Author: Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Managing Editor of the China Media Project, Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning Hong Kong journalist who has reported for The Washington Post, LA Times, TIME, Hong Kong Free Press, and other local and international media.

A Tale of Two Junkets

A gaggle of reporters is herded along rows of grape vines, led by beaming bureaucrats. They stroll past hardworking, ruddy villagers who invite them to their homes to share memories of Xi Jinping’s “inspection” of the area two years earlier and the momentous changes that have transpired since.

When they return home, these reporters will file paeans to the beautiful scenery and industrious people they found in rural Guangxi. National, regional, and industry publications will praise the “Long March spirit” of its workers and the wisdom of local technocrats.

The spectacle of foreign press junkets enjoying all-expenses-paid tours in China — themed around the achievements of government-led development programs, the promotion of up-and-coming tourism destinations, or the denial of mass atrocities —is all too familiar. But this one is different. The reporters are all Chinese, hailing from the China Daily, China Culture Daily, China Travel News, Farmers’ Daily, and other publications.

“News workers,” as journalists in China are often called in official documents and state media discourse, traipse the vineyards of Maozhushan village in Guangxi.

They are part of another, parallel phenomenon: the domestic press junket.

Given a strong propaganda and censorship culture and the leadership’s constant emphasis on discipline, one might assume that Chinese journalists are already well primed — unlike their international counterparts — to “tell China’s story well,” focusing on the positives of local and national leadership. Notwithstanding, themed propaganda tours offer a further opportunity for authorities to “guide” coverage at media across the country.

The tour around the southwestern Guangxi region was arranged in May by the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), which describes itself as “a national non-governmental organization” but in fact serves as an important layer for exercising the Chinese Communist Party’s control over news organizations and the country’s more than one million registered journalists.

Unlike your typical industry organization, the ACJA is also an enforcement agency, rewarding compliance with the CCP’s demands and punishing perceived failures. The ACJA’s collection of the articles produced by the tour said that China’s journalists “need to be like the Red Army on the Long March.”

The May 2023 tour of the southwestern Guangxi region, arranged by the All-China Journalists Association, directly resulted in positive reporting like the above from China Daily, Farmer’s Daily, Press Publication Radio Film and Television Journal, China Culture Daily and China Natural Resources Daily.

One month earlier, the ACJA and the Information Office of the People’s Government of Zhejiang co-organized a tour of the eastern province tailored for foreign journalists. Reporters from the Irish Times, Voice of Vietnam, and Korea’s Asia Economic News visited the provincial capital Hangzhou, Huzhou, Shaoxing, and Jinhua. The whistle-stop tour followed a familiar template: demonstrations of traditional crafts such as silk weaving, wood carving, and calligraphy, followed by visits to model housing developments, an e-gaming center, and the mammoth Yiwu International Trade City, the world’s biggest small commodities market.

From practitioners of ancient traditions to forward-looking young entrepreneurs, it was a buffet of “good China stories” for the guests, some of whom said they were serial participants of such official press tours. This particular series of tours, started in 2020, invites tourists “to experience China’s economic, social and cultural development at the grassroots level and to present a realistic, three-dimensional and comprehensive China.”

Calligraphy with the Zhejiang foreign press junket.

In a way, both tours shared a common overarching theme: the Party as both the great modernizer and the protector of China’s history and environment, the prism through which the light from past glories is refracted into an even brighter future.

For the foreign press, the narrative is national in scale, playing out in one of China’s wealthiest provinces, with its former imperial capital famed for its beautiful scenery and sought-after products. For domestic raconteurs, the story of the Party’s largesse and leadership is best embodied by the rural hinterlands of Guangxi, which has languished economically behind its far more successful twin, Guangdong.

The area of the region explored also has the distinction of being the site of a pivotal event in the Long March, when retreating Communist guerrillas wound their way from the Jiangxi Soviet to the arid Loess Plateau in the 1930s. On the banks of Guangxi’s Xiangjiang River, the Red Army broke through the National Army’s blockade at the cost of 50,000 soldiers out of a total of 86,000. The domestic press tour was replete with calls for media to emulate the “Long March spirit” (长征精神), stressing the importance of “red genes” (红色基因) — a kind of political and cultural inheritance, the celebration of which is a means of consolidating the Party’s position within the national identity and thereby constructing the legitimacy of the CCP regime.

The tale of these two junkets, though they may be packaged differently for two distinct audiences, together provides an illustration of how the party-state shapes coverage in both the domestic and international press through nominally independent industry organizations such as the ACJA. It also shows that there is nothing exceptional about the foreign press junket. It may be deployed somewhat more subtly than its domestic counterpart but is just a different version of the same, well-worn tool as effective on state media “news workers” — as the ACJA calls them — as it is to supposedly savvy foreign correspondents.

‘Fighting to Remember’ June 4th in Hong Kong

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: How long had you been in Beijing before the events of June 4th, 1989?

Mak Yin-ting: I went to Beijing to cover Sino-British affairs in relation to Hong Kong. I was among the first batch of Hong Kong reporters to be officially allowed in to cover news in mainland China. That was in 1985, when we were allowed to cover the National People’s Congress. In 1989 I was assigned specifically to the protests in April.

Students on Tian’anmen Square, 1989. Photo by Jiří Tondl.

RHK: At that point, did you or your editors have any idea it would become such a historic event?

MYT: Of course not. I don’t think people there thought the demonstrations would turn into a massacre or such a large-scale protest. I think at the peak over a million people took to the streets. The first thing that really struck me was in April when protests started from the university area after a People’s Daily editorial on April 26th condemned the movement as a revolution. The students and other people involved were afraid that there would be a lot of trouble if the stance of the central government did not change, so the next day university students organized a march starting in Haidian District and I can only say that it is it was really a mountain people mountain sea (人山人海).

At some points, the police tried to stop them and they clashed before the police finally allowed them to march on. I followed them from the universities to the western part of Beijing and then down Chang’an Boulevard to the Great Hall of the People. It took all day but spirits were high. Their determination was so strong and the support of the people was very enthusiastic. It was very moving. From that time, we got the feeling that if both sides didn’t sit down and talk the result would not be good, but even then I never would have imagined that it would end the way it did. It became very worrying around the end of May when we heard that live ammunition was being dispatched to the front line.

Tiananmen protester and future human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang in 1989. Pu Zhiqiang was a China Media Project fellow in the early 2000s. Photo by SF Choi.

RHK: How did the high spirits at that time affect you as a reporter? Could you feel yourself getting a bit swept up in it as well and was that a challenge to your objectivity as a reporter?

