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Why China’s Propagandists Love the Internet

The Internet is supposed to bring freedom — but the Communist Party is finding creative ways to use it for its own ends.

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This is the third in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” program.

This is the third in a series of reports adapted from the Legatum Institute’s “Beyond Propaganda” program.

The Chinese Communist Party has always seen propaganda, known as “thought work,” as key to controlling society. Coordinated by a standing member of the Politburo, propaganda reaches down through every layer of the Chinese state and society, with the military, education, and the arts all mobilized as vehicles for the dissemination of centrally determined messages. But today, China’s propagandists are facing new challenges. One is ideological. In an age when the Communist Party is curating a form of capitalism, what does the party stand for? How should it secure loyalty? What sort of central message should it project? The second is technological. The Internet is designed to challenge centralized control and accelerate horizontal communication, whereas the Chinese state remains a rigidly vertical power structure.

As China modernizes, propaganda is an important means of maintaining stability and national cohesion, especially as the creation of the market economy with “Chinese characteristics” has generated a range of challenges — corruption, poor environmental management, uneven development, problems created by mass migration, unemployment, a widening wealth gap — that might spark popular unrest. To stay on top of the game, Communist Party propagandists project deliberately contradictory messages. They emphasize the appeal of history, tradition, and culture, while also striving to project a picture of a modern, dynamic, and transforming China; they remember China’s status as “victim” during the so-called “Century of Humiliation,” while also communicating confidence of China’s growing superiority. Propaganda chief Lu Yunshan has demanded the creation of a “spiritual civilization” to help nurture Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” But the definition of the Chinese Dream is deliberately vague, embracing everything from a “spirit of rejuvenation” to the recent revival of low-tech, old-fashioned propaganda posters.

The government communicates these often contradictory themes across all media platforms. Inspired directly by Britain’s New Labour party and its handling of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, China’s central government created a new cadre of Communist Party spin doctors and a system of official spokespersons at every level of government. In the late 1990s, the American PR firm Hill and Knowlton was asked to advise China’s media managers, while since 2001, communication experts from Qinghua University in Beijing have used the Blair model in training programs designed for China’s propaganda officials. Recent incidents have tested this propaganda machinery. In 2008 alone, the Tibet uprising, the Sichuan earthquake, and the Beijing Olympic Games generated a new set of challenges for news management. China was praised for the way the government allowed foreign journalists access to Sichuan to report on the earthquake, but was criticized for stifling coverage of poorly built schools and housing. Chinese propaganda tries to be open and to accommodate the demands of the new information environment — and sometimes acknowledges that it is necessary for the sake of credibility to reveal the bad news along with the good — but it seems that old habits die hard, and the system still cannot tolerate criticism of policymaking at the highest levels of government.

Media aside, education continues to be a vehicle for the dissemination of the government’s agenda, with schools ordered not to spread Western values, and universities required to promote Marxism, China’s traditional culture, and socialism. Clearly the government is convinced that the Internet generation is in need of cultural and spiritual instruction.

Given the openly contradictory nature of Communist Party messaging, the vapid definition of the Chinese Dream, and the growing opportunities to access alternative points of view, to what extent is anyone buying the regime’s narratives?

A 2014 study by Haifeng Huang of the University of California grappled with this question by examining the political attitudes of students who have attended propaganda courses at a Chinese university. (Though Huang does not name the university for security reasons, it is described as “one of the key national universities under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Education.”) Analyzing 1,250 responses to a specially designed questionnaire, Huang’s research showed that “those students with more exposure to the courses, in the sense of being able to recollect more teachings from past courses, will be more likely to believe that the government is strong, but not more likely to believe that the government is good.” The research implies that, though Chinese students do not necessarily believe the propaganda being thrown at them, its very presence and consistency act as a signal to deter dissent. As Huang argues:

A sufficient amount of propaganda can serve to demonstrate a regime’s strength in maintaining social control and political order, thus deterring citizens from challenging the government, even if the content of the propaganda itself does not induce pro-government attitudes or values. This can explain why authoritarian governments are willing to spend an enormous amount of resources on propaganda activities, the content of which often does not persuade the intended recipients.

The aim of the regime’s use of the Internet can be similarly counterintuitive. The Chinese government is using ever more innovative methods of managing the flow of information into, around, and out of China, especially as new communications technologies shatter spatial and temporal constraints, challenge all governments’ national sovereignty, and blur the distinction between author, publisher, and audience of news and information. The Chinese government has developed methods of supervising the flow of information over the Internet to block “unhealthy content.” These methods include the famous Gold Shield Project (otherwise known as the Great Firewall); a system of filtering keywords typed into search engines; blocking access to particularly sensitive websites; and cracking down on access to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). An army of around 30,000 people monitors the Internet in China, a sign of the government’s commitment to sustaining this part of the propaganda system. Moreover, the government has created around 60 laws and regulations to administer the use of, and access to, the Internet. In 2009 the government launched a crackdown on websites (including Google and Baidu) which display or have links to “vulgar” content. This was followed in 2010 by the “anti-three vulgarities” campaign, again focusing on websites that attack morality and the core values of Chinese society.

A number of social media have been established that offer Chinese versions of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and micro-blogging sites: Weibo, Youko,,, Douban, QQ, and Renren, among others, have attracted millions of Chinese users denied access to their Western counterparts. Developing Chinese versions of social media sites allows for greater central management over the media, the message, and the user, while satisfying demand for popular participation in online communities. This system is reinforced by less sophisticated methods of managing information on the Internet that try to encourage a climate of fear and hence self-censorship among users, for example by requiring them to register in their own names and thus avoiding the anonymity that has been a key element in many countries’ experience with social media. Users are fully aware that they live in a surveillance society and are explicitly warned of the dangers of accessing “unhealthy content” or forbidden websites. Cyber cafés are held responsible for the activities of their patrons, thus extending the system of control down through society.

