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).

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!”

Pen Names for Power Struggles

Earlier this week, a prominent headline on the homepage of People’s Daily Online announced new regulations from the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party placing stronger restrictions on the business activities of the partners and children of Chinese officials – and that, moreover, a commentary on the subject had been written by “Zhong Zuwen” (仲祖文).

Who was this mystery writer, and what made their appearance so noteworthy? We might picture a hardened senior anti-corruption official putting pen to paper and sounding off about the need for tougher governance: “Strengthening the management of the commercial activities and businesses of the spouses and children of leading cadres is an important political task set by the CCP Central Committee,” the commentary read.

But “Zhong Zuwen” is not a person at all. The byline is just a pen name, an onion-skin layer of brittle pretense covering over an obvious homophone. In fact, this is the piece of writing from the Party office in charge of staffing positions, the zhongyang zuzhi bu (中央组织部). The “wen” at the tail end is Chinese for “article” – so that taken together the nom de plume becomes: “article of the Organization Department of the CCP.”

Announced on the homepage of People’s Daily Online on June 20, the “Zhong Zuwen” commentary also appeared on page 2 of the newspaper, following prominent front-page coverage of the new regulations.

Such “propaganda codes,” or “homophonous pen names,” are in fact quite common in the Party-state media, and in the halls of power. They form an internal system of not-so-secret codes by which those in positions of power, both departments and individuals, can voice their official positions and put their stamp on a course or policy.

Once you understand how to parse the names, they seem to crop up everywhere.

A Party Unit by Any Other Name

On Friday last week, days before the “Zhong Zuwen” piece made its appearance on page two of the People’s Daily, another commentary made the rounds in state media attributed to a certain “Wang Xingping” (王兴平). The article praised Xi Jinping’s persistence with China’s “dynamic zero” approach to Covid, and as we noted in our analysis at CMP, the commentary resorted to the Mao-era concept of “policies of greater benevolence” (大仁政) to justify suffering under constant lockdowns.

Who wrote this piece of sycophantic loyalty signaling? The article first appeared on the WeChat public account “CAC China” (网信中国), which is run by the China Cyberspace Research Center (中国网络空间研究院) of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the powerful internet control body. “Wang” (王) is one of the most common Chinese surnames. But it is also a homophone of “wang” (网), the word for “net” or “network.” “Xing” (兴), meaning to “rise” or “flourish,” is a homophone of “xin” (信), the first character of the word “information.” Finally, “ping” (平), meaning “peaceful,” is a homophone of the first character of the word “commentary,” pinglun (评论).

Such “propaganda codes” . . . . form an internal system of not-so-secret codes by which those in positions of power, both departments and individuals, can voice their official positions and put their stamp on a course or policy.

“Wang Xingping,” then, stands in for “commentary of the Cyberspace Administration of China” (网信办评论). Beginning to see how the game works?

In both of the above cases, these commentaries would most likely have been written by “writing teams,” or xiezuozu (写作组), within the respective offices, the Organization Department and the CAC. They would then be circulated to top officials – perhaps even, in the case of the CAC, to Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), who in the past has placed Xi beside Mao – who would offer feedback and suggest changes.

Pen names backed by such “writing teams” include the Zhong brothers, “Zhong Xuanli” (钟轩理) of the Theory Office of the Central Propaganda Department (中宣部理论局), and “Zhong Zhengxuan” (钟政轩) of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (中央政法委). There is “Wei Minkang” (卫民康), the team writing soaring CCP prose for the Ministry of Health (卫生部).

At the People’s Daily, there are writing teams, no doubt with overlapping members (写作组组员), for various themes and intensities. There is Mr. Important, “Ren Zhongping” (任仲平), reserved for “important People’s Daily commentaries” (人民日报重要评论) – this being the homophone. There is Ms. Make-It-Better, “He Zhenhua” (何振华), whose commentaries deal with “how to revitalize China” (如何振兴中华) – again the homophone.

Crucially in the era of tense relations between China and the United States, there is Mr. Miffed, “Zhong Sheng” (钟声) – literally “bell tone,” but also a homophone of “China + voice” – the official pen name used routinely for important pieces on international affairs on which the leadership wishes to register its often scathing view. Finally, there is Zhong Sheng’s slightly calmer cousin, “Guo Jiping” (国纪平), standing for “important commentaries about international [affairs]” (有关国际的重要评论), who sounds off just a bit more rationally from the paper’s international desk, but who can rarely resist the emotional finish: “No one can stop the historical course of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

Struggling with Secret Codes

In a 2013 paper on “writing teams” for The China Quarterly, Taiwanese scholars Wen-Hsuan Tsai (蔡文轩) and Peng-Hsiang Kao (高鹏翔) wrote that “the pseudonyms of the Party unit writing teams function as a form of secret code.” This code works, they said, to alert other Party officials to the views of certain departments or units. In the late reform era, these codes, or pen names, became more regular, what Tsai and Peng refer to as a “process of institutionalization.” Consider that “Guo Jiping,” the international affairs writing team at the People’s Daily, was first introduced in October 2005, in a piece about the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. It has since then appeared 104 times, the latest just last Saturday.   

In the past, however, these pen-named commentaries, written by teams and powerful individuals, have marked points of struggle and strife within the CCP.

In the late reform era, these codes, or pen names, became more regular, what Tsai and Peng refer to as a “process of institutionalization.”

One of the earliest pen names was “Ding Xuelei” (丁学雷), first used in early 1966 by a Shanghai writing team controlled by polemicist Zhang Chunqiao (张春桥) and cultural critic Yao Wenyuan (姚文元), both members of the radical political alliance that would later become known as the “Gang of Four.”  Attacks by “Ding Xuelei” on prominent writers in February 1966 were some of the earliest signs of the violence and chaos that would be unleashed later that spring as the Cultural Revolution began in earnest.

On February 12, 1966, Shanghai’s Liberation Daily ran a commentary in which “Ding Xuelei” savaged Hai Rui Submits His Memorial (海瑞上疏), a play by Peking opera actor Zhou Xinfang (周信芳) that tells the story of a principled Ming Dynasty official who speaks out against the actions of a cruel and self-indulgent emperor. Some at the time saw Zhou’s play, along with Wu Han’s Hai Rui Criticizes the Emperor (海瑞骂皇帝), as an allegory about Mao’s purge of Peng Dehuai (彭德怀) during the Lushan Conference for speaking out against the errors of the Great Leap Forward.

On May 28, 1966, nearly two weeks after the May 16 Notification, which directly mentioned Wu Han’s play, the People’s Daily maintained the pretense that “Ding Xuelei” was a human being. Of Ding Xuelei’s February screed in the Liberation Daily, the paper wrote that “Comrade Ding Xuelei’s article correctly unveiled, adequately unveiled and powerfully unveiled” the fact that Zhou Xinfang’s play, like that of Wu Han, was a “poisonous weed against the Party and the socialist system.” The play had “pointed its spearhead at our great Party.”

