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Chinese government initiatives as ‘communist propaganda’ the newspaper deliberately paints a sinister and very outdated picture harking back to the days of ‘reds under the beds’ and the ‘yellow peril.'”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

  9. Uncle Doug says:

    This kind of stuff is why the kids broke out the LSD in the sixties! I love your exquisitely informed analysis, Mr. Bandurski.

    Plaudits to you, and kudos.

  10. FOARP says:

    I guess I should also add that it is only in the last 11 years (i.e., since reunification) that serious concerns have been raised about the independence of the broadcast media in Hong Kong.

  11. FOARP says:

    @Chan –
    1) I am not a ‘china basher’, it simple beggars belief that you can equate criticism of censorship and propaganda with racial hatred.

    2) Not criticising things that happened before I was born and criticising things that happen whilst I am very much alive is no double standard. If you are so blind as to think that a democratically elected parliament can be created for the purposes of representing the opinions of their electorate then there is little hope for you.

    3) HK broadcast media has, as far as I am aware, remained free of censorship since the emergency during the communist-directed terrorist campaign of the 60s, and before that back to the second world war. You have failed to show otherwise.

    4) It is in fact simply bizarre that you should pick on the Hong Kong media of all medias to demonstrate that there is a double standard at work. Here’s a question for you: why is it that Hong Kong television is itself censored in the most amateurish fashion when it is rebroadcast on the mainland? If Hong Kong television is equally as censored as that of the mainland, why is this necessary? Why is it that news broadcasts are interrupted mid-sentence by government advertising when they talk about something that the CCP doesn’t want heard on the mainland? Or is this another criticism which will ‘disappear’ if I remove the word ‘China’?

  12. Zhu Ling says:

    I used to work at China Daily and I can tell you that Whiteley, like all the foreign English polishers at China Daily, is very well aware of its propaganda role. There are very clear lines on what can and cannot be published, and the correct ‘line to take’. One of the most commonly words at China Daily editorial meetings is mingan – sensitive. The Chinese media is not impartial – it presents facts selectively to influence the population and further a political agenda. Yes, Fox News and the Daily Mail do this too, but they operate in a pluralistic environment of competing opinions. The Chinese media all sing from the same book. That’s propaganda.

    What Whiteley also fails to mention is that when it comes to anything vaguely political, foreign editors at China Daily have no editorial influence whatsoever. If an editor like Whiteley submits a piece of copy that defends the party line, it may get into print. But they are very much out of the editorial decision-making loop.

  13. […] the word “宣传” and a recent media pissing matchDavid 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 […]

  14. Chan says:

    In case anyone is interested :

    Finally the above-mentioned site is revamped and up and running. The new article is also published. Please feel free to leave some comments.

    The latest article is called : “Topics on Democracy (Part 1) — Democracy War Game”. It is the 1st of a 2 part series.

    http://chinablogs.wordpress.com/

    (PS. It’s the 3rd article at the bottom )

    Have fun.

  15. Chan says:

    @Little Alex,

    No, I think you may have confused yourself. Perhaps not your fault. Our debate sidetracked the original point I was trying to make in my 1st post.

    My original post was directed at FORAP (and abcs, but mainly FORAP). He was talking about CCTV. That’s why I raised the issue of the same media (ie, the broadcast media) in HK to point out the double standards that is all too common amongst the China-bashers.

    So I wasn’t actually attacking HK or the HK media. I was just pointing out the double standards by the people. (But then you joined in the debate focussing on the media).

    Little Alex, If you were to take a neutral stance, and objectively analyse all the accusations and condemnations directed at China, you will find that MOST of the accusations would actually disappear if the word “China” was not there. The examples are endless. The article I am publishing this weekend points to 1 of them. Please feel free to come and debate. (The article is actually finished, but I need to restructure the blogsite before publishing)

  16. John says:

    stuart,
    “If it wasn’t irony, why should they?”

    Then, what can you do? Quit your job? With so many newspapers shutting down and the current financial crisis in force, there is no job back here. I remember that an African American guy at CCTV-9 was complaining to NBC’s Brian Williams during the Beijing Olympics that he wasn’t able to do things he did in the US. Last time I checked CCTV-9, he was still working there broadcasting Sports.

