During a forum following high-profile visits to core state media back in February this year, President Xi Jinping stressed the Chinese Communist Party’s dominance of the media. In terms more explicit than at any time in the past three decades, he said all media “must be surnamed Party,” and must “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party.”
One of the most illuminating lines in Xi Jinping’s speech on “news and public opinion work” dealt with the notion of “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督)—a term that for many years has been synonymous with the most enterprising journalism that can be found in China’s complex media landscape.
Essentially the idea that the media represent the public (or the “masses”) in monitoring the government with critical reporting, “supervision by public opinion” has generally been poles apart from the notion of “positive news,” the sort of brown-nosing coverage we expect to find in China’s bland Party newspapers. In his speech, however, Xi Jinping subverted the distinction entirely: “Supervision by public opinion and positive propaganda are unified,” he said.
Thirteen unlucky characters: 舆论监督和正面宣传是统一的. But with these Xi Jinping nullified the idea that the media might play a monitoring role with any semblance of initiative or independence. Just as all media, from traditional newspapers to WeChat, are subordinated to the Party’s will according to Xi Jinping’s all-dimensional vision of media control, so is the practice of “supervision by public opinion.”
According to the prevailing official view of media supervision in the Xi era, critical reporting has got out of hand over the past two decades as a result of social and technological transformations. What the CCP needs now is to re-appropriate supervision — to subject it, in other words, to rigorous Party supervision.
In the Party’s official Red Flag journal last month, communications scholar Xiao Zhitao (肖志涛) writes:
“In our country, the media run by the Party and the government have always been the main force in supervision by public opinion. However, in recent years, with the steady emergence and development of new media, and as competition between domestic and international media grows ever more dramatic, certain media have engaged in the one-sided exercise of supervision by public opinion power — and a good number of journalists have fallen into the trap of the West’s so-called ‘freedom of the press,’ the ‘fourth estate,’ the [idea of the journalist as the] “uncrowned king.” This has been extremely damaging to the Party’s news and public opinion work.”
Unpacking Xi Jinping’s statement about the unity of supervision and positive propaganda, Xiao Zhitao says media must “have a correct grasp of the timing, intensity and effect of supervision by public opinion.”
Most crucially, though Xiao stresses the importance of “accuracy,” his explication makes it clear that factuality in reporting is subordinate to the larger fact of the Party and its priorities. The Party’s dominant position as the final arbiter of truth leads Xiao along corkscrews of absurd logic: “The facts must be described according to the facts,” he writes. “In other words, with accurate reporting of separate facts, along with a grasp of the whole picture of things in terms of the macro.”
What does this mean, a “grasp of the whole picture of things in terms of the macro”? It means that the Party’s status is the fact to end all facts. Why, otherwise, is there any need to use facts to describe other facts?
But there are points when Xiao borders on directness. Like this one:
“At the current stage, what to supervise [through reporting], and how to supervise, must be tested by the Party nature and the people nature of the Party media, and a view to the overall [political] situation.”
The notion of “Party nature,” or dangxing (党性), returns us to the basic and inescapable fact of the Party’s dominance of media and public opinion, to the assertion that “being surnamed Party is the fundamental principle of news media work.”
Hasn’t the Party always dominated the media? And hasn’t it always been terribly hostile to criticism? No, not at all.
While Xiao Zhitao imagines encirclement by Western ideas of the media supervision role — “so-called ‘freedom of the press’ — his argument elides the fact that supervision (as at least a semi-independent exercise of criticism) is no more Western than the entire Marxist framework on which the CCP has based its rule. In fact, criticism and “supervision by public opinion” have a long history in China, reaching back to the first decades of the 20th century, and to the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party.
Well before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were preoccupied with the question of criticism and regime legitimacy. In July 1945, as the Second Sino-Japanese War was coming to a close, Chinese educator and politician Huang Yanpei traveled to the mountainous CCP stronghold of Yan’an to meet Mao Zedong.
Sitting down with Mao and several others in one of area’s cave dwellings, Huang remarked on the rise and fall of regimes throughout his own lifetime, and expressed concern over the recurring problem in China of the “draining” of administrative capacity over time. All regimes became corrupted, he suggested: “When emperors die, they take their dynasties with them.” How, he wanted to know, did Mao Zedong propose to break this “vicious cycle of history”? Mao’s answer, eventually recorded in Huang’s book, Return From Yan’an, was unrelenting oversight. “We have found a new path,” said Mao. “It is called democracy. As long as the public maintains their oversight of the government, the government will not slacken in its efforts.”
On August 30, 1950, when the People’s Republic of China was still less than a year old, an article on page five of the People’s Daily (“Criticism and Self-Criticism in the Newspaper”), said that newspapers must be used to carry out a “firm struggle” against government officials who tried to suppress criticism of their actions and policies. In such instances, said the paper, “[we] must when necessary organise the collective strength of the readers to carry out mass supervision by public opinion, thereby reaching the goal of criticism.”
