When the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, reporter Liao Jun of China’s official Xinhua News Agency told conflicting stories to two very different audiences.
Liao’s news dispatches assured readers the disease didn’t spread from person to person. But in a separate confidential report to senior officials, Liao struck a different tone, alerting Beijing that a mysterious, dangerous disease had surfaced.
Her reports to officials were part of a powerful internal reporting system long used by the ruling Communist Party to learn about issues considered too sensitive for the public to know. Chinese journalists and researchers file secret bulletins to top officials, ensuring they get the information needed to govern, even when it’s censored.
But this internal system is struggling to give frank assessments as Chinese leader Xi Jinping consolidates his power, making it risky for anyone to question the party line even in confidential reports, a dozen Chinese academics, businesspeople and state journalists said in interviews with The Associated Press.
It’s unclear what the impact has been, given the secretive nature of high-level Chinese politics. But the risk is ill-informed decision-making with less feedback from below, on everything from China’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to its approach to the coronavirus.
“Powerful leaders become hostages,” said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. “They actually are living in cocoons: protected, but also shielded from information that they should be open to.”
The reports are classified as state secrets and include what would be considered staples of journalism in many other countries: corruption, strikes, public criticism, industrial accidents.
Newspapers, think tanks and universities across China each have their own classified reporting channel, sending intelligence to local and provincial officials.
But a few outlets, such as Xinhua and the state-controlled People’s Daily, supply intelligence directly to China’s rulers. Their confidential reports have toppled officials, changed policy, and launched government campaigns against poverty and waste.
The Communist Party calls internal reporting a secret weapon, acting as its “eyes and ears,” while propaganda acts as its “throat and tongue.”
Those who write internal reports are often thoughtful and critical, says Maria Repnikova, a Chinese media expert at Georgia State University.
They can face threats or intimidation, even when backed by the state, with officials taking extreme measures to block bad news from reaching their superiors.
Xi is intimately familiar with the power of this internal reporting system, said Alfred Wu, a former reporter who met Xi when he governed Fujian province. Xi cultivated ties with journalists from Xinhua and the People’s Daily, outlets with direct lines to Beijing — and the power to influence his career.
“He’d always mingle and socialize with journalists,” Wu said. “Xi’s street smarts helped him so much.”
After coming to power in 2012, Xi stifled dissent and launched an anti-corruption campaign that jailed rivals. The crackdown has made reporters more cautious about what they write in internal memos.
A Xinhua journalist famed for internal reports that helped take down a senior executive at a state company is now unable to publish, according to a close associate, because the risks are too big.
The internal reports system was also vulnerable to corruption. Officials and businesspeople manipulated it to lobby for their interests. In one incident, Shanxi province officials gave cash and gold ingots to reporters to cover up a mine accident that killed 38 people.
Xi’s crackdown has reined in corruption, but also sidelined many of Xi’s competitors and paralyzed low-level officials reluctant to act without clear permission from the top.
The government’s tightening grip on the internet under Xi is also warping the internal reports.
Decades ago, there were few ways for officials to know what ordinary people thought, making the reports a valuable channel of insight. But the internet “handed everyone their own microphone,” the People’s Daily wrote, resulting in an explosion of information that internal reports struggled to analyze.
The internet also posed a threat: Critics bonded online, organizing to challenge the state.
Xi tackled both issues. Under him, China beefed up big data analysis to harness the vast tide of information.
He also launched a campaign against “online rumors” and put millions of censors to work. One of the first to be detained was an investigative journalist accusing an official of corruption.
So while internal reports now draw heavily on online information, the internet itself has become strictly censored, which can distort the message sent to the top.
Electronic surveillance has also become pervasive under Xi, making it tougher for sensitive information to be shared, one current and one former state media journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to foreign media.
As a result, people withhold critical information — sometimes, with catastrophic consequences.
In the early days of the virus outbreak in Wuhan, Xinhua’s Liao reported the arrest of eight “rumormongers” for spreading “false information.”
In fact, they were doctors warning each other about the emerging virus in online chats. Her story discouraged others from speaking up, leaving the central leadership blind to the virus’ spread.
The information department of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, declined to comment. Xinhua did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment.
The virus story illustrates a paradox of the internal reports: The tighter controls are, the more valuable the reports become. But tighter controls also make it harder to find reliable information.
Interviews with Chinese academics suggest when it comes to decisions made by the top, there’s now little room for discussion or course correction.
Beijing’s public stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clear: Under Xi’s “no limits” partnership with Russia, officials voice sympathy with Moscow’s grievances with the West, portraying the U.S. as a hypocritical bully and NATO as the aggressor.
But in private conversation, many Chinese foreign policy experts express views that diverge from the party line — a diversity of opinions that isn’t being conveyed to China’s leaders, they say.
Many experts worry China has alienated Europe by standing with Russia. A landmark investment deal with the European Union looks all but dead, and Europe is increasingly aligning its China policy with the latter’s biggest rival, the United States.
One scholar took a calculated risk to get his views heard. Government adviser Hu Wei published an online essay in March criticizing the war and arguing Beijing should side with Europe.
Hu wrote publicly because he worried his bosses wouldn’t approve an internal report, according to Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Even if the piece was censored, he reasoned, it might get the attention of senior officials.
More than 100,000 people viewed Hu’s essay online. Within hours, it was blocked.