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Can China’s Propagandists Be the Emperors of Cool?

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China Power

Can China’s Propagandists Be the Emperors of Cool?

Further reflections on the changing — and unchanging — nature of Chinese propaganda.

Can China’s Propagandists Be the Emperors of Cool?
Credit: Chinese New Year parade image via kavram /

Last week I wrote about “a new era in Chinese propaganda,” citing the food documentary series A Bite of China and Tudou-founder Gary Wang’s new project, Light Chaser Animation Studios. As noted then, neither Liu Wen (creator of A Bite of China) nor Gary Wang are consciously propagandizing. So in what sense do these seemingly innocuous projects qualify as propaganda?

During World War II, British Deputy Director of the Allied Psychological Warfare Division, Richard Crossman, said:

“It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist is the man who tells the truth […] the art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”

Considering this, it’s remarkable that a documentary series spanning 15 episodes, entirely focused on Chinese food, would have nothing to say about any of China’s food safety scandals. Imagine if Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man had failed to mention Auschwitz, or if Jacques Cousteau’s The Undersea World had made no conservationist points. Without its penetrating ethical questions, would David Attenborough’s award-winning The Blue Planet be anything more than great cinematography? Would the game-changing documentary series Cosmos by Carl Sagan, or Civilization by Kenneth Clark, have had the same impact if they’d simply been pretty but failed to challenge us at all?

The reason we celebrate the likes of Cousteau, Sagan, and Clark is precisely because they challenged us. Like any good teacher, they made their subject matter interesting, and like any great teacher, they used this skill to deliver powerful messages. Messages that might have otherwise been uncomfortable but were, in their capable hands, inspiring. We may want to be coddled, but deep down, we know it isn’t good for us.

Unfortunately, there’s no room for such genius in Chinese society today. Thought-provoking messages that highlight faults in order to stimulate growth, especially when they implicate the government, are unwelcome. It isn’t that Beijing explicitly orders Liu Wen or others to produce whitewashed depictions of Chinese society, it’s simply that no other kinds of depictions will get through. A version of A Bite of China that celebrated the history and beauty of Chinese cuisine, yet openly considered many of its relevant problems, wouldn’t make it to production.

This laissez-faire approach is what constitutes a new era in Chinese propaganda. In the case of A Bite of China, it’s especially sad — not because China must be made to stand in the public square and shame itself in front of Western spectators for having an imperfect food safety record, but because this approach darkens their capacity for public discourse on the matter. This prevents Chinese from fully knowing the truth which is, of course, the point. That’s what propaganda does. Unfortunately in the case of food safety, it’s a deadly practice.

However this year’s Chunwan, or Spring Festival Gala, proves the old era isn’t over yet and that shameless propaganda tactics are still paraded out with all the blinding subtlety of a wumaodang post. The program, which in 2014 had over 800 million viewers, featured several sketches involving authority figures apparently plucked right out of a Sesame Street episode and a montage of President Xi greeting citizens across the country while the histrionic opera number “I Give My Heart To You” blared in the background.

It was a cringe-worthy affair, the kind of thing you might expect if your grandparents were forced to make a hip-hop music video. You may love them, but they aren’t the emperors of cool. Worse, however, was the utter lack of any public ridicule for what so richly and clearly deserved to be ridiculed. (A Chinese version of Last Week Tonight would be thoroughly satisfying.) This lack of alternatives vaguely reminds one of the specula used to hold the eyes open in A Clockwork Orange. “I was cured all right,” says the ultraviolent anti-hero Alex at the film’s end. So was I, cured of the desire to ever watch another gala.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with patriotic sentiment, even when it’s cloyingly childish. But when the ability to critically reflect on such displays is removed, one has to wonder whether the government is beating its citizens over the head with the hammer of patriotism or, as Richard Crossman said, whether this is something the audience wants to hear. Do Chinese accept that A Bite of China is an exquisite yet shallow look at Chinese food because, well, it celebrates Chinese food? Is the Chunwan so enormously popular, despite its embarrassingly bad writing, because it hits a patriotic chord? If so, I worry such patriotism can be made to cover a multitude of sins.