How China’s Government Controls the News: A Primer

Xi Jinping has tamed a once-enterprising commercial media. What happened?


In August 1975, Typhoon Nina, one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, surged inland from the Taiwan Strait, causing floods so catastrophic they overwhelmed dam networks in China’s Henan province. When Banqiao Dam on the Ru River finally burst, it unleashed a wall of water that rushed downstream, claiming an estimated 230,000 lives. Look back through China’s press at the time, however, and it is as though this unfathomable tragedy never occurred. Not one of China’s official newspapers ever reported the story.

In August 1975, Typhoon Nina, one of the most powerful tropical storms on record, surged inland from the Taiwan Strait, causing floods so catastrophic they overwhelmed dam networks in China’s Henan province. When Banqiao Dam on the Ru River finally burst, it unleashed a wall of water that rushed downstream, claiming an estimated 230,000 lives. Look back through China’s press at the time, however, and it is as though this unfathomable tragedy never occurred. Not one of China’s official newspapers ever reported the story.

The silent horrors of Banqiao are a fitting metaphor for the Chinese Communist Party’s deep fear of tragedy and its destabilizing effects. And they help explain why, even today, in an era when the ubiquity of the mobile Internet makes cover-up impossible, the party strives to control coverage of tragedies like the recent capsizing of the Oriental Star cruise ship on the Yangtze River.

Packed with 454 tourists and crewmembers, the Oriental Star capsized in rough weather on June 1, along a once-popular scenic route that has fallen on harder times since the downstream completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. After a weeklong recovery mission conducted amidst a stranglehold on information, there were just 12 survivors, including the ship’s captain, Zhang Shunwen.

For China’s leaders, tragedy is threatening because it summons raw human emotion — and when that emotion fixes purposefully on the human causes of calamity it becomes its own destructive wave, with the potential to undermine political legitimacy.

Speech and popular will in China have in fact long been equated to forces of nature. “Stopping the mouths of the people is more perilous than stopping a river,” goes an oft-quoted saying from Discourses of the States, a text dating back to around the fifth century B.C. While controlling public opinion is a political imperative, the saying suggests, allowance must be made at the same time for the release of building pressure — otherwise, resentment will only amass and threaten the entire project of control. The people must be permitted, in other words, to speak their minds and make known their wills, even if their freedom to do so is limited as a matter of political necessity.

The tension between obstruction and release is one of the defining dynamics of media control in China. And this deep cultural understanding of public opinion control as hydrological engineering has even more ancient associations in the story of the legendary leader Yu the Great, who is said to have revolutionized flood control sometime before 2100 B.C. by recognizing the need for channeling and irrigation as opposed to simple obstruction. The story of Yu the Great “harnessing the waters” has long been understood also as a political fable about the ruler’s need to control, channel, and harness the will of the people.

In more recent times, Yu the Great had a role to play in the January 2013 Southern Weekly incident, one of the most serious political showdowns during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s term so far. As editors at the once-great newspaper planned their New Year’s special edition toward the end of 2012, just as Xi was coming to power, they decided on a cover illustration depicting Yu the Great’s “harnessing of the waters.” China was entering a period of intense social and political strain, arising from two decades of rapid but uneven development. The editors felt that the allusion to Yu the Great was a powerful yet oblique comment on the leadership’s need to embrace criticism in order to quell rising public anger.

But in the end, much of the Southern Weekly News Year’s edition was quashed, topping a year of galling defeats for a newspaper. The painting of Yu the Great was grudgingly permitted, but the crowning humiliation came when propaganda leaders, unbeknownst to issue editors who had already signed off on the page proofs, demanded the addition of a preface that praised the achievements of the party — even quoting its official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily — and proved to be full of serious factual errors. One of the most foolish was the dating of Yu the Great back 2,000 years rather than 4,000.

