The fantasy of “Global Power” with Globalised Propaganda: China’s Media Machinery
Sun Zi, a prominent Chinese military general from 6th Century B.C (512 B.C, in his military treatise the “Art of War” wrote that “ Warfare is all about deception” and it is better to “Mystify, Mislead and Surprise your Enemy’’, then attack. The quotes and their relevance in the current environment remain true.
As usual, after the bilateral meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime minister Modi, all sorts of media platform — the electronic, print and social media — are abuzz with commentaries and analytical pieces focussed on post-mortem analysis of bonhomie and diplomacy between two leaders. All sorts of analysts from the field of economics to security are busy forecasting consequences — economic, trade, visa, cultural exchange and investment — across various international media platforms. Amid all these discussions and diplomacy, in a strange departure from the past precedents, India subtly denied support for ‘’ONE CHINA’’ policy and instead asked its eastern neighbour, that it should first accept and adhere to “ONE INDIA’’ policy in return for India’s support. It was an explicit change in the tone towards China, which tends to seek clarification from foreign leaders in support of “ONE CHINA” policy publicly.
While tracking the developments ensuing India-China summit, I came across an article published in China’s Communist Party’s mouthpiece ‘’The Global Times’’, captioned ‘’Beijing Can Heed Modi’s Policy Shifts’’; in which the author has quoted “Modi himself once said: No power on Earth can take away even an inch from India. And more recently, India’s foreign minister made a public statement about ‘One India’. It seems a natural conclusion that the Modi administration is tending to be tougher on border talks. But in fact, such toughness should be understood within the context of India’s domestic political ecology of complex party wrangles. This decides that such toughness, on many occasions, is more symbolic’’.
It was worth noting, that a state-owned mouthpiece of a sovereign country getting vocal about the definition of what ‘’ One India’’ stands for, and concluding it as mere rhetoric with no substance meant to diffuse domestic politics and to pacify political rivals. Quite intrigued by the tone and vigour with which the news commentary was published, I took a look into the history and structure of China’s media machinery; that is responsible for sustaining of the communist regime.
The whole process, from analysis to publishing commentary, is part of the communist propaganda on which the heavily regulated and censored communist regime stands and controls the mass communication and information dissemination system. This helps them not only to manipulate their own public opinion but also to preach and propagate similar views to a much larger international audience. The strategy of reaching out to the international public by tapping the global information space is part of its Grand External Propaganda Strategy (GEPS), that was launched by former Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2009. The GEPS program is also known as “Dà Wàixuān’’ — a government propaganda project budgeted at RMB 45 billion Yuan.
The aim of the project is to “Seize the initiative, gain the right to speak, maintain an active role, and grasp the power to raise the appeal of our positions in public opinion and in international broadcasting’’.
Rise of the Communist Party in China & Mao Zedong’s idea of Propaganda
In order to understand the evolution of Chinese Communist Propaganda system, one needs to study the history of the establishment of communist rule in China.
From 1682–1912 China was ruled by ‘’Qing Dynasty’’. With its established governance model, law and order system and military, the dynasty continued to stay in power for over three centuries. During the period, from 1890 to 1905, nearly all railways in China were planned, financed, built and operated by foreign powers with concessions from the Qing Government. In addition to that, many local governments had funded their own railway projects. As the company in charge of railways got entrapped in corruption following mismanagement by its members, Qing government decided to nationalise the local railway projects and sell them to “Four Powers Consortium’’ (Germany, USA, France, Japan and Great Britain) for £10 million loans. It was also in to repay its debts according to Boxer Protocol, under which the government had to payback £67 million to eight nations — UK, Russia, Japan, France, US, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary — that were involved in Boxer rebellion.
When the Qing government decided to hand over the operational rights of the Sichuan-Hankou and Hankou-Guangdong Railway to the US, it led to “Railway Rights Protection Movement” in which many underground anti-Qing rebel forces along with their sympathisers within the Qing’s army rebelled against the government. This anti-government movement led to Wuchang uprising and Xinhai revolution in 1911. The Revolutionary Alliance (association of anti-Qing rebel forces) a.k.a “Toumenghui’’ led to the formation of a democratic political party “Kounmintang’’ (KMT), a.k.a Chinese Nationalist Party. The party’s provisional president Sun Yat-Sen ceded his power to the military leader Yuan Shikai. After Yuan’s death, China was divided by warlords, while the KMT was able to control only part of the south.
