Government scrutiny of online content shows that the ‘dynamics of power is everything’

HONG KONG–Mao Zedong once said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as well as a pen.” By a “pen,” Mao was referring to the swaying influence of media.

Perhaps this explains why Xi Jinping paid whirlwind visits last Friday to the country’s three flagship state-run media outlets, demanding “absolute loyalty” from journalists. The three media units included the party newspaper People’s Daily, the state-run news agency Xinhua, and state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

The Chinese government is notorious for its rigid and harsh censorship towards journalists. Propaganda officials have issued guidelines to media outlets on what are considered banned topics and news events. The authorities have disciplined and even jailed a host of journalists. On the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, China ranks 176th out of 180 countries.

Frontline journalists in China quickly showed their displeasure with the latest press rules. The Shenzhen edition of the Southern Metropolitan Post, a relatively outspoken newspaper based in southern Guangdong province, juxtaposed the “absolute loyalty” headline to an obituary caption story.

n outspoken newspaper in Guangdong juxtaposed Xi’s call for “absolute loyalty” to an obituary. Its caption reads, “May the ghost drain down the sea.” Source: internet
An outspoken newspaper in Guangdong juxtaposed Xi’s call for “absolute loyalty” to an obituary. Its caption reads, “May the ghost drain down the sea.” Source: Internet

Using juxtaposition as a way to subtly express dissent is not uncommon in China. Some analysts speculate whether the newspaper was trying to slip in a bit of commentary through such stark headline juxtaposition. Many in China also believe that grassroots journalists are very unhappy about the official call for “absolute loyalty.”

The Internet edition of the Southern Metropolitan Post with its controversial headline was removed a few hours after it appeared.

Even the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, one of the party’s top mouth-piece publications, has openly called for more press tolerance from Chinese officialdom. Hu Xijin, top editor of the publication which is run under the flagship People’s Daily group, wrote in a microblog post that “China should open up more channels for criticism and suggestions and encourage constructive criticism … There also should be a certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism.”

Media ‘winter’ coming?

Several developments have also occurred which suggest that a “political winter” is about settle on the Chinese media. In October, the ruling Communist Party, with Xi as party secretary-general, stipulated a new rule that criminalizes the so-called “improper discussion” of government policies. Critics deemed too outspoken on social media are liable for severe punishment. In addition, China has just issued rules for online publishing that effectively ban all foreign-funded firms from covering any online content in China.

The intensified media crackdown came at a time when the Chinese grassroots are dissatisfied by China’s handling of a sluggish economy, a stock market meltdown and rising geopolitical tensions on several fronts. Hence, critics say it would be a pivotal move on Xi’s part to reclaim the political narrative. The bottom line is that he doesn’t want people to question his policy and ability.

Xi’s campaign to tighten controls doesn’t end with the Internet, the press and other media. Academia and civil society are also feeling the heat. Xi ordered “enhanced leadership and party-building” in Chinese universities as far back as 2014. Then in 2015, the legislature passed a litigious Overseas NGO Management Law. The law aims at guiding the activities of foreign-based NGOs in China. Legal enforcement is designed to be implemented step by step, in an incremental, persistent and systematic way.

Pundits believe that Xi is dumping Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism and filling the vacuum with ideology — as was the practice in the old days of communism. They say he is re-defining his regime with mass campaigns, political education and exhortations from above. He finds publicly proclaimed nationalism, patriotism, and his “China Dream” notions useful tools to achieve such political ends.

Party congress due

Xi also needs media support to pursue his ends. This is because a critical party congress will be held next year. At this time, five out of seven powerful Politburo Standing Committee members are due to be replaced. Intense jockeying for key positions is apparently underway, and favorable media coverage can definitely change the tide.

In keeping with the expected leadership shift, at least 14 provincial party leaders or those of comparable ranking have recently praised Xi as the “core” of the party, a development reflecting Xi’s increasing power within the ruling Chinese Communist Party. According to party protocol, only a person deemed the “core” enjoys final approval and veto power. Arguably, the status of being the “core” is the equivalent of a being dictator. By acknowledging Xi as the “core,” these officials are also professing their “absolute loyalty” to Xi, according to analysts.

But this is only part of the story.

US President Barrack Obama noted in 2014 that Xi “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping.” The truth is, Xi’s clout is still weaker than Deng’s. Xi is taking charge of China’s diplomacy, economy, military and politics. But it is still unclear whether he has full command of key areas like state propaganda.

Until Xi undertook his recent and unconventional media tours, the party’s propaganda machine was still under the steering wheel of Liu Yunshan, the communist party’s propaganda Tsar who has overseen the country’s media since Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor as president. Some gurus say Liu was endorsed by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and is still acting on behalf of Jiang, another former Chinese president, rather than Xi. Rumors hold that Xi is trying very hard to erase Jiang’s remaining influence in the country’s polity.

Xi Jinping (c), with Liu Yunshan to his side at left. Source: CCTV microblog post
Xi Jinping (c), with Liu Yunshan to his side at right. Source: CCTV microblog post

Some Chinese political scientists say Xi sent a clear political signal that he intended to overshadow the veteran propaganda chief when he toured the state media offices. Liu was made to accompany Xi on the tour and an official picture shows Xi sitting at the centre, with Liu sidelined at Xi’s side.

Yet, it’s too early to tell if Xi has already succeeded in his propaganda offensive, said an employee of state-run Xinhua, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Xinhua employee believes that Liu still holds many cards. “In China, dynamics of power is everything,” the Xinhua staffer said. “Liu can strictly adhere to Xi’s policy, yet he can make his boss (Xi) look really bad by ‘overcooking’ his instructions.”

“The central television’s family name is the party,” reads this big sign. Source: CCTV microblog post.
“The central television’s family name is the party,” reads this big sign. Source: CCTV microblog post.

According to the state media source, Liu deliberately greeted Xi with a placard pledging loyalty at CCTV. “The central television’s family name is the party,” read the big sign. “News photo of the sign is so heavy-handed that everyone can immediately associate this to the infamous ‘personality cult’ of the Mao era.”

In the stagecraft that governs Chinese politics, a top leader’s instructions are always diluted or disguised. Under this approach, even the most unpopular policy can be packaged in a very edible way.

Poster stole the show

Xi’s recent speech to Chinese journalists about the new rules is no exception. Apart from urging allegiance, Xi also scored some PR points by asking Chinese reporters to “write stories that the public likes to read.” Xi’s endeavor, nonetheless, was undermined when the aforementioned placard stressing “absolute loyalty” stole the show.

The Chinese president’s media tour fiasco isn’t the only incident that observers say underscored the sophisticated “dynamics of power” among top party leaders. Earlier in February, the Year of the Monkey was ushered in with an official gala show that most analysts say was “overtly politicized.”

The government’s four-hour Spring Festive Gala was marked by patriotic songs, unvarnished propaganda, and even a military parade. All the items shared one common theme: Paying homage to Xi Jinping. The annual event, which is arguably the Chinese version of US Super Bowl festivities, were relatively more entertaining and less-politicized in past decades. The show’s nature angered so many Chinese viewers that authorities had to delete tens of thousands of online complaints from local netizens.

It’s rumored that many “dynamics of power” considerations remain behind the curtain in the run-up to next-year’s all-important party congress. One noteworthy fact is that not all party officials have pledged loyalty to Xi. This may be an indication that the majority are still taking a “wait-and-see” attitude toward the political wrestling expected in the upcoming event.

Fong Tak Ho is a veteran Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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