The Media Managers

An array of committees and agencies collaborate to promote the official line. For party officials, ‘propaganda’ is no dirty word.

Among party officials responsible for media content, the word xuanchuan, or “propaganda,” does not have a negative connotation. In recognition of the discomfort it evokes among foreigners, however, the department overseeing China’s media was renamed in 1998—in English only—from Central Propaganda Department to Central Publicity Department. (CPJ uses the Chinese translation elsewhere in this report.)

Under the leadership of Politburo Standing Committee Member Li Changchun and Publicity Department Director Liu Yunshan, the Central Publicity Department (CPD) and its local branch offices scrutinize appointments of media managers and keep media abreast of issues to stress in reports, informing managers via telephone conversations or facsimiles of topics to avoid. Groups of senior cadres working in yueping xiaozu or “monthly evaluation small groups” critique news coverage seen as inaccurate or politically undesirable, providing a written rationale for how news content should conform to the wishes of the party. News content is also monitored by media employees with close ties to the Publicity Department whose charge is to protect their organizations from making political “mistakes.”

The CPD’s hold on the media is strengthened by intimate collaboration with state institutions such as the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), which frequently issue regulations, reminders, and reprimands restricting the conditions under which Chinese journalists can report the news. For example, in November 2006 the CPD and GAPP criticized the Beijing-based weekly Lifeweek for running a cover story on the 30th anniversary of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution, along with a photo of Mao Zedong’s last wife, Jiang Qing, on trial for persecuting Communist leaders and attempting to seize power. (She eventually committed suicide while serving a commuted death sentence.) In January, according to the South China Morning Post, the CPD issued an internal regulation requiring media to seek permission prior to reporting on major historic events involving revolutionary leaders or controversial political figures. Chinese media were later instructed, at a meeting held by SARFT, to avoid reporting on 20 specific historical events and issues, including the 1957 antirightist campaign affecting as many as one million people, the Cultu

Openly flouting CPD directives can lead to immediate closure of a media outlet or precipitate an investigation of editors or journalists, leading to imprisonment on charges that, in recent years, have included corruption, leaking state secrets, false reporting, inciting unrest, and political subversion. Relatively few journalists (as a proportion of the country’s total number) experience repression directly, which is due in large part to financial incentives for self-censorship, or performance-based salary schemes in which journalists receive payment only for reports deemed politically acceptable. Many Chinese reporters steer clear of controversy to receive higher financial compensation.

Areas of the media industry that party leaders admit have been difficult to “manage” effectively are privately owned Internet sites and blogs that feature content related to political matters, military affairs, economics, and foreign relations. By 2007, some 137 million Chinese were Internet users, with nearly eight million bloggers actively posting material, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. To monitor content, Internet portals in China employ computerized “filters” based on regularly updated lists of politically sensitive terms. In-house censors, some of whom work for state organizations, delete undesirable content and shut down blogs that display pornography, directly challenge party ideology, or advocate political activism. Despite repeated attempts to tighten control over chat forums, Web portals, and blogs, the Internet has made political information more accessible to a rapidly growing number of Chinese. In the blogosphere, particularly, there is unprecedented room for subtle critiques that slip underneath the radar of state detection.