If you are a journalist in China, “the spirit” moves you. And the spirit refers, of course, to the priorities and precepts of the Chinese Communist Party.
Back in February, in a speech to media bosses and propaganda leaders, President Xi Jinping reprised the Party’s dominance over media and information in terms more explicit than those used by any leader in recent memory. Media must, said Xi, “be surnamed Party.”
But while the overtones of this or that “important speech” can sometimes be explicit, the finer meanings of CCP discourse are often hopelessly vague. What, for example, does Xi Jinping mean when he talks about “innovation” in the context of so-called “news and public opinion work,” or about the need to “respect the principles of news communication”? Innovation is a good thing, right? And news principles would seem, at first glance, to deal with such factors as news demand and relevance — or other factors beyond Party fiat.
So where does “the spirit” of Xi Jinping’s “important speech” on media and propaganda come down on the specifics?
To help us answer this question, one of the best resources at our disposal is the body of explications that appear in the Party press, in the likes of the People’s Daily and Seeking Truth. While these ostensible clarifications are often themselves impenetrable thickets of Party-speak, they can offer us tantalising hints of specificity that point to core meanings.
In a piece appearing on page seven of the People’s Daily on April 6, expressly intended as an explication of “the spirit of Comrade Xi Jinping’s important speech on news and public opinion,” communications scholar Chen Lidan (陈力丹), a professor at Renmin University of China, wrote about the relationship between the Party’s unquestioned leadership of the media on the one hand, and truth and relevance on the other.
In particular, Chen’s piece is an enlightening look at how the Party envisions “truth” in light of its relationship to “the people” or “the masses.”
We should note that Chen, also the chief editor of the monthly Chinese Journal of Journalism & Communication (国际新闻界), is one of China’s more recognised communications experts, and he has written copiously about Marxist ideas of the press in a Chinese context.
At one point in his piece, Chen Lidan sums up respect for the principles of news communication by saying this means “describing the facts according to the facts.” So it would seem that these principles are roughly the same ones a journalist anywhere else in the world might recognise.
Chen includes a snippet from Xi Jinping’s February 19 speech that seems to reiterate the crucial role of factual reporting:
“Truth is the life of the news. [We] must describe the facts according to the facts, and accurately report individual facts, and from the macro-perspective grasp the full picture of events or things.”
The devil here is not in the details, but in the “macro-perspective” and the “full picture.” After all, it is the Party’s own “macro-perspective,” its own “full picture,” that must arbitrate factuality.
How do we know this is an accurate reading of Xi’s language, and of Chen Lidan’s explication?
As Chen invokes the words of Lu Dingyi (陆定一), who served as editor-in-chief of the Liberation Army Daily beginning in 1942, the meaning of “factuality” for Chinese journalists becomes clear. Here is what Chen tells his People’s Daily readers:
“In 1943, Liberation Army Daily editor-in-chief Lu Dingyi (陆定一) wrote: “When you do reports, you must go and seek advice from those who are personally involved with a matter or in charge of it; listen carefully, taking meticulous notes, and after it is written you must also invite them to look at it (or listen to it) and [abide] their changes. If it is written poorly, you must listen to their opinions and completely rewrite in order to really and truly get at the facts.”
This is factuality with Chinese characteristics. As a practical matter for the news professional, it means checking one’s facts against the enveloping fact of Party rule.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here is a translation of Chen Lidan’s piece in the People’s Daily.
By Chen Lidan
In his speech to the Party’s Conference on News and Public Opinion Work, Comrade Xi Jinping scientifically responded to a series of major theoretical and practical questions appearing in news and public opinion work, and these [remarks] were an enrichment and development of the Marxism View of Journalism (马克思主义新闻观) under the conditions of the new era. Based on deep study of the spirit of Comrade Xi Jinping’s important speech, news and public opinion work must especially adhere to the principle of the Party nature [of the media], respect the principles of news communication, adhere to the work direction of the people as the core, and steadily keep up with the times in promoting innovation, focussing on making each of these basic principles specific.
Transforming adherence to the principle of the Party character [of media] into correct guidance of public opinion. Xi Jinping emphasised that the news and public opinion work of the Party must adhere to the principle of Party character (党性原则), the foundation being adherence to the Party’s leadership of news and public opinion work. This demands that the news media led by the Party, including various media using the internet as a means of transmission, must all embody the will of the Party, express the positions of the Party, and protect the authority of the Party’s Central Committee. In the practice of news and public opinion work, adhering to the principle of Party character can be [understood] concretely as correct guidance of public opinion on all sides (坚持党性原则要具体化为各方面的正确舆论导向).
Maintaining correct guidance of public opinion is a comprehensive demand, [and] Party newspapers and periodicals at various levels, television and radio stations, metropolitan newspapers and publications, as well as new media must all speak guidance (讲导向); news reports and supplements, special programs and advertising must speak guidance; current affairs news, entertainment and social news must all speak guidance; domestic news reports and international news reports must speak guidance. This sort of comprehensive demand has a strong practical relevance.