MYT: I wouldn’t say that I didn’t do a good job, but at some points I found that I wasn’t acting professionally in a way. I remember how supportive the people were. When the protesters were marching all day, the people came out to give them water and ice lollies. When they started singing their marching song, it was so moving that I sang along with them for two or three lines before realizing that was unprofessional and stopping. I had been in the industry for five years at that time and I knew I could only watch and report [that] seeing the support of the people was so moving.

RHK: You mentioned how toward the end of May you heard that bullets were being dispatched to security forces and you started fearing for the worst at that point. Did you feel the atmosphere among the protesters themselves also darken at some point?

MYT: I think the protesters’ emotions were going up and down. When you are supported by the people you feel quite encouraged. And when the movement simmered down they tried doing things that would attract the support of the media and the public in Beijing. When you face a huge authority, they have lots of resources to influence you; sometimes you get good news and then you say it seems that you can see the light [at the end] of the tunnel, but then things turn sour and the emotions of the people will also go down. But in all in all, you could see that the support of the public was going up.

When the public actively went to Tiananmen Square to protect the students, the nature of the movement has been turned from a student movement to a patriotic movement. Afterward, the support from the people was very high.

I regard May as the turning point when it went from a student movement to a movement that involved all walks of life in Beijing and even outside of Beijing. That’s why, when people describe the 1989 movement, sometimes people will call it the student movement, and sometimes people call it a patriotic movement. When the public actively went to Tiananmen Square to protect the students, the nature of the movement turned from a student movement to a patriotic movement. Afterward, the support from the people was very high.

In May, the local students in Tiananmen Square went back to campus and then students from outside Beijing began to move in to take up their position. So the movement went on and then more and more people came to Beijing from different parts of China. 

RHK: Where were you on the night of June 3rd when you first heard that they were firing on the students in and around Tiananmen Square?

MYT: I was in the Beijing Hotel. As a newspaper reporter, I had to write my story and send it back to Hong Kong first. I had been all around in the city and the countryside and my plan was to file the story and then go out again to Tiananmen Square. When I finished at around 10 pm, I went out on the balcony as usual and I could see uniformed officers moving in and searching everyone coming into the hotel. I thought that if I went down again and took photos I might not be able to bring any of the material back in. We had a full view of Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Boulevard, though, so I stayed there to watch what was happening until all the lights went out around 4 am.

RHK: How did your experience in Beijing in 1989 affect your personal outlook or your career plans?

MYT: Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me that I wanted to keep doing this work and that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China. The limitations imposed on journalists affect people. I remember we were protected by the people, the Beijing people, who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will only follow the instructions of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world. They thought that the journalists there would not report the truth to the world and their voice cannot be heard.

That made me feel even stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom. That was the reason I started participating in the work of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which was the only trade union in Hong Kong. When I came back from studying abroad, I joined the Executive Committee of the HKJA and served for over 20 years, among which nine years I was the chair of the association. I hope very much that press freedom will remain the status quo. Of course, the situation now is much worse, but I think it is important for us to see what we can do to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as much as possible.

Covering the protests and the whole movement in Beijing convinced me […] that I don’t want reporters in Hong Kong to have to work like our counterparts in mainland China… I remember we were protected by the Beijing people who just wanted us to report things to the world. They thought that mainland reporters will will only follow the instruction of the government — they will not tell the truth to the world…. their voice cannot be heard. That made me feel more stronger about maintaining the status quo of Hong Kong’s press freedom.

RHK: After 1989, June 4th vigils became an important annual political ritual in Hong Kong. Why do you think June 4th became so important to Hong Kong people and stayed that way for so many years?

MYT: It is important because the persistence of Hong Kong people tells the world that justice should be done. The truth should be told. We cannot tolerate a truth that has been buried. The Chinese government always denies that it was a patriotic movement and say that the Western world or the media is telling lies. Please show us the evidence. Don’t hide all the evidence and just use empty allegations. The People’s Liberation Army actually went to different hospitals on June 4th to search and to get gather information about the injured or the dead. They have the evidence but won’t tell the truth to the world.

Hong Kong students mark the 21st anniversary of the June 4th massacre at the annual vigil in Victoria Park. Image by Ryanne Lai, available at under CC license.

RHK: Recently in Hong Kong, we’ve seen the removal and confiscation of the Pillar of Shame and the removal of books about June 4th from public libraries. For over three decades, Hong Kong has been the primary place where this memory is kept alive and passed on but now it looks like that’s not going to be possible any longer. Do you think that the government will succeed in extinguishing this memory in Hong Kong, too?

MYT: I agree with you that the June 4th commemoration will not be as massive as before in the near future, and the government is trying to eliminate the memory of the people by pulling books down. Of course, they will not explicitly say that you cannot talk about it, but the fact is fewer and fewer people will dare to talk about it. The government is trying very hard to eliminate the memory but I don’t think they will succeed in the near future. It is a struggle but we have to be optimistic. The seeds have been planted. The information has been out there online for such a long time. Unless they stop Hong Kong people from accessing information around the world or only let them access the information provided by the government, it will not be successful.

The fight against authoritarianism is the fight to remember… I believe that the memory will not be killed so easily.

The Tiananmen generation is still in their 50s, 60s, or 70s and the younger generation has picked up the memories. So even if a regime would like to do so, it would take around three generations to successfully eliminate a collective memory. That means unless the government can ensure that from now on, for at least three generations, people can only access information provided by the government, I can not see how the government’s elimination of memory will be a success. We always say the fight against an authoritarian regime is a fight to remember. I hope very much and I believe that the memory will not be killed so easily.

RHK: There used to be space in Hong Kong to be both a democrat and a patriot. Figures like Szeto Wah and Albert Ho were even seen by Beijing as the acceptable face of the pro-democracy movement. But the national security crackdown has seemingly erased any middle ground and anything short of full-throated support for the government is seen as seditious. Is there any space left for the patriotic democrats of the Tiananmen generation?

MYT: I don’t think the movement itself was revolutionary. It’s nonsense that it was trying to topple the government. We still regard it as a patriotic movement. Some pro-establish figures say otherwise but that is what freedom means. Freedom means even though I don’t agree with you, I will safeguard your right to say so. 

It’s perhaps an impossible hope that the authorities will think in the same way and wish to maintain the freedom and human rights of Hong Kong people. Some people may self-censor; some will try to protect themselves and use other means to remember; but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Different people will have their own way to keep the memory alive. In that sense, I’m not that pessimistic. I mean, at least in my generation, I do not think the elimination of this memory will be a success. But for the third or fourth generations, it’s very difficult to tell. We have to fight the war of keeping memory. 

The whole history of the People’s Republic of China is a history of molding how people think.

