Internal Reference Materials in China

For someone who has any familiarity with the official Chinese media -- especially the Xinhua news agency -- the impression must be that if Chinese government officials have to rely on these media (or propaganda mouthpieces) as the principal sources of information, then that country must be in 'heap big trouble.'  But the fact is that the Chinese government officials do rely strongly on Xinhua to inform them.  You say, Holy cow!  However, they rely not on the public version of Xinhua; instead, there are various internal Xinhua reports known as Internal Reference Materials (内部参考资料) that are circulated within officialdom.  Internal reference materials are classified as national secrets and so no one can talk about them openly.

The following is a translation of a long article in Phoenix Weekly (via Xici) about these internal reference materials.

In this context, it may be easier to understand The Chen Xiwen Interviews in which the following appeared:

In the book "The Chinese Peasant Study" published last year, there were reports about how the peasants were exploited by local governments in many ways.  This book had received attention outside of China.  Chen Xiwen acknowledged frankly that what the book says is "actually true" and he even admitted that the problems in reality are "far more than these."  Chen had even purchased a few copies of the book to give to other people.

"The facts are right, but they are not the complete facts.  If they were, this government would have been finished a long time ago."  Chen Xiwen was obviously very knowledgeable about the details in the book, but he does not believe that the problems reported by this couple give the complete picture: "They claimed to have investigated in the field over three years and they went to more than 50 counties.  From that experience, they were able to report a few case studies."  Chen reminded the reporter that there are 680,000 administrative villages and more than 3 million 'natural' villages, and so it is necessary to "look at the relative ratio."

What is Chen Xiwen's knowledge base to make such a confident assertion?  It surely included the Internal Reference Materials.  The Phoenix Weekly article mentioned briefly:

As illustration, the reform on tax collection was first introduced in Anhui peasant villages and then all agricultural taxes were abolished in the rest of the country.  This had plenty to do with the many internal reference reports on violent tax collections in Anhui, often resulting in deaths.  But because the internal reference reports and the leaders' directives were not published openly, the fact that the problems were solved did not achieve the sensationalistic level of the Sun Zhigang case in the public's mind.

The Phoenix Weekly article goes on to quote people who say that keeping the internal reference materials secret is detrimental to development.  The under-explored issue is that Xinhua actually enjoys a tremendous amount of influence upon problem-solving and policies in China since it is the surest and quickest channel to reach the leadership and get things done.

Is the notion of secret internal reports so abhorrent?  You can bet that the US State Department people in their foreign desks do not rely on reading just China Daily, Taiwan Times and South China Morning Post.  If they do so, they must be living in a very strange world alienated from local realities.  You can bet that local staff members of American embassies must be preparing internal reference materials too.

Revealing the Secrets of Internal Reference (内参)

The official mainland Chinese news media organizations have the important task of preparing news information for the various levels of the Chinese leadership.  These kinds of news reports are known as internal reference materials, and much of it is classified as national secrets of various classes that are available only to officials at certain levels for consultation during their decision-making processes.

Ordinary people do not get to read the internal reference materials.  If such information is leaked to overseas media, this may be a criminal act punishable by imprisonment.  Lower-level officials who read internal reference materials that are permitted only for their superiors would also be guilty of accessing secrets.

Recently, reporters from Phoenix Weekly interviewed many former and current official media persons in order to understand what the internal reference materials are about.

At this time, the major sources of information in the internal reference materials for the central government and the State Council are Xinhua, People's Daily and CCTV.  Of these, the national news agency Xinhua is the largest in terms of influence, quantity and completeness.

Within Xinhua's China department, the number two editorial room is responsible for compiling the internal reference reports.  The materials come from reporters and editors inside China, with the editors also screening information from overseas reports and news sources.

According to a veteran reporter who had worked on internal reference materials, the main purpose is to report on important political trends, negative news, controversial topics, unforeseen incidents, major technological breakthroughs, general public opinions and other sensitive subjects.  The official propaganda department holds that such materials are not suitable for public consumption, but nevertheless must be disclosed to the central government.

From the most current news analyses, the internal reference materials might cover these topics: the reaction to the visit by KMT chairman Lian Chen, the replacement of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, the causes and effects of civil unrests, the causes and true facts of the mine distasters, the practical effects of the number one document from the central government on assisting peasants, the lessons from the Yu Changlin and Nie Xubin cases and so on.  These type of internal reference materials emphasize the analysis of the nature of the problem as well as the prediction of the eventual outcomes.

