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.

Reporting Official China

In a recent interview with Honesty Outlook (廉政瞭望), a magazine focusing on anti-corruption reporting published under the official Sichuan Daily, journalist Chu Chaoxin (褚朝新) spoke about In Fact, I Still Want to Make Progress (我, 其实还想进步), his book relating his experiences as an investigative reporter.

If Chu’s name sounds familiar this is likely due to his connection to one major story a decade ago: the saga of Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun (王立军), whose escape to the US consulate in Chengdu in February 2012 marked the dramatic start to the corruption scandal engulfing Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai.

It was Chu who on February 15, 2012, nearly one week after Wang was taken into custody and escorted to Beijing, received a mysterious text message that would offer the world its first glimpse of the sordid details of the Bo Xilai scandal, involving the alleged poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. The text, which Chu quickly posted to his Weibo account, was likely sent to him by a third party under instructions pre-arranged by Wang Lijun before his trip to the US consulate. It read: “British national Heywood was murdered in Chongqing; Wang Lijun had investigated the case and found Gu Kailai to be a suspect.”

At that time, Chu was a journalist for Southern Weekly, the celebrated liberal newspaper that within months would face intensified efforts to bring it to heel, culminating in the January 2013 “Southern Weekly incident.” Chu would later move on to The Beijing News, another newspaper with strong professional credentials. His book is a fascinating record of his experiences as a journalist, providing glimpses of the systemic and other challenges facing those who try to uphold their professional mission.

In Fact, I Still Want to Make Progress (我, 其实还想进步), Chu Chaoxin’s book relating his experiences as an investigative reporter.

Likewise, Chu’s interview with Honesty Outlook, though brief, offers some insight into life inside the Chinese media. Of particular interest is Chu’s view on the challenge of getting Chinese officials to open up, and on the unfortunate stiffness of reporting on government-related news in China.

A translation of the interview follows:

Honesty Outlook: Some colleagues have said that you have a knack for getting acquainted quickly with officials, that you can make the officials involved in incidents talk, and even that you maintain good relationships with some officials?

Chu Chaoxin: Sometimes it does happen that I get acquainted with officials quickly. There is definitely talk out there that Chu Chaoxin’s face resembles that of a division-level cadre, carrying his tea thermos and his satchel of documents, and that these are the things that put him quickly on a level of familiarity with officials. Actually, that’s not how it works. None of these external, superficial things are enough to make an official abandon his alertness, wariness and resistance toward a professional journalist.

In more than a decade of work as a journalist, I’ve come to trust that making an official involved [in something] open up and accept an interview relies more on professional technique. One time, for example, convincing a vice-ministerial official to grant me an interview meant running to several different cities, constantly gathering information on the scene. While I was going through this process, I sent him text messages constantly, letting him know that I was steadily reporting. I exerted pressure by saying things like, “Whether or not you grant an interview, the story will be written, and this might not be good for you.”

Perhaps is seems like a bit much to call this a skill. After all, heading to the scene is just what every journalist does in the course of reporting a story, a basic demand of our work.

Honesty Outlook: Do you ever become friends with the officials you interview? 

I exerted pressure by saying things like, ‘Whether or not you grant an interview, the story will be written, and this might not be good for you.’

Chu Chaoxin: Occasionally there are officials with whom I maintain good personal relationships. Like the vice-ministerial official I interviewed, Old Lu (老鲁). He is one of the few provincial officials who dared to invite me to his home. This connection was the result of a long period of contact. I know he is a circumspect official who is still clean, and he understands that I’m a proper journalist who won’t use the resources I have to engage in illegal activities. He also knows I’m quite sincere. So slowly we came to trust each other, and we became friends.

Most of the time, however, it is very difficult for professional journalists and officials to strike up friendships because of their differing positions and differing professional demands. A friend like Lao Lu is a rare thing. It’s much simpler if you treat officials as interview subjects and as work tasks when you interact with them. It’s just work. You get valuable information you need from them, and there isn’t any other transfer of interests between you. If things are frank and open, if there is respect, then this makes for a healthy interaction.

Honesty Outlook: Have you ever endured difficulty when working on a current affairs investigation?

Chu Chaoxin: Definitely. Because the current affairs investigations I’ve written in recent years have involved a lot of public opinion supervision (舆论监督), which can offend a lot of people. So I’ve been subjected over the past three years to three separate investigations myself to determine whether I have done paid-for news (有偿新闻), whether I’ve committed [news] extortion (敲诈勒索), or whether I’ve had any kickbacks of any sort from local governments or companies. [NOTE: “public opinion supervision,” or “supervision by public opinion,” is a phrase unique to China that refers loosely to what could in some cases by translated “watchdog journalism.” The work is often critical or investigative, but can also in some cases involve reporting in particular of lower-level Party or government affairs by well-placed journalists at central-level media outlets. “News extortion” refers to a relatively common practice by which journalists or media threaten negative coverage and then agree to make the coverage go away by accepting cash, gifts or advertising deals.]

Local officials in my hometown, and at the newspapers where I used to work, have had visits in the past from investigation teams (调查组). The findings were that I’ve never committed any acts like that. For this I can only thank them – that they’ve helped confirm that I’m clean.  

It’s really important to maintain clean relationships when you’re doing current affairs reporting and dealing with officials on a regular basis. This is a professional conduct, and also the best possible form of self-protection.

Honesty Outlook: In your book, you talk about individual officials who want to use your connections to help them “see official [posts]” (跑官). Have you come across situations like that very often? [NOTE: “Seeking official [posts],” or paoguan, refers to obtaining official positions improperly through bribes or special connections. Local officials are likely in this case to feel the journalists has access through his work to higher-level officials who can assist them in their career ambitions.]

Chu Chaoxin: There definitely have been times when officials have sought me out trying to angle for promotions. But this happens only rarely. The example I wrote about in my book was someone who wasn’t familiar with me, and after it happened, I informed the relevant officials in the local provincial CCP committee. I talk about the specifics in the book. Those who understand my character generally won’t attempt asking a favor of me like that.

In general, the official culture with the Party has changed considerably over the last decade, especially in the last few years. Officials have become more and more cautious and attentive, and the bad culture of corruption has taken a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the positive culture of people actively working to improve people’s livelihoods still awaits further progress.

Honesty Outlook: In your book, you present another side of officials to your readers. For example, their sense of helplessness, or the warmth of their emotion. It seems we’ve been lacking richer and more substantive reporting in our media of the culture of officials and the officials themselves, leading to some level of prejudice in society and the public. Why do you think this is? [NOTE: In fact, it remains sensitive for Chinese journalists to pursue more personal stories about Party and government officials, and reports on official business tend to be dry and formulaic.]

