Written by Timothy Cheek.

In August 2013 Xi Jinping declared a propaganda war on independent political criticism on China’s internet, especially the popular domestic weibo microblogging platforms. He urged his colleagues in the Chinese Communist Party to “seize the ground of new media.” The Party has waged this war with a crackdown on influential weibo commentators (“Big Vs”) and a charm offensive promoting the virtues of what Xi Jinping claims as the “Chinese Dream.” Western reporters scoff and many Chinese ignore it, but the Party is working overtime on propaganda as if it really matters.

Propaganda remains a dirty word to most readers of this blog and, indeed to many Chinese and those living in China today. Yet propaganda has been embraced by Chinese governments well before the 20th century and it is likewise employed by Xi Jinping as a good and necessary thing, in fact as an indispensable tool of governance.  Why?

Five key terms offer a glimpse into the social norms, doctrinal culture, and governing practices that contribute to Xi Jinping’s claim to use propaganda for public order and personal uplift. I arrange these core ideas of Chinese statecraft from the hoary and general in Chinese culture to the recent and specific in the Chinese Communist political system. Together they suggest a role for the government as a pedagogical state that has the responsibility to provide order and prosperity through civilizing its citizens according to the superior insights of certified transformational bureaucrats learned in a body of thought that when applied properly will bring great harmony to all under its sway.

If this sounds like bunk to you, think again. To note the claims that animate Chinese propaganda is not to endorse them. Rather, if we admit to political principles, be they those of The Economist or The New Left Review, then we admit that politics needs persuasive power (academics read: hegemonic thought) as well as muscle and money. That leaders may not sincerely believe the ideology they perform does not mean alienation from it. How many elected officials in America are sincerely religious while so many find attending church, synagogue, or mosque to be socially appropriate, promoting good social values, perhaps personally comforting, and certainly politically useful. There are degrees of belief and compliance with a powerful social norm.

Here is a short course in the Chinese version of making the people free (with apologies to Rousseau).

“Transform the people through the Rites” 以礼教民. This belief in the transformative power of correct models come from the Liji, an ancient Confucian Classic. Its constant repetition by Chinese governments and leading thinkers for the past two thousand years reflects a shared belief in the educability of humans. People can be taught how to be good, and correct ways of acting, thinking, speaking, and even sitting, can directly contribute to that noble goal. Thus role models, especially top leaders—like emperors—need to act well, or at least be seen to act as exemplars of morality. This fundamental assumption lends itself to positive or negative models (what to or not to copy) but makes public criticism that does not model a positive alternative jarring.

“Sacred Lectures” 宣讲 come from the Qing Dynasty but were built on imperial propaganda popularizing the Sacred Maxims of the Emperor (starting with six for the Ming founder, Zhu Yuanzhang and growing to Sixteen for the Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century). Local Confucian officials were required to lecture on these Sacred Maxims to the public for their edification. Themes extended from filial piety to “maintain harmonious relations with your neighbours” and “be content with your work” to administrative concerns such as “keep your baojia [residence] register up to date.” The point of this tradition is that Chinese governments from the 14th century consistently insisted on giving the lectures when all available evidence shows that locals paid next to no attention to them. The ritual performance signified legitimate government regardless of whether or not anyone was paying attention.

“Political Tutelage” 训政 was Sun Yat-sen’s explanation for putting democracy off for another day. The founding father of China’s Republic, Sun came to feel by the 1920s that the Chinese people were not ready for democracy and required instead a period of political education during which his one-Party state would inculcate the masses in modern civility. This responsibility (or presumption, depending on your view) was enthusiastically embraced by his successors—Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party, most famously under Mao but both before and since.

“Rectification” 整风 is the political education and reform movement to train Party leaders and rank and file that Mao Zedong perfected in Yan’an in the 1940s. When undertaken seriously, this form of political training resembles nothing so much as Bible study in small groups run by your local police department (with officers from the Intelligence Service and military on hand when needed). Individual study, public confession of your sins, review of your personnel record, and public propaganda about role models (and a few negative role models to show what is to be avoided) define a CCP rectification campaign. Rectification was taken to absurd and tragic extremes in the Cultural Revolution, but it has been a staple of political life in the CCP since the 1940s. Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign is just such a rectification campaign.

“Propaganda” 宣传 has all of these layers within it. It runs on the operating system of “transforming the people through the rites” by performing correct behaviour and providing suitable images, examples, and endless orthodox lectures on what to do and why. Propaganda is needed to provide the political tutelage of a population not yet ready for democracy but which can, in time, be made ready. And propaganda is produced, disseminated and measured by an elite cadre of political professionals who merit their privileged position by having been rectified by Party training. Without propaganda by rectified political teachers how can the people be transformed to become free? It all makes sense, and not just to Xi Jinping.

Just because I don’t like Chinese propaganda, and clearly there are ordinary Chinese as well as dissidents who don’t like it either, does not make it evil or ineffective in China. To understand others of different circumstances we must put aside our preferences. Once we have a surer sense of what propaganda means for various Chinese (and not just political leaders), then we can decide how we feel about it. Most importantly, we are more likely to be effective in engaging Chinese colleagues and contributing to what we believe to be good if we understand something of the rules of the game of public language in China today.

Timothy Cheek is Professor and Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research and Department of History, University of British Columbia. Image Credit: CC by Jeroen Pots/Flickr


  1. Nice post. Last year, in Shanghai, I was living at the end of a short one-lane street in the inner part of Pudong. The walls along the street were covered with posters from the “Chinese Dream” campaign. The first thing I noticed was the lack of the colour red. The second was the appeal to styles, images and text echoing traditional folk culture, leading the viewer to associate them with the modern dream of national “rejuvenation”. But the poster that most attracted my attention was one representing a doctor — a pretty hand-drawing — auscultating a globe, accompanied by the words “There is only one world, take care of it”. It was essentially a valuable environmentalist message, a public service ad if you will, mixed and integrated with messages of a more “political” nature — although the political dimension was definitely kept in the background. Overall, I found these posters a very sophisticated and subtle way of channelling a propaganda message — and thus rally the people around the government’s agenda, much more than the white-characters-on-red banners and campaign slogans overtly associated with the Party.

    Later in Beijing, going to the airport, there was a huge, ugly red object vaguely shaped like a lantern with the “core socialist values” written on it. OK, Chinese propaganda is evolving, but someone is not putting enough effort into it…

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