Image: Viral clapping – On October 18, the day the 19th Communist Party Congress opened, a Sina Weibo user posted this image—of an advertisement for a new mobile phone application that encourages citizens to compete in how quickly they can clap at excerpts from President Xi Jinping’s speech. The user expressed wonder at the new app, writing, “Can’t express my feelings, hands swollen from clapping. Everyone, come feel it! Best new media product this year.” Although the user had only a modest following of 56,295, the post quickly went viral. It was shared 10,827 times within less than seven hours before 1:06 a.m. on October 19, when censors who recognized the apparent sarcasm deleted the post. Credit: Weiboscope.
The leadership stresses party dominance, innovative propaganda, cultural influence, and globalization of its governance model.
Since the 19th Party Congress unfolded in Beijing last month, observers have closely examined various aspects of Xi Jinping’s lengthy speech, the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and the extraordinary security measures put in place for the event. Far less attention has been paid to the congress’s implications for media policy.
Xi’s remarks, related changes to the party constitution, and key personnel decisions reveal a number of notable shifts that could have a profound impact on how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) manages its massive censorship and propaganda apparatus.
Four developments at the congress stand out for their departure from precedent:
- Priority given to ‘the party’s leadership’ and Xi himself:The phrase “the party’s leadership” appeared 16 times in Xi’s speech. As noted by the China Media Project, this figure was last matched at the 13th Party Congress in 1987. No other party congress has featured a higher number of such references, though Xi’s speech was uncharacteristically long. Changes to the party constitution also reflected Xi’s status as a particularly powerful CCP leader: His collection of ideological contributions, dubbed “Xi Jinping Thought,” is now part of the charter, and various pet projects or slogans—like the Belt and Road Initiative and the “China Dream” concept—have been added as well.
- New emphasis on the cultural sphere: References to the cultural components of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” were added to the CCP constitution in several places. These changes partly reflect Xi’s own emphasis on “helping socialist culture to flourish.” The topic secured a dedicated section in Xi’s speech, on par with segments about the economy and military. The culture passage covered not only traditional and online media, but also the realms of art, literature, and education.
- New ideology czar with unusual background: Of the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China watchers have generally agreed that Wang Huning is most likely to be given responsibility for the vital ideology and propaganda portfolio. Wang—a former academic who has spent the last two decades at the party elite’s internal think tank—comes from a very different background than his two immediate predecessors, and lacks any work experience within the party’s ideology and propaganda bureaucracy. The difference is especially stark when his résumé is compared with that of Liu Yunshan, whom he will apparently be replacing. Liu served much of his career in state media and the media control apparatus, including as director of the Central Propaganda Department for five years, before joining the Politburo Standing Committee. In a separate personnel change, Xu Lin, who heads the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the office of the “leading small group” on cybersecurity, was promoted to the CCP Central Committee, a position his predecessor Lu Wei never achieved.
- Explicit internationalization of the ‘China model’: Xi’s overall tone of confidence in China’s emergence as a world power was accompanied by an unprecedented promotion of China’s development path as a model for other countries, especially developing economies. He noted in his speech that China’s approach offers a way of “solving the problems facing mankind” and “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
Xi also reiterated strategies of information control that he has promoted before, and which have set his approach apart from that of his predecessors. Xi is especially attuned to the power of the internet and social media. As in past speeches, on October 18 he emphasized the importance of innovation and of enhancing the popular appeal of party propaganda and state media content, both at home and internationally.
The road ahead
Taken together, these aspects of the 19th Party Congress suggest that the regime will intensify and modernize its efforts to control not just the behavior but the minds of the Chinese people.
For example, the exaltation of “the party’s leadership” and “Xi Jinping Thought” signals a heightened intolerance for criticism of CCP rule and of Xi personally. Similarly, the emphasis on culture indicates that the party will be even more aggressive in promoting official viewpoints in the entertainment industry and educational system. Textbooksare already being revised to include Xi’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era,” and new research centers are being established at select universities.
In addition, the CCP will likely explore new ways to compel the online community to police itself. At one point in the speech, Xi mentions the need to “implement the system of responsibility for ideological work,” a phrase that has traditionally implied deploying citizens to monitor one another. Regulations related to the new Cybersecurity Law that entered into force in June include provisions to encourage self-censorship. Just last week, the CAC issued new rules that require social media and news applications to conduct regular self-assessments to ensure they are not hosting any undesirable content.
