Chinese journalist-turned-social-activist Deng Fei took part last month in a training programme he never thought he would attend. It was a 10-day course organised by the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, aimed at improving the government’s relationship with China’s internet intellectuals and social-network celebrities.
“I thought I was going to be brainwashed; that had to be the purpose of the class, right,” Deng, 37, said. “But after seeing the list of participants, I decided to go.”
Deng, a former journalist with news magazine Phoenix Weekly, made a name for himself online, organising charity campaigns to help rural children and other vulnerable groups. He has more than five million followers on his weibo account.
The activist said a third of the course participants worked for digital media and internet firms, and they included executives from Chinese technology giants Baidu, Xiaomi and Youku Tudou.
During the course, held from March 24 to April 3, they attended lectures and joined discussion sessions chaired by experts in the fields of culture, politics and international relations. They also toured Gutian county in Fujian province, where a significant meeting was held in 1929 to ensure late leader Mao Zedong’s leadership position in the Red Army.
“When I arrived there, I realised it was a platform for us to communicate more effectively with each other; that wasn’t what I had expected,” Deng said.
He added that the course gave him opportunities to speak to party officials, which helped him understand that a communication gap between the public and the party had been a cause for many misunderstandings.
“It was a great opportunity for social-media elites and new-media gurus to network and share resources,” Deng said.
During a three-day meeting of the United Front Work Department in Beijing earlier this week, President Xi Jinping urged party officials to improve their relationship and work closely with the country’s digital media professionals, business people and those who have studied abroad.
The department’s work should focus more on the younger generation, Xi added.
There have been 20 such United Front Work meetings since 1950, with the last one in 2006, but this was the first time the meeting was held at the central-committee level.
“Because … digital media has attracted so much of the Chinese people’s attention that it has become a key information-gathering platform, uniting this power is important to the Communist Party,” Deng said.
The party’s growing interest in engaging prominent new-media personalities became apparent after Xi met bloggers Zhou Xiaoping and Hua Qianfang last October to discuss how the country’s arts and cultural communities could better serve the party.
Critics later took to the internet to ridicule the meeting as neither blogger was known for their quality of work, but rather for their strong nationalistic sentiments.
Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan said that although the United Front Work meeting had been elevated to a higher level, being personally chaired by Xi this time, its strategy continued along the same lines of seeking to silence those who disagreed with the party while rallying those who were already on their side.
“They’re targeting the wrong group. If the new media becomes like all other state media, what’s the point,” Zhang said. “The party should work on those who disagree with them. Not like what they’re doing now – keeping a pet and giving it a couple of strokes every now and then; that’s how they’re working now.”