The following is an excerpt from “Major Events,” an item appearing in China Comment, a magazine published internally by the Central Propaganda Department:
(May 6, 1989)
In the afternoon, Zhao Ziyang speaks with officials from the Propaganda Bureau and others responsible for the ideological work of the Party. “Open things up just a bit. Make the news a bit more open. There’s no big danger in that,” he says, adding. “By facing the wishes of the people, by facing the tide of global progress, we can only make things better.” Once Zhao’s words are conveyed to news media through comrades Hu Qili and Rui Xingwen, support for the student movement rapidly seizes public opinion and wrongly guides matters in the direction of chaos. Several large newspapers, television and broadcast stations in the capital offer constant coverage of the students’ wishes. Subsequently, movements nationwide begin to gather strength, and the numbers of participants swell. Headlines and slogans attacking and deriding the Party also multiply in papers of all sizes, the content becoming more and more reactionary in nature.
In a series of dictates following the events of June 4, the Central Propaganda Department stated in no uncertain terms that news media must “uphold correct guidance of public opinion.” During 1994’s National Working Conference on Propaganda Thought, propaganda officials said the press must “arm the people with scientific principles, guide the people with correct public opinion, mould the people with a noble spirit, and invigorate the people with excellent works”. “The political tumult of 1989, and the severe missteps in the leading of public opinion taught everyone in the Party an important lesson,” Jiang Zemin said in a meeting with propaganda ministers on January 24, 1996.
In a speech on September 26 of the same year, Jiang Zemin said after paying an inspection visit to the People’s Daily that correct guidance of public opinion was good for both the Party and the people, and incorrect guidance potentially calamitous for both. Jiang emphasized that “control of news and public opinion had to be placed firmly in the hands of those who had a deep respect for Marxism, for the Party and for the people.” “Those units responsible for news and public opinion must place firm and correct political bearings above all other priorities,” he said, “thereby upholding correct guidance of public opinion.”
The particular aspects of “guidance of public opinion” have generally been defined as follows: 1. Major Party media must not print or broadcast content that in policy or spirit is at odds with the Party; 2. Media should actively promote the policies of the Party and facilitate public understanding of these policies; 3. If public opinion differs from the Party on any matters, the media are responsible for sufficiently guiding the public so as to bring their opinions in line with the Party spirit; 4. If news reports or propaganda appear concealing certain trends at odds with the aims of the Party, the media must act to prevent the possible spread of these trends; 5. News that is not in the interest of the Party must be rejected, and media must not be so bold as to publicize such news; 6. The media must ensure correct and unerring guidance of public opinion by thoroughly respecting the Party’s discipline of propaganda; 7. The media must provide journalists with a foundation of expert knowledge and research in propaganda techniques in order to improve the results of propaganda guidance.
“Guidance of public opinion” is still routinely found in CCP guidelines today, and increasingly under Xi Jinping has found its way also into national laws relating broadly to the media. In his February 2016 speech outlining his media policy, Xi reiterated that media needed to “firmly adhere to correct guidance of public opinion” (牢牢坚持正确舆论导向). In the same speech he stressed that media operated by the Party-state must all be “surnamed Party” (姓党), upholding the ‘Party nature”(党性).
As digital transformation has re-defined the media landscape in China, however, adhering to “correct guidance of public opinion” is no longer strictly a matter for traditional media and its editors, managers and (licensed) journalists. As hundreds of millions of internet users are actively involved in the sharing and creation of content, including chats, they are all, for the CCP, important nodes of “guidance.”
Regulations released in September 2017 by the Cyberspace Administration of China on the management of chat groups on social media services such as WeChat, QQ and Baidu Post Bar specified (emphasis added) that “providers of information services through internet chat groups on the internet, and users, must adhere to correct guidance, promoting socialist core values, fostering a positive and healthy online culture, and protecting a favorable online ecology.”