Disconcerted by the publication over the past two years of a growing number of articles espousing “liberal” themes, which at times seemed to challenge the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the new CCP leadership took a deliberate decision this January to rein in and discipline the media. The campaign is being driven by the CCP’s propaganda department, which controls and supervises the media and has the authority to guide and shape the party’s narrative. Significantly, the campaign to overhaul, reform and discipline the media coincides with CCP’s severe “mass-line” campaign that focuses on restoring adherence to its ideology, traditions, values and discipline.
The parameters for “reform” of China’s propaganda and cultural organisations are based on a tough speech delivered by president Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing over August 19-20, when he stressed the need for stringent controls over the country’s propaganda apparatus. These were concretised in party document No. 9 also issued in August. The contents of his speech, available elsewhere but only excerpts of which have been publicised by China’s official media, were reinforced in a hard-hitting article published by CCP’s theoretical magazine Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth) on October 16, and later repeated by China Central Television (CCTV). The article calls for ideological uniformity, warns against “anti-China forces” who are attempting to “Westernize” China to destabilise it, and attacks those who have been proposing “neo-liberal economic and constitutional governance reforms”.
Controls over the media had slackened in China over the past year or two, especially in the political climate prevailing before the 18th Party Congress held in November 2012. An atmosphere of apparent laxity had allowed the airing of fairly “liberal” ideas, usually anathema to authoritarian and communist regimes, including 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, 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. The newspaper was supported by bloggers and other commercial media despite the department’s instructions not to report on the incident. On October 26, however, China’s media began reporting that Chen Yongzhou had “confessed” to being bribed to print disinformation and he was paraded on CCTV in a prison uniform. The New Express was cowed into publishing an apology the following day for its earlier statements.
Document No. 9 issued in August 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; 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 and changing China’s basic economic system; challenging CCP’s control of the media and the system for managing press and publications; and, trying to deny CCP’s history and that of People’s Republic of China including the “scientific value and guiding role of Mao Zedong Thought”.
It said the “incorrect thoughts and views” had seeped into China via the Internet and “underground” channels. The document 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, it accused them of “spreading political rumours and smearing Party and national leaders”. The document warned “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 issued fresh press accreditation cards after they pass a test to ascertain their political reliability. The first batch of 250,000 journalists was instructed 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 US is “trying to undermine” China. They have also been told not to write articles favourable to Japan while discussing territorial and historical issues.
Soon after, new restrictions were imposed limiting the number of foreign programmes a television station could telecast to only one in a year. The programmes cannot be telecast during prime-time viewing hours from 7.30pm to 10pm. Television stations have additionally been mandated to allocate a minimum of 30 per cent of their programming time to telecast public interest shows such as documentaries, education and “morality-building” programmes. New musical talent shows, mostly copies of those in the West and which have become very popular in China, are limited to one every three months.
The latest campaign to “reform” and discipline propaganda and cultural outfits is meant to reassert the party’s ideology and reinforce party control. It is a broad spectrum campaign to regulate and control media and cultural outfits, while pro-actively challenging perceived Western-led attempts to undermine CCP’s authority and ruling position. This campaign to reform and tighten CCP’s control over media, including new media and culture, needs to be viewed with the ongoing “mass-line” campaign. Both are long-term.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet
secretariat, Indian government.