When government propaganda meets creative marketing

Party apps screenshots

China’s changing position in the world and the new attitudes of the more educated, more skeptical, and often more disillusioned millennial generation have prompted the Chinese Communist Party to adapt in order to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese youth and instill patriotism in the generation that will see their country become the world’s number one economic power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session, attended by some 2,300 delegates, in the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 18. Etienne Oliveau / Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session, attended by some 2,300 delegates, in the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 18. Etienne Oliveau / Getty Images

On the surface, the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was much like those which came before it, embodying the characteristic high secrecy and rigid pageantry all supporting the unquestioned right to rule of the party leaders and the party itself.  Historically, the party has maintained a low profile in China and abroad, and then-party leader Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, China should “bide its time and hide its light.”  The most recent congress could be seen as a transformative one, a coming of age of the Communist party with its prior modesty and restraint replaced with propaganda touting the success of China’s economic development and official news agency Xinhua predicting that China will “regain its might and reascend to the top of the world [and] become the world’s largest economy.”  Such confident statements from the traditionally low-profile Chinese government suggest that leaders feel that they have successfully stabilized the economy and that they expect a consistent trend of growth to continue well into the future.  Such statements are also made possible by the current stability of Chinese political leadership relative to that in other parts of the world.  President Xi Jinping, perhaps the most disciplined and powerful national leader in recent memory, contrasts starkly with the unorthodox, shameless, and ineffective Donald Trump.  Many in the West have claimed that an authoritarian state such as China cannot succeed long-term, however Beijing’s new tone of triumphalism and the economic boom that continues despite uncertainty and several small downturns in the past few years serve to counter these arguments.

Below it’s an overview of four different areas where the Chinese government is successfully working to get its message out to the masses.

1- Social media: “Learn from the party how to build a startup!”

Before the 19th Congress a 105-seconds campaign video has taken Weibo by storm. Set to a thumping soundtrack, the fast-paced HTML5 animation (commonly called H5 among marketers in China) recaps the journey of the party growing from 13 members to 80 million, and China rising to become the world’s second-biggest economy. The video was produced by Central Kitchen 中央厨房, a media hub affiliate to the Communist Party’s official paper People’s Daily, with the purpose to integrate the practice of traditional and new media. “Check out the cool ‘entrepreneurial history’ of the Chinese Communist Party. Learn from the party how to build a startup!” writes Central Kitchen on its official Weibo account.

2- Music: Hip Hop with Chinese characteristics

Li Yijie, a member of the Sichuan-based rap band Tianfu Shibian, is pictured during a Reuters interview in Beijing, China August 10, 2017. Reuters/Jason Lee.

Li Yijie, a member of the Sichuan-based rap band Tianfu Shibian, is pictured during a Reuters interview in Beijing, China August 10, 2017. Reuters/Jason Lee.

As the Communist Party proclaims China’s achievements and prosperity to the world, it is also hard at work to leverage these accomplishments to stir up national pride among the country’s citizens.  A viral two-minute video circulated on Weibo ahead of the 19th Party Congress, referencing the “entrepreneurial history” of the Chinese Communist Party.  It highlights facts such as economic growth to become the world’s second-largest economy, increased GDP, the country’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and the party’s own growth from thirteen members to more than eighty million.  Despite the popularity of the video, most propaganda aimed at China’s virtually-connected millennial generation takes less explicit forms.  Party influence can be found within virtually every form of pop culture and targets a richer, more mobile, and digitally connected generation, but one that is also faced with a tough job market, higher costs of living, and who are disillusioned about their careers and life prospects, and perhaps even the Chinese Communist Party itself.  Sichuan-based rap group Tianfu Shibian is one example of a pop culture influencer promoting party ideals.  Its first hit “Force of Red,” supposedly created without party influence, attacked Taiwan and its leadership over the island’s renegade status.  This put the group on the party’s radar and led to Youth League and government support of future patriotism-filled tracks, including one music video filmed in the disputed Paracel (Xisha) Islands in the South China Sea.  The group is connected to propaganda agencies across China and meets with officials to exchange ideas according to group-leader Li Yijie who asks, “Why can’t younger folks be more patriotic?” and is concerned about the party’s future “if the post-1990 generations don’t enter the system.”  This attitude is very much in line with Beijing’s push to integrate patriotic messages into pop culture while also narrowing standards for acceptable content and promoting wholesome values, while banning media deemed politically incorrect or overly-negative.  Li says that more and more young people will reject the party if it sticks to its old ways, as many have turned away from party newspaper People’s Daily and state-run CCTV News.  Less blatant, these forms of propaganda better suit the demands of this new audience.  Patriotic raps such as those of Tianfu Shibian and the similarly patriotic music of boy band TFBOYS are used to spread party messages at Youth League events alongside traditional media, such as defense ministry briefings.  These government-influenced bands are criticized by some netizens for being propaganda machines, but Li Yijie says a balance should be struck between “critique with rationality…[and] complaining blindly.”  His groups songs include references to modern issues in China such as tainted food, corruption, and pollution despite being otherwise very pro-Beijing.  Association with government propaganda agencies can have tremendous benefits for musicians and filmmakers allowing them to receive government support with production and promotion to tap into the nation’s massive fanbase.