    Even though Western politicians tell you that immigrants come to their countries because of this or that freedom, and they tell you in a way that is very much propaganda, the No. 1 reason is economic. Foreign journalists working in China is an example to illustrate that. Despite of misunderstanding, or even resentment (see example here: “http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-anchor4dec04,1,1291538.story”) by the peers from their countries due to old mentality, I am sure that there are still more looking for journalism jobs in China. The world is now a much more integrated place. There is nothing you can do about it.

  17. little Alex says:

    @Chan May 20th, 2009 at 2:11 pm
    We’re all limited by our own experiences. I don’t have the means to go back and listen to every single radio and TV news broadcast there is. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect you have never done so either. And since we’ve already established that radios didn’t exist during the 1840s, for you to insist on using the 150 years figure is rather odd. In fact, since the first radio station in HK was established only in 1928, the highest figure you can claim is 69 years.

    Moreover, since the majority of the HK people do read newspapers and whatnot, and the newspapers have always felt free to criticise the colonial government, for you to single out TV/radio broadcast as an example of how HK didn’t have much freedom of speech is misleading at best, and disingenuous at worst.

  18. stuart says:

    @ John

    “Foreign journalists working in China of course have to reflect the Chinese perspective”

    Wow!! I can only assume (for the sake of your own credibility) that you were being ironic.

    If it wasn’t irony, why should they?

  19. stuart says:

    @wgj

    “At no point did I try to “defend” the Chinese media in general or CCTV in particular.”

    Exactly. Instead you chose to deflect the conversation by having an unsubstantiated dig at the BBC and others. If you’ve got a supporting argument, let’s hear it. Don’t waste the opportunity to exercise your right to freedom of expression.

  20. David says:

    mszamot:

    Yes. This is precisely because the word “xuanchuan” does not necessarily have the same sense as the English word “propaganda.” For example, my Chinese filmmaking partner and I have been editing the trailer for our new documentary film. When we talk about this in Chinese we talk about the “xuanchuan pian,” which is precisely a “trailer,” not at all a “propaganda short.”

    Best,
    David

  21. […] Daily: Xuanchuan no Longer Propaganda By justrecently David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong’s China media project quotes from an article by Patrick Whiteley, a China Daily columnist. Whiteley took issue with an […]

  22. mszamot says:

    It has always stunned me when our Chinese employees referred to promotion activities using word “propaganda” in our meetings when they used English!

  23. Chan says:

    @Little Alex,

    RE : ” … technology wasn’t invented until … ”

    Ok, thanks for the explanation. I did say I didn’t understand the question.

    ————————

    (1) RE : “I didn’t just mention Wilson, did I?”

    I re-read your previous post (dated May 19th, 2009 at 6:47 am). The point I made still stands. You said “… as FAR as you can remember …”. I guess that means as FAR BACK as you can remember. And yet, out of 150 years, you happened to talk about the 1990s!

    As I mentioned before, the reason you could hear criticism coming from the legco during that period is because there was a NEED for the British controlled media to promote the legco’s views, and to grant them the credibility they need in order for them to be able to eventually challenge the Chinese authorities. Without that, the newly formed legco in its infancy stage would not have had the legitimacy and support it needed to survive after their British masters left.

    As for Wilson’s termination, you’ve got to be joking! I cannot imagine any neutral person would go along with that explanation of yours.

    (2) No, there was never any condemnation of the British govt from the broadcast media in HK in relation to the Chinese language.

    (3) No. See my point 1 above.

    ————————————

    Unfortunately there are no black and white types of proofs for these sorts of things, because as you said there isn’t a physical govt official sitting on the board. But I am happy to try to tackle this question in my next article which I am writing on my blogsite. Please feel free to come and chat there. I expect the article to be published this weekend.

    http://chinablogs.wordpress.com/

    The article is probably going to be part of a 2 part series on democracy.

    (You don’t have to agree with me, but you are always welcomed to come and debate)

  24. Chan says:

    @Dan,

    Agree.

  25. Dan says:

    @Chan

    I guess “broadcast media” was a little different in the 1840’s no? The world had to wait several decades before Marconi, Logie Baird et al were crawling around in diapers!