Chu Chaoxin: You’re absolutely right. Not only does this problem exist, but in fact it’s quite serious. The richer dimensions of officials have long been absent in professional media coverage, resulting in a blurred and stiff image of government officials. Officials as presented in the official media are always in meetings, doing inspections, or burying their heads in the reading of words printed on documents. As a result, the public is completely unable to see more personalized, vivid images of officials. This creates a sense of separation and unfamiliarity that is not conducive to the communication and exchange between the two groups.

On the other hand, this has a lot to do with the coldness and indifference with which some officials treat the media. Some officials lack the ability to interact with the media, or they have “media phobia” (媒体恐惧症). Of course, our culture also inclines toward reservedness, and many officials just prefer to be low-profile.

Officials as presented in the official media are always in meetings, doing inspections, or burying their heads in the reading of words printed on documents.

Honesty Outlook: As media, what do you think should be done in this regard?

Chu Chaoxin: News media still need to do as much as they can to diversify coverage of officials as a group. When it comes to government affairs reports, it can’t always be limited to just officials attending meetings and giving reports, or making inspection tours. I’m afraid this needs to be reformed starting with the whole way of thinking about and structuring news coverage.

The problem is that the official [Party-state] media have greater access to officials, but they can’t present them in a multi-dimensional way. Market-oriented media, on the other hand, do a better job of portraying officials as vivid and individuals, but they lack access to them. This [problem] tests the courage and ability of these two differently positioned media to break through our rigid ways of working. Whoever can break through will be able to excel in current affairs reporting.

Fluff Diplomacy

When the government of Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture introduced its popular Kumamon mascot in 2010 in a bid to draw tourists to the region, it was banking on the power of cuteness. The bet paid off. The signature black bear, with rosy red cheeks, generated more than a billion dollars for Kumamoto in just two years.  

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, China has hoped to mirror this success with its own mascot, the now ubiquitous Bing Dwen Dwen (冰墩墩). In contrast to the forceful wolf-warrior image that China has projected internationally in recent years, the giant icy-shelled panda, with a rainbow-like silk ring encircling his face, is a softer and cuddlier alternative – perhaps Beijing’s answer to Xi Jinping’s call back in May last year to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.”

But Bing Dwen Dwen also seems to be serving as an effective distraction at home and abroad, achieving another key objective during the Winter Olympics – ensuring that criticism does not win the day. For China’s government, the chubby panda, enormously popular by all accounts, has been the fluffy friend who launched a thousand fluff pieces.

Shortly after Bing Dwen Dwen appeared at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the Chinese media were full of reports about how shoppers queued up in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping area, some waiting as long as 11 hours in the bitter cold, hoping to take away their own soft souvenirs.

And as athletes at the Games complained about poor planning for cold weather, abysmal food and other problems at the event, the official Xinhua News Agency went after the hard news about the country’s favorite softie. “From stands to signs and posters, the cute panda is ubiquitous at the Olympic facilities, and has been well received among international participants, even being awarded to medalists who hold one up on the podium, eliciting huge ovations from spectators,” the news agency reported.

The mascot, Xinhua added, “is expected to become a shared memory of the whole world.” This remark was reminiscent of remarks made back in December by Wang Wenbin of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when he linked the fluffy mascot to Xi’s foreign policy notion of a “community of shared destiny,” saying in response to a question from The Paper that “we will all join hands to bring warmth to the world and work together for a shared future just like the lovely mascots ‘Bing Dwen Dwen’ and ‘Shuey Rhon Rhon.’”

The China Daily, published under the government’s Information Office, mentioned that Xi Jinping had gifted a pair of the mascots to Albert II, Prince of Monaco, with the hope he would take them back to his children. The newspaper also quoted a souvenir shop employee as reporting that “the mascot is very popular with foreign reporters covering the Games.”

Foreign reporters covering the Games were sometimes asking more pointed questions of this year’s host, in stark contrast to the softball questions lobbed by their Chinese counterparts. Meanwhile, reports from nearly all state media, including China Daily, noted that Bing Dwen Dwen had dominated discussion on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, earning more than 2.5 billion views – roughly two views for every member of China’s vast population.

There were other explanations, however, as to why Bing Dwen Dwen seemed to dominate discussion. For several days after the opening ceremony, the mascot remained at the top of sports topics on Weibo, even besting clearly relevant breaking sports topics, like the attention paid to Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who received an outpouring of adoration from Chinese online who mourned his failure to defend his Olympic title.

Were internet authorities baking Bing Dwen Dwen’s success into top platforms, fluffing up cyberspace with manufactured trends?

In the sports section at Sina Weibo, Bing Dwen Dwen tops the popularity list, even besting Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu.

According to DT Caijing (DT财经), on February 6 alone there were 19 related trending topics on Weibo about Bing Dwen Dwen. The Sydney Morning Herald reported 3 days later that in fact around 20 percent of the accounts behind 30,000 posts about the mascot had been created within the previous month, suggesting that Bing Dwen Dwen was being artificially pushed out to center stage by a concerted publicity campaign.

DT Caijing’s data analysis on mentions of Bing Dwen Dwen on Weibo.

Also dominating the headlines in state media were stories about the woeful scarcity in Ding Dwen Dwen supply, as though “adequate supply in the market” was a question of national urgency. “Production of Bing Dwen Dwen merchandise increased to ensure adequate supply,” said a headline at Xinhua.

On its official Weibo account, the state-run broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) wrote, in a post accompanied by a collage of Bing Dwen Dwen merchandise: “If we can’t get our Bing Dwen Dwens, then we can only collectively take part in the Winter Olympics!”

A post on the official Weibo account of China Central Television turns Bing Dwen Dwen scarcity into a call for solidarity over the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Posts like this one occasionally drew sarcastic remarks. Referencing Xi Jinping’s call to close the yawning wealth gap in China by promoting “common prosperity,” one user commented under the CCTV post: “Please make sure every household in China is able to get a Bing Dwen Dwen. We need to reach the ultimate goal of common ownership of Bing Dwen Dwen.”

But such mockery was rare. Most users simply expressed their fervent wish to get their hands on their own Bing Dwen Dwen.

Up to the time of posting, Bing Dwen Dwen’s official store on Tmall, a major e-commerce platform, still showed most products out of stock, with some subject to daily sales quotas. And if the focus on Bing Dwen Dwen fluff was meant to bend foreign headlines in the direction of Chinese ones, the ploy seems to have worked. Reports on the mascot’s scarcity followed at Quartz, the South China Morning Post, Reuters, the Washington Post, NPR and the New York Times. So perhaps the mascot was indeed popular with foreign reporters inside the Olympic bubble?

The official push to drown out criticism and promote positivity through the irresistible fluff of Bing Dwen Dwen has also prompted a revealing suspension of China’s usual regulation of mad buying sprees on consumer protection grounds. One recent example was a boycott by Chinese market authorities of meal promotions by KFC outlets in China in cooperation with Pop Mart, the Chinese seller of toy collectibles. Under the campaign, KFC meals had been sold with random “blind box” inserts of Pop Mart toys, and in one case as customer was reported to have purchased more than 100 meals in hopes of finding collectibles inside. The craze was deemed to be harmful to consumers.

