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China to keep ironclad grip on media

By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam

China books
China strict control of the media ranges from television broadcasts to book publishing to the Internet

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Whoever will become the new chief of the Communist Party's Department of Propaganda will say much about the post-16th Congress leadership's policies on ideology and the media.

Amongst the party and government ministers and heads of departments that will be named at the upcoming party Congress and the National People's Congress next March, the propaganda czar will have the most direct impact on issues such as censorship and intellectual freedom.

The incumbent, Ding Guan'gen, 73, has slapped a straightjacket on areas ranging from book publishing to the Internet.

However, Ding, who first rose to prominence as the bridge partner of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, is retiring because of old age and ill health.

In an apparent effort to foster a politically correct atmosphere for the 16th Congress, the Propaganda Department in late summer issued warnings to a dozen-odd publishing houses, including the respected Workers' Press and the Hainan Press, for putting out books that "focus too much on negative phenomena" like corruption, scandals and poverty.

The media have also been asked not to run the articles of a host of free-thinking authors, even though several are non-political scholars who merely write about social injustice, rural decay, or the polarization between rich and poor.

While the two or three candidates being tipped for Ding's job are considered somewhat less authoritarian, they are expected to continue the policy of ironclad control over ideology and the media in the coming two years or so.

Frontrunner for the post, which usually carries Politburo status, is Education Minister Chen Zhili, 60 -- one of China's most senior female cadres.

A long-time Jiang protégé and a former vice-party secretary of Shanghai, Chen was until the summer tipped as the next party boss of the East China metropolis.

Control over media

"While Chen herself may prefer the more glamorous Shanghai post, Jiang is leaning toward giving her the propaganda portfolio," a party source in Beijing said.

"With his retirement coming up, Jiang wants somebody to safeguard his legacy -- and to ensure that 'Jiang Theory' will still dominate intellectual and media circles in the foreseeable future."

The 16th Congress, slated to open on November 8, will revise the party constitution to enshrine Jiang's "Theory of the Three Represents" as the nation's guiding light.

However, the theory (meaning the party must represent the foremost productivity and culture as well as the masses' interests) has been attacked by both the liberal and the leftist -- or ultra-conservative -- factions of the party.

For example, denigrators of Jiang's philosophy say that under the president, the party has become a representative of the rich, the powerful and the holders of vested interests, including the offspring of senior officials.

Jiang's likely successor as party general secretary, Vice-President Hu Jintao, has been heaping eulogies on the Three Represents Theory on a daily basis.

Yet Hu does not come from Jiang's own faction -- and many of the president's closest advisers have warned the president that Hu will start revising the Jiang legacy once the vice-president has consolidated his hold on power.

Hence the president's anxiety that a faithful custodian of Jiang Theory be named propaganda czar to uphold Jiang-style orthodoxy.

Ruthless suppression

China Internet
Beijing had blocked a number of Internet search engines to prevent the flow of unregulated information into China

Chen's credentials as a no-nonsense commissar was evident in the spring of 1989, when she and Jiang forcibly closed down the avant-garde Shanghai paper, World Economic Herald.

Jiang was then party chief of Shanghai, and Chen, a member of the Shanghai party committee in charge of propaganda and the media.

The ruthless suppression of the Herald, a vocal advocate of Western-style liberalization, was seen as a harbinger of the Tiananmen Square crackdown a couple of months later.

"The Herald episode has established a bond between Jiang and Chen," said a Western diplomat once based in Shanghai.

"[Then party chief] Zhao Ziyang was unhappy about the Herald's closure and he summoned Jiang to Beijing to explain his draconian policy. Chen offered to go to Beijing with Jiang, saying she would take all the responsibility for suppressing the paper on herself."

Two other names have been cited as possible replacements of Ding: Director of the Information Office of the State Council Zhao Qizheng, and the President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Li Tieying.

Zhao, another former vice-party secretary of Shanghai, is thought of as a "closet liberal" who is knowledgeable about global trends in economic and political development.

However, Zhao is at the same time such a loyal apparatchik that he has worked with Ding the past few years to impose what is euphemistically known as "unity of thought" among scholars and journalists.

Li, a long-time Politburo member, had a liberal reputation in the 1980s and early 1990s as a pioneer of economic reform particularly in the northeastern province of Liaoning.

However, since becoming CASS chief, he has let China's foremost research unit become a servile adjunct of the party's dominant faction.

Jiang still potent

Several of the academy's most original thinkers such as political scientists Liu Junning and Chen Xiaoya have been intimidated and even fired.

Beijing's liberal intellectuals are also worried that the president may have struck a deal with the leftists, or quasi-Maoists, in return to the latter's acquiescence in his Three Represents Theory.

The capital is rife with speculation that to secure the leftists' support, Jiang may agree to play up the Four Cardinal Principles of orthodox Marxism in his Political Report to the 16th Congress.

While the Propaganda Department has banned books advocating Western-style political reforms, those attacking pro-market reforms associated with Zhao Ziyang -- and the current leadership -- have been spared the censors' axe.

A case in point is the polemical tract The Preliminary Stage of Socialism and the Four Cardinal Principles, edited by veteran ideologue Liang Zhu.

The tome has a long chapter on how the market reforms of Zhao and another former party chief Hu Yaobang had "sold out" socialism and jeopardized the party's ruling status.

This is despite the Jiang leadership's well-known position that nobody should speak ill of the policy of reform and the open door, which was after all begun by Deng and "inherited" by Jiang.

Political analysts think the trend toward more restriction of free speech and expression will continue even after moderate Fourth Generation leaders such as Hu and Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao have taken over power at the 16th Congress.

After all, the first priority of Hu and Wen -- who will likely become prime minister -- is to maintain high-speed economic growth and social stability.

And until they have established their authority in the party, government and the army -- a process that could take at least two to three years -- relative liberals among the Fourth Generation line-up are not about to take on the still-potent Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction.

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