The “Gang of Four,” which included Mao Zedong’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing (江青), excelled at the creation and weaponizing of pen names. Another was “Liang Xiao” (梁效), a homophone of “two schools” (两校), marking commentaries written by a writing team comprising people from Peking University and Tsinghua University.  These writings were commanded by Mao and Jiang, as were those of “Tang Xiaowen” (唐晓文), a homophone of “Party School writing” (党校文), marking the work of the “Central Party School Writing Team” (中央党校写作组).

Cutting Down the Poisonous Weeds

As the “Gang of Four” were arrested in October 1976, just weeks after Mao’s death, these poisonous pen names were unmasked. In the years that followed, writers like Zhou Xinfang and Wu Han were rehabilitated (though both had died under persecution years earlier).

In September 1978, the People’s Daily decried the bitter criticism of Zhou Erfu’s (周而复) novel Morning in Shanghai (上海的早晨) in a 1969 article by “Ding Xuelei” that had appeared in the paper’s own pages. “The Great Poisonous Weed that Sounded the Gong for Liu Shaoqi’s Restoration of Capitalism,” the headline had read. “Ding Xuelei” was referred to by then as “a pen name for that counter-revolutionary deployment force of the Gang of Four, the Shanghai Committee Writing Team” (上海市委写作组).

In an indictment of the “counter-revolutionary group” that included Lin Biao (林彪), Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and others, published in the People’s Daily on November 21, 1980, Jiang, Zhang and Yao were singled out for “leading writing teams that included ‘Liang Xiao’ of Peking University and Tsinghua University, ‘Luo Siding’ (罗思鼎) of Shanghai, ‘Chi Heng’ (池恒) of the Red Flag journal, and ‘Tang Xiaowen’ of the Central Party School.”

The next month, Yao Wenyuan was quoted as having confessed before his court of accusers: “I asked them to write.”

But even as China left the Cultural Revolution behind and began a slow transformation, the pen name remained as a secret code for the voices of the powerful. On November 14, 1979, a front-page commentary appeared in the People’s Daily called, “We Can Talk About Political Issues Too.” Bylined “Guo Luoji” (郭罗基), the piece appeared against the backdrop of internal Party division over the so-called Democracy Wall protests (1978-1979) and the arrest of activist Wei Jingsheng (魏京生). It argued, as Wei languished in prison, that “no one should be held guilty for speaking out” (言者无罪).

The article incensed Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) and other CCP hardliners. But as the former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟) revealed in 2004, it had in fact been reviewed and edited by the liberal senior official Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦).

Writing teams continued to play an important role in secret code writing after 1979, one of the most outstanding examples being the “Huangfu Ping” (皇甫平) team, which published a series of commentaries in support of reform policies in 1991 and 1992, ahead of Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour.” The articles, in a series called “Reform and Liberalization Need New Thinking,” were written by a team that included the veteran newspaper editor Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金). They played a crucial role in arguing for continued openness and reform in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which had ushered in a period of relative isolation and conservatism.

Why “Huangfu Ping”? The pen name derives from two homophones, the first meaning “Huangpu River commentaries” (黄浦江评论), a reference to the river running through Shanghai, a key city on the “tour,” and the second meaning “assisting Deng Xiaoping” (辅助邓小平).

A Secret Code for Political Reform

In late October 2010, shortly after the Fifth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee, and at a time when there was more urgent talk of the need for substantive political reform to grapple with long-term economic development and social inequality, a series of commentaries placed prominently in the People’s Daily and at People’s Daily Online prompted widespread speculation. They appeared under the byline “Zheng Qingyuan” (郑青原), which many internet users surmised was a writing team, and a homophone for “clearing up the source and getting to the bottom of things” (正本清源).

Five articles from “Zheng Qingyuan” appeared in total, the first on October 21, 2010, and the last on November 2. The most outspoken of these, “Promoting Reform with Greater Determination and Courage,” twice mentioned the term “political reform” (政治体制改革), including a forward-looking statement about the need for the CCP to “actively and steadily promote political reform.”

A commentary by “Zheng Qingyuan” on the need for political reform appears in the October 29, 2010, edition of the People’s Daily.

The writings of “Zheng Qingyuan,” which clearly suggested the need to grapple with China’s challenges at the root, surely came from senior officials in the Politburo Standing Committee. Given Premier Wen Jiabao’s repeated references through 2011 and 2012 to the urgent need for political reform, he is impossible to exclude as a key figure behind the pen name.

Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi Jinping has shown an entirely different face, and in retrospect it is difficult to imagine that he too endorsed the words of “Zheng Qingyuan.”

Talk of political reform and constitutionalism has all but disappeared since 2013 – the latter appearing not at all and the former appearing only in references to the past, including the resolution on history introduced in November last year. For Xi, the solution to China’s future lies in the rule of the CCP with himself at the helm and at the “core.” And to accomplish his objectives, he must ensure that the Party is protected from its own excesses, that its “leading cadres” are loyal and clean, and their family members blameless.

Just ask “Zhong Zuwen.”

Dynamic Zero and Greater Benevolence

Since early May, when Xi Jinping said during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that China must “persist” in its “dynamic zero” (动态清零) policy toward the containment of Covid-19, the message has remained clear – stream-rolling over criticism of the painful impact the approach has had on the lives of individuals, families, residential compounds and entire cities.

“Dynamic zero” is here to stay. State media have argued consistently that the policy not only cuts viral transmission in the shortest time possible domestically, but also that it has “brought tangible benefits to the whole world.” This despite the fact that lockdowns have persisted in waves in cities like Shanghai, with a broad and undeniable impact on local businesses and government finances that will have a ripple effect globally.

This week, as state media pundits stretched for justifications of a policy that has continued to draw domestic and international criticism, one commentator called up a rhetorical ghost from China’s Maoist past: “policy of greater benevolence” (大仁政).

What does this phrase mean?

The Long and the Short

This “policy of greater benevolence” notion was first raised by Mao Zedong in September 1953 during a speech about China’s “victory” in the Korea War that also addressed the war’s human and financial costs. A stalemate had been reached that summer, and the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in July. But there were apparently grumblings in China about hefty taxes on agricultural production. “Certain friends,” said Mao, “had spoken.”  

Mao went on to explain to his fellow Party leaders that these “certain friends” had spoken of the need to implement benevolent policies (施仁政) – “as though,” he said snidely, “they represent the interests of the peasants.” On the question of benevolent policies, he explained, this was already being done.

But what is the greatest benevolence? It is the resistance to the United States. To implement this policy of greatest benevolence, there must be sacrifice, and this means using money, and it means collecting more agricultural taxes. You collect more agricultural taxes and some people cry out, and say this stuff about how they are representing the interests of farmers. I do not agree with this opinion.

