Journalism / 新闻学
Journalism, defined as the “activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information”, is crucial to the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. A 2012 UN Human Rights Council report stressed that journalism is core to citizens’ exercise of their right to “seek and receive information.”
Over the past 10 years, the CCP has explicitly rejected this view of the role of journalism, upholding instead the Marxist View of Journalism, which places the Party’s interests at the heart of press activity and demands journalists uphold a “correct political direction” and “emphasise positive propaganda”. However, the CCP’s recent categorical rejection of public-interest journalism ignores the complexity of journalism’s role in the Party’s century-long history. A critical look reveals competing views of the role of the press and journalism that contradict current propaganda about “the West’s idea of journalism” as radically opposed to China’s.
China’s modern political history runs alongside a rich history of professional journalism balanced against the CCP’s claims to journalism as a tool of Party rule. As Mao Zedong rose to power in the 1940s, he echoed Leninist views, and in a famous 1942 speech on the arts, he affirmed the need for “Party spirit” (党性), a translation of the Russian partiinost, meaning adherence to the CCP’s political direction.
But despite this Maoist orthodoxy, views on the role of journalism within the CCP were more complicated. In April 1950, months after the PRC’s founding, a decision urged newspapers and periodicals, without government interference, “[to] include the masses in regular and systematic supervision”. The notion was short-lived. Reports about Party negligence unsettled the leadership, and in July 1954, a new decision gave officials greater control over media in the name of “Party spirit”. During the brief Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956-57, journalists railed against restrictions, but many were swept up in the ensuing Anti-Rightist Movement.
In 1979, not long after China initiated the reform and opening policy following the Cultural Revolution, the country’s top communications journal republished the full text of the original 1950 decision on press supervision, noting that it could have “an important role” in “news reform”, which included aspirations such as less rigid writing and even exposure of official corruption. One prominent debate was between the liberal People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei, who said newspapers embodied “people spirit” – meaning a public interest role, and the leftist official Hu Qiaomu, who urged the supremacy of “Party spirit”. The debate culminated with the Party’s brutal 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement, after which liberal press policies were blamed for the protests.
In the 1990s and 2000s, even as controls persisted under the concept of “public opinion guidance”, broader economic change, media commercialisation, and the rise of the internet created opportunities for journalists to reassert a professional role. The period saw the rise of investigative reporting, which the country’s premier Zhu Rongji in October 1998 referred to as “a mirror on the government.” In the absence of checks on the abuse of power, citizens often turned to journalists as a source of justice, and so-called “citizen journalism” also made headway as a separate source of information.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in late 2012, journalism’s gains have dramatically reversed. High-level prohibitions in 2013 included the CCP’s rejection of what it called “the West’s idea of journalism” as a direct challenge to the Party’s control of the media and publishing system. Since that time, the Party has championed the Marxist View of Journalism, rigidly opposing China’s journalism values to those of an abstracted West. Instead, authorities have stressed the need for “positive energy”, which obliges not just journalists but all networked citizens to be defenders of the Party and the national image.
In his first major speech on media policy in February 2016, Xi Jinping said media “must be surnamed Party,” a play on surname and spirit as Chinese homophones, and a clear echo of earlier authoritarian turns that referenced Mao’s “Party spirit”. In fact, Xi’s speech went further in asserting that the notion of “people spirit”, a reference to the liberal strand of journalism, had “always been the same” as the “Party spirit.” As the Party by definition struggled on behalf of the people, all journalistic work by media enjoined to “love the Party, protect the Party and serve the Party” was essentially public interest journalism.