Uneasy silences punctuate 60th anniversary coverage

By Qian Gang and David Bandurski — This has been a delicate year for China’s leaders, who must cross a veritable minefield of sensitive anniversaries. There was the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the 50th anniversary of the Lushan Conference, the 20th anniversary of June Fourth. And of course we have, just around the corner, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

China is now in the midst of preparations for a National Day celebration that should by any standard be extravagant. Although the English-language Global Times managed to say in a single breath this week that “the ‘warm but frugal and cost-effective’ celebration” would include a “grand military parade and a mass pageant featuring 200,000 people.”

Meanwhile, the propaganda war for people’s hearts and minds has long been under way.

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[ABOVE: “National unity” is one of the five “main themes” for National Day coverage. Screenshot of coverage at Global Times. A quick show of hands: how many think this photo is real?]

Media in China may view the National Day celebrations as a golden opportunity to cash in and enhance their commercial reach and influence. But China’s leadership views this event as an internal affair of paramount political importance, and as a key strategic front along which to tighten news controls.

It was way back last spring that China’s Central Propaganda Department conveyed its overall position on reporting of the 60th anniversary: “Shout throughout the whole of society the main themes of the goodness of the CCP, the goodness of socialism, the goodness of opening and reform, the goodness of our great motherland, and the goodness of our various ethnic groups.”

These five points, which are referred to as the “five goods,” essentially define the permissible scope of 60th anniversary coverage.

The term “main theme,” or zhuxuánlu, is specific to public opinion controls (????) in China. The “main theme” refers to the general orientation and message the authorities expect news media to reflect.

So, to sum up, the crucial motifs for news reporting on the 60th anniversary are:

1. The leading position of the Chinese Communist Party
2. The strength of the socialist system
3. The importance of opening and reform
4. Patriotism
5. National unity

The demands the authorities have placed on reporting this year are essentially no different from those we saw for the anniversary ten years ago. But despite an overriding emphasis on Jiang Zemin’s policy of “guidance of public opinion” then, 1999 was a year of relative vitality for China’s media.

At the time, CMP Director Qian Gang was managing editor of the more freewheeling newspaper Southern Weekend, which on National Day that year ran a front-page editorial calling for political reform. “From a Society of Subjects to a Civil Society,” it was called (??????????), and it argued that rule by the people “is the stamp of a civil society” and “the moral foundation of the legitimacy of our government.”

In 2009, statements like this already seem unimaginable.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of a People’s Daily Online page, “I love you, China,” devoted to National Day.]

In June 2008, Hu Jintao introduced his new policy for handling news and information, which placed a strong emphasis on the notion of “public opinion channeling.” This is all about state media taking the initiative in getting the news out quickly, so that at least some critical information, particularly about breaking news events, is made public in record time. This more active posture was reflected to a limited extent during last year’s Beijing Olympics, but this year’s 60th anniversary has offered a stark contrast.

The Beijing Olympics were an international affair. Under the glaring lights of world attention, the authorities took a somewhat more open stance on press controls, even if this brought no relief for Chinese journalists.

The 60th anniversary is a “household affair,” China’s own business, and with social and political stability as the overriding domestic priorities the authorities are exercising strict control over the media.

The heart of the five “goods” is the “goodness of the Chinese Communist Party,” which means that the party’s leadership position is beyond question, and that the CCP’s accomplishments are resplendent and undeniable. As for the errors and blunders of the past 60 years, the human tragedies and buried injustices, these cannot be addressed at all.

Propaganda controls notwithstanding, the 60th anniversary will inevitably become an occasion to reflect back on sixty years of Communist Party rule. Whether or not CCP leaders are capable of taking an earnest and clear-eyed look at the party’s own record will be a key test of the party’s leadership.

But the initial signs are not encouraging.

The sensitivity of June Fourth is without question — this is a topic no media can be expected to broach. But so far even such episodes as the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and the actions against rightists during the Lushan Conference of 1959, events on which the party long ago pronounced its official verdict, have become dangerous topics ahead of the 60th anniversary. Why? Because they touch on the crimes of Mao Zedong and on the serious failings of China’s political system.

Major web portals in China have planned a number of historical retrospectives, each of which highlights one important event during every year since 1949. Sohu.com has posted special features called “History in the Twinkling of an Eye” (??????) and “30 Years of Reform” (???????). Netease has one called “Made in China” (????). The official Xinhua Online has a retrospective called “Footprints of the Republic” (??????).

But what sort of events and landmarks do these highlight?

The Anti-Rightist Movement, during which some 550,000 people were politically persecuted as rightists, and millions of others dragged down into the chaos, was surely the defining event of 1957. Is it there? No, of course not.

The Great Starvation, which claimed the lives of some 36 million people, and the crushing of moves to promote democracy within the party, both resulted in large measure from the political madness of the Lushan Conference. Surely, that event merits attention in a historical retrospective.

But can we find it in 1959? No, of course not. We find at best fleeting references.

For 1957, Xinhua Online mentions “rectification within the party,” but includes only very light treatment of the campaign against rightists. QQ.com chooses to focus on Mao Zedong’s criticism of Ma Yanchu’s proposals on limiting population growth in China, but sidesteps the whole Anti-Rightist Movement. Sohu.com mentions the destruction of Beijing’s city wall in 1957. Netease notes only the conclusion of China’s first Five-year Plan.

For 1959, Xinhua Online highlights the putting down of rebellion in Tibet. Sohu.com notes the general pardon issued for war criminals and former Nationalist officials (as well as many “counterrevolutionaries”) to commemorate the republic’s tenth anniversary. Netease and QQ both choose to focus on the 1959 discovery of the oil field in Daqing.

None of these major web portals dared devote coverage to the Lushan Conference.

Two portals, Netease and QQ, did offer online polls that allowed users to select what they saw as the major events during particular years, and these included events like the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Lushan Conference. But these episodes in history could not be elaborated, and they could not become major defining events for those years.

In fact, we understand from our sources that user comments in the online polling sections of these sites are being actively removed. Forums for online comment have seemed unprecedentedly cold and cheerless ahead of the anniversary.

Websites have also been handed an explicit notice by the authorities letting them know that these two topics – the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Lushan Conference – are of extreme sensitivity.

In a moment of high spectacle, we have struck a new low. And this side-stepping of major episodes in China’s history does significant damage yet again to the credibility of China’s media.

[Posted by David Bandurski, September 10, 2009, 3:57pm HK]