In a nutshell, achieving longer-term strategic goals required sacrifice, and sometimes this sacrifice was painful. Nevertheless, the policies necessary to achieve these goals, however they might lead to short-term misfortune, could be considered benevolent. Mao then outlined for the first time his view on the two types of benevolence in policy-making:

There are two kinds of benevolent policies: one is for the current interests of the people, and the other is for the long-term interests of the people, such as fighting against the United States and building heavy industries. The former kind is a policy of lesser benevolence, and the latter is a policy of greater benevolence.

Mao’s logic of the “greater benevolence” was a sledgehammer to pulverize all dissent over the pain caused by his policies. In the pursuit of long-term vision – always the exclusive prerogative of the visionary leader – all short-term costs could be justified as being in the interests of the people. Why should we concern ourselves with “policies of lesser benevolence” (小仁政) when we can cast our vision to the future, to “policies of greater benevolence” (大仁政)?

The Benevolence” of Dynamic Zero

On June 15, 2022, “CAC China” (网信中国), the official WeChat public account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), ran a commentary bearing the byline “Wang Xingping” (王兴平) that again defended “dynamic zero.” Even as the piece acknowledged that the policy remains a “hot topic” on social media platforms, where Chinese have vented plenty of homegrown outrage, it could not resist denouncing “those with ulterior motives in America and the West” who have dared to question its wisdom.

The “CAC China” post was re-posted at People’s Daily Online and scores of other websites, both party-state and private.

After affirming the “entire correctness” of the Covid policies implemented by the CCP “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” the commentary explained the legitimacy of the “dynamic zero” using the language of benevolent policymaking first introduced by Mao Zedong (a leader Xi has been at pains to emulate):

Comrade Mao Zedong profoundly described the principle of the ‘small benevolent policy’ and the ‘great benevolent policy’ at the 24th Conference of the Central People’s Government [in 1953], emphasizing that there are two types of benevolent policymaking. One is to about the immediate interests of the people, and the other is about the long-term interests of the people. The former is ‘policy of lesser benevolence,’ and the latter is ‘policy of great benevolence.’ The two must be balanced, and to not balance them is wrong. So where should the priority be? The priority should be on the policy of greater benevolence.

China’s epidemic prevention and control approach, said the commentary, was “at present a matter of the overall situation and the long-term” – “a ‘policy of greater benevolence’ for the fundamental interests of the people.”

It is worth noting that Mao’s sledgehammer of benevolent policymaking has not been seen in China’s official discourse for a very, very long time. The last time it appeared in the People’s Daily, in fact, was an article on May 19, 1977, on the study of The Collected Works of Mao Zedong.

When it comes to justifying persistence in China’s current Covid-19 policies, the CCP is really scraping the bottom of the discourse barrel.

White Smoke, Black Smoke

With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party just months away, we can expect to divine certain shifts in the official discourse at the highest levels. It is a time of speculation and uncertainty. Like anxious spectators in St. Peter’s Square, watching the tiny chimney atop the roof of the Sistine Chapel, we can only fix our eyes on the People’s Daily. White smoke. Black Smoke.

This may seem an imperfect analogy. But China’s politics are as sealed as a conclave. And no one reading the party-state media closely these days can fail to note the devotional quality of much of the language.

The China Media Project has noted previously that one of the most important shifts to observe is the continued elevation of that unwieldy banner term, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” For the general secretary to be “crowned” this way in 2017, with the inclusion of his name in a guiding ideology written into the Party Charter, was no small achievement. But the man’s ambition is for Mao-style pontifical grandeur, and he surely covets the condensed “Xi Jinping Thought” (习近平思想) – a rhetorical gem to secure his power and prestige.

So, what news from the conclave? Is the discourse moving Xi Jinping further toward his crowning achievement?

Holding the Keys to Marxism

Over the weekend and into this week, several smoke signals of interest have emerged. June 11 brought the first wisps in the form of a page-four article in the People’s Daily relaying recent remarks made from Huang Kunming (黄坤明), director of the Central Propaganda Department and a close associate of Xi’s.

In a speech to a forum in Jiangxi province last Friday on the study and implementation of “Xi Thought” (my shortening), Huang reportedly said that the banner concept is “based on Chinese practice and rooted in Chinese soil,” and that it “has put forward a series of landmark new ideas, new perspectives and new assertions, leading the Party and the state in making historic achievements and changes.” Xi’s theories had not only laid the foundation for change in China, but amounted, said Huang, to “a new leap in the Sinicization of Marxism.”

Coverage in the People’s Daily on June 11, 2022, of a speech by Huang Kunming, the CCP’s minister of propaganda.

The significance of Huang’s remarks lies in the act of flattery itself. This is a textbook example of what is called in Chinese biaotai (表态), or “loyalty signaling.” While it is something we have seen from a number of local CCP leaders in recent months, Huang Kunming’s act of biaotai is more senior-level – exactly the sort of thing we should expect to see, barring a reversal of fortunes for Xi, as the CCP Congress draws nearer.

China’s politics are as sealed as a conclave. And no one reading the party-state media closely these days can fail to note the devotional quality of much of the language.

But the emphasis on Xi as an innovator of Marxism deserves attention too. It is an important aspect of the man’s progressive elevation beyond the grasp of worldly politics, and into the spiritual realm of historic greatness. Just as Mao’s adaptation of Marxism to local conditions made possible an historic victory in the “new democratic revolution,” so too does Xi’s bold innovation of Marxism in the 21st century mark him as a revolutionary leader in his own right, with the theoretical heft needed to meet the challenges of a “New Era.”

We are accustomed to talking of “Xi Jinping Thought” as an act of crowning, or guanming (冠名). But this claim to Marxist innovation is more than earthly; it is spiritual. It promises transcendence beyond the untidy plane of immediate politics and policy. Two years ago, He Yiting (何毅亭), the deputy director of the Central Party School, went so far as to claim on the front page of the Study Times journal that Xi Jinping’s banner term was not only a fresh vision of Chinese Marxism, but in fact “Marxism for the 21st century.”

Huang Kunming’s is one important voice from the conclave. And if Xi Jinping can manage to be anointed as the pontiff of global Marxism – as the keeper of the keys – then he becomes far more difficult to touch.

Xi Jinping in the Soul

The propaganda chief’s bow to the general secretary was followed on Monday by a full-page spread in the People’s Daily that delivered the complimentary remarks of a further six senior CCP officials. These too had been made at the Jiangxi forum. A note introducing them stressed that understanding the immensity of “Xi Thought” was a crucial matter of “enhancing political and theoretical consciousness” for CCP members.  

Page 9 of the People’s Daily on June 13, 2022, with praise for Xi Jinping from six senior officials.

