Author: Stella Chen

Stella Chen joined the China Media Project in 2021 as a senior researcher, responsible for daily CMP research and monitoring of the Chinese media and internet landscape. Stella has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Manchester, UK.

Generational Changes for Disaster Reporting

Last month brought the 14-year anniversary of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, an unprecedented disaster that tested the limits of censorship and the professional capacity of a new generation of Chinese journalists. Each year the anniversary of the quake on May 12 is commemorated in China’s media, with special tributes as well as follow-up reports on how communities impacted by the quake are thriving today.

But for many of the hundreds of Chinese reporters who reported from the scene in Sichuan, the anniversary of the quake is a reminder that they have now left important work behind as the pressures on professional journalism in China have grown.

In a post commemorating the anniversary of the quake this year, the WeChat official account “Media Training Camp” (传媒特训营) reached out to Chinese journalists who reported on the disaster 14 years ago. The post, “Those journalists who covered the Wenchuan earthquake have all essentially changed professions,” was just the latest in a number of posts in recent years that have taken the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the state of the journalism profession in China today, as well as the role of the media in disaster reporting.

Volunteers on the Front Lines

One of the reporters profiled in the “Media Training Camp” post, Feng Xiang (冯翔), was working as a senior reporter for a metropolitan news outlet in the northeastern city of Shenyang at the time of the earthquake. As news of the quake reached Shenyang, Feng remembers constantly reading early reports in which the projected death toll seemed to rise and rise. He thought of The Great Tangshan Earthquake (唐山大地震), the seminal work of reportage by writer (and CMP co-director) Qian Gang, a book that detailed the only earthquake in China’s recent history with a comparable scale of devastation.

Feng’s newspaper did not immediately dispatch reporters to the scene. In fact, there had been an explicit prohibition early on from the Central Propaganda Department instructing media not to send reporters but to rely instead on official news releases. But a few days after the quake, Feng’s paper began doing what many other media across the country were doing – it sent reporters to Sichuan imbedded with various rescue and response teams or other groups. Some, for example, might join firefighting brigades while others went along with medical teams.

“I went as part of a volunteer group, taking a few other volunteers along,” Feng recalled. “[We] went a bit later, so we didn’t see the most tragic scenes, and were mostly involved in subsequent follow-ups.”

When Feng and the volunteers arrived, they realized local media and officials were completely unprepared to help coordinate their activities, so they had to improvise based on what they encountered. “We would help elderly people set up their tents, for example, or help transport the injured, that kind of thing,” Feng recalled. “Along the way I wrote some reports, and aside from those, I also reported on the progress of provincial rescue and rebuilding efforts, and about certain things and people that had become famous due to the quake.”

The trip to Sichuan was Feng’s first, and many things made a deep impression in him, he told “Media Training Camp,” including the natural beauty of the province and the resilience of the people. But one of the most enduring impacts on journalists, said Feng, was a tempering of their idealism as simple narratives of tragedy and heroism were complicated by revelations in the media.

Screenshot of the “Media Training Camp” post showing Feng Xiang interviewing earthquake survivors.

“I never expected all of the surprises that came later,” said Feng. He noted, for example, the subsequent discovery – thanks to media reporting – that certain exemplary figures upheld during the earthquake response had been faked, and that some officials given credit during the quake were ultimately removed for their role in shoddy construction or other forms of corruption.

In the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, hard-nosed reporting by ambitious professional news outlets such as Caijing and Southern Weekly, as well as investigations by civil society, were instrumental in bringing many of the systemic errors behind the disaster to light.

“After seeing these things happen, those of us journalists who witnessed the disaster first-hand from the start also underwent a change,” said Feng. “We were no longer so hot-blooded and idealistic, and we had a better understanding of human nature and the current state of our country.”

Enlisted in the Official Narrative

In some cases, the idealism and professionalism of journalists heading to the front lines following the Wenchuan earthquake were tested by the demand that they be complicit in government messaging. In 2018, marking the ten-year anniversary of the quake, journalist Zhao Jiayue (赵佳月), who reported for Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily (南方日报) during the disaster, told her own such story on her WeChat official account.

Zhao described how, once back from the site of the quake, where she had seen the devastation in places like Yingxiu first-hand, she was presented by the government in Guangdong as a “model” (典型) for the earthquake response. She had to constantly deliver related propaganda reports to officials – “preaching like Aunt Xianglin,” she said, referring to a famous character from modern Chinese fiction who performs her grief again and again. She was obliged to deliver Powerpoint presentations, crying when tears were called for, and clapping when applause was called for.

These experiences, both the reporting of the disaster and its manipulation, had a strong psychological impact on many of the journalists who went to Sichuan. By 2018, Zhao and her husband, a news photographer, had been out of journalism for several years, opening a small bed and breakfast.

“Of that first batch of journalists who rushed to the epicenter to report on the earthquake 10 years ago, almost all have chosen different career paths now, and investigative journalism has almost completely disappeared,” Zhao wrote.

The loss of in-depth reporting and investigation had to do partly with the controls exercise by the authorities. But another thread in the story was the broader change brought about by the decline of traditional outlets and the rise of new digital platforms, such as the so-called “self-media” (自媒体), that prioritized clicks over reported substance. “All scenes of vividness, urgency and tragedy in cases of disaster are buried these days in the 100,000+ likes received by articles marketed through self-media,” Zhao wrote.

Moving On from Journalism

Another reporter from the frontlines of the 2008 earthquake, Lin Tianhong (林天宏), also remembered the quake as a heyday for in-depth and investigative journalism in China. In an interview three years ago with Q Daily (好奇心日报), a digital publication that was shuttered in November 2020 owing to commercial and political troubles, Lin explained how he was sent to Sichuan shortly after the quake to report for the

China Youth Daily (中国青年报) newspaper.

As Lin made his way toward the township of Yingxiu (映秀镇), a town near the epicenter that had been hit especially hard, he came across groups of people fleeing the town. Among them was a middle-aged man carrying a teenager across his shoulder. Lin offered to help the man carry the boy, but the man simply said: “It’s ok, he’s my son and he is dead.”

Based on this encounter, Lin wrote a feature story for Freezing Point (冰点), a well-regarded supplement of the paper, called “Going Home” (回家). “Through the limited 30-year span of my living, I had accumulated some understanding of life, and some reverence for death,” Lin wrote in the story. “But I suddenly realized that this had collapsed, just as had the shattered ruins before me.”

Lin Tianhong’s feature story was a huge success, stirring readers across the country and winning him several journalism awards.

Lin Tianhong’s investigative feature story “Going Home” was read across China in 2008, winning several major awards.

But even though the quake brought Lin professional acclaim, the experience after the Wenchuan quake fundamentally changed his attitude toward investigative journalism in China. This was not necessarily about government restrictions on the practice, or about wider changes in the media industry. It was also about a new perspective on life and value.

Once he was back from Sichuan, Lin found that he was no longer interested in the regular selection of topics on the editorial desk. His whole understanding of things had changed radically after the earthquake, and he no longer cared for many topics that had interested him before the experience.

“This piece gave me instant fame, and I became someone everyone, both at the newspaper and in the broader industry, felt could write well,” he told Q Daily. “But I also experienced a change.”

“I had seen life and death, and I felt that so many things, like money, or like buying a house and falling in love, were all bullshit,” he said.

After changing to several new positions at different media, including China Weekly (中国周刊) and Portrait (人物), Lin left the media industry in 2014. He joined Wanda Group, the Chinese multinational conglomerate, where he worked on the company’s internal newsletter.

A major transition was underway in China’s media by 2014, with the rapid growth of the internet and high-tech, and the expansion of social media platforms such as WeChat (launched in 2011). Like Lin, many other journalists rushed for the exit that year. “2014 was really the year from when traditional media workers transitioning was the trend,” Lin recalled. “Quite a few of my good friends in the media have left since for roles in public relations at places like [tech giant] Alibaba.”

Shaky Ground for Disaster Reporting

Owing to a combination of the abovementioned factors, including government control and propaganda, broader media transformation and professional disenchantment, many journalists have abandoned the industry over the past decade. This shift has had a noticeable impact on disaster reporting in recent years.

Recent disasters in China, including catastrophic flooding in Henan in July last year, and the crash of China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 earlier this year, have not received the level of coverage by professional outlets – many of them commercial newspapers and magazines – that could be seen in the case of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

In the midst of the rescue and recovery effort that followed the MU5735 disaster back in March, some journalists tried to reach the scene, as they had in 2008. However, they were turned back by local authorities, while state-run media such as Xinhua and China Central Television were provided with full access, enabling them to effectively direct the narrative.

When a small number of news media, including China Youth Daily and Portrait, attempted to follow up on the disaster by telling human stories about the victims, this prompted a fierce discussion online about the limits of disaster coverage. Many netizens criticized a feature story by Portrait on the grounds that its intimate reporting of the lives of victims violated journalistic ethics by capitalizing on the trauma of those close to the victims. In fact, the report was similar to stories like Lin Tianhong’s that followed the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

But public attitudes about disaster coverage seem to have changed as media generally have been subjected to more questioning. As the controversy continued over the Portrait feature story in March, Phoenix News (凤凰新闻) reached out to journalism school students in China for their views. Many voiced hesitation about choosing journalism as their future career path.

