At a recent symposium of the Chinese Communist Party, officials urged internet firms to strengthen their “party building” efforts, in order to maintain “ideological security” within their firms.
This marks a new phase in Chinese president Xi Jinping's campaign to enforce party control over different kinds of corporations, which has extended far beyond collective-owned and local private companies to encompass joint ventures with foreign firms and listed arms of state-owned enterprises on the Hong Kong stock market. These companies are facing rising pressure from the government to set up party branches intended to fortify their loyalty Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Internet firms form a critical component of this strategy.
In fact, the first ‘party building’ symposium for internet companies was held in Beijing soon after Xi Jinping launched the campaign in 2016. Weibo, Jingdong, Baidu, Sohu, 360 and Lets TV had already set up their party branches back then.
Following the Soviet model of a planned, ideologically-bound economy, party branches are present in all state and collective-owned enterprises (SOEs). At the end of China's Cultural Revolution, former CCP leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of reforms intended to reduce the power of the CCP in the corporate sector, and to replace the planned economy with a market economy. The reforms also encouraged the development of new small-to-medium-sized private enterprises, privatization of SOEs, and foreign investment in joint corporations.
Companies that came about in this new economic sector were not required to establish a party branch. But now informal political pressure to do so is getting stronger and stronger.
The campaign to press private and foreign firms to establish a party branch is intended to strengthen the leadership and control of the CCP in the economic sector. Similar to the media sector, which has been asked to parrot the party line, the CCP expects online media outlets to flood the Internet with positive energy, in lockstep with the party itself.
Setting up a party branch is an effective way to show loyalty to CCP. Companies that have a party branch typically get allocated funds for party committee activities, which include elections, meetings and gatherings. A corporate party committee typically serves as an advisory body within the company, but because the CCP is part of the Chinese state apparatus, the committee's influence often goes beyond a mere advisory role.
In less than one year, at least 34 Beijing based Internet firms have established party branches. The total number of CCP members working in these firms has reached 6,000, according to Tong Liqiang, head of Beijing cyberspace affair office ‘s report during the “party-building” meeting.
In this context, some private and foreign owned corporate tried to “entertain” the Chinese government's call by appointing mid-ranking staff members to head their Communist Party committees. But the CCP wanted its members to occupy more influential positions.
Du Feijin, Beijing’s party propaganda director, called for stepping up party leadership and enrolling more employees into the party among Beijing-based internet firms. During the recent August 25 party-building meeting, cyber security powerhouse 360.com was presented as a model in the incorporation of the party-leadership into the firm.
Qi Xiangdong, the party secretary of 360.com, extolled party members who have played increasingly important role in the company:
In the process of setting up party branch [in the firm], the most important strategy is integration, the integration of party and business. [For example] in the past five years, with the development of Internet +, there have been more and more cyber-attack. The mission of the firm has been extended from the protection of individual's online security to the protection of national and military security… Last year, 360 has chosen to exit from the U.S stock market and transformed into a security firm owned by Chinese. The decision has all the staff's support. Now the company has more than 800 party members and the ratio is 8 percent [among all the employees]. The ratio of party member is 15 percent in the whole 360 corporate. Among the 40 partners, 10 are party members, the ratio is 25 percent. The more important posts in the company, the higher ratio of party members.
Even smaller scale enterprises are compelled to set up a party branch. Ofo, China’s popular bike-sharing startup, established a party committee on July 1, the birthdate of the Chinese Communist Party. Dai Wei, founder of Ofo, became party secretary of the company, asserting that party building “could promote company’s development.”
The party-building campaign has also worked in tandem with China's new cybersecurity law. It has empowered the authorities to shut down any websites with content that violates “socialist core values.” In June, a large number of entertainment media outlets on social media were shuttered on these grounds.
Indeed, among all of China's internet firms, the CCP wants primarily to obtain a stronger grasp over content service platforms and social media outlets. In addition to giant content service platforms like Baidu and Sina, smaller scale but influential content platforms like the question and answer platform Zhifu, location based friend-finder Momo, book and film review platform Douban, social media based News Headline, and keyword based news subscription platform Yidianzixun have all set up party branches.
Zhifu, Chinese question and answer platform, had its first party meeting on August 22. The site's chief editor, Yu Yangyang, is also the party secretary. Yu vowed to be loyal to the CCP during the party meeting:
To be loyal to the party, share the party's concern, pay responsibility and duty to the party.
As the site's chief editor, he said he would
Stick to the principle of media led by party. Would use Zhihu as a platform to spread positive energy to the society.
By February 2017, Zhihu had more than 9 billion page views per day, and 69 million registered users, 20 million of whom visit the site each day, on average. The question and answer site has become one of the most influential knowledge production platforms in Chinese-speaking world.
Even China’s cartoon video website, Bilibili.com, has built a party committee in Shanghai, which was mockingly described by one internet user as “magical socialism”. Just two months ago, Bilibili was blocked for hosting too much foreign entertainment content.
As explained by state-affiliated media outlet Guangcha, Internet companies’ party building has significant impact on the ideological front. The commentator cited the example of PPTV, a Chinese video streaming website:
PPTV has made huge investment on TV drama, In the Name of People, and turned the drama into a hot topic online. Party members in the Internet companies recite: Internet firms should take up the responsibility to produce positive energy contents and products.
Most of the Internet companies in China are privately owned or under joint ventures. Some are listed in Hong Kong or the US stock markets. Establishing Communist Party committees, which could exercise special power to advise their boards on operational, personnel and strategic matters, could damage shareholders’ interest and market integrity.
More importantly, if internet firms are acting as an extension of the CCP by exercising ideological control over individual citizens, users’ rights and privacy will be further threatened. The recently published “Regulation on the Management of Internet Comments,” for example, specifies that comment service operators should manage their users by rating their “social credit” and to restrict people with low credit from making comments. If such “management” is taking over by party members within corporations, who see the online public sphere as an ideological battle field, dissenting voices would very likely be blacklisted.
Just a decade ago, many Chinese people saw the internet as a liberating force that could help people speak out against injustice and make change. But now, as major operators of the Internet are under strict political control, the once open and free space is looking more and more like a virtual panopticon.