On understanding the media’s mandate to promote the Communist Party’s agenda:

(From Chapter 1 — The Agenda: Telling the Party’s Story)

A helpful metaphor to understand the world as depicted by China’s media is the classic family portrait. This highly choreographed photo has mother and father at the center surrounded by their sons and daughters, everyone cheerful and smiling. Nowhere is there any sign of the many conflicts that most such families have, from minor issues like everyday fights between siblings to deeper resentments due to different priorities. All of those negative elements have been left from the portrait, even though they exist and are very real factors for everyone within.

As head of the Chinese “family,” the Communist Party uses China’s media to show the world as a harmonious place – one where farmers and factory workers smile and whistle while they work, where scientific and economic achievements abound and where the party is a source of comfort and assistance in times of trouble. Seldom is there mention of the constant power struggles taking place behind the scenes, or of smaller embarrassments like the naming in 2010 of a jailed dissident as China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, to say nothing of major screw-ups like the Great Leap Forward – an agricultural disaster of the 1950s that saw as many as 40 million people die of starvation during one of Mao’s many disastrous initiatives under its centrally planned economy.

China’s media is a sort of window onto the soul of the Communist Party. It contains the party’s message of the day, its broader agenda and information on how it aims to achieve its goals. It also contains messages – some straightforward and others more veiled – of what is and is not acceptable, and what happens to those who make trouble. Equally important is what’s NOT reported, be it an event that’s considered taboo or an official who has fallen out of favor. By understanding China’s media and how and what it chooses to report, one can start to understand not only the Communist Party’s agenda, but also its hopes and insecurities, what it sees as its accomplishments and shortcomings, and how it plans to lead the world’s most populous nation and second-largest economy through the 21st century en route to becoming the next global superpower.


On how the government exercises its control:

(From Chapter 2 — Spread the Word: The Machinery)

To make sure its media message is properly and uniformly delivered, Beijing has developed a well-oiled machine to craft and control that message by making decisions at the top and letting those coverage guidelines filter down to the provinces with ever-increasing speed. Cogs in the machine are many and varied, ranging from placement of a Communist Party secretary in the top ranks of most major media, to frequent phone calls and memos sent by the Propaganda Ministry to senior editors at those same media. The message-crafting machinery has moved in step with the media’s own changing role over time, ebbing and flowing with the level of central control in the sixty years since the founding of the People’s Republic.

In its very early days, the Communist Party took a surprisingly relaxed view toward the media, both from political and commercial standpoints. Immediately after 1949, a large number of smaller political parties, many sympathetic to the Communists, were allowed to keep publishing their own newspapers and magazines with their own political views. The two sides had an understanding: the smaller parties had no designs on power or governing, which would be the exclusive terrain of the Communist Party. Instead, the smaller parties reserved the right to constructively criticize the government’s policies, acting as a benign watchdog to keep the Party honest and moving in the right direction.

That relatively enlightened situation lasted for only a few years into the 1950s, when Mao discovered he wasn’t as fond of criticism as he had previously thought, especially when the criticism was directed at some of his pet projects like the collectivization of farms that would ultimately lead to the catastrophic Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, which saw millions die of starvation. As Mao and the Communists became increasingly uneasy with the criticism and plurality of the earliest media landscape, most of the smaller party papers were either gradually shut down or gutted of their critical voices and replaced with the centrally controlled system that came to characterize China for much of the 1960s and 1970s, where all media, regardless of their stated political affiliation, became little more than bullhorns to tout the Communist Party’s latest accomplishments and promote its initiatives. …

Most recently, the Internet has become another major media force, with China officially surpassing the US in 2008 to become the world’s biggest online market based on the number of Web surfers. In this new Internet age, Beijing has conceded some degree of control with the explosion of huge volumes of online content on blogs, message boards and other Web sites that are impossible to monitor closely. But the government hasn’t completely relinquished its role as opinion leader, designating nine Web sites in 2000 as flagships of China’s official online news. In making that decision, it instructed newspaper editors nationwide to closely follow those nine, which included Xinhua, the English-language China Daily, and People’s Daily, making them the party’s official online voices. It also still closely monitors the Web, and attempts to strategically “seed” online discussions that promote its agenda in various blogs and chatrooms.