At the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping’s personal addition to the Party’s guiding ideology was officially unveiled: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Propaganda outlets wasted no time in ordering Party members to “study hard” Xi’s “new era thought.”
Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda apparatus has an indispensable role in unifying the minds of all Party members under the guidance of the Party’s supposedly infallible ideology, which is upheld as perfectly suited for China’s current economic and social conditions.
Judging the effectiveness of CCP propaganda toward that end, however, is no easy task for foreign analysts. Available scholarly research does provide insights on the subject, but at times also leads to contradictory conclusions. Even so, we can gain some clarity on propaganda effectiveness when combining these sources with the Party’s own observations.
A wise place to start is with General Secretary Xi Jinping himself. Since the 18th Party Congress, Xi has particularly emphasized the connection between effective propaganda, which promotes ideological understanding and unity among Party cadres, with Party building and the Party’s governing capacity. In fact, propaganda guidebooks reveal that as early as the Politburo’s first collective study session under Xi, the general secretary linked the serious problems exhibited by some CCP members with a loss of spirit and confusion of faith. Xi almost certainly understands that without a cohort of committed believers in the CCP’s theories, the Party risks fragmentation and final decline. As a well-documented response to this problem, in February 2016, Xi announced new media policies that mandated all Party media to reflect the Party’s will, safeguard its authority, and safeguard its unity. Xi’s warnings and policies, in combination with the ongoing crackdown on China’s media, suggest propaganda has fallen short in controlling the political leanings of China’s 87 million CCP members.
One sign that should be especially troubling to the CCP leadership is the lackluster political support it receives from its own membership. In a comprehensive assessment of CCP support conducted by Professor Bruce Dickson of George Washington University, which included nationwide surveys in 2010 and 2014, two surprising conclusions were made on the subject.
First, most CCP members that joined the Party after 1992 admitted doing so primarily because it was helpful to their career. This beat out other answers such as “serve the people,” “work for communism,” and “only the CCP can lead China to prosperity and power” — the official platform justifying continued Party rule. Second, most Party members were only slightly more supportive of the CCP regime than non-Party members (less than 5 percent more).
Previous research published by scholars Wen-Hsuan Tsai and Peng-Hsiang Kao in 2013 suggests a potential link between ineffective propaganda with these survey results. Through interviews, Tsai and Kao found that some grassroots level cadres were increasingly having adverse emotional responses to propaganda edicts issued under the name of the relevant ordering Party body; the problem was significant enough that propagandists took to using pseudonyms in order to bypass these initial negative reactions.
This short analysis of scholarly and CCP assessments of Party member ideological unity, regime support, and receptiveness to Party propaganda points to serious problems that the regime must address if it is to shore up its long term resiliency. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that career-oriented Party members that joined primarily out of self-interest are proving unresponsive to CCP dogma. Reversing this trend will be a difficult feat, but if Xi Jinping’s “new era thought” is to be earnestly studied and implemented, the propaganda apparatus will have to be a core part of that solution.
David Gitter is the director of the Party Watch Initiative, a program of the Project 2049 Institute that analyzes the writings and activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).