- September 12, 2018 Elite Politics
In Xi We Trust: How Propaganda Might Be Working in the New Era
On November 29, 2012, the newly selected Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping visited the “Road to Rejuvenation” exhibit at the National Museum in Beijing. With the previous Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in tow, Xi unveiled his vision of the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦)—the simple idea that the CCP’s collective mission to rejuvenate the nation also advances the myriad individual ambitions of Chinese citizens. Political theater aside, Xi used the occasion to clearly articulate what amounts to a mission statement: under his leadership, the CCP will lead China’s return as a global power.
Many foreign observers at the time dismissed the Chinese Dream as unoriginal, a lifting of a distinctively American idea to capture a similar sentiment among upwardly mobile middle-class Chinese. But such analyses mostly missed the point. Xi’s speech, in fact, marked the start of a major campaign to reorient domestic policy and to overhaul propaganda work to support this new agenda. That Xi chose to launch a conceptual idea, rather than economic targets or policies, in his first important speech as General Secretary is significant. Not only did it distinguish him from previous leaders, it also spoke volumes about the problem Xi inherited.
That problem was the CCP itself. Most Chinese were well aware that the Party had drifted toward crony capitalism, as corruption swelled within its rank-and-file. The CCP brand reached its nadir when the Bo Xilai crisis—in which the populist and ambitious leader of Chongqing was purged and jailed after his wife murdered a British national—exploded in early 2012, reinforcing the growing cynicism the Chinese public held toward its government.
The crisis shook the CCP just before Xi took the reins of the world’s largest political party. Xi’s urgent task, then, which likely had consensus approval from other senior leaders, was to strengthen a weakened Party through a massive anti-corruption campaign and a reimagined Party narrative to win the hearts and minds of Chinese people.
These twin efforts were of equal importance to Xi’s goals and were mutually reinforcing in their implementation. From the CCP’s vantage point, faltering public trust was as much an existential threat to its legitimacy as a potential economic collapse. The Party understood that it must stand for something beyond perpetuating its own power and its cadres’ self-enrichment. Indeed, the CCP had to fill its platform with more compelling ideas—or face a credibility crisis of monumental proportions. In this context, Xi’s Chinese Dream set the stage for the elevation of ideological work to a level perhaps not seen since the Mao era.
Propaganda often gets short shrift in mainstream coverage of Chinese politics, possibly because the propaganda apparatus is frustratingly opaque and its effectiveness hard to measure. But the CCP, as a Leninist ruling party that demands political unity among its 89 million members and public compliance with its dictates from nearly 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, invests enormous resources in the promulgation of official ideologies, media management, and public opinion guidance.
Propaganda work is so instrumental to the political system that the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), established in 1924, is almost as old as the CCP itself, which was founded three years earlier in 1921. Since 1992, the propaganda system has been overseen by a PBSC member, who heads the Central Leading Small Group on Propaganda and Thought Work (CLSGPTW). This system is responsible for all Party publicity and for the supervision of all information domains in China and, to the extent possible, abroad. That it was so important for Xi to be the first top leader since Deng Xiaoping to enshrine his name in the Party Constitution—under the aegis of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”—is a testament to the tight control and crucial role of political expression under CCP rule.
In this analysis, we seek to make sense of what we have dubbed “Propaganda in the New Era,” examining what has changed (or not) during Xi’s tenure across several dimensions: bureaucracy, funding, content, and effectiveness. We mainly focus on propaganda work aimed at domestic audiences rather than on efforts to project China’s soft power externally. Combining a range of data and qualitative analysis, we present as best an assessment as we can of how CCP propaganda under Xi (1) has been increasingly controlled by Party rather than state bureaucracies; (2) has received increased funding; (3) has markedly improved content quality; and (4) has shown effectiveness in raising levels of public trust in the Chinese government.
The Organizational Backbone of China’s Hearts and Minds
Some specialists have observed that “the more things change, the more they stay the same” with regard to Xi’s propaganda work compared to that of his predecessors, Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and Jiang Zemin (1989-2002). That is true, to an extent: after all, the propaganda system is still led by the CLSGPTW; the agency that manages propaganda work is still the ministerial-level CPD directly under the CCP Central Committee; and the Party still controls the media and censors political debate. But since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi has overseen an important shakeup of China’s propaganda apparatus (see Figure 1).
