Note: This piece was written in early 2016 for Yale's student Publication China Hands.
Special Thanks to editor Yifu Dong and Wenbin Gao.
Chao Wang sheds light on China’s latest propaganda efforts: the making of Xi Jinping’s media image and the staging of the Spring Festival Gala.
I winced when I found that the TV screens on Beijing’s subway were showing videos of China’s World War II Victory Parade on September 3, 2015. It was the start of 2016, already four months after the parade, when I had just come back from the US after a three-month exchange program. Soldiers were marching on Tiananmen Square in impeccable goose steps. President Xi Jinping, standing on the majestic Tiananmen, the ancient gate of the Forbidden City, was waving to the soldiers whose faces turned to him to pay respect. Now daily commuters packed tightly in the carriages had to kill time by staring at the moving phalanx on the screen.
My memory is still fresh with the spectacle on the Chinese internet, where state-owned media and patriotic netizens competed with flamboyant remarks expressing their pride for the nation and love of the China Communist Party at the time of the parade. Five months later, however, when extracts from the parade scene were screened again on the annual Spring Festival Gala on China Central Television (CCTV), some netizens felt offended.
Tu cao, “to complain” or what I would call “spuke” (a combination of the words “speak” and “puke”), has become a new celebratory activity for Chinese netizens during the Spring Festival over the past few years. Users on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, picked up whatever they could “spuke” about the Spring Festival Gala, whose performances were getting increasingly absurd yet unamusing, and turned them into jokes. This year, however, those energetic writers remained quiet: the propaganda on display was so heavy that it appeared almost politically unsafe to joke about it. For example, the opening performance featured a rap song, which was a synthesis of new Party policies. Besides, the notorious “red song,” “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China,” which hasn’t appeared at the gala for decades because of its association with Mao’s Red Terror, was proudly sung on stage. “North Korea is about to catch up with us in missile technology, and we are catching up with North Korea in our New Year Gala," a brave Weibo user remarked. Such sarcasm was immediately subject to traditional tactics of opinion control. Critical comments of the Gala were often deleted “due to legal issues” on various social media platforms.
Although this year’s gala caught many by surprise with its blatant propaganda, it is consistent with Beijing’s intensified control over political expression. Unlike his predecessors, Xi has to carefully manage his image on a new media platform: the Internet. In light of the new threat, authorities have increased the intensity of pro-Xi and pro-Party propaganda.
Xi’s media image has been crafted quite differently from that of his predecessors. In general, he has been depicted as a powerful yet personable fatherly figure. Shortly after taking office, he was given the nickname “Xi da da” or “Papa Xi.” Similarly, Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, formerly a popular folk singer, is depicted as a motherly figure dubbed “Mama Peng.” State media and websites often show pictures depicting the Papa and the Mama wearing matching outfits on foreign visits, pleasing audiences who are delighted to see the lovely couple representing their nation.
Adapting a Chinese pun, propagandists created a series of websites and social media accounts under the title “xue xi” which means both “to study” and “to learn from Xi (Jinping)” at the same time. The term also evokes memories of “political study sessions” in the Mao era when everyone in a work unit was forced to learn and memorize by heart the teachings of the supreme leader.
Party propaganda has intensified overseas as well. During the Fifth Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Central Committee, an English music video titled “The 13 WHAT” about China's 13th five-year-plan, was released on English Internet, including websites blocked by China’s Great Firewall, such as Youtube and Twitter. The video attracted wide international attention, receiving 180,000 views on Youtube and coverage in foreign media such as the popular Sinosphere blog on the website of The New York Times. The video is also well-received in China, for people are happy to see their country presenting its global image in a rather international tone.
Changes of top leaders’ media image are indeed effective: China’s middle class has seemed receptive to the party’s version of Papa Xi. I recently conducted a survey of middle class residents in Beijing. The participants in the survey were mostly well-informed, frequent Internet users, 95.2% of whom college graduates and 67% aged 20 to 40. The vast majority of respondents approved the image of the president, calling him a “good husband,” “warm father” and “lovely Papa.” 13.3% reported that Xi’s media image is closer to an ordinary citizen compared to his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Positive phrases such as “adorable”, “vibrant” and “caring for the people” were frequently mentioned, as well. When asked about their opinions on Xi’s performance as president, respondents also gave mostly positive remarks.
Xi’s effort in crafting a positive image on the Internet is designed to attract youths. Now 53.7% of Internet users are between the age of 20 to 39, according to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center in January 2016. Similarly, the Spring Festival Gala attempted the same tactic, but it went awry. In the past, concerned with both experiences and political reliability, CCTV seldom invited new hits popular among the youth to the Gala. Yet this year many rising popular idols were put on stage, but all they did was parroting fashionable political jargon.
This is the reason why the Gala appeared repugnant to many young audiences: they would not buy some of the Party’s politics even if it was expressed through their favorite stars. Generally speaking, netizens are happy to repost messages about their adorable leader and their great nation, yet it does not mean they welcome the political stuff everywhere. People want a show that is amusing and light on politics (since it can never be politics-free). Years ago that kind of show was still possible. But now, unbeknownst to many, the improvement of Papa Xi’s media image comes hand in hand with what many perceive as an increasingly unbearable Spring Festival Gala, which is now chock-full of propaganda.
Although many audiences were not impressed, CCTV conducted a survey showing a 95% satisfaction rate with the Gala. Hundreds of comments sprang up below the web pages carrying this news, questioning the authenticity of the statistic. As always, censors deleted most dissenting comments. The Gala was officially a success.