reports on the “World Internet Conference International Organization” suggest that it will comprise several key bodies, including a secretariat (秘书处), a board of directors (理事会), a high-level advisory board (高级别咨询委员会), a professional committee (专业委员会) and a general meeting (会员大会).

How will this work?

In all likelihood, following the typical practice of the CCP, the secretariat will be operated from directly within the Cyberspace Administration of China, meaning that the WIC body, though ostensibly an independent organization, will be a limb of the Party’s formal external propaganda apparatus.

The various committees under the organization, including the secretariat, will likely seek what appears to reflect broader representation. They will be populated with management and experts from the Chinese internet sector, but also with unwitting foreign faces. These will be tech bosses and experts who can bury their heads, rationalizing their participation as necessary lobbying and networking (How can we ignore such a huge market?), even as they are being flagrantly exploited as token supporters of the CCP’s cyber agendas.

One of the first responses the international community should have to the fledgling WIC organization is to watch its formation closely, encourage transparency about its key agendas, and hold companies, organizations, and individuals responsible as they decide there is no downside to signing on.

According to state media coverage, “more than 100 institutions, organizations, companies, and individuals in the internet field from nearly 20 countries on six continents” have already joined the World Internet Conference International Organization” as members. They reportedly include “world-renowned internet leaders” (享誉全球的互联网领军企业), “authoritative industry bodies” (权威行业机构), and even “Internet Hall of Fame inductees” (互联网名人堂入选者).

It’s time to start building the WIC Hall of Shame.

Hijacking Digital Literacy

In an increasingly digital world, one of the basic tasks of education is to ensure that children understand technology and use it smartly, both online and offline. And in much of the world, digital literacy is about giving children the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to be safe and empowered in cyberspace.

In China, however, controlling the unwanted implications of digital information is a matter not just of individual well-being but of the regime’s security. In this context, what does the concept of digital literacy mean?

When Chinese tech bosses and internet experts gathered in Beijing over the weekend for a conference on how to “better protect minors in cyberspace,” the participants did address the sort of problems that would concern parents and educators anywhere in the world – problems like internet addiction, cyber bullying, and online malpractice. Zhang Bin, a senior researcher for the internet giant Tencent, was quoted in English-language coverage by CGTN as stressing the need to “reduce the risk of harmful content being available to underage users, while also teaching them about online threats so that they can be more vigilant.”

But all of the conference’s key approaches to digital literacy, or wangluo suyang (网络素养), were deeply enmeshed with the far more basic goal of ideological and political control. This entangling of priorities is evidenced again and again in the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of digital literacy. This fact may not surprise observers of China’s internet policies. But it is crucial to bear in mind as China engages with the world on cyber governance, and as it advocates a “community of shared future in cyberspace” at events like this week’s World Internet Conference.

When former deputy propaganda minister Wang Shiming (王世明) addressed the youth conference on the internet on July 9, he related digital literacy for youth to “the building of online civilization” (网络文明建设), a term conspicuously connected in CCP rhetoric to the Party’s unshakeable leadership and the necessity of its “firm grasp of ideological discourse power.” State media did not report these remarks in other languages.

Wang’s remarks were a textbook case of priority entanglement, in which what seemed to be substantive discussions about online behavior and child well-being revolved around the paternalistic goals of the Party. “We must ensure that young people’s hearts are for the Party, that they love labor, and that they are well-mannered,” he said, “and we must actively apply socialist core values and traditional culture to enrich young people’s online lives and shape their positive and healthy online values.”

The former propaganda minister’s language about “hearts for the Party” (心向党) can often be found near discussions of digital literacy, and the need to “build online civilization.”

“We must ensure that young people’s hearts are for the Party, that they love labor, and that they are well-mannered.”

former deputy propaganda minister Wang Shiming

Back on June 27, the Cyberspace Administration of China held a promotional conference on “the building of online civilization.” At the meeting, Wu Haiying (吴海鹰), the deputy chairperson of the All-China Women’s Federation, said that her group, only nominally a women’s rights organization, had done its part to promote digital literacy – and implement Xi Jinping’s “important ideas” on cybersecurity – by holding a special campaign called “Women’s Hearts to the Party – Welcoming the 20th National Congress” (巾帼心向党·喜迎二十大). The goal of the campaign was to “steadily firm up the belief and confidence of the masses of women in listening to the Party, and following the Party.”

At the same conference, Wang Hongying (汪鸿雁), a top official at the Chinese Communist Youth League, spoke of “digital literacy” as a core goal of “building online civilization,” which was also about the CCP’s need to “continuously improve the ideological [nature], precision and effectiveness of online [public opinion] guidance.”

Digital literacy, in other words, is about creating online users, including youth as a crucial component, who are amenable to the CCP’s information control policies and goals. In China, love for the Party is the first principle of the civilized and digitally literate internet user.