The General Secretary has appointed his political allies to leadership positions in the propaganda bureaucracy, but more significant is Xi’s reassertion of Party control over aspects of propaganda work that had been under state administration for decades. The practical consequences of these reforms have manifested in the various changes to messaging, content, and technology adoption. But it likely also had an effect on tightening the discipline and padding the budgets of Party propaganda organs, which would be necessary to better control messaging and produce high-value documentaries like Amazing China (see below on propaganda content improvements).
Personnel Changes Important but Expected
The swift launch of the Chinese Dream concept signaled that gaining control of the propaganda system was an early priority for Xi. In August 2013, Xi laid out his vision for elevating propaganda work in a speech to the quinquennial National Propaganda and Thought Work Conference, where he said the CCP should “do propaganda work better” and relevant agencies must “maintain a high degree of unanimity with the Party’s Central Committee.” Sources later told the South China Morning Post that Xi’s speech was actually “far stronger” than the summary that appeared in state media. He had apparently urged the Party to be “combative” online and “wage a war to win over public opinion” by forming a “strong internet army to seize the ground of new media.”
That same meeting had established, for the first time, that the CPD should treat online public opinion work as its “highest priority” (重中之重). Against this backdrop, Xi moved quickly to establish and chair a Central Leading Small Group on Internet Security and Informatization (CLSGISI). The leading group is meant to coordinate the Party’s work to censor China’s vibrant online discourse, improve digital propaganda, set global internet standards, and become a tech superpower. Given that Tencent’s WeChat can have 1 billion-plus monthly active users, it is no surprise that Xi’s team has prioritized managing the digital domain.
As has been common under his rule, Xi prefers to concentrate authority in Party leading groups rather than distribute power to the State Council, which is nominally China’s government. To ensure the loyalty of those under his authority, Xi also had to clean out political detritus in the propaganda system. He did so by sending anti-corruption inspectors into the CPD and purging the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), Lu Wei. Lu was replaced by Xu Lin, a CPD Deputy Director who served as an aide to Xi when he ran Shanghai, and who recently became head of the State Council Information Office, a CPD-controlled agency responsible for external propaganda. In July, Zhuang Rongwen, another CPD Deputy Director, who worked under Xi in Fujian province, replaced Xu at CAC.
Placing loyalists in the government apparatus is a tried and true way for China’s top leaders to consolidate control over policymaking. And Xi also won major personnel placements at the 19th Party Congress when Wang Huning, widely credited with shaping Xi’s populist image and being the originator of the Chinese Dream concept, was himself elevated to the PBSC and to chair the CLSGPI. The new Director of the CPD, Huang Kunming, who worked with Xi for over two decades in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, enjoyed an accelerated promotion from an alternate member to full membership of the 19th Central Committee and earned a seat on the 25-member Politburo.
Figure 1. Snapshot of Central Propaganda Department Ecosystem
Source: The Initium.
But just how indicative are personnel reshuffles of wider changes to China’s propaganda system? This is hard to determine precisely. Having loyal subordinates will certainly help Xi execute his propaganda agenda, but it is normal for China’s paramount leader to install close allies to leadership positions, particularly for jobs like propaganda work that require a high level of trust. Instead, what likely has had a bigger impact on propaganda work is the reconfiguration of the bureaucracy. In this area Xi has been unusually active.
Significant Propaganda Powers Revert to the Party
At the conclusion of the most recent National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018, the Central Committee published a far-reaching “Plan for Deepening Reform of Party and State Institutions.” The main outcome of this reorganization for the propaganda machinery is that the Party now exerts more direct control over propaganda work than perhaps it has in decades.
The plan dissolved the State Administration of Press, Publication, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) and essentially separated broadcast industries (radio and television) from the print and film industries. Management of radio and television was parsed out to the new State Administration of Radio and Television (SART), a ministerial-level government agency under the State Council. SART is led by Nie Chenxi, a Central Committee member and CPD Deputy Director.
In addition to the separation, the main state radio and television stations—China National Radio, China Radio International, and China Central Television (CCTV), including its international branch, China Global Television Network—were merged into the new China Media Group (CMG) that will be known as “Voice of China” overseas. While CCTV used to be a vice-ministerial unit that answered to SAPPRFT, CMG is a ministerial-level institution located under the State Council but now under the direct leadership of the CPD. CMG is headed by Shen Haixiong, a Central Committee alternate member and CPD Deputy Director.