RHK: This week, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive rebuked a reporter who asked a question related to the 2019 protests, insisting the media call it the “black violence” instead. It was just the latest in an ongoing effort to rewrite the history of these events, which is especially bold considering how many of us witnessed them personally. When you see things like this, are you reminded of Beijing’s efforts to rewrite the events of June 4th, 1989?

June 4th memorial in Toronto in 2009. Image available at under CC license.

MYT: Well, I think the phenomenon you describe was not just specific to 1989. Actually, the whole history of the People’s Republic of China is a history of molding how people think. So that’s why the propaganda department is so important. And when you talk about 1989, of course, it was the case.

Closer to the present day, the Covid-19 pandemic is another example. They will not allow people to relate it to Wuhan. To me, it is very natural for an authoritarian regime to do things like that. The Chief Executive is now trying to change the nature of the 2019 movement and always saying that it is like violence and all that, but I think that for people who experienced these events, they will not change their minds to the government’s line so easily.

Digital Vigilantism and the “Good Chinese”

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick: The easiest targets for digital vigilantes are typically foreign individuals, countries, and brands. So when they turn their sights on other members of the same national or ethnic communities, how do they turn people who should be “one of us” into Others?

Qian Huang: In theory, there are a set of values and social norms shared in Chinese society to determine whether a fellow Chinese citizen is “a good Chinese.” These norms are normally very general and therefore porous, such as “love your motherland” and “make contributions to the country.” These virtue words are open to interpretation in different cases, by different people and communities. Instead of defining what patriotic behaviors are, it is more common to define what is unpatriotic; and this list has grown longer in recent years.

There are no stable and agreed-upon standards, which means any behaviors and speech can be interpreted as unpatriotic if needed.

For example, Celebrities can be denounced as unpatriotic if they don’t post “I love China” on National Day or “never forget national humiliation” on the anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre. Of course, the party-state plays a very important role in shaping these values as well. Unpatriotic behaviors can also be trivial and linked to current affairs. Being a fan of K-pop groups was regarded as unpatriotic during the THAAD controversy and criticizing China’s zero-covid policies was also regarded as a betrayal during the pandemic. This is the most horrifying part of this phenomenon. There are no stable and agreed-upon standards, which means any behaviors and speech can be interpreted as unpatriotic if needed.

RHK: Why are these attacks so often gendered? What is it about nationalism and misogyny that so seamlessly dovetails?

QH: Women are often regarded as the property and vessels of the nation because their reproductive function is needed to “continue the national bloodline/lineage” in our patriarchal society. Therefore, women’s sexual morals have always been heavily policed, especially by “patriotic men.” Nowadays, because of globalization and international mobility, the sexual moral purity of “our women” is seen as at risk since many of them choose to romantically engage with foreign men. Also, our society has always held higher moral standards for women than other social identities such as mother, daughter, and wife. Therefore, women need to fulfill many more standards to be regarded as qualified “patriotic women.” They are not only evaluated against the already fluid and porous norms of a patriotic citizen but also against the moral standards for “a good Chinese woman.”

RHK: In your research, you point to three main nationalist discourses: the “ungrateful traitor,” the “corrupt elite,” and the “ugly slut.” Time and again, we’ve seen how well-educated, ethnically Chinese women who were educated or work abroad are targeted with particular vitriol — do you think this is because they represent the intersection of these three discourses?

QH: Yes, but in a dialectic manner. On one hand, this is exactly how intersectionality creates amplified vulnerabilities for a certain group of people. Because of their various social identities and characteristics, they are hit by the perfect storm of these three discourses and become victims. On the other hand, these discourses emerge when they become the targets because the patriotic vigilantes need all the justifications to shame and exclude them.

RHK: In the case studies you looked at, what was the personal toll for those targeted in such campaigns in terms of their careers, personal relationships, safety, and emotional well-being?

QH: I didn’t get in touch with these targets because I was afraid that I might cause another round of trauma by asking them to discuss their experience, especially when I don’t have the expertise in therapy. Therefore, I don’t have first-hand knowledge about these tolls. However, based on my observation of these cases’ development, all of them will have a very hard time finding a desired job in China; none of them use publicly visible social media accounts anymore; one of them was expelled from her study at a Chinese university; and one of them is still active on Twitter, where she openly shares that she has been under constant fear that someone is following her because of the amount of harassing messages and calls she gets.

Sampled Targets’ Information. SOURCE: The Discursive Construction of Populist and Misogynist Nationalism: Digital Vigilantism Against Unpatriotic Intellectual Women in China, by Qian Huang.

RHK: Who among state media, commercial media, and internet users is most responsible for propelling these attacks? Do you see more often see them emerging organically from the bottom up or being orchestrated from the top down?

QH: The vitriol from internet users is the most vicious and uncensored. However, commercial media are most responsible for propelling and amplifying these attacks because of their reach and framing function. State media is mainly responsible for the “ungrateful traitor” discourse, but stays away from the other two.

Attacks come mainly from internet users and commercial media in a bottom-up manner but [are] later condoned and further propagated from the top down… based on the fact these discourses still exist online, we can say that the top does not oppose them.

I think it is a mutual shaping procedure. In the beginning, the attacks come mainly from internet users and commercial media in a bottom-up manner but were later condoned and further propagated from the top down. However, I don’t have any concrete evidence that this is the case, but we all know that if the party-state wants to censor a certain type of public opinion or discourse, it will be done. Therefore, based on the fact that these discourses still exist online, we can say that the top does not oppose them.

RHK: You’ve written that state-run media avoid directly engaging in misogynistic discourse and populist skepticism, but do you think this is changing? While recent pieces like this China Daily video on female Chinese journalists working for international media do not necessarily throw around gendered insults, they seem to be informed by the same discourse nonetheless.

A China Daily video targeting ethnically Chinese women in international media.

QH: Yes, definitely. The state media still wants to present themselves as rational and professional, and that image will be undermined if they blatantly engage with misogynist and populist vitriol. However, highlighting individual female journalists or scholars and linking feminist movements (and other social movements related to marginalized groups) to intervention by “foreign forces” have become their go-to strategies.

RHK: Misogynistic, nationalistic abuse from digital vigilantes is a worldwide phenomenon, and harassment of women in the media is commonplace globally. But what is it about the situation in China that you believe is unique or notable? When you write about patriotism being a universal good that precedes other values, for instance, is that is something particular to — or particularly strong in — the PRC’s current political climate?

QH: First of all, I think you are right to say that this is a global phenomenon, and I see more similarities than differences in how these discourses form among populist nationalist groups in different countries. However, these discourses and sentiments are more mainstream in China, exactly because of the current political climate where nationalism and anti-west sentiments are not only condoned but also promoted by the state.

