The new face of Chinese propaganda

An old schoolmate of mine is now a midlevel government official. This friend, Mr. Lin, is also a member of the Chinese Communist Party. He worships Mao Zedong and often quotes Mao’s saying, “Man must have some spirit.” He once told me that when he visited New York, he most liked the Statue of Liberty, because it had “spirit,” and least liked Times Square, because it was “all about business.”

Times Square and Tiananmen Square seem to have little in common, except that both are filled with advertisements: in New York, for consumer brands, and in Beijing, for the Communist Party.

For a while, the slogan “Long live the central people’s government!” hung from the Gate of Heavenly Peace, on the north side of Tiananmen Square. (Later, it was changed to “Long live the great unity of the peoples of the world.”) Every Oct. 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, huge banners with the message “Long live the great Communist Party of China!” adorn the square.

The party has used such slogans as a governing tool since the People’s Republic was established in 1949. In the post-totalitarian era, however, this crude and simplistic discourse has lost much of its former effectiveness. In a digital age, these painted and printed slogans seem quaint.

But this year, I’ve noticed a new kind of propaganda: billboards and giant posters, with fresh designs, typefaces and graphics, in many cities. They are ubiquitous: They have been put in parks, along building construction sites, on school walls and in other public places. There has been little coverage in the press. Who created these posters, and why? How much did they cost? It’s all a mystery.

The messages vary, but their most conspicuous feature is affirmation of the party, like “A strong Communist Party means happiness for the Chinese people!” and “Why is China strong? Because of the Communist Party.” I’ve noticed three variations on the theme.

First are billboards and posters with slogans from the Maoist era, like “Sing the praises of the party” or “Sing a folk song for the party.” The latter refers to a 1960s tune, performed by a singer whose voice is embedded in my childhood memories. Many times in my village, I would hear her mesmerizing soprano voice over the loudspeakers: “Sing a folk song for the party; I see the party as my mother; my mother gave birth to my body, but the party’s glory lights my heart.” At the time I didn’t know what “lights my heart” meant. I gave it a romantic connotation that was, looking back, inappropriate for the era.

The party seems to want to use these posters to re-establish its moral authority, but I find them disorienting. Gazing at the “folk song” slogan two months ago in Changsha, in Hunan Province, carried me back to my childhood in the late 1970s, after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. In the fields of my home village, in Jilin Province in the northeast, the slogan could stir the soul. But now that I live in Beijing, surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic, it seems as if it were out of a time warp.

A second theme of the new propaganda is this refrain: “The China Dream, my dream,” “The China Dream: the dream of a powerful nation,” “Fulfill the China Dream with intelligence and hard work.”

President Xi Jinping proposed the concept of the China Dream when he took office last year as part of the party’s once-a-decade leadership transition. Like his predecessors as general secretary of the party, Mr. Xi is expected to leave his intellectual mark on party ideology, so we can expect lots more China Dream posters over the next nine years.

Although the China Dream does not yet have an official definition, provincial versions (the Henan Dream, the Guangdong Dream) and thematic versions (the Space Dream, the Aircraft-Carrier Dream, the Sports Dream) have sprung up. A hospital that specializes in infertility treatments in Chengdu, in Sichuan Province in southwestern China, even trotted out this message: “The China Dream, the Pregnancy Dream.”

Mr. Xi has said that “to realize the Chinese road, we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core.” He has talked of “the great revival of the Chinese nation.” Themes of strength, prosperity and national rejuvenation appear in newspapers with increasing frequency.

This propaganda is effective with most Chinese, who still naïvely believe in the “trickle-down” effect: If the country is prosperous and strong, their own lives will improve accordingly. On Weibo and other microblogging sites, however, some people have begun asking: “What does a strong and prosperous country have to do with me? In Chinese history, dynasties flourished, but ultimately fell. Won’t this happen to the Communist Party as well?” (Of course, for foreign countries, the nationalistic rhetoric can be downright alarming: “Once China is prosperous and strong, what will it do?”)