The most significant element of the plan, however, was that responsibility for film, press, and publications, moved out of the governmental State Council apparatus and into direct Party control under a National Film Bureau and a National Office of Press and Publication (NOPP) within the CPD. These two new divisions are led at the CPD Deputy Director level: the former is headed by Wang Xiaohui (a Central Committee member) while the latter awaits a new leader after ex-head Zhuang Rongwen moved to the CAC.
State, rather than Party, agencies had overseen the press and publishing industries since 1970 and the film industry since 1949. So, Xi’s administrative reshuffle suggests that he places greater emphasis on the importance of the written word and the silver screen, as well as the internet, for propaganda work (although SART retains responsibility for online video content) (see Figure 2).
Since the NPC, the Party has continued to siphon media regulation responsibilities from state organs. In early September, the NOPP gained oversight of the registration and licensing of online games from SART and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The Party office will “implement controls on the total number of online video games, control the number of new online video games, explore an age-appropriate rating system in line with China’s national conditions, and limit the amount of time minors [spend playing games].”
Figure 2. The Official Hierarchy of Party-State Media
Source: The Initium.
Hasn’t the Party Always Controlled Propaganda?
Of course, it is true that the Party always wielded decisive control over China’s propaganda activities, even those that were administratively under the State Council’s auspices. Still, Xi’s reforms are significant because the Party and the administrative state are formally separate entities. The Party holds ultimate political power but can only exercise that power within state institutions through the supervision of Party committees within these agencies and through its appointment of bureaucratic personnel, most of whom are Party members and therefore subject to Party discipline if they disobey its orders. Party-state separation still matters because it gives the state bureaucracies agency to advance parochial policy agendas via the selective application and interpretation of Party directives.
But the Party’s cannibalization of the propaganda system likely means there will be less internal debate over the interpretation of high-level directives, less bureaucratic resistance to central policy preferences, and easier recourse to shut down publications and silence troublemakers. Xi’s reforms aim to create a more disciplined and reliable messaging machine in service of the goal to “strengthen the Party’s unified leadership of news and public opinion work.”
Another effect of shifting direct control from the state to the Party is that press, publication, and film work are no longer subject to the State Council Open Government Information Ordinance, in effect since 2008, which stipulates a degree of information disclosure by state agencies on their own initiative and in response to citizen requests. The CPD, however, has no website and is not compelled to publish information about its activities. Chinese citizens have also lost the right to lodge information requests regarding government decisions in these sectors. In short, propaganda work has become even more opaque.
The prospective bifurcation between Party and state bureaucracy can become especially salient when there exists internecine contention over propaganda-related questions. One particularly relevant example was the release in late February 2015 of Chai Jing’s hard-hitting anti-pollution documentary Under the Dome. Widely compared to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Chai’s film criticized China’s urban smog and blamed it on heavy industry. The movie went viral and garnered hundreds of millions of views within days. But, following outcry from powerful vested interests, particularly the oil industry, and a rising number of citizens openly expressing their discontent at China’s pollution, the Party soon removed Chai’s documentary from the Chinese internet.
One interpretation of how Under the Dome came to be released is that lower-level officials ushered the film through approval procedures without explicit top-level authorization. With the centralization of propaganda decision-making power, Xi probably hopes to avoid these kinds of decision-making discrepancies in the future.
But with greater power comes greater responsibility—as well as risk. For the CCP, this means that if “mistakes” are made in the formulation or implementation of propaganda work, those Party leaders in charge will have a harder time shifting the blame onto the government bureaucracy. In other words, there is more pressure for propaganda officials, such as Wang Huning and Huang Kunming, to perform well and avoid mistakes, or else risk Xi’s wrath.
Show Me the Money
One way to judge the priority of propaganda work under Xi is to look at the finances of agencies within the propaganda ecosystem. Unfortunately, CPD finances are notoriously opaque because it is a Party organ, meaning it does not have to publicize its activities, release a budget, or disclose performance metrics. However, we examined some proxy indicators that suggest the propaganda budget may have seen sizable increases under Xi.
