Nothing shows the contrast between the rights of free speech which Chinese media leverage abroad, and those which Chinese media curtail at home, more than two recent stories out of Shandong province in China on the one hand, and Des Moines, Iowa in the United States on the other.
The Shandong story highlights the power of the Chinese government and its state-owned media to control domestic content and messaging at home. The Des Moines story illustrates how those same methods and motives used by the Chinese government inside of China translate into a muddled, clumsy, and awkward message when used on an international audience in a society that is accustomed to enjoying the rights of free speech and critical thinking.
In the first case, a headmaster in Heze in eastern China’s Shandong province has been disciplined for allowing his students to wear red neckerchiefs adorned with advertising for a real estate company. The offense? Red scarves are the signature neckwear of the Young Pioneers, the 130 million Chinese children from ages six to 14 who are required to belong to the Chinese Communist Party’s induction organization for its youngest citizens.
The scarves that Young Pioneers wear are a representation of a corner of the Chinese red flag, according to China Daily. They therefore symbolize “the revolutionary tradition.”
Many countries in the world, including some democracies (but not the United States or Canada), put restrictions, penalties, and even prison sentences of varying degrees on desecration of their national flags. Some countries expand those restrictions to include the flags of other nations.
If the Shandong incident were only about the inappropriate printing of a commercial advertisement on an item that represents the Chinese flag, the story would indeed not fall outside of international norms. It is the law under which the erstwhile headmaster, Mr. Lü Yongmei, was punished, that raises deeper concerns.
The “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Act” came into force on May 1 of this year. The law, a legal mechanism designed to prohibit “distorting, defaming, or diminishing the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs” has a distinct whiff of Xi Jinping Thought to it.
The law is China’s latest measure to control the narrative of modern Chinese history. It forbids critical questioning or rethinking of official, Communist Party versions of the (usually glorious) acts and deeds of the revolutionary heroes who brought the Communists to power in China in 1949.
Turning to Des Moines, Iowa, the same government that criminalized research and writing that does not uphold the Communist Party’s version of its history has attempted to use similar tactics to influence voters in a state that has borne pain from retaliatory tariffs imposed by the Chinese government in response to American tariffs on Chinese imports.
The Chinese government, through the state-owned China Daily, inserted a full four-page infomercial — Titled “China Watch – All You Need to Know” — into the Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register.
Making full use of the U.S. Constitution’s protections of free speech, the same Chinese Communist Party that forbids free speech in China, and rewrites history according to its own dictates, made a gallant effort to spin its views for the American farmers who woke up on September 23 to find an unusual addition to their pre-church reading.
The Des Moines Register is the leading newspaper in the political bellwether state of Iowa. Iowa’s importance in national politics cannot be overstated. Its caucus every four years is the first test that presidential candidates face before the voters. Iowa can make or break a presidential run. The Chinese certainly know this. There is no way to class the September 23 supplement as anything besides an attempt to sway Iowan voters toward China’s favored narrative – an action that certainly calls into question China’s policy of noninterference in the affairs of other nations.
The insert offers a master-class in the passive-aggressive methodology of official Chinese propaganda. The frontpage story is titled “Duel Undermines Benefits of Trade.” Nowhere on the front page is Donald Trump mentioned – perhaps because Trump won Iowa in 2016 by more than 9 percentage points, and in 93 out of Iowa’s 99 counties.
Couched among stories about “Xi’s Fun Days in Iowa” and “Solid Iron and Hard Labor,” about the contributions of the largely unsung Chinese workers who labored in building the American transcontinental railroad, are other stories that cover everything from robotics, sports apps, and makeup queens, to kung fu elephant poaching, and e-games.
Among those interesting and even worthwhile stories, however, are two key sentences that justify the entire expense and editorial efforts of the China Daily.
The first is the subtitle to the main story: “Trade row forces Chinese importers to look to South America.” The second is more specific: “Non-U.S. exporters of seafood, meats and grain to China are reaping unexpected benefits from tariff tensions that are hurting U.S.-China bilateral trade.” Chile and Thailand, the article continues, are both increasing their exports to China as a result of the U.S.-China trade war.
This is the punch, and the point. Americans, the insert warns, we will replace you. There are other sources we can access. It could be noted that it shouldn’t have taken four pages of robots, kung fu, and makeup to get the message across.
China, a society dependent on censorship to control, convey, and cement its messaging, ends up demonstrating in the Des Moines Register’s insert exactly what it is trying to disprove. Trust and sympathy are not gained by threats, no matter the number of soft-peddled stories that surround them.
In trying to influence Iowans, the Chinese government has shown that it lacks any meaningful understanding of the deepest of American traditions, those of independent thought, action, and allegiance.
In underestimating the insight and profound familiarity with political motives that belong to Iowans like almost no others in America, the authors of the China Watch insert have shown that they lack a fundamental understanding of their audience.
The folks on the farms will have noticed.