Upset by the apparent indiscipline in the country’s media and cultural space over the past couple of years, where ideas viewed as seeming to challenge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s authority were being openly aired, the new CCP leadership under its General Secretary Xi Jinping decided in January 2013, soon after its installation, to impose stringent regulations governing the propaganda and cultural organisations. The ‘Bo Xilai affair’ had also severely jolted the Party and it is not without coincidence that the campaign to reform and control the media and cultural organisations coincides with the Party’s severe ‘mass-line’ campaign, which focuses on restoring adherence to the Party’s ideology, traditions, values and discipline.
The parameters for ‘reform’ of China’s propaganda and cultural organisations are based on a tough speech delivered by Xi Jinping at the National Ideology and Propaganda Work Conference in Beijing over August 19-20, 2013, when he stressed the need for stringent controls over the country’s Propaganda apparatus. These were promptly concretised later that month in the Party Document No: 9. The contents of Xi Jinping’s speech, available elsewhere but only excerpts of which have been publicized by China’s official media, were reinforced in a hard-hitting article published by the Party’s authoritative theoretical magazine ‘Qiu Shi’ (Seeking Truth) on October 16, 2013, and later repeated by China Central Television (CCTV). The ‘Qiu Shi’ article calls for ideological uniformity, warns against ‘anti-China forces’ who are attempting to “Westernize” China with the aim of destabilizing it, and attacks those who have been proposing “neo-liberal economic and constitutional governance reforms”.
Propaganda and culture have traditionally been considered exceptionally important by authoritarian governments and communist regimes including the CCP. The importance of the CCP Central Committee (CC)’s Propaganda Department rests in its authority to control and shape the Party’s narrative, particularly in an environment where the media is virtually entirely owned by the state. The collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union further emphasised to the CCP the importance of political education as well as the need for effective controls on media and cultural organisations. Advent of the internet and its rapid spread in China where the number of registered internet users touched 500 million by July 2013, has made the task of the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department more difficult despite the recruitment of an estimated 2 million ‘informal’ internet censors, or monitors, also known by the token amount they are paid namely, ‘Ten cent-ers’.
Controls over the media had slackened, especially in the uncertain political climate prior to the 18th Party Congress. An atmosphere of apparent laxity had allowed the airing and spread of fairly ‘liberal’ ideas, which are anathema to communist regimes, in China’s media, cultural and cyber space over the past year or two. In China these included the advocacy of ‘democracy’, demands for civil rights and freedoms for individuals, suggestions for the armed forces being moved out from under Party control and being placed under the State etc.
An example of this laxity was evident as recently as on October 18, 2013, when a Guangzhou newspaper, the ‘New Express’ challenged the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department to demand the release of one of its journalists, Chen Yongzhou. Chen Yongzhou had exposed the apparent wrong-doings of a company owned by a provincial government. ‘New Express’ was supported by other commercial media and bloggers despite the CCP CC Propaganda Department’s instructions not to report on the incident. On October 26, however, the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department enforced its writ and China’s official media began reporting that Chen had confessed to being bribed to print disinformation and he was paraded on China Central Television (CCTV) in a prison uniform. By the following day, ‘New Express’ had been cowed into publishing an apology for its earlier statements.
The CCP leadership’s concern at the growing indiscipline in the media was accentuated by fears of US-led efforts to de-stabilise China. As the CCP, under the leadership of former Chinese President Hu Jintao, assessed that US-led efforts to destabilize China’s communist regime particularly through the so called ‘Shadow Internet’ had intensified, the importance of the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department increased over the past years.
In March 2011, Wu Bangguo, then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and Chairman of China’s version of a parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), announced that there were five things China would never do. These were:
i) no multi-party democracy (bu gao duodang lunliu zhizheng);
ii) no ideological pluralism (bu gao zhidao sixiang duoyuanhua);
iii) no separation of powers or bicameral legislature (bu gao ‘sanquan fenli’ he liangyuanzhi );
iv) no federalism (bu gao lianbangzhi ); and
v) no privatisation (bu gao siyouhua ).
There has been no departure from these ‘Five Dont’s’ in the Party’s official line over the years.
