China’s New Propaganda Campaign

China’s propaganda officials, apparently reflecting the new assertiveness of President Xi Jinping, have been speaking of the need to revolutionize the country’s news and propaganda: in order to achieve the revival of the Communist Party’s “mass line,” according to an analysis of the Chinese press by a team of scholars at Hong Kong University.

“Much of the dogmatizing is eerily redolent of China’s Maoist past, not a surprise considering that the idea of the “mass line,” or qunzhong luxian, is closely associated with Mao Zedong, according to the China Media Project, headed by David Bandurski. The China Media Project is probably the most exhaustive window into the Chinese language media anywhere.

There is a sense, the study says, “that the most recent developments in communications technology, those ‘me-media’ that promise to transform everyone’s future, have brought the Party back — at least potentially — to its roots. “

In particular, the Media Project concentrated on an article recently published in People’s Forum magazine and re-run in the “Theory” section at People’s Daily Online. The piece is written by Li Xiguang, former executive dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University and the current director of the university’s International Communications Center.

Li, who according to the Media Project presents himself to the outside world (what he calls the waibu) as a champion of press reform in China with credentials in the West (he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and was very briefly at the Washington Post as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow in 1995), is also closely aligned with the party leadership.

Li, according to the study, “often writes in confrontational terms about the need to counter ‘Western public opinion guidance’public opinion guidance being the dominant term within the CCP since 1989 to refer legitimately to press controls, a strange confuting of vocabularies for an ostensible communications scholar — and about the challenges facing the Party’s ‘mainstream’ ideology.”

For instance, Li wrote in the Party journal Seeking Truth in 2012, when Hu Jintao’s notion of the “socialist core value system” was all the rage, that “Tested by a public opinion environment on the outside that is complex and severe, we must maintain clear minds, heightening our sense of readiness against hardship, and we must further strengthen our building of the socialist core value system, promoting the solid advancement of China’s international communication capacity, working hard to create an objective and favorable international public opinion environment beneficial to the project of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Xi, Li writes, “points a clear reform direction in order to build the proper Party news and propaganda systems and mechanisms to enable the maintaining of correct guidance of public opinion.”

“For those who don’t recognize it, this last term is synonymous with the Party’s dominance of the agenda through news and information control.’

The key to building the “proper Party news and propaganda systems and mechanisms,” says Li, according to the Media Project, is to re-envision the work of propaganda and “make the transition from a [vertical] bureaucratic system of administrative management to a flat system of political management.

In other words, the whole Party propaganda culture must “flatten” in order to become more responsive and effective on all key battlegrounds in the war for public opinion dominance:

“Only if we have our own voices in every field of public opinion can the Chinese Communist Party occupy the heights of public opinion, and grasp the power to channel public opinion.”

The ultimate goal, says Li, is the “political mobilization [of the masses] in the internet era.” And he finds his corollary in the heady days of the revolution. “The organizational flattening of news and propaganda systems and mechanisms was in fact a fine tradition of our Party’s news and propaganda work during the revolutionary and reconstruction periods [of the CCP],” he writes.

“For example, at important stages of the revolution, or important points in battle, Comrade Mao Zedong would personally write or edit the news articles of [the official] Xinhua News Agency. In the revolutionary period, the Chinese Communist Party was a flat structured organization, and so it was close to the people and could accomplish things especially for them.”

Introducing a new term for the loyal subjects who are to embody this new “flattened” structure, Professor Li says the Party must “actively find and foster propaganda activists at the Party’s grass roots.”

In Li’s re-envisioned propaganda system, these “propaganda activists” would be working within the “mobile community of the ‘me-media’,” by which he means the new world of user-generated content.

Using the great ship of the new media to take to the seas, the propaganda workers of the Party can take their propaganda work among the masses to the mobile community of the me-media. Through the mass line, the Party’s policies and political line will be understood and accepted by the masses.

Only time will tell whether Li Xiguang’s vision of a new “flattened” news and propaganda system is visionary, or self-delusional — or actually policy, the study notes..