Marxist View of Journalism

Marxist View of Journalism

| David Bandurski
The “Marxist View of Journalism,” or “Marxist Concept of the News,” is a shifting set of ideas that prescribe and justify the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance of the news media and application of controls on information — and in particular, define the practice of journalism in China as distinct from journalism as practiced in the West, including the notion of the press as a fourth estate. The concept is at the heart of the training and licensing in China of working journalists.

According to the historiography of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the “Marxist View of Journalism” (马克思主义新闻观) has a history stretching back 160 years. It is portrayed as an intellectual inheritance that since the writings of Marx and Engels in the mid-19th century has been refined and elaborated through the minds of Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and every successive Chinese leader through Xi Jinping in the present day.

In fact, the entire theoretical fabric of the Marxist View of Journalism, which can also be called the “Marxist Concept of the News,” is window dressing for elementary claims, reasserted in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, to the necessity of the CCP’s control of news and information in order to maintain regime stability. In a nutshell, the Marxist View of Journalism means that the CCP must and will control the media profession in order to maintain control over public opinion and maintain its hold on power.

Concerning the views on the nature and role of the press held by Karl Marx himself, no serious scholarship supports the assertion that Marx subscribed to the view that the press should be controlled by the state (or the Party). As chief editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in the early 1840s, he ridiculed systems of censorship under the Prussian authorities and regarded censorship as an “unrelenting attack on the rights of private persons and on the spread of ideas” (Hardt). He called a free press “the ubiquitous vigilant eye of a people’s soul, the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world.” While an official Chinese account of the Marxist View of Journalism notes that the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, launched by Marx and others on June 1, 1848, was “the world’s first Marxist newspaper,” CCP theorists completely ignore the fact that Marx and Engels both spoke out strongly against censorship in its pages.

In a nutshell, the Marxist View of Journalism means that the CCP must and will control the media profession in order to maintain control over public opinion and maintain its hold on power.

The appropriation of Marx and Marxism in this context is not about Marxian concepts or discussions regarding the role of the press, but rather a raw claim that the Party possesses a monopoly on the creation and definition of the truth. Most official CCP summaries of the Marxist View of Journalism suggest simplistically that Marx and Engels viewed Party newspapers and periodicals as “important ideological weapons and political positions of the Party,” before they move on summarize authoritarian press policies articulated and enacted in China by Mao Zedong and subsequent Party leaders.

The common thread in the Marxist View of Journalism since the early 1990s has involved three fundamental assertions:

  1. The support of the basic principle of Party control of the media. There are recurrent references in this respect both to Lenin’s notion that literature must be the “cog and the screw,” and to Mao Zedong’s statements and actions in Yan’an, including his takeover of the Liberation Daily in 1942, and his address to delegates in 1945 on “raising Party spirit” (提高党性), which essentially emphasizes adherence to the dominant Party line. The emphasis on the need for “Party spirit” has recurred at periods of tightening in media and information policy, as following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, and it should be noted that Xi Jinping’s injunction in 2016 for all media to be “surnamed Party” (姓党) is also a play on the word for “Party spirit” (党性).
  2. The criticism of the “bourgeois concept of free speech.” The notion of freedom of speech is frequently criticized as a destructive bourgeois concept, following Lenin’s statement that “absolute freedom is a bourgeois or an anarchist phrase.” CCP theorists frequently repeat arguments about the control of the “so-called” free press in the West by wealthy elites, which has been a theme in propaganda since at least the 1940s. In the CCP Central Committee’s Document 9, released in 2013 under Xi Jinping, the “West’s idea of journalism” was formally listed among the ideological threats to the Party’s rule.
  3. Maintaining correct “guidance of public opinion.” This is the idea, emerging in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre on June 4, 1989, that the Party’s control of the media is essential to maintaining the stability of the regime. In the more than three decades since the concept has been synonymous with media censorship. [See also “How a Massacre Shaped China’s Media”]

Though at its core, the Marxist View of Journalism is about the control of media and information to serve the needs of the ruling CCP, the concept has been elaborated in each generation of leadership to incorporate the governing concepts of each leader. When training sessions were held for journalists in the early 2000s, these came to incorporate Jiang Zemin’s legacy political phrase the “Three Represents” (三个代表), and later Hu Jintao’s “Scientific View of Development” (科学发展观). While these political concepts have no real relevance to the professional practice of journalism as understood elsewhere in the world, they are of course core to the construction of CCP power and legitimacy — and as such go to the heart of what journalism under the rule of the Party is all about.

Instruction in the Marxist View of Journalism has also evolved to accommodate the needs of the Party and changes in media technology. In late June 2023, the All-China Journalist’s Association (ACJA) released a new mobile platform designed to facilitate the training and licensing of journalists. According to state media reports, the new app included more than 220 separate courses in the Marxist View of Journalism.

“From this point forward, millions of journalists across the country can carry out training in the Marxist View of Journalism through the internet platform,” said a news release from the ACJA and Xinhua News Agency, “which will play a positive role in educating and guiding journalists to concentrate their souls around Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

David Bandurski

CMP Director

The CMP Dictionary