News of the blatant intrusions at Southern Weekly, which went public through Chinese social media, unleashed a wave of public anger over government censorship. It took days for party leaders to stem the outflow and gain control of the story. Today, more than two years later, the Southern Weekly incident still reverberates through China’s increasingly constrained public sphere, justifying intensified control of the media, academia, and civil society. One of the chief themes of the 2013 special edition, the need to protect in practice the rights — including freedom of expression — guaranteed in the country’s constitution, is now taboo in China’s media and its classrooms. The very word “constitutionalism” has become a red flag. Xi, it seems, is more interested in shoring up the levees than letting ideas through.

The overarching metaphor governing information and public opinion in China today remains hydrological, recognizing the speech act, and its collective power, as a force of nature that must be tamed. The official term, introduced by then-President Jiang Zemin in the aftermath of the political torrent that was the spring of 1989 and the June 4 crackdown, is “guidance of public opinion” — the idea that speech must be properly directed, in order to preserve social and political stability. This involves, on a daily, hourly, and now sometimes minute-to-minute basis, instructions from the propaganda department and other agencies concerning what cannot be reported, and what must be reported.

The project of “guidance” is not merely what we tend in the West to call “censorship,” an act of cutting, excising, and obliterating; rather, it is a process of diversion, of redirection. Public opinion is not stopped — it is harnessed.

In recent years, the notion of guidance has been modified in practice, the imprint of Yu the Great remains in evidence. During a visit to the Party’s official People’s Daily on June 20, 2008, then-President Hu Jintao put forward a policy of what he called “channeling public opinion.” This was a subtle refinement of, or complement to, the older notion of “guidance.” As the nature of the information landscape had changed, favoring Internet-based products over traditional media, “guidance” had become a largely passive enterprise. While the party managed to restrict the nature and flow of information through the state-controlled print and broadcast system, it was losing the agenda online, particularly on sudden-breaking news stories — exactly the kind that cohere public anger. Hu’s answer to this dilemma was a two-fold strategy of constraint and discharge: first, restrict information to that gathered by trusted official sources, like Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV); and second, use the Internet and commercial media to more actively amplify these restricted messages.

“Channeling,” then, was about harnessing the power of for-profit newspapers and magazines, commercial Internet portals, and social media in order to better inundate the public with information from state sources. Ultimately, this was about taming the flood in the Internet age.

* * *

And so we return to China’s most recent tragedy, the capsizing late at night on June 1, 2015, of the Oriental Star cruise ship on the Yangtze River. A great many questions remain about the Oriental Star tragedy. Why, for example, were distress signals so delayed? Were the proper safety precautions and procedures followed before and during the cruise ship’s fateful journey with 454 people on board? Most of these questions have not been properly addressed in media reports, and probably never will be, thanks to early restrictions imposed by the Central Propaganda Department. Within 12 hours of the disaster, a directive went out to media telling them to pull back their reporters and stay away from the scene. They were to use only official news releases from Xinhua and CCTV.

This was a classic combination of “guidance” and “channeling.” First, news was shut off at the source. Next, information flow was moderated through official state media. Finally, with the fountainhead effectively controlled, a tame fountain of information was directed through news outlets across the country, which meant the authorities were able to harness the power of websites and commercial media to get out their own “authoritative” version of the facts.

One of the most compelling arguments for the numbing uniformity of Chinese coverage has been a visual one. Front pages from newspapers across the country on June 3 all featured the same Xinhua photograph of a survivor being brought up onto the capsized hull of the Oriental Star. If you bought a leading tabloid newspaper off the newsstand on June 3, it almost certainly looked something like one of the images below. Generally, we expect uniformity from official Party newspapers but see more variety of front-page treatment from commercial spin-offs, which hope to attract eyeballs at the newsstand. But the papers above are all commercial, from Chengdu (left), Beijing (center), and Guangzhou (right). All use the same Xinhua image and content.



Turning to local and national Internet sites, you might also have run across the subdued diversity of coverage offered by China News Service, which filed prolifically on both June 2 and 3. China News Service coverage hewed closely to the central narrative — that leaders were working actively and around the clock, doing absolutely everything they could — but also tended to pick up more localized accounts from official government and military Weibo accounts. This story from China News Service, for example, is based on posts by the official Weibo account of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, and offers details on the PLA’s deployment of rescue crews to the scene of the cruise ship tragedy.

