Mainland China’s propaganda post has no luster for rising stars

Jonathan Ansfield, BEIJING, Reuters

Say you are a promising Chinese leader. How would you feel about taking over a bureau dismissed even by some peers as a Maoist fossil and hated by enterprising state media still bound to its Jekyl and Hyde controls?

Would you like to run the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Department, which, despite an official English name change, is still best known as the “propaganda” bureau in the Western press?

Neither would some of China’s key “fourth generation” apparatchiks.

As top brass gather at the seaside resort of Beidaihe to hash out a leadership reshuffle, analysts say several prominent figures have already shunned the job to replace aging propaganda chief Ding Guangen, who is set to retire later this year.

They include two members of the so-called Shanghai Gang with close ties to its boss, President Jiang Zemin: current education chief Chen Zhili, who could become one of mainland China’s first female Politburo members, and Zhao Qizheng, the progressive head of the Office of Public Information of the State Council, or Cabinet.

Both remain favorites to enter the elite 20-odd member Politburo. Their aversion the party’s propaganda arm is a sign of how far it has fallen behind the times.

Once on the ideological vanguard shaping Marxist-Leninist consciousness, it has become an increasingly reactionary foil to China’s free-wheeling media, minus the manpower, know-how and will to effectively censor or consolidate the industry.

Jiang’s hard-fought public relations battles — to widen his power base, shore up his legacy and discredit the Falun Gong spiritual movement — have left little room for free thought.

Ding, who rose to prominence as Deng Xiaoping’s bridge partner, became Jiang’s hachetman, trawling out the party line even at dinners with foreign movie producers.

No wonder, then, that some see his job as something of a political graveyard.

“Provided there are no new implications, then after Ding Guangen, there will be a new Ding Guangen,” said People’s University journalism professor Yu Guoming. “The system requires that there be such an individual.” Plummeting prestige

Whoever lands the post, it might no longer come with its traditional perk, a place in the Politburo, said a Chinese businessman close to the media bureaucracy.

Party organization department head Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s leading protege, has floated that change for debate the past few years, he said.

“That is a main sticking point for many,” he said. “Who cares about the prestige if you don’t have the power?”

Ding’s long-time top deputy, Liu Yunshan, already a party central committee member, is said to be among the few expressing interest in the job.

Another candidate is Ding’s former deputy, Bai Keming, now the party boss of Hainan province. Bai’s two promotions the last two years included a stint atop the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, now trying to remold itself as a savvy publishing group. Times are changing

Ding’s successor can also expect challenges from regulators in the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the Press and Publications Administration (PPA) who want to see a new system with less power in party hands, he said.

“Their rifts run very deep,” said the businessman.

The publicity department, yet to have a listed company under its control, has stripped the PPA and SARFT of some large state-owned assets in the last two or three years in a consolidation effort aimed in part at streamlining censorship.

“But since the market has become so big, the government’s ability to control it is limited,” said Yu.

Despite tougher checks in the run-up to the sensitive reshuffle later this year, analysts agree the media’s commercial momentum cannot be stopped.

“As you become privatized, you really cannot control too much,” said Cheng Li, a political science professor at Hamilton University in New York. “You only can block BBC for a while, but eventually that doesn’t work.”