This article came just four months after the Party’s Politburo passed its “Chinese Communist Party Decision On Newspapers and Periodicals Carrying Out Criticism and Self-Criticism,” which underscored the role of the media in carrying out criticism of the Party and government in order to combat such trends as “bureaucratism.” One of two editorials accompanying the full text of the “Decision” in the April 22, 1950, edition of the People’s Daily read:
“This decision demands that newspapers and periodicals include the broader masses in the regular and systematic supervision of our work, turning attention to shortcomings and errors in our work in order that they are corrected, and that we are able to make steady progress forward. This is a serious step in greatly promoting the democratization of our country, and in improving the work of Party committees and governments at various levels.”
From the outset, the “Decision” made clear that acts of criticism and self-criticism were to be made “publicly in newspapers and other publications.” Moreover, they were to be made “freely,” without government interference or the necessity of prior approval. “Responsibility for criticisms appearing in newspapers and other publications,” said the text of the decision, “is to be taken on independently by journalists and editors.”
The idea that the media should take the initiative in doing critical reporting was unfortunately short-lived. In July 1954, a new document, “CCP Central Committee Decision On the Improvement of Newspaper Work,” decisively overturned the post-facto discipline system at the heart of the 1950 decision on criticism and self-criticism. It sent a clear warning to journalists that exercising their own discretion in doing critical reporting could prove a fatal error of judgment. The CCP decision blandly maintained the principle that newspapers are “the most keen weapons the party uses to conduct criticism and self-criticism,” but it stressed the point that newspapers suffered from a “weak sense of party nature.”
By now, this should sound eerily familiar. Following on Xi Jinping’s words in his February 19, 2016, speech, Xiao Zhitao argued that critical reporting, or “supervision,” “must be tested by the Party nature.” Media must be surnamed Party.
The spirit of media criticism re-emerged in China in the reform era, a direct response to the evils of the post-1954 historical hole that had brought such nightmares as the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution.
Significantly, soon after the 1978 Third Plenary Session of the 11th CCP Central Committee that instituted the path of economic reforms, News Frontline, a communications journal run by the People’s Daily, republished in full the text of the April 1950 decision on criticism and self-criticism. The return of criticism marked a new era of reform, not just for the country but for its media.
An introductory note for the 1950 decision as it was printed in News Frontline in June 1979 read: “For a brief time in the past, this decision from the Party, promoted the exercise of criticism and self-criticism in newspapers and periodicals across the country. Today, turning up the heat on this decision, propagating and implementing its spirit, can still have an extremely important function for the news work of our entire party.”
The new wave of debate and criticism encouraged by the “spirit” of the 1950 decision was also to be inclusive in nature: “We hope that various news units, and particularly the editorial departments, editors, journalists and correspondents of our newspapers, as well as the readers, can all participate in this discussion, sharing their opinions, demands and suggestions.”
This was never meant to be a relinquishing of media control. But it did reinstitute a tradition of media supervision of power. And in 1987, media supervision was given an even more prominent profile as then-Premier Zhao Ziyang included the term “supervision by public opinion” in this political report.
Even after Jiang Zemin reasserted media controls in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre in June 1989, the tradition of criticism persisted, finding new and fertile ground in the industry upheaval of the 1990s.
During an official visit in October 1998 to China Central Television’s popular Focus news magazine program, Premier Zhu Rongji said the program’s role was to “[conduct] supervision by public opinion, be the mouthpiece of the masses, a mirror for the government, and the vanguard of reforms.” For Zhu, the press — and in particular, the contentious press — was the most faithful mirror of the party’s deficiencies. While critical coverage advanced the reform agenda, positive propaganda held China back:
“What does it mean to emphasise positive news? Does it mean 99 percent positive news? How about 98 percent, or 80 percent? Wouldn’t 51 percent still be acceptable? Most programs are all about propaganda results, and just one or two point out problems occurring in the course of our forward progress, mobilising the full force of the party in dealing with these problems. This is a far more effective way of doing things than purely looking at propaganda results. Without programs like yours, the voices of the masses could not be expressed. And how then could we talk about democracy? How could we talk about supervision? Everyone must get used to this sort of criticism.”
The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping cannot “get used to this sort of criticism.” When Xi Jinping launched his “mass line” effort to grapple with corruption in June 2013 — telling officials to “gaze into the mirror, straighten their outfits, bathe, and treat their illnesses” — his “mirror” was not the media, and certainly not contentious media. His mirror was the CCP Constitution.
Supervision under Xi Jinping is to be an internal matter, a backstage ritual. Criticism must be managed, supervision supervised. We might say that the PRC’s second era of critical reporting is at its end, at least as a matter of policy.
The gap is closed. Positive propaganda and supervision are unified.
Welcome to 1954.