CCP media policy, soft power and China’s “third affliction”

By David Bandurski — In the most recent, and final, issue of Far Eastern Economic Review, I wrote about China’s “soft power” campaign and its blindness to the more fundamental issues facing China’s global credibility. In an editorial in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily yesterday, Kong Jiesheng (孔捷生), a dissident cultural figure and writer of “scar literature,” offered his own views on China’s present obsession with “soft power.”

Kong writes about China’s “three afflictions,” or san’ai (三挨), which received some attention in 2008 following unrest in Tibet and in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games.

The idea, which Kong says emerged from a Chinese government think tank, is that three major factors over the past century have hampered China’s national strength — namely, foreign aggression, a weak economy and basic subsistence issues, and last, but now in the forefront, China’s continued demonization at the hands of proud, ignorant, hateful and fearful Western nations.

looting of yuanmingyuan

[ABOVE: Woodcut depicting the looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War in 1860. According to one formula explaining the past 60 years of CCP rule, foreign aggression was just the first of “three afflictions” suffered by China over the past century.]

The first of these afflictions was thrown off by Mao Zedong. The second by Deng Xiaoping. The CCP’s present generation of leaders now face the third.

The “three afflictions” is an interesting formula that can help us understand the thoughts and emotions driving current media policy in China. Specifically, the formula underlines the roots of the CCP’s present “soft power” push in the longstanding narrative of national victimization.

The first public mention of the term “three afflictions” seems to have come on April 15, 2008. An article by columnist Lu Ning (鲁宁), which appeared in the official Guangzhou Daily, in Legal Daily, and at numerous websites, including and, sought to explain the deep psychology of anti-China protests following the Tibet unrest in March 2008 and during the U.S. leg of the Olympic torch relay in terms of disfunctional Western jealousy over China’s rapid and peaceful rise:

There are some American and Westerners, including part of their mainstream media, who see China’s peaceful development as an offense to the eye. They trust overly in the hereditary advantage and moral superiority of Western values that have emerged over the past century, and when they assess China’s development and progress according to their double standards, they fail to understand, are envious, concerned and even frightened — how is it that Chinese have development so rapidly according to their own logic? Misunderstanding and envy, prejudice and fear — all of these are fine. But we Chinese have no need to fuss about it. For more than a century we have suffered from three afflictions . . .

Qiu Liben (邱立本), the editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan, also used the term in an August 2008 editorial on the importance of the Olympic Games for China, but Qiu emphasized the importance of real attractiveness, a core component of soft power:

If you wish to turn around this suffering of criticism (“挨骂”局面), you must do more than move others with emotion and reason. You must act justly, so that others admire you and adore you from the bottoms of their hearts. They must not simply ingratiate themselves with you for the sake of wealth and power. This is the human gold medal that the Chinese people truly yearn for, and it is the national prize of which modern China is in pursuit.

In yesterday’s editorial on media policy and soft power, Kong Jiesheng attributes the term “three afflictions” to the Sino-U.S. Research Center, a think tank under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A translation of Kong’s editorial in Apple Daily follows:

Zhang Yimou’s Latest Film and the “New Three Character Primer”

I’m not so clear about the story line of Zhang Yimou’s new film, “A Simple Noodle Story,” but I do keep hearing about how terrible it is. Can Zhang Yimou really make anything worse than “Hero” and “Curse of the Golden Flower“? This is not inconceivable . . .

While I’m unclear about the specifics of “Noodle Story,” I do know that Qingdao had its own “three gunshot mystery” last year — and this offers sufficient proof that the facts of the real world are always stranger than fiction. [NOTE: The film title sounds very similar to the name given to the case of a suspicious death in Qingdao last year.]

It was reported that a huge swindler went missing in Qingdao after cheating people out of hundreds of millions, and his corpse was subsequently discovered with three gunshot wounds. Police in Qingdao launched an investigation and then wrapped up the case by concluding that he had “committed suicide.” Web users quickly had a field day with this — a suicide with three gunshots? Had he first tested the authenticity of his bullets on the thick hide of his ass? Where had he aimed the second shot? And perhaps, after all this trouble, the third shot had turned out to be a dud and a counterfeit? This is the real life version of “the three gunshot mystery” [“A Simple Noodle Story”].

I’ll turn now to the issue of the new three character primer (三字经). The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is similar to the Imperial Academy (翰林院), and there are numerous research centers under the aegis of this “national think tank.” Mr. Huang, the head of Sino-U.S. Research Center, one of these [centers], is a new leftist, and it would seem more apropos to rename the center the “Center for Criticism of the US” (美国批判所).

