Is Communist Party “propaganda” a relic of China’s past?

By David Bandurski — We are generally more likely to nitpick the work of Western journalists in China (on the rare occasions when we do turn an eye on their coverage of media issues) than to come to their defense. But the spitting match this week between The Telegraph and China Daily on the issue of “propaganda” deserves a moment’s discussion. [Frontpage Image: Propaganda poster photographed by Spiff_27 avalaible at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

I’ll try to be brief.

The exchange in question began with a report by The Telegraph correspondent Peter Foster about how China had launched its “60th Anniversary patriotic campaign,” which he referred to as “propaganda.”

As Foster has since pointed out, The Telegraph is not alone in using the word “propaganda” to describe campaigns like this one to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the CCP.

Nevertheless, it was Foster’s report that drew an itchy rebuttal in China Daily by Australian columnist Patrick Whiteley, who said of The Telegraph:

“By constantly labeling Chinese government initiatives as ‘communist propaganda’ the newspaper deliberately paints a sinister and very outdated picture harking back to the days of ‘reds under the beds’ and the ‘yellow peril.’”

Whiteley’s basic point, if I understand him correctly, is that China no longer does propaganda. The director of China’s Central Publicity Department is not a “propagandist” — he is simply a politician, not unlike statesmen anywhere else in the world.

Whiteley’s argument centers on the English translation of the Chinese word xuanchuan (宣传), which, as he points out, cannot always simply be rendered “propaganda.”

If, against Whiteley’s better judgement, one insists on translating xuanchuan as “propaganda,” a simple and neutral Chinese word is saddled with a dark and unfair negativity. What you’ve basically done is taken a harmless word — something like “promote” — and infused it with the “evil shadow of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.”

That’s just not fair to well-meaning cadres like Li Changchun, China’s politburo standing committee member in charge of ideology, who I suppose we should call instead the CCP’s “chief message getter-outer.”

I could make a more elaborate argument about Chinese “propaganda,” but I did say I wanted to be brief. So I’ll just stick to an article about CCP media policy printed in last Sunday’s edition of the official Beijing Daily newspaper.

beijing-daily-510.JPG

[ABOVE: Front page of May 10 edition of the official Beijing Daily with a report laying out "propaganda" guidelines for coverage of the 60th anniversary of the CCP.]

As a bold experiment I will resist rendering xuanchuan as “propaganda.” Here goes:

Carrying Forward the Spirit of Patriotism and Adhering to Correct Guidance of Public Opinion to Create a CCP Anniversary of Soaring Spirit in a Social Atmosphere of Harmony

Making an inspection yesterday at Beijing Television and the Beijing Bureau of Xinhua News Agency of preparations for news and publicity of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPC and Beijing Municipal Party Secretary Liu Qi (刘淇) demanded that [media] powerfully carry forward the spirit of patriotism and adhere to correct guidance of public opinion, creating a soaring spirit, joy and serenity, and a harmonious and civilized atmosphere for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city . . .

Liu Qi emphasized that news and publicity departments must tightly adhere to the events and topics as determined by the Central Party, publicizing the resplendent journey since the founding of the new China 60 years ago, carrying forward the spirit of patriotism and upholding correct guidance of public opinion, publicizing the glorious achievements and successful experiences of the capital city, singing loudly the main themes of praise of the party, of socialism, of economic reforms, of our great mother country and of our various peoples . . .

I believe this excerpt, just one from among scores of articles over the last week alone dealing with media policy at the local level, is sufficient to illustrate my point.

I hope Mr. Whiteley, should he happen upon my translation, finds it instructive. Like all of us, Mr. Whiteley has a great deal to learn about precisely how China’s propaganda apparatus works — and how it is changing.

As a final point, I caution against simplistic comparisons with radically different press and political environments. Mr. Whiteley asks:

Would The Telegraph‘s Washington correspondents ever write: “An Internet poll conducted across several leading US websites as part of a government propaganda campaign to mark the Fourth of July, has drawn a patriotic response”?

As The Telegraph‘s China correspondents know, I’ve taken a couple of them to task privately about niggling issues in certain recent reports about press policies in China. They took these in stride, mindful of their own learning curves.

Still, I feel quite certain the answer to Whiteley’s question is NO — not for the reasons, however, that his strange rhetorical question implies. While the Fourth of July is certainly a party, it is not a one-party political affair, and press coverage of the holiday would never be organized and financed by the local, state or federal governments. Pray, what “leading US websites” are directly operated and controlled by government institutions that tell them what they can and cannot report, and what they MUST?

But I promised to be brief, and I have this sinking feeling I’ve been pulled down into an argument with a first-grader who insists that peanut butter isn’t sticky.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 15, 2009, 2:08pm]

58 Comments to “Is Communist Party “propaganda” a relic of China’s past?”

  1. [...] article on the different concepts of propaganda. China Media Project Blog Archive Is Communist Party “propaganda” a relic of China’… Not only is the same word used to mean advertising in the commercial sense (I’ve got a business [...]

