When does a corporate apology become a political self-confession, or jiantao (检讨), an act of submission not to social mores and concerns, but to those in power? The line can certainly blur in China. But the public apology last week from Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of one of China’s leading tech-based news and information platforms, crosses deep into the territory of political abjection.
Zhang’s apology, posted to WeChat at around 4 AM Beijing time, addressed recent criticism aired through the state-run China Central Television and other official media of Jinri Toutiao, or “Toutiao” — a platform for content creation and aggregation that makes use of algorithms to customize user experience. Critical official coverage of alleged content violations on the platform was followed by a notice on April 4 from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), in which the agency said Toutiao and another service providing live-streaming, Kuaishou, would be subject to “rectification measures.”
Read through Zhang’s apology and it is quickly apparent that this is a mea culpa made under extreme political pressure, in which Zhang, an engineer by background, ticks the necessary ideological boxes to signal his intention to fall into line.
At one point, Zhang confesses that the “deep-level causes” of the problems at Toutiao included “a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses”. This is a unique Xi Jinping buzzword, introduced in January 2016, that refers to 1) “political consciousness” (政治意识), namely primary consideration of political priorities when addressing issues, 2) consciousness of the overall situation (大局意识), or of the overarching priorities of the Party and government, 3) “core consciousness” (核心意识), meaning to follow and protect Xi Jinping as the leadership “core,” and 4) “integrity consciousness” (看齐意识), referring to the need to fall in line with the Party. Next, Zhang mentions the service’s failure to respect “socialist core values,” and its “deviation from public opinion guidance” — this latter term being a Party buzzword (dating back to the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests) synonymous with information and press controls as a means of maintaining Party dominance.
Zhang also explicitly references Xi Jinping’s notion of the “New Era,” and writes: “All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.”
In the list of the company’s remedies, there is even a mention of the need to promote more content from “authoritative media,” a codeword for Party-controlled media, which suggests once again that the leadership has been unhappy with the idea of algorithms that wall users off from official messaging if they show no interest in such content.
We include a translation of Zhang’s apology letter below, excepting (only for the sake of time) the final section on management of online communities. We have left the Chinese alongside the English, believing this letter offers an essential view of the deep tension in China right now between technological innovation and economic reform on the one hand, and the urgency of political controls on the other. Here we have a technologist celebrating innovation and apologizing at the same time for its political crimes — in a way quite redolent, in the sense that this is a jiantao made before the leadership, of the pre-reform era.
Apology and reflection
Dear friends of Jinri Toutiao:
I earnestly apologise to regulatory authorities, and to our users and colleagues. Since receiving the notice yesterday from regulatory authorities, I have been filled with remorse and guilt, entirely unable to sleep.
Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its “Neihan Duanzi” app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].
I am responsible because I failed to live up to the guidance and expectations supervisory organs have demanded all along. Over the past few years, the regulatory authorities have provided us with much guidance and assistance, but in our hearts we failed to properly understand and recognise [their demands]. Nor did we properly rectify the situation, which led to the present failure to be responsible to our users.
I am responsible also because I failed to live up to the trust and support placed in me by our users. We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.
At the same time, I failed my colleagues who invested such boundless enthusiasm and hard work to create this product. For such major problems to emerge with the product, and for service to halt, I bear leadership responsibility.
On March 29, after China Central Television reported problems with our advertisements, I engaged in steady reflection over my previous ways of thinking, reflected upon the company’s current methods, and began an energetic campaign among our staff to raise their consciousness, improve management and streamline processes.
My background is engineering, and my originating idea in starting this business was to create a product that would facilitate interaction and exchange among users worldwide. Over the past few years we have invested more energy and resources in the growth of the company, but we did not take the proper measures to improve supervision of the platform, and we did not adequately do our homework in terms of effectively controlling such things as low-row, violent and harmful content, and fake advertising.
As a start-up company developing rapidly in the wake of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, we profoundly understand that our rapid development was an opportunity afforded us by this great era. I thank this era. I thank the historic opportunity of economic reform and opening; and I thank the support the government has given for the development of the technology industry.
I profoundly reflect on the fact that a deep-level cause of the recent problems in my company is: a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses” [of Xi Jinping]; deficiencies in education on the socialist core values; and deviation from public opinion guidance. All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.
We must make a renewed effort to sort out our vision of the future. We say, we want to make global platform for creation and conversation. This demands that we must ensure that the content of “creation” and “conversation” are positive, healthy and beneficial, that they can offer positive energy to the era, and to the people.
We must renew our understanding and enactment of our social responsibility; upright and good, innovative technology, value creation, taking responsibility, cooperation and mutual benefit. I profoundly recognise that the company’s development must stick closely to the era and to the main theme of national development.
Today, supervisory organs, the public and the media have pointed out problems in our company, and this is well-intentioned reminder and an encouragement to us. I and my colleagues will work immediately to bring about change — changing our own thoughts, and changing our methods.
Introducing correct values into technology and products
1.1 Strengthening the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the “four consciousnesses,” socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.
1.2 Strengthening implementation of systems and mechanisms for social responsibility in various business activities, bringing them into the scope of business assessment.
1.3 Further deepening cooperation with authoritative [official Party] media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, ensuring that authoritative [official Party] media voices are broadcast to strength.
1.4 Strengthening the editor-in-chief responsibility system, comprehensively correcting deficiencies in algorithmic and machine review [of content], steadily strengthening human operations and review, raising the current number of operational review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons [carrying out content review].
[Translation omitted here for section on management of online communities]
Finally, I again express my apologies to supervisory organs, and to the friends who care about us.
We ought to do better. We will definitely do better.
We earnestly await help from various parts of society in supervising our rectification. We will not disappoint everyones’ hopes.
Jinri Toutiao founder and CEO Zhang Yiming.
April 11, 2018