One journalism student summed up the complex of challenges facing the journalist in China today, from low salaries and tight content controls, to the risk of personal attack from nationalistic internet users who balk at any and all critical coverage.

First, there was the question of adequate pay. “Being a journalist doesn’t offer value for money these days,” they said. “One of my journalism teachers told me his [annual] salary today is just 3,000 RMB higher than it was 15 years ago, even though living expenses have increased exponentially across the board – and often he can’t make ends meet.”

Next up, came the issue of pressures from the government, and from ubiquitous online trolls. “Even so, to complete a news piece that gets at the truth as much as possible, you have to put in so much more effort than before. Aside from [the difficulties of] on-the-scene investigation, once you’ve published a piece you also have to endure accusations, and sometimes even personal attacks, from those ‘keyboard warriors.’”  

“With this total imbalance between rewards and costs, ‘passion’ becomes the only thing keeping you in this industry.”

Political Plot Twists

In the midst of a broader push to regulate online entertainment late last year, China announced new curbs on a popular role-playing genre called “script murder,” or jubensha (剧本杀), citing the possible deleterious influence of violent and supernatural content on young people. But in recent months, jubensha has been resurrected by local authorities in some areas, albeit with a decidedly political plot twist – indoctrination in the history and ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Script murder” is a role-playing mystery game that typically offers a number of storylines and scripts from which players can choose – all involving, as the name suggests, an act of bloodshed. Each player is assigned a script for a character they must act out, and as the game progresses the original plot is gradually pieced together and the murderer unmasked.

Jubensha has been hugely popular in China in recent years. In a 2021 report, Meituan, the Chinese shopping platform, estimated that there were just under 10 million consumers of script murder products, more than 70 percent of them under the age of 30. That year, the game brought in estimated total sales of 15.42 billion RMB.

“Script murder” was criticized strongly by the Party-state media last year. A report by the official Xinhua News Agency in September, shared across social media, characterized the game as a potential trigger for psychological problems among youth. But the game’s popularity among young people has also appealed to local propaganda departments. In stark contrast to the wave of moral denunciation back in the fall, jubensha has now been praised by the state media as an innovative tool of ideological and political education for Chinese youth. 

Earlier this month, the official journal of the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA) profiled a neighborhood event in the city of Suzhou where a “red” (红色) culture tour had been planned in the form of a script game. Inspired by the form of jubensha, the red tour used live-action interpretation, role-playing and other techniques to allow participants to experience the story of the Party’s revolution.

There was no murderer, and no mystery. The event was enacted in Suzhou’s Wusa Neighborhood (五卅路街区), named in honor of the May Thirtieth Movement (五卅运动) of 1925, in which 13 people taking part in a Communist-supported demonstration in Shanghai’s International Settlement following general strikes were gunned down by British colonial police. A combination of “major and minor scripts” (大小剧本) were acted out by participating residents, the major script unfolding across the neighborhood while the “minor scripts” involved indoor jubensha-inspired board games themed around the 1925 movement and its anti-imperialist spirit.

A backdrop set up along Suzhou’s Wusa Road for the enactment of a “red tour” script game. The text under the façade of buildings reads: “Suzhou Red Neighborhood Immersive Script Tour.”

The recent event in Suzhou is not an isolated example of the recasting of jubensha to advance the goal of patriotic education.

Earlier this month, CCTV News, China’s state-run broadcaster, reported that the local propaganda office in the city of Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, had funded and released a script game – once again, minus the murder – called “The Rebels” (叛逆者). The game, themed around the Chinese Civil War, commemorated the glorious and honorable deeds of the Communist Party through the story of the so-called “Five Martyrs of Beiping” (北平五烈士). These men, who operated a secret broadcasting station in Beijing in 1947, were reportedly executed by the Kuomintang in the capital city of Nanjing in October 1948, shouting (according to legend), “Long live the Chinese Communist Party!”

Given the dangers of “historical revisionism,” and with laws on the books protecting China’s heroes and martyrs, the deeds of the five martyrs could not be altered or subjected to artistic license. Therefore, participants in the Nanjing script game were cast as characters working in close proximity to the men, or otherwise involved with them. “By taking on the roles of those who were around the martyrs over two or three hours of the game, people can feel the cruel and treacherous circumstances of the struggle [at the time] and the sacrifices that the martyrs made for the revolution,” a project team member for the script game told CCTV.

Screenshot of the CCTV report on a historically themed script game held in Nanjing, created by the city’s propaganda office.

Since last year, when the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) led a campaign to clean up entertainment culture, jubensha scripts dealing with crime and the supernatural have been in the government crosshairs. But the medium of the guided script drama has been enthusiastically guided toward uplifting and patriotic narratives that conform to the Party’s mainstream values.

CCTV News reports in September 2021 that it had joined forces with the China Animation Comic Game Group (中国动漫集团), a state-run enterprise, to launch the “Fengyun Drama Club” (风云剧会), a campaign expressly intended to “guide the ‘script murder game’ industry toward healthy development, promoting positive energy values among the youth.”

Positive energy” is a term generally referring to the need for uplifting messages as opposed to critical or negative ones – and particularly the need for content that puts the Party and government in a positive light. The CCTV campaign has reportedly gathered more than 500 jubensha scripts with patriotic themes dealing with CCP history. These have been submitted by authors and screenwriters in the mainstream film and television industry.

Enter the notion the “positive energy script” (正能量剧本).

“Using family [values] and patriotic sentiment around the Party’s struggle over the last century as our core values, combined with the powerful promotion platform of CCTV to attract outstanding creators, the pull of positive energy scripts in the industry can be expanded, so as to guide the ecology of the script murder game industry in a health direction,” the report from CCTV News concluded.

But while local propaganda officials have worked hard to incorporate “red elements” into this popular form of entertainment, not everyone has welcomed the change. Under a hashtag on Weibo for the introduction of more “positive energy” themes into the jubensha genre, responding to proposals from some delegates during the annual National People’s Congress in March that more be done to restrain the trend, many internet users expressed their reservations.

 “They need to understand where power can intervene and where it cannot,” one user wrote.

Another user put it rather more bluntly, if rhetorically. “Am I playing this game so I can have the same experience as watching propaganda during CCTV’s annual New Year’s Gala?”

Speaking Loud for Xi Jinping

Imagine a stretch of brick village houses in the Chinese countryside, their outer walls painted with bright red propaganda posters. It’s early morning and a loudspeaker blares out local government announcements, along with the latest slogans from the top leader in Beijing.

This may sound like a scene from the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. But that’s the catch. This is the Chinese village in the second decade of the 21st century, where an old communication technology is making a comeback alongside the latest digital tools.    

The shrill call of the loudspeaker, once a staple of political and economic life in pre-reform China, is a sound now returning to the countryside.

On May 6, the China Press Publication Radio Film and Television Journal (中国新闻出版广电报), the official publication of the National Press and Publication Association (NPPA), reported that more than 600 loudspeakers had been installed in a district on the outskirts of Tianjin. Promoted by the local propaganda department in Tianjin, the installation in Wuqing District (武清区) was coordinated with “Xuexi Qiangguo” (学习强国), an interactive app designed to propagate the thought of Xi Jinping along with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.  

The shrill call of the loudspeaker, once a staple of political and economic life in pre-reform China, is a sound now returning to the countryside.

Each morning audio content from “Xuexi Qiangguo” is broadcast from the local integrated media center (融媒体中心) in Wuqing District, reaching across a digitalized “loudspeaker network” (大喇叭系统) that encompasses 611 administrative villages. The content varies every day, according to the NPPA report, and can include the theories of the Party, propaganda content hyping the upcoming 20th National Congress of the CCP – and of course quotes from Xi Jinping.

“The loudspeaker has turned into an ‘announcer’ that promotes the light of thought into the hearts of people,” the NPPA report said. The “light of thought” (思想之光) in this case was an unmistakable reference to Xi’s banner term, which this year could be shortened to the potent “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Turning Up the Volume

The loudspeaker project is not exclusive to Tianjin. According to China National Radio, the “New Rural Loudspeaker Project” (新农村大喇叭工程) has been rolled out to more than 200 cities and counties across China since it was first piloted in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, in 2019. By the end of 2020, the project had reached an estimated 300,000 administrative villages in 14 provinces, according to a report in the official Hebei Daily newspaper.  

A local employee in Liaoning province operates the “New Rural Loudspeaker Project” (新农村大喇叭工程) from a control room.

According to state media, the project, which involves three daily broadcasts morning, noon and night, employs “internet + loudspeaker” cloud broadcasting technology. The model is pretty straightforward. The government broadcasts the messages, combining agricultural and policy content with Party propaganda, and the villagers listen.

It is a model familiar to many millions of older Chinese who lived through political movements from the 1950s through to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978. During those decades, loudspeakers were one of the main tools used to deliver government announcements and mobilize the population for various campaigns or movements. In 1959, in the midst of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进), a campaign to create a communist society through the formation of people’s communes, loudspeakers were used to announce quotas for grain and steel production.