The third theme of the new propaganda reaches back much further than Mao. It emphasizes traditional Confucian virtues, with aphorisms like “Pass down loyalty and honesty through the generations” and “Take pleasure in doing good.” It calls filial piety, reverence for one’s parents, “the chief of all virtues.” This is a dizzying change for people of my parents’ generation, who lived through the Cultural Revolution, which dismissed these ancient pieties as feudal hogwash.

But for a government grappling with unsettling economic and social change, the revival of classical Chinese culture can be a source of social stability. The party is even promoting “The 24 Paragons of Filial Piety,” a classic text dating from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

Some of these legends of filial sacrifice verge on the extreme. One tells of a poor man who was prepared to kill his young son so that his starving mother would have more to eat. (The man starts to dig a grave in which to bury his son, and instead finds a pot of gold, the reward for his virtue.) Another relates the story of a man so worried about his father’s health that he secretly tastes the old man’s feces. (The sweet taste confirms that the father was gravely ill. The son prays that his life be taken instead of his father’s, and both men live.)

These stories are a throwback. After the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, intellectuals like Lu Xun, Hu Shih and Lin Yutang questioned filial piety. Thinkers of this era called for a shift to a more equitable love: Yes, children should love their parents, but parents should love their children just as much.

A friend of mine, the writer Ran Yunfei, finds the new emphasis on filial piety cynical, because it can be seen as obviating the government’s obligation to care for the vulnerable. By emphasizing the younger generation’s duties to its elders, the government not only saves money — by shifting the burden of care away from the state and onto the family — but also promotes an attitude of unquestioning submission. Note how many songs (like the one from my childhood) compare the party to one’s parents, and how leaders used to be called “father-mother officials.”

For three generations now, Chinese people, even those in the most remote hamlets, have been surrounded by slogans: “Forever loyal to the party,” “Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and “Family planning is China’s fundamental policy,” in support of the one-child policy (which was recently relaxed). Some of these slogans — “Better rivers of blood than one extra birth,” “Stealing military vehicles is illegal behavior” — are now ridiculed on the Internet.

When I was a student in the 1980s, we had to chant this saying by Chairman Mao at athletic events: “Promote sports activities and strengthen the people’s physique!” The entrance to every school was emblazoned with another slogan: “Unity, tension, seriousness, liveliness.” I could understand unity, liveliness and even seriousness, but I never understood what we were supposed to be tense about, or why.

Like the slogans of my childhood, today’s are punchy, catchy and direct. I imagine that, as in past decades, they will influence the way people talk and think. But their flaw is their crudeness and lack of internal logic. Why does a strong Communist Party necessarily mean happiness for the people? Where is the evidence for this claim? Who should “sing a folk song for the party”? All 1.3 billion Chinese?

I have nothing against singing, but I doubt that party officials have time to hear it, given that they are too busy to listen to the tens of thousands of petitions filed each year by ordinary Chinese who travel to Beijing to complain about corruption or injustice in their hometowns.

Not too long ago, the party’s Propaganda Department was renamed the Publicity Department. Old militant expressions like “overthrow,” “thoroughly destroy” and “strike hard,” and images of muscular workers and peasants in heroic postures, have been replaced by gentler illustrations of villagers in tranquil communities, surrounded by traditional paintings and handicrafts.

Some Chinese are as skeptical about this new propaganda as I am. “Who has time for that stuff?” a cabdriver, Mr. Zhang, asked me. “I’m too busy trying to make a living!” A shop clerk, Ms. Xu, said of the posters: “They look nice! I bet they cost a lot!”

Cheng Yizhong, a former editor in chief at the newspaper Southern Metropolitan Daily, who has been jailed for his journalism, says of the slick look of the posters, “I would guess they were outsourced.” My friend Wang Xiaoshan, a publisher, thinks that officials are wasting time with archaic slogans that seem irrelevant to ordinary people’s struggles. “Don’t they know what era we’re living in?” he asked.

But my old schoolmate, the party member Mr. Lin, sees it differently. “Of course it’s stupid!” he told me. “But who cares? We can stick that stupid stuff on all those walls. Can you?”

Murong Xuecun, the pen name of Hao Qun, is the author of “Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu.” This essay was translated by Stacy Mosher from the Chinese.

Source: New York Times – The New Face of Chinese Propaganda

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