RHK: Do you see any way out of this cycle whereby, as you put it, “gendered identity gets shaped through a nationalist discourse which, in turn, (re)produces a nationalist identity”? Due to their intersectional nature, is it imperative that misogyny and nationalism be addressed in tandem?

QH: I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think that it is very hard for us to change the current power structure and dominant ideologies, but I still want to believe that we can bring some changes.

It is imperative to address misogyny and nationalism together because nationalism is always patriarchal.

I completely agree with you that it is imperative to address misogyny and nationalism together because nationalism is always patriarchal. To do that, we should promote individual narratives instead of grand narratives; we should complicate the discourses on social media platforms with various types of storytelling, bringing nuances back to public discussions. However, the fundamental solution should still come from the structure level, for which I don’t have a solution and I’m rather pessimistic about it. I hope I can get closer to that answer in my future research. 

China’s ‘Xivilizing’ Mission

For anyone with an enduring relationship with China, the stock phrase “5,000 years of Chinese civilization” (中华文明五千年) sits somewhere between familiarity and semantic satiation. And while historians may question that number — which includes the rule of legendary god-kings — as well as the assumption China’s history has been uniquely continuous, there can be little doubt that Chinese today are the inheritors of an ancient and magnificent civilization.

Perhaps that is why, when Xi Jinping proposed the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) in March, the word at its center raised few eyebrows. But the same cannot be said about “Xivilization,” a portmanteau of “civilization” and Xi’s name coined by the nationalist Global Times tabloid for a new series promoting the GCI.

“Xivilization” is yet to catch on outside the pages of the Global Times. But it may be the pithiest way suggested so far to capture the real assertions being made behind the scenes of Xi’s GCI.

In his speech pitching the GCI to the leaders from political parties from around the world, Xi said “the Chinese Communist Party is committed to promoting the progress of human civilization,” and called Chinese-Style Modernization — another Xi neologism — “a new form of human civilization.” Chinese-Style Modernization, a piece in the Party’s flagship theoretical journal gushed, “represents the developmental direction for [all] human civilization.”

Global Times debuts “Xivilization.” Will it catch on?

Proclamations like these make it clear that Xi Jinping is no longer considered merely an inheritor or even protector of a great civilization, but the creator of one, too.

‘Civilization’ Comes to China

Despite the long history of civilization in China, the history of the word “civilization” itself is surprisingly short. Like the Chinese for “telephone” or “constitution,” the word for “civilization” in Chinese, wenming (文明), acquired its current meaning through the Japanese translations of European texts made during the island nation’s drive to learn from West during the Meiji-era (1868-1912).

Even then, however, “civilization” and the idea it represented were new to most Europeans as well. When it entered the English lexicon from French it met with stiff resistance from Samuel Johnson, who argued, in compiling his dictionary of the English language, that the word “culture” was perfectly sufficient. What Johnson had failed to grasp, however, was something Chinese thinkers had entertained for centuries. “Civilization” did not merely denote “culture” (wenhua 文化) but a particular, higher stage of culture: one that is more technologically and socially advanced and that crushes other, inferior cultures that stand in its way.

Every nation has culture — only a few have civilization.

In a way, this dynamic was hardly new to the territories we today know as China. As far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907), insulting epithets were being lobbed at those who did not conform to Confucian elites’ criteria for “civilization,” such as having a written language and walled settlements and practicing agriculture. Despite conquering Taiwan in 1683, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) chose not to govern most of the island until the twilight of their reign, since the territories still dominated by indigenous Taiwanese were considered “beyond civilization” (化外).

Despite the long history of civilization in China, the history of the word “civilization” itself is surprisingly short.

This, however, points to what differentiated these historical and contemporary conceptions of civilization. As Chinese empires expanded and people in frontier territories acquired cultural characteristics, the process of becoming Chinese was equated with becoming civilized. Although China already had words that conveyed the notion of civilization, they were all, as historian Wang Gungwu notes, Sinocentric — the idea of a universal ideal of civilization was a much later import.

The modern reinvention of wenming changed everything. It posited the idea that one could produce a single set of criteria for “civilization” for all of humankind. And, most unsettlingly, it raised the specter that the Chinese themselves might be “civilized” by militarily— and perhaps even culturally — superior outsiders.

The Four Civilizations

Throughout the Republican Era (1911-1949), debates about civilization spilled across the pages of the young nation’s newspapers. Commentators described a “clash of civilizations” (文明衝突) that characterized the fraught relations between China and Western countries and proposed that there were two opposing forms of civilization: the material and the spiritual.

China boasts a “developed spiritual civilization,” we read in Awakening (覺悟), a supplement to the Kuomintang-founded Republic of China Daily (國民日報), while the West is a “developed material civilization.” This duality reflected the paradigm of “adopting Western knowledge for its practical uses while keeping Chinese values as the core” (中體西用) favored by late-Qing reformers.

On a list of “Chinese National Slogans” published by Shanghai’s Shen Bao on October 27, 1937, number one reads: “The light comes from the East, striking down utilitarian Western civilization and bringing out the glory of our Eastern spiritual civilization!”

This material-versus-spiritual civilizational discourse, so in-vogue in the pre-war decades, made a dramatic comeback in the post-Mao Reform and Opening-up era. But instead of pitting “the East” and “the West” against one another, it put forward the spiritual and material as two parallel tracts running within a single civilization.

In order to achieve “balanced development” (平衡的发展) as his market reforms pushed China further and further from Marxist orthodoxy, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping resurrected the binary framework of the “Two Civilizations” (两个文明): Material Civilization (物质文明) and Spiritual Civilization (精神文明). The former represented the improving living conditions of the people and the latter their allegedly faltering moral character. To reach a positive relationship between the two was to reconcile capitalist development with Communist doctrine.

Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, eagerly embraced the notion of spiritual civilization. But whereas Deng had grounded the term in socialist ideology, Jiang festooned it in the cultural nationalism that was promoted in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown to bolster regime legitimacy. “Spiritual civilization” became a byword for traditional cultural values, an avatar for the emerging struggle between globalization and nationalism in the age of China’s 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization.

At the CCP’s 16th national congress in 2002, however, Jiang broke the neat “two civilization” duality to introduce a third civilization: “Political Civilization” (政治文明). The construction of a “Socialist Spiritual Civilization” (社会精神文明) was also declared a precondition for achieving the overarching goal of a “well-off society” (小康社会). The equation was knocked off-balance but it raised hopes for deepening political reform, since the idea that political systems had to be “civilized” suggested room for reflection and improvement for the Party itself.

A display outside Tangshan’s railway station celebrates its status as a “civilized city.”

Soon “civilization” was everywhere, at no time more ubiquitous nationwide than in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. Up and down the country, propaganda posters lined the streets extolling “civilized cities,” “civilized districts,” “civilized work units,” and “civilized households.”

