Who draws the party line?

Jun 25th 2016 | BEIJING | From the print edition / Economist.com

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”. Read more…

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