During World War I, China participated in the war with Allies and after the defeat of Germany ‘’Treaty of Versailles’’ was signed, under which Germany’s rights over Shandong Province went to Japan. On the morning of May 4, 1919, student representatives from thirteen different local universities gathered in Beijing and drafted five resolutions. Another 3,000 students gathered in front of Tiananmen and held a demonstration which spread across 20 provinces and 100 cities across the country. The general opinion termed the incumbent government to be “spineless”. The May Fourth Movement also promoted spreading of Marxism in China and prepared the ideological foundation for the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Betrayed by the western powers through the Treaty of Versailles and a heightened nationalism leading to the radicalization of Chinese intellectual thought and western liberal values losing its relevance among Chinese students and adults. Also, the May 4th Movement gave an important lesson to Mao Zedong. Soon, Yanan Rectification Movement was launched by CCP under the leadership of Mao to create a robust and disciplined party with its dedicated Cadre. This was done in three phases. In the due course, more than 10,000 were killed as the party made efforts to attack intellectuals and replace the idea of the May 4th Movement with that of communist belief system. Mao continued with the rectification process till he lived, to carry out the process of Thought Reform and to gradually decimate his political adversaries.
Hence, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda system is derived from Yanan Rectification Movement and is based on Leninist Indoctrination and Mass Mobilizations. After 1949, they used every possible media including electronic media such as film and television, educational curriculum and research, print media such as newspapers and posters, cultural arts such as plays and music, oral media such as memorizing Mao quotes, as well as thought reform and political study classes to influence public opinion and ensure loyalty to the communist party. China Central Television (CCTV) has traditionally served as a major channel for electronic propaganda whereas People’s Daily newspaper was used as a medium for print propaganda. During Mao’s years, a distinctive feature of propaganda machinery was to “Rule by Editorials”
Modern Propaganda System of China:
Propaganda and Thought work have become the “lifeblood” of the Party as it ensures CCP’s continued legitimacy and holds on power. With the arrival of the Internet in 1994 and CCP’s fear of imminent threat to its rule, the government launched the ‘’The Golden Shield Project’’. The first part of the project lasted till 2006 and the second part began in 2006 and ended in 2008. On 6th December 2002, around 300 people in charge of Golden Shield project from 31 provinces and cities throughout China participated in a four-day inaugural “Comprehensive Exhibition on Chinese Information System”. In the exhibition, many western high-tech products including Internet security, video monitoring and human face recognition were purchased. It is estimated that around 30,000–50,000 policemen were employed in this gigantic project. China started its Internet censorship with a law called ‘’Temporary Regulation for the Management of Computer Information Network for International Connection’’, in which all Internet service providers required to be licensed and the Internet traffic to be channelled through ChinaNet, GBNet, CERNET or CSTNET. Under a series of regulations Do’s and Dont’s were listed and conditions for penalty and amounts were notified. The rapid penetration of internet among urban population fueled by economic growth and the advent of social media, blogs and microblogs, information dissemination system became smooth and fast unlike before. This has begun to pose a serious threat to the government's political interest. As a result, a series of steps were adopted by the Chinese government to make its online and offline propaganda system more effective and robust. Some of which are commercialisation of television media, creation of internet army (most famous being the ‘’50cent Party ‘’), creation of frontline international print and electronic media channels, among others. Public places such as media and news organizations, educational institutions, literature and art centres, and cultural exhibitions came under CCP’s oversight and were regulated by the CCP PROPAGANDA DEPARTMENT (CCPPD). As per official government reports in 2003, channels for propaganda dissemination under CCPPD included 2,262 television stations (of which 2,248 were “local”), 2,119 newspapers, 9,074 periodicals and 1,123 publishing houses. In addition to internal circulation papers and local gazetteers, approximately 68 million internet accounts with more than 100 million users, and more than 300 mobile phone users were under surveillance.
The propaganda system of CCP is divided into two categories: Directed towards Chinese people, Directed towards foreigners. For the outside world, the propaganda is of four types: political, economic, cultural and social. The Central Propaganda Department oversees Internal Propaganda, and has a closely linked bureaucracy, whereas, the Office of Foreign Propaganda looks after the matters relating to external propaganda.