Because any news communication entails the expression of a position, a grasp of right and wrong, and [we] cannot, for the sake of attracting eyeballs, abandon all sense of basic morality and all standards of conduct. For example, some media have run marriage-seeking advertisements placing money above all else, or broadcast short sketches that poke fun at people with disabilities — clear cases of incorrect guidance. Adhering to correct guidance of public opinion cannot be understood as something extrinsic, that can only be achieved through administrative control, but rather must be internalised as a kind of basic professional moral consciousness; nor should it be understood as a painstaking adherence to a certain model, so that we employ a heap of verbal formalities to adhere to guidance, but rather we must design good programs and good brands that fuse ideological content (思想性) and artistic content (艺术性), and we must create more readable pieces of writing (脍炙人口), good programs and brands that teach in an entertaining way.
Only by respecting the principles of news communication can we adhere to the Marxist View of Journalism (马克思主义新闻观). Marx once demanded, “He who describes the facts according to the facts, describes the facts according to hope” (谁是根据事实来描述事实，而谁是根据希望来描述事实). Describing the facts according to the facts, this is what it means to respect the principles of news communication, and it is a concrete enactment of the Marxist View of Journalism. Comrade Xi Jinping pointed out: “Truth is the life of the news. [We] must describe the facts according to the facts, and accurately report individual facts, and from the macro-perspective grasp the full picture of events or things.” This is a profound exposition of respect for the principles of news communication, and a vibrant use of the Marxist View of Journalism. In respecting the principles of news communication and prioritising truth in the news, [we] must accurately handle the relationship between positive propaganda and supervision by public opinion [NOTE: this term refers generally to the monitoring of power by the public through the agency of press coverage].
In fact, positive propaganda is not about the demand that good things and never bad be reported. Rather, it emphasises that the positive effects of [reporting] need to have precedence. If, when a bad thing happens, criticism is rational, beneficial and restrained, then the effect of communication is positive. On the other hand, if good things are publicised only as the political accomplishments of a small number of cadres, then this can result in a negative communication effect (传播效果), doing damage to the prestige of the Party and the government. In fact, in cases of news reports that follow correct guidance but have a negative social impact, many of these are because the principles of news communication are not respected.
In order to adhere to the work direction of placing the people at the core, [we] must carry forward our fine tradition of news and public opinion work. Comrade Xi Jinping has emphasised many times the work direction of placing the people at the core, and in this speech he again emphasised adhering to the unity of the Party nature (党性) and the people nature (人民性). Adhering to the work direction of placing the people at the core is about defining the proper realisation, protection and development of the fundamental interests of the masses as the starting point and objective of our work, maintaining the people as the base (以人为本). To accomplish this, we especially need news workers to place themselves in the correct position, respecting the masses and carrying forward our fine tradition of news and public opinion work.
In 1943, Liberation Army Daily editor-in-chief Lu Dingyi (陆定一) wrote: “When you do reports, you must go and seek advice from those who are personally involved with a matter or in charge of it; listen carefully, taking meticulous notes, and after it is written you must also invite them to look at it (or listen to it) and [abide] their changes. If it is written poorly, you must listen to their opinions and completely rewrite in order to really and truly get at the facts.” News workers must go deep into the realities of life, learning from the masses, being the primary students of the masses (做群众的小学生). This is our fine tradition of news and public opinion work, and it must not be lost or forgotten. [We] must resolutely overcome news reporting that departs from life, that departs from the problems of the masses, and we must unite service of the masses with the instruction and guidance of the masses, resolving the fundamental question of who we work for, who we rely upon and who we are.
Promoting innovation should be tested in terms of communication power, guiding force, influence and credibility. Concerning the innovation of the Party’s news and public opinion work, Comrade Xi Jinping raised the nine aspects of innovation (9个方面创新) and the two “enhances” (两个“增强”) — namely, innovating concepts, content, types, forms, methods, means, formats, systems and mechanisms, and enhancing the pertinence and effectiveness [of propaganda].”
Recently we have seen the steady advancement of the influence of new media, and traditional media must especially advance with the times and promote innovation — otherwise they will find it difficult to raise their communication power, guiding force, influence and credibility. In innovation, the innovation of concepts is most important. As soon as we innovate our concepts, we find that their are certain methods that in the past were effective that now are no longer effective, things that might have been ahead of their time before that must now be implemented, and lines the in the past could not be crossed that must now be broken through.
The innovation of systems and mechanisms is something about which we must think deeply. [We] must earnestly research those systems and mechanisms that are no longer suited to the new media environment, and how to break through bottlenecks in systems and mechanisms so that we can reach new frontiers. Only by pushing forward with innovation can news and public opinion work be constantly renewed, and its communication power, guiding force, influence and credibility be constantly raised.