Chinese recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao has been drawing mass attention with his quixotic attempt to buy the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or another major U.S. media entity.
No one is taking Chen’s media takeover plans particularly seriously. Even Chinese media like the Party-sanctioned Global Times newspaper called his buyout scheme a “fantasy” and a “nutty stunt”—and noted with disarming frankness that “the staunchest defenders of the New York Times ownership staying the same are probably within the Chinese public.”
Why, given this lack of support, or any possibility of success, is Chen bothering with this protracted exercise in corporate perfomance art?
The answers may lie in the sensational, and bizarre, segué Chen made in his Jan. 7 press conference. Ostensibly held to discuss the New York Times takeover plans, the most dramatic moments of the event came with Chen’s presentation of two Chinese burn victims that he described as Falun Gong adherents who survived attempted self-immolation in a 2001 incident that has since been thoroughly debunked.
Presenting the two disfigured women to the crowd, Chen announced his plan to pay for reconstructive surgery at an estimated cost of over $2 million. Chen has undertaken large-scale, seemingly bizarre acts of what he calls “flashy philanthropy” before—selling canned air, doling out money to Japanese disaster victims while driving a vehicle draped in the PRC flag—but why this? Why now?
The Tiananmen Square “self-immolation” incident on Jan. 23, 2001 is seen as a key turning point in the the Communist Party’s anti-Falun Gong campaign. The sudden emergence of such a dramatic event on Chinese New Year’s Eve, accompanied by a nationwide, months-long media blitz demonizing Falun Gong, created a social animus that allowed ever more violent means to be used in suppressing the peaceful spiritual movement.
Western media and Falun Gong information sources have pointed out dozens of inconsistencies in the official Party account of the event, not least that the spiritual practice’s teachings stress absolute non-violence, including toward oneself. Yet behind the Party’s powerful censorship blockade, most in China remain unaware of this analysis.
Factions at War
In fact, Chen’s whole U.S. journey may be more about the purported self-immolation incident than about the unlikely—but attention-grabbing—buyout plans.
Crucially, Communist Party disciplinary authorities just over two weeks ago announced a corruption investigation into former Vice-Minister of Public Security, and head of the anti-Falun Gong “610 Office,” Li Dongsheng.
Li, formerly a media official who was intensively involved in crafting the Communist Party’s propaganda strategy against Falun Gong after the crackdown was launched in 1999, was unexpectedly promoted in 2009 to become one of the leaders of the Public Security Bureau hierarchy.
This move was widely seen as further confirmation of his major role in helping to manage the crackdown on Falun Gong, and his close ties to Zhou Yongkang, the Party security czar who oversaw the crackdown until his 2012 retirement.
Now, however, Zhou too has been widely reported to be under house arrest, facing his own investigation by Party authorities. The Party has sought to quash the power network represented by Zhou, Li, the now imprisoned Bo Xilai, and former Party head Jiang Zemin, et al.
In short, the tight-knit faction of Party leaders who launched and managed the brutal crackdown on Falun Gong—and used it as a trump card in building up their own power within the Communist Party in relation to competing factions—is being methodically dismantled, starting with its stronghold in the formidable security apparatus.
Bringing the staged immolation back into the public eye, and removing the two survivors from China, can be seen as a preemptive strike seeking to reinforce the Jiang faction’s unity against the ever encroaching threat of the Party’s disciplinary investigations.
Li’s recent fall, and the impending one of Zhou, have created a situation wherein many serious human rights abuses committed in the course of the anti-Falun Gong crackdown may finally face official exposure.
Importantly, the Party’s propaganda authorities count in their ranks many people with varying levels of involvement in calling for, and even directly bringing about, acts of violence against Falun Gong adherents in China.
Beyond central propaganda pieces like the “self-immolation” narrative, officials working in this branch of the Party also created literally thousands of articles demonizing the spiritual group, inventing outlandish and unproven crimes to ascribe to its members, and creating “reeducation” materials used during torture sessions.
In short, due to their relatively light level of involvement in its worst excesses, other branches of the Party (except the embattled security apparatus) may be willing to marginalize the Jiang faction, while many propaganda officials see themselves at risk. It’s little wonder.
The strategy of using massive propaganda efforts to incite and justify violence against the peaceful spiritual group was explicit, almost from the beginning of the persecution. In 2001, for example, the Party’s official Xinhua news service held a forum on anti-Falun Gong tactics which endorsed the suggestion to “define [Falun Gong adherents] as terrorists so that any [treatment] is justified”.
Similarly, a Party affiliated “China Anti-Cult Association” was founded in 2000 specifically for the purpose of intensifying efforts to portray Falun Gong as “anti-humanity,” a “Party enemy,” and “China’s ulcer.”
As one of the founding leaders of the organization, Zhao Zhizhen, said in a subsequent editorial, “When an evil demon threatens every person’s survival, then it’s every person’s conscious responsibility and social duty to ‘douzheng’ against the evil demon” (“People’s Editorial: There Is Danger Just Beside Us,” People’s Daily, May 14, 2002).
The term used by Zhao in this statement, douzheng, is an often-used political term denoting “struggle” against Party enemies. In practice, it is used to signal mass persecutory campaigns against carefully chosen targets in Chinese society, who are then eliminated.
Party propaganda authorities played a key role both in disseminating the intra-Party orders to carry out such a campaign against Falun Gong and in keeping it going for what will soon be 15 years.
Seen in these terms, the Party authorities responsible for the “immolation” event and the huge media campaign built upon it are—and among Chinese political analysts are widely understood to be—highly implicated in the worst excesses of the ensuing violence and abuses. Given the ousting of their security apparatus allies, ongoing restructuring of the Party, and pressure on the Jiang faction as a whole, the propaganda officials are highly anxious.
Fighting Over ‘Thoughts’
The propaganda-driven campaign against Falun Gong has just been the latest iteration of a pattern. Because decision making requires the appearance of consensus, albeit without the complication of open debate or democratic enfranchisement, everyone must know by heart the Party line when it comes to major issues such as political campaigns. Propaganda has played a key role in creating and maintaining Party consensus.
In the 1950s, “rightists” were targeted for especially brutal treatment, often based on nothing more than their family background. Similarly, religious and spiritual groups were targeted for elimination and mass imprisonment as well, as soon as their beliefs were labeled anti-Party “superstition.” Artists and intellectuals, too, were increasingly prone to suffering the same treatment whenever stuck with the labels of “reactionary” or “counter-revolutionary.”
In the Cultural Revolution era, these tactics were even further reinforced as millions of Chinese took their own initiative in organizing local “struggle sessions” (pidou hui) during which they would proactively identify and label targets to be attacked as enemies of the Party.
By the ‘80s and ‘90s, the term “counter-revolutionary” was intentionally avoided due to fears over a return to the widespread chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Yet it was invoked by Party propaganda authorities in 1989 and after, to describe the peaceful protestors who occupied Tiananmen Square. Almost as soon as the term was deployed, the massacre was underway.
The launch of the Falun Gong persecution in 1999 made use of other terminology, including the term douzheng noted above and also “xie jiao” (heretical cult), as well as dehumanizing demonic, animal, or disease related imagery often reminiscent of depictions of Jews promulgated in Nazi Germany. Party propaganda authorities took the lead in all of these efforts.
As noted above, the Tiananmen Square self-immolation incident of 2001 came right in the midst of such efforts, and was a major breakthrough towards effective demonization of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. It complied well with a call to arms endorsed by then-Party head Jiang Zemin: “If we do not occupy the battleground of thoughts with Marxism and Leninism, feudalistic superstitions will.”
Chen Guangbiao may not be serious about his attempts to purchase U.S. media entities. But nonetheless, he is carrying out a major operation in “the battleground of thoughts.”
By so prominently adding fuel to the self-immolation story, he is helping Jiang’s allies in the propaganda apparatus to shore up defenses and stand by a 13-year-old hoax—stand up for their monopoly on “truth.” We can only hope that Western and Chinese audiences see through these last-ditch efforts.
R.J. Mitchell is a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Foundation.