The mania for national self-civilization exemplified how “civilization” was understood to be both a human grouping as well as a historical process, and also how the Communist Party sought to rebrand itself from a revolutionary vanguard to an elite circle. The CCP, wrote Nicholas Dynon, was “recreated as a party which finds its legitimacy not on the basis of class credentials but on the basis of civilizational superiority.”

Talk of building a “Socialist Spiritual Civilization” thinned out under Hu Jintao, but the “civilizing” mission lived on — both in a domestic imperative to raise population “quality,” aimed primarily at ethnic minorities and rural migrants, and a growing sense that Chinese entrepreneurs, officials, and workers abroad were taking up the torch of the global modernizing mission once championed by Euro-American powers. Pál Nyíri observed how Beijing’s narratives “combine trade, investment, labor export, migration, and development aid with distinctly civilizational overtones.” And while the desire to “civilize” its subjects characterizes the modern nation-state in general, Nyíri notes that, unlike the Western colonial case, China’s internal and external “civilizing” missions are being run in tandem.

Considering Hu’s concept of the “harmonious society” (和谐社会), his addition of a fourth, “Social Civilization” (社会文明) is unsurprising. Like the harmonious society, “Social Civilization” was an attempt to paper over the widening divisions in Chinese society, between the winners and losers of the country’s breakneck industrialization and urbanization. While Hu’s concept lacked the rhetorical strength or staying power of earlier “civilizations,” it showed how deeply entrenched and yet endlessly malleable the idea of “civilization” had become in the political life of the CCP.

Every leader was now expected to create their own “civilization” — and they could attach it to virtually anything they wanted.

Age of Xivilization

When Xi Jinping’s transition to power began in 2012, China was still riding a wave of awestruck international perceptions built around the notion that the emerging superpower was something greater than a nation — it was a civilization.

The “clash of civilizations” hypothesis in a 1947 edition of the Republic of China Daily.

Throughout the 2000s, Chinese translations of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order filled bookstore shelves and street side carts flogging bootleg printouts. The American scholar’s theory that the wars of the future would pit loosely-defined “civilizations” rather than nations against one another found an eager readership in the People’s Republic, and neatly dovetailed with the idea of China as a “civilization-state” popularized in Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World (2009) and the work of Fudan University political scientist Zhang Weiwei (张维为).

A little over a decade later, this zeitgeist has not aged well. The notion of the People’s Republic as a singularly harmonious and tolerant “civilization-state” seems farcical in Xi Jinping’s China: one that is increasingly nationalistic, outwardly aggressive, and inwardly repressive.

Jacques’ argument that China possesses an unparalleled capacity for plurality hinged on the existence of the “one country, two systems” formula preserving Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy. That equation no longer meaningfully exists in Xi’s China, which has crushed the territory’s civil society and its free press, effectively banned protests, removed any meaningful elections, and jailed or exiled nearly every prominent member of the political opposition.

Zhang’s big idea, meanwhile, was evinced by China’s benevolent treatment of its “ethnic minorities” — questionable even before Xi’s campaign of mass incarceration for Uyghurs and other non-Han peoples in the far-west — and frictionless relations with its neighbors, which now spew sparks regularly as Beijing presses its claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Every leader was expected to create their own “civilization” — and they could attach it to virtually anything they wanted.

But where Xi has torn down previous leaders’ civilizational pillars, he is now building anew. While he has yet to formally add a fifth civilization to the pantheon built by his predecessors, his “New Form of Human Civilization” (人类文明新形态) effectively constitutes just that.

Red Flag (红旗文稿), a bi-monthly magazine published by the CCP’s flagship journal Qiushi, ties Xi’s thought to previous “civilizations” (although retconning the contributions of lesser leaders Jiang and Hu), proclaiming that it “harmonizes Material and Spiritual Civilization.” Whereas previous incarnations communicated who deserved to wield power at home, however, Xi is more concerned with who wields power on the international stage.

Civilizational Values

The rhetorical flourishes of CCP-speak can form a fast and dazzling tapestry, and yet they all share a common thread. Whether it’s Deng’s Spiritual Civilization, Jiang’s Political Civilization, or Xi’s New Form of Human Civilization, the base logic behind these fanciful terms is the raw assertion of power and legitimacy.

China has made its rejection of universal values well-known. The well of resentment toward any criticism levied at Beijing, particularly for its human rights record, runs deep; and unlike its supposed rival, the US-led Summit for Democracy, the GCI is envisioned as a club in which members are expected to mind their own business.

“People need to keep an open mind in appreciating how different civilizations perceive values, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others,” the State Council Information Office (SCIO) wrote in a piece celebrating the GCI. This alternative vision of value systems can be looked at in opposition to the universal values espoused by the CCP’s critics — a form of “civilizational values” that is informed by national conditions and not subject to criticism by anyone.

Xi’s “New Form of Human Civilization” is formalized in the headline of a People’s Daily editorial.

Xi Jinping’s “New Form of Human Civilization” is therefore one in which individuals’ rights are immaterial but nation-states’ rights are inviolable; wherein states’ treatment of their people is not open to scrutiny from within or without.

This latest contribution to China’s civilizatory discourse continues a pattern of discussion and reformulation that, as we have seen, goes back well over a century. But it is also, paradoxically, deaf to this process. Instead of building upon the established discourse, Xi — not unlike his predecessors — merely attaches its gravitas to a self-serving policy, giving grand, civilizational airs to what amounts a worldwide carte blanche for his administration.

All this brings us back to Samuel Johnson and his failure to grasp the difference between good, old-fashioned “culture” and this newfangled “civilization.” Why was the Global Civilization Initiative not called the Global Culture Initiative instead, and why did the SCIO not simply write about appreciating different cultural values?

Culture is understood as an expression of a community, bubbling from the bottom up. It is, by its nature, as changeable as any individual or community. Civilizations are superior to cultures, according to the logic that created this discourse, because they are capable of regimenting vast societies through the exercise of power. Cultural values are open to debate by all members of that culture, but civilizational values are whatever the civilizers — or, indeed, “Xivilizers” — tell us they are.

CCP or CPC: A China Watchers’ Rorschach

On a cold January evening in 1931, He Yeduo (贺页朵) pledged his life to the Chinese Communist Party. The 45-year-old Jiangxi peasant was barely literate, but at the oath-swearing ceremony on a Red Army base in the Jinggang Mountains, the “cradle of the Chinese revolution,” he took out a piece of red cloth and began writing.

A quarter of the Chinese characters he wrote, professing his faith to the then-embattled and apparently doomed guerrilla forces in his native province, were misspelled. But at the top of the cloth, now regarded as a divine relic of the revolution, are three perfectly formed letters, the name of the organization he would die for: “C.C.P.”

