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Master of the media spotlight is now its victim in China



BEIJING >> Intimidating and courting Chinese journalists, Bo Xilai, an ambitious Communist Party official, fueled his political career by ably shaping his public image and seizing the spotlight in a way no peer had as he governed a Chinese city. But with his purge from the party’s top ranks this month, Bo has suddenly found himself the target of the same media apparatus that he once so carefully manipulated, and that now vilifies him in the name of the party’s leaders.

As it announced the purge, the party unleashed the full arsenal of its propaganda machine against Bo, pressing news organizations across the nation into an extraordinary campaign urging support for the party’s decision to oust Bo, editors and media executives say. It has arguably been the greatest mobilization to support a decision by the party since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

The campaign began April 10, when the state news agency, Xinhua, announced that Bo had been suspended from the powerful Politburo and that his wife, Gu Kailai, was under investigation in the murder of a British businessman in November. Interviews with editors and media executives offer a glimpse of how the secretive party propaganda machinery has worked at a time of intense political tension.

This week, the campaign is entering a more subtle phase as some news organizations veer away, at the behest of top propaganda officials, from running editorials emphasizing party loyalty and start to parse the significance of Bo’s case.

For example, editors at Global Times, a popular newspaper that has Chinese and English editions, have been ordered to run commentaries or editorials that separate criticism of Bo from the welfare-oriented economic policies he championed in Chongqing, perhaps because party leaders want to take credit for similar policies in the future. The English edition is also supposed to criticize Western news coverage that has emphasized splits within the party, one person with knowledge of the order said.

Not in decades has such a widespread and finely tuned propaganda campaign been rolled out during the purge of an official. In the last two major purges, in 2006 and 1995, party leaders did not flood the news media with nearly so much propaganda. And not since the bloodshed of 1989 have editorials insisting that citizens reaffirm fealty to the party appeared with such frequency and vehemence.

Some analysts have said the purging of Bo presents the biggest challenge for the party since that period. The crisis was set off in February when Wang Lijun, a former police chief in Chongqing, fled to a U.S. Consulate to present evidence of what he said was a murder plot involving Bo’s family.

“We haven’t seen this kind of direct meddling with the media across the board in a long, long time,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “You can really sense the anxiety and the uneasiness. They’re pushing so intently this message of unity and solidarity, and you know all is not well.”

Bo, a Communist aristocrat and former journalism student who campaigned for a top post ahead of a leadership transition this year, was a polarizing figure who quickly built a fervent base of support after arriving in Chongqing in 2007, in part by his canny use of the news media.

Some of Bo’s most ardent supporters have been hard-line socialists and senior army officers, and one goal of the propaganda campaign, especially in the intense first week, appeared to be cowing or winning over Bo’s remaining allies.

“They know that there will still be different views and interpretations throughout society,” a senior executive at an official media organization said, “so you need to run a lot of articles and propaganda to unify people’s thinking.”

Starting April 11, unsigned editorials on the cases of Bo and Wang appeared, sometimes daily, in every major media outlet in China, from The People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military’s official organ, to Web portals where Chinese youths get their news. Most of the editorials originated in People’s Daily, the official party mouthpiece. Friday was the first day the paper had no editorial on Bo.

The editorials have refrained from explicit character attacks on Bo or Gu and have not taken aim at Bo’s policies in Chongqing. Instead, they have emphasized that he is being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations” and that the rule of law must prevail.

“This way they won’t necessarily provoke much controversy,” said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “This form of publicity is aimed at arousing as little negative reaction as possible.”

Another editor said that when Bo was purged, editors at the party’s main publications were told that People’s Daily planned to publish a series of editorials on the decision over three days, and that major newspapers would have to reprint the editorials, highlights of which would be read on the television news. But later, on short notice, propaganda chiefs expanded the campaign and ordered other publications to run their own editorials as well.

“To me it indicates that a lot of people were still speaking up for Bo Xilai, so they had to go into overdrive,” the editor said.

Guangming Daily, founded as the organ for the party’s intellectuals, has run its own editorials, as have two other party newspapers, Liberation Daily and The People’s Liberation Army Daily. One in the military newspaper on April 13 said all officers and soldiers “deeply understand the warning significance of the incident” and “firmly support the decisions and plans” of the party.

A commentary in Global Times on Thursday by its chief editorial writer, Shan Renping, was a more personal attack on Bo. It criticized his “smash the black” campaign against organized crime and the “red song” campaign that urged citizens to sing Maoist classics. “Do not overestimate one’s individual influence,” Shan wrote.

People’s Daily has also been running editorials denouncing the spread of Internet rumors. Many Chinese get their news online, and the Internet has been rife with gossip related to Bo. Major microblog platforms, which have hundreds of millions of registered users, have had to devote more manpower to the task of self-censorship since the government intensified efforts to quash rumors.

But there are signs that bloggers posting messages in line with the party’s anti-Bo narrative are allowed leeway. Li Zhuang, a lawyer persecuted by Bo, said Friday that before the purge, editorial handlers at microblog platforms where he posted would tell him to erase many of his posts criticizing Bo. Now, he said, such demands are rare.

At least one figure with a crucial stake in the political drama has appeared to take a route outside the state news media to send a message. Jiang Zemin, the former top leader and a onetime ally of Bo’s father, met Tuesday with Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, a Starbucks spokesman said. Political analysts here said an appearance at this time by Jiang, reported to be ailing at 85 and long absent from public life, signaled to other politicians that he still played a role in party decisions, including in the Bo crisis.

Bill Bishop, an analyst in Beijing who noted the meeting on his blog, said, “He’s clearly not doing it because he’s a coffee fan.”

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