How Xi Jinping is Bringing China’s Media to Heel

Last month saw signs that the steady tightening of media control under ’s rule will continue. On February 15, China’s top media regulator issued new rules consolidating the existing restrictions on foreign media organizations’ publication of web content in China. Later in the week, Xi toured the offices of the three leading organizations to remind them of their duty to “serve the Party.” After Party member and prominent “Big V” microblogger Ren Zhiqiang argued that taxpayer-funded state media should first serve the public, he found his weibo accounts purged and his view attacked by a series of state media commentaries. At The Guardian, Tom Philips quotes prominent analysts of Chinese media and politics on how Xi’s quest to double-down on media control relates to his broader goals of consolidating political power:

Xi’s message to Chinese newsrooms, both in and outside the country, was clear, said David Bandurski, an expert in Chinese journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

“You work for the Party, the Party’s agenda is supreme and everyone needs to fall in line,” he told the Guardian

Bill Bishop, a prominent observer of Chinese politics, said Xi’s bid for media supremacy was the latest gambit in a wider push to seize absolute control over the Chinese state.

[…] Bishop said Xi’s bid for total media command showed his determination to hand the Communist party a far more dominant role in society than it had enjoyed in recent years.

“Xi is making it clear in every aspect of Chinese life that the Party is back with a vengeance – and if you doubt that you are at risk,” he said.

“This is all part of a trend towards a much harder or harsher authoritarianism in China,” Bishop added. “Because, ultimately, his goal is for China to have a much more highly-functioning authoritarian, single-party state. But to get there it is not going to be a soft authoritarianism it is going to be a hard authoritarianism. That is pretty clearly what we are seeing here.”

Bandurksi said it was hard to predict the consequences for China’s already bleak Chinese media landscape in terms of increased and pressure. But the omens were bad. “All the signs have been very hard line,” he said. […] [Source]

Bandurski last week wrote on how Xi’s strategy to align the media with the Party represents what the scholar had earlier described as a presidential vision of “all-dimensional control”:

The idea that the media must be “surnamed Party,” or bixu xingdang (必须姓党), appeared in Xi Jinping’s speech, and essentially draws an equivalence between the identity of the media and the identity of the Party. There must be no gaps in priorities or in actions.

We should bear in mind, however, that in his “important speech” Xi Jinping did not limit the notion of Party identity to media operated by the Party or government. He stated in no uncertain terms that all media, including commercially operating metro newspapers, new media, entertainment and advertising “must be surnamed Party.”

This is what we mean when we refer to Xi Jinping’s new information policy as a vision of “all-dimensional control” (全方位控制). [Source]

Over the past three years, Chinese state media has done much to aid Xi in an image-crafting campaign portraying the leader as both a “man of the people” not above enjoying a humble lunch of steamed buns, and a “man for the people” well deserving of their respect. The South China Morning Post reports on tandem “grassroots” efforts to publicize Xi’s image:

“If You Want to Marry, Marry Someone Like Xi Dada.”

Perhaps more than any other, this lyric to a song that has gone viral on the internet on the mainland demonstrates the growing cult of personality surrounding President Xi Jinping – or “Xi Dada [Uncle Xi]” as the song would have it.

 The sudden interest in the song comes at a time when much of the state-run media has been painting Xi as a strong, wise and great leader and the Communist Party’s leadership has urged the party’s 88 million members to study Xi’s remarks – along with the organisation’s constitution and rules.
[…] The singer is Hu Xiaoming, who is relatively unknown, at least for now, while the music and lyrics have been composed by Tang Jianyun, who refers to himself as a “grass-roots” musician.

[…] While neither the singer nor the composer has an official title, at least for now, the mainland’s censors have appeared happy to let the song spread.And spread it has. There are already online videos instructing people on how to dance to its rhythm. […] [Source]

While calling for state media to “serve the Party” at home, Xi also encouraged state-employed journalists stationed overseas to do the same abroad. Meanwhile, new rules that will require direct government approval and domestic partnership for foreign-funded companies looking to publish material online in China will go into effect this month. (For a closer look at the new rules, see coverage from Techcrunch.) The new regulations, which reinforce long-standing government efforts to control the inflow of media, come as the latest efforts by the Xi administration to guard against the spread of “Western values” that could counter Party . In a China File conversation on the implications of these new rules, CDT founder Xiao Qiang last week explained how this move reflects the political and economic anxiety of the Party elite:

Beijing’s expanded restrictions on foreign companies’ online content are another recent effort to ensure the control of information in a time of increasing uncertainty and anxiety in Chinese society about the nation’s economic and political future, and a sign of the increasing insecurity of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the continuing tightening of control of the media and the Internet over the last three years, the Chinese government is still fighting a steeply uphill and ultimately losing battle against the fundamental human desire for freedom of expression, as well as the development of information and communication technology.

The more restrictive those information control measures, the greater the political and economic costs of the censorship. [Source]

In response to both Xi’s state media tour and the unveiling of the new regulations for foreign media, The New York Times editorial board commented that Xi’s efforts to control the media narrative could likely prove to be self-defeating:

Mr. Xi may feel pressure to restrict the worldview of his citizens at a time when the Chinese economy is under strain. An article on Monday in the country’s official English-language newspaper, China Daily, said news organizations were “essential to political stability.”

“It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged,” the article said.

It is during trying times, of course, that societies benefit most from a press that is free to scrutinize questionable policies and expose ineffective leaders.

Mr. Xi’s new guidance is likely to make the official press even more docile than it traditionally has been. But the approach will be self-defeating for the government in the long run. In an increasingly interconnected world, it is harder to control the flow of information across borders and within countries. New mechanisms of Internet censorship are typically met with creative tools to bypass them. And each new effort to keep Chinese people ignorant about their government and the outside world will make them only more determined to learn. [Source]

At the South China Morning Post, Kristine Kwok shows how media management is used to serve foreign as well as domestic policy, examining the “thick red line” circumscribing coverage of North Korea:

’s missile launch and nuclear test where shots heard around the world, setting off a torrent of news coverage and analysis about the hermit kingdom. But in China, the tests caused barely a ripple of controversy, with reporters more cautious than ever about covering the country’s wayward neighbour.

There has long been a red line in the sand about what mainland journalists can write on China’s communist ally. That line is drawn by state censors and the press itself, and follows the contours of the complex bilateral relationship, journalists and researchers say.

“There have long been restrictions on [reporting] North Korea. We only follow Xinhua, so you basically can’t find any [original] reporting on North Korea in our paper,” a reporter with a popular Guangdong newspaper said. […] [Source]

Also see a collection of North Korea related censorship directives, translated by CDT.

The Hong Kong Free Press shows that China’s model of media control is also expanding to the semi-autonomous territory, where online media outlets report that staff members were barred from covering vote tallies in a by-election last weekend:

StandNews, Initium and InMediaHK reported government staff members saying that “only invited media could report [on vote counting]” at the media centre located in Tiu Keng Leng Sports Centre. Chinese University student magazines Varsity and uBeat were also barred from entering as “media”.

Initium further enquired about the standards and procedures for selecting media to be invited, and why reporting election news – which is of public interest – is also subject to “invitation thresholds”. Initium said that the government Information Service Department Information Officer gave no response. […] [Source]

Read more about media control, propaganda, and Beijing’s expanding influence on Hong Kong media, via CDT.