Who draws the party line?
Xi Jinping sends his spin doctors spinning
THE nondescript glazed-brick building at 5 West Chang’an Avenue, near Tiananmen Square, gives no hint of what happens inside. No brass plaque proclaims its purpose. In an office around the corner, a dog-eared card says the reception of the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party will be open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 8am and 12pm. The staff deals only with party officials; armed guards politely shoo other visitors away.
In English, the Propaganda Department calls itself the Publicity Department (it adopted this translation in the 1990s, realising how bad the literal one sounded). It is both secretive and vast.
It is now at the centre of attempts by Xi Jinping, China’s president, to increase his control over the party, media and universities. It is also at the heart of factional infighting involving Mr Xi, his anti-corruption chief and allies of his two predecessors as president.
The Publicity Department sounds like the home of spin doctors, spokesmen and censors, and the scope of such activity is indeed vast. With the help of various government agencies, the department supervises 3,300-odd television stations, almost 2,000 newspapers and nearly 10,000 periodicals. The chief editors of these outfits meet regularly at the Publicity Department to receive their instructions. It spends around $10 billion a year trying to get the Chinese government’s opinions into foreign media outlets. According to researchers at Harvard University, propagandists help churn out 488m pro-government tweets a year.
But this public role is only the half of it. Another crucial function is to steer the government machinery. The country is too large to be governed through a bureaucratic chain of command alone. So the department also sends out signals from on high: Mr Xi’s speeches, and directives given by leaders during their visits to provinces or factories. Such messages tell lower-level officials what the high command is thinking and what is required of them.
The Publicity Department is the chief signals office. It decides which speeches to print and how much to push a new campaign. To this end it has authority over various government bodies (such as the Ministry of Culture and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), runs party-only newspapers (not for public consumption) and influences thousands of training schools for party officials. Every province, county and state-owned enterprise also has its own propagandists.
The department has been at the centre of battles between hardliners and reformers since the 1980s, when the then propaganda chief, Deng Liqun, was at loggerheads with Deng Xiaoping. It is not so much a group of spin doctors as a spin National Health Service.
The department is at the centre of things again because Mr Xi puts so much emphasis on the work it does. He has launched a string of ideological campaigns aimed at making party members better Marxists and more honest officials. He has insisted that universities pay more attention to teaching Marxism and less to other wicked foreign influences. In February he made a widely publicised visit to China’s three main media organisations, People’s Daily (a newspaper), Xinhua (a news agency) and China Central Television, in which he stressed that all media must “love the party, protect the party and serve the party”. This was interpreted as a swipe at the propaganda department’s bosses since it implied that the media should be paying more attention to Mr Xi, who regards himself as the party’s “core”.
In a posting on the CCDI’s website, the leader of the investigation said the department “lacked depth in its research into developing contemporary Chinese Marxism”. He said “news propaganda” (a revealing phrase) was “not targeted and effective enough”; he claimed the department was “not forceful enough in co-ordinating ideological and political work at universities” and had failed online “to implement the principle of the party managing the media”. It is unusual for such an attack to be made public. It is unheard of for a party body to attack the reputation of the Publicity Department, the party’s own reputation-maker and breaker.
The CCDI’s charge sheet strengthened earlier hints that Mr Xi is unhappy with the department’s promotion of his policies. Less clear is which of its shortcomings he is upset about. It could be its failure to beat the drum for economic reform (Mr Xi made a big speech on the subject in January; it did not appear in People’s Daily for four months). Possibly it gave too much encouragement to a mini personality-cult of “Uncle Xi”, violating long-standing party orders against such fawning.
Or possibly the Publicity Department has been caught up in factional infighting. The two propaganda chiefs are Liu Qibao, the head of the Publicity Department, and his (unrelated) supervisor, Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo’s inner circle, who was Liu Qibao’s predecessor. Both are former high-fliers in the Communist Youth League, which has long been a stepping stone to membership of the party elite.
“Princelings” such as Mr Xi, who have been helped to power by their blood ties to party veterans and their service in the provinces, often resent the cliquish influence of those who emerged through the league’s bureaucracy. They include Mr Xi’s predecessor as president, Hu Jintao, and many of those who rose through the ranks with him and remain in positions of influence. Liu Yunshan has the added disadvantage of being part of “Jiang’s gang”, the group of senior officials close to Jiang Zemin, Mr Hu’s predecessor, which is seen as another rival faction to Mr Xi.
Leaguers are falling foul of the anti-graft campaign to an extent that can hardly be coincidental. In late May and early June, the CCDI and the country’s chief prosecutors placed under investigation or indicted three allies of Vice-President Li Yuanchao, who was once one of the league’s most senior figures. Just before that, a court in the northern port city of Tianjin charged Ling Jihua with bribery, after a year-long investigation by the CCDI. Mr Ling had been a senior member of the league, and had served as chief aide to Mr Hu when he was president.
The Publicity Department is fighting its corner. Earlier this year it targeted Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property magnate and ally of the CCDI’s boss, Wang Qishan (who was his tutor in high school). Mr Ren had criticised efforts to tighten control of the media. By denouncing him, the Publicity Department could claim to be carrying out Mr Xi’s policies while simultaneously attacking a friend of Mr Wang, whose commission’s report was so damning.
Like media organisations everywhere, the Publicity Department is struggling to keep pace with changing consumer demands. Unlike most such organisations, it is also having to keep pace with the changing political requirements of its boss, Mr Xi. As an institution, these have made it more important than it was. But its current leaders might prefer a quieter life.