What is the Marxist vision of journalism?

It seems I am reminded daily that I am very lucky to live in a democracy. I may not agree with my Government – but I have the right to tell them I don’t. I may not agree with what’s written in a newspaper – but I have the right to tell the world I don’t. I may not support the status quo in terms of what is happening in my community – but I have the right to speak to my neighbours and demand better and demand change.

Those basic rights to challenge the orthodoxy, to challenge my political leaders, to challenge authority is a blessing and one that I value every day, especially when I am exposed to what happens to people who by dint of birth just aren’t afforded the same rights as me.

This week, yet again, we’ve read reports of events in China. Not only has the CCP continued their persecution of political dissidents by taking in Nathan Law’s family for questioning but they’ve also rolled out a new tool for ‘training’ journalists. The new smartphone training programme from the All China Journalists Association seeks to train aspirant and current journalists in the ‘Marxist vision of journalism’. I honestly have no idea as to what that could possibly entail as I’m not sure that the Communist Manifesto issued ideological guidance for the execution of occupational journalism.

However, what we do know is that no good will come from a CCP-sanctioned training programme designed to brainwash aspiring journalists, who live under a despotic regime, into writing acceptable forms of ‘journalism’. To compound the propaganda element of the training programme – journalists will be forced to undertake the programme before they take an exam to test their loyalty to Xi Jingping and if you don’t pass you don’t get to be a journalist.

This isn’t journalism in any way that those of us who live in a freer society would recognise. It’s an effort to ensure the ongoing practice of national propaganda under the pretence of ‘journalism’. It’s the ultimate effort to ensure that no one can speak truth to power and that only one dominant narrative – that of the CCP – is heard. There will be no challenge to the status quo. There will be no free media. There will be no dissent.

The question for global media outlets then becomes how on earth do you cover events in China if journalists on the ground are actually propaganda agents and it’s increasingly difficult for foreign news journalists to operate freely. We covered this earlier this year. But as some dictators become even more fearful of their own people – this is a question which is increasingly going to dominate newsrooms around the world.

China’s tradition of inventive protest is in full swing

Acts of civil disobedience in the recent protests in China have been, unsurprisingly, swiftly suppressed by police. Even before this happened, protesters encoded their message through hidden symbols – tapping into a history of creative protest in China – in order to evade persecution and silencing. Here’s how citizens are currently saying no to being controlled, often by saying nothing at all.

The blank piece of paper has become the most widely recognised symbol of the protests. Many say it first emerged in Hong Kong in 2020, though the use of blank paper in China to highlight censorship stretches far back. Today it is a powerful sign of the government’s limits on free expression that avoids the language associated with protest being censored online. Taking the paper protest one step further, a video of a woman carrying the blank paper while walking through the street with chains around her wrists and duct tape covering her mouth went viral on Twitter.

Sadly online posts about blank pieces of paper are now disappearing on social media.

Other messages with more complex, hidden meanings began to emerge. Students at Tsinghua University in Beijing were pictured holding pieces of paper with the Friedmann equation written on them, a formula that outlines the expansion of the universe and whether it is open (expands forever) or closed (eventually reverses and everything goes back into a Big Crunch). Some have suggested the message is a play on the phrase “free man” while Twitter nerds have said it is more likely an analogy about whether Chinese society is open or closed.

Another protester held up paper with the sign that appears on WeChat – China’s instant messaging and social media app – when a message cannot be delivered, implying that their voices are unheard.

Some demonstrators made a powerful statement against control by doing exactly as they were told. One group chanted sarcastically in support of Xi’s policies, shouting “I want to do a Covid test” and calling for “more lockdowns”.

On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered on the banks of a river in Beijing and sang the national anthem. The song tells the story of China’s fight against foreign invaders and was chosen by the current regime as their Communist anthem. However, the lyrics “rise up!” and “march on!” have a revolutionary message that seemingly reflects the protesters’ ardour in their fight for freedom.

While Twitter is banned in China, many people have been circumventing blocks and posting to the international community using VPNs. As online censorship intensifies in response to the protests, users have employed creative methods to circumvent government technology such as applying filters and taking videos of other videos. The sheer number of posts going out online has also overwhelmed AI censorship by China’s Great Firewall and made it difficult for them to be taken down.

One woman even walked three alpacas down a road in Xinjiang, a reference to a meme that was created in 2009 in response to China’s growing internet censorship. Known as “the grass mud horse”, or cào nǐ mā, the creature – which is similar in appearance to an alpaca – is a homonym for the insult “fuck your mother”.

These individuals have taken great risks with their protests in Xi’s China but social media users have been demonstrating their solidarity with the protesters by posting repeated one word “Moments” on WeChat such as “support support support” and “okay okay okay”.

And Winnie the Pooh, a favourite internet meme in China if people want to dig at Xi, made a fleeting appearance. In this instance looking confusingly at a blank sheet of paper.

Isolated acts of protest over recent months have suggested that the Chinese people are weary of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy. In October, anti-zero-Covid slogans began to appear on the walls of public bathrooms and in various Chinese cities. Days before President Xi cemented his third term in power, a lone protester hung banners on an overpass in Beijing. They called for an end to zero Covid and Xi’s presidency. The protests have begun to pick up momentum in the past few days, but the likelihood of a change of president or government remains unlikely.

Public protest, while more common than people might assume, comes with huge risks in China, where the CCP has a stranglehold on dissent and freedom of expression. If people want to be seen and heard, protests must be clever and playful. In some instances this means not actually saying anything at all.

Who is 2022’s Tyrant of the Year?

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.

Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021’s Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .

The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.

Click on those in our rogues’ gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.





Tyrant of the year 2022: Xi Jinping, China

Xi Jinping has excelled with his tyrant credentials this year. Earlier this year, a controversial United Nations‘ report said that “serious human rights violations” have been committed in Xinjiang while Xi’s government is behind moves to repress Uyghurs living in Europe.

Xi has also now started a third term in power, after a 2018 change to the country’s laws to end the previous two-term limit. Tyrants just love to rip up the rule book when it comes to clinging to power. 

“My nomination for Tyrant of the Year 2022 goes to the man who somehow made us all feel sorry for Hu Jintao when he snubbed the former Chinese Communist Party leader back in October, a remarkable feat given that Hu isn’t exactly an ally when it comes to human rights and free speech,” says Index on Censorship’s editor-in-chief Jemimah Steinfeld. 

Xi’s policies are increasingly being called into question.

“His Zero Covid policy is as barmy as it is draconian. It’s led to the deaths of many who have not been able to get urgent medical treatment, been locked in their apartments when they’ve caught fire, have taken their own lives out of desperation,” says Steinfeld.

The protests against his policy (and indeed his legitimacy) showed a kink in Xi’s armour but he responded in true autocratic style – arrests, arrests and more arrests (plus a raft of other silencing measures). 

“The CCP’s unofficial promise to make people’s lives materially better in exchange for fewer political freedoms has been broken,” says Steinfeld. “Unemployment is high and people are miserable and yet his merciless reign shows no signs of getting easier.”