If my understanding of the current censorship crackdown in PRC is correct, western commentators focused on the deepening of Xi Jinping’s control over the media may have missed the point somewhat.  It appears likely that Xi Jinping is primarily concerned with neutralizing control of a rival, Liu Yunshan, over the PRC propaganda apparatus, and Xi’s heightened control over media messaging is a consequence, rather than cause, of the current uproar.

Xi and Liu attending meeting of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on March 3.
Xi and Liu attending meeting of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on March 3.

To recap, there have been three relatively high-profile censorship kerfuffles involving PRC media in the last few weeks: the “resignation letter” posted on an obscure Xinjiang website; the higher profile Caixin report/spiking/report of spiking concerning an NPC delegate’s complaints concerning heavy-handed government messaging; and the big one, the so called “Yes Man” commentary posted on the website of the anti-corruption “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.”

US hackers involved?

The resignation letter is probably a piece of psyops, possibly abetted by the US. Nobody believes that the website’s managers knowingly put this thing up, it doesn’t read write like a genuine cadre whinge, and a focus of the investigation has been interrogation of the site’s technical personnel. Maybe a US hack (there is strong circumstantial evidence that the US has recruited black hat hackers enmeshed in FBI investigations to organize hacking campaigns against PRC websites); maybe an inside job; anyway probably a piece of BS that embarrasses and angers the CCP more than anything else.

I’ll address the Caixin matter in the context of the “Yes Man” piece as I see it.

The most interesting item on the current agenda is the “Yes Man” piece. It is one of those densely argued historical analogy pieces that is trotted out in CCP-land when politics is about to get very, very serious. The essay was posted on March 1 and is clearly a response to the campaign against billionaire gadfly Ren Zhiqiang, whose Weibo account got axed after he made some pointed criticisms of restrictions on free speech. Its message, filtered through various “loyal officials of the Qin/Tang/etc.” hoohah is that one guy who speaks the truth is more valuable than 10,000 suck-ups.

The fact that this piece has been posted on the CCDI website has elicited a lot of excited commentary, since the head of the CCDI, Wang Qishan, is the standard bearer of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive and is seen as one of Xi’s key assets and supporters.

Some commentators, perhaps afflicted with tunnel vision concerning Xi’s authoritarian tendencies to the exclusion of other factors, have drawn the inference that all is not well in Wang/Xi land:

Andrew Nathan, a genuine dean of China watchers, commented:

Observers will puzzle over whether the head of the CCDI, Xi’s close comrade-in-arms Wang Qishan, knew about this document in advance. Even if he did not, the fact that it appeared on the website of the Party’s own enforcement arm suggests that Xi’s most fervent supporters are the ones most worried about the path he has taken.

Piece is still there

Observers should find even more puzzling that, over three weeks after this apparently incendiary piece was posted on the CCDC website, it is still there.

Let me repeat. It. Is. Still. There.

Rather odd treatment for a piece that is supposedly a stinging rebuke to Xi Jinping.

Let us dig deeper, courtesy of New Tang Dynasty media. Let me say here, I will never make fun of NTDTV again. Despite its primary role as a mouthpiece for the Fa Lung Gong movement (and for that matter its eternal last-man-standing cage match with Jiang Zemin and his legacy), I was informed and impressed by its reporting on the ongoing struggle over control of the propaganda apparatus between Politburo member Liu Yunshan—the Politburo member who holds the propaganda portfolio—and Xi Jinping, with Xi getting assistance from Wang Qishan.

These NTDTV reports from June and August 2014 lay out the dispute quite nicely and persuasively.

Note NTDTV’s observation that Liu has a habit of doing high-profile crackdowns of media he considers to be excessively liberal, even when it isn’t a priority of Xi Jinping’s—indeed even when and perhaps because it embarrasses Xi Jinping– citing as an example the fuss over the Southern Daily’s 2013 New Year’s message. Food for thought when one considers the Caixin ado, and the international embarrassment it brought to Xi on the occasion of the NPC.

For those who might still have some skepticism about this thesis, here’s a Chinese-language piece from early March 2016, describing a circumstance similar to the “Yes Men” piece: a key pro-Xi article published by a periodical under the Party Secretariat and withheld from the Propaganda Department’s Qiu Shi magazine. Once again, pro-Xi forces employ an unorthodox venue to evade the hand of the Propaganda Department.

Going Occam’s Razor, the most likely inference for recent developments in media control is this:

Xi Jinping is moving aggressively to assert control over PRC media and propaganda operations.

His target is Liu Yunshan’s control of the press as an independent power center, and Liu’s exploiting the rhetoric of conservative CCP ideology to block and embarrass Xi Jinping. The rumblings against Xi’s centralization of power, though certainly a genuine matter of widespread concern, also feed into Liu’s campaign of opposition.

In my opinion, that’s why Xi made his high profile and, in the western press, intensely snarked visits to People’s Daily, Xinhua, and CCTV. It was to counter Liu’s control & influence, not because these flagship outlets for the Propaganda Department needed reminding that the CCP signs the checks.

Xi Jinping is not primarily engaged in a campaign against all that is good and free in Chinese media, though that may turn out to be collateral damage. He wants to make sure the bespoke, not excessively good and free government and party media organs are pushing his line, and not Liu Yunshan’s.

The most recent battle between Xi and Liu is playing out over the matter of Ren Zhiqiang. In my opinion, Liu Yunshan dropped the hammer on Ren Zhiqiang on his own volition and not with Xi Jinping’s prior or post-hoc approval. Wang Qishan, fulfilling his role as Xi Jinping’s ally, not enemy, provided Xi with a forum outside the propaganda apparatus, to push back against Liu by running the “Yes Men “ piece extolling the value of principled critics.

Xi-Liu shootout continues

The fact that the story is still up there is evidence that the campaign is still going on and, in fact, Xi is trying to turn Liu Yunshan’s ideological stridency into a weapon that works against the propaganda supremo and not for him.

In this context, interested observers, in addition to derisive giggling and guffawing, are welcomed to go “Hmm” at Liu’s decision to have a tete a tete with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in the midst of this struggle. Perhaps with Xi painting Liu as a Red dinosaur, he wanted to bask in some new media aura.

Xi is now actively engaged in uprooting Liu Yunshan’s influence. Indeed, after the National Party Congress, it appears a good deal of personnel reshuffling is going on, and it is a good bet it will strengthen Xi Jinping’s hand and weaken Liu Yunshan’s. And, in parallel with Xi’s game book for economics and politics, any considerations of liberalization of media will be preceded by actions to ensure that it will serve as a Xi Jinping asset, and not a threat.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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