A report published in the People’s Daily on February 6, 1959, related how a steel furnace in Anshan (鞍山), Liaoning province, was pressed to ever higher production levels. In the article, a worker’s representative seeks out the local Party branch chief and pledges heroically: “We guarantee that our steel furnace will generate new records, and we ask that the Party branch chief supports us!” The article then reads:

All of the loudspeakers through the factory immediately blared out: “Flat Stove No. 16 has pledged that tonight it will break its own record, breaking through yesterday’s top result! We hope all work sections will cooperate!”

Backyard Furnaces are used to manufacture steel, most of it substandard, during the Great Leap Forward. Public domain image available at Wikimedia Commons.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, loudspeakers became a blunt yet effective propaganda tool to blare out revolutionary songs praising Mao Zedong’s leadership of the Party and bolstering his personality cult.

A 1965 article in the People’s Daily’s acknowledged the importance of installing loudspeakers in the countryside in order to carry out mass mobilization. But the vexing question was where to place the loudspeakers. “Where should the loudspeakers be placed in order to be more effective and have the broadest propagation result?” the article asked.

A People’s Daily commentary piece on December 10. 1965, addresses the proper placement of loudspeakers in rural communes.

Some communes had installed several high-volume loudspeakers, but they were so cacophonous – rousing the dogs and chickens – that the masses did not welcome them. “Loudspeakers are tools for propaganda and for the education of the peasants,” the newspaper said, “and their proper placement enables members to hear the voice of Chairman Mao and the development of our country.”

Reform and Opening

As economic reforms took hold in China in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the use of loudspeakers as tools of political mobilization largely faded. But there could still at times be a use for loudspeakers in spreading knowledge of government policies relevant to residents in the countryside, particularly up to the early 2000s, before internet access was more widespread, and years before smartphones became ubiquitous.

In 2004, as then-President Hu Jintao emphasized the need for agricultural reforms to improve the lives of China’s farmers, a priority encompassed by the so-called “Three Rural Issues” (三农问题), the People’s Daily reported about one rural village where the Party committee had decided to bring loudspeakers, “already silent for many years,” back into use in order to better advertise government policies. Twenty-five loudspeakers were installed around the village, and broadcasts were made in the morning, at noon and at night.

According to the People’s Daily report, local farmers had welcomed the installation of the loudspeakers because the broadcasts included daily announcements of the market prices of agricultural products, which helped them strike better deals with buyers.

­Back to Ideology

While ideology had gradually faded in importance in China through the reform and opening period from 1978 to the 2000s in favor of Dengian pragmatism, Xi Jinping’s rise to the position of general secretary of the CCP in November 2012 brought the steady return of ideology to the center of politics. This became clear with the introduction of the hardline Document 9 in the spring of 2013, outlining “prominent problems in the present ideological sphere,” and calls in August 2013 for a re-invigoration of Marxist ideology.

Under Xi’s leadership, the loudspeaker has regained its old function, strengthening propaganda and ideology at grass-roots units – meaning at the lowest levels of the Party-state bureaucracy. In 2015, the People’s Daily reported on the mobilization in Dandong (丹东), a city in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, of a “Volunteer Army for Theory Propagation” (理论宣传志愿军). The “army” consisted of more than 10,000 members tasked with “propagating theory among the masses and arming the masses with theory” (群众宣传理论, 理论武装群众) at the village and township level.

Under Xi’s leadership, the loudspeaker has regained its old function, strengthening propaganda and ideology at grass-roots units.

The idea was to find innovative ways to transmit the voice of the Party – and increasingly, of its powerful leader. Alongside lecture events, digital message boards and public service announcements, wireless loudspeakers (无线大喇叭) offered a distinct advantage that was likely remembered by many Party officials of Xi Jinping’s generation; a way of integrating the theory of the Party with the daily lives and rhythms of the people.

The 2019 “New Rural Loudspeaker Project” (新农村大喇叭工程), introduced first in Shijiazhuang, was one of a number of initiatives across the country that integrated loudspeakers with the once-again central work of propaganda and ideology. This was happening at the same time that the “Xuexi Qiangguo” app, which Party officials and government officials across the country were often obliged to install and regularly use, was gamifying the work of ideological indoctrination – a “little red phone” for the 21st century.

When the CCP’s central leading group for study and education on the history of the Party (党史学习教育领导小组办公室) held a conference in in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, two years ago in May 2021, officials introduced a plan to further spread the ideological lessons compiled through “Xuexi Qiangguo” by producing more than 200 audio sessions that could then be broadcast through a network of nearly 100,000 village loudspeakers. This would enable Xi Jinping’s voice, and the Party’s mainstream view of history in the year of its centennial, to reach a vast number of rural areas.

And what about that vexing question the People’s Daily had addressed on the eve of the Cultural Revolution in 1965, about the impact of the loudspeakers on quiet lives in the countryside?

In a Weibo post back in September last year, one official publication asked the public whether they felt “countryside megaphones in the New Era” (新时代的农村大喇叭​​​) were effective or not. Some expressed support, saying they worked better than mobile phones, and that they had been key to transmitting information about Covid-19 policies. Still, there was skepticism – not just about loudspeakers, but about the comments expressing support for them.

CPPCC Daily’s Weibo asks people for their views on village loudspeakers.

“These comments in support must have been promoted!” one user responded. “Loudspeakers are a serious public nuisance. Loudspeakers blare out right at 7 in the morning, the decibels ridiculously high, and their advertisements are eating away at our eardrums and our hearts.”

And then there was that vexing 21st century question of legality. “But as legal citizens each of us should have the right to freely allocate our personal time, including sleep time, and we should have the right to choose what we listen to!”

Passing of Shanghai Culture Writer Raises Questions

During a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on May 5, Xi Jinping sounded a positive note over the country’s “dynamic zero-covid” policy, which he insisted would “stand the test of time.” His remarks suggested an underlying unease in the leadership over how China’s covid policies have played out in recent weeks, as online frustration over the government’s response in Shanghai has repeatedly boiled over.

As Xi and the leadership call for “persistence,” the crucial task of maintaining the Party-state’s narrative of positivity has fallen to thousands of journalists within the country’s vast state-run media system – including many in Shanghai. But what is it like for these reporters to hold up the spirit of “persistence” even as they struggle personally against the stresses of lockdown?  

This has been one of a number of questions asked over the past week as a smattering of social media accounts have reported the death on May 4 of a young Shanghai journalist named Tong Weijing (童薇菁), a reporter for Wenhui Daily (文汇报), a state-run newspaper published by the Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG).

Among the first to report the news of Tong’s death was the WeChat public account “Media Daily” (传媒见闻). In its post on May 5, the account quoted a colleague of Tong’s as saying: “Confined for too long [under lockdown], the girl had heart problems the past few days, and perhaps was depressed. Her parents are devastated.”

Beyond this quote about over-long confinement, the only hint of complicating factors in the background was a screenshot from a private chat group in which a user noted, using the shorthand for ambulance services, that “120 could not be called [in time].” The incapacity of Shanghai’s emergency services to deal with a spike in calls under lockdown was by this point a generally acknowledged fact.

The “Media Daily” post noted that Tong had largely written articles on culture and film. It also quoted her former doctoral supervisor who said: “I can’t believe that such a young and beautiful life has suddenly passed away. I’ve known her for six or seven years and have chatted about a variety of her reports, always with such gentle persistence and solemn seriousness. [She deserves] respect, and I wish her peace.”

Strange Silences

Later that night, however, another WeChat public account, “E Di Shen” (额滴神), complicated the story of Tong’s passing with a post citing messages from a private chat group of Wenhui Daily journalists that indicated Tong had in fact committed suicide after suffering serious mental health issues under quarantine.

According to the “E Di Shen” post, Tong’s mother had urgently reached out to her colleagues at the paper late on May 4, saying that she had been unable to sleep and was muttering to herself, “What do I do?” One colleague suggested that the family secure all of the windows in their apartment and keep a close eye on Tong, even sleeping at her side. They would contact the hospital the next day to see if she could receive care. Around 11PM that night, the colleague received an urgent call from Tong’s mother saying that Tong had slipped out unnoticed and jumped from the ninth floor.

Screenshot of a post from a private chat group of Wenhui Daily journalists, explaining what happened to Tong Weijing.

The “E Di Shen” post asked why Tong Weijing’s death had not been reported at all in the “mainstream media” – meaning in China’s case, the official Party-state media. Why had there not even been an acknowledgement from Wenhui Daily, the paper for which she had worked so dutifully?

When the author searched for Tong’s name in the Baidu search engine, there was just one post hinting at her death, while all the others were her recent and past bylines. “In a Baidu search, Tong Weijing seems to be alive and well,” they marveled.

A search in Baidu for Tong returns only one mention of her death from a social media account and many results from her writing over the past several months.

