The Party Commands the Net
Throughout the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the use of propaganda has been a critical enabler of its capability to bolster legitimacy and reinforce social control. Even as the efficacy of such propaganda has seemingly diminished, the inherent, almost reflexive, tendency to turn towards ideology to attempt to mobilize popular support has reemerged as a major feature of Xi Jinping’s tenure. In particular, with the advent of the Internet in China, CCP leaders have faced new, unprecedented challenges, which were initially anticipated to undermine its control. However, the CCP has demonstrated its capacity to adapt to this new domain, asserting its authority to guide the development of Chinese cyberspace, while seeking to establish (and attempting to propagate internationally the concept of) uncontested “cyber sovereignty” (网络主权).
In the Party’s quest to “nail Jello to the wall,” the Cyberspace Administration of China (中国网信办, CAC) has emerged as a critical enabler of the CCP’s agenda. Established in 2014, the CAC serves as the Office of the Central Leading Small Group for Cyber Security and Informatization (中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室), which is directly under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself. Although typically characterized in terms of its role in cyber security, the CAC is deeply linked to the Party’s propaganda system, and its priorities in this regard have been evident from the backgrounds of its first two leaders, Lu Wei (鲁炜), who has served as deputy head of the Central Propaganda Department, as well as his successor Xu Lin (徐麟), in the propaganda system. Unsurprisingly, a number of the CAC’s efforts have been clearly targeted towards ensuring that the Party monopolizes control over information, from disciplining online news outlets for original reporting and “harmful information” criticized as “distorting Party and national history” to enforcing regulations for real-name registration in an attempt to eliminate anonymity online. The CAC has also reiterated that, under Chinese law, the dissemination of information that “disrupts social order or destroys social stability” is forbidden.
The CAC’s emergence and prominence has reflected the high-level importance that CCP leaders attach to cyber, and particularly information, security, best articulated in Xi Jinping’s oft-quoted statement, “without cyber security there is no national security.” Inherent in such statements is a focus on control over content and the recognition that information is a weapon that the CCP seeks to wield, lest it be turned against the Party. Indeed, the CAC’s “Internet management” is undertaken in order to counter the “public opinion infiltration” and adverse influence of “hostile foreign forces” and to reinforce “political security.” As the CAC Theoretical Studies Center Group gravely declared in a Qiushi article last fall, “If our Party cannot traverse the hurdle represented by the Internet, it cannot traverse the hurdle of remaining in power for the long term” (我们党过不了互联网这一关，就过不了长期执政这一关).
Beyond simply exerting control, the CCP’s strategy to traverse this hurdle has included a range of measures to ensure that its voice and message are able to seize narrative dominance control (话语权) online. In practice, the CCP has not only engaged in sophisticated censorship but also pursued “strategic distraction” through fabricating an estimated 448 million social media comments each year. As a natural extension of this approach, the CAC has also sought to interject its own voice into online debates. As David Gitter and Leah Fang revealed in a recent study, the CCP has a long history with and continues to rely upon the use of homophonous pen names as pseudonyms that attempt to assert the Party line without being so recognized as readily as propaganda. Notably, this study identified the CAC’s own pen name as “Guo Ping” (国平), standing for Cyberspace Administration of China Commentary (国家网信办评论), first introduced in April 2014.
Guo Ping’s articles, which reflect the work of a CAC writing team, are intended to “voice opinions without delay on major events, important matters, and sensitive matters” with the objective of “effectively guiding Internet public opinion.” In particular, Guo Ping is often able to respond within just a few hours, commenting on a wide range of topics, and reportedly consults directly with a senior official close to the “core information source” (核心信源) in the process. Although there are no clear indications of who such a figure or individuals might be, it is possible that someone like Wang Huning (王沪宁), who has been characterized as the “brain behind Xi Jinping” and emerged as a major voice on cyber issues, could be involved. Elevated as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress, Wang Huning has been involved in the Central Leading Small Group for Cyber Security and Informatization since its establishment. According to a CAC analysis, “Guo Ping” has been impactful due to its authority and quickness, as well as its use of vernacular language to enhance the readability and credibility of its articles. The CAC’s involvement in the use of Guo Ping to promote CCP views is yet another indication that cyber security and propaganda are almost inextricable within the Party-State apparatus.
Looking back on a few of Guo Ping’s many recent commentaries, there is a clear focus on themes that correspond with major priorities that have emerged under Xi Jinping. For instance, in early 2017, after a Xi Jinping speech that called for the media to be “surnamed Party,” Guo Ping repeated key themes, emphasizing the importance of using the Internet to keep “positive energy” in cyberspace, while leveraging the Internet to ‘tell the world a good story about China’ in order to reshape its international image. In the spring of 2017, Guo Ping highlighted the release of China’s National Informatization Development Strategy (国家信息化发展战略纲要), which was characterized as an insightful long-term plan to seize upon the opportunities associated with informatization in order to “win” the advantage, security, and the future, while enabling China’s emergence as a “cyber superpower” (网络强国). As the CCP continues to enhance and optimize its capability to exercise uncontested control in cyberspace, the CAC’s dual responsibility for ensuring both technological and ideological control will remain a key center of gravity for the Party-State.