  2. [...] “宣传” and a recent media pissing match David Bandurski of the China Media Project comments on a recent online slang between a foreign columnist for the China Daily and a China-based journalist for the Daily [...]

  3. Chan says:

    @FOARP,

    RE : “… happened before I was born …”

    Ok, fine. If you were not born, you were not born.

    To answer your question of whether your accusations amount to double standards or not, it depends on whether you think the others (born earlier) who had a chance to criticize colonial powers on the subject of democracy, yet chose NOT to do say but instead chose to only criticize China, amount to double standard or not.

    RE : “… censorship under the KMT …”

    Again, whether that amounts to double standards or not depends on your views. See the above. And just in case if you agree that the actions of those people do amount to double standards, then the question is did you accuse them, or do you side with them.

    RE : “… so-called ‘example’ is …”

    What??? Wait a minute. How did you come to that conclusion??? (Seriously, I do like to know. Not as an attack on you, but as someone who writes, I am curious). Not only that that wasn’t the example, that wasn’t even AN example. That was just an opener to the article.
    The example is the bit about the media not promoting democracy to the people of HK before the whole business about the return of HK came up. Then all of a sudden, it came up in full force when it was announced that it was going back to the mainland.

    RE : “… HK history during the sixties …”

    No, all your arguments so far seem to be geared towards the handover and then now the riots of the 60s. The riots in the 60s was not an event that tarnishes the government’s image. Instead, it is the opposite. It garners support for the government. And so the media broadcast of these events does not in any way harm the government as you seem to be saying.

    RE : “As for why democracy was not created …”

    I never mentioned about democracy here. If you are referring to my article, then perhaps you should read my comments there in the comments section before raising that in this debate, because I’ve already answered that many times over on my blog. Please just read my response there.

    RE : “Now … why … why … why …”

    Wait a minute! Do you do this all the time in a debate that doesn’t seem to go well for you?? You throw 7 questions in a row at me where most of these questions don’t relate to the debate, and one of them doesn’t even make sense.

    Our debate is NOT about Chris Patten, full suffrage, nor democracy. And what is the logic of your question about pornography?? It doesn’t make sense. Where did you hear I say “restrictions on pornography are analogous to restrictions on the reporting of criticism of a government”??? And Where did you hear I say “social restrictions’ are analogous to the media having what they must report dictated to them by the government”?

    Without disrespect FOARP, your last few questions together with your misinterpretation of my article openning as an “example of media restraiction” is starting to give the impression that you read what is in your head rather than what is in front of your eyes. Would you please read what I write carefully. Otherwise it is a bit hard to continue the debate. (And I say this without any disrespect for you ).

  4. FOARP says:

    @Chan – I am not restricting it to the 80′s and 90′s, I am saying that it is illogical for me to take anything that happened before I was born into account when considering modern day affairs. By your standard, I would have to criticise every instance of censorship that ever happened anywhere before I criticise PRC censorship. I do not criticise censorship under the KMT when I talk about modern-day mainland Chinese censorship – is this also a double standard?

    No, you haven’t shown any instance, all you have done is make a blanket statement that censorship ‘happened’ without giving an example. Your so-called ‘example’ is that a friend of your’s uncle was allowed to march in protest – and this proves what? All it proves to me is that you do not actually know enough about the history of Hong Kong to comment on it.

    The thing is, if you actually look at HK history during the sixties, you will see that protests did take place against the government, and that these protests were covered by the media – and that some of the media in Hong Kong supported them. See this article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_1967_Leftist_Riots

    When a radio presenter who opposed the protests, and who satirised the protesters was murdered, the government declared a state of emergency, see this article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lam_Bun

    The crack-down which followed this and other murders led the protesters to use even more extreme measures, with over 8,000 bombs being planted in a terrorist campaign which touched every corner of the colony. There were also incidents at the border where PRC soldiers opened fire on Hong Kong police. The emergency only stopped when Zhou Enlai (who had earlier vetoed an invasion of the colony) agreed to order the HK communists to stand down.

    As for why democracy was not created in Hong Kong, maybe we should talk about the mainland government’s attitude towards it, particularly the way that any such effort (such as, for example, the 1980 elections) were condemned and in which military action was threatened? Had it not been for mainland pressure, Hong Kong would almost certainly have become self-governing in the same way Singapore did. As it was, the democratic reforms that were introduced in the wake of the 1967 emergency were always hampered by mainland opposition.

    Now:

    Why exactly do you think that there was systematic control of the media in pre-’97 Hong Kong?

    Why do you think that condemning modern-day Chinese propaganda but not condemning the lack of democratic reform in Hong Kong in, say, 1905, reflects a double standard?

    Why do you think that restrictions on pornography are analogous to restrictions on the reporting of criticism of a government?

