10 January 2024

Vicious circle of Chinese propaganda: Will 'emperor' Xi remember what happened to his father?

Since years, China has entered in a vicious circle. To hide its shortcomings, Beijing plays more and more on two issues: Monitoring the Internet and social media within the country, and increasing its propaganda inside and outside the Middle Kingdom.

Remember June 2020, after the Galwan incident, Beijing first announced that the Chinese Army had not suffered any casualty (it was later revised to four soldiers killed), while it was known that at least 40 to 45 Chinese soldiers had died during the battle with the Indian troops.

Of course, no one ever mentioned that it was Xi Jinping’s birthday, but the propaganda took over: Qi Fabao, a regiment commander who was wounded during the confrontation, was decorated for his ‘bravery’, became a national hero and a torch bearer at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics; later, he even received a double promotion in the Xinjiang Military District. The high pitched propaganda for the new ‘hero’ helped hide the real number of casualties.

But the issue is more general: How long can China continue to hide the truth from its own people, at a time when something happening in the remotest corner of the planet is immediately known everywhere (except in China or North Korea).

Recent examples of this vicious circle have come to light. On December 15, Voice of America noted that China’s Ministry of State Security had published an article explaining that “economic security is the foundation of national security” and therefore “economic threats must be dealt with to promote China’s economic recovery and high-quality development of the economy.”
The Chinese State accused foreign critics of fabricating false narratives about China’s economy “to undermine market confidence and impede growth. …[Beijing] vowed to crack down on illegal activities that jeopardise economic security.” Only ‘positive’ news would thereafter be tolerated in the Chinese press or social media.

Voice of America further noted that platforms like Weibo warned bloggers “to avoid pessimistic comments about China’s economy or face severe punishment.”

Chinese were told that downplaying the economy was a ‘red line’ and those who dared crossing it would risk heavy penalties: “This reflects the CCP’s heightened sensitivity to dissent and its effort to control public discourse about economic issues,” commented the US new agency.

Katsuji Nakazawa, a senior correspondent with Nikkei, mentioned a statement issued on the WeChat account of the Ministry of State Security after the Central Economic Work Conference, which took place in Beijing: “Various clichés that denigrate the Chinese economy have emerged. …False theories about ‘China’s deterioration’ are being circulated to attack China’s unique socialist system.” Better write that China is doing exceedingly well economically; Nikkei believed that the statement hinted at a crackdown on negative opinions regarding China’s economy: “We need to mobilise the entire Chinese society to crack down on and prevent espionage.”

It is also strange that it was the ‘Security Ministry’ that first announced the content of an economic conference; its job is to monitor security, not economy.

Another case

Bitter Winter, a human rights website reported about the closure of a Chinese magazine: “Shut Down After 35 Years for a Cover ‘Perhaps’ Lampooning Xi Jinping”.

Bitter Winter observed: Selected Essays was a well-known Chinese literary magazine: “Although with a penchant for satire, it had survived for the remarkable time span of 35 years, passing through different periods, politics, and Presidents. But finally, even “Selected Essays” could not survive the censors of Xi Jinping.”

The editors had crossed the line. The publication ceased in December; and though the editors confirmed that it was not a voluntary choice, the magazine’s phone line had been disconnected and the office was closed. What had they done wrong?

The cover depicts a hand pointing the way forward and small human figures crawling on the arm before finally jumping into an abyss; their expression goes from enthusiastic to desperate. Bitter Winter said that it could be a general meditation on human foolishness, “but censors became persuade it was a direct attack against Xi Jinping. The Chinese media often mention that Xi always ‘indicates the way’ to the Party members and the population of China, if not to the whole world.”

An arm and a hand pointing the way forward can only belong to Xi Jinping, “the Emperor who indicates the way”.

Interestingly, Selected Essays was published by Jilin People’s Publishing Company, a company which always prided itself for adhering to the correct political direction; in no way, was it an anti-CCP publication. But the cover offended the censors.

