By David Bandurski — It’s been a topsy turvy week for Wu Hao (伍皓), the deputy propaganda chief who orchestrated the much-discussed “Internet investigation” into Yunnan’s “eluding the cat” case. The young journalist-turned-cadre has been both roundly praised and widely criticized. So far, however, Wu Hao has managed to keep his cool.
Many have marveled at his frankness, such as when he shared his online chat record with reporters. Yesterday, at Sina.com and other major sites, he once again met skeptics and critics head on, speaking in an open and conciliatory manner about how Yunnan’s propaganda office had only the best interests of citizens at heart:
Our original thought once after this [case] became a public opinion incident was that the public had an urgent hunger for the facts, and so it was incumbent upon our propaganda office to assist the public in understanding the nature of the case and getting back to the truth as much as possible. So we organized an investigative committee with participation from netizens and the public. Our goal was not to take on the role of the justice departments, and we had no such authority under the law.
However, I think that the right to know, right to participate, right to express and right to supervise are fundamental rights granted to citizens in our constitution. So our goal was to respect online public opinion and ensure the basic rights of the people, and to work with law enforcement authorities from this perspective — allowing our netizens participate in the process of investigation and stand on the scene of the case so they could understand the facts more closely.
There is no question that Wu is affable, likable, even cool, and he’s probably assured a place already in Southern Weekend‘s “People of the Year 2009″ edition.
It is even conceivable — I tread lightly — that this young propaganda official actually believes what he espouses, that openness can send the most powerful message.
However, the most critical point to bear in mind in Wu’s case is that the policy of openness is being applied not to the matter that started this whole affair to begin with — the death of a young man in a detention center — but to the grand distraction of Wu’s “Internet investigation” itself.
Notice that in Wu’s statement above he says it was “incumbent upon our propaganda office” to reveal the facts in the case. But why is that? Why was this act of truth-seeking not the responsibility of the news media?
The simple answer, of course, is that this was never about the truth, but rather about managing a “public opinion incident” (公共舆论事件) — a phrase that takes us right back to the control culture of “guidance,” based on the notion that public opinion is something unruly and dangerous that must be mobilized against.
It is also worth noting how deftly Wu Hao works Hu Jintao’s 17th Party Congress language about the “right to know” into the explanation of his office’s response. Make no mistake, this guy is sharp.
So what else do we know about Wu Hao?
As a brief aside, one of my personal favorites from the Wu Hao archives is this brief passage from his recent book, Wu Hao Talks About the News.
In the section, Wu Hao is asked to deliver a speech to propaganda officials from the forestry division of Yunnan’s armored police brigade. He takes the opportunity to offer a few cautionary thoughts on what he calls “garbage news” in China.
As it happens, Wu himself has managed to generate one of the most memorable bits of “garbage news” we can expect to see this year. He writes:
The division hoped that I could talk about how to write news. I felt that the only way one could learn to write was by applying oneself to the task, something that could not be conveyed in three short hours. But I had been thinking about the topic, “What Kind of News is Garbage News?”
I simply spoke about this topic as it came to me . . . “Fake news” has been a hotly debated issue in the news media recently, and in fact aside from “fake news” our media is also full of stuff that, while not strictly speaking fake, is entirely without value. Let’s just call this “garbage news” for the time being. In the age of information explosion, this “garbage news” is a total waste of the reader’s time and pollutes their eyes. I earnestly hope that those of you propaganda cadres here today — and of course I hope that all reporters and editors — will not become creators of garbage news.
Aside from these idle musings of a state journalist, is there anything that can tell us more about how Wu Hao approaches the work of propaganda? Yes, in fact.
One of Wu Hao’s first policy addresses in his role as deputy propaganda chief tells us what a solid grasp he has of the CCP’s marriage of press controls and commercially-driven change in the media industry. Speaking one month ago at a forum on news programming to mark changes at the official Yunnan TV, Wu spoke about the need for more “attractive” and “relevant” news products, a clear nod to Hu Jintao’s 2003 policy of the “Three Closenesses.”
Wu also demonstrates that he has an artful grasp Hu Jintao’s new approach to public opinion guidance. He understands that in the information age “correct guidance of public opinion” has to mean pushing more of the right kinds of messages out, not just clamping down the lid on information.
