Internet celebrity Li Ziqi (李子柒), whose videos on YouTube as well as domestic platforms in China center on the creation of traditional Chinese foods and handicrafts, is cited by communications experts in a recent paper as one example of successful citizen creation of media products that can tell China’s story.

At a collective study session of the CCP’s Politburo on May 31 last year, Xi Jinping emphasized the need to “strengthen our country’s international communication capacity,” which meant presenting to the world a “real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China.” While many of the strategies pursued by the state and the state-run media to achieve the Party’s “external propaganda” objectives to date have been painfully one-dimensional, exposing the limitations of top-down thinking, there are signs that communications scholars in China are taking Xi’s words to heart.  

In the February 2022 issue of International Communication (对外传播), a monthly journal published by the state-run China International Publishing Group that focuses on the current trends in global communication research and practice, scholars Zhang Zhi’an (张志安) and Tang Jiayi (唐嘉仪), both from Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, look at how China might leverage ordinary members of society – including international students, bloggers and scholars – to advance China’s leading role in global discourse.

Sufficient Freedom” for Storytelling

In their article, “Paths and Strategies for Civilian Subjects to Participate in International Communication on Platform Networks” (民间主体参与平台网络国际传播的路径和策略), Zhang and Tang outline four ways of encouraging Chinese citizens to become involved in global online communication exchange, which they say can “strengthen the conversational and storytelling aspects of online international communication.”

The cover of the February 2022 edition of International Communication.

The authors’ first point is that “groups of young internet users overseas” (海外青年网民群体) should be encouraged to actively participate in international communication through global internet platforms (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al) in order to tell China’s stories in the first person. This, in fact, is a simple idea with potentially interesting implications.

Xi Jinping’s notion of “telling China’s story well” has been at the heart of the CCP’s thinking and theorizing about external propaganda for nearly 10 years. And yet, the concept has been applied in narrowly ideological ways, generally referring first and foremost to the “political advantages of adhering to the leadership of the Party,” as one 2020 article in the People’s Daily explained. Or, as another explainer fawningly began in 2019: “Xi Jinping is a master at telling China’s story.”

Zhang and Tang are certainly right that the “first-person telling of China’s story” (第一人称讲述中国故事) could result in real and appealing multi-dimensionality. But the key question for the CCP would be how to balance such diversity with its obsessive need to positivity and control. After all, personal approaches to impersonal messages, like this one on the wonders of being a Party journalist, can backfire, becoming completely unrelatable to global audiences.

Related to this question, the second point the authors makes is that this citizen-based international communication should be “soft communication,” or ruan chuanbo (软传播), meaning that it should make use of “popular expression” (通俗化表达), which would enhance the sense of conversation and storytelling.

These are interesting points because they highlight – without resorting to direct criticism of current forms external propaganda – one of the basic problems with state-driven external communication. Namely, that much of what is ostensibly intended for foreign audiences mirrors the forms of language, including stiff CCP jargon, that have long been associated with internal propaganda and issue framing. The odd vocabularies of the CCP-led media system, and the values they convey, rarely translate for foreign audiences. Looming behind this fact is a failure to take the ideas and diversity of these audiences seriously.

Which leads to the third point Zhang and Tang make: The need to better understand the characteristics and differences of various online social platforms and environments. “In external communication, speaking out does not equal being heard,” they rightly caution. The essential point here, they say, is to avoid such things as “going it alone,” or bao ban dai ti (包办代替), meaning in this case that the Party-state takes the leading role, essentially speaking for others, and “soldiers marching in order,” or zheng qi hua yi (整齐划一), meaning that everything is rolled out in a unform manner.

Chinese honor guard marching in a column. Or how not to conduct effective international communication, according to some Chinese communication experts. Image from Wikimedia Commons available under CC license.

As the authors explain, ensuring that external communication is not an impersonal and even intimidating honor guard march means “providing internet platforms with sufficient freedom in their operations and development, encouraging exploration, experimentation and innovation.” “In one aspect,” they write, “it means encouraging forces in society to independently explore diversified, vivid and enriched content creation on certain outbound platforms.”

One case in point the authors cite is video blogger and internet celebrity Li Ziqi (李子柒), whose videos on YouTube as well as domestic platforms in China center on the creation of traditional Chinese foods and handicrafts.

Zhang and Tang are almost certainly correct that this is the best means of ensuring the relevance and effectiveness of China’s international communication. But it would also mean a bold expansion of the very understanding of international communication, not as a narrow project of communicating Party-state frames to passive global audiences, but rather something more truly resembling a dialogue among diverse voices. The key question, one the author’s do not ask, is whether the leadership would have the confidence to relinquish such a level of control.

In one aspect, it means encouraging forces in society to independently explore diversified, vivid and enriched content creation on certain outbound platforms.

Zhang Zhi’an (张志安) and Tang Jiayi (唐嘉仪), INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION

The authors even talk about the possible benefits of ensuring that younger Chinese internet users are able to use VPNs to access overseas platforms like YouTube and take part in comment sections there. This may seem an unusual suggestion, but in fact the idea of moderating the strict enforcement of the so-called Great Firewall for specified purposes is not an altogether new concept. In October 2021, the State Council released a document specifying that VPN services in the city of Beijing would be opened to foreign investors (capping foreign ownership at 50 percent) as part of a pilot initiative to transform the service industry, potentially attracting overseas telecom operators in providing domestic VPN services to foreign-invested enterprises in the capital through the establishment of joint ventures. Easily missed after many months of crackdown on China’s internet sector, this document potentially signals a loosening of VPN-related restrictions and an interest in promoting further “opening up.”

Opening up internet restrictions for young internet users in China obviously runs counter to current policies and practice on the control of cyberspace. But the overseas campaigns of so-called “keyboard warriors” in recent years, such as the mobilization of Chinese netizens through Diba in 2019 to attack Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page with memes against Taiwan independence, certainly shows that Chinese can and have been active in the global internet space.

But this issue leads to the final point raised by Zhang and Tang in their article in International Communication – the need to “weaken the nationalist sentiment of private subjects on the internet and avoid inducing excessive nationalist on the internet.”

Dealing with Nationalist Trolls

The authors point out that extreme Chinese nationalist sentiment in response to various international incidents has already become a central focus of much international media coverage, fueling a sense (though the authors do not put it quite so directly, mentioning instead efforts to “bash China”) that China is incapable of measured and cool responses, and not amenable to conversation.

The authors add that the rise of nationalist sentiment on China’s internet may in fact conceal the limitations of what they call the “internalization of external propaganda” (外宣内宣化), whereby what is intended as external messaging in fact becomes an “internal revelry” (内部的狂欢). In the end, messages to the outside world remain undelivered as intended, but the consequences of extreme nationalist sentiment linger internationally. “One of the characteristics of excessive nationalist sentiment on the internet is its ‘complacent praise of China’ and its ‘doomsaying about the West,’” the scholars write. “The problem with this sentiment is that it intensifies the concerns and fears about the rise of China in Western countries and in the international public opinion arena, and reinforces the antagonism between China and the West.”

They added: “Not only is this detrimental to the building of friendly relations between China and the West at the national level in the future, but may even have a negative impact at the level of civil communication, making it more difficult to conduct China’s foreign propaganda work.”

Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher

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