But the most obvious manifestations of this linking of the Party, people’s hearts, and digital literacy happens at the local level in China, where digital literacy and education initiatives are legion.

When one primary school in the municipality of Chongqing held an event to promote digital literacy in April 2021, the emphasis was on that issue vexing all loving parents concerned about their child’s online habits: the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party. “On the day of the event, in addition to telling red stories,” the Chongqing Youth Daily newspaper reported, “students in the digital literacy education classroom at Zhuangyuan Primary School took part in an activity called “My Heart to the Party, Children’s Paintings of Party History” (我心向党,童绘党史)”

The reporter described students waving their brushes as they painted depictions of the national flag and the national emblem, or rendered other glories like the Chang’e 5 lunar mission or the high-speed rail.

These activities, taking place in a “digital literacy education classroom” at what was meant to be an “education base demonstration site” (教育基地示范点) in Chongqing for digital literacy, paint an accurate portrait of what digital literacy means for the Chinese leadership.

In China, love for the Party is the first principle of the civilized and digitally literate internet user.

Placing the CCP’s core political values at the center of online literacy and all other questions of internet behavior and policy is a whole-society effort, drawing together the Party-state, the education system, ostensibly representative groups like the All-China Women’s Federation and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), and private internet companies. As such, one of the key announcements at this year’s youth conference on the internet was the launch of a new “Digital Literacy Education Resources Platform,” a cooperative venture by Tencent and Beijing Normal University.

Parents can rest assured that their children, as they learn about digital literacy, are being shaped – by private companies, schools, and special initiatives – into full-grown citizens that have the best interests of the ruling Party at heart.

Remembering Journalist Yang Haipeng

Yang Haipeng (杨海鹏), one of China’s top investigative reporters from the heyday of in-depth journalism from the late 1990s to mid-2000s in China, passed away suddenly today in Shanghai.

As a top investigative reporter for Hu Shuli’s Caijing magazine (财经杂志) in 2006, Yang, who had a background as a court investigator, was instrumental in uncovering details of the Shanghai pension scandal that brought down then mayor Chen Liangyu (陈良宇) and other city officials. Yang Haipeng had formerly worked as a reporter for Oriental Outlook, a magazine published by China’s official Xinhua News Agency, as well as for Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily Group as a senior reporter for Southern Weekly (南方周末), at the time one of the country’s most outspoken professional outlets. 

In September 2002, amid a staff reshuffling at Southern Weekly months after the removal of the paper’s deputy editor, CMP founder Qian Gang (钱钢), Yang Haipeng was among more than 10 journalists who resigned in protest. He went on to found the Bund Pictorial (外滩画报) with Li Yuxiao (李玉霄) and others, serving as deputy editor-in-chief. In 2004, he also was involved in the founding of the New Weekly (新周报), a weekly digest that later folded. After leaving the New Weekly, Yang moved on to Caijing.

In November 2011, as the environment for journalism grew increasingly restrictive, and as Yang Haipeng’s wife faced an arrest for “private use of state assets” that Yang insisted was an injustice, he became among the first of a string of high-profile resignations of veteran journalists in China.

Yang Haipeng shown wearing a traditional doppa from Central Asia in 2013 to show solidarity with Uighurs facing serious restrictions and surveillance.

In the years that followed, Yang stayed away from journalism, but he remained an active voice on Chinese social media platforms. In late 2013, as restrictions on the rights of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang became a growing concern internationally, Yang Haipeng was among a handful of Chinese to publicly voice criticism and urge compassion.

As a sign of opposition to severe surveillance and security measures in Xinjiang, Yang wore a doppa, a traditional hat from Central Asia associated with Uighur identity, as he passed through airport and train security checks in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou – recording his actions on China’s Weibo platform.

A native of Shanghai, Yang was born in 1967. He graduated from Xi’an’s Northwest University of Political Science and Law, and worked as a teacher and judge before pursuing a career in the media.

Eradicating China’s “Spiritual Americans”

It was just over a year ago that international relations professor Zhang Weiwei (张维为) addressed a collective study session of China’s Politburo dealing with the country’s external communication efforts, where state media tell us he “offered his thoughts on [related] work.” Zhang’s address inside the Politburo session has never been reported in full, but we can suppose on the basis of his past remarks that he stressed the need for China to have “self-confidence” in the power of its own ideas and culture, and to “no longer be subservient to the Western discourse.”

Long part and parcel of Zhang’s thinking, these ideas were fully echoed in Xi Jinping’s speech to the same session, in which he said that China was engaged in a “public opinion struggle” (舆论斗争) with the West, that it must “accelerate the building of a Chinese discourse and narrative system,” “build a strategic communication system that reflects [these] Chinese characteristics,” and then march boldly out into the world with China’s story.

