China’s Deepening Media Mystery

For twelve years now, I have observed China’s shifting media landscape, and I must say these are times of true puzzlement and mystery. The crystal ball has clouded.

Last month, I sat down with a former journalist now teaching at a prominent Chinese university and asked what sense they could make of President Xi Jinping’s apparent attachment to outmoded leftist jargon. Accepting the strategic importance the Party has always attached to public opinion controls, and postulating a frenzy of fresh concern over a stumbling economy and rising social unrest, I could understand the tightening of restrictions on in-depth and investigative reporting, for example, or the silencing of online opinion leaders. But why, I wanted to know, had these arguably practical measures been combined with fanatical language like “public opinion struggle”?

“I don’t know,” said the professor. “Everyone is puzzled by this.”

The sense of puzzlement over the media landscape in China deepens today with the drama surrounding the posting Tuesday afternoon on Jiemian — a relatively new online media platform launched by Shanghai United Media Group, China’s largest newspaper group — of an article directly acknowledging the controversy over the Panama Papers and what they purport to reveal about offshore holdings of China’s political elite, including family members of Xi Jinping.

The article, “Overseas Blog: Has Xi Jinping Properly Kept His Relatives in Check?” ran on Jiemian accompanied by a prominent image of Xi Jinping’s wife, celebrity performing artist Peng Liyuan. The article was removed in less than 12 hours, yielding a “404” notice, but discussion of the incident is still reverberating on Chinese social media today.

A version of the Jiemian article briefly cross-posted to QQ News has also now disappeared.

Despite its seemingly confrontational headline, the Jiemian article is an attempt — or so it seems — to minimise the importance of the revelations in the Panama Papers. While it directly addresses the documents in the context of Xi’s remarks on anti-corruption, the piece suggests that members of Xi Jinping’s family have, since he came to power, “cleansed themselves and retreated from the business world.”

“Right now,” the article concludes, “to reproach General Secretary Xi over the Panama Papers is completely without reason.”

In fact, the blog post from which the Jiemian piece originates first appeared on April 7 in the “Tianxia Forum” section of CReaders.NET, a Chinese-language news and bulletin-board platform founded in 1998 and headquartered in Vancouver.

How did this matter unfold? It is certainly extraordinary to see an article like this one, directly naming Xi Jinping in association with the Panama Papers, when Chinese media have been instructed explicitly to avoid the issue.

Was this an attempt from certain quarters to leap to the defence of Xi Jinping and his brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui, who has been linked to offshore accounts? Could it perhaps have been a test, as Beijing seeks a way to downplay the revelations, which also have touched Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli? 

Or was it, as Hong Kong 01 has suggested, possibly even an attempt, disguised as a defence, to make an offensive play against senior Party leaders?

Almost two months after Xi Jinping struck a severe note by saying all media must be “surnamed Party,” falling in line with the core leadership — are we seeing signs of fragmentation?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated David Bandurski’s story.