According to the only public report to our knowledge on the CPD’s budget, its 2015 finances skyrocketed by some 433% to 2.5 billion yuan ($400 million). The ostensible reason for the enormous growth of the CPD budget is reportedly the reclassification of funds for “cultural construction” from state and ministry budgets. This shift aligns with the pattern of transferring decision-making responsibility from the state to the Party. Although these figures cannot be independently verified, comparing the 2.5 billion yuan figure against other indicators does imply that such a CPD budget is credible (even if a 433% jump seems less likely).
For instance, based on the 2015 official audit of government budgets, which for an unknown reason included some Party departments (it has not done so since), the CPD failed to spend about 716 million yuan ($112 million) in that fiscal year—equivalent to about 25% of a 2.5 billion yuan budget—with the surplus being rolled over into 2016.
What’s more, since the Shanghai municipal government operates something of a “gold standard” freedom of information regime in China, its local CCP propaganda department actually publishes its budget. We know, for instance, that Shanghai’s municipal propaganda budget rose dramatically from 2.5 billion yuan ($362 million) in 2017 to 3.6 billion yuan ($563 million) in 2018, an annual increase of over 40% (see Figure 3). Because Shanghai is a large and important market for propaganda, and provincial- and lower-level governments are responsible for actually implementing CPD directives, it makes sense that its propaganda budget could exceed the central CPD budget.
Figure 3. Shanghai’s Propaganda Budget Jumped in 2018 (in billion yuan)
Source: Shanghai Municipal Propaganda Department.
It’s also possible to get a glimpse of how Shanghai spends its propaganda funds. Of Shanghai’s 3.6 billion yuan propaganda budget in 2018, nearly 90% (3.2 billion yuan) was slated for propaganda activities in “culture, sports, and media.” Of this 3.2 billion yuan in spending, 25.5 million yuan ($3.7 million) were for “artistic performance venues,” 503 million yuan ($73.5 million) for “artistic performance groups,” and the remaining billions are designated as “other,” which includes spending on newspapers, news websites, radio and television, and development of creative industries (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Shanghai Propaganda Spending Breakdown, 2018
Source: Shanghai Municipal Propaganda Department.
State entities, unlike Party entities, do publish their finances. SAPPRFT, the short-lived SART precursor, which filed budgets from 2013 to 2017, spent a massive 36.7 billion yuan ($5.4 billion) on “media, culture, and sports” (including radio, television, film, and publishing) in 2017. However, this represented only a modest increase from the 34.8 billion yuan ($5.1 billion) it spent in 2013, a 5.7% increase over five years. Xinhua’s spending on news, however, increased by over 18% from 2013 to 2017, rising from 4.9 billion yuan ($719 million) to 5.8 billion yuan ($851 million).
Even with these budgets, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how the CPD uses its money and on what sort of activities. Only a partial picture can be formed based on the above data, which certainly do not encapsulate the totality of public spending on the propaganda ecosystem, much of which may come from Party sources.
Another proxy to examine, as proposed by the political scientist Elizabeth Perry, is to take total state expenditure on “cultural undertakings” (文化事业) as a gauge for general trends in propaganda spending. Data from the Culture Ministry show that this figure has risen steadily as a proportion of total government outlays. This type of spending reached a low of 0.36% under Hu Jintao in 2010 and 2011 and has risen to a two-decade high of 0.42% under Xi in 2017, when China spent 85.6 billion yuan ($12.6 billion) on cultural undertakings.
Increased spending and tighter control in the propaganda apparatus can only go so far to persuade citizens to buy into the Chinese Dream. Perhaps the most important outcome of these developments, though, is that more resources and stricter management of propaganda has seemingly elevated its production value and sophistication. This can be done through adopting new technologies, borrowing leading film techniques, and cultivating younger talent to make propaganda that the Chinese public actually wants to watch and can perhaps even enjoy. In other words, more money appears to be buying increasingly creative efforts to target audiences on new media platforms.
New Era, New Oeuvre
To the many job titles Xi has accumulated, we can add that of “Storyteller-in-Chief.” He has repeatedly exhorted the Party “to tell the China story well.” And this insistence on crafting a compelling narrative is, at its core, about connecting China’s past, present, and future to the CCP’s right to rule indefinitely. This requires beating back public cynicism and strengthening belief in the Party’s capacity to lead the country.