Clear indication of the mood within the Party was available at the sixth plenary session of the 17th CCP CC, held in October 2011, which listed propaganda and culture as the solitary item on its agenda. This was followed by the elevation of Liu Yunshan, a hard-liner and then Director of the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department and Politburo (PB) member, to the 7-man ruling Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 18th Party Congress held in November 2012. Liu Yunshan was credited with overseeing the dramatic rejuvenation of the Party’s propaganda from an ineffective policy of lax control to an energetic policy aimed at actively shaping public discourse. He pro-actively managed the propaganda apparatus during the 2008 riots in Lhasa and successfully drove a wedge between the majority Han population and Tibetans. Liu Yunshan retained charge of the propaganda and culture portfolio after his promotion to the 7-member PBSC, indicating that the new Party leadership’s views on propaganda and culture remain unchanged and continue to be restrictive. His influence is demonstrated by his presence next to Xi Jinping in official photographs of all propaganda related functions.
Soon after the sixth Plenum in October 2011, then Chinese President Hu Jintao declared in a signed essay in the January 2012, issue of the CCP theoretical magazine ‘Qiu Shi’ (Seeking Truth) that: “we must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration”. He asserted “we should… take forceful measures to be on guard and respond”. His essay indicated approval for the major policy initiatives announced at the October plenum. Vice President Xi Jinping reinforced this on Jan 4, 2012, adding that ideological control and political education in universities needs to be strengthened.
Xi Jinping as CCP CC General Secretary and President of China presided over his first meeting of the National Conference of Chiefs of Propaganda Departments in January 2013, which endorsed the assessment that efforts were being made to undermine and overthrow the CCP. The conference directed Propaganda officials at all levels to tighten media control and ensure proper enforcement of the ‘Seven No’s’. On May 13, 2013, the CCP CC’s Propaganda Department issued a document summarising the main conclusions of the meeting of Propaganda Chiefs and entitled ‘Report on the Current Situation of the Ideological Front’. The May 13 document identified seven "dangerous" topics namely, universal values, press freedom, civil society, civil rights, errors of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), crony capitalism and judicial independence.
Simultaneously, in May 2013, the CCP issued an internal circular to all Party Committees entitled ‘On the Current Situation in the Ideological Domain’ (Guanyu dangqian yishixingtai qingkuangde tongbao) , which listed ‘Seven Things That Should Not Be Discussed’. Zhang Xuezhong, a Professor of Political Science at Shanghai’s East China University divulged the contents of this document on his Sina Weibo microblog. Zhang Xuezhong’s post was soon deleted from Weibo before the topic was censored. His posting listed the seven topics on which universities and the media were to discourage discussion.
The seven things are:
i) universal values (pushi jiazhi buyao jiang);
ii) freedom of the press (xinwen ziyou buyao jiang);
iii) civil society (gongmin shehui buyao jiang);
iv) civil rights (gongmin quanli buyao jiang);
v) historical mistakes by the Party (Zhongguo Gongchandangde lishi cuowu buyao jiang);
vi) Party-elite capitalism (quangui zichanjieji buyao jiang); and
vii) judicial independence (sifa duli buyao jiang).
Implementation of measures to exercise tighter and more effective control over media outlets began after this conference from around May 2013. A Report to the Center for International Media Assistance (Oct 22, 2013) quoted from the annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA)’s issued in July 2013, and pointed out that a series of personnel and structural changes were underway in many media outlets in Hong Kong to ensure increased compliance with the Party ‘line’. Examples mentioned include the Sing Pao Daily News, where a veteran Xinhua News Agency journalist was appointed as publisher. Special internal groups were established at three Beijing-owned, or pro-Beijing, newspapers namely the Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, and the Hong Kong Commercial Daily. Their members are mostly from the mainland and they are tasked with vetting and approving the articles that these media outlets are considering publishing.
Around the same time, following Xi Jinping’s comments of January 2013, efforts commenced to intensify the “ideological and political” training of young university teachers. An ‘Opinion’ jointly authored by the CCP CC’s Organisation Department, Propaganda Department and Ministry of Education was published by the official Party newspaper ‘People’s Daily on May 28, 2013. It asserted that “a few young teachers are lost in their political beliefs. They have fuzzy ideals and beliefs, their occupational and professional ethics are fading. … They cannot serve as role models for others". It listed 16 areas where emphasis was necessary for enhancing “ideological and political” training. A key feature was deepening of education in “the theoretical systems of Marxism, Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and socialism with Chinese characteristics”. These areas of concern are reflected in the Document No: 9.