The intranational internal refererence materials report on the major achievements, the major experiences and experiments.  For example, about a certain unit conducted the education necessary to preserve the progressiveness of Communist Party members, about how a cadre in Tibet looked after the people, etc.  If these positive reports are approved by the central government leaders, they will quickly reach the public and be amplified in the official media.

The international internal reference materials cover major international events, major diplomatic moves, foreign politicians and the foreign media's treatment and assessment of China.  For example, how the oppostion in Kyrgyzstan seized power and its impact on China.

The veteran reporter also said that the internal reference materials select news items based upon an inexact poltiical standard without a rigid framework.  The political considerations are based upon either the direction from the central government members or documents, and also upon the assessment by the news media leadership.  "Generally speaking, they include all those issues that insult or damage the party and which are inappropriate for public reporting."

The veteran reporter also explained that the reporters at Xinhua and People's Daily are trained to recognize which news items can be released publicly and which are consigned to internal references.  "I cannot tell you clearly what the requirements for internal reference materials are.  But when I come across any specific item, I know what to do."

The truthfulness, sensitivity and depth of the internal reference materials are much more than see in the public reports.  They form the basis for decision-making by provincial or more senior leaders.  In fact, some officials do not read the public media and depend mainly on the internal reference materials instead.  Many Xinhua reporters tell their peers, "The central government leaders and the provincial leaders go to work and the first thing that they do is to read the Xinhua internal reference materials."  Many officials who visited Xinhua on inspection confirmed the above assertion.

According to our understanding, when many senior leaders go to their offices, the first thing they do is to read the Xinhua internal reference materials edited by their secretaries, and then they will enter annotations or directives in the white space on the pages.  The annotated pages are then photocopied and forwarded to the central government office, the State Council office and other organizations, which would send them down to the provincial leaders.  In turn, the provincial leaders would add their own annotations or directives and then either solve the problems themselves or else they would make photocopies of the annotated pages and send them to their subordinates until the problems are solved (or else they must come up with an answer that satisifies their own superiors).

Knowing about this process, many base-level officials are inclined to believe that Xinhua reporters have the ability to reach the top echelon, and therefore they both pamper and avoid the reporters.  If the base-level officials knew that a reporter intends to write a criticial report, then they would try to bribe them or harass them, or even threaten them.  In the Shanxi Fanzhi mining disaster, many Xinhua reporters were paid off by the local county party leaders (note: those reporters were later dismissed by Xinhua).  But many more Xinhua reporters in the quest for truth and justice have been threatened and followed by evildoers or harassed and slandered by corrupt officials.

According to several former Xinhua reporters, the Xinhua agency releases a number of different internal reference materials each day.  The highest level is the <<List of National Developments: Attachments>> for the central government politburo members on the important and urgent events (such as the Lhasa riot and the Changjiang floods).

The next level is the <<List of National Developments>> and the international <<List of Reference Materials>> for provincial or more senior leaders, mainly reflecting major developments, sensitive problems and important recommendations.  All the above are printed on one side of the page, 1 to 4 pages in length..

Other than that, Xinhua also publishes an <<Internal Reference Materials>> to the municipal-level and department-level leaders.  This is issued twice a week, 40 to 50 pages per issue and the sensitivity of the problems inside are much weaker than the <<List of National Developments>>,

The lowest class is <<Internal Reference Selections>>, which are excerpts from the less sensitive reports from <<Internal Reference Materials>>.  This is released once a week, 30 to 40 pages per issue, and reaches county groups, town mayors and brigade cadres.  The contents are plain and are not much different from public media.

The <<Internal Reference Materials>> and <<Internal Reference Selections>> are important revenue sources for Xinhua.  The various party and government organizations subscribe to them.  The subscription base is huge and the price is high.  Many Xinhua branch offices also publish provincial-level internal references, and may make tens of millions of yuan in profit each year.

Most mainland Chinese media are led by Communist Party members, and they are regarded as the "eyes, ears and mouthpieces" of the party.  As mouthpieces, they will propagandize the voices of the party and the government; as eyes and ears, they will collect information for the party and the government.  The mouthpiece function appears in the form of public media reports; the eyes-and-ears function appears in the internal reference reports.

Since the internal reference materials can reach the central leadership in the quickest possible way and they are often annotated with directives by the central leaders, this is the quickest way of solving problems under the present system.

According to a former Xinhua reporter, the number of problems that were solved through internal references exceeds the number of problems that were solved according to the public media by far.  He said, "This is what the official media is most proud about.  With these types of internal reference reports, many media no longer mind the undistinguished nature of public media reports."