“It is incomprehensible that the sudden death of Tong Weijing has not created a ripple in the media world, and even in the Wenhui Daily, where she worked, there has been no report on this unexpected event,” a cultural editor wrote on his Weibo account. “The news and tributes about Tong Weijing’s death are only scattered around in certain self-media and friends’ circles. This has to strike people as odd.”

“Was it a heart attack or did she jump?” asked another perplexed user. Another replied: “Aye, they don’t even dare to publicize the cause of her death.”

Personal Struggles, Public Obligations

As the news of Tong’s death was quietly shared through social media accounts, some began paying more attention to what the journalist had actually written. Like the original “Media Daily” post, a post shared on the Tencent News platform on May 6 shared several of her articles on culture. But others noted an important detail – that Tong had also written about the lockdown in Shanghai.

Tong’s writings were mostly triumphant pieces, strikingly at odds with the environment in which she, like all Shanghai residents, had found herself since the end of March. They emphasized the firmness and persistence of the people in fighting against the outbreak in the city.

Among Tong’s uplifting narratives was a piece called “Art Rises and Moves Forward! Flowers on the Sea, Blooming in the Wind! The Shanghai Light Music Ensemble Creates Another Anthem in the Fight Against the Epidemic.” Published through the Wenhui Daily news app on April 27, just days before Tong’s death, the piece was a brief but soaring tribute to the Party’s battle against Covid that shared a video of the performance in question. A piece of propaganda to promote a piece of propaganda.

“At the critical point in the fight against the epidemic, the Shanghai Light Music Ensemble, a subsidiary of the Shanghai United Media Group, has created another anti-epidemic anthem,” Tong wrote, “using flowers on the sea, rising to the wind and connecting hearts, to symbolize every person fighting against the epidemic.”

“With a vivid style, [the anthem] celebrates the courage and tenacity of the people, and the spirit of mutual aid, shared love and being united as one.”

A post written by Tong on April 27 reports on the Shanghai Light Music Ensemble and its new anthem to celebrate victories in the fight against covid.

Another piece, “The Story of the Epidemic Fight All Around Me: The Delivery of Love in the Pouring Rain,” was posted the next day through the Wenhui Daily’s various social media channels. It conveyed the same spirit of love and sacrifice. But this time it was written by the CEO of the venture capital firm Feimalv, and edited by Tong. “Wind and rain cannot stop the delivery of love,” it began. “At a critical point in the fight against the epidemic, we help one another, passing along our love, each of us putting in their own effort, so that a single ember becomes a torch, one heart to protect Shanghai.”

Tong, like so many reporters for state media, had been raising up the façade, spreading positive energy – while online, people from across Shanghai flooded social media with tales of anger and frustration, culminating in the release on April 22 of the viral video “Voices of April.”

It is impossible to know the personal difficulties Tong Weijing faced in the days leading up to May, as the lockdown continued in Shanghai. But for some acknowledging her death online, as the state media remained strangely silent, the profound contrast between personal pain and dutybound public affirmation was an important fact to note. In one comment on Weibo accompanied by the emoticon of a lit candle, a user wrote: “For a person bearing their own depression, still closed off, to be writing against what she is personally witnessing and her own wishes, this would make post-traumatic stress almost a given.”

Mystery Kills

In China, strict controls on the flow of information are exercised by the leadership and a vast Party-state media system in order to maintain social, political and economic stability. But these controls can sometimes have exactly the opposite effect, encouraging surges of speculation that drive social panic.

One of the most outstanding examples of this so-called “Streisand effect” happened last week as vague official news about a national security investigation in the city of Hangzhou prompted speculation about the fate of tech mogul Jack Ma. Shares in tech giant Alibaba, of which Ma is the co-founder, fell nearly 10 percent in Hong Kong before sanity was restored.

Who Is “Ma Mou”?

The saga began on May 3, as China Central Television announced through its official news app that a certain individual surnamed “Ma” from the city of Hangzhou, their given name unspecified, had been subjected to “criminal coercive measures” owing to suspected national security related crimes. This meant essentially that curbs had been placed on the personal freedom of this “Ma” in order to ensure a smooth investigation. The crimes, according to the brief news item, included “colluding with external anti-China forces” (勾结境外反华敌对势力), inciting separatism, and other alleged national security crimes.

The point of misunderstanding was simple. The name given in the CCTV news app report was “Ma __” (马某), the given name elided, as is common practice in releases related to criminal arrests. But two-character names, like that of Alibaba’s Ma Yun (马云), or Jack Ma, are relatively uncommon, as opposed to the more common three-character names. Alibaba is headquartered in Hangzhou. Wasn’t it possible, then, that this unspecified Ma in breach of national security laws was none other than Jack Ma, who since last year has been mired in political troubles?

CCTV’s official news app reports a national security investigation in Hangzhou against an unspecified “Ma” with a two-character name.

The CCTV news app post, made at 9:01AM, was followed within minutes by re-posts from a host of over media outlets, including Shanghai’s Jiemian (界面). These posts immediately kicked up a wildfire of speculation, prompting the CCTV news app to delete the post shortly after and publish a new post in which the suspect’s name had three characters instead of two.  

This slight alteration did little to quell attention online to the issue. Other than the addition of a single place-holding character mou (某), standing in for a missing character, the CCTV post made no explanation. Why had the reporting of the name changed?

Meanwhile, Alibaba stock was slipping sharply on the Hong Kong exchange. And behind the scenes, evidently, state media bosses were scrambling to forestall the real-life impact of a news app blunder.

A graph of Alibaba shares on May 3 shows a sharp drop between 9 and 10AM on May 3, 2022. Source: Bloomberg.

At 9:33AM, the Global Times also released a version of the story of alleged national security crimes in Hangzhou in which the suspect’s name had three characters. This was followed seven minutes later by a television news broadcast by CCTV also reporting the crimes of three-character “Ma.” There was no mention of earlier inaccuracies or corrections – just an assumption that new reporting could gloss over the uncomfortable error.

At 9:49AM, Hu Xijin (胡锡进), the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, waded in on his Weibo account in an attempt to clarify the matter and dampen speculation. “According to confirmations I’ve made with [relevant] authorities, the State Security Bureau in Hangzhou arrested a certain ‘Ma Moumou,’ not a certain ‘Ma Mou,’” he wrote. “Any media reports mentioning ‘Ma Mou’ are incorrect.”

Former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin attempts to clarify reporting on the arrest of an unspecified “Ma” in Hangzhou.

Thirteen minutes after Hu’s explanation, and almost exactly an hour after the original post, CCTV News released another new post, this time on its official Weibo account, reporting the same Hangzhou news as the original 9:01AM post, but with the simple addition of a second “Mou.” Like the original post, this one said that the three-character “Ma” was “currently under in-depth investigation” for national security crimes, suspected of colluding with anti-China hostile forces.

The second post from CCTV, posted to Weibo, about a national investigation into someone surnamed “Ma,” this time with a three-character name.

Less than 15 minutes later, at 10:16AM, the Global Times rushed out with an article on its English-language site that offered further information about the “Ma” in the original CCTV news post. Exclusive sources had told the Global Times, according to the article, that the “Ma” in question was “the director of hardware research and development department of an IT company.” Unlike Jack Ma, who was born in 1964, this “Ma” was born in 1985.

There was no mention of earlier inaccuracies or corrections – just an assumption that new reporting could gloss over the uncomfortable error.

As for his crime, the “Ma” in question, said the Global Times, had been “brainwashed by outside anti-China forces,” and had “become one of their tools to contain China.” More specifically, it said, he had “created an online anonymous group to play the role as agent of outside forces.” The goal had been to “spread rumors and disinformation and release [a] so-called independence declaration to split the country and subvert the state.”

Corrections Needed

As mainstream news media focused on reports about the alleged national security crimes of “Ma Mou,” attention turned on social media, including in WeChat groups, to the timeline of state media reporting and the problems it exposed.

In a comment shared by a number of media professionals, including Lu Xuning (卢旭宁), a former news editor at the news portal Sina.com, former journalist Shi Feike (石扉客) went through the timeline of reporting through various state media and their affiliated social media accounts – along the lines of the above CMP summary.

Former journalist Shi Feike comments on the May 3 “Ma Mou” story and its lessons for media.

Shi followed with three thoughts, or lessons, stemming from the morning’s dramatic back-and-forth and the related dive in the Alibaba stock price. First, he said, the authorities in charge of the case need to be far more transparent in offering information. “Mystery gets people killed,” he said, underscoring the real-life consequences of secrecy.

 Second, news media must be reformed. The news release system (通稿制度), said Shi, also “gets people killed.” By “news release system,” Shi was referring to the current state of affairs by which official news releases from Party-state media are given too much latitude for use by other media. Because these releases are privileged as “authoritative,” for the simple fact that they come from central media (trusted by the leadership), they are simply passed along by other media outlets in the vast state-controlled press system. In this way, the system discourages independent reporting and verification by other news outlets. And ultimately, this is harmful both to the truth and to real people — like Alibaba investors.

Finally, said Shi, he wished the best for Alibaba, for Jack Ma, and “for all private enterprises and private entrepreneurs in our country.” This was a reference, no doubt, to the crackdown over the past year on China’s tech sector, and fears over possible curbs on the private sector more broadly.

