BEIJING – When the deputy editor of China’s Nan Guo Morning Post, Liu Yuan, first heard details of the death of a 15-year-old boy at a camp to cure Internet addiction, he knew he had a powerful story – and a public responsibility.
The details were shocking.
The boy had been dropped off at the camp by his parents on Aug. 1 about 2 p.m. and less than 14 hours later he was dead – savagely beaten by camp “trainers.” Locals later learned the camp was an unregistered business that apparently benefited from state money.
Liu dispatched a reporter and the Post broke the story Aug. 4, revealing that 12 people had been arrested and the camp shut down.
Internet addiction among Chinese youth is a serious problem, according to state media.
The news swept across the Internet like a summer storm, and soon, national media followed.
It was public service journalism of a high order, and further investigation revealed many children at the camp had been beaten.
In other countries, Liu might have received praise, a raise or perhaps a promotion – maybe even an award.
Instead, he lost his job.
Local Communist leaders felt the story had shamed the city – and made them look inept.
The local office of the party’s propaganda department, responsible for keeping a tight rein on the media, removed Liu from his position.
Liu might have intended to “serve the people” – to borrow a phrase from Mao Zedong – but local leaders felt he hadn’t served the party.
Such is the upside-down world of journalism in the world’s most populous country, where watchdog journalists are kept on tight leashes and the interests of the party are always paramount.
Scholars say that aside from the People’s Liberation Army – which is directly accountable to the Communist Party of China – there is no more powerful and important administrative branch than the sprawling, bureaucratic establishment known as the Central Propaganda Department.
While its inner operations are highly secretive, its main tasks are well known: control information, instruct the masses and mobilize them when necessary – all in the service of the party.
The department has offices that extend down to provincial, municipal and even county levels, across the country.
From a distance, China appears to be a rapidly modernizing country.
But the Communist government hasn’t let go of the reins of its propaganda effort since the day it took power 60 years ago.
“It’s absolutely essential to maintaining one-party rule,” notes Li Datong, one of China’s most respected and outspoken journalists, who rankles at such control.
“The aim of the department is to make people docile,” he says, “by brainwashing them … and that’s what the party does.”
According to Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand political scientist and Chinese propaganda specialist, the department’s reach is so broad and so deep that it has, “a central guiding role over the whole of Chinese society.”
Through its tentacles, the department controls virtually every means of information distribution in the country: newspapers, books, broadcast outlets, the Internet, mobile phones, education, culture, film – just about everything.
Few in the media business dare to disagree with the department. One does so at one’s peril, for the propaganda department has a lock on licensing – the key document needed to run a media outlet in China, giving the department extraordinary power.
Every week, explains Li Datong, the editors-in-chief of the country’s major outlets must attend at the department’s unmarked offices in central Beijing to take their marching orders – usually from a deputy minister.
If proximity to power is a sign of strength, then the propaganda department is strong indeed: its offices, at 5 West Chang’an Ave., are located near the senior party leaders’ compound known as Zhongnanhai, the Chinese equivalent of the White House.
“No one in Beijing actually knows that the building is home to the propaganda department,” says Li.
“Only some people in the media know – there’s no sign marking it. It’s as though they’re acting like an underground party – it’s like a joke. Such an enormous party and yet all of its departments are kept secret.”
At the meetings, usually held Fridays, 20 to 30 editors make the pilgrimage and are told which stories they must emphasize, which must be downplayed and what topics are off-limits.
They are also told which outlets have been found guilty of breaking regulations.
In addition, editors-in-chief regularly receive a stream of specific instructions via email: not only on what to write, but how much, how stories should be laid out and what articles must be removed from websites.
Those who flout the system can be fired.
In 2000 a warning system was introduced, Li notes. Now warnings are issued to those who break regulations and repeated offenses can lead to dismissal.
Following the Friday meetings, the editors return to their offices Monday and pass the instructions on to their department heads, who then pass them to staff.
“All the journalists know the instructions come from the CPD,” says one disgruntled journalist over lunch.
“It’s not like they make a secret of it. They just tell us openly: ‘These are the instructions.’ “
A journalist from another newspaper is asked if the experience is demoralizing?
“Of course. We hate the CPD,” says the reporter, whose paper is known for challenging department guidelines.
But few papers do.
Seasoned editors note that 90 per cent of Chinese papers are filled with entertainment and sports and lighter fare that the propaganda department couldn’t care less about.
“They’re only interested in controlling news about politics and current affairs,” Li says.
Li gained national and international notoriety in 2005 when a confidential memo he wrote was leaked online.
In the memo, he denounced a more senior editor’s plan that would link journalists’ bonuses to praise received for their articles from party officials.
Writing an article that was among the top three best-read in the paper would win the writer 50 points. But earning praise from the propaganda department would earn the journalist 120 points. And garnering a compliment from the Politburo would win a jackpot of 300 points.
Li was revolted and his resistance and the ensuing bad publicity led to the plan being scrapped.
He has come a long way from the days when he began his career at China Youth Daily in 1979. Then, journalists were disabused of any notions about editorial freedom from the outset, he recalls.
“I remember we were told flat out, `You are the party’s propagandists,'” he says.
The situation improved during the 1980s when the state eased up on its insistence that journalists be pure propagandists. Chinese journalists also began adopting some Western journalistic methods.
But 1989 changed everything, says Xiao Qiang, professor at University of California at Berkeley, who directs the China Internet Project.
Following the Tiananmen Square massacre, the propaganda department took on immense power.
“After Tiananmen the top leadership summarized their lessons learned,” says Xiao. “One of the most important, in their view, was simply: `Never let the media out of our control again.'”
The weekly meetings were introduced then, and continue to this day.
Xiao notes, however, that propaganda has been central to the Communist party strategy from the very beginning – not just since 1949, but during the Chinese Civil War which began in the 1920s.
“Victory depended on a two-pronged strategy: One was the military of course, but the other was the ability to mobilize people through propaganda.
“When they took power in 1949, they simply kept the same strategy.”
“In the Communists’ own words it was the power of the gun and the power of the pen.”
But Xiao also notes that, lately, there are growing signs of resistance from within the system.
People have been leaking instructions issued by the propaganda department directly to the Internet using Twitter, giving the public a rare insight into the heart of the system.
He has been placing them on the China Internet Project’s website, China Digital Times.
Some directives appear innocent and prosaic: “All websites need to use bright red color to promote a celebratory atmosphere” for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic Oct. 1. “Roll out the red carpet,” the department instructs.
But there are other, more muscular instructions that speak to the department’s power, ordering media to “immediately remove,” material, or ensure that “negative reports … not exceed 30 per cent,” and finally to “close all comments” on a story embarrassing to the party.
And there was this:
“As for 60th anniversary columns that take a look back in history … do not allow articles that keep dwelling on the ’60s and ’70s . … “
Those were difficult decades for China – the time of China’s violent and chaotic Cultural Revolution – an event the Communist Party Propaganda Department would prefer be forgotten.
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