Since the 19th Party Congress unfolded in Beijing last month, observers have closely examined various aspects of Xi Jinping’s lengthy speech, the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and the extraordinary security measures put in place for the event. Far less attention has been paid to the Congress’ implications for media policy.
Xi’s remarks, related changes to the Party Constitution, and key personnel decisions reveal a number of notable shifts that could have a profound impact on how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) manages its massive censorship and propaganda apparatus.
Four developments at the congress stand out for their departure from precedent:
1. Priority given to “the Party’s leadership” and Xi himself: The phrase “the party’s leadership” appeared 16 times in Xi’s speech. As noted by the China Media Project, this figure was last matched at the 13th Party Congress in 1987. No other Party Congress has featured a higher number of such references, though Xi’s speech was uncharacteristically long. Changes to the Party Constitution also reflected Xi’s status as a particularly powerful CCP leader: His collection of ideological contributions, dubbed “Xi Jinping Thought,” is now part of the charter, and various pet projects or slogans — like the Belt and Road Initiative and the “China Dream” concept — have been added as well.
2. New emphasis on the cultural sphere: References to the cultural components of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” were added to the CCP constitution in several places. These changes partly reflect Xi’s own emphasis on “helping socialist culture to flourish.” The topic secured a dedicated section in Xi’s speech, on par with segments about the economy and military. The culture passage covered not only traditional and online media, but also the realms of art, literature, and education.
3. New ideology czar with unusual background: Of the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China watchers have generally agreed that Wang Huning is most likely to be given responsibility for the vital ideology and propaganda portfolio. Wang — a former academic who has spent the last two decades at the party elite’s internal think tank — comes from a very different background than his two immediate predecessors, and lacks any work experience within the party’s ideology and propaganda bureaucracy. The difference is especially stark when his résumé is compared with that of Liu Yunshan, whom he will apparently be replacing. Liu served much of his career in state media and the media control apparatus, including as director of the Central Propaganda Department for five years, before joining the Politburo Standing Committee. In a separate personnel change, Xu Lin, who heads the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the office of the “leading small group” on cybersecurity, was promoted to the CCP Central Committee, a position his predecessor Lu Wei never achieved.
4. Explicit internationalization of the “China model”: Xi’s overall tone of confidence in China’s emergence as a world power was accompanied by an unprecedented promotion of China’s development path as a model for other countries, especially developing economies. He noted in his speech that China’s approach offers a way of “solving the problems facing mankind” and “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
Xi also reiterated strategies of information control that he has promoted before, and which have set his approach apart from that of his predecessors. Xi is especially attuned to the power of the internet and social media. As in past speeches, on October 18 he emphasized the importance of innovation and of enhancing the popular appeal of party propaganda and state media content, both at home and internationally.
The Road Ahead
Taken together, these aspects of the 19th Party Congress suggest that the regime will intensify and modernize its efforts to control not just the behavior but the minds of the Chinese people.
For example, the exaltation of “the Party’s leadership” and “Xi Jinping Thought” signals a heightened intolerance for criticism of CCP rule and of Xi personally. Similarly, the emphasis on culture indicates that the party will be even more aggressive in promoting official viewpoints in the entertainment industry and educational system. Textbooks are already being revised to include Xi’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era,” and new research centers are being established at select universities.
In addition, the CCP will likely explore new ways to compel the online community to police itself. At one point in the speech, Xi mentions the need to “implement the system of responsibility for ideological work,” a phrase that has traditionally implied deploying citizens to monitor one another. Regulations related to the new Cybersecurity Law that entered into force in June include provisions to encourage self-censorship. Just last week, the CAC issued new rules that require social media and news applications to conduct regular self-assessments to ensure they are not hosting any undesirable content.
Wang Huning’s unusual background and Xu Lin’s promotion could accelerate the party’s adoption of more innovative forms of media control, with the CAC and the cybersecurity leading small group potentially overshadowing the hidebound Central Propaganda Department within the party bureaucracy. Wang’s résumé and reported success in promoting Xi’s “China Dream” campaign may result in reforms that make state media reporting and propaganda messaging more popular and effective.
Some observers have interpreted Wang’s early writings as having a somewhat liberal bent. However, at least one acquaintance told reporters that Wang “doesn’t believe China should become a multiparty democracy or have division of powers.” As long as he serves the interests of the one-party state and his close ally Xi, his apparent familiarity with liberal ideas may simply make him a more canny manager of China’s information landscape, which offers an illusion of choice, dynamism, and diversity but remains intensely hostile to independent reporting and open debate.
Exporting Censorship and Authoritarian Rule
As disturbing as these domestic concerns may be, Xi’s affirmation of CCP governance as a model for other developing countries should raise alarms beyond China’s borders.
For years now, China has been assisting partner governments in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere by offering training to journalists at state-owned media, upgrading their broadcasting equipment, and selling telecommunication technologies that enable surveillance and censorship. Regimes in countries like Iran, Russia, and Ethiopia have tried imitating certain aspects of China’s internet controls, for example by promoting domestic social media platforms and restricting international competitors.
Should the CCP now promote its own information strategies more aggressively in the developing world, at a time when democratic powers seem to be in retreat, the negative impact on free expression and political pluralism could increase dramatically.
Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.