Leading the group of kingmakers was Yi Qinhong (易炼红), the top Party leader of Jiangxi province, and the local host of the event. The subhead announcing Yi’s remarks could hardly have been clearer in its signaling simultaneously of the need for both the crown and the halo. “Leading the Reform and Development of Jiangxi with the Banner of Thought and the Banner of Spirit,” it read.   

“Ideas are power, and banners are direction,” the tribute began. Here it was again, the dualism of loyalty and faith so essential to the elevation of Xi Jinping.

For some, this pairing may be familiar as encoded in another key phrase, the “Two Establishes” (两个确立). That phrase emerged during the Sixth Plenum last year, which brought the CCP’s powerful third resolution on its history. One important passage read:

For the Party to establish the status of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party’s Central Committee and of the whole Party, and to establish the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, expresses the deepest wishes of the whole Party, the whole military, and the peoples of the whole country.

This language encodes the dual necessity of power in two unshakeable principles: 1) that Xi Jinping must be the single, unquestionable leader of the Party, and that 2) his ideas must be taken as the Party’s gospel, the source of its legitimacy in the 21st century.

It is no surprise, therefore, when Yi Qinhong says, with all the reverence of a supplicant, that we must “profoundly comprehend the decisive significance of the ‘Two Establishes.'” Immediately after, he stresses that the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护) – the preservation of Xi’s “core” status and CCP rule –  should “enter our veins, and be cast into our souls.”

Great Leaps for Marxism

Huang Kunming spoke about “Xi Thought” as “a new leap in the Sinicization of Marxism.” In the joint remarks appearing on Monday in the People’s Daily, every one of these powerful men spoke of the same “leap,” or feiyue (飞跃) – which might also be translated “breakthrough.” In this they were taking their cues again from the November resolution, which uses the word to mark the immense significance of Xi’s ideas.

Printed just to the right of Yi Qinhong’s remarks were those of Wang Weiguang (王伟光), a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Mao Zedong, said Wang, had made the “first historic leap in the Sinicization of Marxism,” followed by the key leaders of the reform era, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. These three are huddled together in Wang’s remarks, reducing their collective stature. Xi Jinping, meanwhile, is in a league of his own. Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012, we are told, Xi has achieved, single-handedly, yet another “new leap” in the Sinicization of Marxism.

There are few notable differences in the substance of the six tributes. But the crucial point is the ceremony itself. When Fu Hua (傅华), the newly-appointed president and CCP chief of Xinhua News Agency, makes the grandiose claim in the next speech that “Xi Jinping Thought” is the “most important crystallization of human thought in our time,” this is not the conviction of a thinker; it is the declaration of a man of faith.

Fu is followed at Xi Jinping’s feet by Shi Taifeng (石泰峰), the top official at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS); Xia Weidong (夏伟东), the publisher of Seeking Truth journal (which for months on end has dutifully headlined itself with Xi wisdom); Fang Jiangshan (方江山), deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily; and Zhuang Zhaolin (庄兆林), the head of the provincial propaganda department of Jiangxi.

Practical Acts of Deference

The forum in Jiangxi, dealing topically with “Xi Jinping Thought,” was an opportunity for collective biaotai. But similar acts of obeisance should follow across the country as the fall Congress draws nearer. And there were further hints on Tuesday, as Li Qiang (李强), Shanghai’s top leader and long a close ally of Xi, hosted a forum to celebrate past visits to the city by the general secretary.

A readout of the event posted the same day on the government’s official WeChat public account, “Shanghai Release” (上海发布), stressed the need to “steadily enhance loyalty to the ‘Two Establishes,’” “maintaining a high-level of uniformity in thought, politics and action with the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.”

It was essential, said Li Qiang, for officials to “take practical action to greet the successful opening of the 20th Party Congress.” His act of loyalty signaling this week was an example of practical action. So far, he has seemed unbruised, at least within the Party, by the extreme failures of the lockdown in Shanghai. His fortunes will be something to observe closely as the year progresses. Will his deference to Xi be repaid, or will he be viewed as a liability?

Acts of deference and reverence should continue apace in the coming weeks, as we cross the threshold of the July 1 CCP anniversary (expect robust commemoration of last year’s commemoration) and head toward the Congress that could decide the direction of Chinese politics for a generation to come.

Acts of deference and reverence should continue apace in the coming weeks, as we cross the threshold of the July 1 CCP anniversary.

In another hint of smoke yesterday, Le Yucheng (乐玉成), the new head of the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), emphasized the imperative of loyalty to Xi Jinping when he said that officials must “focus on the core, maintain the core, and promote the core.” This again might have been a practical act of loyalty signaling. Until recently, Le was a deputy minister of foreign affairs. His sudden move to the NRTA could be read as a demotion, suggesting his work in the foreign ministry had left something to be desired.  

At such political moments, acts of faith and contrition befit the acolyte. And so Le Yucheng said at the training session that it was important for his ministry, overseeing the ideological fronts of television and radio, to steadily lift its chin to the heavens, acting as “a firm believer and active disseminator of the latest theoretical achievements in the Sinicization of Marxism.”

A Steep Drop for China’s Journalists

When the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) released its 2022 China Journalism Development Report (中国新闻事业发展报告) on May 16, detailing broader trends in the media sector, state media outlets noted that one of the key trends was the rapid pace of convergence – and the development of multimedia (多媒体) platforms, or “omnimedia” (全媒体), that combine text, sound, image, animation and other content forms.  

In recent years, China’s leadership has repeatedly emphasized “convergence” as a priority in the re-making of the party-state media system, necessitating more creative deployment of propaganda and “public opinion guidance” through multimedia platforms.

But another key trend that was played down in much official coverage of the report was the dramatic impact digital transformation has had on the scale of journalism in the country. As coverage on some WeChat public accounts in recent days has noted, the ACJA report actually revealed – when compared with past reports – a net loss of fully one quarter of China’s licensed journalists over the past decade, with regional media leading the downward charge.

A Downsizing Profession

In the eight years from 2014 to 2021, the total number of media personnel with valid press cards (记者证) fell from 258,000 to 194,000, a decline of just under 25 percent. This translates to a total loss of 64,000 journalists across the country during that period.

Regional media have been hit hardest, with a loss of above one quarter of licensed journalists (25.9%). Central media, which include the likes of the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, have lost just over 15 percent of licensed journalists.

SOURCE: ACJA’s China Journalism Development Report, 2014 and 2022.

Closures of both newspapers and radio and television outlets have no doubt exerted significant downward pressure on media employment. In 2014, there were 110,000 journalists employed at newspapers, according to that year’s ACJA report. By 2021, that number had dropped to just 78,000, meaning almost a 30 percent reduction in the journalist workforce (32,000 journalists) on the print side alone.

Radio and television outlets lost an equal number of licensed journalists, accounting for 21.6 percent of their 2014 press card carrying workforce of 148,000.

