China’s Xi Inherits New Approaches to Changing Media Landscape

China’s Xi Inherits New Approaches to Changing Media Landscape

The Chinese Communist Party’s ability to manage public opinion is second only to the strength of economic development in determining the survival of the regime. As China officially unveils its next generation of leaders, the experience of the past decade shows a party-state struggling to adapt to a fast-changing media landscape.

Throughout the reform era, the CCP has promoted the media's role of guiding public opinion in both theory and practice. The speeches of China's top officials concerning the media emphasized its role in providing “guidance.” Meanwhile, the party-state increased the status and responsibility of the Central Propaganda Department (CPD). Starting in 1982, in addition to its censorship capacity, the CPD gained the authority to appoint and dismiss senior personnel in the media. With the help of the CPD, former President Jiang Zemin was able to successfully redirect public opinion after the devastating Tiananmen Square incident threatened the party’s legitimacy. When his successor, Hu Jintao, came into power in 2003 after a decade of economic growth, he inherited not only the institutional capacity to manage the media, but also a largely favorable public opinion.

Yet Hu's rule was plagued by crises that challenged his capacity to manage public opinion. They included major disasters, such as the SARS epidemic and Sichuan earthquake, scandals over tainted milk and corruption, and increasing protests over environmental degradation. As a result, Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made the achievement of a “harmonious society” the watchword of their administration, and the government’s approach to the media was adjusted accordingly.

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