Here are his January 22 remarks as reported in Yunnan’s media:
Wu Hao expressed his confidence in program changes and innovations in news and propaganda at Yunnan TV. Wu Hao urged Yunnan TV to improve upon its reporting of leadership events and meetings in the future, strengthening news reform and innovation in Yunnan and reporting more on content close to the people. Wu Hao stressed that news reports needed to enhance program series planning for topical (主题报道), in-depth (深度报道) and model reports (典型报道), drawing on the wisdom of the masses and seeking new innovations in topic selection, content, perspective, form and method . . . Topical reports [said Wu] needed to seek breakthroughs in depth and scope, scaling down the propaganda flavor [of programs] (淡化宣传味道) and making them more relevant [to viewers], and commentary reports needed to be increased to achieve better public opinion guidance for sudden-breaking news events (努力提高突发事件舆论引导水平).
Wu emphasized that improving the quality of news programs rested on the character of news reporters and editors, and that media needed to invest more energy in the training of their editorial teams, encouraging reporters and editors to renew their news production concepts. Television news reports, he said, needed especially to bring out the fresh and on-the-scene nature of news reports, and this required further raising the reporters grasp of the scene. [Media must] increase the authenticity (真实性) and infectivity (感染力) [of news reports] in order to fully bring out the special character of television news. Wu Hao also expressed the hope that Yunnan TV would capitalize on Yunnan’s status as a major tourism destination to push out more new programs.
But when Wu Hao pays rhetorical homage to Hu Jintao’s language about “achieving public opinion guidance,” there is a personal dimension too. Wu Hao’s views on propaganda have been shaped directly by his own experience working as a state journalist.
Most importantly, Wu was directly involved in the mediation process that followed a mass uprising by rubber farmers in Yunnan’s remote Menglian County last year.
In a piece published in Jin Wan Bao, Wu quoted local officials as saying the incident bore sobering lessons for party leaders in the handling of popular discontent.
[ABOVE: A report by Wu Hao appears in Jin Wan Bao last August discussing the lessons of Yunnan's Menglian uprising.]
A portion of the Jin Wan Bao article follows. We have removed a number of portions that provide a rather detailed timeline of events in Menglian. These are valuable, and we point interested readers to the original Chinese:
The “Menglian Incident” Deserves Reflection by Cadres (“孟连事件”促干部反省)
Wu Hao (伍皓) and Wu Xiaoyang (伍晓阳)
After four days of arduous negotiations, a violent conflict between the public and police that broke out on July 19 in Pu’er’s Menglian Dai-Lahu-Wa Minority Autonomous County was at last handled effectively on July 23. After receiving satisfactory responses, the rubber farmers who had gathered returned to their separate homes, and the bodies of the dead were cremated and buried. But the fact that the usually mild-tempered Dai people would take up knives, axes and clubs and do battle with police to defend their rights was cause for reflection among local cadres.
Rights Disputes Long-unresolved Causes Conflict
On the morning of July 19, as police authorities in Gongxin Village in Menglian County . . . were carrying out law and order activities, and as they were taking a number of criminal suspects into custody in Mengma Township, they were attacked by more than 500 rubber farmers bearing long knives, clubs, hoes and other implements. The conflict resulted in the injury of 41 police officers and the destruction of nine police vehicles. Deputized police protected themselves with baton guns, and 15 rubber farmers were injured and two killed. Subsequent investigation by journalists found that the cause of this conflict was an intricate and complex economic benefits arrangement between rubber farmers and the local rubber company ((错综复杂的利益关系)), and a disagreement that had gone on for some time.
According to the Menglian County government, the rubber industry is the backbone of the local economy in Menglian, and Gongxin Village and Mengma Township are the center of rubber production in the area . . . [Tells history of area rubber industry through the planned economy period to the present] . . . For more than 20 years, the rubber company went through a process of restructuring and eventually became a private enterprise. In this process, the program for the distribution of benefits from rubber production was not adjusted in a timely manner.
Liang Mingmian (梁名锦), head of the Gongxin Rubber Company, told reporters that in recent years the international price for natural rubber rose from around 7,000 yuan per ton to 27,000 yuan per ton, surpassing the originally agreed upon benefit distribution framework, and the clamor from rubber farmers for an increase [in benefits] grew by the day. After reforms were begun of the collective forestry rights system, a number of social idlers (闲散人员) and lawyers inserted themselves into the situation, saying they would represent the rubber farmers in applying for a “forestry rights certificate (林权证) in exchange for fees from the farmers of around one or two thousand yuan . . . [The tale of conflict continues, up to an a battle with police on September 12, 2007, as police try to prevent farmers from selling their rubber on the open market rather than to the local rubber enterprise.]