Wang Huning’s unusual background and Xu Lin’s promotion could accelerate the party’s adoption of more innovative forms of media control, with the CAC and the cybersecurity leading small group potentially overshadowing the hidebound Central Propaganda Department within the party bureaucracy. Wang’s résumé and reported success in promoting Xi’s “China Dream” campaign may result in reforms that make state media reporting and propaganda messaging more popular and effective.
Some observers have interpreted Wang’s early writings as having a somewhat liberal bent. However, at least one acquaintance told reporters that Wang “doesn’t believe China should become a multiparty democracy or have division of powers.” As long as he serves the interests of the one-party state and his close ally Xi, his apparent familiarity with liberal ideas may simply make him a more canny manager of China’s information landscape, which offers an illusion of choice, dynamism, and diversity but remains intensely hostile to independent reporting and open debate.
Exporting censorship and authoritarian rule
As disturbing as these domestic concerns may be, Xi’s affirmation of CCP governance as a model for other developing countries should raise alarms beyond China’s borders.
For years now, China has been assisting partner governments in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere by offering training to journalists at state-owned media, upgrading their broadcasting equipment, and selling telecommunication technologies that enable surveillance and censorship. Regimes in countries like Iran, Russia, and Ethiopia have tried imitating certain aspects of China’s internet controls, for example by promoting domestic social media platforms and restricting international competitors.
Should the CCP now promote its own information strategies more aggressively in the developing world, at a time when democratic powers seem to be in retreat, the negative impact on free expression and political pluralism could increase dramatically.
As Beijing geared up for the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which was held October 18–24, the capital went on lockdown. Many of the controls were familiar to residents who had witnessed previous high-profile events: restrictions on sales of scissors and knives, blocks on virtual private networks (VPNs), harsher-than-normal treatment of petitioners, and forced “vacations” for dissidents and activists. Other measures took even Beijingers—and foreign correspondents based in the capital—by surprise, including some that had a nationwide impact:
- Airbnb disabled: A ban on short-term rentals within the Sixth Ring Road was in effect from October 11 to the end of the month. Airbnb canceled all bookings for that time period and refunded guests. The American company told hosts that their listings had been temporarily hidden due to “external circumstances.” Local short-term rental platforms also removed their listings.
- WeChat avatars frozen: Just ahead of the congress, the social media application WeChat blocked users from changing their profile images, user names, and tag lines. The block lasted through the end of October. WeChat notified users that these features had been disabled “due to system maintenance reasons.” The block prevented people from using profile changes—a common form of expression that reaches beyond individual conversations—for political commentary.
- Internet slowdown: WhatsApp service fizzled for a few days before being snuffed out entirely on October 18. The secure messaging app, owned by Facebook, previously experienced outages in July and September. Users also reported difficulty operating VPNs and general internet sluggishness. Agence France-Presse reporter Joanna Chiu tweeted, “The internet has been so slow/non-existent these past few days that sometimes even Wechat doesn’t work. Cripples social life of everyone.”
- Foreign media barred from congress finale: Although party leader and state president Xi Jinping encouraged reporters to “travel and see more of China,” ten foreign media outlets from Europe, Japan, and the United States were not invited to the unveiling of the party’s new Politburo Standing Committee: the New York Times, the Guardian, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Economist, the Financial Times, Voice of America, Libération, Sankei Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and one other unnamed publication. Journalists from Reuters were invited. Qiao Mu, an academic and activist who recently left Beijing for the United States, told the Guardian that China seems to have barred “trouble makers” from attending, and that foreign media should expect their situation to become more precarious. Xi delivered his remarks announcing the new leadership to the invited journalists in a side room of the Great Hall of the People, rather than in the main auditorium. He declined to take questions from those attending.
The 19th Party Congress marked President Xi Jinping’s self-coronation as the leader of a “new era” in China. He opened the congress on October 18 with a three-and-a-half-hour speech titled “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” His lengthy remarks were broadcast live across the country, and local party branches from Public Security Bureaus to kindergartens held watch parties. Only Xiamen Satellite TV stuck to its regularly scheduled programming, a Minnan-language cartoon. (The station eventually stopped the show and put up a notice of technical difficulties, and later played Xi’s speech.)
Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was splashed across the front pageof the next day’s People’s Daily and other papers around the country, with many featuring a photo of Xi that was several times larger than those of the other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, a departure from more balanced visual displays following past congresses. Xinhua News Agency and other news websites also featured the speech. On October 18, Tencent released the app “Clap for Xi Jinping,” in which players try to clap as much as possible within 18 seconds after each soundbite from Xi’s speech, then share their results online. Within hours it had reportedly amassed 400 million players. At the close of the congress, a campaign on the social media site Sina Weibo to #SupporttheNewEra (#为新时代打) immediately followed the addition of Xi’s ideological contribution to the party constitution. Celebrities posted short videos to promote the slogan and got millions of hits—though many user comments were shout-outs to the celebrities, not the ideology.
Xi Jinping Thought will “go into textbooks, into classes, and into the brains” of students as part of the national curriculum, Education Minister Chen Baosheng said on October 23. New textbooks are being prepared, according to a source quoted in the South China Morning Post. Universities will also establish study centers for Xi Jinping Thought—two have already opened at Renmin University and Tianjin University of Finance and Economics.
Amid the social media campaigns and academic initiatives, an old-school propaganda tool is also being revived to spread Xi’s message. Loudspeakers, common across China during the Cultural Revolution, are a new fixture in Nanmiao, Hebei Province, a model village for embedding party ideology into everyday life. Zhang Lifan, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says bringing back the loudspeaker system “means the party wants to impose its own will on people, no matter if they want to listen or not.”
- Voice sample database: On October 22, Human Rights Watch reported that the Chinese government is collecting “voice pattern’ samples” for a nationwide database, one element of a project to gather “multimodal” biometric data on individuals. The purpose of this project is to build profiles of individuals suspected of “violating the law or committing crimes” for law enforcement, but also for “stability maintenance,” a catchall term that includes repression of petitioners, activists, and other peaceful dissidents deemed to be a political threat to the regime. There have been a number of cases in which the police collected voice samples from people who were not suspected of any crime. The speech recognition and surveillance system is being built by iFlytek, which recently launched a $150 million artificial-intelligence incubator fund to cultivate an “ecosystem” of Chinese tech expertise.
- Social credit system: Provincial governments must now create online platforms listing the names of debtors, “a step toward a credit society,” as Beijing-based lawyer Hu Wenyou told the New York Times last month. Such information is intended to feed into a broader Social Credit System (SCS), which will take full effect in 2020 and be mandatory for all Chinese citizens. The SCS will distill data on each citizen and legal person (businesses and organizations) into a single numerical rating of trustworthiness. For now, the two dominant pilot programs are opt-in and commercial: One is run by Tencent partner China Rapid Finance, and the other is operated by Ant Financial, an Alibaba spinoff. Poor scores will negatively affect an individual’s everyday life, from restricting employment and access to restaurants to revoking the person’s right to travel abroad. An individual’s score reflects his or her history of debt repayment, but also incorporates data on other behavior, such as purchasing choices, video game habits, or whether someone shares “positive energy” online in the form of positive messages about the government. Interpersonal relationships like friends on social media—and whether they have high or low scores—are also taken into account. Quartz reporter Huang Zheping boosted his Ant Financial “Sesame Credit” score by making more purchases with Alipay, Alibaba’s online payment platform. In describing the SCS system, Wired reporter Rachel Botsman notes, “It is a method of social control dressed up in some points-reward system.”
- Xinjiang police state: In an October 17 article for BuzzFeed, Megha Rajagopalan takes a deep dive into the surveillance faced on a daily basis by ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, from police checking identification cards against face scans at gas stations to stints in secretive “political education centers.” She also interviews a number of Uighurs living abroad who are unable to call home without the police questioning their friends and family immediately afterward. Security and surveillance companies, most of them Chinese, are profiting from such repressive practices. “Marketers in Shanghai are calling it the golden era of investment in security in Xinjiang,” says scholar James Leibold. Meanwhile, on October 20, U.S. data security firm Lookout reported its findings on the Android “surveillanceware” family known as JadeRAT, which appears to be targeting “groups and individuals in China.” The program, which allows hackers to access data related to a person’s communications, software usage, and location, is hidden in messaging and other apps, some of which appear to target Uighurs specifically.
