A Fractious Attempt to Control the Pen in China
A Fractious Attempt to Control the Pen in China

News Analysis

Following a high-profile tour of state media headquarters by Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping in February, Party censors have been unusually aggressive. A property mogul’s popular microblog was erased from the Internet; a respected Chinese financial publication took the rare step of calling out the censors not once, but twice (incurring, of course, more censorship); and a Chinese journalist vanished on his way to Hong Kong. The journalist’s arrest is believed to be linked with an odd open letter calling for Xi to resign.

The fusillade of censorship has been taken as a widespread indication that Xi Jinping, who rose to his position in 2012 amid a power struggle that has never really concluded, is in full control of the Party’s propaganda apparatus and is now on a mission to thoroughly stamp out free speech.

A more complex picture emerges, however, when examining the persistence of elite power struggles over the last few years, the personal loyalties of those in charge of propaganda, and the history of attempts by incumbent communist leaders to truly gain control over the pen—which, along with the gun, has always been one of the key planks of Party control.

Censorship and Resistance

Ren Zhiqiang has for years been known as the Donald Trump of China for his blunt, sometimes acerbic remarks about the downsides of Party rule. With followers numbering 38 million, his account on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese Twitter-like microblog, offered a powerful platform to express his views. The account was purged at the end of February.

Chinese censors said they deleted Ren’s account due to the “vile impact” it had; in response to Xi’s tour of state media, for instance, Ren wrote: “When did the people’s government change into the Party’s government?”

For all the power Xi has amassed, that he is himself now firmly in charge of propaganda is far from clear.

The silencing of Ren cast a pall over the proceedings of the annual political conclaves in Beijing in early March. Officials and economists were afraid to speak candidly with even the docile state press, a fact that was remarked upon by the delegate Jiang Hong, and duly reported by Caixin, a respected business publication. This led to a rare back-and-forth tussle with censors in which a total of three articles on press controls were published by Caixin and then censored.

More drama was to follow near the close of the political conclave.

On March 15, Jia Jia, a columnist for the Chinese news website Wujie News, disappeared in connection with the appearance of an open letter, penned by “loyal Communist Party members,” accusing Xi Jinping of driving China to the brink of chaos through his anti-corruption campaign and consolidation of power.

The daring of Ren Zhiqiang, Caixin, and the drafters of the letter has been viewed as a result of mounting resentment toward Xi Jinping’s rise as a Mao-like dictator, although the letter may actually have been inspired by the faction that has contested Xi’s rule all along. For all the power Xi has amassed, that he is himself now firmly in charge of propaganda is far from clear.

The Hard Part About Control

Though the propaganda apparatus is a vital node that any communist dictator would wish to gain command over, the Party’s own history demonstrates the difficulty of the process.

Party demigod Mao Zedong, when he wished to kick off the Cultural Revolution in 1966, was unable to immediately propagate his editorials in major state-run newspapers. He and his wife, Jiang Qing, had to pull strings in Shanghai and publish them in Wenhui Bao, a semi-official Shanghai newspaper.

Similarly, Deng Xiaoping, the Party paramount leader after Mao, had to promote his “Southern Tour,” an agenda for economic reform, in Shenzhen. Former propaganda chief Deng Liqun and Gao Di, then head of People’s Daily, were Deng’s rivals, and so he was initially unable to use official channels to do his bidding.

Xi Jinping appears to be in a similar predicament. In a well-known paradox of Party propaganda, Xi’s fawningly-reported tour of mouthpiece media, rather than demonstrating established control, can be understood as a sign that he doesn’t yet have it.

Factional Holdouts

This is mainly due to the fact that propaganda is to a great degree still in the hands of Liu Yunshan, a member of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee and a loyalist to Xi’s greatest political obstacle, the former regime leader Jiang Zemin.

Liu has been a leading force in the regime’s massive censorship, publicity, and indoctrination efforts since 2002. For a decade he directly controlled the Central Propaganda Department, and from 2012 was made chairman of the shadowy commission that controls the department: the Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideology. He is also chairman of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization, which includes a heavy propaganda and ideological component, and is the president of the Central Party School, which trains cadres.

This makes Liu one of the most powerful men in the regime. His loyalty to Xi Jinping’s rival, Jiang Zemin—who oversaw his entry into an expanded Politburo dominated by other Jiang cronies, even as Hu Jintao was the Party leader in name—means that everything may not be as it appears in the world of official propaganda.

Praise someone to the heavens, so when a fall comes it will be disastrous.
— Chen Pokong, Book author and current affairs analyst

Liu is just one part of Jiang Zemin’s deep informal power network: Other key pieces were held by officials whose names have become familiar in recent years, such as Bo Xilai, a contender for the top seat; Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar; and the former top generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. All these influential men were purged on charges of corruption after Xi came to power.

Fully four of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, in fact, were not appointed by Xi Jinping but inherited by his administration as he came to power in late 2012, the outcome of protracted political horse trading in which power is never handed over willingly.

Struggle in the Dark

Some analysts of the Chinese political system even suspect that the packaging of Xi Jinping as a reincarnation of Mao Zedong has been, in part, a game of subterfuge all along—a matter of his political rivals building him up in order to bring him down.

Xin Ziling, a retired Party official with high-level ties, who used to head the editorial desk at China’s National Defense University, holds this view, for instance. The gushing songs penned in praise of “Xi Dada,” or Uncle Xi, Xi’s beaming face adorning badges and other trinkets, and the transformation of the annual state television Gala into an out-and-out propaganda fest, seemed to Xin Ziling all instances of propaganda that had been deliberately taken too far.

Chen Pokong, the author of a number of books of Chinese political culture, is of the view that Xi Jinping is indeed seeking to establish himself as a strongman—the only way to actually control the Party apparatus. But he suspects that the propaganda machinery, operated by Liu Yunshan, is at the same time engaging in “praise assassination,” or “peng sha.”

“Praise someone to the heavens, so when a fall comes it will be disastrous,” Chen said, elaborating his view in a recent program on New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD), a New York-based Chinese language broadcaster that is part of the Epoch Media Group.

When China is beset by an economic, financial, or other crisis, Xi’s enemies will then emerge and accuse him of building a personality cult, Chen said. The scenario may sound baroque in its complexity, but Deng Xiaoping was able to take down Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, on the same basis, Chen points out (though Hua appears to have been the engineer of his own praise).

Mingjing, an overseas Chinese online news outlet that traffics in information from factions in Beijing, reports that Xi told propaganda officials “Don’t call me Xi Dada,” and to stop the personality cult.

Theories about the secretive operations of Chinese politics often amount to a matter of which lens one chooses to adopt to understand events, and thus are primarily explanatory tools rather than empirically verifiable claims.

Read in the light of the war over perceptions in China, the letter calling for Xi Jinping’s resignation bears the fingerprints of another anti-Xi operation, according to Wen Zhao, a political commentator who appears on the NTD program “Decoding Mainland News.” The letter was disseminated to the personal email accounts of many members of the China-watching community.

Wujie News is funded by Xinjiang’s propaganda department, the Alibaba Group, and the SEEC Media Group. Wen Zhao points out that Xinjiang has long been a stronghold of Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar and political client of Jiang Zemin, and the province is currently run by Jiang ally Zhang Chunxian.

It is of course impossible to know whether the letter is part of a conspiracy by Xi Jinping’s political enemies, though resources were evidently devoted to seeing it promulgated widely. The turmoil surrounding the letter, nevertheless, is clearly part of the ongoing contest over the control of propaganda.

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