China’s annual “two sessions” are now, well, in session. And that means it is time again for the Chinese Communist Party to live out another of its timeless obsessions — trying to introduce life and colour into what is otherwise mystifyingly dull.
For years now, China has experimented with newer and more youthful approaches to propaganda. Take, for example, this video posted over the weekend by the official Xinhua News Agency, in which “Xinhua correspondents” Katie Capstick and Roisin Timmins are rallied to produce Xinhua’s best approximation of a BuzzFeed-style approach to the “two sessions” — a series of quiz questions beginning with “What are the two sessions?”
But one of the hands-down favourites this year will certainly be this English-language rap video about the “two sessions” co-produced by Xinhuanet Co. Ltd. and Su Han Studio.
A number of media have reached CMP for comment on this phenomenon (don’t forget the Chinese-language rap at People’s Daily Online last year). Are state media targeting foreign audiences with products like this? Are they likely to be successful?
I’ll share just a few thoughts.
First of all, the rap video is a must-watch for its shamelessness, and for its often bewildering cluelessness. “Cringe with us at China’s parliamentary propaganda rap,” wrote the SCMP’s Inkstone as it introduced the video today. From start to finish, the video remains solidly in the self-parody zone, and one of my personal favourite moments is when the line, “We keep the environment alive,” is juxtaposed with scenes of recreational jet-skiers and parachute surfers. The only thing missing is the shark.
How can we account for such total nonsense?
In my view, what we are witnessing here is not a coordinated or well-considered strategy of external propaganda or attempts at foreign influence. What we are seeing is the inevitable outcome of a propaganda system that is cash-rich and culturally and intellectually bankrupt. Leaders understand, on the one hand, that propaganda products must “modernise” and have broader appeal. They must, as President Xi Jinping himself has said, find audiences wherever those audiences are. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he said in a speech during a visit to the People’s Liberation Army Daily in December 2015, “and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.”
On the other hand, this is a political system in which the Party’s own culture dominates in ways that can be all-encompassing, and this is truer today under Xi Jinping than it was even just seven years ago. Despite the image it tries to project — innovation, innovation, innovation — the system is engineered to promote itself, rather than to respond to a fluid culture and society. And in this system, the most important audience is always the Chinese Communist Party.
Even if the stated objective as a matter of policy is to target overseas audiences, this is not what generally happens in practice, because official China is only really interested in its own monologue. Xinhua is not out to please us. It is out, primarily, to please those within the system who foster and finance projects like the “two sessions” rap video — which by my count required 29 people to produce. The resources required are substantial to say the least.
China’s global propaganda campaign can be “audacious,” as scholars Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin wrote recently. But even when they are out in the great wide world, the products that enact that campaign can be astonishingly insular and self-absorbed. This is hardly a recipe for success.