It is the view of this Hanlin academician that this 60-year dynasty [of the CCP] has resolved what he calls “three afflictions” (三挨). Mao Zedong’s achievement was resolving the problem of China’s bullying [at the hands of foreign powers] (中国挨打的问题); Deng Xiaoping’s achievement was resolving the problem of Chinese subsistence (中国挨饿的问题); and now, in an era of peace and happiness, the problem of the dressing down of CCP rule [at the hands of foreign nations] (中共政权挨骂的问题) must be resolved.

This is about the universal values promoted by mainstream international civilization and about public opinion in the West directed against authoritarianism in China and its human rights record.

How is China to resolve this problem? The serious punishment rendered against Liu Xiaobo is a strong signal [of China’s stance]. China has risen to greatness, and it has no need to heed instruction from the West with its tail between its legs. It sees the three major human rights codes of the United Nations as so much dung and mud. What universal values? What mainstream civilization? Now is the moment for Beijing to grab hold of the discourse power and export its own value system. You dare to lecture me? Well then, I will say categorically that Liu Xiaobo will serve out his sentence. That game of “catch and release” we played with the West during the Jiang Zemin (江泽民) era won’t be replayed under the leadership of Hu Jintao.

So what then is this Chinese-style value system? It is written plain as day in the judgement against Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) — it is the “people’s democratic dictatorship and the socialist system,” and wherever Chinese citizens act against this or commit acts of “subversion,” wherever foreigners seek to criticize, this will not be stomached. You have the power to look after your own turf, but don’t fuss with my accounts, and don’t come begging for me to purchase your bonds.

There is another road to resolving the dressing down problem [of Western nations lecturing China], and this involves purchasing [global] discourse power by investing 40.5 billion yuan in a massive “external propaganda” (大外宣) campaign, all the while milking the Chinese people dry on human rights, welfare and the environment. It involves expanding “soft power” internationally. I remember more then twelve years ago when I had just moved into an apartment in Washington, D.C. Right nearby was a three-story red building occupied by Xinhua News Agency. I often watched the Xinhua expatriates come and go. They kept a low key, acting and speaking with utmost caution.

After some time, they wanted to expand the building, but this was refused by the American side because the property was too close to the Pentagon. At the time this even boiled over into an episode of anti-American resistance. The Americans asked rhetorically: are foreigners permitted to buy properties near Zhongnanhai and the Central Military Commission?

Back then you could hardly imagine today, when China Central Television has set up its U.S. bureau directly across from the White House. And I’m confident that the “monkey-snakes” (mouthpieces) coming and going do so with strutting confidence, not bothering to keep a low profile [NOTE: The Chinese words for monkey and snake together form a synonym of the word “mouthpiece”, or houshe.]. One need only look at rental prices at that address to understand the grandness and magnificence of Beijing’s “external propaganda” today.

But the real question is, can a nation’s soft power and discourse power be purchased in such a way?

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 5, 2010, 1:46pm HK]

13 Comments to “CCP media policy, soft power and China’s “third affliction””

  1. […] CCP Media Policy, Soft Power and China’s “Third Affliction” […]

  2. Uln says:

    I agree with Yes, it is the Tibet events that started all this Anti-CNN thing in China and 100 positive articles about the Chinese economy cannot compensate for many Chinese readers the fact that most Western media gave a very biased reporting of Tibet.

    And back to the main article: any amount of investment in Xinhua and CCTV will not change the perception of China in the World, and China will never have soft power this way. The main reason is not Human Rights (see the USA is killing way more innocent civilians per year than China and gets away with it) the main reason is one of credibility.

    China and its media will NEVER be credible until they allow disenting opinions and stop their ridiculous censorship and monopoly of information.

    Freedom of speech is not only a human right, it is also a proof of courage, honesty and common sense from the authorities. Without FOS China will never have soft power.

  3. Yes says:

    “I still fail to see the hideous injustices perpetrated against China by the “western” media. I follow China pretty closely (I also speak and read Chinese and read the Chinese media, so I do have a frame of reference) and most of the stories we get in English sources are simply recycled from the official Chinese media, with most information “according to official Chinese media.””

    If you take all reporting on all issues I don’t think the “western media” has a single voice against china, but on key issues like Tibet that is certainly the case. As this article mentioned, it just so happens that the Tibet/Xinjiang conflicts are the two of most dominating issue when it comes to the “western media” discussing China. For Tibet and Xinjiang riots, the EastSouthNorthWest blog has an excellent collection of reporting from alot of the big names such as NYTimes, WaPo, Latimes, GuardianUK, TelegraphUK, Speigal(german) etc. You can read through them yourself, compare and see if you can find the views from the “western media” which deviates from the popular “China should stop dominating Tibet culture and get out of Tibet” angle. There are a few, but very rare (maybe 10:1).