  26. little Alex says:

    @Chan May 19th, 2009 at 9:05 pm
    And perhaps you should take your own advice. The other poster asked about broadcasting media in HK during the 1840s is because the technology wasn’t invented until the 1890s.

    (1) I didn’t just mention Wilson, did I? Yet you’ve very conveniently ignored all the other issues I’ve raised. As to why Wilson was removed, well, different people will always interpret various historical events differently.

    (2) Sometimes the media criticised the Chinese side, and sometimes the British side. For example, part of how Chinese finally became one of the official languages in HK is because the HK people, with help from some parts of the media, fought for it.

    (3) As to Legco, no matter the reason that they were created, many of the Chinese members, as I’ve already pointed out, did criticise various policies that the governor decided to implement, from the Vietnamese refugees to the then new airport.

    Last but not least, when you accuse others of saying nothing substantial, perhaps you should provide some proof for your statements. You have yet to show how the British colonial government supposedly impose this strict control on the HK broadcasting media.

  27. Chan says:

    @Little Alex,

    What??? Without disrespect, Little Alex, if you have nothing to say, it is better not to say anything.

    You said the HK press, for as far as you can remember, has never been shy in criticising the various policies of the HK govt. And yet, out of 150 years, you mentioned Wilson!! Is this meant to be a joke?

    Your interpretation of history also needs improvement.

    (1) First, Wilson was not fired because of media criticism. He was replaced because of his willingness to compromise with the Chinese side, which compromised Britain’s stance in the negotiations.

    (2) Second, the media wasn’t criticizing the British side. They were criticizing the Chinese side. And therefore not only allowed by Britain, but encouraged.

    (3) Third, the legco was put in place by the British NOT to bring democracy to HK to overthrow itself, but to challenge Chinese authorities. As such, the British controlled media has every reason to promote the legco’s views, and to grant them the credibility to challenge the Chinese authorities.

  28. Chan says:

    @Dan,

    I am not sure if I understand your question about the “150 years”. Just in case you are questioning the timeframe: Basically, Britain ruled HK from 1842 to 1997 with a 5 year gap during WW2. Thus making its rule a 150 year rule.

    As for the HK broadcast media in the 1840’s, I guess it wasn’t too different from the rest of the 150 years.

  29. wgj says:

    @Stuart:

    Your accusation of my “knee-jerk illogical defences” (sic) is itself a knee-jerk reaction totally without merit. At no point did I try to “defend” the Chinese media in general or CCTV in particular. As I’ve already stated, there are clearly fundamental flaws in the Chinese media structure – that’s so obvious it’s not worth discussing. What is worth discussing, however, is the root cause of that. Simply because I dispute the idea that state-ownership is an inherit cause for propagandistic media, you assume I dispute the very existence of state-owned propagandistic media at all. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, that is just immature.

    @Chinaa:

    It’s simple: The BBC is operated mostly by highly qualified professionals, while CCTV is operated mostly by utterly incompetent amateurs. Even leaving the politics aside, CCTV is just laughably bad at what they do.

  30. little Alex says:

    @Chan
    “No, not revisionist at all. What makes you think so?”

    The HK press, for as far as I can remember, has never been shy in criticising the various policies of the HK government. Wilson, for example, was so severely criticised for his various decisions that the British government eventually decided to fire him. Chinese Legco members before 1997 has explicitly criticised the governor for ignoring the interest of the Hong Kong people. In fact, legislators argued bitterly in Legco over quite a number of issues, from Vietnamese refugees seeking asylum to the construction of the then new airport.

    And all of that was reported — I don’t recall if it’s only in the newspapers or if TV and radio news played a part as well, but that hardly mattered. Moreover, there has never been any government officials in the editorial teams of TV and commercial radio stations, and there has never been a government department that these editorial teams have to report to before airing its content. Nor was there any government department that would issue orders and directives on what could and could not be reported. So I’d love to see where this supposedly strict control could come from.

  31. little Alex says:

    @pug_ster
    And there are many journalists who criticized Bush and now Obama for their decisions to limit access.

