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Xi Tightens Grip Over Chinese Propaganda Ahead of Key Conclaves

Larry Ong is a senior analyst with SinoInsider, a New York-based risk consultancy that focuses on Chinese elite politics.
Published: June 22, 2022
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Visitors walk in front of a screen showing China's President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on November 11, 2021. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Key positions in the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda agencies underwent personnel reshuffles in recent weeks. Those reshuffles appear to be part of Xi Jinping’s effort to more firmly strengthen his control over the Party’s “pen” ahead of important political meetings this year — and as swaying public discourse becomes more crucial for the CCP regime amidst mounting crises. 

Notable appointments

On May 5, Central Party School vice president Li Shulei attended a Ministry of Ecology and Environment event in Liaoning in the capacity of executive deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department overseeing daily operations, according to the ministry’s website. Li’s new appointment meant that he is likely also the new director of the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization Office, the position held by his immediate predecessor, Wang Xiaohui. 

On June 7, state mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency saw two reshuffles in its leadership ranks. Fu Hua, deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department and Xinhua editor-in-chief, was appointed as the mouthpiece’s president. Meanwhile, Lü Yansong, another Propaganda Department deputy director, was appointed Xinhua editor-in-chief. 

The PRC agency in charge of state-owned television and radio enterprises also gained new leading cadres. On June 9, State Council Information Office Xu Lin became the director of the National Radio and Television Administration. Five days after Xu’s appointment, Le Yucheng, PRC foreign vice minister in charge of daily operations, was transferred to the National Radio and Television Administration to serve as deputy director. 

POLITICS IN COMMUNIST CHINA

Increased importance

The CCP has long relied on propaganda to seize and maintain power. During China’s Republican era, Party propaganda played an important role in discrediting the Kuomintang and rallying supporters to the CCP’s cause. After Mao Zedong led the Party to success in seizing mainland China, propaganda was used to promote the CCP’s many political campaigns, reshape Chinese society and culture, and grow Mao’s cult of personality. 

From the Deng era onwards, the state-dominated media was also mobilized to attract foreign investment, influence countries into siding with the PRC’s cause and look away from its human rights abuses, and advance the CCP’s ambitions for global hegemony. At all times, propaganda played a crucial role in helping the Party preserve its political legitimacy, particularly during crises. 

Today, the Xi leadership and the CCP find themselves beset with serious crises. The implementation of draconian “zero-COVID” lockdowns and other measures to stem the latest bout of COVID-19 outbreaks in Shanghai and elsewhere near the end of the first quarter of 2022 led to sharp economic declines and generated immense social anger. The PRC’s unwillingness to end its “no limits” friendship with Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine and the CCP’s tech sector crackdowns resulted in billions of dollars in outflows in the first half of the year as foreign investors began to account for rising political risks in China. 

Voices opposing Xi Jinping are also growing at home and abroad. Commentators holding an “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” stance are blaming Xi for all of the regime’s ills and are signaling that his position is not as secure as appearances suggest. Rumors of internal strife in the Xi camp, including the so-called “Xi-Li split” and premier Li Keqiang’s “rising prominence” as Xi’s influence wanes, are percolating in the public discourse and gaining greater acceptance. 

To counter naysayers and cope with the crises, the Xi leadership is increasingly turning to propaganda. Propaganda outlets proclaim the PRC’s “neutrality” in the Russia-Ukraine war and fault the U.S. and its allies for provoking the conflict. They also promote “normalized epidemic prevention and control,” the “scientific” application of “zero-COVID,” and the need to coordinate epidemic prevention and “economic and social development” instead of focusing on the complete eradication of the virus in communities. Propaganda outlets have too given more attention to Beijing’s economic rescue policies. 

On June 16, Xinhua published a nearly 6,900-character commentary article touting Xi Jinping’s political “achievements” that could very well have also been an effort to address the critics. The article hails Party Central “with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core” for possessing “profound insight into the international and domestic overall situation,” allowing it to successfully tackle the COVID-19 outbreaks and other factors that have resulted in “complexity, severity, and uncertainty” in China’s economic development environment. 

The Xinhua article further credits Xi for the “zero-COVID” policy and the “series of policy measures to stabilize the macroeconomic market.” Meanwhile, local governments are described as having only “implemented the important instructions of General Secretary Xi Jinping.” This framing essentially debunks the notion that Li Keqiang is growing more prominent because his economic policies are being adopted by indicating that Xi had signed off on those policies. Xinhua’s framing also attributes any good that comes from the CCP’s policies directly to Xi, while laying the groundwork to fault local officials for their inability to properly implement Xi’s instructions when things go south.

Finally, the Xinhua article endeavors to assure the Chinese people and foreign investors that China is not in a crisis and that the best is yet to come. The PRC’s economic setbacks and other troubles are described as “temporary fluctuations in development,” and China’s economy has a “bright future for long-term improvement.” Moreover, Xi is depicted as “steering the big ship that is China’s economy along the course of high-quality development to break waves and move steadily forward.” 

Cementing control

Despite the CCP’s claims, most indicators suggest that China’s economy will worsen further in the second half of 2022 and is headed toward recession. The rapidly deteriorating economy will in turn increase political and social instability in China. Going forward, the Xi leadership will become even more reliant on propaganda and “telling the China story well” in maintaining regime stability as crises deepen. 

Xi Jinping’s growing reliance on propaganda means that he has to further consolidate control over the propaganda apparatus and deny his political enemies opportunities to turn propaganda against him. Notably, the Jiang Zemin faction used its longtime sway over the propaganda apparatus during Xi’s first term to undermine the Xi leadership on several occasions using so-called “low-level red” and “advanced blackening” tactics. 

The recent key personnel reshuffles in the propaganda apparatus appear to be partly aimed at eliminating the Jiang faction’s lingering influence. For instance, Li Shulei at the Central Propaganda Department, as well as Xu Lin and Le Yucheng at the National Radio and Television Administration, are allies of Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, Fu Hua and Lü Yansong were “parachuted” into Xinhua instead of being promoted from within the Xinhua ranks, which means that they are unlikely to be connected to established interest networks in Xinhua and will theoretically be more loyal to their political patron Xi. 

Larry Ong is a senior analyst with New York-based political risk consultancy SinoInsider. He was part of the SinoInsider team that forecasted the 19th Party Congress and 2018 Two Sessions personnel reshuffles with a high degree of accuracy.