Going viral – it’s an obsession millennials, marketing executives, and the Chinese government share.
In a world dominated by social media, even China’s propaganda department has been forced to update its ways. From cuddly animated videos of President Xi Jinping to children’s bedtime stories about Chinese infrastructure to Disney-esque music videos for kids, the Chinese government has invested millions in the hopes of creating catchy propaganda that goes viral.
But more than clicks and views, China is hoping to reinforce belief in the Communist Party, Chinese nationalism, and socialist values through social media. The ruling party fears that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds – particularly among Internet-savvy millennials who have grown up with Western movies, music, and television. Multiple surveys have shown that a large majority of Chinese college students prefer elements of liberal democracy to China’s autocratic rule.
To reach this web-savvy generation, Xi has ordered propaganda officials to become more adept at using digital media to counter foreign influences in pop culture. While the products of these attempts mirror their Western counterparts stylistically, the content is distinctly Chinese.
To popularize the government’s 13th Five Year Plan, for example, officials created a whimsical animated music video set to a jangly folk song in English. The video, released by Xinhua, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, became a social media phenomenon with young people sharing it and learning to sing it.
Meanwhile, the Communist Youth League is working with CD REV, a Chinese hip hop group, to release nationalistic songs and music videos that denounce U.S. influence in the region and portray China as a peaceful country.
The government has even taken to using WeChat, China’s wildly popular messaging app. Officials created a group chat for the National Party Congress, which simulates a conversation between Premier Li Keqiang, other high-ranking officials, and ordinary Chinese citizens.
But China’s propaganda isn’t just about what officials promote; just as important is what they seek to silence. While officials may use new digital techniques, they still carry the heavy-handed legacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
China’s censors continue to closely monitor the internet. In early June, Beijing shut down social media accounts that focus on celebrity gossip because they disseminate “vulgar content” and are “negatively impacting society.” Censors have even removed popular American TV shows like “Big Bang Theory” from streaming websites. Fans complained angrily online, calling China “West North Korea,” a term that was quickly blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
But controlling online conversations isn’t always as simple as banning certain words. To compensate for the diffuse nature of social media, the Chinese government has taken to making nearly half a billion fake posts each year.
A study by researchers at Harvard University estimates that one of out of every 178 online posts is made by government employees. These posts, made surreptitiously under fake accounts, primarily focus on taunting foreign countries, disputing stories, and praising China and the Communist Party. By releasing torrents of these fake posts during major political events, national holidays, or periods of public unrest, the government seeks to drown out meaningful debate and overwhelm dissent during key moments.
Propaganda officials rightly understand that on social media timing is everything. The biggest impact comes from capitalizing on major events or existing emotions. So in a highly-coordinated effort, China has used every lever at its disposal in recent months to fuel public backlash against South Korea over its decision to deploy THAAD, an American missile defense system.
Party newspapers published screeds urging Chinese consumers to “become the main force in teaching Seoul a lesson” by boycotting South Korean shops, goods, and even TV shows and music. The government has always clamped down on public protests, but has allowed demonstrations outside of Lotte supermarkets, a South Korean-owned chain.
Using social media, this anger has been amplified. Video of two men in Shandong smashing Korean-made electronics while the Chinese national anthem blared in the background has circulated online. There is even an anti-THAAD pop song that has gone viral. The music video has been viewed over 940 million times since it was released on March 8, and features lyrics like “Danger is heading toward our border/ Descendants of the Yellow Emperor must wake up.”
But by fanning the flames online, China risks losing control. Social media is fickle and diffuse by nature. Anger could easily spill into long-held grievances about the current government.
While the Chinese government has proven adept at amplifying existing emotions, reigning in anger or stopping online protests is not so easily done. Any heavy-handed efforts to control social media could alienate already skeptical millennials, the very demographic the government is hoping to win over. Chinese propagandists are playing with a double-edged sword.
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs and has been published in The Week and Huffington Post.