After months of speculation, the 60-point document that emerged from the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee in mid-November contained few surprises. It confirmed expectations regarding economic policy and hinted at changes in the one-child policy and system of reeducation through labor. However, it did not address one of China’s gravest challenges: promoting socially and environmentally sustainable behaviors among the population, some one-fifth of humanity, at large. The state’s efforts to address this have so far been timid and incoherent.
Breakneck growth and urbanization have brought unprecedented prosperity, but many feel that the values and behavior accompanying this evolution are in need of review. The costs of business as usual have been mounting: from litter-laden streets to melamine-tainted milk to ever more alarming examples of corruption and apathy. Even President Xi Jinping recently stated that his nation’s moral compass has gone awry.
Since assuming leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi has been trumpeting the Chinese Dream, a vision described at times as “a national rejuvenation” and at others as “the aspiration for a beautiful life.” Although he has stated that the Dream will be realized by mid-century, exactly what it entails and how it will be achieved remain unknown, and the Third Plenum’s report did little to elaborate. Given the urgency of the issue, only an expansive, cohesive and sustained Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaign will do. This campaign will have to learn from past mistakes: floridly worded yet vacuous campaigns, including the previous administration’s Harmonious Society campaign, no longer resonate with an increasingly sophisticated Chinese public. Responsibility lies with the CPC’s over-centralized Publicity Department (CPCPD).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A Harmonious Society
After Deng Xiaoping consented to “let some get rich first” in the early 1980s, he unleashed ambitions that had been suppressed for decades. The institutions necessary to govern the transition towards a market economy were weak, and abuses became widespread. By the 1990s, the Party’s leadership felt that materialism had infected the national psyche, and saw discontent with official corruption result in instability. Jiang Zemin’s administration began actively advocating for the restoration of traditional Confucian values, which had been systematically purged in Mao’s era, and created the Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress to complement the existing Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideological Work. Together, these two top-level agencies direct the work of the CPCPD.
The CPCPD is arguably the world’s most powerful propaganda apparatus, and has a long tradition of shaping values and attitudes via mass campaigns with a scope spanning virtually every media outlet available. Whether through print, broadcasts, the Internet, exhibits, cultural performances or official events, the CPCPD conveys meticulously thought out messages intended to bolster support for the Party’s policies and campaigns.
The Harmonious Society campaign, adopted in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2011), aimed to address some of the endemic growing pains that were accompanying China’s rise onto the world stage. Realizing that social development was lagging behind economic gains, the state was to take a more active role in preempting any instability that might arise from China’s widening inequalities.
In theory, this vision would be realized by 2020 if priority were given to policies promoting the reduction of inequalities through the integration of disadvantaged social groups and underdeveloped regions. The expansive guidelines published by the CPC’s Central Committee, however, were vague on specifics. Using action verbs such as “improving,” “guaranteeing,” and “favoring,” it provided very few concrete procedures or measurable milestones.
The problem with state-led campaigns promoting “a harmonious society” or “civilized behavior” is that they represent abstract ideas which are not conveyed in an appealing fashion. The continuing marketization of the economy and rising disposable income have made Chinese citizens more self-aware and sophisticated regarding their individual preferences and personal consumption. Globalization and the spread of the Internet are molding an urban middle class that is more diverse and discerning in its tastes, and their expectations can no longer be met with the bare minimum.
This said, social campaigns and PSAs should not be completely written off; the state still stands a chance of being heard if its message is packaged and delivered correctly. To do so, it can draw lessons from its own successful, behavior-changing public service campaigns, as well as those from NGOs.
When Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games, China was given a chance to showcase its progress to the world. The Olympics were to be an exercise in national prestige, and civic pride dictated that everyone should be on their best behavior. In the capital, a citywide campaign spearheaded by the ad-hoc municipal agency called the Capital Ethics Development Office was set up to organize and execute a campaign specifically aiming to curb spitting, littering and public cursing, and promote orderly queuing. The lead up to the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 marked a similar transition for Shanghai citizen behavior. As well as addressing the same concerns as in Beijing, the Shanghai campaign also sought to rein in the venerable Southern Chinese tradition of wearing pajamas outside.
Both campaigns were largely successful, having consisted of concerted efforts employing all forms of media and teams of volunteers dispatched to the streets to help with enforcement. Unfortunately, once each city’s respective spectacles were over, gains were lost. The ads and volunteers disappeared, enforcement became lax, and an influx of migrants who had not been exposed to the campaigns all but ensured that old habits returned.