Press cards, or xinwen jizhezheng (新闻记者证), are required for media staff formally employed by news organizations and tasked under contract with news gathering activities, and are one of the crucial means by which the government seeks to place curbs on news gathering. The cards, which are issued only after reporters have received training in the mandates imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, are verified on an annual basis, and can be withdrawn for various reasons, including violations of political discipline.

Aging and Converging

Another clear trend in this year’s ACJA report, glossed over in official coverage of the numbers, is that licensed journalists under the age of 30 in China today number just 14,000 nationwide. This is down from 40,000 eight years ago, which means that one-third as many young journalists are licensed today than were less than a decade ago.

According to the report, licensed journalists under the age of 30 currently account for just 7.27 percent of total licensed journalists in China.

One important reason behind the sharp downward trend in the number of licensed journalists, particularly at the regional level, is the shuttering of traditional outlets, including many of the commercial metropolitan newspapers that once thrived in the heyday of print advertising a decade ago. The rapid development of digital media since the early 2000s has decimated the print advertising market.

Another likely reason is the very “convergence” trend cited more prominently in official coverage of the ACJA report last month. Under the centralized model advanced by the leadership, multimedia content is increasingly created not through local and regional news outlets, but rather through “media convergence centers” (融媒体中心) that package material for multiple platforms. The result of this trend is likely to be increasing centralization of the release of news across the country, with party-state controlled centers generating a greater proportion of content. And centralization means less demand for the press cards required for journalists to engage in news gathering.

Xinhua’s Innovative Party Man

In a formal acknowledgement of rumors already circulating online last week, official sources and state media confirmed late yesterday that the top position at China’s official Xinhua News Agency will now be held by Fu Hua (傅华), a long-time veteran of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media who served four years (2010-2014) as deputy propaganda chief for the city of Beijing, and nearly two years (2018-2020) as the top propaganda official in Guangdong province.

Returning to the work in the official media in April 2014, after nearly seven years in the Beijing propaganda structure at the district and city levels, Fu joined the Beijing Daily, first as CCP secretary (党组书记), and later as publisher (社长). Both roles put him directly in charge of maintaining political discipline at the paper, the official organ of the Beijing municipal committee of the CCP. It was also in 2014, after Fu’s arrival, that the committee-run media conglomerate Beijing Daily Media Group launched Capital News (长安街知事), one of the earliest and most successful experiments in the remaking of Party mouthpieces for the new media era.

A formal announcement of Fu Hua’s appointment as president of Xinhua News Agency is included in a routine State Council notice of appointment changes yesterday.

After spending just under a year in 2017 as editor-in-chief of the Economic Daily (经济日报), a CCP paper directly under the State Council, Fu Hua left Beijing in March 2018 for Guangdong, where he was appointed as the provincial minister of propaganda, replacing Shen Haixiong (慎海雄), currently head of China’s umbrella CCP media conglomerate, the China Media Group (CMG).

In February 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Fu Hua was transferred back to Beijing and appointed a deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department. Seventeen months later, in July last year, he was appointed Xinhua’s editor-in-chief.

Innovative Party Man?

Some believe that Fu Hua’s rapid promotion through the ranks of the country’s chief CCP-run news agency stems from a belief in his unique abilities as a media official who has experience within Beijing’s deeply political media culture as well as Guangdong’s more commercially-driven media culture.

Not surprisingly, Fu has emphasized the fundamental “Party nature” of the media in China, stressing the principle, tracing back to Mao Zedong, of “politicians running the newspapers” (政治家办报) – which under Xi Jinping’s reasserted controls has been iterated as “Party newspapers are surnamed Party” (党报姓党).

Fu has also given great priority, however, to Xi Jinping’s notion of “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事), and the need to find new ways for the CCP to control the heights of public opinion, not just domestically but globally, through compelling narratives. In remarks in November last year on the telling of China’s story, Fu Hua made reference to Xi Jinping’s first major speech on propaganda and ideology on August 19, 2013 – and to the need for propaganda officials to “be bolder in raising the banner and showing their swords” (大胆地举旗亮剑).

“This is the propaganda that can be seen,” Fu said. “But on the other hand we must do the propaganda that cannot be seen.”

Shades of Hostility

Last month, a set of questionable illustrations included in primary school mathematics textbooks in China sparked a fierce debate online over quality control and curriculum standards. Most agreed that the illustrations, included in texts published by the People’s Education Press, were in poor taste. One image showed a schoolgirl with her underwear exposed; another a student being grabbed from behind.

But in a sign of how quickly tensions within Chinese society can lead to caustic speculation about foreign influence and infiltration, particularly in the midst of charged relations with the United States and the West, many Chinese saw the tell-tale signs of a foreign conspiracy, despite the fact that internal standards of political discipline within media and publishing in China are among the strictest in the world.

While such nationalistic readings of the affair were not broadly representative of Chinese public opinion, and did not appear directly in mainstream CCP media, they were influential enough to merit a cautionary comment from one of China’s most inveterately anti-Western commentators, former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡锡进). In a post over the weekend, Hu welcomed an investigation announced by the Ministry of Education, but also indicated just how sensitive political nerves have become in China when he said he hoped that the investigation could “remain factual, and avoid the expansion of rectification [efforts].”

Using the highly loaded historical term “position,” or zhengdi (阵地) – suggesting ideological ground that must be held against the enemy – Hu said the errors were not an indication that “ideological positions have been lost, and educational positions taken over by hostile forces.” Instead, said Hu, the errors in were “likely to have been the result of management-level problems.” He let the cat out of the bag in terms of ultimate responsibility as he said: “It is important to recognize that the position of Chinese education is generally solid, and the entire publishing industry has long been under the leadership of the Party and in the hands of those who love the Party and love the nation.”

How did this odd affair evolve? And why did it prompt such an outpouring of nationalistic fury?

Artistic Standards and Infiltration

The controversy kicked off on May 25, as users on Chinese social media shared images from the mathematics textbooks in question. Discussions centered initially on aesthetic considerations: Were the images acceptable, or were they simply ugly?

One early post to Weibo that day noted the oddness of the illustrations and urged further investigation of the causes. “I took out my math textbooks and had a look, and I really hadn’t noticed before how the people’s eyes were less spirited than those of cats, dogs or monkeys,” they wrote. “This happens not just once or twice, but everywhere . . . In some the gazes are indifferent, in others the eyes rolling, or askant, not really looking at things or taking them in. The whole thing feels weird.”

A post to Weibo on May 25 notes the oddness of illustrations in Chinese textbooks.

“With so many children in the country using these texts, what is the reason for this?” the post asked. “This is a big deal, something that can’t just be passed over. There needs to be an investigation and explanation.”