  32. little Alex says:

    @John
    I don’t disagree that “Western” journalists working in Chinese newspapers should show the Chinese perspective, but the Chinese people’s perspective isn’t necessarily the Chinese government’s, just as the Chinese workers’ perspective wouldn’t necessarily be the same as the Chinese businessmen’s. As long as those journalists reports only the Chinese government’s (or even just the local officials) views, public interest isn’t being served.

    Take the tofu school scandal that emerged after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, for example. The government has declared that there’s no such thing as a tofu school, and is busy trying to shut the parents up. So the parents might never get justice. But if China has a truly free press, then the officials would have never been able to dismiss the parents so easily.

  33. Dan says:

    @Chan

    Agree that “propaganda” has negative connotations for most English speakers. However it is the underlying concept, not simply the word “propaganda” that is viewed negatively in The West today (unlike the F word – most people don’t object to sexual reproduction).

    In my experience the concept itself has much wider support in PRC China.

    If it was possible to ask the question with 100% neutral language “do you think the government should use the media and education system to guide people’s political views” I am certain many many more PRC Chinese would support the statement than Westerners

    The extent to which that opinion gap has deep historic cultural roots or is a product of several generations of “xuanchuan” I am less certain (although I suspect the latter).

    ***********

    “150 years…150 years…..of TV/Radio”? What was HK broadcast media like in the 1840’s?

    God Save The Queen absolutely was/is anachronistic propaganda and should be objected to vehemently!

  34. […] commentary comes from David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. In his post, which is worth reading in full, he touches on the key points of the debate, including the Chinese […]

  35. Chan says:

    @FORAP,

    I think your 1st post (4:10am) may have been for someone else. I never said anything about the BBC.

    As for your 2nd post (4:16am):

    (1) No, I was talking about the braodcast media only (ie TV and radio). I do understand that there were newspapers in HK with different political views.

    (2) I knew there was something wrong with my post. Perhaps I should clarify myself. When I said the (broadccast) media never condemned the British HK government, I wasn’t talking about the local people operating under British orders (such as the police, etc). I was referring to the policies and the competency of the British HK government, and whether the local British masters were even loyal to HK or not. For example, are their policies actually designed to benefit HK, or benefit Britain.

    No HK broadcast media has ever criticized the British HK government policies and loyalty.

    ————————————————

    @little Alex,

    No, not revisionist at all. What makes you think so?

  36. John says:

    @stuart — “What chance an op-ed piece by Whiteley getting published unless it toes the party line?”

    Is that a big deal? Does that matter? Foreign journalists working in China of course have to reflect the Chinese perspective. It is a job they are paid for. Do you expect them to express the same kind of opinions that are expected in their countries? Then, why does China need that? When journalists write, they have to take pubic opinions and political climate into consideration. They cannot just say anything they like. This is also true in the West. Personally speaking, I really don’t care what journalists want to say as much as what they say, just like I don’t care what politicians want to say as much as what they say. Journalism is foremost a career to make a living. Personal opinions are only expressed to serve a purpose.

    Now that you mentioned it, Tibet is a perfect example to show the constraint journalists need to keep in mind when they write. Here in the West, I have rarely seen a good article, because they are all or have to be written from the Western perspective where Tibet is a small and weak country that was invaded and suppressed by China and “to say something bad about the Dalai Lama is like trying to shoot Bambi”. If Tibet were fairly reported in the West, why does China need to report it differently?

  37. FOARP says:

    @Chan – Actually, there are well-known instances in which the HK media has criticised British rule, especially after the period of emergency during the 60’s. Check through the back issues of any HK newspaper during the 80’s and early 90’s for example, and you will see the police corruption of that era recounted in gory detail.

  38. FOARP says:

    @Chan – But the board of governors does not have editorial control, the selection of the board of governors is open to review by other political parties, and even judicial review if there is suspicion of bias. The BBC often clashes with the government, and mocking and ridicule of government ministers is a daily affair. Totally unlike CCTV, which is an organ totally under the control of a one-party state with total power over editorial content which is exercised day-to-day.

    I am afraid therefore that you are totally wrong. The BBC is independent, CCTV is not, live with it.