    I also don’t see how an article about the positive aspects of China’s economy balances out the views of an article about Tibet Independence. These are two completely different issues. A counter point to China’s booming economy would be the negative aspects of China’s economic growth, and there are plenty of articles about that. A counter point to the idea of Tibet Independence would be the reasons why China should not give up Tibet, but that is an angle which the Western media is afraid of explore.

    But back on topic. Another key item which people don’t often talk about is the popularity of the Chinese government. Someone mentioned about PEW polls, PEW has also done polls somewhat recently which show some 80%+ Chinese believing their nation is going in the right direction. Personally I think as long as the Chinese government keeps the economy going at 8% its propaganda will work for a single reason: food on the table. Of course, this brings in another concept which a lot of people simply don’t get: many people in 3rd world nations are happy to trade basic human rights for stability. I think one would need to experience living in the 3rd world as a citizen (and not as a visitor from a developed nation) to know what I am talking about.

  4. William says:

    @xyz- You have a good point. The China model is probably much more attractive in parts of the developing world. However, you could also flip this question on its head and wonder about the soft power of countries like Brazil and India. Especially Brazil, under Cardoso and Lula, has managed to deepen democratic reforms while maintaining high levels of economic growth. Brazil and India’s soft power, too, is based on it’s unobstructed creative, entertainment, and sports industries that have broad appeal in many other countries. Maybe instead of setting up the “West” as the proverbial teacher/schoolmaster to either emulate or rebel against, China could also study some of the successes these two have had?

  5. xyz says:

    We might want to think about the developing world and the developed world separately when discussing China’s “soft power” influence. For people in developing countries like Brazil and India, China might be quite appealing. This helps to give China leverage in global institutions like the UN and the IMF.

  6. William says:

    “I continue to be amazed by Chinese readers who describe the “western” media as though it were a monolithic spearhead leading an ideological assault against China’s very existence.”

    @AT- I couldn’t agree more. I think, to some extent, some Chinese readers have this attitude because popular newspapers like 环球时报 almost always include a particularly offensive op-ed from somewhere in the “Western” press, and then present it to readers as what the so-called monolithic “West” and the anti-China crowd is saying about China. Also, I think another factor might simply be about how the human brain is wired. We have a “negativity bias” in our brains, which means that we pay much more attention to negative and possibly harmful or threatening information than we do to positive ones. Neurobiologists estimate that five positive encounters is roughly equivalent to one negative encounter. If true, this means that even if many articles in the West are broadly praising aspects of China and describing its rise, it’s natural for Chinese readers to more vividly remember the unfair and biased articles (which there certainly are), just as it would be for any other nationality.

    But anyway, it might be good to look at recent Pew poll (from the Economist):

    “Only 21% of Council on Foreign Relations members, fewer than in 2001 (38%), see China’s rise as a major threat to the United States. The general public is warier: 53% say that China is a major threat. And America’s recession has apparently magnified China’s economy in the eyes of Americans: 44% of the public now think that China is the world’s leading economic power, and only 27% name the United States (in fact, America’s economy is at least twice the size of China’s).”

    From this, we might be able to say that: 1) the vast majority of well informed people on China don’t see it as a threat, but 2) a larger percentage of the average public does. 3) People, if anything, overstate the size and importance of China’s rise and economic growth.

    What is interesting to me is the gap between the CFR experts and the general public. (You could argue that the public might actually have more common sense than the experts, but personally, I’d be inclined to side with the CFR majority opinion). The question then seems, what could explain the gap? One of the most crucial factors, I think, is the importance of media outlets like Fox News, and talk radio like Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio hosts. Well-educated American liberals may scoff at or characterize these opinion makers, but they are very important if you look at news ratings, voting patterns, or even education levels of the listeners.

    To bring this back to the original point of soft power, and 被挨打’ed, I wonder to what extent China’s vision of its international media operations that it wants to create is a bit outdated (after all, CNN isn’t doing too well in the ratings, and yet it seems to be seen as the de facto American media outlet by some Chinese observers). In the US at least, media is becoming more fragmented and ideologically divided, and I would assume that the Internet will force similar dynamics in other countries. Under these circumstances, is the government’s soft power outreach vision a bit like trying to do surgery with an ax when it should use a scalpel?

