Goebbels in China?

There have been unrelenting signals since August that Chinese leaders plan to act more robustly to control domestic social media platforms, which have been influential on a range of stories this year — from the Guo Meimei scandal to independent local people’s congress candidates. A series of pronouncements in Party publications over the past week, thankfully summarized in one place by Bill Bishop at DigiCha, seem to mark an intensification of the anti-rumor rhetoric that kicked off following the July 23 Wenzhou train collision.

The anti-rumor push, which focusses moralistically on false and misleading information — and, yes, politically uncomfortable information — as a socially dangerous scourge to be rooted out, can be seen as part of a broader attempt to legitimize the intensification of information controls. It is no surprise, therefore, to see that state media fulmination against “rumors” is drumming home the idea of rumors as “drugs” that threaten the well-being of society.

Of course, mobilizing society to accept and legitimize information controls is an increasingly difficult proposition in a country where ordinary people are growing ever more conscious of censorship and its ills. And perhaps one of the best examples of this can be seen in the online controversy brewing this weekend over the past remarks of Hu Zhanfan (胡占凡), the former Guangming Daily editor-in-chief who was appointed last month as the new head of the state-run China Central Television.


[ABOVE: Hu Zhanfan, appointed last month as the new head of CCTV, addresses a forum in January 2011 in his capacity as editor-in-chief of Guangming Daily, a paper published by the Central Propaganda Department.]

AFP had a good run down of the story yesterday, citing how internet users had seized on a July speech given by Hu Zhanfan in which he said that “[t]he first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece.”

In fact, Hu Zhanfan made the controversial remarks back in January this year at a special forum dealing with the issue of “fake news.” The event was hosted by Guangming Daily, a newspaper published by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department.

Hu’s speech drew little attention at the time, and his appointment last month to head up CCTV received little comment. But posts on social media over the weekend likening Hu Zhanfan to the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, known in Chinese as gepei’er (戈培尔), put Hu at the center of an online firestorm.

Posts like this one juxtaposed CCTV’s official nightly newscast, Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播), and photos of Chinese crowds waving red flags with black-and-white images from Nazi-era Germany. In clear reference to the Party’s anti-rumor campaign, posts like this one offered the apocryphal Goebbels quote about repeating lies: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

In yet another Sina Weibo post, a Chinese internet user asked: “When will Goebbels-style news controls end [in China]?” The post was a response to another post by writer Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村), who has frequently spoken out against censorship in China. Murong Xuecun’s post, which referred to the recent death of toddler Xiao Yueyue in southern China (after she was callously ignored by passersby after being struck twice by vehicles), read:

Experience teaches us that people gain much more from negative news. If you’ve watched Xinwen Lianbo, [the Party's official nightly newscast], over the past 30 years, you’ve learned nothing useful . . . But a single Xiao Yueyue incident caused many to understand the responsibilities parents have and how passersby should conduct themselves . . . “Criticism” implies moral choice. Speak the truth and the sky won’t fall — it will just wake people up.

The official anti-rumor campaign and the anti-censorship firestorm on social media (which of course are the primary target of the anti-rumor campaign) together provide an interesting snapshot of tensions over information and censorship in China.

Further, it is interesting to note that opinion within China’s media does not hold that Hu Zhanfan takes a particularly hardline stance on press controls. In fact, some journalists consider him to be a rather liberal figure, and would suggest that his conservative remarks on the role of the press in China reflect nothing more than the fact that he was the Party boss of a major Party-run newspaper.

So can we regard these inflammatory statements on social media about “China’s Goebbel” as just more rumor?

The following is a partial translation of official media coverage of Hu Zhanfan’s remarks on the role of the press last January:

Guangming Daily Holds Special Education and Training Session on ‘Avoiding Fake News’

Editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan’s talk dealt principally with five points: The first was about what is fake news; the second about the reasons for fake news; the third about the harm done by fake news; the fourth about social responsibility and professional ethics; the fifth about putting an end to falsehood and upholding responsibility and morals.

Concerning the nature of fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan said, fake news refers to reports that do not truly reflect the original appearance (本来面貌) of things, which fabricate, twist or invent news facts. These common traits go against the objective facts upon which news relies, and wantonly rely on the will of individuals, seeking or relying on will of others to manufacture “news.” He used a rich variety of examples to talk about different forms of fake news, including embellishing stories . . .

Editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan believes that in recent years fake news has shown a number of new characteristics. First, [fake news] has spread from commercialized, metro media to traditional authoritative [Party] media. Second, it has spread from entertainment and social news to economic and political news. Third, as traditional and internet-based media have had a more interactive relationship, fake news has been transmitted much more rapidly and widely. Fourth, there has been a trend from simple concocting of fake news to making idle reports, reporting gossip, exaggerating, going against common knowledge and other such issues, which have steadily spread.

Concerning the reasons for the spread of fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan said that the principle reason was the drive for [personal] benefit (利益的驱动). Specifically, the impulse for economic gain had resulted in the emergence of a commercial trend in news; for the sake of finishing their task or making a name for themselves, individual reporters though nothing of fabricating news; some media, in order to attract eyeballs (吸引眼球), directly engaged in fake news. The second reason, [Hu said], was an incorrect style of work (作风不实) that caused [journalists] to chase after wind and shadows (捕风捉影). The chief reason for the emergence of fake reports, [he said], was that front-line reporters placed insufficiently strict demands on themselves and had an incorrect style of work. Some reporters showed insufficient cultivation, had low-quality behavior, had a flippant approach to work, and this had opened the door to fake news. The third and underlying root reason for fake news was the question of the Marxist View of Journalism (马克思主义新闻观). A number of news workers have not defined their own role in terms of the propaganda work of the Party, but rather have defined themselves as journalism professionals, and this is a fundamentally erroneous role definition. Strengthening education in the Marxist View of Journalism and raising the quality and character of news teams is not just very necessary, it is a matter of extreme urgency.

Concerning the damage done by fake news, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan pointed out that fake news and false reports (失实报道) not only damage the reputation of news journalists and the credibility of the media, but they also hamper, interfere with and destroy guidance of public opinion, damaging social order and economic order and seriously and even directly impacting social stability. For the media, winning the trust of the people is a project that will take years and years, built up through report after report. But the emergence of a single false report can extinguish everything that has been gained . . .

Concerning social responsibility and professional ethics, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan believes that the first and foremost social responsibility [of journalists] is to serve well as a mouthpiece tool (当好喉舌工具). This is the most core content of the Marxist View of Journalism, and it is the most fundamental of principles.

14 Comments to “Goebbels in China?”

  1. ltlee says:

    @fisail
    Sorry to inform you that you read me wrong.
    I came to the United States of America to learn from the West. However, the more I learn, the more I am convinced that something is seriously wrong in the West. Its culture and value may be breaking apart. Evidence is everywhere. Example from news 2 days ago:
    “Report: Wide Abuse in Dutch Catholic Institutions
    By MIKE CORDER Associated Press
    THE HAGUE, Netherlands December 16, 2011 (AP)
    Thousands of children suffered sexual abuse in Dutch Catholic
    institutions, and church officials failed to adequately address the
    abuse or help the victims, according to a long-awaited investigation
    released Friday.
    The report by the an independent commission said Catholic officials
    failed to tackle the widespread abuse “to prevent scandals.” The
    suspected number of abuse victims who spent some of their youth in
    church institutions likely lies somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000,
    according to a summary of the report.
    Based on a survey among more than 34,000 people, the commission
    estimated that one in 10 Dutch children suffered some form of abuse.
    The number doubled to 20 percent of children who spent part of their
    youth in an institution — whether Catholic or not.”
    For me, the main issue is not the abusing priests. Rather, why are the parents and the government not able or not willing to protect the kid? And where were the protests? In contrast, complaining against China’s this or that violation is a growth industrial. Not that China is getting worse but the West need a distraction. (I would not surprised that if some of those sexually abused would embraced eastern religion such as Tibetan Buddhism and, viola, more anti-China activists.)

  2. faisal says:

    ltlee,

    Of course, it could also be used as an excuse for political censorship. See how the world changes when you focus on all aspects? I suspect ltlee and his rants on just about every thread is the product of emotional bias, trying to defend any CCP action based on injured pride.

  3. xyz says:

    You know that things are not going well when even the Chinese are trying to invoke Godwin’s law.