  39. stuart says:

    John:

    “Chinese media, since state owned, are much more responsible and fact-based.”

    Not so on issues where they seek to arouse nationalistic feelings. Consider their treatment of what was happening in Tibet a year ago (or at just about any time). Besides, the greater responsibility is to report widely rather than selectively. State-controlled media are capable of delivering an accurate report, but it’s the stories they never suit up for that makes for biased coverage and irresponsible journalism.

    “Why does he lose credibility simply by working for the China Daily?”

    I would allow Whiteley to express his opinion on my site even if I didn’t agree with it. What chance an op-ed piece by Whiteley getting published unless it toes the party line? We both know the answer to that question – and so does Whiteley.

  40. little Alex says:

    @John
    There is no one Chinese media, just as there’s no one Western media. Different newspapers, radio channels, and tv channels have different opinions and wording. Which Chinese radio/newspaper/tv channel used these supposedly neutral words? Which Western radio/newspaper/tv channel used these supposedly biased words? Are these words found in the same sections (i.e., are some found in news reports and some found in op-eds?)?

    P.S. How is calling the PRC “communist” biased? I’ll freely admit that it’s no longer very communist in practice, but until CCP decides to remove “communist” from its name, it’s just being, well, factual.

  41. little Alex says:

    @Chan
    A bit revisionist, aren’t we? The Brits has never directly interfered in anything, let alone strictly controlled TV and radio broadcasts. And the press has always been pretty free, with opinions ranging from the far-right to the far-left.

  42. Dan says:

    Thank you for this post. I am one of China Daily’s captive readers. I have lived in China on and off for a few years now. Despite decent effort in spare time my written Chinese is unfortunately stuck at a level below that required to read local newspapers easily. Reading China Daily with my morning coffee has been my only option. WSJ, IHT tell me they are not allowed to print on mainland and hence have to airmail copies from HK, arriving 6-7pm in evening. Who wants to read yesterday’s news?

    From those of you who are fluent Chinese readers I would be interested in how the “xuanchuan” of China Daily compares to that in the local language press. I am sure the local language press must be more lively and entertaining than the China Daily, but is the “correct guidance of public opinion” as uncompromising? Does genuine open debate await me in any publication if I can get my written Chinese up to the required level?

    Mostly I have learnt to skim/skip the xuanchuan in China Daily but often that makes the paper a v quick read indeed!

    Re: foreign writers /broadcasters in China – with huge excess supply of wanna be journalists / broadcasters in the West it’s not surprising at all that they can find foreigners willing to play the xuanchuan game. A journalist friend tells me that the vast majority of the people on his respected journalism diploma course eventually gave up trying to get into the profession – some of those who “succeeded” were stuck writing for tedious trade magazines and local papers. The opportunity to play “Mr/Mrs China” will continue to be a tempting one for many.

  43. David says:

    One further note worth keeping in mind is that we cannot entirely discount the idea of good journalism being achieved at the likes of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency or Guangming Daily. Dai Qing once wrote for Guangming Daily. Liu Binyan was a reporter for People’s Daily, and for China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Communist Youth League that is still home to some very good journalists. A Xinhua News Agency reporter wrote a very good piece after the earthquake last year that underscored lack of preparedness and poor building construction in Sichuan by telling the story of a schoolmaster who had fought to shore up his own school buildings (which did not collapse). The fact that this story was fiercely criticized by the Central Publicity Department reminds us, at the same time, that control is very real.

    The situation of professional journalism in China is very complicated.

    Best,
    David

  44. David says:

    I do think we should be careful with the idea that Whiteley’s credibility rating must necessarily drop because he is writing for China Daily.

    There is no question that Chinese party media in particular (as opposed to commercial media, which are subject to propaganda controls but have still generally managed a higher degree of professionalism and relevance) suffer from a crisis of credibility. This is why their circulations have dropped through the floor since the 1990s and why Chinese web users routinely ridicule them. As a reflection of party policy, however, they are quite reliable.

    China Daily is a slightly different animal, controlled by the State Council Information Office rather than the Central Publicity Department, but inevitably suffers similar perception problems.