Such concerns have apparently been dropped in the case of the Bing Dwen Dwen craze – even though Bing Dwen Dwen is similarly being sold with “blind box” inserts, and at much higher prices than for the KFC campaign. On February 8, San Francisco-based non-fungible token (NFT) marketplace nWayPlay announced that its Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics blind boxes containing Bing Dwen Dwen pins would go on sale at a price of 99 dollars each, though sales are limited to five per person.

For years, China has anxiously pushed to increase its soft power, and combat what leaders view as unwarranted criticism and the domination of “global public opinion” by the West. In Bing Dwen Dwen, perhaps, China has found a softer way through a vexing problem. In related coverage on February 9, Xinhua News Agency said that the heart-warming Bing Dwen Dwen was “not just a manifestation of China’s increasing cultural soft power, but also an expression of China’s comprehensive national power.”

Those may seem hard words for such a soft mascot. But perhaps Bing Dwen Dwen’s designer said it best in an interview for the same report: “We are no longer desperate to prove anything to the world,” he said. “It is enough for us to express ourselves calmly.”

Gaming for the China Story

When Xi Jinping presided over a collective study session of the Politburo on “international communication work” last May, urging his comrades to “build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” he probably did not envision telling the story of a teenage girl resurrected from the dead on a journey of revenge across a post-apocalyptic American landscape. But this, say some enthusiastic young Chinese, is the real way into the hearts – and the pockets – of global gamers, and perhaps a more effective way of “telling China’s story well.”

Meet Choko, the gun-slinging protagonist of “Showa American Story,”  a role-playing game (RPG) developed and produced by NEKCOM Games, a Chinese game developer based in Wuhan. Due for release this year on major gaming platforms such as PS4 and Steam, the game unfolds in a United States that has become, as the company says, “an unofficial colony of Japanese economics and culture.” (Readers who wish to know what that looks like will have to endure the game’s trailer, which recently racked up more than 240,000 views on the YouTube channel of IGN Japan, a popular video gaming website).

In an interview with Shanghai’s Guancha Syndicate earlier this month, NEKCOM founder Luo Xiangyu (罗翔宇) stressed the game’s unique Chinese perspective, and his remarks kicked up a flurry of discussion over the most effective means of “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事), a concept that since 2013 has been at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to increase China’s international discourse power.

“We wanted to do something that was centered on the popular culture of the 1980s with a lot of American and Japanese culture,” Luo told Guancha Syndicate. “But we wanted to approach it from our own Chinese perspective.”

The trailer for “Showa American Story” has drawn more than 240 thousand views on YouTube.

Luo explained that in his view “the Chinese interpretation of other subjects is itself a part of Chinese values and culture.” If Western and Japanese filmmakers and game producers could make entertainment products like the DreamWorks animation “Kung Fu Panda,” or drawing on Chinese classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, then why couldn’t China draw cultural strength by turning the tables?

“I think the way one web user put it online is really good,” Luo explained. “They said, ‘Telling China’s story well isn’t necessarily about telling Chinese stories. This is exactly the way we think about it.”

This re-interpretation of Xi Jinping’s external propaganda concept quickly drew praise online, the discussion directed in part by the clickbait headline at Guancha News: “Chinese Team Develops Game About ‘Japanese Culture Colonizing America’: Telling the Chinese Story Well Does Not Necessarily Mean Telling Chinese Stories.”

“It’s great that we are supplying games with content neither Japan nor the US would dare to do,” one user commented. Another added: “It seems that only a Chinese company could make a game like this. RPGs with Chinese characteristics!”

Users comment under the Weibo post for Guancha Syndicate’s interview with NEKCOM founder Luo Xiangyu.

“It’s true that to tell the Chinese story well doesn’t necessarily mean using Chinese stories,” another user wrote. “The concepts we want to convey cloaked in their culture can also do the job.”

These users are not far off the mark when it comes to the growing importance of Chinese game exports for the development of “national cultural exports” (国家文化出口), regarded by the CCP as a key component of national discourse power.

In a notice on support for the development of “national cultural export bases” (文化出口基地) released in October 2021 by the Central Propaganda Department and 16 other departments, the government named video games on its list of encouraged exports for “going out” (走出去), which also included traditional cultural products, films and television dramas as well as other digital cultural products. Products in these categories were to be provided with financial assistance, and other enterprises were encouraged to offer services supporting the “going out” process, including printing, translation, post-production and so on.

Also in October, the propaganda department of Shanghai municipality announced the results of its push to allocate “special support funds” for various cultural product exports. The project support fund, called “Chinese Culture Goes Global” (中华文化走出去), received 220 applicants, from which 58 projects were selected for support. Five of these projects were games, including the popular game “Mr. Love: Queen’s Choice” (恋与制作人), a visual novel mobile game.

Just last month at the “Guofeng Game Forum” (国风游戏论坛), hosted by the China Audio-Video and Digital Publishing Association (CADPA), an ostensible “non-profit social organization” under the Central Propaganda Department, representatives from major gaming producers, including Tencent and Yoka Games, gathered to discuss the integration of game products with traditional Chinese culture. The goal was to inspire more developers to “manifest the charms” of traditional culture in order to “create high-quality national style games to tell the Chinese story well and spread the voice of China well.”

The “Who We Are” section of the official website of the CADPA makes clear the association’s link to the Central Propaganda Department.

But some fans of the concept of “Showa American Story” – who must now wait for the game’s formal release – might advise propaganda officials to drop the obsession with traditional Chinese culture. Who says China can’t find discourse power on a post-apocalyptic desert highway in the American West, where zombies and monsters must be dispatched through brutal combat against the backdrop of Japanese billboards?

“People only listen when you tell fun stories,” one user commented at Guancha Syndicate. “Don’t make any more of that stuff just telling stories to yourself. That’s formalistic cultural garbage that pulls the wool over your own eyes.”

Short Videos to Tell the China Story

“Wherever readers are, wherever viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” Xi Jinping said back in 2015. Given the extreme popularity of short videos in China, it should be no surprise that propaganda leaders are redoubling their efforts to encourage the dissemination of the “mainstream” values of the Chinese Communist Party through platforms like iQiyi, Youku, and Tencent Video.

Welcome to China’s first annual Short Video Online Influencer Night, where the videos, all up for top prizes, sing the CCP’s “main melody” (主旋律), telling stories about hardworking civil servants, the prosperous lives of ethnic Tibetans, and the personal miracles made by the country’s vibrant economy.

