Li Keqiang

Between state media's lines often lies the crux of an issue

Xinhua report on Premier Li Keqiang's Chongqing visit toes party line even as it steers readers to the heart of the matter

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:15am

If you want to pick a way through the nuances and veiled meanings of the censored media on the mainland, it is useful to examine how the public reacts to it on the internet.

This point was well illustrated last week in the coverage and comment on Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Chongqing.

Xinhua's report on the visit focused on economic matters and people's livelihoods in the municipality.

Li, we were told, used the visit to chair a cabinet-level meeting discussing the development of an economic belt along the Yangtze River.

The initiative, spearheaded by the National Development and Reform Commission, will involve 11 provincial-level regions and metropolises, including Shanghai and Chongqing.

But what caught readers' attention in the Xinhua report were not the usual bland statements promising economic development, but the article's final sentence.

"Li is the first top state leader to visit the city since the 18th party congress in November 2012," it said. On the surface, the statement sounds rather dull. A visit to a whole lot of places on the mainland is highly likely to be the first by a top leader since November 2012, given that they had been in power for only about 18 months.

But Xinhua editors apparently wanted to draw readers' attention to the heart of the matter even as they took care to avoid political controversy or treading on any toes.

People on social media and in the foreign and Hong Kong press, however, were quick to point out the elephant in the room in Xinhua's coverage of Li's trip.

"Li is the first top state leader to visit Chongqing since the downfall of Bo Xilai," announced one of many similar comments posted online.

Bo - should you need to be reminded - was the former Communist Party boss in Chongqing, the political high-flier who in September was jailed for life for corruption and abuse of power in the most politically charged trial on the mainland in decades.

Bo is still a divisive figure and his policies are contentious both inside and outside the political establishment.

Many of his supporters say his populist initiatives, including his generous social welfare and public housing programmes, helped many of the underprivileged.

Victims of Bo's high-handed anti-crime crackdown and prosecutions, on the other hand, are now seeking compensation from the municipal government.

Li's visit is seen as the new leadership's latest effort to deal with the political and economic fallout from Bo's removal from power. It is also seen as a sign of the central leadership's support for the city's new leader, Sun Zhengcai, a rising political star and the youngest Politburo member, who may become the core of the next generation of top leadership in less than a decade.

"The visit is to announce the end of Bo Xilai's era," one internet user wrote on Weibo.

"Li's visit suggested that the central leadership has finally come to a consensus on how to solve the issues left over by Bo," another wrote.

Bo spent as much as 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.2 trillion) on his populist social welfare policies, which was as much as three times the city's fiscal revenue of 290.8 billion yuan in 2011.

"The central government has to find a way to foot the bill; otherwise, the city will go bankrupt," yet another internet user wrote.

The comments on social media cut through the froth, going straight to the heart of the matter. But spare a thought for editors in the state-run media. They are constantly walking a tightrope - trying to strike a balance between toeing the party line and steering their readers and viewers to the crux of an issue.