Spreading propaganda outside

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) a defence and strategic policy think tank based in Canberra, Australia has recently published a detailed report showing “a coordinated inauthentic influence campaign originating on YouTube that’s promoting pro-China and anti-US narratives in an apparent effort to shift English-speaking audiences’ views of those countries’ roles in international politics, the global economy and strategic technology competition.”

The campaign, named ‘Shadow Play’ by ASPI, attracts an unusually large audience and is using entities and voice-overs generated by artificial intelligence (AI) enabling broader reach: “It focuses on promoting a series of narratives including China’s efforts to ‘win the US–China technology war’ amid US sanctions targeting China.”

According to ASPI, the Shadow Play campaign involves a network of at least 30 YouTube channels which have produced more than 4,500 videos which attracted some 120 million views and have 730,000 subscribers: “Its potential to covertly influence public opinion on these topics—should be cause for concern,” wrote ASPI who sent their findings to YouTube/Google for comment.

The latter immediately took down 19 YouTube channels from the Shadow Play network “10 for coordinated inauthentic behaviour and nine for spam.”

YouTube indicated why they were removed; they were “terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy for spam, deceptive practices and misleading content or other Terms of Service violations”.

Similarly, ASPI informed about the British artificial intelligence company, Synthesia, whose AI avatars were used by the network: “On 14 December 2023, Synthesia disabled the Synthesia account used by one of the YouTube accounts, for violating its Media Reporting (News) policy.” But it will not stop Chinese propaganda.

In other domains too

It is a vicious circle, because the propaganda campaign extends to all domains of life. On December 20, China Tibet Network quoted a Pandit (Lama) Dhondup, saying: “Buddhism must conform to the times in order to continue”.

Pandit Dhondup, a researcher of China’s Higher Institute of Tibetan Buddhism is a Tibetan monk from Sakya Monastery in Central Tibet (now called Xizang by China). During a seminar on the “Interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist Doctrines”, Dhondup shared his thoughts on the significance and importance of the interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist doctrines.

Speaking for the Communist Party, the monk explained that China is entering the ‘new era’: “Buddhism must be in line with the development of the times and the national conditions of China in the new era in order to continue.”

He added that Tibetan Buddhism was an important part of traditional Chinese culture.

As a monk, he had taken “the responsibility of promoting, spreading and inheriting for the excellent culture of the [Chinese] nation.” He called for Tibetan Buddhism with Chinese characteristics.

A historical precedent

This ‘new era’ reminds us of the end of the 1950s. Though today it is fashionable to speak of crimes against humanity, one of the greatest ones, known as the ‘Great Leap Forward’, began in China in February 1958 and resulted in the largest man-made starvation in human history. It continued for three years and it is estimated that between 40-50 million died of hunger in China during the years 1958 to 1961.

By initiating his Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s objective was to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years; every Chinese had to start producing steel at home with a backyard furnace. In agriculture, Mao thought that very large communes would cater for a many-fold increase in the cereal production to make China a heaven of abundance.

Introduced and managed with frantic fanaticism, it did not take much time before the program collapsed.

But while the people were starving, the propaganda continued to boast of bumper harvests.

In July 1959, one man raised his voice against the general madness and sycophancy. This was Peng Denhai, Defence Minister and old companion of Mao during the Long March. Marshal Peng, who was a simple, honest and straightforward soldier, wrote a long personal letter to Mao on what he had seen in the countryside and the misery of the people.

Mao immediately ‘purged’ Old Peng for daring to criticise him (he was later killed during the Cultural Revolution).

Incidentally, Peng’s lieutenant Xi Zhongxun, the father of the present emperor was also purged for several years; he had to pay the hard price for having taken Peng’s side.

Will 2024 see Xi Junior recovering the memory of what happened to his father? It is doubtful.

Originally Published in Firstpost on 06 January 2024