Held on the evening of January 15 in the city of Changzhou, the event sought to encourage the creation by users both in China and overseas of short video content that casts China, and its government, in the best possible light. The awards, funded by the state through the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), an executive agency under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, selected around 100 short videos that aligned with the Party’s values and agendas.

Scene on the night of the awards show, hosted by the NRTA.

Examples of videos selected for the award included “China’s Island Watcher in the South China Sea” (中国南海的守岛人), a nine-minute short documentary that looks at the daily life of the 145 Chinese residents of Tree Island (赵述岛), an island in the Paracels group that has also been claimed by Vietnam and by the Republic of China. The video, produced by Timely Media (北京集拾文化传媒有限公司), a company invested by such media groups as Joy Pictures and Shenzhen-listed Zhongnan Red Cultural Group, was one of six videos awarded as a “fine creative work” (精品创作作品) at the ceremony.

Other entries honored at the event included “Beautiful Life: Entering Tibet” (美好生活, 走进西藏), a panoramic view of how lives have improved in Tibet under the CCP, and “The Future is Here: Jiangsu Changzhou’s Tianning Economic Development Zone” (未来就在这里:江苏常州天宁经济开发区), which sings the praises of a local economic development area established more than 15 years ago.  

While there seemed to be much talk at the event of the need to raise China’s international communication capacity, the subject of a collective study session of the CCP’s Politburo back May 2021, it was unclear from coverage by the state media how this was being achieved by the honorees. Nevertheless, NRTA chief Wei Jingjun (魏党军) concluded: “The success of this event causes us to realize that the combination of ‘online influencers’ and ‘short video’ offers a multi-dimensional and multi-layered view of China, making the image of China more realistic.”

“’Online influencers can become a dynamic force in international communication through audiovisual content,” he added.

The deputy head of the NRTA’s department for international cooperation, Yan Ni (燕旎), said she hoped the competition would work toward “training a camera on each and every ordinary and creative Chinese, and extending a microphone to every international person with a connection to China.” This, she said, would “stimulate creative inspiration, and present a vigorous and thriving China to the world through new technologies and new platforms.”

In recent years, short videos have developed rapidly in China. By the end of 2020, more than 870 million Chinese were consuming short videos, meaning that close to 90 percent of the country’s internet users now watch this creative and interactive form of multimedia content. The internet audiovisual industry (视听领域) was valued at more than 600 billion yuan in 2020, one-third of that coming from short video.

Chinese authorities have moved to control a broad range of what they deem “harmful content,” and recently the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) released an updated version of its 2019 list of content restrictions for short video platforms. The stated goal was to “improve the quality of short video content, and to curb the spread of false and harmful content to create a clean cyberspace.”

But the government has also recognized the immense potential of short video, as a creative medium with broad appeal, to reach the population at home and overseas with positive messages that bolster official Party-state frames – what Xi Jinping has called “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事). As the headline of one article in an official publication on publishing and broadcasting put it last week: “In Telling China’s Story to the World, Short Videos Have Great Potential.”

Remembering Xu Zhuqing

Xu Zhuqing (徐祝庆), the former director and editor-in-chief of the China Youth Daily and a key force at the newspaper in the period of journalistic ferment that came in the early 1980s in China, passed away in Beijing on January 5.  

Announcing the news on Weibo the following day, photojournalist He Yanguang (贺延光) recalled that under Xu’s leadership a relaxed atmosphere had prevailed at the newspaper: “In that environment, journalists and editors could discuss, dispute and contend with one another, and our concepts about journalism became clearer. The newspaper held its bottom line [professionally] through this process, earning the respect of its readers and peers.”

“It can be said that the period when you were in charge was the most glorious period at China Youth Daily,” He said of Xu.

Founded in 1951 as the flagship publication of the Chinese Communist Youth League (中国共产主义青年团), the Chinese Communist Party organization dedicated to indoctrinating and training youth, the newspaper was shuttered for a period of 12 years during the Cultural Revolution. It was finally relaunched on October 7, 1978, just weeks ahead of the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CCP, the meeting at which Deng Xiaoping would formally unveil his plans for economic reform and opening.

The newspaper, which benefitted from the enduring influence of its former general secretary, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the reform-minded leader of the CCP, became a fountainhead of experimentation among the country’s seven major national (全国性) dailies at the time. Defined by the phrase “eliminating chaos and returning to normal” (拨乱反正), it was a period of much deeper reflection on the lessons of the Cultural Revolution.

Xu Zhuqing, who had joined the China Youth Daily in the late 1970s after having worked in the International Department of the People’s Daily, led the paper through what would later be seen as a golden age. He set the tone for much more critical coverage early on, in November 1978, with a piece from his own pen called “Correctly Understanding The Problem of Sent-Down Youth” (正确认识知识青年上山下乡问题). The story, appearing on the front page of the China Youth Daily, exposed the ills of the so-called “Down to the Countryside Movement” (上山下乡运动), which from the late 1960s to the early 1970s had sent close to 20 million urban youth to toil in the countryside in order to be “re-educated” by poor peasants.

Xu Zhuqing’s article “Correctly Understanding The Problem of Sent-Down Youth” appears on the front page of the China Youth Daily in November 1978.

In the midst of plans by China’s State Council in 1978 to gradually narrow the scope of the movement, Xu story exposed uncomfortable truths about the policy. For millions of sent-down youth still struggling to find their way back to the city and to normal lives interrupted years earlier, the article was inspirational. It ignited nationwide discussion about the movement, and applied direct media pressure to the State Council conference on the policy as it considered bringing it to an end.

Li Datong (李大同), the founder and former chief editor of China’s Youth Daily’s Freezing Point supplement, known in the early 2000s for continuing the paper’s tradition of tougher reporting, said in a tribute to Xu Zhuqing on January 6, that he remembered Xu granting him maximum freedom in pitching stories, as well as complete autonomy as Freezing Point was launched as a special features section of the paper in 1995.  

“I had a level of freedom I had never experienced before,” Li recalled. “A boss not even asking about the topic [of my report] before it was in progress, and then just looking at the proofs. We really could publish whatever we wanted. Almost everything went straight to press.”

On May 11, 1989, Politburo Standing Committee Member Hu Qili (胡启立), fifth from left on the front row, visited China Youth Daily for a dialogue with editors and reporters. Li Datong and Xu Zhuqing are the first two from the left on the front row.

Re-brand for Official Cyberspace Magazine

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the central agency for internet control and regulation, announced on its official WeChat account on January 5 that New Media (网络传播), the agency’s flagship monthly magazine on internet policy that literally translates “internet communication,” will be renamed in Chinese. The magazine’s new name will be “China Cyberspace” (中国网信), which more directly references the name of the agency itself. The publication’s English name will apparently remain unchanged.

In its notice of the change, the CAC said the magazine would focus hitherto on the “deeper study and application of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era,” as well as readings of the work and policy decisions of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, led by Xi, and general knowledge about cyberspace – all supporting “the building of a cyber power” (网络强国).  