It is largely true, as many international media have reported, that the bulk of coverage of the Oriental Star tragedy adhered to the official information, what Quartz called “a familiar playbook of media control and online censorship.”

But here is the Chongqing Evening News (below, left), a commercial spin-off of the municipality’s official Chongqing Daily, with an arresting front-page treatment in which the characters for “Oriental Star” float just beneath a dark watery surface. The lower portion of the final character, “star,” emerges hopefully from the water, becoming the bright white character for “life.” The news itself follows the pattern we’ve described already. The top headline is about Xi, who has exhorted everyone to do their utmost in the rescue effort. Immediately below is the news that Premier Li Keqiang is heading to the scene. But the visual departure from the other newspapers could hardly be more pronounced.



Moving downstream to Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, we have a front page with a touch of humanity. The paper (above, right) is the Yangtse Evening Post, a spin-off of Xinhua Daily, a provincial party mouthpiece. The image, in fact, is from Xinhua, not unlike those used with such uniformity on many other front pages on June 3. But this time, we see what looks like a body being carried away in a shroud, and one of the inset photos adds a further touch of tragedy, the grief of family and friends waiting behind for news of their loved ones. The black characters over the top of the obscured grey background read, “Praying for Their Return.”

It is easy enough to dismiss such exceptions as superficial — and in freer news environments they would be just that. But as the party leadership seeks to appropriate feeling and channel it toward more triumphal themes like heroism and tenacious leadership, with a single uniform face presented to the entire nation, the act of exposing the human face of tragedy can be defiant, even if indirectly so. We may remember that in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, nothing was as dangerous to Party officials as those heart-wrenching images of parents who had lost their children in the collapse of shoddy school buildings. Chinese leaders want to present, instead, faces of action, courage, and selfless dedication, like the faces of the rescue divers Premier Li Keqiang met at the scene of the Oriental Star tragedy. “The whole nation is putting their hope on you,” he told them. “You are brave enough to challenge the extremes.”

But the bigger story here may in fact not be the familiar nature of controls so much as the unfamiliar extent to which those controls actually succeeded in silencing professional journalists and media in China. A certain failure in terms of meaningful transparency, the Oriental Star tragedy might be unmitigated success from the standpoint of the party. This time, when tragedy and public ire met with the impulse for political control, the floodgates held.

* * *

The slight variations in coverage we see among papers along the Yangtze River show us that not exactly all media slavishly followed the facts dished out by Xinhua and CCTV. But neither does this coverage break significant ground. It hardly qualifies as what Chinese journalists call “hitting line-balls,” or da cabianqiu, meaning coverage that sends the chalk flying — still technically in bounds, but somehow, to mix in our own metaphor, pushing the envelope.

What we should find most interesting — and perhaps troubling — about the universe of coverage on the Oriental Star tragedy is just how close it was to total, deafening uniformity. It is imaginable that at some point in months to come, a magazine like Caixin Weekly will surprise us with a probing cover story about the complex web of contributing factors. But I, for one, will not be holding my breath. I have a hunch this silence is chronic, or — to return to that favored Chinese metaphor — that Xi has erected and reinforced such decisive barriers to online speech and professional journalism that the seasonal waves of public opinion we have seen in the past in China are, for the time being, effectively obstructed. This is not how comparable disasters have played out in the more recent past, even under China’s strict regime of “guidance” and “channeling.”

After the Sichuan earthquake struck on May 12, 2008, hundreds of Chinese journalists rushed to the scene, openly violating an explicit ban from the Central Propaganda Department against coverage from the scene because they knew the story would have to be covered. It was only after an initial period of relatively active coverage by Chinese journalists that authorities managed to drain off dangerous reporting on such issues as the collapse of shoddily constructed schools.