One reason for this emphasis is that a key conclusion of numerous CCP internal studies on the Soviet Union’s collapse was the loss of ideological belief among ordinary citizens. It was a process, according to the CCP’s telling, precipitated by leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev who chose to criticize their party’s history and even let Soviet citizenry do the same. Speaking at a Central Committee study session in early 2013, Xi said as much:
“Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why did the Soviet Communist Party lose power? A major reason was intense struggles in the ideological sphere, which comprehensively negated the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, negated Lenin, negated Stalin, brought about historical nihilism, confused thinking, rendered useless Party organizations at every level, and caused the military to no longer be under Party leadership. In the end, a Party as big as the Soviet Communist Party scattered like birds and beasts, a socialist country as big as the Soviet Union collapsed and fell apart—we must learn from the mistakes of our predecessors!”
Xi’s emphasis on ideological work is also attributable to events more recent than the Soviet collapse: the digital media-driven revolutions of the Arab Spring in 2011. It was perhaps then the Party realized the potential for social media to, as Mao Zedong put it, spark a political prairie fire. The Arab Spring put the Party on high alert that it must take the initiative to upgrade its propaganda—both in content and delivery—for the 21st century.
In fact, the Arab Spring likely had a similarly catalytic effect in revolutionizing the Party’s approach to propaganda as the first Gulf War in 1990-91 did in jump-starting a renewed emphasis on technological upgrades in China’s military. That short war, televised 24/7 on CNN, demonstrated America’s technological superiority in modern combat. It spurred the Chinese to earnestly pursue high-tech military modernization starting in the late 1990s—meaning an emphasis on advanced weapons, integrated systems, and civil-military integration to support defense-related modernization. Both of these events served to shine a spotlight on deficiencies that Beijing needed to remedy.
An inevitable aspect of Xi’s ideological initiative is the need to delegitimize alternative ideas and values in order to elevate domestic propaganda and champion the CCP’s views. This has meant tightening controls on the media and, in particular, stifling essential Western liberal ideas of democracy and information freedom. In other words, Xi has sought to crowd out competing ideas in order to maintain a near monopoly for the CCP’s offerings. In April 2013, the Office of the Central Committee circulated an internal “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” that prohibited discussion of the core tenets of liberal democracy.
To consolidate the CCP’s near-monopoly in the realm of ideas, Xi and his propaganda team appear to have understood that they had to improve and adapt to new audiences and new market trends. Which is why one of the more striking features of Propaganda in the New Era is its noticeably improved quality. Gone are the days of Jiang Zemin’s tepid “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s bland “Harmonious Society”—instead, the Chinese Dream is relatable and uplifting and aims to spread Xi’s trademark “positive energy.” This more attractive concept has been accompanied by qualitative improvements in the Party’s propaganda, and even significant improvement in production value.
It is worth illustrating the changing nature of propaganda work with a couple of brief cases, namely the Amazing China (厉害了, 我的国) documentary and the recent output from the “Road to Rejuvenation Studio” (复兴路上工作室). These cases show the Party’s new focus on non-traditional propaganda—both in content and delivery—that blurs the line between pure propaganda and what Americans might consider political advocacy campaigns.
Propaganda in High Definition
The immediate difference from previous propaganda that one notices about Amazing China, released in Chinese theaters in March 2018, is its Hollywood-ification. The 90-minute film, which became the highest grossing domestic documentary ever, is replete with grandiose panoramic shots, sharp high-definition frames, and even a soaring score—cinematic techniques typical of a sleek Hollywood blockbuster. Mastery of such tricks of the movie trade make this state-sponsored documentary a far cry from the staid and soporific propaganda productions of the past. And whether or not one approves of the content, the sheer sleekness of the film can make its substance more “watchable”—so the medium is at least half the message
The enormous publicity surrounding Amazing China obscured its origin: it began as a six-part CPD miniseries that aired a year earlier in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress. Called “Splendid China” (辉煌中国), the miniseries not only employed sophisticated techniques, its production was expansive in scope. Official media proudly touted that shooting the miniseries required eight film crews to traverse 31 provinces and regions over three months, capturing some 3,200 hours of hi-def film, 300-plus hours of aerial footage, and 108 interviews. These kinds of efforts are usually reserved for a David Attenborough mega-production like Planet Earth, not a Chinese propaganda flick.
Beyond the high production value, there is little doubt that Splendid China is full-on propaganda. The six episodes—spanning China’s technological and engineering feats to environmental stewardship, global integration, and military prowess—all fall under the rubric of the Chinese Dream. The key political message continues to link Xi’s “new era,” and by extension the CCP’s, to China’s past, present, and future in a cohesive and uninterrupted narrative. The nationalism peddled by Xi’s propaganda is increasingly sophisticated. Splendid China and Amazing China are not particularly anti-foreign but rather decidedly pro-China.
