China in 5 Words: Propaganda (宣传)

Like a lot of racial slurs, the word “chinaman” did not start life as a derogatory term. To quote George Carlin, there is nothing wrong with the N word in and of itself: “It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about.”

Having spent much of the past century fighting fascism and communism, Anglophone countries have taken a disliking to the word “propaganda” and the idea behind it. In China by contrast, the ruling Communist Party, along with countless businesses and institutions in the country, has its own Propaganda Department (宣传部).

With traditional media organizations losing money and influence, China’s terrifyingly well-funded propaganda machine is to be reckoned with. Over the past decade, state-sponsored wire service Xinhua, newspaper China Daily, and China Central Television have been opening new offices around the world while local counterparts have struggled, and in 2018 Beijing announced the introduction of Voice of China, a propaganda behemoth that will employ 14,000 people worldwide.

This is part of a wider desire to establish China as a leader in soft power. One of the biggest moments of this long campaign was its hosting of the Olympics in 2008, described at the time as a “century-old dream.” The opening ceremony at that Olympics may be the most technically impressive in history, but four years later, the London opening ceremony showed a country that could do something China’s leadership was not yet capable of – laugh at itself.

Lin Miaoke, who mimed a song at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony. Yang Peiyi (inset) did the actual singing but was not considered pretty enough to represent her country. 

The Beijing opening ceremony was criticised for valuing appearance over substance. Lin Miaoke (pictured) mimed the song ‘My Motherland’ at the ceremony because Yang Peiyi, the actual singer (inset), was not deemed cute enough. Within a year of its lavish Olympic coming-out party, China’s government had shown its true colours, blocking Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and initiating crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang that brought those territories closer to the status of police states.

No other country pours so many resources into protecting its image through censorship and propaganda. This apparatus often has the opposite to intended effect. No matter how hard China tries to control the conversation, the wit and humour of irreverent and mischievous bloggers, microbloggers and online artists stays one step ahead. Just as Maoism tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to crush the entrepreneurial genius of a people, the current machine may not succeed in choking its creative spirit.

However, censorship does not necessarily preclude becoming a soft power leader. Hollywood’s Golden Age, widely agreed to have lasted from the late 1920s till the late 1950s, was also its most censorious. Censorship can liberate and force creators to reach even greater heights than they otherwise would.

For me, the suggestive ending of 1930’s “All Quiet in the Western Front” is a far more powerful anti-war statement than the blood-spattered opening of 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In 2013, Oscars-host Seth MacFarlane regaled the actresses in the auditorium with a song titled “We Saw Your Boobs.” Their predecessors from earlier generations did no such thing, which enabled them to maintain a greater mystique.

Censorship is not the biggest problem. The problem is that few things are done well in China. There was a literary masterpiece from the mid-twentieth century that captured the true nature of totalitarianism. It wasn’t Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” or George Orwell’s “1984”, but JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” that really showed how under totalitarianism it makes more sense to do a half-assed job.

Literary translator Brendan O’Kane has pointed out that even without institutions like the State Administration for Radio and Television, contemporary Chinese literature, and other artforms, would still suck.

According to “Music and the Mind” by Anthony Storr, Plato disliked music because of its extra-rational qualities. The only two keys of which he approved were the ones used for patriotic anthems or for love ballads. The majority of Mandopop hits are cookie-cutter versions of one of those two genres.

This lack of creativity also permeates into the business world. One of the biggest strengths of Chinese business is its ability to copycat. Chinese electric car manufacturer BYD is nicknamed in America as “Borrow Your Design.”

In 2012, a colleague at the Chinese newspaper I then worked at, lamented China’s inability to have its own equivalent of “Gangnam Style”. Efforts have been made but none have had international success. This is because the most exciting creative movements – from modernism in literature to punk music – happen in spite of, not because of, the intervention of government and big business.

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