    Sure, China has a propaganda department whose function is to carefully tailor the media to make the government look better. Which government doesn’t attempt to do this? The western politicians (US in particular) have little trouble to manipulate the “independent” media to rile their citizens and alter their viewpoints. To this day many Americans think that Iraq had WMDs, now that’s good propaganda. The Chinese propaganda department isn’t even all that effective. For one, it cannot make the Chinese people feel calm about their own economy and inequality. Many foreign governments on the other hand are far more to convince their citizens that China/India are to blame for their domestic economic troubles.

    IMO most international news are tailored towards domestic consumption contain some form of propaganda. This is true for China, western nations, developing nations, etc. This is because there is no such thing as an “unbiased” journalist. News will always have slants because most people desire slanted news. This is exactly why the few people who actually care for the truth should read both the Western and Chinese news.

  4. S. Barret Dolph says:

    Dear Dr Itlee,

    I fully agree that 君子 is not about perfection. Professionalism is, as I have said, a rather poor inspiration but to replace that with the goal of seeking perfect journalists or idiots depending upon whether they fully understand the will of people or are simply a tool for those who do have such an understanding would make a bad situation worse. Thus my suggestion we look to Confucius for some advice and see if we haven’t made a rather simple question overly complicated.

  5. FOARP says:

    @Mark – I think many have been operating on the assumption that things were gradually being liberalised. Around the time of the Olympics especially, people had taken various minor steps as sign of a trend of general reform. However, it is increasingly becoming clear that, although minor reform has often been winked at, no such process is happening, nor will happen. In fact, if anything, restrictions on freedom of speech and control of the media are being tightened in the PRC.

  6. steve says:

    Itlee, I have never agreed with you more. As you say, bad practices tend to drive out good practices among professionals of any field through a combination of understandable lapses and less understandable copycat-isms. This is why professional politicians and ‘regulators’ need to be exposed to (in your words ‘submit to’) independent critisicm, supervision by public opinion and by independent political peers, as advocated by many media professionals and the wangmin cited above. The independent review strategy you are advocating seems to be the only antidote to ‘political professionalism’, which by your idiosyncratic definition of professionalism as ‘lowest common denominator’ seems like a very scary thing!

  7. ltlee says:

    君子 or君子不器 as a goal is not about perfection. It is about constantly reflecting on and hopefully improving oneself. Operationally speaking, professionalism, journalistic or otherwise, means doing what other professionals of the same field are doing. If some journalists are writing tabloids as news, more journalists would eventually make writing tabloid the acceptable professional standard. This was what had happened in the US. In general, if a field is not regulated by the government, bad practices is likely to drive out good practices. The only antidote to this “defining the standard downward” is submitting oneself to a standard higher than journalistic professionalism.
    馬克思主義新聞觀 is readily accessible from the internet. The following is from one such site.
    http://baike.baidu.com/view/5060948.htm  
    1、要根据事实来描写事实,不能根据希望来描写事实。
      2、报纸是社会舆论的纸币,具有流通和中介作用。
      3、报纸是社会的耳目和社会的捍卫者。
      4、报纸是对当权者的孜孜不倦的揭露者。
      5、报纸是人民日常思想和感情的表达者,是人民千呼万应的喉舌。
      6、报纸具有连植物也具有的内在规律性。
      7、报纸作为一个整体处在一种有机的运动过程之中。
      8、出版自由是一种基本的自由,是实现其他自由的保证。

  8. S. Barret Dolph says:

    Dear Itlee,

    We may put aside the question of the perfection of man through Marxism as that is not something I can have faith in. But a technical note. If he truly believes that 我們的輿論陣地,我們的報紙,要永遠掌握在堅持馬克思主義新聞觀的人的手裡,這一點無論什麼時候都不能動搖 where will they find people who understand Marx. Outside of a few teachers in Fudan or XingHua, hope my pinyin is right I have met few professors who even had a basic grasp of Marxism. Given that he has the resources to re-educate enough people to fill their role as the mouthpiece tool of the party those few would have to be either idiots or gods. Idiots who could mimic and rewrite without any deviation or personal touch or gods who could completely fathom the will of the people and show how each event of the day related to both that and the eventual perfection of man.