Covers of recent editions of New Media, published under the Cyberspace Administration of China.

The newly-branded publication, overseen by the CAC, will be published by the China Academy of Cyberspace (网络空间研究院), a so-called “new think tank” created in 2015 that regularly supports research on various aspects of internet policy and regulation.

The new CAC magazine will include four sections, including “Directions” (风向), focusing on “cutting-edge reports” on the work of the CAC and readings of policies; “Monthly Reports” (月报), providing context and “political strategy” analysis for the biggest reports (报告) of the month; “Public Opinion Sphere” (舆论场), a “platform for research on the public opinion ecology [in China]” (网络舆论生态的研究平台); and “Exploration” (探索), which will showcase academic research and industry discussions.  

Will the new New Media make for gripping reading? Perhaps not. But it should be essential reading for those who follow CCP policy on cyberspace.

A recent Table of Contents from the CAC magazine, including topics such as “public opinion hot points,” and how to “innovate” CCP mainstream news reports.

Content from the CAC’s magazine is also published through the publication’s WeChat official account (网络传播杂志), where the focus is more concentrated on regulatory announcements and briefings on related laws. But the account also from time to time provides summaries and commentary on recent incidents, such as the firing of a teacher at a vocational school in Shanghai who allegedly made “erroneous remarks” on the number of victims of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre (see coverage from CMP here).

Short Take on China’s Short Video Rules

On December 15, the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) released an updated version of its 2019 list of content restrictions for short video platforms. The purpose of the release, a notice from the CNSA said, was to “improve the quality of short video content, and to curb the spread of false and harmful content to create a clear cyberspace.” While ostensibly an industry association comprising tech companies and radio broadcasters, both private and state-operated, the CNSA is also directly involved in the control of so-called “harmful content,” its charter committing it to such goals as “upholding socialist core values.”

The most recent rules elaborate and adjust the restrictions put in place on short video platforms back in 2019, and define “harmful content” across 21 categories, from content that is “harmful to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (1), promotes separatism (2), or is “harmful to the national image” (3), to the broad dragnet of “other content in violation of relevant state regulations and/or ethical norms” (21).  Other prohibited categories include content that “damages the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and martyrs” (4), which accords with legislation passed in 2018 that made defamation of CCP heroes and martyrs illegal, and content that “damages social stability” (6).

The stipulations in Section One of the CNSA rules, concerning threats to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, are a clear example of the breadth of the rules, which cover not just various forms of content deemed to “attack” (攻击), “deny” (否定), “damage” (损害) or “contradict” (违背) the nature or authority of the country’s governing system, but also content that is “teasing” (调侃), “sarcastic” (讽刺),  “oppositional” (反对) or “contemptuous” (蔑视) about the system, its laws and regulations, its policies, or about Marxism.  

There is no room for latitude or a sense of humor in the CNSA rules. Too much, after all, is at stake – not least the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its top leader, Xi Jinping. The third line of Section One explicitly forbids “attacking, denying or weakening the core of the CCP’s Central Committee, and the core status of the whole Party.”

The prohibitions in the rules are to be applied in all aspects of short video production and distribution, including titles, captions and subtitles, comments and bullet comments, pop-ups, emoticons, images, music, sound effects and so on.

What is new about this round of rules?

One conspicuous addition is a stipulation that forbids content that goes against the recently released Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), an outcome from the Sixth Plenum that reaffirmed the power of Xi Jinping.

Another of the 2021 additions, helpfully summarized by China Law Translate, is a prohibition in Section One of “teasing, sarcasm, opposition or contempt of the latest theoretical achievements in the Sinicization of Marxism.” This, once again, is less about Marxism than about Xi Jinping’s claim over the revolutionizing of Marxism in the 21st century as a keystone in the foundation of his power and legacy. More analysis on this topic can be found in CMP’s June 2020 analysis, “Claiming 21st Century Marxism.”

Also added in the fourth line of Section One is an explicit statement about content that “engages in historical nihilism” (搞历史虚无主义), departing from the “state of the world, the state of the country and the state of the Party” – essentially a prohibition against any views or interpretations of history that the CCP deems to be incorrect. Language from the CCP opposing so-called “historical nihilism” has been on the rise this year, particularly ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP on July 1.

Section Fourteen of the rules includes a new prohibition that also relates to more recent trends in online censorship and regulation. This is a line that prohibits the “displaying the chaos of ‘fandoms’ and unfavorable fan culture, advocating hype and traffic flow as a top priority, or aberrant aesthetics, fanaticism or fan irrationality.” These additions accord with the recent crackdown, since August, on so-called “fandom culture” (饭圈文化), which CMP has written about in “Fandoms in the Crosshairs,” and in “Cracking Down on Fandoms.” Readers may also be interested in our interview on the subject of fandom culture with Yin Yiyi, a professor at Beijing Normal University.

Immediately below the ban on promotion of “fandoms” in the rules is language prohibiting so-called “Sang culture” (丧文化), which refers to the expression of feelings of defeatism and loss, as was epitomized earlier this year in the prevalence of the term tangping (躺平), or “lying flat,” which encouraged young people in China, exhausted by a culture of consumerism and overwork, to simply opt for lives of slackish resignation.

Suppressing Dissent

Commenting on the rules as they were released through the official account of the NRTA on Weibo,  “Shi Ting China” (视听中国), some internet users expressed their concerns and skepticism.

“Who is the subject of these rules? What is their scope? How is monitoring done? How do you appeal?” one user asked.

“Whenever I see this word ‘association’ anymore,” another user wrote, using a popular idiom for a con job, “I think they are hanging a goat’s head and selling dog meat.” This, presumably, was a reference to the way an association of industry players was serving a rather explicit regulatory role.

Comments posted by readers under a notice from the CNSA on updated short video rules.

Another user wrote: “Detailed as these rules seem, I hope the country understands that in the implementation at the platform level all of these concrete rules will be twisted if there isn’t proper oversight, so that they will boil down to two words – ‘suppressing dissent’.”  

Douban Pulled From App Stores

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced on Thursday that Douban (豆瓣), one of the country’s most popular social networking platforms, had been removed from app stores along with 105 other apps, citing “excessive collection of personal information.” The move, which was announced through the MIIT’s WeChat official account, “Gong Xin Wei Bao“ (工信微报), quickly became a hotly discussed topic across Chinese social media.

“Please no, don’t let Douban die,” one user wrote in a comment under the news as reported on Weibo by The Beijing News newspaper. “I have a lot of bookmarks that haven’t been backed up yet.”

“Will Hupu, Zhihu and Baidu Tieba be next?” one seemingly distressed user responded.

Douban, a social networking platform established in 2005, allows users to share reviews of music, books, films and other hobby-related content. The platform’s “group,” or xiaozu (小组), function works as an online community for people who have shared interests in certain celebrities, pop culture trends, films and so on, allowing them to share their thoughts and responses.

