The news media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalistic profession.”
Training Material for News Reporters and Editors, Beijing, China, 2013
The first quotation comes from a university textbook for journalists in the days when Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union, a one-party state that eventually staggered to its own demise. The second one comes from a study guide for journalists in China, a one-party state that is a mighty economic superpower. The two quotations are separated by 37 years, but their similarity reveals much about the thinking of China’s leaders.
The study guide, along with a test, is being used by the authorities to prepare Chinese reporters as they seek renewal of their press cards. According to the New York Times, which published quotes from the study guide and some test questions, news organizations across China have been holding lectures since November on the latest journalistic principles as outlined by the Communist Party Central Committee’s Third Plenum.
What’s striking is not the fact of party control over the Chinese news media, which is a day-to-day reality, but how the party is demanding journalists absorb a backwards and outdated study guide based on failed concepts of the last century. The new leader of China, President Xi Jinping, has been championing slogans and ideology from Mao’s day and the pursuit of a Marxist Utopia, a pursuit that led to great suffering for hundreds of millions of people.
Remarkably, Chinese journalists are being presented with this at a moment when communications have achieved a fluidity unknown in human history. The digital revolution has so profoundly changed how we see, understand and transmit information that even free societies are struggling with the impact. The dizzying rise of social media, the explosion of mobile devices, the fragmenting of democracy, the fears of surveillance — these are a few of the truly relevant topics for journalists in the digital age. Surely, they are of great interest to Chinese journalists, too, even if they must learn about them behind the back of a controlling state by scaling its Great Firewall.
Foreign investors shouldn’t fool themselves that China’s economic prowess can be separated from its heavy-handed restrictions on journalism. Late last month, the censors ordered Chinese reporters to tone down coverage of an interbank liquidity squeeze. Airbrushing away the unpleasant news won’t change the fundamentals.
China’s leaders lord over information to preserve their monopoly on power. They fear that openness and freedom pose an existential threat to their control. They are right to be afraid; the digital revolution is only gathering force. Mr. Xi would be better advised to let China’s journalists prepare themselves for tomorrow — to get in sync with the globalized information revolution — than to retreat behind the red banners of yesteryear. But he doesn’t dare.