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Plenum Document Highlights Broad Role for Social Management

November 9, 2011

(China Brief 10/28/11)

From October 15 to 18, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convened the 6th Plenum of the 17th Central Committee to address China's evolving cultural milieu. On October 25, the CCP released the resolution entitled "CCP Central Committee on Deepening Reform of the Cultural System: Resolution to Address a Number of Challenges to Promote the Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture" (Xinhua, October 25). With the succession battle heating up for the 18th Party Congress next year, some observers saw the focus on culture as a way to avoid political horse trading over personnel. The emphasis on the CCP's role as guiding Chinese socialist and traditional culture, however, suggests a clear endorsement of the guidance work of several Politburo members and highlights the need for observers to evaluate the rising leaders in the propaganda and political-legal systems ("Jockeying for Position Intensifies among Candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee," China Brief, October 28; Wall Street Journal, October 24; Los Angeles Times, October 18).

Divided into nine sections, the plenum resolution shows the CCP's awareness that it faces an environmental shift in the nature of Chinese governance—including an international influence—and the party's determination to control those changes while retaining power (People's Daily, October 19). Within the overall context of the scientific development concept and socialism with Chinese characteristics, the different sections addressed the development of socialist culture and its value system; the strengthening of cultural industries, such as film and art; and the integration of so-called "social management" tools to guide society and encourage a healthy cultural milieu (Xinhua, October 25).
The resolution explicitly highlighted the importance of modernizing the propaganda apparatus to compete internationally as well as domestically, where the speed of Internet users in transmitting data has undermined the CCP's ability to be in front of breaking news. To do this, the CCP needs to build coordination mechanisms and complementary coverage across newspapers, journals, television, online and other media outlets, capable of responding quickly and flexibly depending on the tone of public discourse. The document states, "proper public opinion guidance is a blessing for the [CCP] and the people; mistaken public opinion guidance is a disaster for the [CCP] and the people" (Xinhua, October 25). Internationally, Beijing ostensibly is worried about a perceived U.S. public opinion strategy to guide against international opinion against its adversaries, which includes China. A more aggressive and competent Chinese-sponsored propaganda effort is needed to counter this U.S. threat (Red Flag, June 28).

Western observers already have singled out microblogs as a principal target for CCP crackdowns; however, the resolution provides official sanction for a broad spectrum of long-expressed concerns and already extant programs targeting social media (Bloomberg, October 26; Reuters, October 26; The Guardian [UK], October 26). For example, while microblogs, such as Sina Weibo, have received on-and-off attention, following the Wenzhou high-speed train accident in July, official Chinese press coverage of microblogs and their relationship to social stability and "healthy Internet culture" ballooned in August (Xinhua, August 25; Red Flag, August 24). Chinese netizens also have noted increasingly sophisticated censorship techniques—including allowing users to view their own posted messages that are not visible to anyone else—where government and so-called “50 Cent” posters cannot keep discussion within acceptable boundaries.

In addition to shaping the Chinese culture, the resolution also calls for moral responsibility at all levels of society under CCP leadership. This piggybacks a discussion  filling the Chinese press and public discourse over the state of public morality in China—most recently, the death of a young girl, Yueyue, who passersby refused to help after a van hit her, leaving her lying in the street bleeding. The resolution noted the CCP imperative to "strengthen public morality, professional ethics, family values and personal moral education" (Xinhua, October 25). One initiative already announced is television programming to teach moral behavior to replace some entertainment programs next year (South China Morning Post, October 26).

The principal beneficiaries of the 6th Plenum are the Politburo members most involved in the various forms of social management. Long-time Propaganda Department Director Liu Yunshan has overseen the dramatic rejuvenation of CCP propaganda from a failing policy of control to a guiding policy that aims to shape public discourse actively [1]. Another likely beneficiary is State Councilor and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu, who has overseen the Ministry of Public Security's shift toward intelligence-led policing, consolidation of public security informatization and, most recently, the nationwide launch of public security microblogging ("Public Security Officially Joins the Blogosphere," China Brief, September 30; "China's Adaptive Approach to the Information Counter-Revolution," China Brief, June 3). Both Liu and Meng probably will rise to the Politburo Standing Committee, replacing Li Changchun and Zhou Yongkang, respectively.

It can be concluded from the 6th Plenum that under one rubric, the CCP has blessed authoritatively a variety of programs to improve Beijing's control over an increasingly restless society. Indeed, more than a year ago, Hu Jintao issued a work report—now canonized—on the importance of reforming China’s cultural system as a component of social management and international power (China News Service, July 23, 2010). Looking to future personnel decisions, watching the political gravitas and reputation of who gets placed into social management positions, broadly defined, should provide insight into how the CCP will tackle the shifts in the political and social environment.

1. Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

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