Perspectives March 22, 2023
China Commits to Another 5 Years of Xi Jinping’s Information Policies
The annual legislative and consultative sessions indicate that China’s leaders will not waver from their emphasis on control at home and aggressiveness abroad.
On March 13, the Chinese government concluded its “Two Sessions,” the annual plenary meetings of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The proceedings included the NPC’s unanimous appointment of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping to an unprecedented third term as head of state.
Xi’s position at the center of the Chinese political system was on clear display throughout the sessions. Nearly every document and official speech included references to him as the “core” of the party and to his signature contribution to CCP ideology, known colloquially as “Xi Jinping Thought,” as a source of guidance.
As Xi concludes a decade in power and begins his new five-year term, the official gatherings highlight the distinctive ways in which the CCP has adapted to new technologies, centralized party control, and expanded foreign influence efforts under his leadership.
Technological innovation, adaptation, and control
Compared with their predecessors, Xi and his advisers have demonstrated a savvy understanding of media technology and how to harness private firms to advance the party’s goals. In mid-2013, not long after he first took power, Xi gave a speech that launched a crackdown on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform, effectively ending its relatively freewheeling approach to political and social commentary. The lingering impact of that campaign was illustrated this month as Weibo censored search queries referencing the NPC’s 2,952–0 vote to reappoint Xi and manipulated trending topics to elevate the “achievements” of the NPC over Oscar victories for Asian actors and actresses at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
The CCP’s efforts to adapt to emerging technological trends were also evident during the “Two Sessions.” Budget documents and structural reforms explicitly cited the goals of “building our self-reliance and strength in science and technology.” Meanwhile, tech sector representation at the CPPCC session included executives from firms specializing in artificial intelligence and surveillance—like SenseTime, which has faced sanctions from the United States for involvement in abuses against Uyghurs—as well as chipmakers like Cambricon Technologies. Executives from social media and internet giants Tencent and Baidu were notably absent, either because they are perceived as less relevant to current regulatory discussions or because their past attendance has been noted abroad as a troubling indicator of close CCP ties.
Bureaucratic centralization and elevation of party over state
Among the measures approved during the NPC session was a plan for bureaucratic reform. An earlier restructuring in 2018 significantly weakened or eliminated state agencies, including those related to the media and information space, in favor of tighter control by the party itself. The 2023 reforms are less wide-ranging, but they will continue the trend of consolidating centralized authority over key governance sectors and enhancing CCP influence over state entities.
In two changes relevant to the technology sector, a new national data administration will be established, and the Ministry of Science and Technology will be strengthened and repositioned under a newly created CCP body, the Central Science and Technology Commission. The data administration will reportedly take over certain areas of responsibility from the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission, including coordinating the construction of “smart cities” and the “informatization of public services and social governance.” The complete picture of these changes will become clearer in the coming weeks as new rules, regulations, and lines of authority are laid out and made public. But the overall pattern of creating powerful party commissions to drive policy at the expense of government agencies has been a feature of Xi’s style of governance since the beginning of his rule.
More aggressive foreign influence efforts
One of the documents published annually during the “Two Sessions” is a budget report by the Ministry of Finance that reviews the previous year and lays out plans for the forthcoming year. Although the figures cited are impossible to verify, they provide insight into the CCP’s priorities and investments across various activities and sectors. The 2023 report notes a growing dedication of resources for “diplomatic endeavors,” which received a 12.2 percent increase compared with 2022. This was the second-highest increase in any category. Although the absolute total of 54 billion yuan ($7.9 billion) is much smaller than the budgets for other categories, the proportional increase is larger than those anticipated for defense spending (7.2 percent), public security (6.4 percent), or science and technology (2 percent).
The “diplomatic endeavors” category covers not only expenses and personnel for Chinese diplomatic missions but also those for external propaganda—including efforts to strengthen “capacity for international communication” and promote the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, another hallmark of Xi’s rule. As China emerges from the regime’s “zero-COVID” policy, the world is likely to see a revival of Beijing-hosted international conferences—including the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation—as well as scholarships and travel opportunities for foreign journalists. Such open influence activities may be accompanied by greater investment in more covert or coercive tactics for shaping foreign news environments. According to Freedom House research, the Chinese government under Xi’s leadership has been accelerating a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world.
This increased investment is closely linked to the regime’s willingness to be more confrontational on the world stage and to present itself as an alternative to US global leadership, a tendency that was also evident in official speeches and comments during the “Two Sessions.” Xi himself issued an unusually direct rebuke of the United States during his opening remarks. According to the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily, Xi also used a particular 24-character formula in other comments that represented a clear departure from the cautious policies of former CCP leader Deng Xiaoping. Where Deng said “hide our capacities and bide our time,” Xi proclaimed “be proactive and achieve things,” and “dare to fight.”
During his decade in power, Xi has exerted a clear influence on how China is governed and interacts with the world. Conditions for Chinese citizens have certainly become more repressive, as reflected in the country’s declining scores in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, and the CCP’s more pugnacious stance abroad has galvanized considerable resistance among democracies.
The “Two Sessions” suggest that the regime has no intention of wavering from the course set by its top leader since 2013, including in the technology and media space. Government officials, companies, and ordinary citizens in China and globally will have to plan accordingly as they prepare for the next five years of Xi’s open-ended presidency.
This article was initially published in The Diplomat.