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China’s Communist Party Takes (Even More) Control of the Media

A ChinaFile Conversation

China’s Communist Party made moves last month to solidify and formalize its (already substantial) control over the country’s media. China’s main state-run broadcasters are to be consolidated into a massive new “Voice of China” under the management of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department. The department—which, several years ago, the Party began calling its “publicity department” in English—will also now have direct control over the regulation of film, radio, television, book publishing, Internet, and the news media, rather than exercising that control in part through government (as opposed to Party) organs charged with the same mission. What will this change achieve practically? Why is it happening? Is it the result of confidence on the part of China’s leaders, or paranoia? And how is formalizing the Party’s role as chief censor likely to effect the Chinese leadership’s reputation at home and overseas? —The Editors

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The consolidation and management of China’s cultural products under the State Council (radio and TV) and the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department (film and press industries) can be seen as a continuation of trends that have been developing since 2013 and are indicative of Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the centralized role of the Party in regulating all aspects of political, social, and cultural life. In recent years, leaders of cultural units have become more risk averse in terms of programming and production, choosing safe subjects such as documentaries about cute animals, or programs on “One Belt, One Road” for TV, while ensuring that Xi Jinping Thought is referenced during meetings on programming.

I believe that the decision was made more from a position of confidence than of paranoia and reflects the Party’s enhanced efforts to control and unify the message in promoting China’s soft power both at home and abroad. In film, the propaganda efforts have concentrated on the domestic market, with the recent announcement of the selection of 5,000 movie theaters to screen and promote propaganda films one example of these efforts. Years ago, Han Sanping, then head of the China Film Group and a leading producer, noted that his favorite Hollywood film was Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, and that his ideal was to produce and market similar Chinese commercial blockbusters with strong patriotic content. With the recent box office successes of such nationalistic films as Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea, Party leaders now feel that China can succeed in its own market without relying on the Hollywood product. In fact, the success of Wolf Warrior 2—by far the biggest box office hit of all time in China at around U.S.$874 million—provided the template for a new model of cooperation between China and Hollywood. The role of the Russo Brothers, directors of the Captain America films, as consultants, and the use of their stunt team to coordinate the fighting sequences, suggests that Hollywood’s technical expertise can substantially raise the production values of Chinese action films. While it is old news to assert that Hollywood films “pander” to China to gain market access, “WW2” demonstrates that Hollywood expertise can also be effective in the production of Chinese domestic films that have a strong nationalistic appeal, in effect creating future competition with their own imported blockbusters. Ironically, and perhaps counter-intuitively, this suggests a likely closer collaboration between the American and Chinese film industries, but more and more on Chinese terms. Indeed, one likely result is even more censorship of Hollywood films seeking to enter the Chinese market, particularly since the key new responsibilities of the Propaganda Department include the maximization of film’s special role in propaganda and the enhancement of cooperative foreign productions and international cooperation. Some of this censorship of Hollywood will be imposed by Beijing, and some will be self-censorship.

In terms of American film imports, there are those in Hollywood who suggest that the change is not particularly significant since the Propaganda Department had to approve all imports anyway, and this simply removes one step in the process. However, in the current two-step process, film officials—at least some of whom care about such economic issues as box office returns, as well as film quality—were able to frame their conclusions about a film in a way that might be persuasive even to propaganda officials. A one-step process could remove such framing, with only political or ideological considerations given weight.

The macro view is China continues successfully to keep its 1.4 billion people content enough to avoid significant challenges to its current form of government, but that mission will only get more difficult. The ability for Chinese to view news, content, and culture from the West regularly improves despite China’s “firewall” efforts. Much of that exposure creates a “grass-is-greener” perspective, generating misdirected aspiration and potential discontentment among the populace. Often, entertainment content from the West depicts overly exaggerated characteristics of life outside China which only aggravates this issue. Therefore, the recent streamlining to regulate exposure to the West is a must for the Politburo, resulting in real-time and consistent decision-making on all censorship and messaging activities.

Ongoing Trump Administration actions provide a relatable example here in the U.S. of similar communication streamlining. The administration places a huge priority on messaging and the correct platform for such, and its messaging agenda is only understood by the president and a handful of other close confidants. Over time, the administration has regularly reprimanded both staff and various news outlets for incorrect, inaccurate, or contradictory messaging. It has responded to this problem by mitigating the number of staff and news outlets allowed to spread the president’s message. This communication streamlining nullifies inaccuracies and inconsistencies, sharing some distinct similarities to what we are witnessing in China with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) no longer part of the equation.