    Still, I think we have to be careful about rejecting ARGUMENTS out of hand simply because they appear in this or that publication. If Whiteley’s arguments were sound they would stand on their own merits. As I think my post makes clear, how to translate the word “xuanquan” is irrelevant to the question of whether China’s leaders have propaganda policies or not. Whatever I may feel personally about China Daily, I am countering this argument not attacking the paper.

    On a separate note, John’s point that the CCP should keep up with the rest of the world in the use of trendy terminologies is an interesting one. It has begun to do exactly that, in fact. We are seeing a rapid rise, for example, in the use of the term “agenda setting” in academic and party journals talking about press control policies and how the party can effectively control and guide the agenda.

    Obviously, changing your buzzwords does little to mask the practice of media control. I encourage anyone who doubts the truth of these policies to speak to Chinese journalists and editors.

    Best,
    David

  45. John says:

    stuart: How do you know that Patrick Whiteley does not express his personal views in his column? Your argument is the same as to label all pro-China comments as brainwashed by the Chinese government. It may work one time, but it is not going to work all the time. Why does he lose credibility simply by working for the China Daily? Is he betrayal of something? I see an outdated mentality and perhaps, a steak of racism.

  46. John says:

    Hi, this is John again. I want to make two comments.

    1. The English word “propaganda’ has negative connotations. The Chinese word “Xuanchuan” meant slogans and posters in the past, and was fittingly translated as “propaganda”. But, its use and meaning have changed over time. The Chinese government has not updated the use of words. I would suggest that they stop using the word “Xuanchuan”, and instead, use trendy languages to keep up with the rest of the world, just like people use politically correct phrases in the West. I agree with Whiteley, it cannot be translated as “propaganda” all the times.
    2. As I compare the Chinese media with the Western media, I found at least two differences. First, the Chinese media use neutral languages, and are pretty benign these days. For example, they no longer use inflammatory words like “imperialists”, “colonists”, and “aggressors”. On the other hand, words such as “communist”, “red”, “brutal”, and “repressive” are still seen in the West to describe China and other countries. Second, although they may be little slow sometimes (much improved now), the Chinese media, since state owned, are much more responsible and fact-based. They don’t publish rumors and hearsays, which often seen in the West, only to be recanted later on.

  47. stuart says:

    “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.”

    Indeed. Wgj completely misses the fundamental difference between the BBC and Chinese state-controlled media, and pug_ster is telling us something about Abu Gharib. Both are guilty of knee-jerk illogical defences of a perceived criticism of China.

    The point already made about foreign columnists at the China Daily is spot on. They are not free to explore any journalistic talent that may or may not exist outside the narrow confines of their master’s agenda. Only panda-huggers need apply. Patrick Whiteley loses a degree of credibility simply by working for the China Daily.

    Whiteley’s tame argument that “xuanchuan” cannot be literally translated to the negatively-charged (in his view) “propaganda” has nothing to do with the extent to which “propaganda” is actually used by the CCP. Perhaps there’s a good deal of “xuanchuan” as well. I do hope so, because the public are in dire need of ‘correct guidance of opinion’ by the party.

  48. Chinaa says:

    ‘in other words, the BBC is run by people appointed by the government, same as CCTV.’
    still I prefer watching bbc programs, how come?

  49. wgj says:

    @FOARP:

    The difference between “state owned” and “public owned” is semantical. The BBC is run by the BBC Trust, whose members are appointed by the Culture Secretary — in other words, the BBC is run by people appointed by the government, same as CCTV.

    @abc:

    You’re absolutely right. And I wasn’t arguing that there were no fundamental flaws in the Chinese media structure. I was just saying “state ownership” by itself isn’t the issue.

  50. Chan says:

    Excuse the spelling and grammar mistakes in the previous post. Truncated and mingled a few lines together without rechecking

  51. Chan says:

    @FOARP and @abcs

    First, regarding the word “Propaganda” :

    Many people, including Mr Foster himself in one of his later post, use the dictionary to justify use of the word “Propaganda”. This is hardly convincing.

    According to the dictionary, the F*** word is defined as “to have sex with someone”. You probably have noticed that many would get upset if you use this word, even though it has such benign meaning.