Douban has sometimes seemed to be more liberal in its application of controls on user-generated content. A report by the AFP earlier this month showed that while information and discussion about the Peng Shuai case was virtually non-existent inside China, Douban had for a brief period enabled discussion of the case, with a mix of Chinese and English posts managing to survive for a brief time before censors cracked down.

In its announcement, the ministry said it had conducted inspections of apps for violations such as permission requests for users’ personal information that exceed what was necessary for advertised services, and inducing users to download apps through deceptive means. The MIIT said that the first five apps listed, including Douban and the popular karaoke app Changba (唱吧), had not completed “rectification” as required by the ministry, coming into full compliance with the Cybersecurity Law and the Personal Information Protection Law.

A list released by the MIIT shows 5 apps, including Douban and Changba, that have been removed from app stores.

The 21st Century Business Herald, a commercial business publication based in Guangzhou, noted two things in particular in this round of regulatory moves taken by the MIIT. First, the removed apps had received notification back in early November that they were in violation of privacy rules but had failed to make the necessary alterations in time for the deadline set by the regulator. Second, the paper noted that the rectification order and removal list included apps operated by both private companies and state-owned enterprises, suggesting that the MIIT was treating SOES and private enterprises equally – which experts quoted by the paper said was unusual.

A screenshot of a Douban “Group” page shows a notice saying that the “assorted content function” (精选栏目) has been suspended until December 17.

“This situation is something we don’t see so often,” said Yang Yong (杨勇), an expert from East China University of Political Science and Law, “and it shows an attitude of equal treatment in oversight of private and state-owned enterprises by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.”

Sources told the 21st Century Business Herald that Douban has repeatedly faced fines as a result of its failure to censor user comments within the platform’s private group function in violation of the Cybersecurity Law.

This is certainly not the first time that Douban has been subjected to fines and warnings. According to a December 2, 2021, post by “Wang Xin China“ (网信中国), the official account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on WeChat, Douban has been fined to the tune of 1.5 million RMB for alleged transmission of “illegal content.” Moreover, between January and November of this year, the notice said, Douban had been charged penalties on 20 separate occasions by the CAC, with fines totaling nine million RMB.

At Home with External Propaganda

The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖), the Chinese war epic that recently became the country’s top-grossing film of all time, tells the story of self-sacrificing volunteer soldiers who bravely take on American troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Commissioned by the Central Propaganda Department with a budget of over 200 million dollars, the film has been praised inside China as a milestone both for China’s film industry and for the telling of the “China story.”

But while The Battle at Lake Changjin may have been a domestic success, earning more than 895 million dollars by the end of November, it has seriously misfired internationally, and the self-congratulatory tone of much coverage inside China points to the continued myopia of the country’s media system when it comes to crafting stories the rest of the world can relate to.

Earlier this week, the Economic Daily, a central newspaper run by the State Council, hailed the fact that in a period of 10 days following its first screening in Hong Kong on November 11, The Battle at Lake Changjin had brought in more than 10 million Hong Kong dollars in ticket sales. Not only this, said the paper, but the film, which in mainland China had prompted emotional tributes, including a wave of frozen potato eating, had “continued to heat up overseas,” showing in Singapore, the United States and Canada.

In fact, the film’s reception could scarcely be called lukewarm. It made just over 577,000 US dollars on its opening in Hong Kong. Compare this to the saga of the Eternals, which raked in nearly 3.4 million US dollars on its Hong Kong opening in November. Even Anita, the story of the disappeared Hong Kong Cantopop star Anita Mui, topped 1.5 million US dollars on opening, dwarfing the CCP’s nationalistic blockbuster.

In Singapore, meanwhile, the film was not even listed for returns at Box Office Mojo, and taken altogether overseas numbers for the film, including in the US and the UK, were “puny,” as Variety has reported.

Writing at the Economic Daily, critic Zhang Tianqiao (姜天骄) was undeterred by such facts. That that The Battle at Lake Changjin had become a “phenomenal blockbuster,” he wrote, was “a sign that the Chinese story is deeply rooted in people’s hearts.” What is this story exactly? According to Zhang, the story is that the “war of aid to Korea” (援朝战争) – China’s official characterization of the Korean War – was great, and that “its greatness lies in the fact that the Chinese people fought for peace and justice.”

Building on the ostensible success of The Battle at Lake Changjin, said Zhang, the goal should be to continue exploring ways for Chinese films to “both represent [China’s] national characteristics and core culture and also be widely accepted by the world film market.”

“Making the Chinese story tug at the heartstrings of the world means finding a common narrative language with humanity,” Zhang Tianqiao wrote. Story lines, in other words, should be compelling, and at the same time reflect the “China’s story,” a phrase that has become synonymous under Xi Jinping with the global rollout of the CCP’s official line through modernized forms of “external propaganda.”

An excerpt of Xi Jinping’s August 2013 address on propaganda and ideology work, superimposed here on a promotional poster for The Battle at Lake Changjin, relates the telling of “China’s story” to the conduct of “external propaganda.”

Modernizing domestic and external propaganda has been a project of many years for the CCP. And The Battle at Lake Changjin has made a number of innovations in this respect, building on previous experiments.

Like Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2), the previous box office record holder with nationalistic credentials, the film offers fast-moving action sequences and a few impressive swooping camera scenes. But unlike Wolf Warrior 2, this latest “slice of nationalistic entertainment” also makes a clever appeal to younger audiences with its casting choices.

Apart from the leading role played by Wu Jing (吴京) – who directed and produced Wolf Warrior 2 –  the film also stars Jackson Yee (易烊千璽), an actor, singer and performer who is among the most popular today with young audiences. Yee is a member of the Chinese teen idol group TFBoys, or “The Fighting Boys.” The casting of younger stars like Yee signals another important change in the nature of official CCP film production. Film producers, working closely with the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, are exploring novel approaches to casting and marketing. In Yee’s case, his immense following as an idol can offer a convenient avenue for promoting the film.

On September 30, the day before the film’s National Day release, Yee promoted The Battle at Lake Changjin through his Weibo account. The post quickly received more than 1 million likes and reposts, and nearly 400,000 comments.

Jackson Yee plugs The Battle at Lake Changjin in a Weibo post on September 30, the day before its release. The post received more than 100 million reposts.

Like the Wolf Warrior films and Operation Red Sea (红海行动), a 2018 action war film, The Battle at Lake Changjin has helped to change the audience’s perception of “mainstream” films, meaning state productions aligning with the CCP line, as dull and doctrinaire. But it is only the latest culmination of a decades-long struggle to find novel ways to tell the CCP’s story.

