Control Issues are Feeding China's 'Discourse Power' Project

A security guard walks at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, in a part where it is closed for a major renovation work, at the Forbidden City in central Beijing, China July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee
August 15, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaCultureXi JinpingPowerGlobal Governance

Control Issues are Feeding China's 'Discourse Power' Project

The threats to international liberal-democratic norms from the People's Republic of China’s push for “discourse power” are vastly underestimated.

Seemingly disconnected and discrete communicative acts of government agencies and “civil-society” actors are coordinated by the Party’s vast discourse control infrastructure. This structure is both centralized, allowing it to express a unified message, as well as diffused, allowing it to mimic the multitudinous voices of a free society. Each domestic company, foreign company and foreign school, NGO (“N” is a misnomer), religious institution, educational institution, research institute, and any other ostensibly civil-society associations of persons each must have a Party Committee to ensure that it stays politically correct. Within any regulatory body, positions that entail discretionary decisionmaking must also be held by trusted Party members, like Lin Fengzheng, a highly trusted Party central committee alternate, who is also the head of China Civil Aviation Administration (CCAA) that ordered the airlines’ Taiwan policy change.

At the top of the formal message-formation hierarchy is the Party’s Central Propaganda Bureau (zhongyang xuanchuan bu) which works closely with state agencies supervising and licensing radio, film, and the press. China has large numbers of trained media and communications experts, many of whom were educations in the West and worked there. They produce splashy programming with high production value. However, the carefully-curated content of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is mind-blowingly boring. At the same time, there is much entertaining, well-produced media that similarly incorporates the party line, such as the popular television show, Renmin de Mingyi, showing a cool cast of well-dressed Party-loyalist rooting out corruption. By centralizing message formation and having Party tentacles in all governmental and “private” organizations, the Party is able to ensure that regulatory actions support discourse formation. In other words, the Party understands all acts—including discretionary regulatory acts—as potential exercises in discourse construction. Because law in China is merely a more formal expression of the Party’s will, there is no independent judiciary to temper this inclination to politicize everything.

Even seemingly nonpolitical, current events, public-interest information, as well as speculative concepts are seen as actual or potential microaggressions against the Party to be identified and censored. A few examples include burying news of a fatal train crash (literally, burying the train itself), suppressing news of ineffective vaccines given to thousands of children, deleting and denying the scope of the SARS and AIDS epidemics, as well as shutting down discussion of topics such as migrants and real estate prices. Recently, it is also reportedly scrubbed the safe-space of any references to China’s nascent “MeToo” movement. Impressively responsive, the government even blocked “Winnie the Pooh” nationwide because some Chinese netizens remarked on a certain resemblance with Chairman Xi. (One suspects this is why China also blocked release of Christopher Robin in China.) No concept is too attenuated. The party-state was even reported to censor time travel fiction because it might contradict pseudo-Marxist teleology.

The Party annually updates and distributes a document to the Chinese media community that spells out exactly how news outlets should report on a range of subjects: Must-Read for Media Personnel: the New China News Agency News Information Reporting Prohibited Terms and Words to Exercise Caution With. That document touches on all the usual Party pieties. For example, it bans references to Taiwan’s president as “president” or to Xinjiang’s ethnic-Turkistani residents as “Turkistanis.” (The main ethnic group is recognized by the party-state as the Uyghurs and classified as one of fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in the country.) But it also includes its own microaggressions, such as requiring that the former archbishop of Hong Kong (a critic of the Party) be referred to as “former bishop” rather than the more honorary and authoritative “Bishop Emeritus.” In addition, special directives go out daily to major media outlets and internet service providers on particular trigger words of the day. The Party presides daily over a vast troll army called the 50 Cent Party (wumao dang) that posts as “regular netizens” on social blogs around the country and international media spaces.

To protect its China-wide safe space, the Party-State scrupulously deletes, jails, culturally annihilates, extradites, kidnaps, disappears, or murders (directly or indirectly) the young or the old. Then, it glibly fills the gaping expressive void left only with smoldering detritus of nascent free expression full of peppy sloganeering that becomes the “truth” on whatever matter by default. With increasingly high technology and commitment, the trend is towards increased and even more formalized control. In July, a woman who posted a video of herself defacing a propaganda image of Chairman Xi in Shanghai was detained. When her family publicly complained that the authorities refused to inform them of her whereabouts or conditions, they were disappeared as well. That is efficiency. There are reports that she was sent to a “mental hospital,” but no one is really sure. China presumably has “due process” on the books to commit a citizen to a mental hospital, but Chinese law is just a more formal expression of the Party’s will.

The Party, already predisposed from Chinese sociopolitical culture to value consistency over truth, learned an important lesson from recent history: an autocratic party would never be safe in China unless China itself can be made into a truth-ambivalent safe space for the party. In order to do this, China has used the coercive power of the state to discursively construct a domestic world in which the Party is indispensable to the nation. Still, in a highly internet-savvy and ubiquitously mobile and online country with more than 1.3 billion people, many of whom are impressively educated, it might seem questionable that China could maintain a safe space separate from the rest of the world.

Herein lie the two key cautions for the international community inherent in China’s international discourse power project. First, Chinese “discourse power” recognizes that the domestic safe space will never be completely secure without a wider safety buffer zone outside of China’s borders, the reason China is asserting “discourse power” to begin with. Secondly, as I explain in the next installment, the Party recognized that the only way to make the nation safe from independent scholars and critical citizens was to re-engineer society itself at the basic political-cultural level. In other words, the Party recognized that it needed a zombified version of Western civil-society to uphold the Party’s role—then it energetically created one. The real caution is that it seeks to do the same thing with heretofore international liberal-democratic institutions.

Eugene (John) Gregory, JD, PhD is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. He is Director of the Chinese Academic Program in the Department of Foreign Languages at the United States Military Academy and Director of the Center for Languages, Cultures, and Regional Studies ([email protected]).

The views expressed here are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Military Academy, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.

Image: A security guard walks at the Gate of Supreme Harmony, in a part where it is closed for a major renovation work, at the Forbidden City in central Beijing, China July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee