Critical Reading In China

In the aftermath of the Freezing Point episode, there has been a rash of overseas Chinese-language reports on the unofficial but powerful group inside the Central Publicity Department (=Central Propaganda Department).  If I were paranoid, I would think that there is a concerted campaign to eliminate this group.  The following is a translated excerpt from Yazhou Zhoukan (dated March 12, 2006) (re-published at ChineseNewsNet):

[in translation]

...Within the structure of the Chinese Communist Party, the critical reading group is an oddity.  By name, it is supposed to belong to the Central Publicity Department.  But most of its members are temporarily assigned retired news officials and they have no real job positions.  Yet, its power far exceeds those of any of the bureaus underneath the Central Publicity Department.  It publishes irregularly scheduled "Critical Reading of News Reporting."  These reports do not go through the formal organizational channels either upwards or downwards.  They can be sent directly to the senior officials of the Communist Party, and they can also go directly to the provincial/city publicity departments and media.  The issue in which Freezing Point was criticized went directly to the China Youth League Central First Secretary Zhou Qiang and the executive secretary, to the China Youth Daily editor-in-chief Li Erliang and the members of the Central Publicity Department Thought Work group members (the director is CCP Politburo standing committee member Li Changchun.).

The members of the Critical Reading Group often visit different places and media to issue "directives."  The team once went altogether to inspect work at CCTV.  The CCTV chief, his deputys and all the individual channel directors attended to them.  Some media tried to please the Critical Reading Group as best as they can, some media may be mad at them but they don't dare speak out and then there are some brave media workers who pounded their desks and called them out.  Freezing Point's chief editor Li Datong wrote in his open letter to China Youth Daily's editor-in-chief: "The personal opinions of the members of the Critical Reading Group have become almost like the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all the media."

Li Datong wrote: "Which central government document or Central Publicity Department document gave the Critical Reading Group such powers?  None!  These are just ordinary workers at the Central Publicity Department.  Their critical reading is just their personal opinions.  What are the qualifications of these people?  What special experience or scholarship elevated their ability of gate keeping high above the very experienced editor-in-chiefs at all the central news organizations, to the point where they have the right to direct the activities and pronounce final judgments that are not subject to dispute?"

The Critical Reading Group of the Central Publicity Department was formed in 1994.  Up to the date of the attack on Freezing Point, the "Critical Reading of News Reporting" (originally named "Trends in News Opinions") has been published 8,136 times.  Eight thousand issues in ten years or so, or about 800 issues per year, or about 2 issues per day.  The Critical Reading Group claims that half of them are "negative critiques."  That is to say, critical readings directed against media happens almost daily.  The best media on mainland China, Southern Weekend, was the subject of many critiques.  In May 2001, Southern Weekend underwent an unprecedented re-organization and all its principal directors and its core were removed from their jobs, and the newspaper lost its fervor to dig out scandals and speak for the people.  This was the result of relentless pressure from the Critical Reading Group over several years.

In June 1998, Southern Weekend had issued an illustrated short article titled: "The Shallowness of Publicity" against the "falsity, exaggeration and emptiness" in old practices on disaster reporting: "To use those victims who have just survived to say, 'The Party and the government saved me, and so socialism is good' is going to make people feel that this is very shallow after a few times."  In the article, the question was that people get saved in both socialist and capitalist countries, but how come the capitalist citizens will not say "Capitalism is better" with tears in their eyes?

On June 17, issue 326 of the "Critical Reading of News Reporting" had an item titled "It is totally erroneous to be sarcastic about 'socialism'" that severely criticized Southern Weekend:

This way of describing and joking about "Socialism is good" is totally wrong and absurd in its direction ... the writing and the illustrations show the tendency of the writer, and the tendency of that writer is obvious.  Our media must resolutely work towards uniting the people's hearts and minds towards building a socialism with Chinese characteristics, and not to disrupt the people and dissolve socialism.

This was just one of the innumerable "Critical Readings" that Southern Weekend received.  Between 1998 and 2001, Southern Weekend was watched closely by the Critical Reading Group, with an average of about 20 "Critical Readings" per year.  In 1999, Lung Yingtai assumed the post of the director of the Ministry of Culture in the city of Taipei.  The newspaper published an short essay titled 'Freedom to Come and Go' about the phenomenon of intellectuals entering politics and expressed some regret about Ms. Lung's decision.  This essay was immediately criticized, with the commentator accusing Southern Weekend of "offering the theoretical basis by which certain intellectuals refuse to join the people's government and prefer to stay outside instead."  Southern Weekend's book review of Paul Johnson's Intellectuals was also criticized because the author used words such as "violence," "power" and "totalitarianism" which were "malicious attacks against us by the malevolent western hostile forces."

In 2000, the Critical Reading Group stepped up its harassment of Southern Weekend.  That year, under strict orders from the Guangdong provincial party committee, Southern Weekend was forced to retrench and published many "positive" or "neutral" stories.  In August and October, the Critical Reading Group changed its method of "treating each report on its own" and conducted two general criticisms of Southern Weekend as a whole for negative news and hyping.  The essay titled "The Story From A Women's Prison" was actually a positive report on "prison reform" but the commentator saw the word "prison" in the title and concluded that it was a negative story.  In a picture that showed how difficult it was to conduct rescue work in a mining accident, there was a red line of light in the middle.  The commentator made the unsupported accusation that "a malicious technical manipulation" had been made to exaggerate the terror.  In a photograph of the celebration of National Day in Beijing, there was a national flag and an old man in a small lane.  The commentator criticized that this was "emotionally dismal."

The "Critical Readings" are full of slanderous, tendentious, speculative and unrestricted materials.  Sometimes, the commentator does not like a certain report but there was no obvious reason.  So the critique may say that "Viewpoint XX is ready to leap out."  Southern Weekend finally had to undergo re-organization in 2001.  Afterwards, this newspaper that was trusted by the Chinese people saw its circulation fell from 1.3 million to less than one-third of that number today.

The Critical Reading Group has around ten members.  Some of them are Maoists whose thinking have been ossified, some are rebels from the Cultural Revolution and some are the hatchetmen after June 4th.  They shamelessly call themselves as "the invisible teacher," "the friend who does not shake hands," "the healthcare nurse," "the forest protector" and "the woodpecker" of the media workers.  But their behavior showed that the Critical Reading Group is the garbage dump for all the bad behaviors of the Cultural Revolution era.  The following is a list of some titles of these Critical Readings:

Critical Reading Group's leader Liu Zaoyu wrote in an essay: "We live in an era with diverse ideas.  The overseas hostile forces have never abandoned their attempt to westernize or divide us.  Ideas are proliferating in China and all sorts of non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist ideologies are fighting with Marxist ideology.  So Marxism must firmly hold onto all the territory for cultural ideas."


In 1999, the Critical Reading Group complained about a report that offered the slogan "To serve the taxpayers" because the majority of the people of China have not reached the level of being "taxpayers" who need to pay personal income tax.  Several days later, the Central Publicity Department took the unusual step of issuing a correction and admitted that the masses were "taxpayers."  The reason was that they were criticized by Premier Zhu Rongji, who was about to step up on tax collections.


The Critical Reading Group also monitored the media with respect to "foreign ranking activities."  In 1999, the Chinese media reported that the US's TIME magazine was choosing the "twenty most intelligent people in the past century."  Because the list of wise people did not include Lenin, Mao Zedong and Lu Xun, the Critical Reading Group issued the "Do not report on foreign ranking reports" report: "The commentator believes that these types of American and European rankings are full of western geographical and class biases.  We usually should not report or re-publish.  Even if we have to report or re-publish, we must articulate our own viewpoint to indicate their absurdity."

The "Critical Readings" also targeted: popular song lyrics, the craze about American hit movies, Valentine's Day reporting, the deaths of Hong Kong and Taiwan singers, UFO reports, astrology and discussion about marriages on radio.  The commentator personally listened to the radio program and took notes about the discussions on marriage and romance, and denounce the use of words such as "lover."

In the March 19, 1997 critique titled "Chinese animated cartoons must be wary of westernization tendencies," it described the viewpoint: "In the animal world of traditional Chinese child lore, there are usually good and bad characters.  For example, cats are heroes while mice are scoundrels.  But with the huge number of imports, we are astonished to find that in these foreign cartoons, the mice have become "smart, cut and lovely" little angels.  Under the influence of foreign imports, our animated cartoons have finally accepted the notion that mice are heroes."  The "Critical Reading" then condemned a Chinese animation film for praising how a mouse bravely saved its brethren and when the humans tried to eradicate the mice, the mice got together to resist the massacre.  The "Critical Reading" wrote: "To characterize the humans as the hated public enemies of the righteous mice ... I wonder what the innocent little children are going to think?  What kind of lesson will they get about life?"


In 2004, the Critical Reading Group held a solemn ceremony for its tenth anniversary.  At the meeting, the Central Publicity Department deputy directors Ji Bingxuan and Li Dongsheng read the "important directives on the critical reading of news reporting" from Li Changchun and Liu Yunsheng.  They said "comrades Li Changchun and Liu Yunsheng affirm and support the work of critical reading of news reports.  They encourage the critical news readers and they have given new directions to improve the critical news reporting work."  Ji emphasized that "it was an innovation to have established the critical news reading system for the management of news in the new eras."

The media management system on mainland China is different from the days when the Kuomingtang rules the mainland or the period of martial law in Taiwan.  The Kuomingtang had a pre-censorship system which seemed to be impressive except it was very porous in practice.  There is no pre-censorship on mainland China, but the management is much more severe.  The basic method is to use the Chinese Communist personnel system to let its appointed media leaders conduct rigorous self-censorship.  At the same time, the "critical reading" system goes through rigorous examination and mete out penalties post facto.  The critical reading group exists not just within the Central Publicity Department, but the various provinces and cities also have them.  This is a very tight monitoring network.

The opinions of the Critical Reading group has direct impact on the media through the central and local party organizations.  When a "critical reading" becomes a senior-level central government directive, the media organization may be completely re-organized (such as the 2001 Southern Weekend incident).  When it initiates a department-level or provincial-level leader directive, the media organization can be shut down or the chief editor removed (as in the case of Freezing Point).

When Ji Bingxuan mentioned the new era, he was referring to the "market economy" period from the 1990's.  During that era, the number of media organizations increased sharply and there was a strong market-driven desire to break away from any control.  When he spoke of the "innovation," it was about the new tactics used by the Chinese Communists to control the media.  The objective of these new tactics is to increase the control on "opinion leadership" in the market environment.  One tactic is to let the unofficial organization known as the Critical Reading Group become its henchmen.  Thus, the western world will not see any systematization of news censorship.  When that group over-reacts, the party leaders can still step in and act as if they are open-minded and tolerant.


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