Main Melodies

It was at least as early as the National Film Work Conference in 1987 that the leadership introduced the idea of diversifying propaganda products. The phrase at the time was, “promoting the main melody, insisting on variety” (突出主旋律, 坚持多样化 ).” The term “main melody,” or zhuxuanlu (主旋律), is still used today by propaganda officials to assert the need to stick to the main political line, ensuring that the CCP leads the chorus.

Early in the Jiang Zemin era, the Central Propaganda Department initiated the so-called “Five Ones Project” (五个一工程), an awards program designed to encourage “innovation” in mainstream cultural production, including films, television programming, literature and music. The goal was essentially to convey the Party’s objectives, values and doctrines in cultural products that befitted an era of rising choice in the media, as foreign cultural products also became more readily available.

Throughout the Hu Jintao era this atmosphere of experimentation continued, one of the biggest changes being the increasing involvement of private sector investment in the production and distribution of “mainstream” films and TV shows. Films such as The Knot (云水谣), a “main melody” production set during the Chinese Civil War, and TV programs like Drawing Sword (亮剑), which tells the story of Li Yunlong, a commander of a regiment of the Eighth Route Army during the war of resistance against Japan, clearly showed the growing impact of private investors in productions. These films and television series were no longer the ponderous propaganda offerings of the past, but rather sought to blend more secular stories with broad appeal with so-called “socialist core values.”

Since the late 2000s there has been a greater emphasis on “cultural soft power” (文化软实力), the CCP leadership investing its hopes for greater credibility and influence overseas in the strength of Chinese cultural products. And since 2013, Xi Jinping has doubled down on this basic conviction, that China’s voice in the world must grow louder and stronger as a reflection of the country’s growing strength as a global power, and that this should be manifested in rising “cultural confidence” (文化自信).  

The Battle for Global Audiences

State media and other official sources have relished The Battle at Lake Changjin as a prime example of China’s growing capacity for strong cultural products. Jun Zheng Ping (钧正平), an official Weibo account launched in July 2016 by the People’s Liberation Army, posted an article three days after the film’s release that said “the world’s recognition of the people’s army was far from sufficient,” and that this problem could be remedied through the medium of film. The article, “This Age Needs High-Quality National Military Films to Enter People’s Hearts and Head Out Into the World” (时代需要高质量国产军事电影走进人心走向世界), called the war scenes in The Battle at Lake Changjin “excellent,” and said that “the actors performed wonderfully.”

The Shanghai Observer (上观), an outlet run by Jiefang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in Shanghai, said that the success of The Battle at Lake Changjin had demonstrated the vibrancy and vitality of the Chinese film industry, and had “shown the world the unique beauty of the China story.” The outlet was not wrong in claiming that a “Changjin Lake effect” (长津湖效应) had swept across mainland China. Some Chinese, after seeing the film, had visited the graves of these martyrs, laying down flowers. Some stands selling vegetables had reportedly posted signs that read, “Today we have plenty of potatoes,” a tribute to the hardships depicted in the film, including one scene in which the volunteer soldiers must eat frozen potatoes.

A column of the US First Marine Division move through Chinese lines during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Public domain photo by Corporal Peter McDonald, USMC.

But many of the very elements that have made the film so appealing to audiences in mainland China, what Zhang Tianqiao hailed in the Economic Daily this week as an insistence on “national characteristics” and “core culture,” are the more or less direct causes of its failure overseas – a failure that commentators inside China seem ill equipped to recognize.

In the theory section of the latest edition of International Communications, a monthly journal on mass media published in China, two scholars from Ningbo University, Xin Hongjuan (辛红娟) and Meng Jialong (孟佳蓉), write that promoting the “going out” (走出去) of “red culture” (红色文化), a phrase referring to CCP-approved official PRC history and culture, is crucial to “telling China’s story well.”

From the outset of their summary, the two authors tacitly accept Xi Jinping’s external propaganda strategy as the frame with which to discuss international communications and its success or failure, and suitably they begin their paper with a reference to Xi Jinping’s remarks on “red resources” (红色资源) at the 31st collective study session of the Politburo on June 25, 2021.

The Battle at Lake Changjin, they say, “provides a good example of how to use film and television works as a vehicle to optimize the foreign communication of China’s red culture.” They conclude, on the basis apparently of a simple viewing of the film, that it “cleverly uses empathic communication, employing macro narratives to promote two-way empathy.” The result is to promote a clear image of the Chinese military as peace-loving and opposing war. Moreover, the film “contributes new ideas to promote the integration of Chinese civilization into the world civilization in a confident and positive manner.”

Xin Hongjuan (辛红娟) and Meng Jialong (孟佳蓉) write in International Communication that The Battle at Changjin Lake is successful at inspiring “two-way empathy” and is a new example in the international communication of “red culture.”

This faith in the film’s power of “empathic communication” is based in particular on two scenes in the film, which the author’s imagine must elicit sympathy from audiences everywhere.

In the first scene, soldier Wu Wanli, the brother of seventh company commander Wu Qianli (played by Wolf Warrior 2 director Wu Jing) is about to shoot an American officer and achieve his goal of killing 20 enemies, transforming himself into a “hero,” when Qianli stays his hand, saying: “There are some shots that must be fired, and others that can be left unfired.” In the second scene, an American commander named Smith comes across a group of Chinese volunteers frozen like ice sculptures, but maintaining their combat postures. He removes his hat and salutes the Chinese soldiers.

Xin and Meng accept out of hand that these scenes “promote two-way empathy,” that global audiences will take them as evidence of peace-loving goodwill. Here is their elementary thesis about how international communication can be achieved:

As a country with 5,000 years of civilization, China has its own national system, and its own discourse to express its values — for example, the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, the spirit of collectivism and communism, and so on. Western countries also have their own unique systems and values, including democratic republicanism, the supremacy of individualism and heroism, and so on. In order to foster empathy between these two sides having different cultures and ideologies, we must find the common emotions (共通情感) in both cultures. Respect for life, for example, is the basis for a natural dialogue between people in the East and the West.

Finding these points of “empathic communication,” the scholars conclude, can help to “break more barriers to the foreign dissemination of Chinese red culture.” But are Chinese scholars and strategists, including pundits at state media, looking critically at the real failure of how The Battle at Lake Changjin has been received in foreign countries?

The film has drawn overseas criticism for stretching the historical facts of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Malaysia turned the film away after online discontent over its role as CCP propaganda. Not only, South Korean critics said, did the film serve as a blatant propaganda, playing fast and loose with the facts, but its release was timed to accompany the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party.

At the Rotten Tomatoes film review website, The Battle at Lake Changjin earned a green “splat,” receiving at 33 percent barely more than half the proportion of positive reviews it needed to earn a squishy tomato. The Guardian, which called it “straight-up propaganda,” bemoaned the lack of any coherent story at all. “It’s a shame there is virtually no story to sew this ungainly patchwork of styles together,” the critic Phil Hoad wrote, “apart from some threadbare twaddle about 7th Company commander Quanli (Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing) and his wannabe soldier brother Wanli (Jackson Yee), as a stowaway who mostly exists for his comrades to impart self-sacrificing wisdom.”

