By Bhaskar Roy
Over the last several years China has been working to create an effective propaganda machinery to project a peaceful image abroad in which it will be seen to be acting as a responsible global player. The Chinese authorities believe that because of cultural and ideological differences with the West, they have been misunderstood leading to confrontations. At the sametime, they also feel that following decades of the post-World War-II when the world order (that includes economic and cultural institutions) was led by the USA and the West, it was time that this order be led by a China centric Asia. On the face of it, one cannot really disagree with the Chinese position.
The strength of Western capitalism is that it has absorbed much of what socialism advocated. Workers’ Unions have acquired power, laws support just demand of workers and affluent Western countries have established effective social security schemes among others. In this, the Scandinavian/Nordic countries have been exemplary.
On the other hand China, the largest remaining socialist country in the world has adopted a kind of controlled market economy. There have been reforms in many areas, and though freedom of speech and religion still remains under State control, these have come a long way since the era of Mao Zedong and the ultra-conservatives. But they still have a long way to go to present China as a new option to the West. The architect of modern China, Deng Xiaoping, started liberalization with a long vision. But following the 1989 students’ protest, liberalization was brought to a halt or rolled back.
It is in every body’s interest that China really tells the world what it is all about, its policies, intentions and its regional and global vision. With a new age of propaganda or publicity machinery, China can do it. But with an acute apprehension that the Communist Party is under threat, can it actually do it? Therefore, it is imperative that China’s propaganda initiative is reviewed, as new signals come from the country.
Of immediate interest in this context is a policy suggestion thesis carried by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (March 10) titled “Use Modern Media to Enhance Our National Image”. The author of this paper Tan Li is the vice head of the Propaganda Department of the CCP’s Hainan Provincial Committee, as well as Director of the Hainan Province Foreign Propaganda Office. Both the writer’s credentials and that of the newspaper underscores the importance of this article. This does not mean the CCP and the Chinese government had already adopted the suggestions made by the thesis. Yet, there are wide indications that the article is in consonance with developments already noticed in the area of culture and propaganda.
One critical sentence in this paper goes as follows: “It should be noted, however, that currently a number of western developed countries are hastening their efforts to westernize and divide our country; they are using every possible resource to compete for dominance in international discourse”.
Can the West refute this charge? Doubtful. There is enough evidence to substantiate it. At the sametime, China has to ask itself several questions. The world has changed. China is no longer in isolation; it has chosen to be an active member of the international community, and hence will have to live by the rules of the international community – Respect for freedom of speech and opinion, religious rights, rights of minorities instead of suppressing them. Externally, among many things, the recent use of gunboat diplomacy to exert claims on maritime territories on highly questionable evidence, is not acceptable behaviour of a big power.
As the oft repeated cliche goes, the world is becoming a global village where each household must conduct itself as per the norms of the village. Yet, no one in the village must interfere in the normal belief of any household unless members of the family are persecuted by the head of the family. Hence, if China chooses socialism with Chinese characteristics, it should not be permissible for others to force it by any means to adopt a multi-party system. Yet, if the head of the family unleashed mayhem, the neighbours cannot ignore it.
Having said that, Tan Li’s paper proposes a media or propaganda system which is regimented from top to bottom, making it like a weapon of aggression and soft power sabotage. It advocates establishment “of a chain of command system under the leadership of the Party and led by the International Communication Office of the Party” with tailor made agenda laid down by the Party.
This would be a further regression of whatever freedom is left with the Chinese media, if any. It is well known that reports in the national news agency, Xinhua, go through a process of political vetting before being published. It is not a secret that most reporters of the Chinese official media both inside the country and abroad are trained for espionage and propaganda work.
To promote China’s international image, the paper suggests a much larger international coverage and work on the international community. To achieve this, however, it advocates psychological study of foreign audiences and tailored reporting /analysis based on such studies and which would persuade them to accept China’s position.
Addressing the use of the internet, the paper advocates increase in both internet media, and blogging by Chinese citizens, but controlled and guided by the Party. Some of the leading print media have their online versions already.
The Chinese Party and government have together created a huge cadre of nationalist and even ultranationalist citizens who are always ready to pour outrage against foreign targets. They rouse passion. But such practices, looked at from another angle, are beginning to put pressure on the top leadership regarding policies. These pressures are usually hard line. Given the concern among the Chinese leadership about the threat to the Party, it cannot but take cognizance of these views. This can force the Party leadership to take positions which tend to exacerbate Han chauvinism internally, and sharpen aggressive Central Kingdom postures abroad. If Party hard liners control, guide and indoctrinate the people, China may get more distanced from the outside world than integrate with it.
There are many more initiatives along with the media which form part of the whole which is called the department of culture. In communist regimes “culture” was a very important and effective weapon to indoctrinate and control the masses, and it remains so in China. More recently, the entire gamut of China’s “culture” politics have adopted a more sophisticated approach of building relations not only with countries and governments, but with institutions including educational institutions, think tanks, media houses, political parties and individuals. China’s media and culture departments are working together with the International Liaison Department, now International Department of the party. With the demise of Communist countries, this department has shifted to interact with a wide variety of political parties and other organizations abroad.
In the past two months, an Indian media house put out a series of “WikiLeaks” exposure of cables emanating from the US Embassy in New Delhi, and US Consulates from other cities in India. A close look at these cables clearly suggest the publication of these cables were selective, and aimed at raising serious questions over US negative intentions about India. But to any knowledgeable person of diplomatic relations, diplomats of all countries are expected to report on political and other developments of their host countries. That is their job. Indian diplomats do it, Chinese diplomats do it even more, and so do all other diplomats. The editorial controllers of this newspaper have written articles attacking the Dalai Lama and pro-Chinese articles on Tibet, and have ignored Chinese attacks on India.
Beyond a point such writings have had little effect on the Indian people. But when some Indian intellectuals become apologists for China even in the face of hard evidence of Chinese State owned companies supplying lethal weapons to India’s North East militants who are trying to disintegrate the country, the matter becomes serious.
Cultural exchanges should be welcomed. If the Confucius Institutes being set up in India educate Indians about the virtue of Confucianism in terms of friendship, peace and equanimity, Indians will be enriched. Similarly, Indians and others must be allowed to set up their own cultural centers in China to educate the Chinese about their own history, culture, and religion. The Chinese must welcome them.
But when China uses “Culture” as a whole for political and strategic ends, there is a problem. It is un-fortunate, however, that China makes everything political. That is the tragedy. This is “soft power” warfare.
To conclude, for the moment, one needs to pause and ponder about the ideological underpinning of this new cultural and media initiative. It is the experimental foray of the “new left” inspired by Bo Xilai, political head of the now surging Chongqing Municipality. A princeling, whose father Bo Yibo suffered during the Cultural Revolution and himself having been jailed during the period his “Red Culture” policies have attracted some of the top leaders of China. Are Bo Xilai and his entourage trying to put China into a new Maoist bottle? If so, the new propaganda initiative appears to be trying to replace Mao Zedong’s people’s revolution in neighbouring countries with a tactic of “peaceful psychological evolution”. This development requires a continuous evaluation.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])