All said the privatisation of television and print media didn’t bring any diversification and autonomy in news reporting and analysis as often the new channels had to align their reportage according to the need of the party officials making them a mere propaganda machine with no factual coverage. Censorship guidelines are often circulated weekly from the Communist Party Propaganda Department and the Government Bureau of Internet Affairs to prominent editors. CCP has banned inter-region reporting for the Chinese news media. This meant that provincial media outlets could not report on local government issues in other parts of the country except their own. Chinese local media operates in a narrow space between commercial interests often owned by the Party cadres and government officials who pressure the media to conform to positive coverage of the government. There are numerous instances where the CCPD used media to manipulate the domestic opinion to disparage or glorify any particular person or party leader. This was evident when Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was given Nobel Prize for Peace for his role in Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, CCPD used domestic media to slander image of the Nobel laureate. In another such case when a powerful Politburo member Mr.Bo Xilai was prosecuted for corruption, his own party cadres used official mouthpiece such as People’s Daily and other mainstream newspapers to vilify him to highlight his corruption. It was all out battle against him by his own colleagues.
In 2008 local government officials delayed reports of contaminated milk that sickened hundreds of thousands of children and its reporting was suppressed. The same year in an earthquake, a poorly constructed school building collapsed, in which thousands of Children got buried under the rubbles. The journalists who exposed corruption were jailed and the event wasn’t reported.
In 2005, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao has promoted “Soft Power Initiative” aimed at increasing China’s influence overseas through cultural and language programs. This involves opening of Confucian institutes, language learning centres that preach peace and harmony.
In 2009 Chinese state media launched the English language version of the “Global Times” a nationally distributed news publication. It was described as part of a larger push by the Chinese government to have a greater say in international media and as well as supplanting what it considers to be biased western media sources.
The Most famous online propaganda army of communist China is “50Cent Party” whose aim is to defend the Chinese government on online forums and social media. They are trained internet users who comment on blogs, public forums or wikis, to shift the debate in favour of the Communist Party and influence public opinion. They are named so because they are allegedly paid 50 cents for each comment they post in support of CCP. They are also hailed as “Online Spin Doctors”. Only people with sound political and professional knowledge are employed in this task. The Guardian puts the estimate at 300,000.
CCPD also uses foreign media correspondents to improve its image, it guides them to the protest sites in Xinjiang, Tibet and asks them to do Peace Reporting also known as Peace Journalism. Peace journalism does not sell well because it does not cover the conflict by news eliciting strong emotional reactions. Man becomes easily addicted to strong emotions and this has played a central role in peace journalism’s failure at being adopted by mainstream media. On the other hand, mainstream media badly need to provide the strongest emotional value to their audience and this has become a vital part of their business model. Yet in the People’s Republic of China, the media industry is not driven by returns on financial investments but by returns on political interests. During the Visit of Australian PM Tony Abbott on April 10, 2014, China used its frontline media organisation Global-CAMG as its Propaganda machine. Global CAMG Pty Ltd is ostensibly based in Melbourne and supports Chinese-language radio stations.
Prior to the beginning of 2008 Beijing Olympics, China had deployed its security officials and overseas Chinese people as a counter to anti-Tibetan protestors in its embassies and during Olympic Torch relay ceremonies across different countries to protect the Olympic relay torch from getting hijacked by the Tibetan protestors. It was also reported that during the relay, Chinese security officials doused the Olympic flame several times in fear of the same being done by the protestors.
The 2008 Summer Olympics was portrayed by the Chinese government as a symbol of China’s pride and place in the world. In the events leading up to the Olympics, the government issued several guidelines to the local media, not to cover political issues directly related to the games and to avoid reporting topics such as pro-Tibetan independence and East Turkestan movements. As the news about milk scandal broke in September 2008, there was widespread speculation that China’s desire for a perfect Olympic game may be a factor contributing towards the delayed recall of contaminated infant milk formula.
In 2005, Reporters Without Borders published a report about the state-run news agency “Xinhua” calling it “the world’s biggest propaganda agency.
So with the facts and figures in the hindsight, one can imagine the extent to which the Chinese government uses its military, money and media to influence opinions and accomplish its objectives around the world. The recent military standoff in Chumar area of Ladakh, economic and trade agreements with Indian counterparts and the articles published in their local and international newspapers on India-China relationship, both ridiculing India’s One India policy as mere political rhetoric and at the same time advising our PM to be pragmatic with no alternative can be fairly analysed. Finally, as the Sun Tzu said: “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved”.
(Written on September 22, 2014, for safpo.org)