China: Noise doesn’t spell Strength

“For the past 60 years, China has always had a weak voice in the world. Even as a member of the UN Security Council, China does not have a strong voice. Why? China’s political system is one of the reasons. Because they don’t agree with China’s political system, the Western countries not only don’t listen to China’s voice, but also criticize China in many ways. Today China is the third biggest economy in the world, right behind the US and Japan. In the future, China will be the only country that could challenge the hegemony of the US.”

Gong Shengli, chief researcher of Guoqing Neican (国情内参, state of the nation), in an interview with the China Global Times, August 17, 2009

“How can China speak to the world,” China Global Times asked several experts, in August last year. That was formally a question, but actually an assertion. The question presupposed that the Chinese media (people and organizations) can speak for China in the first place. But they can only speak for China’s leaders.

Willis Conover, VoA Jazz Hour

Power & Glory, naturally grown: "Time for Jazz". (Source: Voice of America - click above picture for a Willis Conover gallery.)

When a Chinese commenter wrote on this blog that the PRC hadn’t completely shaken off the typical rhetorical and laughable communist-style propaganda, a quote from Carl Rowan, a former head of the now defunct USIA (United States Information Agency) came to my mind. Rowan had once warned that radio broadcasts couldn’t make up for wrong political decisions, and was quoted in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan‘s administration invested heavily in broadcasters like the Voice of America (VoA), and broadened its control over the station’s programs. And Roy Medvedev, a  USSR dissident and now a Putin supporter, told American correspondents in Moscow that the VoA’s had used to be more restrained – and more efficient – in the pre-Reagan years.

But that was an inevitable consequence of the pigheaded “Reagan Revolution”. Reportedly, the Voice’s operating agency, the USIA, even maintained a list of undesirables who were to be excluded from the agency’s talks, such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Coretta King, Stansfield Turner, or Gary Hart. The Reagan administration boosted the VoA in terms of tech, but hampered its editorial work.

Things will be rather worse than better when PR is here for the mere sake of justifying the CCP’s monopoly to power. The propaganda does seem to work to a great extent within China. And it works on many foreigners, too. In the 1980s, China Radio International‘s (CRI, then Radio Beijing) foreign programs weren’t too different from their domestic ones. There seemed to be no great discrepancy between their ambition, and their substance. They mainly seemed to carry a dowdy Confucianist attitude (without frequently mentioning the sage, as they do now).

I was brought up during the Cold War, and ever since I had stayed in China for a longer period, it surprised me how most people I knew who were involved in trading with the country consistently ignored its political system. If China’s voice was really “weak” in the 1990s and before 2008, it was still highly efficient anyway, in that core issues – the authoritarian or totalitarian nature of CCP rule for example – were consistently overlooked by non-Chinese, or played down with arguments like “China will become more democratic / improve its human rights record [insert whatever may matter to you] as it becomes richer”. Many Chinese non-officials spread the same gossip. But they probably won’t decide the matter. The CCP will.

What brought the hypocrisy of many of the belittlements right home to me was Falun Gong. Years ago, when it was visa time in China’s Hamburg consulate, a young lady with a bag full of Falun Gong propaganda material was trying to talk with people who were on their way into the consulate. As far as I can tell, nobody but me got involved in a discussion with her. While watching the scene, I saw several business people who actually quickened their pace or downrightly ran away from her. I felt pretty sure that they’d tell anyone, anytime, that China was becoming less totalitarian, and more liberal by the day. But in front of the closed-circuit television cameras behind the consulate’s fencing, they wouldn’t take any chances to prove their own point.

This happened long before the “lies and distortions of the Western media” began. Indeed, a German television camera team should have been there in Hamburg, in my place, to record the eerie scene. It wouldn’t even have taken a reporter, and the pictures alone could have told the German public a lot about the state of our country, and about our real China perception. The Falun Gong demonstrations there went on for days, if not for weeks – there would have been plenty of time to shoot.

I’m not sure if China’s voice was really weak in the 1980s – at any rate, it was highly efficient. The “voice” apparently started losing (by points, obviously, not by a knockout) when the CCP and disoriented Chinese nationals began to raise “China’s voice”.

The reaction of many Chinese comes across as mortified. It probably seems unfair to them that America and Australia got away with extinguishing complete human tribes, while China gets criticized for “re-defining” what it means to be Tibetan or Uighur.

It’s funny that so many PR specialists – Chinese and foreign – who tender their advice to the CCP can’t see the obvious: information travelled slowly in the past. Even the San Francisco earthquake – up to 1906 “the most photographed disaster known to mankind” – still allowed for a lot of massage on unfavorable statistics, according to Wikipedia. Manipulating information isn’t that easy today, as it can spread within seconds. And when people get caught manipulating, they’ll usually lose face.

Clearly, the propaganda department is a learning organization. To a certain degree, foreign-language media like China Radio International keep chatting about vanities (Among all the courses you’ve taken in school, which one was your favorite? Why? Which was your least favorite?), and introduce their issues between the lines. “The mission is to embed propaganda messages in supposedly objective reports”, the Economist suggested in March this year. Indeed, CRI’s broadcasts emulate a Westernized Chinese way of life, with some harmonious, mostly non-controversial, characteristics. When listening to CRI’s Mandarin service, too, you can hardly believe that the English programs stem from the same radio station.

It’s not that the propaganda department wouldn’t work hard on doing a more efficient job. “Good journalism”, a “dialog with your imagined enemy”, or to “remember US values when lobbying there” are good points. But if an agenda is fundamentally at odds with such values, no toolkit, however costly, and no staff, will accomplish the mission. A convincing message doesn’t need to be vocal. The Voice of America was founded long after the country had “risen”.


Don’t Hide, Don’t Challenge (Yet), March 19, 2010
Public Relations: Comparing China and the Dalai Lama, Chinadivide, March 14, 2010
Rao Jin: “They want to Balcanize Xinjiang”, July 26, 2009
China-funded: Three Eight Hundreds, April 19, 2009

4 Responses to “China: Noise doesn’t spell Strength”

  1. I’m not sure if the CPC’s propaganda is effective on others, but it’s not on me. What I know is that it has an uncanny tendency to contaminate Chinese language. For example, “人民”, or “people” in English, has been severely polluted by its propaganda. Although the word appears excessively in its propaganda, “people” is unlikely the priority of the communist regime. To distinguish itself from the overthrown Republic of China, it feels no shame to call itself People’s Republic of China while sustaining a never-elected one-party totalitarian regime. It’s also the same case to its so-called National People’s Congress. At the end of the day, propagated words like “人民“ and “和諧” have been fouled and become targets that people poke fun at.


  2. As a German, I can see how originally “innocent” words – happily used in most places elsewhere around the world – can be polluted (and some of them in use here to poke fun at, too). Obviously, one can’t compare either Germany’s and China’s history or present tense, but I believe the main reason Willis Conver came to my mind is that he was hugely popular in the Soviet Union and everywhere east of the Elbe, and that Jazz in general was also popular among my parents’ and partly grandparents’ generation during the Nazi rule – and that even though most of them were no dissidents at all.

    Conover once explained the effect of jazz on people as he saw it – possibly with quite a propagandistic slant, but plausible to me anyway.

    Another interesting thing about jazz to me – not mentioned in the article linked to further up, but Conover was certainly aware of it – is that it developed among people who originally had no or only little political clout or influence in America. I’m not sure about its “power & glory” (I wrote that somewhat tongue-in-cheek), but there’s some magic in it.



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