  7. AT says:

    This may be off topic, but some of the comments here are truly fascinating. I still fail to see the hideous injustices perpetrated against China by the “western” media. I follow China pretty closely (I also speak and read Chinese and read the Chinese media, so I do have a frame of reference) and most of the stories we get in English sources are simply recycled from the official Chinese media, with most information “according to official Chinese media.” Unfortunately, there really is not all that much truly independent American journalism about China. Also, for every op-ed that criticizes the Chinese government, there are two that proclaim China’s economic miracle or herald the inevitable decline of American power vis-a-vis a rising China. In fact, I have read several op-eds in English media over the past year that have been written by Chinese officials themselves. I continue to be amazed by Chinese readers who describe the “western” media as though it were a monolithic spearhead leading an ideological assault against China’s very existence. It almost begins to sound like politicians reacting to unfavorable coverage during a campaign. Who could forget Sarah Palin and her “liberal media elite,” spreading lies to keep a conservative woman out of office? For those Chinese readers who see this comment — out of curiosity, do you react with suspicion to Chinese media reports that are critical of the United States? PS — To D.B. and others here, this is a fantastic website.

  8. Yes says:

    There is a lot of truth here about China’s propaganda, the focus, and the intents. I don’t think anyone could say that China does not have a human rights problem, especially compared to many industrialized nations.

    That said, I do find it odd for the “west” to continue to insist on how and what should China do with its internal policies. China can definitely learn alot from the “west”, but external pressures from the “west” in the form of continued bashing in the Op-eds will do nothing except to put the majority of the moderates in China in the defensive and eventually alienate them. Put it this way, at work if your peer and not your manager, insists on how you should do your job without you soliciting for help, what would you think? You would think that this guy is an arrogant jerk.

    Of course, it would also help a lot more if the advices from the “west” were seriously taken by the “western nations” themselves. Particularly on the issues of human rights, the concept goes out the window as the US/British invaded Iraq. It’s also no secret that the “western nations” have been and is still supporting some of dictatorships in Latin America and mid-east.

    Finally there is the issue of racism, Tibet, Uighur, and Taiwan(to a lessor extent in the recent years). I believe this is perhaps the most divisive issue. To put it simply, it is not in the interest of many Chinese people to see China broken up into pieces and puppet states. It’s simply not going to happen that anyone could convince any reasonable minded Chinese that China should simply allow its western regions to be independent. Sure, given reasonable exchanges moderate Chinese probably would want to have better relationship with the minorities. Yet even on this front, there is not much value from any types of advices which the “western nations” could give because race relationships is a joke in the West. Sure, Obama was elected, but looking at simple statistics such average wage, unemployment rates, high school drop out rates, incarceration rates, life expectancy, etc. and you can conclude that African Americans are doing far worse than other races in the US. In Europe it’s the same situation with SE Asian immigrants and Muslims from the mid-east. And most importantly, the parties from the Tibet and Xinjiang championed by the “west’ are extremely hostile to Han Chinese. Again, this will only push away any type of support and even attempts to understand by your average moderate.

    At the end of the day, I think it would be the most appropriate for the “west” to offer help when and where it is being asked in order to build good will. It may take decades but it certainly can be done as Chinese people are easily one of the most adaptable people in the world. Until there is a good will at least among the moderates any attempt at forcing China’s internal politics by the “west’ will simply to be seen further bullying by the arrogant “west”.

  9. Bill says:

    In getting soft power, China focused on getting the say, not realizing it is much more important to get the “listen”, “trust”, and “respect”. And China demands “respect”, not realizing “respects” are given, not taken.

  10. David says:


    Just to be clear, I think you’re talking about the 2008 editorial from Lu Ning. I think he is quite serious and not at all sarcastic. Clearly, Kong Jiesheng takes issue with the idea of this third affliction.


  11. hebeiren says:

    Is he being sarcastic, or what?

    Way exaggerated.. the West just has a sensationalist, stereotypical view of China, leading to a mess of ill-informed journalism. However, if they were really out to demonize and spread anti-Chinese propaganda, I imagine a lot more than this would be done.

    And to be honest, Westerners are simply not sensitive enough today to be wary or “fearful” of China’s rise. There are a few, but most are ignorant of global politics. In contrast, every Chinese is constantly watching international politics, and every Chinese puts national interest before all the other ideologies the West likes to put first. China imagines that the West is constantly adopting a hateful, jealous attitude towards them because we imagine that if we were in that position, that’s what we would feel. As a Chinese living in the West, I surprise people back home when I tell them how little Westerners actually talk about China in comparison with other global issues.

  12. water says:

    The writer is quite confused. What is he trying to say?

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