Shanghai Quake, Media Rumblings (Part 3): Propaganda Bites Back??

Somebody got Propaganda’s blood up last week. We’d like to know who.

At a Central Publicity Department (CPD) meeting with senior editors on the eve of the October 1 holiday, a deputy propaganda chief fingered one particular publication for taking an independent stab at news of Shanghai party boss ’s firing, according to a Chinese journalist who was a briefed in detail about the session. The official did not name the publication, but he did dangle the threat of a “red card” – speech police slang for a severe penalty (e.g.,, closure, suspension, senior sacking, etc…).

Whoever said what, it would not have taken much to incite the CPD last week. After fumbling for many weeks to patch leaks in the press about the Shanghai scandal, the censors blanketed the mainland media with no-no’s regarding coverage of Chen’s ouster. Detailed in the South China Morning Post, their guidelines were exhaustive to the point of tipping their own hand. The SCMP quoted one circular, for example, advising Web administrators that “No posting should stir trouble by speculating on discord among incumbent central leaders, between the leaders and their predecessors, or between central leaders and local cadres.” (Which brings to mind a stale old newsroom wise-crack from the days when the CPD was a vital source of information: How do you know when there’s bubonic plague in the provinces? Answer: When the zhongxuanbu tells you not to report it.)

So who was the offender this time? Well, a small posse of papers and magazines followed the paper trail of illicit social security investments during the official probe that precipitated Chen’s dismissal. But since then, few have strayed in the least from CPD orders to remain on-message with official statements and Xinhua. In the immediate aftermath, perhaps the only publication to put its own strong spin on the news was the not-so-tough China Business Times (Zhonghua gongshang shibao‰∏≠ÂçéÂ∑•ÂïÜÊó∂Êä•), which ran not one, not two, but at least three dispatches containing unauthorized reporting and commentary. The stories were light on detail but heavy on speculation – another no-no specified in the circulars.

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So far, rumors aside, we have no evidence to suggest the Business Times is in any trouble for the pieces. The paper’s editorial department was closed during the week-long holiday and not reachable for comment on Friday. An operator who answered the phone at the paper’s offices in Beijing said editors would return to work after the weekend.

A national daily administered by the All-China Association of Industry and Commerce and China Civilian Chamber of Commerce, the paper has faded from prominence since its “golden age” more than a decade ago, when its lineup of hot prospects included current Caijing editor Hu Shuli and Economic Observer president He Li.

Its diminished profile, though, might help explain its loquaciousness in this case. Or maybe the CPD didn’t get to its editors in time – another common mishap. Regardless, the Business Times’s exceptional file on Chen Liangyu did get widespread play on the Internet sites of other newspapers:

– On the morning after the purge (Sept. 26), the paper’s news piece was a verbatim rehashing of the Politburo’s indictment of Chen. Except for the very last line:

According to reports, Chen Liangyu’s secretary, younger brother, and driver are already under investigation.

– The paper’s reaction piece that same morning ditched the official script entirely. It speculated about how the probe might have pointed to Chen and noted his final public appearances in the run-up to his sacking. A retired cadre, on hearing the news, quipped to its reporters:

‘When Chen Liangyu was director of the (Shanghai) Municipal Party Committee Retired Veteran Cadres Bureau [from 1985-87], he was very modest. How could he have changed (ËúïÂèò, lit. decayed) so fast?’

The piece also spotlighted the “strong reaction” in the Shanghai business community. One private entrepreneur told the paper:

‘In the past, we were always told to trust the masses and trust the party, but in trusting Chen Liangyu we were fooled. Now we don’t know whom to trust. According to what we understand about Chen Liangyu, this guy had a strong mafia aura (Â∞èÂÖѺüÂë≥ÈÅì) to him. You’re a member of the Politburo and the Party Secretary of Shanghai. How can you have a mafia aura?’

The story ends with a broader indictment from a local district department official:

‘No cadre should ever feel like I’m the boss so I can do whatever I please. If you’re going to be an official then you have to think about the people, not just about yourself and those by your side. That’s not the work-style of our party. A person is not judged by what he say but by what he does. The people have sharp eyes, and the central government also has sharp eyes. The Chen Liangyu affair at very least reflects one problem: Supervision within the party is weak, and the party’s supervisory system still has room for further improvement, especially supervision of (officials of) the same rank, which exists in name but hardly in deed.’

– The next morning (Sept. 27), the paper followed up with a news analysis by vice-chief editor Lu Pingbo, a well-known financial columnist better known by his handle, “Shui Pi”. Shui Pi clearly had been following the case closely and his message is one of “I told you so.” But his ultimate point is suggested in the title: “Is Chen Liangyu a big bomb?” Shui Pi concludes:

When [Shanghai labor and social security chief] Zhu Junyi was caught, Shui Pi sighed that Shanghai hadn’t had a big case in ten years; who would have thought that…once it was launched, it couldn’t be contained…

…So does Chen Liangyu amount to a big bomb?

Of course, and for certain. What isn’t certain is whether or not Chen Liangyu, this big bomb, will blow up another something big.