Xi’s New Media Control Plan: A Return to the Past?

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To some degree, media lead a nation. But when the mirror the media hold is distorted, what kind of image will it display?

Media is a reflection of society, and of a country’s culture in general. While they turn their mirror on society, society adjusts its own image from the reflection. To some degree, media lead a nation. But when the mirror the media hold is distorted, what kind of image will it display?

People’s Daily is perhaps the best mirror China’s Communist Part holds. It is a mirror that distorts society’s image into one that fits the CCP’s agenda. It is also a mirror through which the CCP regards itself. Keeping that in mind, the paper’s February 20th front page is almost frightening, a return to the fictional world of 1984.

“Continue to construct innovative approaches that leads to right directions, increase the guiding and spreading of news and public opinion.” The red block title glares back at the reader. However, the key lies on the top right corner, where Xi’s media control regime, the “48 character policy” was advertised.

Writing in groups of four characters has always been the CCP’s popular tactic of spreading important messages. It is a tradition in the Chinese language to organize flash phrases into groups of four characters for easy remeberance. However, the tone in Xi’s “48 character policy” is unusally strong for a regular 4-character promotion.

The first line deals with the increasing centrality of the CCP and the role of media in serving the larger political agenda. The second line emphasizes the importance of “uniting the people” and creating a optimistic societal outlook. The third line takes a much stronger turn and stresses the media must differ the right from the wrong and clear the “mistakes” in public opinion. In addition, the last 8 characters bring out a message different from the rest of the text: connecting China and abroad, communicating with the rest of the world.

Xi’s media control reform touches upon all areas the media might cover, and even includes influencing international public opinion which none of his predecessors ever dared to mention. It could be seen, then, as a map for all dimensional control, where CCP controls all dimensions of domestic and international public opinion on the country, across all platforms.

Xi’s determination is much beyond a statement on China’s foremost newspaper. Last Friday, he paid a high profile visit to China’s state television center, CCTV, along with Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily. Although previous leaders have all paid visits to these agencies before announcing their media control policies, Xi’s visit is unarguablely the most publicized and has resulted in the tightest policies in several decades.

Xi’s media policy differ from his predecessors mainly, as previously mentioned, on to its multidimensionality. Jiang Zemin emphasized on leading the direction of public opinion, where he noted media control was essential to societal stability. Hu Jintao focused upon “soft power” and noted the importance of leading public opinion abroad and the CCP’s direct involvement with breaking news.  Xi Jinping’s policy could be captured in “public opinion struggle”, a hardline statement he made during a speech in 2013. Despite the phrase not appearing on the February 20th front cover of People’s Daily, the article did mention “idealogical struggles”, which may be a step ahead.

The People’s Daily article touched upon the idea of “mainting a high level of uniformity with the Party in idealogy, politics, and actions”. It is very much connected with the six word (in Chinese) mantra Xi has been repeating since his inauguration: Love the party, protect the party, act for the party. Both statements stress the sense of urgency that media must align with the Party’s leadership across all aspects and platforms.

All notions of “soft power” left over from Hu and Jiang’s era are completely eradicated by Xi. The former two’s attempt-in very loose terms-to improve state media reporting and its commercial operations is nowhere to be seen. Even “innovation”, as stated in the red block texts, must follow Party agenda.

What changes might we see coming up? The annual Chinese New Year Gala, or commonly known as Chunwan, has already shown us the general direction. With its programs heavily cleansed to show the CCP’s message and many comments on the Internet critical to the show deleted, the Gala was very likely a test ground for Xi’s new media policy.

Few has expected this at the time of Xi’s inaugural, when he was seen as new blood possibly leading the country to new directions. Instead, he headed the country back into the past. When the older generations gaze upon the 48 character policy, will they sense some kind of similarity with Mao’s “Little Red Book” leftover from the pre-1979 era? Closing onto the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, will the Party realize it is in the process of repeating history? Tight media control results in very few positive outcome, and has never succeeded in the long term. How the CCP, while implementing the new media control reform, sees the world through its media mirror is a mystery.




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