As China’s first priority is China, it will not do any favors for the West. (China is not unique here as the U.S. is also similarly self-absorbed.) Instead, the West will gain the ability to deliver and hopefully monetize its content in China only when that content serves the Chinese agenda. Because China’s market is so large and has so much potential, it has the leverage to operate this way, forcing the West to comply. Yes, harder restrictions will protract China’s reputation as a market that is overly complicated and a hassle to deal with, but so what? China knows it has a market everyone wants access to, so China will do what it wants. To be fair, the U.S. has had, and continues to have, leverage like this over other countries, so this type of tough business is not unique to China.

As to the question of whether China’s latest moves stem from confidence or paranoia, I’d probably answer, “Both.” China’s confidence is in knowing its vast, growing market is vital to the health of the global economy, but China’s paranoia germinates from knowing each chess move on the world’s stage needs to be taken meticulously and messaged effectively in order to keep their massive population content.That’s no easy task.

The deepest problem with any propaganda—even if it is the Chinese version that obviously embodies the absolute truth—is that it will never fully convince the audience. When it is clear to people that any nonconformity of thought warrants extra care and attention from the fatherly authorities, of course they will profess their steadfast loyalty to whatever they are required to believe. After all, that is how the majority of Chinese students pass their exams in the subject of politics. But what do they really think about politics? And who’s better at lying here, the author of the politics textbook or the student who proclaims love of the Party?

The challenges for Chinese propaganda only get tougher abroad. While Beijing has been effective in mobilizing overseas patriots and networks to quell inharmonious, feeling-hurting voices worldwide, Chinese propaganda itself has had trouble winning over hearts and minds. One reason is that foreigners are not eligible for enlightenment and reeducation in Chinese prisons. Another reason might be that since Chinese propaganda involves Chinese nationalism, foreigners in their right minds will not buy into it because, well, unfortunately they are not Chinese.

Furthermore, this February during the Spring Festival Gala, China’s most carefully curated show of the culture of propaganda, a sketch lauding China-Africa friendship featured a Chinese actress in blackface and an African actor in a monkey costume. Calling it incompetent is an insult to the concept of incompetency.

Even the blackface-less blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, which owes its wild success to the waves of nationalistic orgasms it generates among Chinese audiences, is not likely to appeal to China’s besties in Africa for its stereotypical depiction of the continent as backward, war-torn, and in dire need of light-skinned foreign saviors.

So what should be the next step for Chinese overseas propaganda? Propapanda is the answer.

Yes, pandas. Why not? Panda diplomacy has been and will be China’s best image-enhancing move internationally. Ironically, unlike the time-tested truths in Chinese propaganda, pandas seem like a species that evolution somehow forgot to take care of: they adapt to neither changing habitats nor new diets, and they are not even that interested in reproduction.

However, propapanda does not require truth; it only needs appeal. As long as pandas are more cuddly than People’s Daily (they always will be, though actually cuddling with a panda is gross because of all the germs they carry), everyone will love propapanda more than propaganda.

Therefore, when the newly minted Voice of China makes its inaugural broadcast to foreign audiences, it had better lead off with 10 minutes of nice propapanda. As propapanda will surely result in soaring popularity, the channel will then gradually expand the propapanda section until it becomes a 24/7 panda cam.

After all, Chinese propaganda, in its current shape and form, will always be inferior to propapanda when it comes to engaging foreign audiences. And propapanda may well be the only alternative that works. Of course, the pandas won’t follow any script by the propaganda department and will always improvise clumsily, but any one of them will receive more love and support from foreigners than all of the human beings in China’s new propaganda agency combined.

The puzzle of government propaganda in the digital age has always been how it can compete with the many other voices now in the public sphere. Whereas in the past, the government could mandate that propaganda be dispersed by all possible sources of news, the introduction of the Internet and global media in China has introduced an increasing number of alternative voices that can discount and compete with material created by the state.

The Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) has discovered that the secret to dominating the discussion in new media is to coordinate their message repeatedly across many different media platforms. Digital media does not give equal time to individuals; it gives more prominence to messages that are repeatedly shared and re-shared. The more coordinated a message is, the more likely it is to reach more people and drown out other perspectives. In my recent book, I show not only that the C.C.P. floods both traditional and digital media with coordinated content in order to dominate the agenda, such coordination tends to reverberate across the Internet as more people come across and share it.

The recent effort to centralize media in China fits within this larger and longer-term effort to increase the coordination of propaganda both at home and abroad. If the Party can be more successful in reiterating its message across media platforms—news, TV, and social media, both domestic and foreign—then its message will reach more people and crowd out other voices and opinions. And perhaps more importantly, as more people are flooded with these messages (which are often appealing because they include entertainment), they themselves will be more likely to share them with others, and these shared messages may not even look like they originated in the Chinese propaganda apparatus itself.

