Political Discourse and Press Freedom in 2013

For China Media Project, Qian Gang provides a detailed analysis of political discourse in the Chinese media in 2013. In his color-coded system, deep red represents “political terms from the Maoist era” while dark blue, at the opposite end of the spectrum, represents, “words and phrases…that the Chinese Communist Party does not permit.” Light blue refers to terms “the Party does not sanction but does not explicitly ban.” Using this formula, Qian charts the rise and fall of certain types of language in 2013 compared to previous years:

Using the advanced search function on Baidu.com, the most widely used search engine in China, we can see that 2013 was a different year from 2012 as far as light blue terms were concerned. In 2012, there were 150 distinct articles using the term “universal values” in the headline, of which 78 percent presented the term in a positive light. The same year, there were 400 articles using the term “constitutionalism” in the headline, of which all uses we’re positive.

In 2013, there were 500 articles using “universal values” in the headline, of which 84 percent presented the concept in a negative light. There were 1200 articles using the term “constitutionalism,” 86 percent negative.

Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News have typically been publications where light blue terms like the above have thrived. But light blue terms fell off sharply at these newspapers in 2013.

[…] From May to July of 2013 came the first round of attacks against light blue political concepts, but these attacks were met with concerted opposition from academics, lawyers and rights advocates online. Finally, in late August, Party media “showed their swords,” calling for a “public opinion struggle” (also referred to as a “struggle in the ideological sphere”). Both “public opinion struggle” and “struggle in the ideological sphere” are reminiscent of another term from the Maoist era, “class struggle in the ideological sphere.” [Source]

While Qian’s analysis demonstrates a subtle but clear shift in political winds as President Xi Jinping took power, the Washington Post editorial board speaks out about more blatant efforts to control the Chinese media. In an editorial titled “China’s wrongheaded crackdown on the media,” the editors criticize recent efforts to require Chinese journalists to undergo training to strengthen their loyalty to the Party and to adhere to a “Marxist form of journalism”:

What’s striking is not the fact of party control over the Chinese news media, which is a day-to-day reality, but how the party is demanding journalists absorb a backwards and outdated study guide based on failed concepts of the last century. The new leader of China, President Xi Jinping, has been championing slogans and ideology from Mao’s day and the pursuit of a Marxist Utopia, a pursuit that led to great suffering for hundreds of millions of people.

Remarkably, Chinese journalists are being presented with this at a moment when communications have achieved a fluidity unknown in human history. The digital revolution has so profoundly changed how we see, understand and transmit information that even free societies are struggling with the impact. The dizzying rise of social media, the explosion of mobile devices, the fragmenting of democracy, the fears of surveillance — these are a few of the truly relevant topics for journalists in the digital age. Surely, they are of great interest to Chinese journalists, too, even if they must learn about them behind the back of a controlling state by scaling its Great Firewall. [Source]

Meanwhile, activists who planned to gather in Guangzhou to commemorate the anniversary of last January’s protests at Southern Weekly over heavy-handed censorship at the paper have been warned and detained by police. From Reuters:

At least three activists contacted by Reuters said they would not join the protest after being warned by police.

“In recent days, those who were planning to mark the anniversary were either asked to meet (police), warned, put under house detention, forced to go on holiday … or were detained,” said Wu Wei, also known by his pen-name Ye Du, the Guangzhou-based deputy head of the Independent Chinese Pen Center, which campaigns for freedom of expression in China.

Security was tight outside the gates of the Southern Media Group, which owns the Southern Weekly, with at least eight police vans and jeeps parked outside, and scores of uniformed and plainclothes police patrolling the area. [Source]