When it comes to information and public opinion, the Chinese Communist Party has never had much need for that fanciful thing we call the truth. Truth is only ever a matter of the Party’s interest, something formed and unformed like a dirty ball of clay by however many hands can manage to shape it on the potter’s wheel of power. This basic fact about the political contingency of truth is the foundation of propaganda and media policy in the People’s Republic of China.
Which is why it is interesting to find articles emerging from Chinese officialdom, like this one published recently in China Press Publication Radio Film and Television Journal (中国新闻出版广电报), tossing in the term “post-truth,” or houzhenxiang (后真相), as though China shares in some general global truth malaise, driven by the rise of social media and mobile information. “In the era of ‘post-truth,’” says the article, “facts and data capable of reflecting the essence and changing nature of things are in extremely short supply, and mainstream [Party-state] media must place even greater emphasis on facts and data.”
Facts, of course, are generally in short supply in China not because authoritative sources are few and far between, or because people are driven by hopes and emotional impulses over rationality, but because — first and foremost — facts are regarded as politically hazardous insofar as they might coalesce into some form of truth, not of the Party’s making.
Post-truth has been understood in the West as a state in which the emphatic repetition of talking points is all that matters, in which facts are rhetorically weaponised. But the post-truth world is, domestically at least, the world the Party has always lived in, the garden it has carefully tended. The major difference, a significant one, is that the Party dominates the act of speech and the power of repetition. China is the promised land of post-truth, where the bullies have broken every pulpit but their own. Donald Trump, eat your heart out.
What is clear from the piece in China Press Publication Radio Film and Television Journal is that Party pundits have seized on the notion of “post-truth” as yet another hook on which they can hang their accusations against voices emerging on the periphery, through social media and WeChat public accounts — the so-called “self-media,” or zimeiti (自媒体). The presumption is that media directly affiliated with the Party-state, which in China are referred to as “mainstream media,” or zhuliu meiti (主流媒体), are more reflective of the truth, more authoritative. This is easy enough to understand when we remember that we are talking here about the Party’s truth. When the Party’s will is standard, its media “mainstream,” all else is but pale shadow.
The piece is written by Zhao Shulan (赵淑兰), a journalist at the official Economic Daily. It is essentially the affirmation by a state press-worker of the role of the “mainstream media” in guiding or channelling public opinion in society in the “correct” direction, that most reflective of the Party’s truth-interest. Noting that self-media can be an “unstable factor” in the forming of public opinion, Zhao asserts (perfectly in line with the Party, of course) that “constant strengthening and elevating of the news and public opinion channelling capacity… of the mainstream [state-run] media — ensuring the strengthening of correct public opinion channelling — is an urgent and unavoidable topic of major significance.”
The key for Zhao is “subtlety,” or qiǎo jìnr (巧劲儿), which provides the headline of her piece: “Using ‘Subtlety’ To Raise the Channeling Power of Mainstream Media.” Subtlety, in this case, means the selective deployment of facts to make the case that best channels public opinion in a direction favourable to the Party. Zhao would probably not put it in exactly that way, but as she discusses recent cases such as the debate in China over “consumption downgrades,” her faith in the Party’s truth is overriding. A deep and abiding conviction that if you arrange the facts in just such a way, they will form the pre-truth of the Party’s infallibility and rightness.
“In the internet era,” Zhao concludes, “society is becoming a crystal lens, and the facts and the truth cannot be concealed.”
But certainly, oh certainly, they can be properly arranged.
By Zhao Shulan (赵淑兰)
Lately, profound changes to structural patterns in the media and to the public opinion ecology have meant that the news and public opinion channelling of the mainstream [state-run] media face new terrain, new circumstances and new problems. In particular, the hyping done by certain self-media (自媒体) and online media out of commercial considerations often prove an unstable factor in the broadcasting of public opinion and its channelling [or control by the Party-state]. Therefore, the constant strengthening and elevating of the news and public opinion channeling capacity (新闻舆论引导力), broadcasting power (传播力), influence (影响力) and credibility (公信力) of the mainstream [state-run] media — ensuring the strengthening of correct public opinion channeling — is an urgent and unavoidable topic of major significance.
Consolidating Mainstream Public Opinion in Actively Responding to Public Opinion Flash Points
Recently, a post originating from self-media advancing the view that China’s private sector should step back [in favour of greater public sector involvement] made the rounds on the internet and created a storm of attention. The post said: “China’s private sector economy has already fulfilled its task of supporting the development of the state economy, and it should exit the field.” Concerning this [argument], the Economic Daily quickly responded with a post to its WeChat public account that same day, calling on all to be alert to and reject the stirring up of public anxieties over the idea that “the private sector must exit the field.” The post received more than 30 million hits within a short period of time, effectively guiding public opinion in the correct direction (有效引领了舆论的正确走向) and earning widespread praise. The next day, the Economic Daily again ran a commentary that clearly and unambiguously emphasised that the “Two Unshakeables” (两个毫不动摇) [policy of Xi Jinping, stating that both state and private sectors must be encouraged] could not be abandoned. The People’s Daily and many other mainstream media followed in making their voices heard, joining strength to propagate the attitude and policies of the Party and the government concerning the development of private businesses.
