As China’s ruling Communist Party gears up for its 19th Congress, President Xi Jinping is calling on the country’s media to play their part in touting his grand vision for China, and especially an infrastructure venture called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
This mammoth infrastructure project along the ancient Silk Route touches on more than 60 countries, involves trillions of dollars of investment and, in the party’s view, requires a giant PR effort.
The Communist Party’s propaganda department issues daily directives on how the BRI is to be reported. And the state broadcaster CCTV has just premiered the first of a six-part documentary series selling the BRI to the Chinese people.
“Because Xi Jinping has attached his name to it [BRI] very prominently, there’s very little space for more critical pieces looking at some of the problematic issues,” says Benjamin Haas, Beijing correspondent for The Guardian.
“One of them is the fact that China is going to be building coal-fired power plants in many developing countries, which is obviously not good for the environment. But you never see an article that is just focusing on the negative aspects of this project,” Haas says.
The propaganda machine is also trying to shape the conversation on social media. Censors are vetting political jokes and commentary. New laws are restricting who can distribute news, and which VPNs, virtual private networks, can be used to circumvent what has come to be known as the “great firewall” of China.
“The approaching 19th Congress is probably the most important of its kind since the Cultural Revolution,” explains Chang Ping, former news director for Southern Weekend.
“It will determine the future of China’s political situation, especially Xi Jinping’s personal future and whether he can be re-elected. Control of the media is as strict as ever, but this time it’s particularly stringent, on both online and traditional outlets.”
The relationship between Chinese media and the Communist Party was forged by Chairman Mao, founder of the Party and the country’s leader for nearly three decades.
In 1942, Mao said, “the struggle for the liberation of the Chinese people has to be fought on two fronts: the pen and the gun.” There have been periods of loosened media restrictions over the past years, but now is definitely not one of those times.
President Xi’s ambitions for China have meant the screws have been tightened considerably. Once critical investigative outlets like the Southern Weekend newspaper and the Caijing magazine have been reigned in and a string of journalists have been paraded on CCTV, confessing to crimes.
In 2016, Xi toured the three major state-owned outlets: news agency Xinhua, national newspaper China Daily and Central Chinese Television headquarters. He asked for the media’s “absolute loyalty” to the party.
With the political stakes so high for President Xi Jinping, Beijing is building a bigger, better firewall to block dissident content online or in the mainstream news media.
Chang Ping, former news director, Southern Weekend
Steve Tsang, professor, SOAS China Institute
Benjamin Haas, Beijing correspondent, The Guardian
Xiaoling Zhang, Nottingham University
Source: Al Jazeera