It was also, perhaps, an indirect reference to the uncertainties hanging over China’s future – when its politics and law are so steeped in mystery.  

Convergence at the Grassroots

Tucked away in south-central Gansu province, rural Zhang County (漳县) could scarcely be more remote from China’s media centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The only claim to fame in the thinly populated county, which has been designated as a priority area for poverty alleviation, is to have been called the country’s “home of the fava bean” (中国蚕豆之乡).

But Zhang County is nonetheless an important piece in the national puzzle of “media convergence,” or rongmeiti (融媒体), a process by which the Chinese Communist Party aims to consolidate its hold on information throughout society.

Earlier this month, the official publication of the All-China Journalists Association (ACJA), the government-led official organization for media workers in the country, profiled efforts in Zhang County to build a “county-level media convergence center” (县级融媒体中心), which it said would lend “strong public opinion support” to economic initiatives in the area and “effectively enhance the focus in guiding and serving the masses” – this second objective a clear nod to the policy of media control to maintain social and political stability.

A search for the keyword “county-level media convergence center” turns up tens of thousands of results in recent years, from both Party-run media and government agencies, with headlines like: “Building and Properly Using County-Level Media Convergence Centers.” How did these centers originate, and what are they all about?  

Old Priorities, New Technologies

The CCP has long prioritized what it calls “propaganda and ideological work” (宣传思想工作), which is essentially about the Party’s dominance of media and culture as a means of ensuring that its values and priorities remain central in the lives of people at all levels of society. Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP in 2012, Xi Jinping has made many statements intended to direct the work of the press and the public opinion field more broadly. Since Xi’s first Work Conference on Propaganda and Ideology, held on August 19, 2013, media convergence has been an important component of the Party’s long-term media strategy, resulting in the introduction one year later of Guidance on the Promotion and Development of the Integration of Traditional Media and Emerging Media (关于推动传统媒体与新兴媒体融合发展的指导意见).

That formative document dealt chiefly with two aspects. The first was Xi’s insistence that traditional media and “emerging media” (digital platforms, video streaming et al) “develop as one” (一体发展). This was largely meant to ensure that Party-run media, which played a key role in “public opinion guidance,” setting the tone for media coverage favorable to the CCP, could modernize and not be left behind, which might imperil the Party’s agenda. Secondly, it was about moving converged media under the Party’s leadership to a more user-centered frame of thinking, recognizing that effective propaganda, and effective “guidance,” could only happen if new platforms could effectively “follow the laws of news dissemination and the development principles of emerging media.”

These principles were linked quite early on to Xi’s vision of strengthening China’s “international discourse power” (国际话语权), transforming the global “discourse system” (话语体系) and “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). How could China speak loudly and with confidence in the 21st century if it did not do so through attractive and interactive platforms?

In the digital age, therefore, the task of “propaganda and ideological work” has become far more complex for the CCP, in the same way that media development generally has diversified and been innovated. Under the precondition of Party control of public opinion, the process of “media convergence” – which in other environments globally refers simply to the merging of different types of traditional mass media with the internet and interactive digital technologies – has become an important means by which the leadership asserts control over the creation and flow of information.

In 2014, He Dongping (何东平), the editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily, a paper published by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, wrote a commentary in which he outlined the concept of “integration,” or media convergence, as he announced the formation at his paper of a “media convergence center.”

Guangming Daily coverage in 2014 of the set-up of its own “media convergence center.”

He Dongping explained that convergence focused on integrating the content resources, editorial resources, distribution, product forms, communication channels, technical solutions and marketing strategies used by traditional media and new media in close collaboration – creating what he called a “unified platform for media content creation.”

Neatly contained within this new vision of the newsroom was the old idea of CCP-run media, like Guangming Daily, as the vanguard of “public opinion guidance,” ensuring that audiences (and the Party’s agenda) did not become lost in the chaotic world of digital information. “Facing a massive amount of new media information, readers can easily get lost in it, and the popularity of social media and apps has particularly aggravated this trend,” the editor wrote. “The converged media newspaper will be the navigator in the midst of the vastness of online information, providing the audience with a reading guide of the most important, essential and trustworthy [content].”

The Party and its re-made media structure were to play a crucial role in “navigating” (导航) through China’s digital transformation.  The challenge, then, was to consolidate the Party’s leadership of this transformation at all levels.

Localizing Convergence

During a meeting on propaganda and ideology in August 2018, five years after his crucial first meeting, Xi Jinping included “the construction of county-level media convergence centers” (县级融媒体中心建设) in his proposal for the re-making of “propaganda and ideology work under the new situation,” this being a reference to digital transformation as well as wider geopolitical change. According to the read-out from the official Xinhua News Agency, Xi said “the government needs to solidly conduct the construction of county-level media convergence centers in order to better guide the masses and serve the masses.”

In fact, the construction of county-level media convergence centers had already begun across the country. In a report weeks ahead of the 2018 meeting on propaganda and ideology, the “National Broadcasting Think Tank” (国家广电智库), a WeChat public account under the National Radio and Television Administration, reported that broadcasting stations at the county-level nationwide had begun building media convergence centers in order to “promptly convey the voice of the Party and the government, and effectively guide local public opinion.”

The article showcased Pizhou (邳州), a county-level city under the administration of Xuzhou (徐州), a major city in northwestern Jiangsu province, as an example of how local state-owned television stations could make the transition to media convergence using integrated media platforms – everything from dedicated mobile apps, online communities and social media channels, to traditional print and broadcast media. All of these activities could be conducted through a core department known as the “Central Kitchen” (中央厨房), where all interviews, video and audio recording, press releases and post-production could be integrated and distributed consistently.

Flow chart of content operations under the “media convergence” model in Pizhou, Jiangsu province, with the “Central Kitchen” as the core content production hub.

In Pizhou, as in other counties across China, the “Central Kitchen” approach means consolidating the voice of the Party, and by extension its leadership at the local, “grassroots” (基层) level.

In the recent news from Gansu’s Zhang County, we can see the Party’s media convergence strategy continuing to play out, ensuring – at least in principle – that the all-important process of “public opinion guidance” is not just a top-down mandate, but can be fostered from the ground up.

Just like those fava beans.

Clickbait Nationalism Misses the Mark

As the lockdown in Shanghai enters its third week, first-hand accounts of the misery suffered by many of the city’s 26 million residents have fired across Chinese cyberspace. For many, the failings of the government response in China’s financial hub have called into question the country’s vaunted successes in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The failings have also deepened frustration online with those who continue, in the face of real suffering, to pander to China-can-do-no-wrong nationalism.

Two weeks ago, “Sai Lei Three Minutes” (赛雷三分钟), a popular Chinese blogger known for his mission to expose the alleged activities of “foreign hostile forces” working to smear China, posted to his 2.6 million followers on Weibo that he planned to release a video clip in which he had “baited” a journalist working for foreign media in China with a fake interview about conditions under Covid lockdown in the northern city of Changchun.  

Sai Lei’s provocative Weibo post on March 29 included an image of his chat history on the WeChat messaging platform with a correspondent from Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s publicly funded radio broadcaster. The conversation showed Sai Lei impersonating a resident under lockdown in the city of Changchun, claiming to be unable to buy groceries. The Sveriges Radio journalist, understandably interested in the account of a source in the locked-down city, inquired about the situation and subsequently had a 24-minute conversation with Sai Lei, as shown by a “call duration” (通话时长) marker in the chat thread.

Immediately after the “interview,” Sai Lei posted to the journalist: “Thank you for accepting my interview. I will upload the audio to the internet to let netizens decide.” Sai Lei’s implication was that he would let his social media audience decide whether the journalist was engaged in the smearing of China.

Screenshot of Sai Lei’s Weibo post about his “interview” with a journalist from Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s publicly funded radio broadcaster.

Sai Lei, who has garnered a strong following online with his fast-paced videos and other posts claiming to expose foreign media prejudice and other instances of “anti-China” attacks, kicked up an online storm back in October 2021with a 13-minute video posted to Weibo that accused China House, an independent Shanghai-based educational social enterprise, of producing content allegedly used by “foreign forces,” or jingwai shili (境外势力) to disparage China. The video, which alleged that China House “served as a mouthpiece for the West in brainwashing Chinese” and producing “anti-China content” (反华内容), turned a wave of online harassment on China House staff and volunteers.

Earlier this year, after being interviewed by David Rennie of The Economist for an article on clickbait nationalism, Sai Lei went public with his own recording of the exchange, and fulminated against Rennie for trying to reveal his real identity, and for suggesting in his article that social media influencers like Sai Lei were cashing in on extreme nationalism.  The headline of Sai Lei’s post: “I Accepted an Interview with the UK’s The Economist and Personally Experienced the Deep Malevolence.”

This time, however, as news of growing hardship under the conditions of Covid lockdown spread across the internet, Sai Lei’s Weibo announcement of the pending release of a major foreign media takedown landed with a thud. The reactions were apparently not what the blogger expected. His baiting of the reporter was swiftly condemned, some accusing him of pursuing online views over all ethical considerations. “Sai Lei keeps encouraging people to report on spies for 500,000 RMB rewards,” one comment read. “But I think he’s just a blogger hungry for attention who will do anything, including fake acts of patriotism, to get it.”

