Past haunts China’s media reforms as party propaganda goes digital
By Pu Huangyu, Initium Media
Since the end of 2013, a great deal of online media combining popular fads with communist ideology has appeared on China’s Internet.
All this reflects a behind-the-scenes push to roll the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda machine into the digital age. With the onset of online technology, the party’s traditional propaganda methods have lost mass appeal and are no longer viewed as an efficient tool for molding public opinion.
That’s why the Publicity Department of the CCP in recent years has been seeking innovative ways to harness the Internet for propaganda purposes. Some young party supporters welcome the move. But opponents say it’s merely an innovation in the way propaganda is delivered rather than a substantive change in content.
Groundbreaking party music video
On Feb. 2, the official news agency Xinhua posted an unprecedented animated music video called “Divine Song: Four Comprehensives” on Sina Weibo, China’s largest online social network.
The Four Comprehensives are the core political goals for China unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2014. They include building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform, governing the nation according to law, and strictly governing the party. Each goal is to be pursued by the Chinese people in a “comprehensive” way. Combining numbers with abstract words is a traditional part of the CCP’s propaganda discourse. But this is the first time a Chinese leader’s political goals have been adapted to pop music.
The singers in the video are depicted as cartoon images of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. They dance while singing, with soldiers, nurses and farmers also dancing in the background. A favorite online vehicle of young netizens’ — “barrages” (strings of comments flying in a video), also appear in the video.
On the same day, Chinese Central Television (CCTV) released another serial online animation that explores Xi’s Four Comprehensives. Cute cartoons, music and narrations were combined in catchy ways to add substance to the vague meanings of political discourse.
The serial animation is a variation of a 2013 animated short film called “How to Become China’s Leader.” The film was produced by the Fuxing Road Studio in Beijing. It’s location is said to highlight the official support the studio enjoys, since Fuxing Road is an address where many government institutions are located.
The animated film represents the government’s first step in reforming the way it delivers propaganda. In the film, China’s new leadership, along with Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin are shown as animated figures, hopping on stairs and the like.
As in many socialist countries, images that depict leaders are a very sensitive issue. Quite a few official media have been penalized for minor errors in how they portrayed Chinese leaders since 1949. The fact that the film was released without any deletions or penalties indicated official endorsement of the Fuxing Road film.
The studio later released several videos of the same type, which together became models for future official propaganda efforts. Official media also moved into producing animated propaganda films.
Generally, these films share a common theme that doesn’t differ much from the propaganda used before China’s reform and opening to the world. Issues like equality, freedom and individual rights are never mentioned in these videos.
The films also are not very original in terms of innovation. The videos borrow heavily from the work of a successful local animation studio called Ming’en which created a popular style of animated video for Chinese audiences.
The CCP’s nurturing of new online propaganda forms may spring from sheer necessity. With the coming of the Internet, traditional government-controlled and private media no longer have a monopoly on information. The Internet also offers numerous channels for information exchange and the CCP is well aware of this.
CCP tightens Internet control
The enormous power of the Internet is why the CCP increasingly stresses controlling online public opinion. A series of official statements and policies have recently been issued to strengthen control over the Net. The nation’s leadership, moreover, is increasingly engaged in Internet-based propaganda efforts.
Deeper changes are taking place within the regime separate from the emergence of new propaganda forms. In the past, every major section of the party had its own media unit for propaganda. In fact, the whole of Chinese society is divided into several party-government sectors. Information is gathered within each sector to be delivered by its media arm.
Nowadays, the party and government offices do not hide behind their respective propaganda departments. Instead, increasing numbers of offices are actively engaged on social media to better communicate with the public.
The CCP’s propaganda apparatus has amassed a considerable audience on the Internet. “Zi Gan Wu,” for example, is a group of netizens who voluntarily support the CCP. The bulk of the group is made up of youngsters. Some young people even created websites like m4.cn, which focus on defending the CCP and the government.
The traditional official propaganda approach saw the public as objects for easy manipulation. But the new generation of “red” audiences have more self-awareness and connections to the outside world. Similarly, in the Mao era, Mao Zedong was seen as a divine being, while today’s netizens call Xi Jinping “Xi Da Da,” which means “the father.”
The CCP’s propaganda machine has embraced this new perspective. They have adjusted their strategy to cater to the interests of Chinese netizens. This explains the recent posting of official cartoon videos on the Internet.
A prime example is the Communist Youth League of China. The major party organization mainly targets young people. It takes the lead in innovative propaganda. Youth Leagues across China have produced videos, games, and comics that reflect youth culture in their propaganda.
The CCP’s ideological control over youth has declined since 1989. The old “red divine songs” that in the past were sung by choruses of uniformed workers and soldiers in Mao caps no longer appeal to young people.
As the result, new versions of these divine songs have been developed that reflect the CCP’s efforts in engaging public. The new approach to propaganda in these songs usually stresses nationalism while playing down communist ideology.
The challenges spurred by the Internet in revamping official propaganda is not limited to China. Russian and American politicians have also adapted their propaganda strategies to the Internet.
In China’s case, the traditional top-down approach in propaganda has cleared the way for Internet-based, religious-style social mobilization. Leaders are portrayed as icons, and propaganda departments do everything to attract netizens’ attention online.
But the bottom line is that the core message of the propaganda hasn’t changed. The new innovative forms of propaganda being mobilized also won’t necessarily create a new image for the CCP. This will be the major challenge facing the CCP’s propaganda machine in the coming years, though some are very optimistic about the outcome.
This article was originally published on Feb. 19, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated by Jiawen Guo for Asia Times