Nine decades later, these three letters have become an unacceptable slur to many supporters of He’s beloved Chinese Communist Party.

On state-run CCTV’s Win at the Museum, a child recounts the heroic tale behind He Yeduo’s oath.

Acronym Acrimony

“CCP”s fall from the sacred to the profane can be cataloged by an emerging discourse in pro-CCP online circles demanding foreign scholars, journalists, politicians, and everyday internet users defer to the more recent translation currently favored by the Party: the “Communist Party of China,” or “CPC.”

Nationalist tabloid the Global Times suggested in December 2022 that the word “Chinese” is a racist dog whistle. A 2021 article in Australia’s Canberra Times argued that the acronym CCP makes the “racist” and “ludicrous” suggestion that “all [Chinese] share the same political beliefs” — a suggestion that the Party itself, which routinely claims to enjoy the “wholehearted support of all Chinese people,” may not find so offensive, if it were being made at all. Across social media platforms, the CCP’s supporters have also taken to branding those who write “CCP” as anti-China, and thereby fair game for mockery or disregard.

Interestingly, however, Chinese-language accounts from state media and even the Party itself do not share the same venom over this — for some, anyway — emotionally charged debate. A post from the Communist Party’s official CPC News ( website describes the distinction between the two acronyms as such:

Both CPC and CCP refer to the Communist Party of China — it’s merely that the officially recognized wording domestically is CPC… Some foreign media continue to use CCP […] but that doesn’t mean that every article using CCP is negative and every article using CPC is positive; whether it is negative or positive depends upon the specifics of its content.

The terminally-online acrimony over acronyms may be recent but the distinction itself, as the article explains, is not. According to official accounts, the Party made the move from CCP to CPC 80 years ago.

A Historic Reshuffle

“Overthrow the power of the capitalist class,” “eradicate capitalism,” and “join the Comintern”: these were part of the First Program passed by the Chinese Communist Party on the day it was founded in the French Concession of Shanghai on July 21, 1921.

The third item should hardly come as a surprise. Two agents of the Communist International, also known as the Third International, were present at the clandestine meeting and had been instrumental in organizing it. In the CCP’s early years, the Comintern’s Far Eastern Bureau had a profound — and welcome — influence on the Party. At the time, Communists the world over saw themselves as members of a single, global political movement with its central nervous system in Moscow.

Soviet guidance ensured that Leninism beat out more popular schools of leftist thinking such as anarchism. It also pushed the Communists into a tenuous United Front with the Kuomintang. But as time went on, patience with these European advisors wore thin, and a “native Communist” faction stressing the Sinification of Marxism and peasant revolution rose to prominence under Mao Zedong.

The Long March from the Jinggang Mountains to the dugouts of Yan’an was a key moment in this power struggle, with Mao’s guerrilla warfare strategy emerging triumphant from the Zunyi Conference. The influence of the Comintern agents and their Soviet-trained allies was still alive, but just barely. The death blow came in 1943, at the same moment as we are told the change from CCP to CPC occurred.

An article in the Southeastern Daily (東南日報) describes how, after the dissolution of the Third International, “Comintern members returned to their home countries to fight for leadership of their domestic communist parties” and “declared they were fighting for the national interest and no longer took orders from Moscow.”

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union meant that Moscow joined the side of the Allies in 1941, and it would not do for the Comintern to be actively fomenting revolution in the countries the USSR now fought beside. Many Communists had already been driven away by the pressures to enable Naziism at the expense of their countries in the years of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and on May 15, 1943, the sword dropped: The Third International officially dissolved. The workers of the world had to find their own way.

The demise of the Third International made Mao’s triumph all but a fait accompli: Wang Ming (王明), his Moscow-trained main rival, was cut off from his base of support; China was forced to forge ahead with its own revolution on its own terms; and a cult of personality coalesced around the newly christened “Chairman” Mao. It was a political earthquake for China, but the tremors were felt all around the world.

In the ensuing scramble out of Moscow’s shadow, communist parties the world over created new identities for themselves. The Chinese Communist Party was one of them, rechristening itself, so the official histories say, the Communist Party of China. CPC News again:

From the perspective of linguistic analysis […] “of China” is more focused on the Party’s property of “belonging to China,” emphasizing this subordinate relationship. “Chinese” means “related to China,” focusing more on the properties of it being a Communist Party, which weakens its subordinate relationship to China.

Apparatchiks’ desire to nominally distance themselves from the Comintern and foreground their national identity is understandable. Many other communist parties were doing the same. But their unique “linguistic analysis” presents a more impenetrable logic.

Indeed, every other major communist party rebranding themselves for this same reason in 1943 moved in the other direction, taking their home country from the backs of their names to the most important position according to their own “linguistic analysis”: the front.

Thus in 1943 the Communist Party of Italy became the Italian Communist Party and the French Section of the Communist International became the French Communist Party. When West Germany’s Communists regrouped in the 1960s they also changed their party’s name from the Communist Party of Germany to the German Communist Party. In all these cases, too, the new English names were incidental to the new names in their native tongues. The CCP, uniquely, only changed the official English translation of its name. In Chinese, it is the same today as it was in 1921: 中国共产党 (literally, “China Communist Party”).

Consistently Inconsistent

Some scholars question this official account that the switch from CCP to CPC occurred as early as 1943, noting the persistence of “CCP” in official language for decades thereafter.

“[CCP] is what I first encountered when I read Peking Review in the 1960s, and later when I read English translations of the Chinese Party’s attacks on the Soviets in the 1950s,” says Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé. “Then there were the Nine Critiques of the 1960s, translated at the time into English as well. That’s just to mention just a few. So the line about 1943 is nice enough, but from my experience not accurate.”

The “Chinese Communist Party” lives on in an October, 1985 edition of the Beijing Review.

And even if the official translation did change in 1943, it is clear that the change was not strictly enforced, nor imbued with any special ideological significance, for many years. Perusing the publications collected by the Marxists Internet Archives, including both officially sanctioned periodicals from Beijing as well as independent leftist organizations from around the world, presents a disorienting picture.

Some use “CCP” and “CPC” interchangeably in the same breath. Some write of the “Communist Party of China (CCP)” while others refer to the “Chinese Communist Party (CPC),” mixing the acronyms and full names with wild abandon. For decades, the two have been used by Beijing’s supporters and critics alike with no evident prejudice. Indeed as recently as 2016, the official translation of Xi Jinping’s speech marking the 95th anniversary of the Party’s founding, supplied by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, refers to the “Chinese Communist Party” precisely 100 times.

For decades, CCP and CPC were used interchangeably in foreign publications friendly to Beijing.

