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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Seeking Truth from Facts: Information Politics in Modern China
1: Managing Misinformation: Grassroots Reporting In Mao's China
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Harvard University, United States
For all its demands on bureaucratic writing, the Chinese Communist Party does not trust its own agents. Parallel to routine, vertical reporting was a latticework of information systems. From work teams to internal watchdog journalism, these fragmented mechanisms work together to overcome a central dilemma in authoritarian governance: the party needs reliable and up-to-date information on both the bureaucracy and society. Here, redundancy, censorship, and secrecy are not just products of central-local information asymmetry, but also a solution to the perennial problem. But the cure is not immune to political influence: the tragic consequences of silencing Dr. Li Wenliang shows how the system is most prone to failure precisely where the stakes are high.
This paper re-examines the history of information provision inside the CCP. Instead of treating opacity and mendacity as defining traits of authoritarianism, it takes seriously how the party collects and filters reporting from the grassroots. Empirically, this study revisits the early 1960s, when the CCP, still reeling from the greatest famine in history, reckoned with misinformation inside its ranks. By examining how the CCP appraised archives and reformed its information pipeline, this paper illuminates enduring tensions between central and local powers, conflicting processes of decision-making, and despite its unusual forms, an unending search for truth in Chinese politics.