Others questioned the basic soundness of Sai Lei’s thinking. The blogger accused foreign journalists of selectively taking negative facts and sources to write stories about China, and in response he had purposely reached out to offer a foreign journalist negative facts and sources to support a story – that it had become impossible to buy food in Changchun – that by all accounts was true. In fact, the very same day as Sai Lei’s provocative Weibo post, the top leader of Changchun, Liu Renyuan, publicly apologized for food shortages that had affected the city’s 8.5 million residents.

Comments on Weibo critical of Sai Lei’s “baiting” of a journalist from Sveriges Radio.

As more reports emerged about the conditions in Changchun, Sai Lei deleted his original Weibo post and issued an apology in which he said that he had decided to hold off on the release of his recording after speaking to several residents in Changchun. Nevertheless, there was no attempt to apologize to the foreign journalist for impersonating a Changchun resident, and he insisted that Swedish media had a biased view of China. He added that he had shared his recording with the “relevant authorities.”

“I question the objectivity of these media on the basis of their sampling of negative comments, which I think also determines the viewpoint they ultimately take in their reports,” Sai Lei wrote. “Their so-called ‘objectivity and neutrality’ are just a facade.”

Before long, Sai Lei had deleted this apology. For some internet users, this was just too much: “So [after his recording] he finds that you really can’t buy food in Changchun, and having weirdly become the one handing the knife to foreign forces he immediately issues an apology,” one user wrote. “Now even the apology is deleted. This is so ridiculous.”

Screenshot of Weibo comments criticizing Sai Lei.

“This is the inevitable outcome of internalizing external propaganda,” another user responded, referencing a phrase for how China’s push for positive international perception has in many cases devolved into superficially patriotic fervor domestically and showed an uglier side of Chinese nationalism (See CMP’s “Putting the Soft Back in Soft Power”).

After deleting his original post and apology, Sai Lei turned to reposting content about coronavirus prevention in Changchun. On his account on BiliBili, the video sharing platform, he reposted content from the state-run China Central Television on the Covid-19 related government press conference in Changchun. Even though currently in Shanghai, he said, he could understand the hardships people were enduring in Changchun. And he urged confidence in the government response. “I’m confident that the relevant authorities will ultimately be able to resolve these issues,” he said.

But he could not resist adding a characteristic barb against foreign media. “Concerning foreign media interviews, we must be very careful,” he said. “They are not here to help us. They are just taking what they need from us.”

Screenshot of Sai Lei’s post on the Bilibili platform.

In the past, Sai Lei has gained a wide audience for his ostensible investigations into foreign media and civil society organizations with alleged foreign ties. But the recent backlash against Sai Lei’s viral vigilante approach to supposed negative coverage of China is perhaps a reminder that nationalist and anti-Western voices do not represent the ethos of Chinese cyberspace, and that there is some interest in greater honesty about China’s shortcomings.

“Sai Lei’s audience is clear,” one user offered in criticism. “They are little aspiring Marxists who take pride in looking down on the world. Our TV stations can broadcast news about shootings in the US, our radio can talk about the pandemic around the world, and our news can report on snowstorms in Texas. But when foreign TV stations come to interview us, we bait them, we cheat, and we advertise 500-thousand yuan [awards for reporting them as spies]. We belittle them, and yet we do so under this banner that says, ‘They see us only with prejudice.’”

Putting the Soft Back in Soft Power

At a collective study session of the CCP’s Politburo on May 31 last year, Xi Jinping emphasized the need to “strengthen our country’s international communication capacity,” which meant presenting to the world a “real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China.” While many of the strategies pursued by the state and the state-run media to achieve the Party’s “external propaganda” objectives to date have been painfully one-dimensional, exposing the limitations of top-down thinking, there are signs that communications scholars in China are taking Xi’s words to heart.  

In the February 2022 issue of International Communication (对外传播), a monthly journal published by the state-run China International Publishing Group that focuses on the current trends in global communication research and practice, scholars Zhang Zhi’an (张志安) and Tang Jiayi (唐嘉仪), both from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, look at how China might leverage ordinary members of society – including international students, bloggers and scholars – to advance China’s leading role in global discourse.

Sufficient Freedom” for Storytelling

In their article, “Paths and Strategies for Civilian Subjects to Participate in International Communication on Platform Networks” (民间主体参与平台网络国际传播的路径和策略), Zhang and Tang outline four ways of encouraging Chinese citizens to become involved in global online communication exchange, which they say can “strengthen the conversational and storytelling aspects of online international communication.”

The cover of the February 2022 edition of International Communication.

The authors’ first point is that “groups of young internet users overseas” (海外青年网民群体) should be encouraged to actively participate in international communication through global internet platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al) in order to tell China’s stories in the first person. This, in fact, is a simple idea with potentially interesting implications.

Xi Jinping’s notion of “telling China’s story well” has been at the heart of the CCP’s thinking and theorizing about external propaganda for nearly 10 years. And yet, the concept has been applied in narrowly ideological ways, generally referring first and foremost to the “political advantages of adhering to the leadership of the Party,” as one 2020 article in the People’s Daily explained. Or, as another explainer fawningly began in 2019: “Xi Jinping is a master at telling China’s story.”

Zhang and Tang are certainly right that the “first-person telling of China’s story” (第一人称讲述中国故事) could result in real and appealing multi-dimensionality. But the key question for the CCP would be how to balance such diversity with its obsessive need to positivity and control. After all, personal approaches to impersonal messages, like this one on the wonders of being a Party journalist, can backfire, becoming completely unrelatable to global audiences.

Related to this question, the second point the authors makes is that this citizen-based international communication should be “soft communication,” or ruan chuanbo (软传播), meaning that it should make use of “popular expression” (通俗化表达), which would enhance the sense of conversation and storytelling.

These are interesting points because they highlight – without resorting to direct criticism of current forms external propaganda – one of the basic problems with state-driven external communication. Namely, that much of what is ostensibly intended for foreign audiences mirrors the forms of language, including stiff CCP jargon, that have long been associated with internal propaganda and issue framing. The odd vocabularies of the CCP-led media system, and the values they convey, rarely translate for foreign audiences. Looming behind this fact is a failure to take the ideas and diversity of these audiences seriously.

Which leads to the third point Zhang and Tang make: The need to better understand the characteristics and differences of various online social platforms and environments. “In external communication, speaking out does not equal being heard,” they rightly caution. The essential point here, they say, is to avoid such things as “going it alone,” or bao ban dai ti (包办代替), meaning in this case that the Party-state takes the leading role, essentially speaking for others, and “soldiers marching in order,” or zheng qi hua yi (整齐划一), meaning that everything is rolled out in a unform manner.

Chinese honor guard marching in a column. Or how not to conduct effective international communication, according to some Chinese communication experts. Image from Wikimedia Commons available under CC license.

As the authors explain, ensuring that external communication is not an impersonal and even intimidating honor guard march means “providing internet platforms with sufficient freedom in their operations and development, encouraging exploration, experimentation and innovation.” “In one aspect,” they write, “it means encouraging forces in society to independently explore diversified, vivid and enriched content creation on certain outbound platforms.”

One case in point the authors cite is video blogger and internet celebrity Li Ziqi (李子柒), whose videos on YouTube as well as domestic platforms in China center on the creation of traditional Chinese foods and handicrafts.

Zhang and Tang are almost certainly correct that this is the best means of ensuring the relevance and effectiveness of China’s international communication. But it would also mean a bold expansion of the very understanding of international communication, not as a narrow project of communicating Party-state frames to passive global audiences, but rather something more truly resembling a dialogue among diverse voices. The key question, one the author’s do not ask, is whether the leadership would have the confidence to relinquish such a level of control.

In one aspect, it means encouraging forces in society to independently explore diversified, vivid and enriched content creation on certain outbound platforms.

Zhang Zhi’an (张志安) and Tang Jiayi (唐嘉仪), INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION

The authors even talk about the possible benefits of ensuring that younger Chinese internet users are able to use VPNs to access overseas platforms like YouTube and take part in comment sections there. This may seem an unusual suggestion, but in fact the idea of moderating the strict enforcement of the so-called Great Firewall for specified purposes is not an altogether new concept. In October 2021, the State Council released a document specifying that VPN services in the city of Beijing would be opened to foreign investors (capping foreign ownership at 50 percent) as part of a pilot initiative to transform the service industry, potentially attracting overseas telecom operators in providing domestic VPN services to foreign-invested enterprises in the capital through the establishment of joint ventures. Easily missed after many months of crackdown on China’s internet sector, this document potentially signals a loosening of VPN-related restrictions and an interest in promoting further “opening up.”

Opening up internet restrictions for young internet users in China obviously runs counter to current policies and practice on the control of cyberspace. But the overseas campaigns of so-called “keyboard warriors” in recent years, such as the mobilization of Chinese netizens through Diba in 2019 to attack Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page with memes against Taiwan independence, certainly shows that Chinese can and have been active in the global internet space.