    I do agree that professionalism is a rather dubious way of illustrating the virtues of good people in media. That was one of my points for bringing in older commentators on the nature of man.

  9. ltlee says:

    S. Barret Dolph
    1. 君子不器 begins with junzi who reflects on his own thoughts and actions including his professionalism thrice a day because they could be wrong.
    2. Junzi also approach the external world with the sense that he could be wrong else he would stop learning and 不器 is impossible. Applying the way of the junzi here, one would begin by accepting the possibility that Hu could be right until proving otherwise.

  10. S. Barret Dolph says:

    @Itlee 君子不器. If one thing is not perfect it does not necessarily mean that any solution is better.

  11. ltlee says:

    @David
    Thank you for checking up my quotes. I had read his book. And I had his book in front of me now. Actually, I have another paragraph on my mind. But I was not able to flip to the right page.
    As a matter of fact, if one is to avoid 断章取义, i.e, to quote things out of context, one also needs to know the history. Criticism on lack of professionalism is not new. For example, Robert M. Entman had published his book “DEMOCRACY WITHOUT CITIZENS: Media and the decay of American politics” in which he described problems intrinsic to journalistic professionalism more than 20 years ago. If America’s problems were caused by a small number of journalists violating work ethics once for a while, journalistic professionalism is not to be blamed. However, if media related political problems persist for extended period of time and not the results of a handful of violators, then one certainly should question the professionalism itself.
    “In both cases, trigger-happy leaders exploited the incidents for their own political purposes.
    In both cases, the national media played along.”
    Why did the national media play along? Did the journalists suddenly acquire temporary amnesia and forget their professional ethics collectively?
    If one asks the journalists, do you think they would all admit that they had violated their professional ethics? I think not. In the contrary, I bet most would defend their reporting as professional.
    I think Hu is right. No matter how I understand the Marx view of journalism, journalists need a higher standard beyond narrowly defined professionalism.

  12. David says:

    Itlee:

    You need to spend a bit more time with Jeffrey Sachs. Did you just Google for the most convenient (apparent) anti-media tidbit to pad your argument?

    A clear case of 断章取义.

    Sachs affirms “structures and disciplines” for truth-seeking — the definition of professionalism. His problem is with media that have lost their sense of professionalism and do not take their government to task. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7127423.stm)

    Here is an excerpt from his Reith Lecture:

    “A terrorist shot in Sarajevo provided the pretext for German aggression which started World War I. 9/11 was used by the Bush Administration to launch the Iraq War. In both cases, trigger-happy leaders exploited the incidents for their own political purposes.

    In both cases, the national media played along. The failures of the American media to slow or stop the descent into the Iraq War are the greatest media failures of our current era…

    In short, almost all governments lie and lie relentlessly. Yet governments can be made to lie less frequently by being exposed and held to account by the professional media.”

    Best,
    David

  13. ltlee says:

    It is clear that CCTV’s Hu’s article had touched some people’s sensitive nerve. Yet one has to examine the fact to find out the truth. The fact is clear. Narrowly adhering to certain “journalism professionalism” had led western society into the abyss. An American scholar, Jeffrey Sachs had done a detail analysis on the US media. The following is a small sample from his book THE PRICE OF CIVILIZATION.
    “The astounding fact of America’s media system is that it has become a juggernaut out of social control, one that is partly responsible for carrying America to the abyss. The media juggernaut has taken over our living rooms, our national politics, even the battlefields. It is yet another runaway factors that are destabilizing American society. The media, major corporate interests, and politicians now constitute a seamless web of interconnections and power designed to perpetuate itself through the relentless manufacture of illusion. The media peddle illusions, and those illusions lead to even more addictive behaviors, including the fixation on the media itself.”

  14. Mark Newham says:

    The only thing that amazes me about this article is that the media world is only just waking up to the fact that nothing is really changing in China.

    The PRC had its Goebels’ in 2003-2008 when I was there and the latest appointments to CCTV etc are nothing more than putting different faces in the same old suits.

    The only real change is an INCREASE in control of the media by the state, not a diminution as some in the PRC would have us believe.

    The evidence is all there, much of it contained in my book ‘Limp Pigs’ which documents, from the inside, the insidious manner in which the state manipulates the media and all those who work for it.

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