By David Bandurski — We are generally more likely to nitpick the work of Western journalists in China (on the rare occasions when we do turn an eye on their coverage of media issues) than to come to their defense. But the spitting match this week between The Telegraph and China Daily on the issue of “propaganda” deserves a moment’s discussion. [Frontpage Image: Propaganda poster photographed by Spiff_27 avalaible at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

I’ll try to be brief.

The exchange in question began with a report by The Telegraph correspondent Peter Foster about how China had launched its “60th Anniversary patriotic campaign,” which he referred to as “propaganda.”

As Foster has since pointed out, The Telegraph is not alone in using the word “propaganda” to describe campaigns like this one to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the CCP.

Nevertheless, it was Foster’s report that drew an itchy rebuttal in China Daily by Australian columnist Patrick Whiteley, who said of The Telegraph:

“By constantly labeling Chinese government initiatives as ‘communist propaganda’ the newspaper deliberately paints a sinister and very outdated picture harking back to the days of ‘reds under the beds’ and the ‘yellow peril.'”

Whiteley’s basic point, if I understand him correctly, is that China no longer does propaganda. The director of China’s Central Publicity Department is not a “propagandist” — he is simply a politician, not unlike statesmen anywhere else in the world.

Whiteley’s argument centers on the English translation of the Chinese word xuanchuan (宣传), which, as he points out, cannot always simply be rendered “propaganda.”

If, against Whiteley’s better judgement, one insists on translating xuanchuan as “propaganda,” a simple and neutral Chinese word is saddled with a dark and unfair negativity. What you’ve basically done is taken a harmless word — something like “promote” — and infused it with the “evil shadow of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.”

That’s just not fair to well-meaning cadres like Li Changchun, China’s politburo standing committee member in charge of ideology, who I suppose we should call instead the CCP’s “chief message getter-outer.”

I could make a more elaborate argument about Chinese “propaganda,” but I did say I wanted to be brief. So I’ll just stick to an article about CCP media policy printed in last Sunday’s edition of the official Beijing Daily newspaper.

beijing-daily-510.JPG

[ABOVE: Front page of May 10 edition of the official Beijing Daily with a report laying out “propaganda” guidelines for coverage of the 60th anniversary of the CCP.]

As a bold experiment I will resist rendering xuanchuan as “propaganda.” Here goes:

Carrying Forward the Spirit of Patriotism and Adhering to Correct Guidance of Public Opinion to Create a CCP Anniversary of Soaring Spirit in a Social Atmosphere of Harmony

Making an inspection yesterday at Beijing Television and the Beijing Bureau of Xinhua News Agency of preparations for news and publicity of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC and Beijing Municipal Party Secretary Liu Qi (刘淇) demanded that [media] powerfully carry forward the spirit of patriotism and adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, creating a soaring spirit, joy and serenity, and a harmonious and civilized atmosphere for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city . . .

Liu Qi emphasized that news and publicity departments must tightly adhere to the events and topics as determined by the Central Party, publicizing the resplendent journey since the founding of the new China 60 years ago, carrying forward the spirit of patriotism and upholding correct guidance of public opinion, publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city, singing loudly the main themes of praise of the party, of socialism, of economic reforms, of our great mother country and of our various peoples . . .

I believe this excerpt, just one from among scores of articles over the last week alone dealing with media policy at the local level, is sufficient to illustrate my point.

I hope Mr. Whiteley, should he happen upon my translation, finds it instructive. Like all of us, Mr. Whiteley has a great deal to learn about precisely how China’s propaganda apparatus works — and how it is changing.

As a final point, I caution against simplistic comparisons with radically different press and political environments. Mr. Whiteley asks:

Would The Telegraph‘s Washington correspondents ever write: “An Internet poll conducted across several leading US websites as part of a government propaganda campaign to mark the Fourth of July, has drawn a patriotic response”?

As The Telegraph‘s China correspondents know, I’ve taken a couple of them to task privately about niggling issues in certain recent reports about press policies in China. They took these in stride, mindful of their own learning curves.

Still, I feel quite certain the answer to Whiteley’s question is NO — not for the reasons, however, that his strange rhetorical question implies. While the Fourth of July is certainly a party, it is not a one-party political affair, and press coverage of the holiday would never be organized and financed by the local, state or federal governments. Pray, what “leading US websites” are directly operated and controlled by government institutions that tell them what they can and cannot report, and what they MUST?

But I promised to be brief, and I have this sinking feeling I’ve been pulled down into an argument with a first-grader who insists that peanut butter isn’t sticky.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 15, 2009, 2:08pm]