Many Chinese seem to have found Amazing China appealing. On Dianping, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp, the documentary has a rating of 9.6/10 from 111,827 votes. While many of these votes may come from “bots” or paid commenters, the individual review comments appear to be organic and suggest the main theme of “Chinese pride” is about as compelling a message as the CCP has ever conveyed to stir the public imagination. Naturally, the CCP has decreed that the documentary be used as teaching material in colleges across China.
Digital Shorts and “Explainers”
Just weeks before the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2013, an animated “explainer” video popped up on Youku, China’s YouTube. It was titled “How Leaders Are Made” and it compared the political leadership selection process in the United States, Britain, and China. While it playfully explained complex political subjects, the digital short contained an underlying message: compared to Western democracies, Chinese leaders are tested more rigorously than a Barack Obama or David Cameron. It was produced by an outfit calling itself the “Road to Rejuvenation Studio.”
This digital short went viral in China, but the background of its creator remained a mystery. Many suspected that this was a new initiative from within the propaganda system, especially since “Rejuvenation Road” is literally a street in Beijing, where both CCTV and the then-SAPPRFT had offices. According to one People’s Daily investigation, the studio is in fact on Rejuvenation Road (复兴路)and is composed of a young team from diverse disciplines. (The Wall Street Journal reported, however, that the studio was run out of the Party’s International Liaison Department, which handles the CCP’s relations with foreign political parties.) Interestingly, the team hires foreigners to help develop content in their digital products—perhaps most aptly captured in an English-language explainer video on the 13th Five-Year Plan.
The studio’s products have won accolades from the Chinese government and viewers alike, and particularly for a follow-up effort called “The CCP Walks Alongside You.” Although it is clearly aligned with Xi’s agenda and the Chinese Dream, the studio’s content and delivery are far from the means typically associated with traditional propaganda—it is, in fact, closer to the work of a corporate public relations division and is targeted at millennials. According to the state-owned China Youth Daily public opinion monitoring office, 70% of netizens who saw “The CCP Walks Alongside You” digital short liked it, with at least a quarter of the comments commending the improvement in propaganda content.
The apparent resonance of this type of slick digital persuasion seems to comport with the popular idiom of the Chinese Dream, which topped numerous independent lists of China’s online “word of the year” as far back as 2013, according to the official China Youth Daily. But more than resonating with a younger demographic, the studio’s work seems to have influenced the overall sensibility and tech-savviness of propaganda content.
These techniques are now widely applied across the Chinese bureaucracy, as infographics and animated explainers have proliferated. According to a study of the government’s social media presence, 80% of the ministries under the State Council have a WeChat account and 66% have a Weibo account, many of which are avid infographic generators. The foreign ministry, for instance, leads in the number of Weibo followers at 7.5 million, but perhaps surprisingly, the state assets management agency rounds out the top five with 4.6 million followers (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Top 10 State Council Agencies with the Most Weibo Followers (July 2018)
Source: Horizon Consulting.
In the last few years, it appears to be almost standard practice for a major policy document or announcement to be accompanied by an infographic breakdown of its key points and targets, which is then published directly on social media platforms such as WeChat. Some of these infographics come from agencies themselves but, more often, they come from Xinhua or the People’s Daily as part of their reporting on the new policies. For instance, one of the most useful and dynamic infographics came from the People’s Daily official WeChat account, when it disseminated a comprehensive explainer of the bureaucratic reorganization approved by the NPC in March 2018.
While Propaganda in the New Era is better at responding to market demands for more attractive content, the Party remains uncompromising in controlling the substance of the message. In September 2016, the Central Committee General Office issued an “opinion” that demanded state-owned cultural enterprises put “social effect” before economic profits—including incorporating performance metrics that weigh the former over the latter—which means that toeing the political line is prioritized over the corporate bottom line.
Does New Era Propaganda Work?
