Party organ's lurch left may say little of Xi's plans
Editorial in a traditionally liberal paper vowing front against Western ideas raises questions whether it has come under new political pressure
A tale of "one party, two publications" is how some observers are describing the ongoing ideological wrangle between two leading Communist Party publications -the Peoples Daily, the party organ, and the Study Times, a key publication of the Central Party School.
Theoretically speaking, both high-profile publications answer directly the party's decision-making Central Committee. And their daily operations are overseen by the party's secretariat, the party's nerve centre, headed by the Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan.
The People's Daily has long been known for its conservatism, while the Study Times has made its name as a liberal publication in recent years. Scholars at the Central Party School also seem to be more open-minded on politically sensitive topics.
So, when an uncharacteristic extremely leftist and high-profile article appeared this week in the Times, fears were raised that the last liberal publication had fallen into conservative hands.
If true, it raises questions about the overall rise of leftism within the party.
The paper's lead article last Wednesday was an interview with Li Jingtian , executive vice-president of the Central Party School, who vowed to make his campus an ideological front in the fight against Western ideas.
In the article, entitled "Building the Central Party School into an important front to learn, study, and propagate Marxism", Li echoed President and Communist chief Xi Jinping's recent call to "win the ideological war".
Party insiders said the outspoken liberal publication was under political pressure to soften its stance at a time when Xi is tightening his grip on ideology.
"The Study Times has to make some gesture to show that it will also toe the central school's political line," said a senior editor of another party publication, who did not want to be named.
"As a publication under the Central Party School, you have to echo the top leader's political instructions," said Deng Yuwen , a former deputy editor at the Times who was fired in April for penning an editorial that was critical of North Korea for the Financial Times.
Deng said Li's statement reflected the view of Liu, who, in his other role as president of the Central Party School, called on the institution to play a leading role in the country's latest ideological campaign in his orientation day speech on September 1. "Li's remark contained nothing more than what Liu said in that speech," the editor said.
Dr Xigen Li, a specialist on mainland media at City University of Hong Kong, agreed: "It's typical that the media will publish a few articles to promote ideas proposed by top leaders."
In recent months, the Times and the Daily have carried tit-for-tat commentaries, by reformists who argue free-market capitalism and rule of law were key to China's continued success, and conservatives who attribute the nation's achievements to orthodox Marxism and socialism and one-party rule.
A fortnight ago, the Times ran an article critical of Beijing's crackdown on internet "rumours", making it the lone voice of dissent among mainstream state media that have mobilised to echo Xi's call last month to win the "internet war".
Other analysts dismissed claims that a single article heralded an editorial U-turn at the paper, or that the current leftist campaign had brought liberal editors and authors to their knees.
Dr Zhiqun Zhu, who holds the MacArthur Chair in East Asian Politics at Bucknell University in the United States, said the latest development only reflected the current political reality: The party is "no longer a monolithic organisation". There were "different interests being represented by different factions", Zhu said.
"Sometimes liberals may have the upper hand; at other times, the leftists may appear dominant," said Zhu, who is also the director of the university's China's Institute.
Li said it was too early to say whether one article would fundamentally change the direction of media and the political environment. "It takes time to digest the ideas proposed by top leaders, and the interpretations and the elaborations will vary among scholars and party officials whose job it is to promote them," Li said.
Dr Xiaoyu Pu, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, said it came as no surprise that Li, as the party school's vice-president, would publish a speech on the orthodoxy of Marxism in the Times given the recent moves to tighten ideological control. "But that does not mean that reform-minded scholars and officials have no place to publish their views," Pu said. The paper would continue to publish articles on topics such as rule of law and political reforms as usual, he added.
Pu also questioned how long the apparent ideological "left turn" would last. "After all, the continuity of opening up and reform might still be the major consensus among the party elites, and most substantial policies of opening up and reform have not changed," he said.