Another post to Weibo at 10:28AM that day reflected generally on textbook illustrations in China, including images of the mathematics textbook illustrations that would soon be national news as well as others they felt were problematic. “The illustrations in new textbooks, whether for adults or for children, all have wide eye spacing, puffy eyes, and a puffy appearance, and mouths that are as puffy as those of dogs,” the post read. “Children are the future of our country, so what is the intention in encouraging such aesthetics in children?”

A Weibo post late in the morning on May 25 shares textbook illustrations with alleged foreign bias and asks: “Do publishers not review these books?”

The post also bemoaned the fact that the images for professions such as doctors, lawyers and professors in children’s textbooks were often those of foreigners. “Do publishers not review these books?” they asked.

As the comments gathered, so did the outrage, and by May 26, the People’s Education Press images were becoming a full-blown national controversy. As many media would eventually note, including Hangzhou’s Metro Express (都市快报), the textbook illustrations controversy accounted for seven of the top 10 search results in China that day.

Just before 10AM on May 26, “Sichuan Observation” (四川观察), the official Weibo account of Sichuan Radio and Television (SCTV), the provincial government broadcaster, posted a video about the brewing controversy over the textbook illustrations, asking its eight million followers to weigh in with their views. Respondents expressed strong disapproval of the images, many saying that they affected the healthy development of children. “Textbook illustrations in the past were much better,” one wrote. “Now these children in the illustrations all look like they have intellectual disabilities. It’s ridiculous and leaves me speechless, and someone really needs to look into this. It distorts the aesthetics of children.”

Screenshot of a video summary of the brewing textbook illustration scandal on the official account of Sichuan Radio and Television on May 26.

Just minutes later, the SCTV video post was shared by the official account of the well-known magazine China News Weekly (中国新闻周刊), which has more than 60 million followers on Weibo. As users there commented on the images, speculations about a foreign conspiracy became more prevalent.  

Some users pointed out that children in the illustrations were wearing clothes sporting stars-and-stripes patterns reminiscent of the American flag. The focus on this and other such details prompted many to conclude that the images showed an adoration of American culture while looking down on more natively Chinese representations. “This is not a problem of artistic standards but a problem of ideology,” wrote one respondent. “The problem of ideological infiltration of education is really serious. Do you really not get this?”

A selection of furious comments under a Weibo post about mathematics textbook illustrations on May 26, 2022.

Just after noon on May 26, the People’s Education Press issued a statement through its official Weibo account saying that it acknowledged the criticisms online, and that it was taking steps to review the illustrations in question and “further improve design quality.” But many internet users continued to reject the suggestion that this was about aesthetic standards at all.

“The problem of ideological infiltration of education is really serious. Do you really not get this?”

comment on Chinese social media

“You make this out as about ‘artistic standards’? That really is making light of the serious!” read one furious comment on Weibo. “You bring shame to the word ‘people’ appearing in your name,” said another immediately after, vaguely invoking an ideological struggle behind the scenes.

Anger was also heaped on the illustrator responsible for the images.

Internet users had revealed quite quickly on May 25 that the images had been made by Beijing Wu Yong Design Studio (北京吴勇设计工作室), a group run by the graphic artist Wu Yong (吴勇), a graduate of the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts (later Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts and Design). Wu had a varied design background that included book illustration. Many had pointed to a 2018 interview Wu had done with ZCOOL (站酷), a website for the designer community, that had included the mathematics illustrations among other work.

Screenshot of 2018 interview by ZCOOL of designer Wu Yong, whose studio created the People’s Education illustrations that angered many Chinese.

These biographical details, including many of Wu’s comments on design, were reported widely on May 26 by a range of media, including The Paper, which pulled out a kicker quote from Wu that came across as highly ironic given the outrage cresting online over the designer’s depiction of schoolchildren: “And so, it is among students that we most see the heart of the child. They have ideals in their hearts, pure passion and flickering sparks of wisdom. This is such a precious thing!”

These words from four years earlier contrasted starkly with the denunciations that continued online. “The ugliness of these pictures really conveys the chaotic intention behind, showing how vile the designer really is!” one user wrote in the comment space under a post by the Weibo account of Computer Weekly. “Is this Wu Yong not a traitorous dog?” asked another just below.

Hostile Conspiracies

On top of the growing list of supposedly foreign-inspired elements in the illustrations themselves, the details of Wu Yong’s background fueled conspiracies about foreign infiltration. In the ZCOOL interview, Wu had been identified as a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), a global club of graphic designers, and also as “artistic adviser” for the Beijing office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). These completely circumstantial details were taken as evidence of foreign collusion. Meanwhile, further reporting into Wu’s studio, such as a May 27 article from the Beijing Youth Daily revealing that it was not in fact registered as a commercial enterprise, further invited suspicion among the already suspicious.

On May 27, “Gathering Light Chronicle” (拾光纪事), a WeChat public account that frequently features anti-Western and anti-American content as well at attacks on more liberal media inside China, ran a provocative post called “The Infiltration of Textbook Illustrations by Hostile Forces, A Secret Conspiracy of Cultural Colonization,” which highlighted Wu Yong’s UNICEF connection. “The Wu Yong Design Studio that did the layout and illustration is backed as an artistic adviser by UNICEF, a foundation dedicated to promoting the LGBT movement among our country’s youth population,” the post read.

The post also compared Wu Yong’s illustrations in the mathematics text with more “normal” illustrations in a language text – the standard for normal apparently being those with more traditionally Chinese motifs. 

Textbook images posted to WeChat by “Gathering Light Chronicle” are shared on the Zhihu Q&A site

“I believe normal people would choose the drawing style on the left, because it is what we would call normal,” the post said. “No one likes the drawing style on the right because it is a weak-minded drawing style that deliberately scandalizes our Chinese children and deliberately promotes slave education to try to change our aesthetic standards by subtle means.”

Here, even before the question of ultimate foreign responsibility was posed, the reason for the existence of these hated textbook illustrations was implied. The term “slave education” (奴化教育) – used by the Chinese Communist Party throughout its past to criticize Japanese, American, British and other forms of colonialism – suggested that this was part of a process of systematic transformation and indoctrination by outsiders. “So, why is there such a big difference between the same version of the textbook?” the post continued. “There’s an answer to that, and it’s clearly intentional. This cannot be explained or washed away.”

The post then alleged that the textbook illustrations were “a trick of cultural colonization,” a clear-cut case of intrusion by “hostile forces” that had “infiltrated our education system and are recklessly changing our illustrations in an attempt to change our aesthetic standards.” For “Gathering Light Chronicle,” the core question was plain as day: “[How] did the hostile forces infiltrate our education system? How did such ghostly illustrations get so overtly into our textbooks?”