After two rubber farmers were killed [in the conflict with police], more than 100 farmers carried their bodies to the Mengma Rubber Company. They believed that it had been the company that had urged police to make the arrests [that prompted the conflict], and they angrily demanded that the boss of the rubber company pay with his life. After they heard about this, neighboring rubber farmers also went over to gather.
Given the anger of the masses there was the risk the situation could escalate at any moment. After receiving a report, the party secretary of Menglian County, Hu Wenbin (胡文彬), went to the scene and spoke calmly and carefully with the farmers, attempting to ease their concerns. Later that afternoon, the party secretary of Pu’er City went also to the scene to participate in rubber farming. The incident was given high priority by Yunnan’s provincial party committee and the provincial government, and provincial party secretary Bai Enpai (白恩培) and provincial governor Qin Guangrong (秦光荣) ordered an investigation into the causes and urged that the demands of the masses be properly heard and addressed . . . so that the situation could be quieted and the facts quickly be made known . . .
Yunnan politics and law committee chairman Meng Sutie (孟苏铁) and deputy governor Cao Jianfang (曹建方) went [to the scene] with a working group late in the night. Meng Sutie and his team arrived in Menglian at 1am on the 20th and immediately held an emergency meeting to conduct research and coordinate relevant work. At 5am Meng Sutie and his team went directly to the gathering place of the rubber farmers, which was about 40 kilometers away, and there they spoke directly with the farmers. Making sure not to stir up the masses, Meng Sutie and his team went without police escort . . .
“That the mild-mannered Dai people, whose hearts are full of thanks for the party, could take up knives, hoes and clubs against police and use violence to uphold their own rights and benefits. This matter must cause all of us politicians to reflect hard. It must drive us to think profoundly about its consequences!” At a meeting of Pu’er City leaders on the night of the 22nd, Yunnan Deputy Secretary Li Jiheng (李纪恒) issued this stern warning to officials present . . . Li Jiheng pointed out that the demands of rubber farmers had long gone unresolved, that their hopes for more prosperity had been toyed with by bad men, and that their longstanding anger against the rubber company had gradually shifted onto grassroots party leaders and the government, causing them ultimately to unite in struggle [against them]. Inadequate systems for the expression of rights grievances, the fact that the people have no place to speak and the situations they complain about are never handled — these are the important lessons this conflict holds for party and government leaders. “We must build and perfect mechanisms allowing the people to voice their demands, and allow them to have a place where they can speak,” Li Jiheng said. “Every effort should be made to resolve all reasonable demands of the masses. When these issues cannot be resolved all at once, more effort should be made to explain the situation and create the conditions for resolving issues.”
Xu Sheng (旭升), party secretary of Pu’er City, believes that the demands of rubber farmers were long ignored, and this reveals problems with the work attitude and actions of a number of cadres, who are too far removed from the hopes and expectations of the people . . . Pu’er City standing committee member and CPPCC secretary Xie Qiankun (谢丕坤) says that there are criminal forces at work in the villages and that the Mengma Township in Menglian County was stirred up and instigated by idlers [NOTE: this very likely refers to rights lawyers or activists] so that it was difficult for village organizations and grassroots party organizations in Gongxin to operate normally and play the role they should have. In some areas, criminal elements [said Xie] actually managed to control village organizations, holding their own village-wide meetings and electing “village representatives” to organize the people against the rubber companies and forestry officials
in the government.
“They speak and no one listens. They make decisions and no one follows them. The people come after them with knives. When cadres have arrived at such a point as that, they might as well jump in the river,” Li Jiheng (李纪恒) says critically of this sort of state of affairs. He points out that various local governments should read this as a lesson, strengthening their party leadership teams at the grassroots level and improving the credibility and cohesiveness of the party and government as the grassroots level. They must enhance the ability of cadres at the grassroots to resolve disputes and deal with emerging problems and conflicts in a timely manner . . .
[Posted by David Bandurski, February 26, 2009, 5:26pm HK]
“Stop Criticizing Internet Investigation Promoter Wu Hao” (Chinese), Rednet, February 25, 2009
“Wu Hao: My Thoughts at the Time Were Simple” (Chinese), Xinmen Weekly, February 25, 2009