When the sentence “the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics” was inserted into the first Article of China’s Constitution during the recent “two sessions,” the Party and the state in China became constitutionally inseparable. The constitutional change is reflected in the new move to erase the institutional barriers between the Communist Party and the Government, a move that authorizes the Party to exercise centralized leadership over the government institutes. Under the reorganization program, the three state-run national media enterprises—China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International, and China National Radio—are no longer under direct control of the state administration. Instead, the three networks are merged into a new gigantic broadcaster, “Voice of China,” which is under the primary control of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department. In this case, the Party’s Central Propaganda Department can make direct orders, issue guidance, and circulate documents to state media outlets without going through the Party committees inside government organs. The Party’s overarching and distributed power grows more ingrained and centralized in the system as it’s written in the law, literally becoming the “most essential feature” of this self-proclaimed socialist country.

Two years ago, President Xi Jinping boldly asked for the state media’s absolute loyalty to the Communist Party. The new merger is understood as a way to cement Xi’s request.

Rather than saying it appears to be more efficient and effective, the merger increases the responsibility of the Party and leads to an imbalance of power and a lack of mutual supervision between the Party and the Government. In other words, the Party’s authority has once again overarchingly trumped state politics.

In addition to the structural change, the merger upgrades the status of the state media from a deputy-ministry-level agency to the full ministry level, according to the State Council’s announcement. It also strategically brings additional capacity and resources to the enforcement of the Party’s hard line.

It is also worth highlighting that “Voice of China” has conferred a long-established Communist media logic to realize its number one task, i.e. “propagating the Party’s theories, directions, principles and policies.” Apart from disseminating copy from Xinhua News Agency, “Voice of China” is expected to actively engage a broader community and produce massive “good China stories” for both domestic and international audiences. The move elevates the propaganda machine from being a producer of “soft power” to becoming an engine of “sharp power.” The central propaganda department extends its new leading role in both domestic and external propaganda in order to achieve greater success for the Party’s cause. Recently, China has been accused of promoting its agenda by manipulating other countries through the work of the Confucius Institutes and dazzling advertising campaigns in international newspapers. It is actually not surprising that a rising China is more concerned with external propaganda and its importance in public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, and foreign opinion management. Therefore, making “good China stories” does not simply suggest polishing China’s image abroad. What’s more, China is eager to make strenuous efforts to direct foreign public opinion on an international and on an individual level, pushing any who will listen to espouse China’s “theories, directions, principles and policies,” in hopes of shaping individual views towards Beijing’s state policy.

Certainly, China’s leadership harbors a deep paranoia over the disruptive potential of the media. In the reform era, the fear of disruption dates back to June of 1989. We can think of this paranoia as a deep trauma—a poorly mended bone that smarts whenever the pressure in the atmosphere changes. In this sense, the Party will never relax.

Paradoxically, though, we can see this re-consolidation of Party control over all forms of media—and that is certainly what these recent actions seek to accomplish—as a necessary outcome of the Party’s more confident embrace of the new media ecology of cyberspace in what Xi Jinping is calling the “new era.” We might call this approach “harnessing disruption.” Media are undergoing a painful process of disruption globally, and traditional notions of “content” (the object of control) are disintegrating, and of course also merging with individual behavior and choice (mediated through Artificial Intelligence). In the face of these changes, which risk spinning media further and further from the Party’s grasp, it makes sense both to draw them closer into the Party’s core governance structure, and to consolidate the Party’s resources on the production end. The Party wants technical advances to happen in step with advances in control. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to see the official Xinhua News Agency actively working to integrate AI into its news production process with a platform it is calling “Media Brain,” to cite one of a number of examples.

Still, the paranoia is always there, and the Party answers fear by instilling it in others. We need look no further than the recent apology from Zhang Yiming, the founder and CEO of Toutiao, an information platform that uses AI to curate content for its users. The entire letter is worth a read for its extreme abasement—the remorse of an entrepreneur who placed too much faith in technology, and too little in the Party and its “socialist core values.” But one of Zhang’s remedies for his platform’s missteps is particularly elucidating. He pledges to “further deepen cooperation with authoritative media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, ensuring that authoritative media voices are broadcast to strength.” By “authoritative media” here, Zhang is referring to Party-state media. The bottom line: AI and other innovations are free to offer users all sorts of new experiences—so long as they point them, ultimately, in the direction of the Party.