The post from “Gathering Light Chronicle” was shared by other sites, including the leftist website Utopia (乌有之乡). And there were similar posts from other accounts, including this May 27 post that waxed nostalgic about the textbooks of China’s past, adding a clear note of conspiracy. “Thinking back on these details, it’s like returning to our childhood, when illustrators had a positive outlook, did not receive funding from overseas NGOs, and apparently only tried to make the characters as simple and beautiful as possible.”

Mitigating Contexts

But much of the nationalist sentiment flaring up against the People’s Education Press illustrations concealed a very basic question. How could such apparently flagrant lapses in textbook illustration quality happen at a state-owned publisher? And how had this issue escaped notice for more than a decade, these very textbooks lingering in the homes of millions of Chinese families?

In a May 27 commentary on the incident through its social media accounts, the CCP’s official People’s Daily newspaper said that the design and writing of learning materials required “a fierce sense of responsibility and mission, strictly upholding a correct political direction and value orientation.” As many official news outlets noted, including Jimu News, a new media channel run by the provincial Hubei Daily, book publications in China must go through a strict review process that includes three rounds of close examination and three further proof-readings. These are meant to address major problems not just in terms of content and structure, but also in political and ideological direction.

How could such political standards not be upheld in the first place – under a system that has always prioritized such controls?

One problem, according to an editor interviewed by Jimu News, is that the focus on political and ideological issues at the level of the text means that images and illustrations are often neglected. “Pictures are generally drawn by illustrators, and this does not fall within the purview of reviews and controls,” the editor said.

In fact, illustrations may even be added to a book outside the review process altogether, meaning that they completely avoid this cycle of three reviews and three proofreads. “That’s why it’s easy to make mistakes,” said the editor. “I believe this incident will become the focus of training for publishers for related censorship and reviews from here on out.”

Some Chinese commenting on social media, including a number of artists and graphic designers, advanced other arguments that provided some context for why poor-quality design might happen, including details about the publishing industry and the design profession. In a post on May 25, a Beijing-based computer graphic artist with more than three million followers on Weibo responded to the then developing controversy over textbook illustrations by suggesting that one key problem was that publishers had not kept pace in their budgeting over the past 20 years, as the cost of quality design work had grown.

This post angered many internet users, who felt that this was “mopping the floor” (洗地) – or making convenient excuses for the guilty.

“I believe this incident will become the focus of training for publishers for related censorship and reviews from here on out.”

Textbook Editor

On May 27, Shanghai’s Guancha Syndicate published a post in which Fu Luola (傅洛拉), an author with experience in education, gave a rather even-handed assessment of various factors that might have led to the publication of the illustrations in question, and to the controversy that exploded this year. While acknowledging some of the budget considerations noted in the earlier post by the Beijing-based computer graphic artist, Fu Luola agreed that illustrations in this case were substandard. “It was certainly unacceptable for Wu Yong’s studio to release works like this,” they wrote.

Fu suggested, however, that the decisions behind the case were probably far more basic that the conspiracies entertained by many internet users, including understandable personal and professional relationships between people at the publishing house and Beijing Wu Yong Design Studio: “But on the publisher’s side, it is likely that the first step in committing this mistake was simply that a member of the math textbook writing team happened to have connections to the studio and blindly believed in its name and its ‘artistic sensibility.’”

The author affirmed the “importance of public oversight” in the industry to avoid “problematic public opinion events.” But also at play, they said, was the larger social and political context that textbook publishers and reviewers could not have anticipated more than 10 years ago.

Specifically, the author suggested that changes in societal views about “insults to China” and the deterioration of China-US relations had contributed to the animus against the illustrations. “A second [issue] is that the standpoints of evaluation are also changing as concepts in society change. Between 2012 and 2013, when this set of textbooks was being reviewed, there had been no concentrated cases of ‘squinting’ and other ‘insults to China’ of the kind that have caused a lot of controversy in recent years.”

Buried amid the heaps of social media discussion about illustration quality, ugliness and treachery, this simple point was perhaps one of the most perceptive. A general surge in animosity towards the United States and the West in China — stemming from growing international tensions but fueled also by calls in the leadership and state-run media against criticism, containment and perceived threats to “cultural security” — was almost certainly one of the key changes in context adding shades of hostility to the recent textbook illustration controversy.

But all reason aside, this measured reading of the case was rejected by many commenting below the Guancha Syndicate post, who chose to understand the incident as a serious assault on the country.

“They have violated the publishing laws and criminal laws!” one user wrote erroneously. “It’s not a matter of self-correction anymore! These people are simply a fifth column planted in China by the West!”

Paper Trails in the Digital Age

When China Computerworld (计算机世界) was launched in 1980, the magazine was one of the most positive and exciting media developments China had experienced in a generation. The country’s first information technology (IT) related publication, its success was premised, as its publisher would later say, on “providing readers with practical information.”

It was a simple positioning – this prioritizing of the reader. But against the backdrop of two decades of Maoist sloganeering in the media, it was also a revolutionary shift. Chinese media were slowly entering a new period of experimentation and openness to the world in the early 1980s, and China Computerworld was at the forefront of these changes, an early trailblazer of a media commercialization trend that would not gain full momentum for another 10 years.

So when this pioneer of media commercialization in China’s reform period announced in April this year that it would be formally closing up shop, the news bookended four decades of print media development. It was the fizzling out of a magazine that had once played an instrumental role in the growth of China’s IT industry – spearheading a trend that in decades to come would be its undoing, as new digital media eclipsed traditional outlets.  

In a notice dated April 27, 2022, China Computerworld announced that it would immediately cease operations and enter into labor arbitration with staff members who claimed wages in arrears. The notice began by noting the extreme difficulties that had come in the past two and half years as a result of the pandemic, which had resulted in “continuous and serious losses.”

In a notice dated April 27, 2022, China Computerworld announces to staff that it has ceased operations.

A Mass Media Extinction

But the uncomfortable fact was the China Computerworld was joining the long ranks of media that had either been folded into new digital operations – as Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post had been in 2016 with the founding of a fully digital venture ironically called The Paper in English –  or had failed to make the transition to digital.

January 2016 had brought the closure of the Morning Express (今日早报), a commercial paper under the official Zhejiang Daily, of Hangzhou’s Metropolitan Weekly (都市周报), of the Jiujiang Morning Post (九江晨报) and the Daily Commercial News (天天商报). The next year brought the closure of the Beijing Times (京华时报) and the Oriental Morning Post (东方早报), the latter a commercial paper remembered for having broken news of the poisoned milk scandal after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2018 there were countless closures, including of the Beijing Star Daily (北京娱乐信报), and of local commercial papers like the Xiangtan Evening News (湘潭晚报) in Hunan province. In 2019, the Beijing Morning Post (北京晨报), the Heilongjiang Morning Post (黑龙江晨报), Dalian’s New Commercial Post (新商报), and many others at the city and prefectural levels.