But this issue leads to the final point raised by Zhang and Tang in their article in International Communication – the need to “weaken the nationalist sentiment of private subjects on the internet and avoid inducing excessive nationalist on the internet.”

Dealing with Nationalist Trolls

The authors point out that extreme Chinese nationalist sentiment in response to various international incidents has already become a central focus of much international media coverage, fueling a sense (though the authors do not put it quite so directly, mentioning instead efforts to “bash China”) that China is incapable of measured and cool responses, and not amenable to conversation.

The authors add that the rise of nationalist sentiment on China’s internet may in fact conceal the limitations of what they call the “internalization of external propaganda” (外宣内宣化), whereby what is intended as external messaging in fact becomes an “internal revelry” (内部的狂欢). In the end, messages to the outside world remain undelivered as intended, but the consequences of extreme nationalist sentiment linger internationally. “One of the characteristics of excessive nationalist sentiment on the internet is its ‘complacent praise of China’ and its ‘doomsaying about the West,’” the scholars write. “The problem with this sentiment is that it intensifies the concerns and fears about the rise of China in Western countries and in the international public opinion arena, and reinforces the antagonism between China and the West.”

They added: “Not only is this detrimental to the building of friendly relations between China and the West at the national level in the future, but may even have a negative impact at the level of civil communication, making it more difficult to conduct China’s foreign propaganda work.”

“This Does Not Need to Be Featured”

One of the top-trending stories this week in China has been the tragic crash of China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735, en route from Kunming to Guangzhou, near the city of Wuzhou, Guangxi province. The worst air crash in China in 20 years, the story has been dominated by state media, which have focused on the government’s response since Xi Jinping called for a rapid recovery effort and swift investigation.

But there have also been a few notable exceptions in coverage, online and through social media accounts — and one in particular has prompted a discussion of when it is appropriate to show the human side of tragedy.

4 of the 11 top threads on the Weibo platform at 8AM on March 25, 2022, concern the crash of China Eastern Airlines flight MU5735.

Beginning with newspaper coverage, a CMP review of coverage over the past four days using a database of mainland Party and commercial newspapers – with a total of 314 articles since the crash occurred on March 21 – found that the vast majority of coverage was sourced from either Xinhua News Agency or China News Service, the country’s official news wires. Several reports from the Global Times, a tabloid spin-off of the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, and from the People’s Daily were also cited alongside CCTV, the national broadcaster.

Reports appearing in regional and national newspapers most frequently cited Xinhua, including such commercial papers as the Yangcheng Evening News (羊城晚报), Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) and New Express (新快报) in Guangzhou, Jiangxi’s Jiangnan Metropolis Daily (江南都市报), Hubei’s Chutian Metropolis Daily (楚天都市报), the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily (深圳特区报), as well as regional Party-run papers such as Zhejiang Daily (浙江日报) and Shantou Daily (汕头日报).

A page-five story in the local CCP-run Shantou Daily on March 24 reports the location of the black box from flight MU5735. The report is sourced from Xinhua.

While sourcing for coverage of the crash was generally uniform across Chinese newspapers, the primary difference was treatment and emphasis in using officially released information. At commercial newspapers, the story was generally given more creative front-page treatment from March 22, while Party newspapers either pushed the news to inside pages or hemmed it in on the front page with other Party and government-related news stories.

On March 22, for example, the official Hubei Daily (湖北日报), the CCP mouthpiece in Hubei province, reported Xi Jinping’s “important instructions” (重要指示) on the crash response under the masthead, but without accompanying images. The news was surrounded by other official announcements, such as an “opinion” from the CCP Central Committee on the study of Party history, and the holding of a provincial government meeting on agricultural policy.

The March 22 edition of the official Hubei Daily newspaper, with coverage of Xi Jinping’s “Important Instructions” on the MU5735 crash.

By contrast, the Party paper’s commercial spin-off, Chutian Metropolis Daily, devoted nearly its entire front page to the crash of flight MU5735, including images of the crash area and the ongoing search as well as a map of the flight path.

The front page of the March 22 edition of Hubei’s Chutian Metropolis Daily, with a map of the flight path and images from the scene.

The top headline at Chutian Metropolis Daily, however, remained Xi Jinping’s “important instructions,” and the related Xinhua report was typical of coverage since, focusing on the efforts of the leadership and crews on the ground:

At 14:38 on March 21, Eastern Airlines flight MU5735 was lost and crashed over the city of Wuzhou, in Guangxi, while en route from Kunming to Guangzhou. There were 123 passengers and 9 crew members on board. After the incident, General Secretary Xi Jinping immediately issued important instructions, requiring the organization of search and rescue, proper handling of the aftermath, and an investigation into strengthening civil aviation to ensure absolute safety of flight operations.

The crash has touched the hearts of the people. At present, the scene rescue, aftercare and investigation of the cause of the accident is underway. As long as there is a ray of hope, we must expend one-hundred times the rescue effort. At the same time, the cause of the accident must be identified as soon as possible.

Reactions and discussion of the flight crash online and on social media have been far more varied, with millions expressing shock and concern over the tragedy. Early on, many expressed their fondest hopes for a miracle for the 132 lives on board, even if the conditions of the crash offered little hope. Many posted digital candles to Weibo and other platforms.

The image of a sky lantern posted to Weibo, with prayers for the 132 people on board MU5735. Image from Weibo courtesy of What’s On Weibo, which had an excellent summary of early reactions on social media in China.

Focusing on Humanity

One of the most notable exceptions to the Xinhua-led official state media coverage of the MU5735 tragedy was also one of the most controversial this week. The story, called “The People of Flight MU5735” (MU5735航班上的人们), was published on March 22, the day after the crash, through the official WeChat public account of Ren Wu (人物), or “People,” a monthly Chinese magazine whose English-language tagline has long been, “Nothing But Storytelling.”

The magazine, which is published by the state-run People’s Press (人民出版社), reached out to families, friends and colleagues of the passengers aboard flight MU5735, as well as sources in Guangxi province who witnessed the crash. Based on these interviews, the magazine pieced together a feature story that sought to personalize and humanize the victims of the crash and those close to them.

One part of the story concerned passenger Liu Zhihong (刘志宏), who happened to keep his own WeChat public account on which he regularly posted articles about his relationship with his wife and their romantic moments. The feature story read:

On board this one hour and 55-minute flight was frequent flyer Liu Zhihong. The day before he boarded the plane, Liu Zhihong had just received his wedding photos. 2022 had been the start of his new life. That day was meant to be just another brief and routine separation from his new wife. . . .

The latest article [on Liu’s WeChat account] was from December 26, 2021. He had shared an image of his marriage certificate at the end of the post. In the image, “Ms. Trees,” his pet name for his wife, wears a white top, and “Mr. Red Bean,” this being his own nickname, wears a grey suit and striped blue necktie. They both smile before the camera. At this point in their relationship they had already given a name to their future child: Liu Zhinian.

The Ren Wu article also painted a picture of one passenger’s friends waiting for her to disembark in Guangzhou, where they were ready with her birthday surprise. There was the story of a teacher who had completed a business trip to Kunming and was looking forward to his return home to see his three sons.

Between the raw emotion over the MU5735 story on social media and the dry, mechanical reporting of the government’s we-will-stop-at-nothing response in state media, the Ren Wu feature was certainly a stand-out piece of storytelling. But some wanted to know: Was this really the time?

Many netizens criticized the story on the grounds that such intimate reporting violated journalistic ethics by capitalizing on the trauma of those close to the victims. Another WeChat public account, “Media Tea Party” (传媒茶话会), responded with its own feature discussing the ethical issues raised by the Ren Wu story. The article gathered views from several media scholars and journalists.

Those in support of the magazine felt that the fact that the names of victims had not yet been officially released was not a valid reason to desist from related reporting. “The fact that officials have not released the list of those killed or lost should not be a reason to stop reporting on the victims, nor should such a release be considered a prerequisite, otherwise many reports will not be able to move forward,” said Gu Xiaojin (辜晓进), a professor at Shenzhen University’s School of Communication. “Sometimes, life and death questions aren’t resolved for some time after a major disaster, but that doesn’t mean the media should do nothing and stop following up.”

Another “senior media figure” who remained unnamed told “Media Tea Party” that reporting on the passengers whose lives were lost is simply part of the process of presenting the truth of the incident. At times, such reporting can actually be helpful in explaining the causes of an event, they said. Moreover, such reporting was a special form of remembrance, not unlike the obituary, allowing the dead to be remembered.

Huang Chuxin (黄楚新), a researcher at the Institute of Journalism and Communication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, had three primary objections to the Ren Wu feature story.

Interestingly, Huang’s first objection adhered quite closely to the official state media approach to reporting, and therefore was less a point on ethical conduct and more a point on historical practice and Party media norms. In the early stages of a disaster, he said, the media should first focus on the elements (要素) of the disaster itself — including its cause, the nature of the disaster response and relief and information to help the public “understand the truth about the accident.”

