Press Freedom – or not – in Asia
Part 2: Behind the Scenes at China’s Official News Machine
HONG KONG—Market-driven reforms have changed China’s economy and made some areas of government more transparent, but the media remain in thrall to a powerful propaganda machine aimed at showing up Communist Party power.
The Party’s Central Propaganda Department has yet to leave the shadowy world of Stalinist politics—and it wields ultimate power over what China’s 1.3 billion citizens get to hear, see, and read.
“If you go through all the streets of Beijing, you will not see a sign for the Central Propaganda Department,” journalism professor Jiao Guobiao, of China’s elite Beijing University, wrote recently in a landmark essay titled “Crusade Against the Central Propaganda Department.”
“Whenever the Central Propaganda Department puts a stop order on a news story, we see that it is the stability of the corrupt elements that overrides all else.”
“If you call for directory assistance on 114 in Beijing, you will not find a number for the Central Propaganda Department. If you search on the Internet, you will draw a blank on the Central Propaganda Department,” Jiao said.
Jiao’s main thesis is that the Department now poses a major obstacle to further social and cultural development in China, and in fact actively provides an official umbrella shielding thousands of crooks and corrupt officials at every level.
Jiao particularly targets the propaganda machine’s obsession with “stability.”
“Whenever the Central Propaganda Department puts a stop order on a news story, we see that it is the stability of the corrupt elements that overrides all else. It is the stability of the people who oppress little people that overrides all else. It is stability of the people who pay off the Central Propaganda Department that overrides all else,” he wrote.
“It is the stability of the subcontractor boss who does not pay his workers that overrides all else. It is the stability of those who force poor downtrodden people to travel thousands of miles to file petitions that overrides all else.”
Chinese media commentators contacted by RFA agreed with Jiao’s expose.
“The Central Propaganda Department publishes a monthly review,” former Shenzhen Legal Daily editor He Qinglian told RFA’s Century Highlights program in a recent interview.
“Each regional branch has established special task forces, which systematically monitor and review the local radio stations and newspapers,” she said.
“I had to record the directives. They were all about things we were not forbidden to cover. In a normal day, I could get five to six phone calls a day. Even during a slow day, I could get a couple… There were rules for everything.”
Shenzhen Legal Daily
He said she used to record top-down directives from the propaganda department when she worked as a duty editor in Shenzhen.
“I had to record the directives. They were all about things we were not forbidden to cover. In a normal day, I could get five to six phone calls a day. Even during a slow day, I could get a couple,” she said.
She said the directives ranged from politics to economics to sports stories, and forbade certain story ideas or angles before coverage even began. “There were rules for everything,” she said.
New York-based freelance writer Cao Changqing used to work as an editor on the Shenzhen Youth Daily newspaper.
“The Central Propaganda Department has played the role of a Gestapo in ideology, publication, and news reporting. They are the cultural police.”
Shenzhen Youth Daily
Cao told RFA: “The Propaganda Departments at every level issued directives to control the media every week, telling them what to publish and what not to publish. If you didn¹t follow the directives, you would lose your editor or party secretary positions. If you didn¹t obey orders, your paper would be shut down,” he said.
Cao said 20 years of market-driven economic reforms had failed to change how the Party propaganda machine controls the media.
“The Central Propaganda Department has played the role of a Gestapo in ideology, publication, and news reporting. They are the cultural police. Mr. Jiao¹s article points out the true nature of that ideological police,” Cao told RFA.
No change within current system
Jiao—who expects some kind of official retaliation for his essay following visits from university officials—has called for the elimination of propaganda departments at all levels.
But He also said she thought the propaganda machine essential to continuing the Party’s grip on power.
“It needs two pillars to support the system—the pen, which refers to the propaganda department, and the gun, which are the army, police, and the public security system,” He told RFA. “I think this [Jiao’s proposal] is only wishful thinking. That’s the only thing he can say at this time. Maybe he believes that it can be done. I don’t know.”
Beijing-based dissident Liu Xiaobo also saw an essential link between the communist regime and the propaganda machine.
“It is an organization that kills off news reports and restricts people’s freedom of speech and monopolizes the control of people’s freedom of speech. The problem doesn’t just lie in this one department. They all grow out of the system,” Liu told RFA.
“It is connected with a political system where the power of the Party stands above everything else.There is no separation of the Party and the executive branches. If China doesn’t upgrade itself into a modern political system, it will never loosen the Party’s control over people¹s freedom of speech,” he said.
Please read next story: Part 3: North Korean journalists re-educated for misspelling of top officials’ names