- Umbrella Movement leaders released on bail: Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, young democracy activists who played a leading role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, left prison on October 23 and will remain free while they await a November 7 hearing for leave to appeal. The two, who now head the political party Demosistō, handed over their passports and are required to check in with the police once a week. Wong spent his first day of freedom playing video games before speaking at a protest against a planned mainland-controlled high-speed rail link from Guangdong to downtown Hong Kong. Until his 21st birthday on October 13, Wong was an inmate at the maximum-security Pik Uk Correctional Institution for male minors. Law and Wong discussed their time in prison on Commercial Radio on October 25. “This is part of the training for us,” said Law, who was also one of four lawmakers removed from the Legislative Council in July after their oaths of office were deemed “insincere.” In August, an appellate court had sentenced Wong to six months in prison and fellow student activist Alex Chow to seven months for unlawful assembly; Law was sentenced to eight months in prison for incitement to unlawfully assemble. The ruling came after the government sought tougher penalties than the original sentences of community service and, in Chow’s case, a suspended jail term. The harsher punishments triggered a five-year ban from serving in public office for all three. Chow has not appealed his prison sentence.
- Umbrella Movement supporter leaves Guangdong prison: Mainland women’s rights activist Su Changlan was released from prison in Guangdong Province on October 26, three years after she was detained for publicly supporting Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, but she and her family remain under surveillance. Su spent two years in pretrial detention before she was convicted of “incitement to subvert state power” in April 2016. A self-taught lawyer, Su has been helping rural women secure land and inheritance rights for more than 20 years. Earlier this year, while she was still in prison, Su was awarded the Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders.
- Last abducted Hong Kong bookseller ‘half free’ on mainland: Gui Minhai was released from custody on October 17, according to the Chinese authorities. Gui’s friend, poet Bei Ling, told the Guardian that Gui is at home with family in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, but is only “half free.” Gui’s daughter Angela Gui, who lives in the United Kingdom, had not spoken with her father as of November 1. Gui Minhai, a Swedish passport holder, is the last of five booksellers at Mighty Current, the Hong Kong publisher of sensationalist books on the Chinese leadership, to be released after being detained in mainland China in late 2015. That year, Gui had disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand, only to resurface days later confessing tearfully to a “traffic violation” on the state broadcaster China Central Television.
- High Court rules police need warrant to search mobile phones: In a victory for personal privacy, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that the police must have a warrant to search seized digital devices unless there are “exigent circumstances.” The ruling came in a case brought by Sham Wing-kan and four other protesters after they were arrested at the annual July 1 march in 2014 and police confiscated their phones for searches without a warrant. Sham sued the police for violating the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance and the territory’s Basic Law.
BEYOND CHINA: GUO WENGUI MEETS CHINESE AGENTS, BEIJING SHAPES AFRICAN MEDIA, APPLE QUERIED ON CENSORSHIP
- Security agents visit Guo Wengui in New York: On October 23, the Wall Street Journal described an episode of diplomatic melodrama in which officials from China’s Ministry of State Security visited businessman Guo Wengui, who has been sharply critical of the Chinese leadership since leaving the country in 2014, at his Manhattan apartment in May. The officials were then confronted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for violating the terms of their transit visas, but disagreement between the U.S. State and Justice Departments prevented any arrests from being made. The Journal also reported that casino magnate Steve Wynn, who has business interests in Macau, personally handed President Donald Trump a letter from the Chinese government in which Beijing implored the U.S. president to send Guo back to China. Trump was reportedly prepared to do so at a June meeting, but aides worked to prevent any attempt to deport Guo. The self-exiled businessman, who fills his Twitter and YouTube feeds with allegations of corruption and scandal among Chinese leaders, posted partial audio from the State Security visit in September. Separately, the Daily Beast has investigated Twitter trolling attacks on Guo Wengui that are clearly coordinated and possibly automated.
- Chinese aid shapes African states’ media, internet policies: China invested $1.7 billion in telecommunications in African countries between 2000 and 2013, according to a new report from AidData. A large portion of that funding has gone into converting from analog to digital television, with a focus on state broadcasters—including the international versions of China’s own state outlets—rather than independent media, either international or local. On the Sinica podcast, Professor Lina Benabdallah points out that China not only provides material support, but also offers training and all-expenses-paid trips to China for local media officials and journalists. Freedom House has also linked increased internet censorship in East African countries to Chinese technology or encouragement. At the China-Tanzania New Media Roundtable in June, Deputy Minister for Transport and Communications Edwin Ngonyani praised China for banning well-known social media platforms and replacing them with “safe, constructive and popular” domestic alternatives, implying that Tanzania hoped to follow a similar path. “We aren’t there yet, but while we are still using these platforms we should guard against their misuse.”