    Why do you think that Britain did not ‘have’ democracy in Hong Kong, when the democratic reforms that they did introduce pre-97 actually allowed almost everyone to vote for the LegCo?

    Why did the PRC government refuse to allow full suffrage after 97?

    Why was Chris Patten condemned and labelled a ‘whore’ by the Chinese government for introducing these reforms?

    Why do you think that ‘social restrictions’ are analogous to the media having what they must report dictated to them by the government?

  5. Chan says:

    @FOARP

    (1) RE : “We were talking about the 80s-90s in HK …”

    No, we were not. We were talking about double standards. That is, you criticized China for not having free media, but why did you not do the same about British HK. My argument was the broadcast media in HK wasn’t actually free. You are of course free to disagree. And that is exactly what we are debating. There is no logic in suddenly restricting the debate to the 80s and 90s.

    (2) RE : “… I am unaware of, and you have been unable to show … any instance …”

    You may be unaware, but I already did show at least one instance. Perhaps you should read the article again.

    (3) RE : “…Hong Kong media is much freer that that of the mainland”

    That’s the impression we all have. But whether in reality it is or not depends on our perspective.
    In China, the restriction is mainly on reports that could threaten the central government. On that respect, British HK was very similar. Check my article again for one instance.
    As for other restrictions, such as socially based restrictions like pornography, etc, most countries have their own in one form or another.

    (4) RE : “There is no double standard in me…”

    Although I wouldn’t single you out, and you can correct me if I am wrong. But you do certainly sound like someone who probably would have accused other countries in one way or another for not establishing democracy. If you did, let me ask you if you also did the same to Britain for not having democracy in HK.

  6. FOARP says:

    We were talking about the 80s-90s in HK, if you want to talk about HK history pre-1980, then shoot away, but I do not bother to criticise it except in passing, and do not think it relevant to the current discussion.

    Once again, I am unaware of, and you have been unable to show (even on your blog, unless I have missed something), any instance of serious government muzzling of the media in Hong Kong outside of WWII and the emergency period during the 60′s. If you can raise a single instance, do so now – otherwise you should probably learn not to make wholesale statements without supporting evidence.

    The Hong Kong media is much freer that that of the mainland, there is censorship of HK broadcasts on the mainland, but no censorship of mainland broadcasts in HK – this shows us that this not simply a case of “everywhere has its censorship but it is different”, but a case of “some places have much more censorship and government control of the media than others”.

    There is no double standard in me, as a British person, criticising the level of censorship in one of the two other countries I have lived in during my life.

  7. Chan says:

    @FORAP,

    1) What??? Wait a minute. Hold your fire. I wasn’t referring to you when I said “China basher”. Read my last post again.

    I was saying I was using my response to your post to point out the double standards amongst the China-bashers. But I wasn’t for a moment equating you to a China basher. The fact that you happen to think the same on one issue does not imply you are or are not a China basher. On the topic of double standards, I am happy to debate with you (in a non hostile way).

    2) Before you were born??? HK only returned to China in 1997! We can debate about whether what I said about the HK media was correct or not. But your age has no significance to our debate about double standards.

    3) I don’t think so. What you are “aware” is certainly NOT correct. But before we debate about that, I like to know what you think about the points I made about the HK media in my article mentioned in my last post first.

    4) (a) It is not bizzare at all. I was originally from HK. So it is quite natural that I would use HK as an example. But you are of course free to disagree with the point we are debating about. But why is that bizzare?
    (b) The fact that one country or region’s media is controlled does not IN ANY WAY imply that the messages it sents out matches the messages the other controlled media in another country or region regards as acceptable.
    (c) Don’t know about “would disappear” or not. But your last accusation certainly shows that you are not being reasonable.

    —————————————-

    FORAP, if you are acting this way simply because you thought I was calling you a “China basher”, then I am happy to appologize if that makes you feel better. And we can then get back to a more constructive debate. But I would suggest perhaps next time you should at least confirm if people were accusing you before you start shooting the other guy.

  8. talentless hack says:

    I don’t mean to be nasty – no wait, yes I do – but the people who write ‘opinion’ for the China Daily are the most worthless talentless hacks available in the world of journalism. That we should be here discussing their views at all is already a grave crime against humaity. These people need to get real jobs that don’t involve inflicting their banal, inane mediocrity onto innocent readers. Seriously, a CD writer is not fit to even utter the name of a Telegraph reporter. ‘Tis blasphemy of the highest degree.

    The sheer irony of a CD op-ed piece criticising the translation of 宣传 as propaganda is mind blowing. Have such towering heights of irony ever been equalled in the entire history of civilisation? Surely not.

    I speak as a talentless hack myself, having previously worked for state English language media (not the CD), and it takes one to know one.
    I translate Chinese news for an industry magazine, and 80% of the journalism out there isn’t ‘news’, it’s propaganda, pure and simple.

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