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Chinese still being told what to think

In the midst of a sensitive political season, China’s machinery of state control is gearing up to make sure that nothing goes astray, including people’s thinking.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Only authorized dramas are allowed on Chinese prime-time television, customs inspectors are seizing books on Mao Zedong at China’s borders and newspapers are prohibited from running stories on the Communist Party’s misdeeds.

In the midst of a sensitive political season, China’s machinery of state control is gearing up to make sure that nothing goes astray, including people’s thinking.

To that end, internal security agents and media censors are clamping down on political dissidents — who are warned to keep a low profile and in some cases kept under house arrest — and making sure that books that cross the party line do not reach the public.

“The party doesn’t believe public opinion is organic or spontaneous. They believe it’s created,” said Zheng Yongnian, an expert on Chinese politics at Britain’s University of Nottingham.

Though security precautions are ratcheted up every year for March’s annual session of the national legislature, this year’s efforts are particularly zealous. President Hu Jintao and others in the leadership are seeking a renewed mandate at a once-every-five-years party meeting later this year and want to shield themselves from criticism.

“They want to plug all the holes they possibly can,” said David Bandurski, a media studies researcher at the University of Hong Kong. “All this falls under auspices of supreme control.”

Maintaining control has gotten more difficult, however. With the increased prosperity that free markets have brought, Chinese are on the move and on the Internet, being exposed to new ideas and becoming more assertive. When an official from the government’s publishing regulator announced a ban on eight books at a closed-door meeting, his remarks were immediately posted on the Web.

Some top-down dos, don'ts
But the overdrive is a reminder that though the Mao suits are gone and Chinese leaders rarely invoke Marx, Beijing routinely reverts to Soviet-style thought control, trying to mold public opinion to guarantee political outcomes.

In January, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television announced that prime-time television programming had to be “ethically inspiring.” Programs had to “reflect the reality of China in a positive way,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.

In addition, the party’s Central Propaganda Department disseminated a list of 20 taboo topics for mainland reporters, Hong Kong media reported last month.

On the list are past bloody political campaigns, such as the radical Cultural Revolution and the crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, as well as controversial current issues like endemic corruption and the lifestyle of China’s new rich, according to the South China Morning Post.

“Anything that exposes corruption or reflects the mistakes the Communist Party has made in history cannot be published,” said Li Datong, former chief editor for a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily who was demoted for publishing an article that disagreed with official versions of history.

“What can be published are stories about achievements, what good things the government has done and how they have won the hearts of the people,” said Li.

In recent weeks, customs officers in Tianjin, the port city for Beijing, have stepped up inspections, seizing books on Mao Zedong — something rarely done in recent years, said an international shipping agent who asked not to be identified because his business depends on government cooperation.

'Harmony of society' is sought
While the notion of creating a consensus in a nation of 1.3 billion people may be alarming abroad, China is unabashed about the need for it. Last week, a headline in the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, read: “Correct guidance of ideology and public opinion is an important factor in the harmony of society.”

Defining a clear direction for news, film, literature and the arts can help people “separate right from wrong and twisted from straight, distinguish between good and evil, virtue and disgrace,” said the commentary.

Such guidelines help keep the country’s more than 70 million party members on message for the party meeting — a difficult task in a large country, said Jin Linbo, a party member since 1984 and a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

“If the thinking is chaotic, it’s hard to hold the meeting,” said Jin.

Newspapers and TV often chafe under the controls, mostly because state propaganda is so staid and more attractive offerings boost advertising revenues.

“It’s like a guerrilla war between the media and the Propaganda Department,” said Zheng. “It’s too early to say who’s winning in this fight for money and for power, but it’s quite interesting to watch.”