Everyone has their habits when they return to a favourite place. Landing in Guangzhou recently, my first act — as always — was to seek out the latest edition of Southern Weekend. It was formerly the vanguard of Chinese investigative journalism, exposing crooked officials, dodgy charities and official hypocrisy of all flavours. Its lead story would be an exposé, illustrated by a striking image.
The September 7 edition was none of those things. A striking image did fill the front page, but it was of President Xi Jinping. The ‘chairman of everything’ is pictured striding across a marble floor, looking calm, composed and thoroughly pleased with himself as he prepares to address the media at the conclusion of the 9th BRICS Forum in Xiamen. No exposé there.
A few pages in, there was the story of the ‘toilet-building party secretary’, who excoriated his officials for building a grandiose square without providing a public toilet for the old folks practicing Tai Chi. He memorably asked, ‘if the masses are desperate to pee, how can they fill their bellies with qi?’ This is about as risqué as Southern Weekend gets these days.
The reduction of this bastion of professional journalism to an organ that carries adulatory images of the chairman has a backstory: the profession has been on the wane in China for the past decade.
Censorship aside, journalists have been required to sit exams testing their knowledge of the Marxist role of journalists. As the University of Hong Kong’s David Bandurski explains, the content of these exams is almost irrelevant: it is reminding journalists that they work for the Party and no one else.
This decade-long campaign has seen experienced journalists leave the field: 80 per cent of Chinese journalists are now under the age of 30. After Tiananmen, when a similar campaign was launched, it was clear to what the Party was responding. But what provoked the crackdown this time is curiously unclear.
The Arab Spring and the rise of social media are certainly possible candidates, and the Olympics seemed to be a factor, but there was no clear existential threat at the start of the campaign in 2008. As Mr Bandurski puts it, there are ‘antibodies without a clear disease’.
Another factor in the decline of outlets like Southern Weekend are forces visible in the West as well. In the malls of Guangzhou or Beijing, you are out of place just walking. Everyone else is stumbling along, lost in their smartphones. Few under the age of 50 are leafing through Southern Weekend. Once seen as an incipient threat to Party rule, China’s startling levels of internet connectivity are now enabling a digital rebirth of a party-controlled system.
This shift in the way Chinese citizens consume media has been deftly matched by a shift in the way propaganda is produced and curated, particularly through the creation of the Cyberspace Leading Group headed by President Xi, which oversees the Cyberspace Administration Committee (CAC).
Once best known for their embarrassing effort at the Chinese New Year celebrations, CAC has moved to a central position in China’s propaganda efforts. This coincides with domestic and international promotion of ‘Internet sovereignty’ — the idea that cyberspace should be viewed in Westphalian terms.
In the lead up to the 19th Party Congress, this shift in the propaganda apparatus to a realm firmly under the control of Mr Xi is significant. The response of the traditional elements of the propaganda system seems to be to demonstrate their loyalty by pushing Mr Xi’s agenda further, whether through ramping up censorship of the archives or festooning the streets and subway entrances with exhortations to learn from the long-ignored revolutionary martyr Lei Feng as well as to embody ‘core socialist values’.
In English, producing news content is referred to as ‘the hub’, but the Chinese term ‘kitchen’ comes closer to expressing the new approach of having multiple media formats filled with centrally produced media content. This newfound confidence represents a profound change or ‘innovation’ in the language of the regime and how it views the online realm.
As Mr Bandurksi reminds us, the birth of the internet in China ‘was managed through the Information Office of the State Council, which is the external propaganda apparatus in China… the internet was there because it was foreign…it was feared for that reason’.
But now the Party is closer to controlling all information, which will increasingly be digital and readily available. And they’re confident. Exactly where this confidence will lead might not be clear until well after the 2022 20th Party Congress. EAST ASIA FORUM
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Graeme Smith is a research fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University and hosts the Little Red Podcast with Louisa Lim. This article is based on a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, with Qian Gang and David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.