Such talk of a unique Chinese cultural subjectivity, and of the national need for “self-confidence,” may sound like a simple act of affirmation. But it also harbors, even as official China speaks about its desire to be respected and loved globally, a hostility to a broad-brushed notion of the West that invites misunderstanding. And as Zhang Weiwei’s most recent remarks in Shanghai demonstrate, this hostility can turn on domestic society in China in ways that are darkly reminiscent of the purges in the country’s past.

Speaking on Shanghai’s Oriental TV on June 20, on a program called China Now (这就是中国), Professor Zhang, the director of the China Institute (中国研究院院) at Fudan University, railed against what he called “spiritual Americans” (精神美国人), by which he meant Chinese, in particular intellectuals, who were dazzled by the West in the 1980s – and their standards, discourse and sense of culture therefore “infiltrated.”  

These “spiritual Americans,” said Zhang, continued to have a powerful influence in China, particularly among intellectual elites, working as tools of Western “ideological hegemony” (意识形态霸权):

One of the most common forms of Western discourse and cultural infiltration of China is to instill certain ‘aesthetic standards’ (审美标准) into Chinese intellectual elites through various forms of exchange or awards, and then to use these Westernized intellectual elites to monopolize Chinese aesthetic standards, and even Chinese standards in the humanities, arts, and social sciences – in this way achieving a kind of ‘cultural training’ and ‘ideological hegemony’ (意识形态霸权) over China.

The program was promoted at Guancha Syndicate, which has a close relationship with the China Institute, giving Zhang a powerful national platform for his ideas.

Zhang Weiwei’s appearance on Shanghai TV’s China Now program is promoted at the top of the website of Fudan University’s China Institute.

Zhang went on to attack standards in Chinese academia, which he suggested “blindly pursues quantification” of research results, and which he said had been infected with a commercial mindset, “owing to the influence of Western ideas and the market economy.” The problem, he re-iterated, is that these “spiritual Americans” among China’s intellectual elites continue to spread their infiltrated “spirit,” giving many the impression that the country is on the cusp of a color revolution.  

“They have fostered a large number of ‘spiritual Americans’ in China,” he said, “and the influence of this is immense, even fooling some Westerners.”

Zhang’s solution is to encourage a new awakening in China, which he calls “standing from spirit” (从精神上站起来). In this respect, he said, youth in China today are already an inspiration to older generations. While many people in the mainstream cultural sector are asking why Chinese films can’t find success internationally, he said, Chinese youth are forging ahead – promoting online literature, short videos, animation, science fiction and so on.

“They show an immense amount of cultural confidence, and in many aspects are at the forefront globally,” said Zhang. “I have a feeling that China’s young generation, with the vision, values and talent that they have today, will begin a renaissance through the internet and other means that will astound the world.”

A renaissance is an awakening, generally drawing widely on ideas and inspiration. When was a renaissance ever insular? But this is where Zhang’s understanding, and that of the CCP leadership, goes horribly awry. So much of Zhang’s imagined renaissance is a call for awakening to the lies of the developed West, and to the promise of Chinese cultural uniqueness. This is what Zhang Weiwei means by confidence, and it’s a good primer too for how Xi Jinping applies his notion of “cultural confidence” (文化自信).

At its core, this self-confidence celebrates jingoism and xenophobia:

Today’s youth have also stood up in terms of spirit. They relentlessly make fun of American and Western values, ridiculing American and Western arrogance, prejudice, and hypocrisy toward China. And they confidently convey to the world the cultural spirit, aesthetic mood, zeitgeist, and even political advocacy of the Chinese people.

If this is the confidence at the heart of what Xi Jinping called the “building of a Chinese discourse and narrative system,” it is almost certainly not conducive to effective external communication, and the government is ill-advised to heed voices like Zhang’s. This cannot be the “lovable” China of which Xi spoke in his Politburo address.

More concerning, though, is the possible impact such language could have on the further erosion of real cultural and intellectual standards in China, as patriotism and positive energy are upheld as the benchmark. Can we not remember other times in China’s past when fervent youth were unleashed on university instructors to root out “intellectual elitism” and “bourgeois tendencies”? Or when campaigns against “spiritual pollution” targeted literary and intellectual circles?

“We must stand up in terms of spirit,” says Zhang. “This is more important than anything.” But his act of standing, which demands eradication, is not at all new and exciting. It is the poison of China’s past:

“On the one hand, there are the ‘spiritual Americans’ who harbor their dark psychology, and on the other there is a young generation full of self-confidence and sunshine,” Zhang said. “We should drain away the filth, eradicating the influence of ‘spiritual Americans’ in China. And we should in various ways support the movement of China’s positive energy across China and across the world!”