China's ruling Communist Party has recently proposed to abolish term limits on the presidency, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in office as long as the party is willing to keep him there.

The reaction online was instant and critical, but those posts were quickly censored and none of the criticism made it into China's mainstream media.

State-owned outlets, which make up the bulk of the news landscape in China, swung into propaganda mode, praising Xi and stressing the importance of his leadership to the nation.

"In traditional Chinese culture, there is a need for a guiding voice, a leading will," explains Wang Yiwei, professor of International Relations at Renmin University of China. "So the official press has to convey the significance behind the amendments to the constitution."

In traditional Chinese culture, there is a need for a guiding voice, a leading will. So the official press has to convey the significance behind the amendments to the constitution.

Wang Yiwei, professor of international relations, Renmin University of China

The Chinese media space has a recent history of opening up slightly, only to close again, based on events.

Prior to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, journalists had enjoyed a period of relative freedom which ended in the aftermath of the crackdown. Restrictions were loosened again prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, then tightened again once the foreign media contingents had gone home. 

Five years later, Xi Jinping took power, having marketed himself as an anti-corruption champion. By the time he toured China's top three state-owned news outlets in 2016, the anti-graft campaign was in full swing. And the media outlets reporting on that story played a central part in it.

At that time, the president told journalists working at CCTV, among others, that their ultimate loyalty must be to the Communist Party. As he put it, the party and the media were part of the same family.

"Under the current regime, there is much greater control over the press that we have seen previously," says political commentator Deng Yuwen. "The censorship has become much more severe. Journalists who don't toe the party line now receive harsher treatment. When they do actually report, they only put out good news, and reduce so-called 'negative energy' or whatever is critical. Control of the press is at an unprecedented level."

Media have long been political tools in China, but five years into Xi's rule, the fourth estate has been melded much more thoroughly into the political machine. They are a central component in the cultivation of Xi's image and the backing of his policies, securing his and the party's hold on power.

Almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese are online. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are banned - but the country's micro-blogging equivalent, Sina Weibo, has more users - 340 million, the vast majority of them in China - than Twitter does around the world.

Weibo has long been a principal platform for political dissent, with users signing up with fake names. Since last year, Beijing has made it mandatory for Weibo users to register with their real names. Dissidents can still find ways to get their messages out, cryptically, sometimes taking advantage of the flexibility of Chinese languages and their written characters, sometimes using fictional characters to make political points about real people in power.

"In my opinion, the most important thing is not how the government commands the media, how it plans its messaging - but rather if there is some room for the media to express different opinions," points out writer and journalist Chang Ping.

"Do they have any freedom of speech? Is it possible that the party can control even more media? If so, then with this kind of propaganda, no matter how unsophisticated it is, it is easy to brainwash the crowd."

Lead contributors:
Chang Ping, writer and journalist
Deng Yuwen, political commentator
Megha Rajagopalan, China Bureau chief, Buzzfeed
Dr Wang Yiwei, professor of International Relations, Renmin University of China

Source: Al Jazeera News