Have higher quality and more appealing content, as well as more robust budgets, translated into greater effectiveness for Propaganda in the New Era? Examining shifts in public opinion is a good way to gain insights on effectiveness, but it is difficult to identify precise causal factors behind such shifts. This is in part because public opinion research is not as developed in China as it is in liberal democracies like the United States. Still, certain polling data can shed light on whether public trust in the CCP as an institution has increased and whether the idea of Chinese exceptionalism is taking hold, both of which are broad goals for the CCP’s propaganda efforts.
The CCP does not allow pollsters to assign it an approval rating, although multinational public opinion surveys tend to record relatively high levels of regime support in China. Most of these surveys have not yet published data from the Xi era, but the Pew Research Center is a notable exception. When asked whether they had “confidence” in their president in 2011, 2012, and 2014, Chinese respondents gave former President Hu Jintao an 86% confidence rating in 2011 and 82% in 2012. When asked the same question of Xi in 2014, respondents gave him a 92% confidence rating, 10 percentage points higher than Hu on the eve of his retirement.
Of course, these quasi “approval ratings” could well shift for Xi in the future, as he may stay in office for another two terms and especially as disagreement over some of his policies seems to have surfaced. But at least during his first term, the Chinese public’s confidence in their leader had improved, which surely owed to some degree to the nature and scope of his early propaganda efforts.
Pew has also surveyed Chinese on questions of general life satisfaction that point indirectly (yet not definitively) to the possible influence of propaganda under Xi’s tenure. In 2015, 96% of Chinese said their standard of living was “better than their parents,” more than three quarters said they were “better off financially” than five years ago, and over 70% said their own economic situation was “good.”
From 2013 to 2016, more than 80% of Chinese polled believed their children today would “be better off financially than their parents.” In 2014, the last time Pew posed the question in China, 87% of Chinese respondents said they were “satisfied” with their country’s overall direction. Life satisfaction may not be an entirely sound metric to determine whether people trust the CCP more but, as a proxy, it suggests there probably isn’t a crisis of confidence either.
Some of these conclusions appear to be corroborated by a 2016 joint study on American and Chinese public opinion by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Horizon Consulting, China’s leading private public opinion surveyor. About 39% of American respondents said their parents were better off than they were, compared to only 27% of Chinese who said the same. Chinese respondents were far more optimistic about the future than Americans, however. Nearly two-thirds believed their children will be economically better off, while only 11% of Americans believed the same. Perhaps in another indication of the effectiveness of domestic propaganda, the majority of Chinese respondents believed that China is both economically and militarily stronger than the United States, aligning with Xi’s emphasis on “becoming strong.”
When it comes to measuring trust specifically, Edelman, the American public relations firm, has released an annual “Edelman Trust Barometer” since 2001. In the 2018 edition, China topped a 28-market ranking of average public trust in institutions. In particular, Chinese people’s trust in their government reached the barometer’s “highest recorded levels”—84% of the general public and 89% of the “informed public” trusted China’s government. What’s more, 68% of Chinese believed that, compared to business, media, or NGOs, government is the institution “most likely to lead to a better future” (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Chinese and American Trust in Institutions: 2017 vs. 2018
Source: 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.
Edelman called these results “unprecedented in the history of the study” and “a genuine reflection of the general population’s confidence in reaction to both economic and social achievements in China.” If these 17 years of data are any guide, Xi’s propaganda seems to be succeeding in rekindling some trust between the Party and the governed.
After the summer rumor mill ran hot with stories of dissension within Xi’s ranks, the General Secretary returned to Zhongnanhai seemingly emboldened to double down on his agenda. That was manifest in one of his first orders of business, which was to chair the National Propaganda and Thought Work Conference on August 21-22. His speech at the conference amounted to a ringing endorsement of the Party’s propaganda work under his leadership and of the performance of Wang Huning and Huang Kunming, both of whom also spoke at the event.
Xi said that “Since the 18th Party Congress, we have placed propaganda and thought work in an important position in our overall work” and “practice has proved that the Party center’s propaganda policies and ideological work are completely correct, and the broad masses of officials on the propaganda and ideological front are completely trustworthy.”
Whether there was in fact serious elite dissent, Xi did not mince his words when he declared that his propaganda work was effective in winning over the Chinese public. A course change does not appear to be on the horizon, which means more creative content, more disciplined messaging, higher production values, increased Party control, and greater focus on the internet and new media will continue to be the defining features of Propaganda in the New Era.
For state-sponsored works such as Amazing China, sequels should be expected. And like The Godfather, the sequel may turn out to be better than the original.
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