Second, Huang felt that the Ren Wu story had been guilty of “consumption of other people’s suffering.” And finally, he was of the view that it was more responsible at this early stage for media to simply “keep their distance,” and focus on “news value” over personalities and narratives.

Another source quoted in the “Media Tea Party” article, identified as a senior manager for a central-level media outlet, similarly conveyed the view that it was too early to report on the more intimate aspects of the MU5735 tragedy. “The rush to pick apart the story of the people on board for everyone to see, to carve out the strange details and to create pathos, all of this satisfies the desire to tell the story and see the story,” they said. “But this is an accident, and the time has not yet come to tell stories without the slightest hint of public character.”

In using this term “public character” (公共性), the central media source meant something akin to, but notably different from, the idea of the public interest. Generally, in China’s official news culture, under the strictures of the CCP’s view of the news, the government response is the news, period. The leadership is anxious to ensure that the initial news cycle is dominated by stories of government action and heroism – and that questions of negligence or responsibility are sidelined or buried. Frequently, once the initial period of response is finished and an official investigation underway, media are told that the time has passed for reflection. Propaganda instructions will often explicitly direct media not to “reflect back” (回顾).

It is often the case in China that once the initial period of response has passed, with formal commemorations on day 7 following a tragedy, the window of opportunity has already closed. Under a system of official news controls, it is always too early or too late for substantive coverage.

Another Shenzhen University professor, Peng Huaxin (彭华新), took issue with the assertion that all information about the victims and their family members should remain private. While the right to privacy involved the protection of certain private information as well as the dignity of a person, the release of certain information could also be of public concern in the event of such tragedies, he said. “Obviously, the people in this sudden tragedy are figures for whom most of the nation now feels concern and attachment, and the publication of their names is also done out of respect or a sense of grief for them,” said Peng. “There is nothing wrong with the moderate disclosure of their names, which does not include any negative information or personal insult.”

Comments from internet users responding to the Ren Wu story were a mix of critical and supportive.

“[The story is] well written, but the piece comes at a bad time,” said one respondent. “Before there has been any official confirmation [that the passengers have died], this article is basically telling everyone, ‘Yes, these people have passed away, come and remember them.’”

Another user asked: If not now, when? “To put it politely, it’s a non-issue to discuss the timing of coverage, as though Chinese media have any freedom to decide when to report anything,” they wrote. “The reality is that if you don’t report it now, you may not get a chance to do so later, so it’s natural to do whatever you can.”

Screenshot of the comment section under Media Tea Party’s article responding to the Ren Wu feature story.

In fact, the Ren Wu magazine story had not been the only of its kind. The next day, March 23, the China Youth Daily (中国青年报), published by the Communist Youth League, released a story online based on an interview with the sister of a passenger on MU5735. She told the paper about how her sister and brother-in-law had gone to Kunming to seek treatment for their daughter’s illness, and all three were aboard. While the narrative was sympathetic and sentimental, not unlike the Ren Wu story, one difference was the paper’s emphasis from the outset on the sister’s willingness to speak. The headline of the piece read like a disclaimer: “I Am Willing to Say: My Sister and Brother-in-Law Were on the Plane with My 1.5 Year-Old Niece.”

The same day as the China Youth Daily online story, the Party’s official People’s Daily published a commentary on the media’s role in covering the crash. It spoke of holding to the “moral bottom line” (道德底线) and abiding by “journalistic ethics” (新闻伦理). The article singled out for praise a reporter for the state-run China Central Television, who during a live broadcast on March 22 had asked that the cameraman focus away from a flight attendant’s ID card found at the crash site, wishing to protect the privacy of the victims.  

“There is a need to keep as much as possible to the moral bottom line and follow journalistic ethics when presenting valuable information,” the People’s Daily article said. “But the privacy of the people on board should not be excessively explored in the name of reporting, nor should the need to report constitute an intrusion on the family and friends of those on board.”

The CCTV reporter’s action quickly became the story on March 23, drawing the focus away from the victims and back to one of a number of official narratives. A still image of the CCTV broadcast was shared by the network on social media, the reporter’s hand covering an ID in the dirt, with the caption: “This does not need to be featured.”

Additional research by David L. Bandurski.

Telling the Story of the CCP Journalist

Ever since Xi Jinping declared the principle of “Party media surnamed Party” (党媒姓党) at a key meeting on press and public opinion in 2016, this concept has encompassed the idea that journalists working in China must remain loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), closely following its line and policies. More recently, official media and press authorities have tried to soften the sense of passive submission to the Party’s will, emphasizing the personal convictions of media workers — and the sense of fulfillment that comes as loyalty pays off.

One recent case in point is an article posted to its official website of the All-China Journalist’s Association (ACJA), the nominally non-governmental organization that plays a key role in training and licensing journalists and cultivating CCP ideals. It tells the story of Yang Yulu (杨雨露), a “post-90s” journalist from Sichuan Worker‘s Daily (四川工人日报社) who talks about the aspirations she had through her formative school years to become a contributing member of the CCP and its youth institutions.

The piece, promoted through ACJA’s official WeChat account as part of a series on Party journalists that closely involves their media organizations, begins with call in verse form for youth to “live up to the times” and heed the call of Xi Jinping:

Let us listen
as a post-90s journalist
recalls joining the Party
telling the story of her journey
sharing her feelings of growth.
Let us respond to the call of the General Secretary,
melding our youthful struggle with the cause of the Party and the people.
Live up to the times, live up to your youth.

Yang Lulu then describes the process of CCP involvement in her university years. In her freshman year, she “actively submitted an application to the Party organization and reported my thoughts regularly.” She was serving as the editorial director of the school radio station as a sophomore when she learned that she had been identified as “an applicant for Party membership” (入党积极分子) – meaning that she had been formally slated for the entry process by the university’s youth league chapter.

“When I heard that news, I was so excited that I jumped and jumped in my dorm room, almost scaring my roommates,” Yang told the ACJA.

Yang continued to take Party classes and participate in various Party activities on campus. She strived to learn more about the CCP, she said, and how “difficult it was for it to come all this way.” She worked to understand the Party’s mission of serving the people with one’s whole heart and whole consciousness. “During this time,” said Yang, “I began to feel what a proud thing it was to be a full-fledged member of the Party.”

Just before graduation, Yang was able at last to become a full-fledged member of the CCP, fulfilling her long-time dream.

The promotional poster for the ACJA series on Party journalists: “Party Membership Stories of Post-90s Journalists.”

Yang’s first job was to work for China Tibet Broadcasting (西藏人民广播电台), or CTA, the Party’s official radio station in Tibet, where she reported from remote areas like Shigatse, on the border of Nepal, and Nyingchi, which borders India and Myanmar.

As Yang describes her work to the ACJA, her framing of the news is suitably evident. Working in remote highland areas she would witness the lives of the people, and how they had access to water, electricity and broadband. “From the cadres stationed in the village,” she said, “I learned that all these are because of the good policies of the Party and the state.”

Image of Yang Yulu at work at Sichuan Worker’s Daily, included in the ACJA story.

Yang Lulu later returned to Sichuan, where she is now an editor at the Sichuan Worker‘s Daily, the official newspaper of the Sichuan chapter of the All-China Federation of Labor Unions (ACFTU), the CCP-led group with which all enterprise unions in China must be affiliated.

By this point, Yang understands that her role as a journalist is to serve the Party, and to ensure that content evinces the Party’s ideals. “Dealing with drafts from journalists and correspondents, I have to have a sharp eye,” she explains, “actively playing the role of mouthpiece, ensuring that the trade union adheres to the leadership of the Party.”

Yang Lulu’s story at ACJA is by no means an isolated example. Since May 2021, the organization has regularly published articles featuring journalists from different government-owned news outlets as part of its “Party Membership Stories of Post-90s Journalists” series. Though all of these stories are unique, they center on the common themes of rural revitalization and the battle against the pandemic, all of the media workers describing the Party’s commitment to these goals as key motivations for joining the CCP.

Google search results showing numerous stories on the theme of post-90s Party journalists since May 2021.

The clear goal of the feature series is to uphold individual journalists for Party-run media as exemplars of CCP journalism ideals, dedicated to the primary work of the Chinese journalist – which for the CCP is to achieve “public opinion guidance,” or the alignment of public views on policies with the goals of the leadership.  

An updated set of provisions released in November last year by the National Press and Publication Administration (NPPA), which regulates the issuing of the formal press cards (记者证) required for work as a journalist in China, mandated 90 hours of training every year for “continued education.” Required training courses focus, according to the provision, on the Party’s mission in doing journalism (essentially carrying out “guidance”), and in-depth education on the “Marxist view of journalism” (马克思主义新闻观).

In light of more immediate political priorities, with the 20th National Congress of the CCP to be held toward the end of this year, the provisions also specified that journalists should be educated in the so-called “442 formula,” another formulation meant to consolidate Xi Jinping’s personal power as the leader of the CCP. The formula comprises the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). The first of these terms refers to the need to 1) maintain political integrity, 2) think in big-picture terms, 3) uphold the leadership core (in other words, Xi Jinping), and 4) keep in alignment with the CCP’s central leadership.