Considering the enduring confusion, it comes as no surprise that the messages put forward by different organs of the party-state are not only inconsistent but even contradictory. The Party itself says “CPC” is superior because it emphasizes the Party’s Chineseness, while the Global Times argues “CCP” is racist because it emphasizes the Party’s Chineseness.

Attaching minor points of language with immense importance comes naturally to the world of Chinese statecraft. State media strictly forbid use of the phrase “mainland China” in favor of “the Chinese mainland,” for example, because they believe the former is a “Western language trap” laid by cunning foreigners to lure unsuspecting Chinese into implying that there is a non-mainland China as well, and by extension more than One China. Native English speakers would likely be shocked to learn that by using the phrase “mainland China” they are, according to Beijing, making a bold statement about the legitimacy of the Republic of China government. (Never mind that the phrase is considered anachronistically pro-unification on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and now is typically replaced with, simply, “China.”)

This paranoia and obsession with establishing the correct “subordinate” relationships through language has been a hallmark of Chinese mandarins since dynastic times. It can be traced back to the Confucian concept of the “rectification of names” (正名), which posits that without names that correctly correspond to reality, social order will disintegrate. Supercharged by Marxist-Leninist dogmatism and all communist parties’ obsession with maintaining a “politically correct” party line, however, it is not entirely ancient — and nor is it uniquely a product of Chinese political culture. Proponents of the CCP from far and wide have likewise latched onto the CCP vs CPC dichotomy is a litmus test for whom they can trust.

Much Ink Spilled

Geremie Barmé compares this high-octane, low-stakes argument to the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: a debate with no practical value or intellectual consequence, serving only to distract from more urgent concerns. But another way we can conceive of this (non-)issue is as a sort of Rorschach test for observers of China.

Like the test’s inkblots, the decision to write “CCP” or “CPC” has, by the Party’s own admission, no intrinsic meaning — but how one imposes one’s own meanings upon the two can yield insights into one’s ideological biases. Those who see the common-usage “CCP” as an anti-China dog whistle betray their determination to perform obeisance to Beijing and attack its critics’ characters by any means; those who see “CPC” as the badge of a fanatic Communist acolyte similarly betray their own McCarthyite mission to ferret out the apocryphal “reds under the bed.”

Instead of focusing on who uses which acronym, the rest of us would do better to look at who professes to care that much.

On National Humiliation, Don’t Mention the Russians

The enduring zeitgeist of Chinese “wolf warrior diplomacy” has created an atmosphere wherein nationalistic outbursts and calls for retribution are not only welcome but rewarded. But as Shanghai TV personality Zhou Libo recently discovered, not all calls to relive national glory are welcome.

On the eve of President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the stand-up comedian and China’s Got Talent judge was banned from social media platforms Weibo and Toutiao for suggesting in a post that Xi’s “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” should include recovering land ceded to Russia in the 19th century. While calls to “take back” other lost Qing possessions like Taiwan are staples of Chinese nationalism, Zhou’s case shows that such revanchist rhetoric gets a frosty reception on the country’s Siberian frontier.

Zhou Libo’s post lambasting Putin’s Chinese sycophants and demanding the return of territories lost to Russia.

Despite the trembling induced in some Western observers by the sight of Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin gliding toward one another in the Kremlin’s gilded halls, censors have had their work cut out for them keeping the bad blood between these two on-again, off-again rivals from bubbling to the surface.

A Most Unequal Treaty

In what has become known as the Amur Annexation, the Qing court ceded over one million square kilometers of land along its northeast frontier to Tsarist Russia between 1858 and 1860. Foisted upon a desperate dynasty as it was ripped asunder by the Taiping Civil War and assailed by Britain and France in the Second Opium War, the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Convention of Peking were two of the most egregious of the infamous “unequal treaties” that Beijing was compelled to sign with belligerent foreign powers.

Qing territorial losses in these treaties were 12,700 times that of the original unequal treaty ceding Hong Kong Island to Great Britain in 1842. At a time when wars were decided by sea power, it also completely sealed off China from the strategic Sea of Japan. On the ground, the integration of these newly Russian territories was a chaotic and often bloody process: As many as 5,000 Qing subjects were killed in the 1900 Blagoveshchensk Massacre when local Russian authorities, fearing a spread of the anti-foreign Boxer Uprising, forced them to cross the border at the Amur River, with most drowning in the attempt or being cut down as they tried to flee. Later under Stalin, thousands of ethnic Chinese living in the Russian Far East were forcibly deported, in many cases to forced labor camps in the Arctic.

A September, 1930 edition of the Kuomintang-published Huabei Ribao rails against the Russian authorities’ physical violence and property theft against ethnic Chinese forcibly removed from territories lost in 1858-60.

These incidents are not entirely forgotten but rank low on the Western- and Japanese-dominated pantheon of national humiliations used to boost patriotism and bolster regime legitimacy. Whereas the retrocession of British Hong Kong and the taking of Taiwan — two much smaller possessions ceded in Qing-era unequal treaties — are considered sacrosanct milestones for the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation,” the area known now as Outer Manchuria is politely overlooked.

One consideration may be how the Amur Annexation undermines a key pillar of nationalist storytelling: Far from immutable entities with borders unaltered “since ancient times” (自古以来), the Qing and Tsarist domains were contemporaneous, competing imperial projects that experienced rapid expansion in the modern era.

Long before Royal Navy gunboats steamed up the Pearl River Delta, Qing officials signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, fixing the inter-imperial border with the Tsardom as its eastward drive march across Siberia ran up against the nascent Chinese dynasty’s own push northward through the ancestral Jurchen homelands previously considered beyond the pale. The first treaty signed by the Qing with a Western nation, Nerchinsk was also regarded as an unequal one signed under military duress— but only by Russian accounts, in a dynamic that would later be reversed as the Qing declined and Russia shored up its position in the far east.

Taming Nationalist Discourse

It is hard to tell which drew censors’ ire more: Zhou’s invocation to reclaim Outer Manchuria or his criticism of Chinese who fawn over “Emperor Putin” and refer to Russians by the cringey moniker “the martial race” (战斗民族). “Why are there always some Chinese who inexplicably send such kind words to Russia?” the post asked. “Do you still see Russia as your father? Friendship is fine, but flattery is not.”

Zhou’s social media ban also came amid a renewed campaign by internet censors to “strike hard” against bloggers and live-streamers who post unauthorized content. On March 12, China’s Cyberspace Administration pledged to crack down on “rumormongering” by citizen journalists and to “win the online ideological struggle and maintain national security and political security.”

A March 12 notice on the Cyberspace Administration of China website pledges to “severely punish” self-published media.

