Thoughts of Chairman Xi Bode Ill for the Press

There are differing ideas what “journalists’ first duty to the country” should be

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has made no secret of his idea of how journalism should work. On November 8, the first day of the 6th Plenary Session of the party in Beijing, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua published a letter in which Xi outlined his thoughts on patriotism and journalism.

Those thoughts bear ominous implications for Chinese journalists in general and in particular for the near future of the independent 118-year-old Hong Kong-based broadsheet South China Morning Post, arguably formerly the most prominent English-language daily in Asia outside Japan, which is rumored to be a takeover target of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s government overlord in the territory.

As Asia Sentinel reported on November 10, a Hong Kong company, Bauhinia Culture (Hong Kong) Holdings, which is controlled by the liaison office, is seeking to acquire the publication from Alibaba, controlled by now-subdued tycoon Jack Ma.

In his letter to Xinhua, which appears here in Chinese, Xi makes it clear that the first duty of journalists is not to serve as a countervailing bulwark against government excesses but rather to cheerlead the way forward. Here are Chairman Xi’s thoughts:

  • Raise the flag, lead the way

  • Gather around the center, serve the big picture

  • Unite the people, improve their morale

  • Correct errors, clearly distinguish between right and wrong

  • Have the right political direction, uphold the correct ideals

  • Have red blood in your veins in order to become a top-tier international news media organization

Nor are the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong alone. China has vastly expanded its international presence across the world with slick, professionally produced programming via China Global Television Network, which is televised in 140 countries and with China Radio International broadcast in 65 languages, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, all of it, as Chairman Xi points out, raising the flag and leading the way in the right political direction. Billions have been invested in programming as well as advertorials beamed at cash-hungry independent news outlets across the world. Australia, with its significant population of overseas Chinese, has been a particular target.

“This message is one more insult to Chinese journalists,” said Cédric Alviani, head of the East Asia Bureau of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. “President Xi Jinping, who is notoriously forthright about being an enemy of democracy, universal values, human rights and press freedom, has consistently claimed that journalism should boil down to relaying Party propaganda and not to honestly inform the public.”

As Alviani pointed out in an email, the already state-controlled Chinese domestic media have been further muzzled almost since Xi came to power in 2013. In-depth investigations, particularly on corruption and public health scandals, that truly served the public by forcing the state apparatus to address the system’s flaws and correct injustices, are not encouraged. Journalists who refuse to comply with the official narrative are routinely accused of harming national unity, which can result in years of detention.

The 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index now ranks China 177th of 180 countries, just two places above North Korea, with 128 journalists in detention.

RSF in 2019 published a report titled "China's Pursuit of a New World Media Order" which accuses Xi’s government of seeking to control information beyond its borders and to eliminate independent journalism as a counter-power, described by Alviani as a project “that poses a direct threat to democracies.”

Hong Kong, which has had some of the most free and responsible press in Asia and which has been the base for many of the bureaus of the international press, has been the target of a dramatic crackdown ordered by Xi on not just press freedoms but widespread civil rights since the middle of 2020, when Beijing imposed a sweeping National Security Act that has been used to send a long list of not just protesters but independent legislative representatives to jail, most of them still moldering in jail cells awaiting trial although some more prominent people have received stiff sentences.

Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the rambunctious Chinese-language paper Apple Daily, has been jailed on charges of leading demonstrations against the government and the paper has been forced to close. Its parent company, Next Media, has also been wiped out. Other publications have been muzzled.

The territory’s raucous movie industry has also been muzzled, with officials who once served the colonial and subsequent independent governments impartially, defining new red lines on what is and isn’t in the interests of national security. The legal profession has also come under attack, as it has long been in China itself. The government has broadened the language it uses to describe national security violations, with ominous implications for the future of the city as an international center of commerce and trade as well as free expression.

John Berthelsen is Asia Sentinel’s editor in chief

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