Until May 2011, Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and well received for his commentaries on current affairs in China. He was suspended that month for his article commemorating the third anniversary of Wenchuan earthquake. Now he describes himself as a media watcher. Translated by Rogier Creemers.
Recently, the standing vice-director of Shaanxi provincial propaganda department Ren Xianliang (任贤良) published an article entitled Comprehensively Manage Two Media Fields to Unite the Positive Energy of the Society in which he evaluated the present media circumstances (China Media Project has a roundup about Ren Xianliang’s article). Although his logic and conclusions are both questionable, it seems as though we may agree on one point: Even if this article, issued in the Red Flag Journal (《红旗文稿》), is meant to test the waters, it reflects the anxiety of the Party’s propaganda system and the latest judgment of high level officials in the propaganda system concerning public opinion. Media professionals should not treat this article with ridicule; others should also think about the sentiments in it and pay attention to the information it conveys. (Read Rogier’s complete translation of Ren’s article here.)
Ren’s article is divided into two parts: the first part assesses the nature of the public opinion sphere, while the second part provides some management prescriptions. In assessing the nature of the public opinion sphere, it places “Party management of the media” on a par with “Party management of the military.” This is raising the Party’s control of media to a point where matters cannot be more severe. His word choice here goes further than merely repeating the old hackneyed themes of conquering all under Heaven with both the “gun barrel” and the “pen.” Given the current context, this seems to be a proposition for keeping the country stable, thus revealing the fretful feelings and violent tendencies on the part of the propaganda system.
Ren’s article referred to the Southern Weekend incident, believing it has “challenged the base line of the Party’s control of the media.” Such thinking conforms to the propaganda departments’ talking points, but deviates from the expectations of the masses. In a way, we can say that the Southern Weekend incident has not concluded, the Party has reached a conclusion of it but held it back from the public. Ren’s article has brought some grapevine hearsay into the open, at a minimum confirming the attitude of the propaganda system towards the incident. Does a re-discussion of the incident mean that more disciplinary steps will be taken against those who were involved? One might expect more moves than the firing of Zeng Li (曾礼, a senior censor at the Southern Weekend who spoke out during the incident and who recently died days after “retirement”).
Director Ren noted that there are two media spheres: the Party-controlled media versus new internet media. He talked about the largest common divisor of the two and contributes a wholesale management plan. Treating the two media spheres equally without noting their stark contrast in opinion output, he proposes “Dual Management” (两管) that is, managing the media and managing the people running them, a method they are skilled at using.
All of his proposed countermeasures are rehashed clichés, but what calls for attention is that he wants the propaganda system to foster its own “opinion leaders.” In the old time the system “beats them down,” now it wants to “cultivate” them. Here you are witnessing how the propaganda system appropriates a term of mass communication. Clearly, the system has recognized, and accepted, the low productivity of its army of Fifty Centers (五毛); it will now move to fostering opinion leaders to counter the tide of adverse public opinion. As a result, a big wave of buy-up (of opinion leaders) can be expected.
In the past, “Dual Management” was both the principle and the methodology for the Party’s running of the media. But, as “the Party running the media” is raised to be the overarching rule, “Dual Management” measures have become ever finer management techniques. This technical process began some time ago, and it will only become denser and be applied with more pressure. Now, ratcheting up the Party’s control of the media even higher to the level of the Party’s control of the military, as Ren proposes, would mean abandoning the exhaustive operation of the Party’s management of the media, do away with the space it allows journalism, and step up the intensity of control instead. Consequently, it would be impossible to accomplish the search for the greatest common divisor that Ren proposes later. In the end, to forcibly reach that highest principle, the only option would be for the propaganda department to raise the level of violence.
Ren Xianliang’s worries are not expressions of theory, but a response to reality. The problems is, what Ren and his colleagues, and even the entire system, face is not just a few influential Big Vs (verified Weibo accounts with large number of followers), it isn’t even the Southern Weekend incident. What is truly threatening to them are the tempestuous media changes. In terms of influence, structure, real power, especially the power to counter information control, these changes, altogether, deserve to be called a media revolution. Regardless of how propaganda directors like Ren choose their targets, their true opponents are in fact not in the world of media.
The force of change in the media is created by the society and the time we live in. Changed has been driven by technology development, and they have fermented everywhere and created an overall climate. It would be backward as a concept, and ineffective as a method, to suppress such changes by making a more antagonistic case against them and using force rather than more moderate approaches. In the old times the propaganda departments across the country only had to manage 200,000 to 300,000 media practitioners; now, they face information interaction between hundreds of millions of people. What to do? It looks like when they don’t have sufficient tools, they resort to making it a matter of ideology, thus escaping from the real issue.
Under such circumstances, a crackdown becomes a preset option against the media, and management becomes a synonym for retaliation. This, I am afraid, is the worst option there is. In fact, the main characteristic of changes in the media—also their driving force—is that they are changing not only the media structure but the power structure of media operations. I suppose propaganda directors such as Ren have had a taste of the vanguard of the torrential media changes, but it isn’t yet clear to them what might come on the heels of this vanguard. For both sides, this will be a rather difficult meeting.
What must be said in the end is that director Ren Xianliang once accepted a Southern Weekend interview with pleasure (link in Chinese). During that interview, Director Ren praised and encouraged monitoring by the public, and expressed an open-minded attitude. Now he has made a big turn, carrying a red flag to separate himself from the Southern Weekend. In doing so, he proclaims his new stance, and bids a farewell to his old stance on display in that interview. In pledging his allegiance, director Ren’s article also reflects the system’s sense of crisis. But the important thing is not what he thinks, but what the masses do, and how media changes move forward in the time to come.
China’s Press Freedom Goes South, by Annie Zhang, Foreign Policy.
The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, by Mo Zhixu
The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, New Statesman.