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China forces journalists to take exam to demonstrate loyalty, political correctness

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
January 15, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China says it will require its journalists to take a national professional exam that will test their political correctness and allegiance to China’s rulers. Those who don’t toe the party line could have their press credentials revoked, mimicking a crackdown on the country’s lawyers.

From July 1, anyone engaged in newsgathering and editing work in news organizations across China will be required to take the same exam in order to get a “journalist certificate,” according to a Dec. 30 directive issued by the country’s media regulator, the National Press and Publication Administration. 

“Applicants must support the leadership of the Communist Party of China, conscientiously study, publicize and implement Xi Jinping’s thoughts on the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, resolutely implement the party’s theory, line, principles and policies, and adhere to the correct political direction and public opinion guidance,” the directive states.

The exams will be set from a bank of questions and answers written by the administration, while the ministry of human resources will be charged with running the exams nationwide and deciding who is eligible to sit them in the first place.

Anyone who has a record of previous “unhealthy newsgathering and editing practices” will be turned away, the rules said, as will anyone who has been dismissed from public office or received a criminal conviction.

The press regulator will keep files on all journalists’ professional qualifications and integrity, the directive said.

Beijing-based current affairs commentator Hua Po said press cards are only valid for five years, meaning that journalists will likely need to retake the exam every five years.

“It’s a way of strengthening control,” Hua said. “I fear that they want to strengthen journalists’ grasp of ideology; they won’t be able to watch from the sidelines any more.”

Steadily tighter clampdown

The exams are compulsory for aspiring journalists and those already working in the sector. However, existing journalists’ press cards will be revoked if they fail the exam, meaning they must leave the profession, the rules said.

The clampdown on China’s officially approved journalists started with a 2014 requirement for journalists to study Marxism, followed up by ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping in 2016, when he warned during visits to state media organizations that state media are part of the party family, and have a duty to safeguard its authority.

The government brought in a less well-defined political test for journalists in 2020 with the advent of a new centrally issued press pass, but the new exam will be far broader, and test journalists’ ability to give politically correct answers in a professional setting.

“The amount of control they have will be higher than ever, now that it has moved to a unified national examination,” said a former journalist who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. “Journalists aren’t allowed to speak out … or to tell the truth.”

“It’s a tragedy for journalists; it means things will only get tougher for them in future — it’ll be kind of like the lawyers, who have to be reissued with their license.”

Statistics from the state-run All-China Journalists Association showed a total of 194,263 accredited state journalists in China as of December 2021.

However, only 180,075 journalists passed the 2021 political testing and vetting process, with 24 news organizations and 353 journalists stripped of their credentials due to “suspected violations of laws and regulations.” 

China is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, with a total of 110 currently behind bars, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said in a 2022 annual report.

Alien concept

Taiwan-based Chinese dissident Gong Yujian said the notion of the press as having the freedom to criticize those in power was an alien concept in China.

“Under this one-party dictatorship, there is no freedom of the press, nor any freedom of speech,” Gong said. “Any journalist with a conscience can’t last.”

He said most media organizations that published cutting-edge reporting about official corruption and injustice like Southern Weekend and historical journal Yanhuang Chunqiu were purged in around 2015, while dissidents who give interviews to foreign media organizations are routinely jailed for doing so.

A former Chinese journalist who gave only the pseudonym Chen said he had worked in a state-run newspaper but had never needed to take any exams to keep his press card.

He said the exam will likely lead to a cull of journalists across the country.

“If there are fewer reporters, it will be harder for the public to find out about things, and fewer news organizations will make it easier to control them,” Chen said. 

A veteran journalist who gave only the nickname Xiao Qiong, for fear of political retaliation, said the previous test that the new exam will replace requires people to parrot a bunch of patriotic slogans.

“You must love China, love the party, and support the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. “The news media must function as the mouthpiece of the party. That is the gist of it, then there are other questions too.”