This episode is far from the first time that boisterous patriots have found themselves in the crosshairs after overstepping the mark. Anti-Japanese demonstrations that erupted in response to Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 2012 were eventually suppressed by riot police when property damage escalated and protesters began targeting the central government itself for not taking a sufficiently hard line against Tokyo. In 2021, a viral video calling for China to drop atomic bombs on Japan, should it come to Taiwan’s aid, was also removed from social media platforms — though only after it was shared by Chinese officials and amassed millions of views.

The window of acceptable discourse takes on very different dimensions depending on whether one is looking out over the East China Sea or the Siberian taiga. In the case of the former, talk of restoring imperial borders is familiar to the point that it has become mere background noise; the latter, however, provides a sobering vision of what happens when such “historical claims” are applied evenly and taken to their logical, bloody conclusions.

Reflecting and Projecting

Beijing’s increasingly asymmetric partnership with Moscow has rekindled speculation on whether China will push for the return of the vast tracts of land lost in the Amur Annexation. The punishment meted out to Zhou Libo for calling for just this is an indication of how unlikely such demands are to receive official backing, but the incident as a whole plays out like a satire of revanchism, exposing the fantasy of returning to a glorious past when what is and is not China’s was determined once and forevermore.

While history is often seen as what Song Dynasty scholar Sima Guang (司马光) termed a “comprehensive mirror” to better perceive the present, the unequal treatment allotted to the unequal treaties shows that the way we look back at the past is just as much a reflection of present exigencies. Sino-Russian partnership might have “no limits” according to the statement signed by Xi and Putin at their last tête-à-tête just days before the Ukraine invasion, but it does have a shelf life.

The Ins and Outs of the China Daily USA

The clacking of keyboards; a cacophony of ringing telephones; and the distant whirring of a printing press: such are the sights and sounds of the newsroom in the public’s imagination. Outdated though these may be, they still reveal the enduring priorities for any journalistic organization: writing, news gathering, and publishing.

So where does that leave a group like China Daily USA, one of the key overseas bases for the English-language daily newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party’s “Central Leading Group on Foreign Propaganda” (中央对外宣传小组)? According to its latest filings to the US government, the paper makes no profit, spends little on reporting, and outsources printing to major American newspapers in the markets where editions are distributed.

Between June and October 2022, China Daily USA brought in just over 102,000 dollars in advertising profits and a mere 13,000 dollars from subscriptions. The lion’s share of “revenue”— about 98 percent—came in the form of a handout totaling over five million dollars direct from China Daily headquarters in Beijing. For perspective, subscriptions and advertising accounted for 67 percent and 23 percent of revenues for The New York Times, respectively, in 2022, according to the latest annual report from the paper of record.

Subscription revenues for China Daily USA, at just 13,546.25 for the period, are barely visible.

During the same six-month period, China Daily USA spent 604,974 dollars on payroll expenses to its stateside staff but well over twice that amount on “advertisement expenses” paid out to publications including TIME, Foreign Policy, USA Today, the Financial Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

This is a staggering amount to spend on advertising in an industry generally expected to make money from advertising. The picture gets more curious when one considers how the ads China Daily USA buys are designed to masquerade as news.

Most if not all of the payments to major US newspapers labelled as advertising in the latest filing would have paid for the printing and placement of the news-like “China Watch” supplement — eight pages of flattering coverage of the Chinese leadership and its policies designed to pass as legitimate reporting by virtue of its insertion inside the pages of trusted US news sources. While these supplements are labelled as “advertisements” by the host papers, it is left to US readers themselves to recognize them for what they are: state-sponsored propaganda.

While the government’s Information Office — the preferred global face for the “Central Leading Group on Foreign Propaganda” — has explicitly stated that the paper is “one of our most important tools in carrying out external propaganda,” China Daily has maintained the fiction that it is about factual reporting. In its 2014 media kit, the newspaper called itself simply “a global media with an Asia focus.” It referred to its advertising relationships with foreign newspapers for the “China Watch” supplement as “partnerships.”

An example of a “China Watch” piece published in The Wall Street Journal.

In the global development section of its official website, China Daily boasts that “China Watch” reaches 4 million “high-end readers” through its “diversified cooperation with over 40 media organizations worldwide, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, etc.”

But all of these “high-end” publications have since stopped accepting sponsored content from the Chinese government, with these transactions coming under greater scrutiny from authorities and readers who have felt deceived by the content’s presentation. The deals have generally been rescinded quietly and without comment by the papers involved. But when a group of major Australlian newspapers pulled out of the agreement in 2020, political editor Chris Uhlmann said he found it “extremely disturbing […] that Communist Party propaganda has the apparent endorsement of an Australian media organization.”

Printing sites for the China Daily USA, mapped on the basis of FARA filing data for payments to printing facilities.

Details of the ins and outs of China Daily USA are publicly available thanks to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government to register with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and file public reports disclosing their budgets and expenditures. 

After languishing in obscurity for decades, a diplomatic furor erupted around the World War II-era law in 2017 when the Trump administration required journalists with Chinese state media in the US to register as foreign agents. A report to Congress accused Chinese state media entities of involvement in spying and propaganda and recommended their US-based staff be required to register as foreign agents. China Daily has been designated as a foreign agent since 1983, although only its top executives had been obligated to individually disclose their work for the publication prior to this point, and before 2012 itemized financial statements for their “China Watch” advertisements were not provided to the DOJ.

Australia introduced its own Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, modeled on FARA, in 2018, while in the United Kingdom, a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme has been introduced to Parliament through an amendment to the National Security Bill. Blind spots remain in some regions such as Europe but are also being eliminated elsewhere in response to growing concerns about Beijing’s influence. After intelligence reports of Chinese election “meddling” were leaked earlier this month, Canada opened a public consultation on its own version of a foreign influence transparency registry.

The Chinese Communist Party’s “Central Leading Group on Foreign Propaganda” listed as the “department in charge” of China Daily in corporate records.

Hardening attitudes toward Beijing clearly have not been stymied by the millions spent to bolster China’s image through state-sponsored content like “China Watch.” US perceptions of China have fallen off a cliff over the past four years, with a record-low 15 percent of Americans viewing China favorably in the latest Gallup polling—19 points lower than the lows hit during the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

With nearly all of China Daily USA’s inflow coming directly from the Party’s Propaganda Department and the vast majority of that ending up in the coffers of publications still willing to promote their message to potentially unsuspecting readers, how should one characterize the nature of this organization?

Their revenue sources make it clear they are not a viable business. How these revenues are then used shows they are not primarily a journalistic operation, either. If the skeuomorphs of the American newsroom are the mechanical keyboard and rotary phone, China Daily USA’s can be imagined as a deluge of cash and coins gushing noisily into a funnel, never to be seen again.

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