BEIJING — When the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, reporter Liao Jun of China’s official Xinhua news agency told conflicting stories to two very different audiences.
Liao’s dispatches assured readers that the disease was not spreading from person to person. But in a separate confidential report to senior officials, Liao took a different tone, alerting Beijing that a mysterious and dangerous disease had surfaced.
His reports to authorities were part of a powerful internal reporting system long used by the ruling Communist Party to learn about matters considered too sensitive for the public to know. Chinese journalists and researchers send secret bulletins to top officials, ensuring they get the information needed to govern, even when it is censored.
But that internal system is struggling to give candid assessments as Chinese leader Xi Jinping consolidates his power, making it risky for anyone to question the party line, even in confidential reports, a dozen officials said. Chinese scholars, businesspeople and state journalists in interviews with The Associated Press. .
It’s unclear what the impact was, given the covert nature of high-level Chinese politics. But the risk is ill-informed decision-making with less feedback from below, on everything from China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to its approach to the coronavirus.
“Powerful leaders become hostages,” said Dali Yang, an expert on China politics at the University of Chicago. “They actually live in cocoons: protected, but also safe from the information they should be open to.”
The reports are classified as state secrets and include what would be considered staples of journalism in many other countries: corruption, strikes, public criticism, workplace accidents.
Newspapers, think tanks and universities across China each have their own classified reporting channel, sending intelligence to local and provincial authorities.
But a few outlets, such as Xinhua and the state-controlled People’s Daily, provide information directly to Chinese leaders. Their confidential reports have overthrown officials, changed policy and launched government campaigns against poverty and waste.
The Communist Party calls internal reporting a secret weapon, acting as its “eyes and ears”, while propaganda acts as its “throat and tongue”.
Those who write internal reports are often thoughtful and critical, says Maria Repnikova, a China media scholar at Georgia State University.
They may be threatened or intimidated, even when supported by the state, with officials taking extreme measures to prevent bad news from reaching their superiors.
Xi knows intimately the power of this internal reporting system, said Alfred Wu, a former journalist who met Xi when he governed Fujian province. Xi cultivated ties with reporters from Xinhua and People’s Daily, outlets with direct lines to Beijing — and the power to influence his career.
“He was always mingling and socializing with reporters,” Wu said. “Xi’s street smarts helped him so much.”
After coming to power in 2012, Xi stifled dissent and launched an anti-corruption campaign that jailed his rivals. The crackdown has made journalists more cautious about what they write in internal memos.
A Xinhua journalist famous for his insider reporting that helped topple a senior public company executive is now unable to publish, according to a close aide, because the risks are too great.
The internal reporting system was also vulnerable to corruption. Officials and businessmen manipulated him to defend their interests. In one incident, officials in Shanxi province gave journalists cash and gold bars to cover up a mining accident that killed 38 people.
Xi’s crackdown has curbed corruption, but also sidelined many of Xi’s competitors and crippled low-level officials reluctant to act without clear authorization from the top.
The government’s tightening grip on the internet under Xi also distorts internal reporting.
Decades ago, officials had little way of knowing what ordinary people were thinking, making reports a valuable channel of information. But the internet “gave everyone their own microphone,” wrote the People’s Daily, resulting in an explosion of information that internal reports struggled to parse.
The internet also posed a threat: critics bonded online, organizing to challenge the state.
Xi addressed both issues. Under him, China has strengthened big data analysis to tap into the vast tide of information.
He also launched a campaign against “online rumours” and put millions of censors to work. One of the first to be arrested was an investigative journalist accusing a government official of corruption.
So while internal reporting now relies heavily on online information, the internet itself has become tightly censored, which can distort the message sent to the top.
Electronic surveillance has also become ubiquitous under Xi, making it more difficult to share sensitive information, a current and former state media reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized. to talk to foreign media.
As a result, people withhold critical information, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
In the early days of the virus outbreak in Wuhan, Xinhua’s Liao reported the arrest of eight “rumourmakers” for spreading “false information”.
In fact, they were doctors warning each other about the emerging virus in online chats. Her story discouraged others from speaking out, leaving central management blind to the spread of the virus.
The State Council’s information department, China’s Cabinet, declined to comment. Xinhua did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the AP.
The story of the virus illustrates a paradox of internal reporting: the tighter the controls, the more valuable the reports become. But tighter controls also make it harder to find reliable information.
Interviews with Chinese scholars suggest that when it comes to decisions made by the summit, there is now little room for discussion or course correction.
Beijing’s public stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clear: As part of Xi’s ‘limitless’ partnership with Russia, officials express sympathy for Moscow’s grievances towards the West, portraying the United States as a hypocritical tyrant and NATO as the aggressor.
But in private conversation, many Chinese foreign policy experts express opinions that diverge from the party line — a diversity of opinions that is not conveyed to Chinese leaders, they say.
Many experts fear that China has alienated Europe by standing alongside Russia. A landmark investment deal with the European Union seems almost dead, and Europe is increasingly aligning its China policy with the latter’s biggest rival, the United States.
A scholar took a calculated risk to make his point heard. Government adviser Hu Wei published an online essay in March criticizing the war and saying Beijing should side with Europe.
Hu wrote publicly because he feared his bosses would endorse an internal report, according to Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Even if the article were censored, he thought, it might attract the attention of high officials.
More than 100,000 people viewed Hu’s essay online. Within hours, it was blocked.