    When we hear a national anthem, eg “God Save The Queen”, do we say “Oh no, here we go again. Britain is trying to spreading that propaganda yet again”? Probably not. The word has negative connotations, and is only used on people or entities we don’t like.

    —————————————–

    As for the state owned and controlled media :

    In the 150 years of British rule in Hong Kong, we did not have 1 single day of free broadcast media. All TV and radio broadcasts were strictly controlled by the British HK government. As a result, there were never 1 single report in the last 150 years that condemns the British HK government. Yet no-one condemns Britain for suffocating the fundamental freedom of speech in HK. Why the double standard?

  52. abcs says:

    @FOARP

    I believe most Chinese writers for China Daily and the Global Times merely want to make a living out of the business. Those are paid jobs, and some people will do it. As for foreign writers, I don’t make sense of it either. I mean I don’t think they have to rely on these jobs.

    @wgj

    If you consider “state owned and controlled” alone, then the argument is obviously weak. But “state owned and controlled” is the only possible status of China’s major media, if not all. In China you simply cannot have competitors to state-run media as in Europe. That is what makes “state owned and controlled” stand out as a real issue.

  53. FOARP says:

    wgj – The BBC is a public owned corporation, it is neither directed nor controlled by the state. And no, the major stations in many European countries are privately owned, hence in the UK we have ITV, Sky, Channel 4; in France they have TF1, Canal, M6; Spain has Telecinco; Holland has RTL; Sweden has TV4 AB etc. etc.

    But more to the point, a state ministry will not direct the BBC to highlight certain things in its reporting, instruct it not to mention certain things in its reporting, and have anyone who fails to obey these strictures fired.

    So, for example, I can watch a program like the one I just finished watching with BBC journalists making fun of our political leaders for fiddling the expenses system

  54. wgj says:

    @FOARP:

    The BBC is “state owned and controlled”, too, you know. In fact, the major TV station of most European countries are “state owned and controlled”.

  55. FOARP says:

    It amazes me that writers for publications like China Daily and Global Times do not see the clearly propagandistic nature of their work. No publicist writing a company brochure would claim that they were doing but casting the company in the best possible light, yet these people try to claim that the state owned and controlled media they work for is interested in a truthful view of the rule of the communist party.

    Even more odd is the idea seemingly common amongst the foreign writers who work for these publications that might change things for the better through working for them. Tell me, did Chris Gelken change anything about CCTV 9 – or did he just add a thread-bare covering of semi-professionalism to a meaningless source of agitprop? Have the presenters of CRI been a beacon for a new age of Chinese talk radio? Have the endless merry-go-round of foreign editorialists at China Daily allowed their Chinese counterparts to gain more freedoms as to subject matter? The answer to all of these questions is that foreigners who work for Chinese state media have done nothing to change it.

    The true beacons of press freedom in China are not to be found in the ranks of those who foreigners have taken their 30 pieces of silver, but amongst those who work (or worked) at publications like Southern Weekend News and Freezing Point.

  56. pug_ster says:

    “correct guidance of public opinion” or propaganda as they call it is sometimes necessary evil. Here in the US I recall that there are several restrictions that journalists and media have to adhere to. Bush administration during the Iraq war censor filming and photographing Flag draped coffins coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. When IED’s bombed Humvees and you see frag ridden US solderiers, the Journalists are barred from filming them because it would ‘demoralize’ the war effort. Even Obama who touts transparency within the government barred photographs from the Abu Ghraib pictures from coming out for the same reason. I even noticed a change in the Media about the Recession when it was producing too much negative stories and they started to produce some positive ones.

  57. […] May 15, 2009 by hemuloki David Bandurski at China Media Project: Is Communist Party “propaganda” a relic of China… […]

  58. Yiu-cho Chan says:

    It still interests me to see how China Daily uses its foreign writers (I need to avoid the use of the word ‘journalists’ in this case) to tow the party line and to make it seem like there is some kind of strange international consensus that the rest of the world agrees with the CCP. If there’s anything we Chinese have always been big fans of, it’s always been a) denial, b) legend, and c) bandwagon-jumping. Those are not mutually exclusive, either. So if a white guy says it, then he must be right!

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