About How Those “Stars Aligned”
China gazers oohed and ahhed last month when five major Communist Party papers ran Sunday editions with nearly identical front pages. Same layout, same photos, same headlines, same sub-headers, and same copy – though somewhat dubiously, in the case of the top story about President Hu Jintao’s visit with Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev, it came filed under the bylines of different correspondents in the travelling Party press corps.
The extreme display of oneness on August 19, reported by CDT’s fearless leader Xiao Qiang here and in the Washington Post, was taken as a sign of the inordinate pressures Party editors are under ahead of next’s month 17th Party Congress to march in lockstep with Propaganda, and to hammer home the message that Hu Jintao is The Man.
So let’s say you were the duty editor the past few weeks at one of these venerable institutions. You might think the job would be a breeze. Sure, one mistake and you’re in hot water. But you’re not about to mess with your laobanmen over at Propaganda, are you? Your layout is done by remote control. Just drink the complimentary tea and clock out early.
But of course it’s not that simple, as an editor at one of the papers recounted during a recent chat.
The week of August 19 was a long and brutal one, as he recalled, in that usually langourous newsroom. On at least two occasions, the paper went to bed hours late. When early staffers got to work to start on the next day’s edition, they found the night crowd scrambling to wrap up that day’s. Normally, their print deadline is around four o’ clock in the morning. But twice the paper didn’t go to bed until after 7 am, which meant it didn’t come out until mid-morning. Which, as the editor noted with a smirk, “wasn’t really a big problem for us.”
The General Office of the CPC Central Committee, or “Zhong Ban” (中办), were the ones holding up the flow from top-down. This was how things usually worked at sensitive times such as now, explained the editor. The “Zhong Ban”, currently led by likely-to-be-promoted Politburo alternate Wang Gang, would pull most of the strings. It would set the agenda of daily headlines and sign off on official photos. And its flaks would work in close consultation with the editors of the People’s Daily to mock up the next day’s front page. Once the template was set, other papers would proceed to match up, or duiban (对版) to it. Propaganda (宣传) would help faciliate the cloning process.
There was a lot of extra tro-and-fro and a lot of nitpicking that week, however, and some last-minute changes. Into the wee hours of the morning, said the editor, calls were traded between the People’s Daily and the Zhong Ban, and in turn, between the People’s Daily and the other papers. In most cases, when editors at the other papers “dui ban”, they’ll at least take the time to mix things up a bit – a photo here, a header there – for appearances sake. But little of that happened on Sunday, August 19. Was it a lazy Sunday? More likely the opposite, suggested the editor. Timing, like the requirements in general, was tight.
Pre-congress tensions were certainly a big factor behind the resultant copy-paste spam job, he said. In recent months, his paper has had to pass even routine editorials to Propaganda for pre-screening before it can run them.
Sensitivity levels also were running high that week vis a vis reporting of Hu’s travels to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries, he added. Propaganda had issued a laundry list of specs. Media were instructed to stress the familiar refrain that the SCO was not directed “against a third-party country” and were not to go into detail about joint military exercises or other specific new forms of cooperation, which might inflame U.S. concerns about the bloc.
Because of the time difference, reports of Hu’s meetings from Russia and Central Asia came in a little late as well. But not too late. It was not clear to the editor whether Hu or his inner circle had any direct hand in the production process. He had a hunch it was mainly the Zhong Ban. They and the rest were extra-anxious to project harmoniousness.