The global pandemic may have been the last chapter for some. But a mass extinction of print publications in China was already well underway by the time the virus was discovered in Wuhan in late 2019. Nearly all have been commercial newspapers, many launched in the late 1990s and 2000s as profitable spin-offs of Party-run newspapers across the country, at a time when print advertising was booming. By the 2010s, that market was already cratering, impacted by the rise of new digital platforms like Tencent’s WeChat.

In the 2020s, their former Party sponsors plod on, still supported with government funds, and still needed to conduct essential propaganda and “public opinion work.” But these commercial ventures, which in their own ways all took cues from the example first set by China Computerworld, are now confined to a fossil past in university libraries and digital archives.

The global pandemic may have been the last chapter for some. But a mass extinction of print publications in China was already well underway by the time the virus was discovered in Wuhan in late 2019. 

Rare Species: The Sino-Foreign Media Joint Venture

Launched as a joint venture between the now dissolved Ministry of the Electronics Industry and the US-based International Data Group (IDG), China Computerworld was also the first foreign-invested media venture in China – a rarity looking back on more than four decades during which foreign dreams of media access to the country have been elusive.

During a trip to China in March 1980, IDG founder and chairman Patrick McGovern entered into discussions with the Fourth Ministry of the Machinery Industry, which would eventually be reorganized as the Ministry of the Electronics Industry, about the possibility of launching a Chinese-language edition of his IT related magazine. Computerworld‘s publications around the world were at that time all owned or controlled by IDG. But McGovern’s efforts to push for the same arrangement in China were quickly rebuffed. China, which had just embarked on its reform and opening path, refused to allow more than 50 percent foreign ownership in a joint venture. The two sides eventually agreed that China would hold 51 percent, the remaining 49 percent to be held by IDG.

Then, as now, media were a point of sensitivity for China’s leadership. The sense from the top, however, was the Computerworld would deal primarily with IT issues, and would eschew politics. Moreover, the information it would share with readers would be essential to the introduction of advanced computer technology from the West. IDG’s investment was greenlighted, and by the fall of 1980 China Computerworld had been approved by the government, becoming the country’s first industry-focused publication and its first foreign investment in the media. When China’s government later prohibited foreign investment in the news media, the magazine became the only official Sino-US joint-venture magazine – a historical first, and last.

Through the 1980s the magazine was an example to follow for journalists and publishers who hoped to break new ground. Even as the country’s international relations soured and its media grew bitter and insular in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, the magazine offered a crucial link with the outside. In April 1992, just weeks after Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” which was to reinvigorate economic reforms (and bring a new commercial media renaissance), the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper noted China Computerworld as a bright spot of global engagement. The magazine’s “timely tracking of international [developments in] computer and high-tech,” the paper said, had made it “the most authoritative professional publication in our country’s computer industry.”

Profit and Professionalism

China Computerworld was sometimes also called the first “thick publication” (厚报) in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Unlike the Party-run dailies and weeklies of the 1980s (and even their commercial spin-offs of the 1990s), which might have anywhere from eight to 16 pages, the IT magazine could have at times up to 300 pages in a single issue, stuffed full not just of content but of advertising.

Through the 1980s the magazine was an example to follow for journalists and publishers who hoped to break new ground. 

But China Computerworld could also get tough with the IT companies about which it reported, and its advertisers – even the powerful ones – were not always spared.

In January 2000, the magazine ran an eight-page story about Legend Computer, later to be renamed Lenovo, that detailed the early rift in the 1980s between computer engineer Ni Guangnan (倪光南) and Liu Chuanzhi (柳传志), then an official at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Called “The Painful Fracture” (痛苦的裂变), the lengthy investigative report revealed that Ni was in fact the founder of Legend, where Liu Chuanzhi had served as CEO (and identified himself as founder) since 1984. The China Computerworld report so infuriated Liu that Legend pulled nearly 20 million yuan in advertising – at the time the largest case of advertising withdrawn in China for critical reporting.

Ten years and a generation of technology later, the magazine infuriated another tech giant with a cover story called “Damned Tencent” (狗日的腾讯), which described Pony Ma’s Tencent as the internet’s public enemy, fueling bitter feuding within the industry and resorting to monopoly behavior. The feature story was brimful of bitter accusations from Tencent competitors. China Computerworld’s cover image was the iconic penguin symbolizing Tencent’s QQ service, but with three knives stabbing his plump cartoon body, drawing drops of bright red blood.

Cover of the “Damned Tencent” edition of China Computerworld from July 2010.

“This is Tencent, China’s top and the world’s number three internet company, a rare global full-service Internet company that does everything from instant messaging, portals, games, e-commerce, search and more. It is always quietly making preparations and appearing behind your back, popping out to stir up trouble at moments of opportunity, leaving its peers unsettled,” the story read.

The magazine then went for the jugular: “When the time is ripe, [Tencent] will ruthlessly seize its piece of the market, sometimes even acting like the Terminator to dominate the entire market.”

Tencent was understandably upset by the July 2010 cover story. But it received widespread support on the internet, and prompted China Computerworld to change its profile picture on Weibo to the same image of the bloody penguin. It was unusual feistiness for a publication majority owned by that time by the government’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). But the magazine’s large base of readership with the internet industry, and among scholars and businesspeople, not to mention its enviable advertising revenue, meant that had more latitude in reporting about technology matters in China.

Falling Behind the Trends

Ultimately, though, it was Tencent that had the last laugh. Perhaps more than any other competitor in the past 10 years, the Chinese tech giant transformed the media landscape in ways that China Computerworld failed to anticipate.

From 2008 onwards, the development of new forms of internet communication, including Tencent’s powerful WeChat, launched in January 2011, would leave traditional media outlets in the dust. China Computerworld made a number of halting attempts at digital transformation, but these were ultimately unsuccessful. Wrote Shanghai’s Jiemian News, in what might be an apt epitaph for the magazine: “China Computerworld nurtured the growth of China’s IT industry, but its failure in the face of several internet transformations ultimately brought the publication down in front of its rivals.”

The last printed edition of China Computerworld, published in 2021.

In recent weeks, many internet users, particularly those in the IT industry, have expressed their sadness at seeing the once-celebrated magazine suffer the same fate as so many print publications from the golden era of the commercial press in China.

A few have blamed the closure of local newsstands in recent years for circulation drops that have hit print media hard. “The wave of newsstand removals in the past few years was a devastating blow to these paper magazines,” read one recent comment under a months-old story on newsstand closures by the online publishing platform 36kr. “I would always grab a copy of China Computerworld from the newsstands after work, but now I don’t even know where I can find [such a newsstand] anymore.”

Others were more resigned to the irreversible trends transforming the media. “There is nothing we can do about it,” one user commented under a story at on the closure of China Computerworld. “The era of print media has passed, and all of them will fall under the onslaught of online media.”

Stella Chen contributed research for this story.