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China wants to make the Communist Party 'cool' again with digital propaganda, but is it working?

China wants to make the Communist Party 'cool' again with digital propaganda, but is it working?

Originally posted by Michael Walsh and Jason Fang @ abc.net.au

If you think adapting to a rapidly changing media landscape has been a tough slog for Western newspapers and broadcasters, spare a thought for China's government-controlled media organisations.

Key points:

  • Officials are concerned about losing control of the narrative amid social media's growth

  • Hip hop music and anime are among the CCP's new approaches to propaganda

  • Chinese propaganda is often timed to coincide with major Party anniversaries

Often heavy on official Communist Party rhetoric, the aging engines of China's vast propaganda machine are not exactly known for churning out cutting-edge content.

But now China's President Xi Jinping has thrown down the gauntlet.

Speaking late last month at the offices of the People's Daily newspaper, the Party's official mouthpiece, Mr Xi called on journalists to use technology to "make the penetration, guidance, influence, and credibility of the mainstream media more powerful".

It is part of a wider push from the Chinese leader for domestic propaganda to "catch up with the times", which has also seen other aspects of the Party's messaging change tack.

There has been investment in patriotic hip hop groups and anime programs dramatising the life of Karl Marx — there's now even an app teaching "Xi Jinping thought".

But how much of this is actually cutting through, and is anybody in China buying it?

Power of 'guns and pens'

Cai Yongmei, the former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong's OPEN Magazine, said propaganda had always been important to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — and it used to be good at it.

"The CCP gained power through the use of guns and pens," she said.

"The Central Propaganda Department within CCP wields the baton of the so-called "main melody" [narrative], and is responsible for the direction of public opinion and propaganda."

Chinese officials traditionally looked to the media to take that "main melody" and transform it into programming that reinforced the Party line.

However as people of all ages in China get more of their news on social media, officials are worried about losing control of the narrative.

"With the speed and scope of the information flow, the Chinese people today know more about the world and are difficult fool," Ms Cai said.

Mr Xi has told media organisations to prioritise delivering news to mobile platforms like the hugely popular WeChat mobile app, which also allows independent users to set up news accounts.

These accounts have been a point of controversy for the app's censors — thousands were scrubbed from the platform last year, as part of a clean-up campaign from China's Cyberspace Administration.

Officials said the accounts had committed violations including "spreading politically harmful information, maliciously falsifying [Chinese Communist] Party history, slandering heroes and defaming the nation's image".

The speed of online platforms when it comes to breaking news makes it even more difficult for the official Party-approved version of events to dominate.

A list of last year's most-censored topics on WeChat released earlier this month indicated that posts about big news stories, like the China-US trade war and the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, received the most attention from censors.

'Making the Party cool'

Short of censoring posts outright, China's Government has also tried to directly shift the angle of discussions on social media.

The most infamous tactic involves the use of so-called "50 cent party" posts — staunchly pro-Government social media posts that appear to come from ordinary users, but are actually paid for by officials.

A study 2017 by Harvard University researchers estimated that about 448 million of these fabricated messages were posted each year.

Tom Sear, a cyber security expert from the University of New South Wales' Australian Defence Force Academy, said the Chinese Government had been involved in "astroturfing" — the practice of crowdsourcing what appear to be voluntarily comments to create influence — to change the discourse and push out other discussions.

"One of the pillars of China's way or Xi Jinping's approach to creating information dominance in the whole world is [through] public opinion within China," he told the ABC.

"And the way he does that is through the internet and [and timed to coincide with] particular moments and periods through the year, and commemorative events."

But propaganda efforts are also becoming less combative, and more appealing to younger audiences.

One example is the recently released anime series The Leader, which focuses on the life, work and romance of Communist philosopher Karl Marx.

The five-episode series released on the Chinese streaming website Bilibili.com has been viewed millions of times, and a manga comic book version has also been released.

"It tells young readers that Marx is not only a great thinker as they learned in textbooks, but also a diligent, romantic and rebellious teenager," the state-owned Global Times newspaper reported.

China's Central Propaganda Department and the People's Daily were strategic partners on the project, which was commissioned last year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Marx's birth.

Rapping about 'the Chi-phenomena'

At the same time, the Communist Youth League of China has also been experimenting with a new style of propaganda, turning its attentions to the popularity of hip hop music among China's youth.

The Youth League started collaborating with hip hop groups in 2016, when it released a video clip it produced for the group CD Rev ahead of the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

The song, titled This Is China, sought to tell people overseas about the "Chi-phenomena".

This Is China was panned fairly comprehensively in the foreign press, but the league has still been active in the music field, producing more videos for patriotic hip hop groups and uploading them to Bilibili.com.

CD Rev has been active too.

During China's bizarre diplomatic stoush with Sweden last year over the eviction of Chinese tourists from a hostel, and a comedy sketch about the dispute that aired on Swedish television, CD Rev's frontman Pissy released an explicit song criticising the Scandinavian country.

Chinese studies lecturer Kevin Carrico, from Monash University, said it was difficult to assess how effective these approaches were as pieces of propaganda.

"Thinking about whether these sorts of attempts at 'making the Party cool' are actually able to appeal to people, it's a question that I fear I don't have a precise or good answer to," he said.

"But I think by sort of appealing to nationalistic desires ... these kinds of media portrayals, I think, can find an eager audience.

"And that's not necessarily a commentary on the quality of the media, but rather just the basest inclinations of human beings."

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