- Apple under scrutiny for China cooperation: On October 17, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook, asking the company a series of questions related to the removal of dozens of VPNs from its Chinese app store in July and the extent to which it has attempted to resist censorship pressure from the Chinese government. “As long as the Great Firewall operates and is enabled by American technology companies, Internet freedom in China will remain at risk,” they warn. The letter has not discouraged continued cooperation between Apple and the Chinese government. Less than two weeks later, Cook attended an advisory board meeting at Tsinghua University, where Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke about the “win-win” benefits of doing business with China. (Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was also in attendance.) Meanwhile, RSS app Inoreader was removed from the Chinese Apple app store on October 22 because it “contains content that is illegal in China.” RSS apps aggregate news from websites of the user’s choosing and do not generate content themselves. It is possible that Inoreader was targeted because of user-curated channels in the app’s Discovery mode, or simply because it is an aggregator. The Great Firewall blocked all RSS feeds in October 2007, though it is unclear if the ban has remained constant for the past decade.
- Springer Nature censors articles: The Financial Times reported on November 1 that Springer Nature, the Germany-based publisher of major academic journals such as Nature, has blocked over 1,000 articles for users in China. The paper determined that a broad list of keywords like “Tibet” or “Cultural Revolution” had been used to sweep out “sensitive” content, apparently at the behest of the Chinese authorities; articles that would typically escape censorship were among those blocked, indicating that the keywords alone had triggered their removal. Most of the articles were from the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. Springer Nature defended itself, stating that only 1 percent of its articles had been blocked, and that “this is not editorial censorship” because the content had not been changed and remained available elsewhere in the world. The news came on the heels of Cambridge University Press’s similar censorship of academic articles, which it quickly reversed following an outcry. According to the China Media Project, Springer Nature hopes to publish the English version of Xi Jinping’s latest book, Xi Jinping Tells a Story, released in China in June.
Lü is a veteran democracy advocate and freelance writer from Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. Security agents detained him on July 7, 2014. After nearly two years in detention, on June 14, 2016, a Hangzhou court sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges of subverting state power.
As evidence, the court verdict cites 11 articles published on various overseas websites that are critical of the Chinese government, such as Boxun, the Epoch Times, and Canyu. Among the articles are an analysis of the scandal surrounding purged Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, and critiques of the detention or sentencing of several fellow activists and writers. The verdict also notes that Lü had tried to revive a branch of the China Democracy Party in Zhejiang, with himself as the chair. The decision points to 90 greeting cards he had prepared to send to various people on the branch’s behalf in January 2014, possibly for Chinese New Year.
Prior to this especially harsh sentence, Lü had already been imprisoned for four years over earlier essays he had published on foreign websites, and was released on August 23, 2011. Before that stint in prison, Lü had published a book in 2000 on corruption in the Communist Party and an article on the party’s powerful political and legal committee in Beijing Spring, an overseas democracy magazine.
Lü appealed the initial verdict in his latest case, but on November 1, 2016, the Zhejiang People’s High Court confirmed the conviction and sentence. He is now being held at Changhu Prison in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province. He reportedly suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes.
Trump visit to China: U.S. president Donald Trump will make his first visit to China since taking office from November 8 to November 10. Watch for how state media cover his trip—including any tweets he happens to send out about the visit and meetings with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Also watch for whether Trump raises any U.S. concerns regarding the growing restrictions on media and internet freedom in China, including those that negatively affect U.S. businesses and news outlets.
Implementing the 19th Party Congress vision: Watch for how the propaganda, censorship, and cybersecurity apparatus responds to the guidance issued by Xi and the changes to the party constitution during the 19th Party Congress, including in the areas of education, entertainment, and foreign policy. Also watch for whether Wang Huning takes over the ideology portfolio as predicted, and how he adapts to his new position, especially in relations with the Central Propaganda Department.
Eased controls after 19th Party Congress: Several of the restrictive measures implemented in recent months are likely to have long-lasting effects, but some others have been explicitly designated as temporary by Chinese authorities. Watch for whether activists sent on “vacation” are permitted to return to Beijing, restrictions on Airbnb and WeChat profile edits are lifted, and internet speeds return to normal.
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About the editor
The China Media Bulletin is directed by Sarah Cook, Freedom House Senior Research Analyst for East Asia, who authors each issue’s featured article and manages the editorial team producing the bulletin. Cook is also the author of several Asian country reports for Freedom House’s annual publications, as well as three special reports about China: The Battle for China’s Spirit (2017), The Politburo’s Predicament (2015), and The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship (2013). Her comments and writings have appeared on CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_G_Cook.