The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is "re-educating" its already tightly controlled state media, requiring hundreds of thousands of journalists to sit an exam on the political thought of general secretary Xi Jinping to qualify for a new generation of official press cards.
More than 200,000 Chinese media workers have passed the exam since the start of this year, while journalists were exhorted at the end of a Nov. 8 Journalists' Day state TV special to "unite more closely around the CCP Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core!"
The State Administration of Press and Publications (SAPP) published figures on Oct. 30 showing that more than 205,000 people -- a record annual number -- had been issued with a new generation of official press cards, which can only be given to those who have passed the Xi Jinping Thought exam.
Cheng Yizhong, who helped found the Southern Metropolis Daily and Beijing News at a time when cutting-edge journalism was still possible in China, said the red and gold cards, embossed with China's national emblem, are a symbol of total state control over the media.
"[The Chinese government] is confident that it has achieved complete control over information and over journalists," Cheng told RFA in a recent interview. "It's much easier to control the media if you have a press card."
Cheng said he had previously worked for several decades in the Chinese media without ever needing a government-issued press card, or taking any classes in Marxism for journalists.
"I refused to study that stuff, and absolutely would never have taken an exam in it, because it was utterly ridiculous," he said.
Under the new rules issued by the SAPP, press cards are issued with a one-year probation period, and expire after five years.
Only employees of organizations on a government media whitelist may apply, and only by annual quota.
A state media worker who gave only the nickname Xiao Li said he had recently taken the exam, and found much of it to be in stark contrast with what he learned during his time at journalism school in the United States.
"The entire training and examination system is part of the CCP propaganda machine," he said. "We are to know that the news media is there to work for the party, not the public."
Many leave the industry
A former journalist surnamed Wu said he had taken the exam back in 2014, before the new training and certification system was put in place.
"It has changed from being more about Marxism for journalists to being all about Xi Jinping Thought," Wu said.
One question in the test asks "What is the first priority when it comes to news and public opinion work?" The correct answer is "The leadership of the CCP."
Another asks for Xi's policy for the news media, with the expected answer: "Unity, stability, and positive propaganda."
A third asks what the internet is for. The correct answer is "a new space in which the party can build consensus."
"Nowadays, a lot of state media don't even have real reporters any more," Xiao Li said. "They just keep the editorial department to process and publish news copy syndicated from the [whitelisted] media."
"The production of news has become centralized and unified, and everything else is just republishing, with different packaging," he said.
Wu said many of his former colleagues had long since left the industry.
"Journalism doesn't mean anything any more," he said.
'A tool wielded by those in power'
Su Qiaoning, who teaches in the Department of Journalism at the University of Oakland in the United States, said that the biggest difference between this Chinese-style journalism concept and the West lies in the relationship between journalists and those in power.
"In a truly democratic society, journalism is seen as standing on the opposite side of those in power, with a critical and supervisory function," Su said. "Once [the media] becomes a tool wielded by those in power, it loses the whole point of its existence."
The process started with a 2014 requirement for journalists to study Marxism, and followed up by Xi in 2016, when he warned during visits to state media organizations that state media are part of the CCP family.
All media operating in China must safeguard the authority of the Communist Party central committee, and adhere to "the correct direction" in forming public opinion, Xi said at the time.
State-sponsored "investigative journalists" are now required to be fully paid-up party members in good standing, ahead of any professional considerations, and genuine investigative journalism -- already a risky profession even a decade ago -- has now disappeared entirely, industry insiders have told RFA.
Many journalists trace the rot back to January 2013, when an op-ed article in the formerly cutting-edge Southern Weekend newspaper was forcibly expunged before publication, transforming a call for constitutional government and freedom of expression into a paean to the ruling party, and sparking a journalists' strike and days of street protests.
Tuo Zhen, the propagandist who penned the replacement editorial, was recently promoted to editor-in-chief of CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily.
China now ranks bottom in the world in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and had the largest number of journalists behind bars, according to a 2020 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
"I still hope that China can move towards freedom of the press and freedom of speech," Cheng said. "Journalists should at the very least not be penalized for refusing to brainwash their readers or to propagate fake news."
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.