The Document No: 9 issued in August 2013, is a detailed prescriptive guideline for regulating China’s propaganda and cultural organisations. Describing the current ideological situation as “complicated” and the struggle as “fierce”, it lists seven “incorrect ways of thinking”. These include: advocating Western constitutional democracy thereby negating the current leadership and government system led by the CCP; advocating “universal values” in a bid to substitute the core value system of socialism with Western values; advocating “new liberalism” with the aim of dismantling State-owned Enterprises (SoE)s and changing China's basic economic system; challenging the Party's control of the media and the system for managing the press and publications; and, trying to deny the CCP's history and the history of the People’s Republic of China including the “scientific value and guiding role of Mao Zedong Thought”.
It said these “incorrect thoughts and views” had seeped into China via the internet and underground channels. Internal internet fora, blogs, weibo, conferences, seminars and university classes were listed among the platforms used for such “infiltration”. It was adamant that “anti-China forces in Western countries and domestic dissidents” are continuously “infiltrating China's ideological domain and challenging mainstream ideology”.
The Document accused some Western embassies and consulates in China, media organisations and NGOs of spreading Western values and views and “cultivating so-called anti-government forces”. In an implicit reference to the Bloomberg and New York Times reports, which revealed the extent of wealth amassed by the families of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping respectively, it accused them of “spreading political rumours and smearing Party and national leaders”. The Document warned that “Western anti-China forces” will persist in encouraging change and continue to point the “spearhead of Westernisation, separatism and 'colour revolution' at China”. In conclusion, it was unequivocal in demanding “that the power of leading the press and media is always controlled by the hands of those who are at one with the Central Committee of the Party with Comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary”.
Coinciding with the issue of Document No: 9, media organisations were informed that all journalists in China will be vetted and issued fresh press accreditation cards after they pass an examination to ascertain their political reliability. Directions were issued summoning the first batch of 250,000 journalists to report for a 3-month training programme where subjects include "theories on socialism with Chinese characteristics," and the “Marxist view on journalism”. The journalists have been directed to reject ideas of democracy and human rights, which are described as values propagated by the West and targeting China's Communist Party. They are taught that the United States is "trying to undermine” China. They have also been told not to write articles favourable to Japan while discussing territorial and historical issues between the two countries. Similar instructions have been given with regard to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Promptly after issue of Document No: 9 by the CCP CC Propaganda Department, new restrictions were imposed limiting the number of foreign programmes that a television station could telecast. These were limited to only one in a year. The programmes cannot be telecast during the prime-time viewing hours from 7.30 pm to 10.00 pm. Television stations have additionally been mandated to allocate a minimum of 30 per cent of their total programming time to the telecast of public-interest programming such as documentaries, education and “morality-building” programmes. New musical talent shows which are mostly copies of those in the West and which have become very popular in China, are limited to one every three months.
The CCP leadership’s concern about China’s ethnic minority nationalities is manifest in Document No: 9 which, pertinently, makes particular mention of efforts to “manipulate and stir up Tibetans to self-immolate, create violent and terrorist incidents and in Xinjiang, use ethnic and religious issues for separatist and disruptive activities”. Tibet, where Party surveillance and control has been increased over the past two years, has been quick to feel the impact of Document No: 9 and the recently launched ‘mass-line’ campaign.
This latest campaign aimed at propaganda and cultural organisations has been authorized at the highest echelons of the CCP and is intended to re-emphasise the Party’s ideology and reinforce Party control. It is a broad spectrum campaign that aims to regulate and control media and cultural organisations, while pro-actively challenging perceived Western-led attempts to undermine the CCP’s authority and ruling position. This campaign to reform and tighten the CCP’s control over the media, including ‘new media’ and culture, needs to be viewed together with the ‘mass-line’ campaign now underway in China. Both are long-term campaigns.
The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy and Distinguished Fellow with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). He is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.