In the current public opinion ecology (舆论生态), public opinion flash points and their repercussions generally arise as suddenly as typhoons, with rapidity and violence. When these public opinion storms emerge, people are generally unable to make proper sense of things, incapable of distinguishing up from down and left from right — and often, though they hear only thunder, they assume there must be rain. If the mainstream media step forward with courage, and at the right moment, helping people make sense of the confusion, formulating a plan, then everyone can get on the right path, finding their way through the blizzard, and this means that public opinion leadership can be better exercised and the influence of the mainstream public opinion [of the Party-state] can be effectively consolidated.
Public opinion leadership is about timeliness, and “time” is all about [seizing the] opportunity. Only be seizing timelinesses can a beneficial result be expected, and only with such beneficial results can we talk about strong and effective public opinion leadership. The assertive entry of the Economic Daily through its new media presence in the early stages of the “private sector exit” commotion, enabling clear positioning and clarification of errors, separating true and false, was a display of speed and timeliness, and it allowed seizure of the high ground and authority in public opinion face-off over economic questions.
Adequately Deploying Facts and Data to Raise the Credibility of Public Opinion Leadership
Using facts and data to speak is an effective way of strengthening the results of news and communication. In receiving news reports, what audiences want most are facts. And data are an integral part of the facts. On the domestic internet and in self-media at present, there is often certain information that stands between fact and rumour, or is an outright rumour, and the goal of the disseminator certainly often to grab attention and draw the interest of the audience. In other cases, they may wish irresponsibly to unburden their emotions, to make a name for themselves, or even to pursue hidden agendas (别有用心). In the era of “post-truth” (后真相), facts and data capable of reflecting the essence and changing nature of things are in extremely short supply, and mainstream [Party-state] media must place even greater emphasis on facts and data.
In August this year, a reporter for the Economic Daily went to Zhongguancun with the assignment of reporting on the results of innovation [in the Chinese economy]. In the midst of their reporting, they learned that a scientist formerly with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had completely relocated the business he had started in the U.S. to Zhongguancun. Why would he make such a decision? He told the reporter: “I’ve worked in Silicon Valley before, and the pace of work there is pretty fast, but that pace is maybe half of what you find here in Zhongguancun.”
“As an entrepreneur, I vote with my feet when it comes to selecting the right environment for business,” [the source continued]. “I choose the place where things are best.” Top science and technology talent is increasingly choosing to gather in Zhongguancun, and in China. This fact illustrates that China’s science and technology development and industrial upgrading are something no country can contain. These real choices, ideals, efforts and goals define the prospects of China’s science and technology innovation and economic restructuring and upgrading.
To enhance their news and public opinion channelling capacity, mainstream media must pay special attention to styles and methods (方式方法). One extremely important aspect of this is to draw a concentric circle (同心圆) around public opinion in society rather than run counter to it. Drawing a concentric circle demands that we unite with the direction and policies of the Party and government and that we identify these with the thoughts and hopes of the population. Only by remaining rooted in the concerns of the ordinary people can the media ensure their voices are accepted, and only by achieving acceptance can [the media] achieve resonance with the public and obtain favourable communication results.
Recently, self-media and online media have been talking a lot about “consumption downgrades” (消费降级), and at the base, this coverage is about spreading a pessimistic attitude. This is an issue on which the mainstream [Party-state] media cannot so easily achieve channelling through refutation; they cannot simply shout in response, saying these statements [about consumption] are false. But if they are able to calmly discuss the issue with self-media on a basis of equality, analysing the mechanics of how consumption increases or decreases, then the public opinion results can still be decent.
In fact, some mainstream [Party-state] media are not different from self-media and online media in terms of understanding why consumption rises or falls, and they simply “meet the enemy head-on” before they even work out the sense of the matter at hand. Actually, the rise and fall of consumption correspond to structural changes in consumption, and recent drops in consumption are really about consumption prices. This is a different problem, a different concept, with a different meaning, and can’t be confused with [a drop in consumption as consumer behaviour]. Objectively speaking, the self-media and online media embellishments over consumption declines are essentially an outpouring of displeasure over the pressures caused by exorbitant housing prices and rising commodity prices. If we take a more rational and expert approach, it’s not hard to see that drops in consumer prices have come not with cold consumer sentiment but with an explosion in consumption. This tells us that the drop in consumer prices is not caused by a drop in household incomes. If we then look further, we can see that the red-hot sales of low-priced goods have to do with the return of more rational consumption attitudes, and with the wave in the innovation of modes of consumption [in China]. At the same time, using data to show that consumption is unchanged can also burst the bubble of this idea of consumption downgrading.
… If we offer a lesson to mainstream media in terms of public opinion leadership, I’m afraid it should be that… with a correct sense of political orientation, public opinion guidance and value orientation, we should conduct public opinion leadership with attention to the expert professional art of redirection, rather than shouting at high volume and lecturing those we seek to guide from a position of superiority, compelling their submission.
In the internet era, society is becoming a crystal lens (水晶体), and the facts and the truth cannot be concealed. The mainstream [Party-state] media need to be attentive to social concerns, and official [Party-state] departments also need to support the mainstream media in responding to these social concerns, revealing the facts through the mainstream media in a timely manner.