3- Movies: The box office success of Chinese propaganda movies

Wolf Warrior 2

Wolf Warrior 2

The box office represents Beijing’s greatest opportunity to deliver its message to the Chinese masses.  Most domestic films contain messaging aimed at spreading civilized thought, improving social integration, and aligning with state-sanctioned views of historical events.  They are perhaps the most effective propaganda in the modern social environment and are particularly effective with young people in tier three and four cities according to entertainment industry expert Sun Jiashan.  In contrast with more traditional propaganda messages and slogans, movies are more relatable to this audience and are something they are more capable of appreciating.  Even within the medium of film, propaganda agencies are needing to adapt their strategies to capture the attention of the modern Chinese.  Traditionally, domestic films highlighted military triumphs and praised the history of China and its great leaders.  They captured Mao Zedong’s idea of the people’s revolution and reminded citizens that the modern Chinese state came about as a result of the natural will of the masses.  Such films are now outdated and dole out party ideology in too heavy-handed a manner for the modern audience.  The recent thriller Wolf Warrior 2 is a good example of how propaganda in film has adapted to suit the current taste.  On the surface, the film seems much like a fast-paced Hollywood war-action production.  Key differences exist, however, in the nature of the main character and how he becomes the hero.  Working to save his compatriots caught in a brutal African civil war, he does not fight off the antagonists single-handedly, but instead transmits evidence of the danger to the Chinese military which quickly saves the group by launching missiles from a large fleet of navy ships stationed nearby.  The point is driven home by a written message at the end of the film reminding viewers not to give up when in danger overseas and that “behind you stands the powerful motherland.”  Wolf Warrior 2 promotes the idea of the greatness of the Chinese army and government and its role as a peacekeeper domestically and abroad.  This message resonates especially well with a generation in which many members are traveling, working, and studying internationally for the first time and fearful of reported violence overseas.  In subtle, yet distinct, contrast to themes in Western films of the same genre, the individual does not tackle challenges singlehandedly, but rather exists to enable, and be helped by, the collective.  With themes so in line with the Communist Party’s message, it is not surprising that Wolf Warrior 2 received large amounts of production support from the government, enabling it to become a blockbuster hit.

4- Apps: A galaxy of communist apps

Party apps screenshots

Party apps screenshots

While getting their message out to the masses through music, film, and the like is a priority of the Chinese Communist Party, it is also investing heavily in technology to foster communication, dedication, and commitment to party ideals among its members.  Whereas in decades past the Youth League was the primary vehicle for instilling party values into its youngest and most promising minds, recently the internet has assumed that role.  Party branches across the country have developed hundreds of apps to educate, evaluate, and track party members.  Apps such as Smart Red Cloud use artificial intelligence to generate a profile of a member’s political orientation using information such as work experience, family background, and online activities.  The app can determine whether a party member is, for example, a reformist or a conservative and suggest appropriate ideology tutorials or party-related activities.  Effectively, this lets the party better understand its membership and their perspectives.  Apps also offer chat features to enable better organization between party members in rural areas or within organizations.  One construction company facilitates communication between its more than 10,000 party members using such an app as well as conducting weekly and monthly employee rankings based on information collected by the app.  At least two million of the party’s eighty million members are utilizing party-sponsored apps.  Though the apps offer a variety of features, such as a chat bot to answer members’ questions about the party, their main aim remains tracking and evaluating the performance of millions of party members to enable local and national party organizations to understand their members while promoting party ideology.  Critics of such technology cite that if members feel they are being tracked too closely, they will become cautious and uneasy, opposing the program’s goal of increasing member engagement with and commitment to the party.  Such mobile apps are yet another way the Chinese Communist Party seeks to spread its ideology within its membership as well as to all Chinese.

Central Kitchen, the main hub for creative approaches to government propaganda

Central Kitchen logo

Central Kitchen logo

After three years of trial, Central Kitchen 中央厨房 was formally launched on February 19th this year. Central Kitchen wants to grab a wider readership by adopting new media expressions. WeChat H5 is an effective mobile marketing tool in China and has given birth to a wave of viral brand campaigns. The party’s Central Kitchen, too, has made H5 a core in its reporting, and hires creative professionals to work on the web technology.

Central Kitchen's official Weibo headerCentral Kitchen’s official Weibo header

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