Months after he formally became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, we still know virtually nothing about Xi Jinping. As Elizabeth Economy noted recently, “the sound of speculation around Xi [Jinping] has become deafening.”
Most everything we do know about Xi Jinping is “style” over substance. He has tried to project a more casual image, suggesting he is a new kind of leader — the kind that repudiates overabundance, whether on his dinner table or in his official speeches.
But how new and extraordinary is this really?
When I read the news in the official People’s Daily today that China’s new propaganda chief, Liu Qibao (刘奇葆), had visited the newspaper to promote the “innovation of reports” and urge state journalists to “improve their writing style,” it all felt very familiar. And of course it is. These are all things we heard 10 years ago after China’s last leadership succession.
Click here for the soundtrack to accompany the rest of this post:
Meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
Remember the “Three Closenesses“? Anyone?
Here is Li Changchun, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology from 2002 to 2012, talking about Hu Jintao’s “Three Closeness” — closeness to 1. reality/fact (实际), 2. life (生活) and 3. the masses (群众) — in the Party’s official journal Qiushi in 2003. Let’s listen:
Closeness to reality demands that we follow the epistemology of Marxism, uphold [the principle] that all must begin with reality and [we] cannot, fundamentally, begin with concepts and not resolve real issues. Closeness to reality demands that we accommodate the receptive abilities of the masses, generating ideas and concepts that sit the basic economic system of the primary stage of socialism. [We] cannot jump beyond [our present] stage, forcing moralistic lessons on others that depart from [prevailing] reality. Closeness to reality means . . . [we] cannot depart from the main battlefield of reform and opening and modernization . . . Closeness to reality means speaking the truth (说实话), acting according to real principles and seeking real results. [We] cannot simply seek a surface vigor and vitality, engaging in formalism (搞形式主义).
Li Changchun is giving us a ten-course meal of Party-speak. But what he means to say is pretty much exactly what Xi Jinping has said. The Party needs to start talking the people’s talk, and it needs to put practical deeds ahead of pretense. Why? Because it needs to stay relevant and make a compelling case for its relevance.
So here is Liu Qibao at the People’s Daily in the People’s Daily, delivering the “spirit of the 18th National Congress” and saying in essence that things will now be as different as they have always been. And we must note that the report of his visit is itself unapologetically old-style, beginning with a breathless description of Liu Qibao’s rank and position:
Xinhua News Agency, Beijing, January 17,  — On January 17, Political Bureau of CCP Central Committee Member, Secretariat of the Central Committee Member and Minister of Propaganda Liu Qibao made an inspection visit of the People’s Daily, emphasizing that [all] must center on the principal line of studying the spirit of the 18th National Congress, adhering to correct guidance (坚持正确导向), innovating [news] reports, improving the style of writing, raising the reach (传播力), credibility (公信力) and influence (影响力) of the news media, and strengthening the focus and effectiveness of public opinion channeling (舆论引导).
Essentially, Liu Qibao’s speech is an elaboration of the propaganda policy outlined by Hu Jintao back in June 2008. The foundation is Jiang Zemin’s “correct guidance of public opinion,” or zhengque yulun daoxiang (正确舆论导向), which is Party code for media control.
But in addition to “guidance,” the Party must recognize that the game has changed. Restricting information is no longer enough. The Party must drive the agenda actively, what Hu Jintao in 2008 called “channeling public opinion,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导). State media have to be on top of news stories and issues that people are concerned about, “channeling” information and discussion in line with the Party’s strategic objectives.
To “channel” public opinion effectively, of course, state media have to be more accessible and relevant, just what Li Changchun was talking about in 2003.
Here is Liu Qibao again at the People’s Daily:
Liu Qibao said the [we] must establish a news concept with people at the center (人民为中心的新闻理念), writing for readers, reporting for readers, making reports cleave closely to the demands of the reader (贴近读者需求) . . .
Once again, “closeness” and putting the people at the core. Things Party media have struggled to do for years as commercial media have made advances and the internet has upended the media environment.
There are some interesting specifics in Liu Qibao’s remarks. He says, for example, that the People’s Daily must develop its editorial page in order to strengthen its influence. But the Party’s elusive desire to get “close” to the people while putting news controls first is what we have seen now for more than a decade in China.
Is anything really changing on the propaganda front? We’ll have to wait and see.
Are China’s Party media kidding themselves. Will they get fooled again?