Beyond its lack of coherence, said Hoad, the film had “worryingly belligerent overtones,” and seemed to revel in graphic violence. The critic likened a hand-to-hand combat scene in the American encampment to “a homicidal game of Twister.”

Critical views gathered at Rotten Tomatoes for The Battle at Changjin Lake are largely negative.

At The Hollywood Reporter, critic Elizabeth Kerr called the film “propagandist myth-making” that threw historical fact out the window. While Kerr said that the film “ticks all the boxes expected of a rousing slice of nationalist entertainment,” she concluded that “it’s not even trying for soft power” – a comment state media pundits should find painful given their insistence that the film is built to be an international sensation.

“There are no onscreen English credits, as if no one expected anyone outside the People’s Republic to watch,” Kerr wrote.

Kerr noted another very fundamental problem that those in China hoping to export “red culture” might take into consideration – the fact that The Battle at Lake Changjin is simply too long at a “butt-numbing three hours.” That might be fine for military die-hards, and for melodramatic audiences ready to mimic the sacrifices of the people’s volunteers, breaking their teeth on frozen potatoes. But when it comes to appealing to global audiences, it is one of many failings the CCP’s “red culture” promoters might do well to consider.

Don’t Flaunt It

A generation ago China’s drive for economic growth and wealth creation could be summed up in Deng Xiaoping’s famous injunction to “first let a few get rich” (让一部分人先富起来), a formula that became simplified early on with the phrase “to get rich is glorious” (致富光荣). But these days, as Xi Jinping has insisted that the Chinese Communist Party must now close the gap and pursue “common prosperity,” getting rich, or being rich, can be a mark of socio-political shame.

On Chinese social media, this ethos of shame has lately centered on the phenomenon of “wealth flaunting,” or xuanfu (炫富).

Since the Cyberspace Administration of China launched its internet cleanup campaign back in May this year, social media platforms have been working overtime to comply with the broad demands of authorities, regulating content related to fandom culture, online gaming and other areas of priority for the CAC, pushing for a “clean and clear” (清朗) online space. “Wealth flaunting” has been one of a number of areas of focus.  

Last week, the social media and e-commerce platform “Xiaohongshu” (小红书), known in English as “Little Red Book” or sometimes simply as “RED,” publicly announced the results of its internal campaign to combat “wealth flaunting,” or xuanfu (炫富), within its online community. RED is a platform where users post on a variety of topics such as food, fashion, travel and lifestyle.

The official logo of the RED platform.

According to RED’s announcement, the platform’s efforts over the past six months to “combat wealth flaunting” (抵制炫富) have resulted in the deletion of 8,787 “wealth-flaunting records in violation of regulations” (炫富类违规笔记). Fines were reportedly imposed by the platform on 240 accounts for related violations.

Interestingly, RED also reported that it had upgraded its algorithmic model for spotting posts that flaunt wealth (炫富识别的算法模型), offering a glimpse at how platforms are directly involved in creating and deploying technical solutions to achieve the objectives defined by the CCP and the CAC. The goal of RED’s upgraded algorithm model is to detect and remove wealth-flaunting content more quickly.

Back in April 2021, before the Chinese internet cleanup campaign was formally launched by the CAC, RED released community guidelines (社区公约) that defined “avoiding showing off your spending power” and “whether [content] is useful to others” (是否对别人有用) as important criteria in determining whether users’ posts should be shared. The guidelines also mentioned “respecting laborers/service providers” and “avoiding waste” as values to be upheld.

RED community guidelines, released on April 12, 2021.

Online influencers have also joined the anti-wealth flaunting campaign by posting related content on RED. “Jassie” (杰西学姐Jassie), an influencer who shares career advice on the platform, wrote that such content is harmful to people of all ages, generating anxiety in adults, and implanting “incorrect” values, such as vanity, the temptation to take shortcuts, and the need to constantly compare oneself to others.

Another online influencer, “HR Brother Hong” (HR小弘哥), posted on RED that ostentatious displays of wealth were a vice, creating the illusion that all users on RED are prosperous, even though this is far from the truth. Echoing Xi Jinping’s recent pronouncements on “common prosperity” (共同富裕), “HR Brother Hong” emphasized that pursuing this goal – meaning closing the gap between rich and poor – is more important than chasing fame and affectation.

Online influencers on the RED platform jumped on the anti-flaunting bandwagon, helping to promote the CAC’s objectives.

It is interesting to note that in fact the earliest mentions of Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “first let a few get rich” in the 1970s were closely associated at the time with the phrase “common prosperity.” For example, the first mention of “first let a few get rich” in the People’s Daily, appearing on May 28, 1979, was followed immediately by the words, “this is clearly an important measure in bringing about common prosperity.”

The first article to mention “first let a few get rich” in the People’s Daily. May 28, 1979.

Back in May this year, the CAC directly addressed criteria for assessing wealth-flaunting content as part of its internet cleanup campaign. Zhang Yongjun (张拥军), chief of the CAC’s information management bureau, said during a related meeting: “How do we tell if content is simply sharing [details about] life, or actually showing off wealth? The standard here is to look at the dissemination effect of the content,” he said. “It depends on whether the dissemination of the content encourages people to live a positive and healthy life, or whether it instead triggers people to resent the poor and pursue lives of luxury, seeking ease and comfort without working.”

Zhang’s remarks clearly underscored the desire of the CCP to address the social and political impact of the growing gap between rich and poor in the country.

RED has been associated through much of its history – it was launched in June 2013 – with the sharing of content about luxury goods and extravagant lifestyles, an approach that has gained the platform a loyal following. There is a saying in Chinese social media that you can never know how rich Chinese people are until you see them on RED, showing off their latest Hermes bag, their newly-purchased Maserati, or the new house their parents bought for them.

Screenshot of a post by a RED influencer in which she is surrounded by her luxury bags.

The campaign on RED has been reported by various media in China, and shared widely on Weibo. Many netizens, however, have voiced discontent about the new measures. In the comment section under a related report by China Daily, some refused to support RED’s deletions of wealth-flaunting content. “Deleting all those wealth-flaunting posts and accounts doesn’t mean erasing the wealth gap in China,” wrote one user.

Readers of a China Daily article on the campaign against flaunting wealth raise a number of questions and protests. “What’s the need? I like watching others flaunt their wealth.” “How do we determine the bounds of wealth flaunting?” “Deleting all those wealth-flaunting posts and accounts doesn’t mean erasing the wealth gap in China.”

“This is unnecessary,” another wrote. “I can’t afford these products and lifestyles, but can’t I just scroll through the app and see how other people are enjoying such things?”