When tragedy struck again on July 23, 2011, this time with a deadly collision between high-speed trains traveling through the coastal city of Wenzhou, it brought what the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, where I work, called “a tumultuous week of coverage.” The boldness of China’s traditional media, particularly of commercial newspapers and magazines, was driven in part by the anger flooding across newly popular social media platforms like Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform. Internet message boards and social media surged with calls for greater transparency in the handling of the train crash. Eyewitness videos of the attempted cover-up, including the expedient burying of wrecked train cars, were posted to video sharing sites, and then shared again by millions. Finally, in the face of this torrent of coverage and public anger, then-Premier Wen Jiabao made a trip to the scene of the crash, pledging a full and transparent investigation, which was eventually released at year’s end.

By the time of the Wenzhou train crash, China’s traditional media had suffered already through a seven-year cycle of tightening restrictions that were impacting in-depth and investigative reporting. For example, a central-level ban had been in effect since late 2004 prohibiting the practice of “cross-regional reporting,” or the reporting of stories in one city or province by media from other regions. And yet, as Wenzhou demonstrated, journalists continued — in drips and runnels — to find ways through.

Two critical factors have shifted since Xi formally took office on November 15, 2012. First of all, we have seen an extended and intensified tightening of controls on traditional media, particularly those commercial newspapers and magazines that since the mid-1990s, had routinely produced in-depth, investigative, or explanatory reporting. The showdown at Southern Weekly in January 2013 was the culmination of long-rising tensions over newer mechanisms of prior censorship, such as the installation of internal “readers” and pre-approval of story topics, that made it nearly impossible for more professionally-minded media to make advances.

The result of these controls is that commercial media as a progressive force have been effectively neutralized over the past few years in China. We have seen, as a result, an exodus of experienced journalists and editors. And because traditional media remain the core of professional journalism practice in China — not least because most online media are still prohibited from having reporting teams — this exodus has meant a very real erosion of professional capacity. Journalists can only sit on their hands for so long.

The second shift under Xi has been the neutralization of Weibo and other social media in China as platforms with the power to drive the public agenda. The Wenzhou rail collision four years ago offered a graphic illustration of how social media and the Internet could galvanize national attention. An upward swell of information sharing and criticism became an unstoppable wave of public opinion, and this in turn empowered traditional media.

The problem, as the leadership quickly learned, was that certain social media users — often journalists, academics, or businesspeople — could attract massive audiences of followers, and were connected to other high-profile users. These influencers, who on Weibo became known as the “Big V’s” (having verified identities on the platform), had the power to drive the agenda in completely unexpected ways, such as when social scientist Yu Jianrong organized a campaign to rescue child beggars in February 2011. Beginning in September 2013, the aggressive campaign against online opinion leaders, including the highly symbolic detention and public humiliation of investor and social media celebrity Charles Xue, was the party’s way of wrestling back control of the online space, and the power to “guide” and “channel” the agenda. It came paired with a judicial interpretation from the Supreme People’s Court that criminalized any social media activity deemed harmful by the authorities. According to the interpretation, users whose “harmful” posts were viewed at least 5,000 times, or shared at least 500, could be subject to prosecution for defamation or other crimes, including “disturbing public order.”

The first full year of Xi’s leadership, 2013, gave us two watershed events in media control: the Southern Weekly incident and the crackdown on social media. The former marked a low point for professional media in China from which they have thus far not recovered; the latter has meant effective obstruction of the Internet’s capacity to drive the agenda and empower professional media.

We can think of the capsizing of the Oriental Star, the first major tragedy to occur under Xi’s leadership, as an important test of what kind of disaster reporting is possible under the media environment he has created. The results are not encouraging — and in fact the effectiveness of Xi’s controls may not bode well for China’s leadership. The bulwarks that Xi has built against the current of public opinion may at first seem formidable. But that strength, as the ancients knew, can be catastrophic, like the horrors of Banqiao. After all, stopping the mouths of the people is more perilous than stopping a river.

David Bandurski is a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.
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