As illustration, the reform on tax collection was first introduced in Anhui peasant villages and then all agricultural taxes were abolished in the rest of the country.  This had plenty to do with the many internal reference reports on violent tax collections in Anhui, often resulting in deaths.  But because the internal reference reports and the leaders' directives were not published openly, the fact that the problems were solved did not achieve the sensationalistic level of the Sun Zhigang case in the public's mind.

This former Xinhua reporter also said that as the eyes-and-ears of the central government, Xinhua also has the function of acting as the monitor of local party committees and governments.

In recent years, local officials have often resorted to concealing the truth from the central government either to show off their accomplishments or to support local protectionism.  So they will report only the good news but never the bad news; or they may even fake results.  According to political scholar Yu Keping, this phenomenon was caused by the fact that certain systems in China do not follow the principles of political science.  Specifically, the directives from the top to the bottom, and the feedback from the bottom to the top do not go through the same channel.

The Xinhua agency is managed by the central government and not as tightly knitted with the local party committees and governments.  The network of Xinhua reporters covers the entire country, and is practically the most effective channel for public opinion and information feedback not controlled by the local governments.  Thus, Xinhua can reflect the truth more objectively and neutrally.  As a result, the Xinhua internal reference materials are often in conflict with the reports from the local party committees and governments.

For this reason, certain local governments will offer subsidies or spaces to local Xinhua branches to foster good relationships.  A small number of media and reporters also use internal reference materials to help local bosses fight the government or obtain project in return for payoffs, advertisements and sponsorship.  This sometimes caused the internal references to malfunction as "eyes-and-ears".

Since the internal reference materials are national secrets, they must be treated in accordance with the Secrecy Act after release.  They cannot be released to the public without appropriate authorization.  Even if the reporter needs to read his own article, he/she will need to have authorization and no photo-copies can be made.

A former veteran official media reporters said: "The reporter wrote the internal reference article.  But after publication, the reporter does not have the authority to reveal it.  Revelation equals leaking secrets.  It does not matter if you only repeat it orally, because it is still leaking secrets.  These perils restrict the reporters from disclosing the contents in the internal references.  Since the internal reference is the most effective information channel, this has effectively controlled the news channels.  When publishable news are upgraded as secrets and placed under self-regulation, public discourse becomes effectively controlled by the officials."

The collection of information and the technology of dissemination have now evolved, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the internal reference materials secret.  In the past when reports are written by hand, the reporters had to submit the raw handwritten copy for the internal references.  Today, everybody writes reports on computers and the reporters keep their own copies.  Thus, many people re-write their reports and then get them published openly for fees.  Under these circumstances, the reporters must take the political risk.

According to the above veteran reporter: "According to Chinese law, anyone who receives anything labeled secret, classified secret or top secret without permission can be punished according to the strict interpretation.  But in many situations, government departments do not want to investigate the public revelation of internal reference materials when there were no ill effects."

In recent years, the Internet often break the news on mining accidents, and that makes it difficult for the officials to block the news.  This has removed some of the mystique about the internal reference materials.  But if a reporter should write an internal reference report based upon Internet reports and then release that report, he/she can still be found guilty of leaking secrets.

According to former veteran official media reporter, the information supply through the internal references to the leaders and their ultimate resolution all occur secretly.  If the results are publicly disclosed, it would help similar problems to be solved and even lead to the formulation of a new policy.  If the results are kept secret, this only solves the one problem and would not form any social opinion pressure.  The reasons that the results are not publicly disclosed are usually because the problems are not solved in spite of the leaders' directives or else the leaders gave no directives.  In truth, these two situations are quite common.

He said: "Internal reference materials can be be used to solve actual problems, but they do not promote monitoring by public opinion.  To promote monitoring by public opinon, it is necessary to eliminate the internal reference system and show everything under the sun so that public discourse and the law can solve the hard problems, instead of depending on the wisdom and conscience of the leaders."

According to Chinese Youth Political Academy Professor Zhan Jiang: "Internal Reference Materials is an information vehicle for a small privileged class.  They are like the official reports in ancient times, and they are not proper news in contemporary society.  As a communication media for government/party organizations under a class society, internal reference materials are only suitable for an agrarian society or in a time of war."

According to People's University School of Journalism Professor Yu Guoming, internal reference should be open in the future.  But if such information were to be released to the public without restriction, it may cause many social conflicts and lead to drastic changes in the balance of social interests.  Society will have to decide where the point of compromise is between the two sides of the argument to maximize benefits and minimizes losses.

Yu said: "Eliminating Internal Reference is not tolerable under the present political system."