A spate of suicides and instances of illnesses have been reported among officials in the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda system recently, an apparent consequence of the enormous pressure that the bureaucracy is being put under as Party leader Xi Jinping reshuffles cadres in top posts at the agency in order to bolster his control.
For over a decade the propaganda system has been kept in the tight grip of cadres loyal to former regime leader Jiang Zemin, who ruled in one capacity or another from 1989 to 2004, including those directly appointed by Jiang. The recent shake-up is another step in Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power across the Party and state apparatus, very often at the expense of Jiang’s coalition and extensive patronage network.
In the last several months six suicides have been reported among high-level propaganda officials around China, several of them just days apart. The propaganda system includes the bureaucracy proper, which is centered in Beijing, and includes in its sprawling apparatus offices at every level of government around China; as well as state-run newspapers, websites, magazines, journals, publishing houses, television stations, and more.
The importance of controlling the propaganda apparatus has never been lost on Communist Party leaders. Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Chinese politics, writes in her 2008 book:
“As [Communist Party] leaders … have been acutely aware, whoever controls the propaganda system in China is able to dominate the political system.”
A String of Deaths
On Monday, Zhou Honglang, director of the News and Information Center of Jiangshan City in Zhejiang Province committed suicide by jumping from his fifth floor office building. Earlier in the month there were a string of suicides just days apart.
Zhang Jingwu, 47, general manager at the Shenzhen Press Group Circulation Co., was found dead in a ditch at a park in Shenzhen on May 8. A suicide note was found near him; he was said to suffer depression.
He Weixing, 49, deputy director of Xiangxiang City Radio and Television station in Hunan Province, was found hanging by the neck in a stairwell at his office on May 6. “Painful, painful, painful. Life is hard, work is hard. … Diligent, unable to achieve anything, huge work pressure …” a suicide note said.
Xu Xing, the 35-year-old deputy editor of Metro Express, a newspaper under the state-run Hangzhou Daily, also committed suicide, on May 4. His family said he had been under pressure at work recently, and was depressed and unable to sleep.
Song Bin, the deputy director and chief editor of the state-run Xinhua’s Anhui Branch Office was found dead in his office in late April: he’d hung himself, according to Caixin, a business publication.
But the highest-profile suicide took place in March when Li Wufeng, deputy director of the State Council Information Office—a central leading agency whose other name is the Office of Foreign Propaganda—was also reported to have committed suicide by jumping out of a building. Li also suffered depression, according to the pro-Beijing Takungpao, based in Hong Kong.
The rash of deaths in the propaganda system, some reports about which were later censored, (presumably by order of former colleagues of the deceased) have been a cause for speculation and contention on the Chinese Internet.
The explanations spanned the personal to the political.
“They were very clear that they were unable to do anything even while seeing so much injustice,” offered Internet user Huayangli on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site.
Yang Qinglin, senior reporter at Singpao newspaper, said: “They were disappointed with society and life. So they decided to leave!”
Han Lianchao, a researcher at the Hudson Institute based in Washington, D.C., told Voice of America, “The Communist Party controls 100 percent of the media in China. Marketization nowadays requires the media to be responsible to readers and produce objective news.” The conflict between those two objects puts propaganda workers under great pressure,” he said. “I think some of their deaths are also possibly related to the anti-corruption campaign.”
There may be more to it than simple job satisfaction, however.
The leading roles in the propaganda system throughout the 2000s were held by Liu Yunshan and Li Changchun, both appointed to their jobs during the tenure of Jiang Zemin. Liu was the director of the Central Propaganda Department itself from 2002 to 2012, while also holding a variety of other important roles in propaganda work, and Li Changchun headed up the Central Propaganda and Thought Work Leading Group, also from 2002 to 2012.
Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, and since then has begun a steady erosion of Jiang’s power base across the Party and government apparatus.
The propaganda system, in particular, has been shaken up in recent months with a raft of new personnel appointments and some top officials being fired. The purges took place ostensibly due to charges of corruption—though most likely the overriding goal was to appoint new officials loyal to the Xi Jinping regime.
These changes took place at top state-run media and in the propaganda bureaus around China. Three cases of high-level takedowns at the large media conglomerates in provinces around China offer the most salient examples.
Zhang Qigeng, the general manager of the state-run Hubei Daily Media Group, was dismissed from his position and from the corresponding Party Committee on May 5, and put under investigation for “suspected severe violations of law,” according to the Inspection and Disciplinary Commission of Hubei Province. The Hubei Media Group is the largest media company in the province, with assets of 5 billion yuan ($801 million), 11 newspapers, 5 online news websites, a publishing house, and 8 subsidiary companies. Its newspapers have a daily circulation of 8 million.
Zhang was something of a popular figure in Hubei media circles, after founding the popular Chutian Metropolis Daily, which flourished under his tenure for a decade. Official reports have not given details of his alleged crimes.
Shu Zhan, chairman of the Fujian Media Group and the provincial television station in Fujian Province, was investigated by the provincial Inspection and Disciplinary Commission on May 4, after a visit from a central government inspection team. Shu, also the Party secretary of the television station, was later charged with “severe violations of law.”
Gao Jianyun, deputy director of the Fifth Bureau of the Foreign Propaganda Office, was put under investigation on April 18 for “severe violations of law.”
Apart from those takedowns, the Party’s own mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, is being shaken up. Authorities announced the firing of four top news executives—including the director, a deputy director, a chief editor, and a deputy editor—within five days in April.
On April 30 it was announced that the new director of the People’s Daily is Yang Zhenwu, the former editor-in-chief of the publication, and a known ally of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.