Image of the PRC flag outside the Chinese Embassy in New York, available at Flickr.com under CC license.
When a branch campus of the Nanjing University of Science and Technology organized a study session for Chinese Communist Party cadres last month, the men huddled in a small conference room drew inspiration from a number of sources. Foremost, of course, were the speeches of Xi Jinping. But when the time came to address the study of Party history one source was noted in particular – a three-part documentary series extolling the virtues of Xi Jinping’s governance of China and his new concepts of development.
The most extraordinary thing about the series in question was not its unvarnished praise of the CCP chairman. That was a given. Rather, it was the fact that this documentary series was a glossy production that had first been aired on Discovery, one of the most widely distributed subscription channels in the United States and across the world. In research elsewhere, I have detailed the circumstances of the production and release of China: Time of Xi (习近平治国方略：中国这五年), a program produced by a UK-based company, but in fact backed by a major communication group operated by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department.
The use of the documentary in Nanjing recently offers a fascinating look at how a production that is essentially “mainstream” by Chinese political standards – meaning in this context that it fully accords with the CCP’s ideology, orientation and goals – can manage to be distributed as entertainment content to audiences in living rooms across several continents.
Official sources make clear that China: Time of Xi has been the subject of keen study within the CCP for several years, viewed and discussed in study sessions on CCP ideology and history at all levels across the country, and serving ultimately to consolidate Xi Jinping’s hold as the “core” of Chinese political life. Back in July 2020, for example, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s macroeconomic management agency, held a collective study session on the second installment of the documentary, dealing with governance. According to a release from the commission, participants “uniformly believed” that the documentary “fully explained China’s new development concept and its successful practice.”
And given its broad distribution outside China, the documentary has also been viewed as a textbook example of the successful telling of “China’s story” — this being the key CCP buzzword in the Xi era for the effective application of the older concept of “external propaganda,” or waixuan (外宣). In an article earlier this week, Culture and Tourism China (文旅中国), an official website operated by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, wrote that China: Time of Xi had, “compared with other similar documentaries, created a new paradigm for political documentaries ‘telling China’s story well.'”
“Documentaries are an important media in the transmission of the national image,” said the CTC article. And the Discovery series, produced by the UK’s Meridian Line Films, had “used suspense, a point by point [structure], showing large [concepts] from details . . . . in order to present China from an objective point of view and expand the breadth of ‘telling China’s story well.'”
This application of the word “objective,” coming right on the heels of talk of projecting a positive national image, naturally follows the CCP’s understanding of the concept – as avoiding facts or observations that lead to critical, or negative, views of the issues discussed. Within the prevailing CCP discourse, the CCP’s framing of issues is by definition “objective.”
The article goes on to analyze the documentary series in detail, explaining the techniques used and the content covered in each of the three parts. The article concludes:
This film leaps beyond the traditional political propaganda model, and through multiple narrative perspectives, story-based themes and international forms of expression . . . . to successfully tell China’s story. Moreover, it supports the wisdom of China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative and the ‘building a community of shared destiny for mankind’ and the opportunities they have brought for the world. [The film] has created a new paradigm for the political documentary in ‘telling the China story well,’ and has blazed a path forward for the international communication of China’s national image and for the construction of China’s international discourse system. It deserves more in-depth study by the [media] sector and by academia.
Such talk of “China’s international discourse system” around a documentary series released by an American multinational media conglomerate is astonishing — and for some, perhaps, sobering — in the wake of the much-publicized collective study session of China’s Politburo back in June this year. That study session was led by the director of Fudan University’s Institute for Chinese Studies, Zhang Weiwei (张维为), who back in 2013 spoke of a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语) that would entail the rise of a “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系).
If China: Time of Xi is truly a textbook example of how products emerging from a “Chinese discourse system” might attract global audiences and be compelling, what does this say about the role of foreign media distribution channels and production cultures in the manufacture of such success stories?
In fact, China’s claims, like those in the CTC article, about the successes of external propaganda often reveal the weakness of such approaches when one digs between the lines. One such example can be found in the CTC article as it talks up the international reception of China: Time of Xi. After mentioning that episode 2 of the documentary series aired first in the United States, the article reveals that it was also shown at the Golden Tree International Documentary Film Festival in Frankfurt, Germany.
Certainly, a public screening at an international documentary festival would seem to further substantiate the fact that the series was a critical success. But the Golden Tree International Documentary Festival is the creation of Germany’s DCM Deutsch-Chinesische Medien GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Huayun Shangde International Culture Communication (北京华韵尚德国际文化传播有限公司), a Beijing-based company that by its own description “principally provides expert exchange, publicity, planning and business consultation services for governments, associations and individuals.” For several years running the company was designated by China’s Ministry of Commerce as a “Priority Enterprise for National Cultural Export” (国家文化出口重点企业).
Both companies are run by Wang Libin (王立滨), who has directly mentioned Xi-era concepts of cultural diplomacy in interviews with Chinese state media. In June 2018, Wang told Xinhua News Agency in an exclusive interview that Golden Tree was held every year in order “both to tell the China story well through this platform, and to promote cultural trade.” Whatever the relationship on the China side, Wang’s company has clearly capitalized on the official agenda of “going out,” and more recently on “telling the China story.”
Everywhere, it seems, there is China’s gloved hand. The subsidiary of an enterprise operated by the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department strikes up a deal with the Discovery channel to produce a documentary praising Xi, marketed by Chinese government-backed media as something independent, and this production is shown at a festival in Europe that again has the external publicity goals of China at heart.
State media have frequently turned to Wang Libin and Huayun Shangde as proponents of smart external publicity that foreigners can relate to. Wang’s company was also behind “Laikanba,” a cultural program that was aired by the private, Dusseldorf-based broadcasting company NRW.TV from 2010, and that Chinese media promoted at the time as the “first and only Chinese topical TV program to enter the mainstream media in Europe.” In a 2019 profile, Wang offered her views on international communication: “Telling the China story in a way that others can accept can happen more quietly,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be about saying how good we are, or how great we are. As we go through the process, every action represents the Chinese temperament and the Chinese character.”
What would it mean on the international stage to have a “Chinese discourse system”? What would it look like, and how would others in the world participate? What would the values be to which humanity could aspire? These are broad and difficult questions. But the answers so far, glimpsed through productions like China: Time of Xi, are narrow and self-serving. The values are those of the CCP as refracted through the personality of a single powerful leader — closed vision we are simply to accept as it insinuates itself into the global open spaces of media and culture.
Quietly though they may emerge, these productions do speak volumes about the temperament and character of “China’s story.” And as such they should watched and heeded.