On Monday night, China Central Television Network debuted a sweeping ten-part documentary series, extolling China’s economic and governance reforms, entitled “Carry Through the Reform.” The first episode, “Between Eras,” is less about China’s reforms, and more about Xi Jinping’s leadership, slogans and policies, timed to drum up support ahead of China’s all important Party Congress to be held this fall.
The documentary tribute to Xi’s government comes along with an amusing show of political insecurity, as media outlets have been forced to pull historical and idol dramas from the air and run patriotic content. Movie theater-goers will also be greeted at the beginning of films with a short “Chinese Dream” propaganda video. This coming from a government that is riding a wave of big economic and international relations wins, especially to start this year.
While it might seem counterintuitive, especially to outside observers, that China’s successes would be met with an increase in control over the media, there is a good reason China, with Xi at the helm, has decided that they will control the message. After five years of Xi’s leadership and increasing control of the media, both China and Xi appear to be winning. The US, with its twenty four-hour political news coverage is conversely stuck in perpetual political gridlock.
One thing to keep in mind is that the level of control seen in China’s media today is new. It is, of course, not unprecedented – note the extreme censorship of the Mao era – but it is a dramatic shift from a landscape dotted with several important independent commercial news sources and online commentators from the 1990’s into the 2000’s, which was preceded by an era of burgeoning free press in the 1980’s.
Almost a decade ago, the rise of social networking in China saw with it a rise in plurality of opinions and freedom of information. To a large extent the Great Firewall and Golden Shield, imposing digital analogues to traditional authoritarian restrictions, successfully tamed the power of the internet in China. However, regulations largely confined to blocking websites and sensitive keywords often lagged behind commentary and still allowed for a relatively low risk avenue to question authority with direct criticism. It also allowed people to report on current events as they transpired.
While these developments did not go unnoticed, under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, they went on nonetheless. China was enjoying perhaps the most impressive economic growth the world had ever seen. The internet was part of this and was not yet seen as an imminent existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party. Several hundred million new internet users and several percentage points’ slower economic growth later, Xi Jinping turned the tide of this trend in the span of less than two years, after taking office in 2012.
Xi prioritized party control of the media, including online content, and a return to state news outlet driven content. Under Xi’s watch, no more is there to be independent reporting on “current events”, a category which includes any unrest, instances of violence, natural disasters, etcetera. In addition, registered online commentators without official press credentials now face cancellation of accounts or recrimination for independent journalism on events whether critical of the party or not.
Earlier still, a development that many forget, China saw a post Mao-era revival of professional journalism in the 1980’s. It was seen not only in the development of independent news outlets such as the Southern Weekend newspaper, but even on the pages of the People’s Daily during the pro-Democracy movement.
The front page of the party mouthpiece on March 18th 1989 announced “Over 1 Million From All Walks Demonstrate in Support of Students on Hunger Strike; Democratic Party organization figures frantically call for central government leaders to initiate talks with students.” The events in the weeks that followed those headlines did lead to a rolling back of press freedoms, but the seeds of journalism had been planted, and in the subsequent decades independent news outlets continued to publish sensitive stories with a certain degree of autonomy.
Today, almost 30 years after the violent end to the protests in Tiananmen, pluralism of ideas and press freedom in China has all but disappeared. The sweeping tribute to Xi Jinping’s greatness as a leader being aired this week, along with the broader propaganda campaign to cement Xi’s position as the “core” of the Chinese Communist Party, is in some ways a celebration of that. It is an “I told you so” to Western governments that have called for greater freedom of the press in China.
The narrator of “Carry Through the Reform” makes it clear that “reform” in this context means staying the course: “Our reforms are to continue promoting the socialist system’s improvement and development, not to dramatically change course.”
The onus is no longer on China to prove themselves to Western critics. Until or unless China sees a great unravelling driven by government abuses unchecked by free press, protest from journalists and advocates of free speech will fall on deaf ears in Beijing.