In addition to managing the technology and imposing on users a climate conducive to self-censorship, the government manages content by spinning the online discourse in ways that are favorable to the regime. The most renowned development has been the 50 Cent Party — Internet-literate youths who trawl the web for negative news and opinion, then refute it with positive information; they are paid 50 Chinese cents for each post. One commentator, Anne-Marie Brady, describes such innovations as “the re-birth and modernization of the Chinese propaganda state.”

Muzzling discontent, however, is near-impossible in the Internet age. In the aftermath of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash in 2011, for example, when 39 people died and 200 were injured, leaked directives from the Propaganda Department ordered journalists not to investigate the causes of the crash, and footage emerged of bulldozers shoveling dirt over carriages in a literal attempt to cover up the accident. But the frenzy of activity on micro-blogging sites attacking the government’s attempts to stifle reports of the disaster demonstrates that, despite their best attempts, central authorities cannot completely control either the communications technology or the narrative.

Simply killing all criticism, however, may not be the regime’s ultimate aim, as new research shows that in their censorship strategy the authorities could be playing a more subtle game. Analyzing the real-time censorship of 11,382,221 posts from 1,382 Chinese websites during the first half of 2011, Garry King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts of Harvard University found that

when the Chinese people write scathing criticisms of their government and its leaders, the probability that their post will be censored does not increase. Instead, we find that the purpose of the censorship program is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.

The research showed that, while criticism of policies and political personalities is tolerated, the regime used aggressive online censorship to counter certain events, such as protests in Inner Mongolia after a coal truck driver killed a herder and riots by migrant workers in Zengcheng. Some of the most censored potential collective-action events were not actually critical of the regime. Following the Japanese earthquake in 2011 and the subsequent meltdown of the nuclear plant in Fukushima, a rumor spread through Zhejiang province that the iodine in salt would protect people from radiation exposure, and a rush to buy salt ensued. Although the rumor had nothing to do with the state, it was highly censored, apparently, according to King, Pan, and Roberts, “because of the localized control of collective expression by actors other than the government”. Other highly censored posts were on a local Wenzhou website expressing support for Chen Fei, an environmental activist who supported local environmental protection. Chen Fei is actually supported by the central government, but all posts supporting him on the local website are censored, probably because of his record of organizing collective action. King, Pan, and Roberts conclude:

The evidence suggests that when the leadership allowed social media to flourish in the country, they also allowed the full range of expression of negative and positive comments about the state, its policies, and its leaders … [B]ut, as they seem to recognize, looking bad does not threaten their hold on power so long as they manage to eliminate discussions associated with events that have collective action potential. With respect to this type of speech, the Chinese people are individually free but collectively in chains.

Indeed, the Chinese regime has managed to turn the Internet from a tool for catalyzing democracy into an implement to monitor and thus better control society. “So long as collective action is prevented, social media can be an excellent way to obtain effective measures of the views of the populace about specific public policies and experiences with the many parts of Chinese government and the performance of public officials,” argue the Harvard researchers:

As such, this loosening up on the constraints on public expression may, at the same time, be an effective governmental tool in learning how to satisfy, and ultimately mollify, the masses. From this perspective, the surprising empirical patterns we discover may well be a theoretically optimal strategy for a regime to use social media to maintain a hold on power.

The use of propaganda as signaling and the counterintuitive use of the Internet show the dexterous nature of Chinese propaganda strategy. But when it comes to the question of nationalism, the regime is on hotter, if not shakier, ground.

Young people, usually cynical about other creeds pushed out by the regime, have been particularly vulnerable to the renaissance of Chinese nationalism. It compensates for the decline in commitment to communist ideological principles and offers a distraction from the social problems generated by the rapid transformation of the economic system. Despite the many alternative sources of information China’s citizens can access, they remain plugged into the nationalism promoted by official propaganda networks, and any criticism of the Chinese government, especially from outside its borders, is viewed as criticism of the country as a whole. This was most visible in the pro-Tibet protests during the Olympic torch relay in 2008, when nationalist propaganda mobilized communities around the world to demonstrate in support of the Chinese government and against the perceived anti-China bias in Western media. But while this can strengthen the regime, the nationalist discourse online can also force the government’s hand.

In April 2001, for example, when the Chinese air force shot down a U.S. reconnaissance plane over Hainan, online nationalists urged the regime to respond hard. According to veteran China watcher Willy Wo Lap Lam, China’s President Jiang Zemin issued instructions to keep things calm and avoid a repeat of the anti-U.S. demonstrations that occurred after NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. John Pomfret, writing for the Washington Post, observed how “the government this time has moved swiftly to censor nationalist rhetoric from internet bulletin boards or keep a tighter than usual rein on the state run press”. In other words, the Chinese people were being reassured that the regime would handle the problem. However, Jiang Zemin’s response prompted a wave of criticism of the government, especially among intellectual elites and cyber nationalists. “Many Chinese cyber nationalists responded by moving to chat rooms such as,” wrote Yong Deng and Fei-Ling Wang, “where they fervently decried the state’s suppression of their nationalist views.” Protests, unreported in the traditional Chinese media, erupted against the government’s soft attitude, with slogans claiming: “China is a coward. President Jiang Zemin must step down.” Facing this barrage of popular nationalist criticism, the government decided to take a harder line against the U.S.

The regime’s propagandists are thus stuck in a paradox. On the one hand, they need to promote nationalism as the one message that can emotionally bind the nation, and especially the youth. But because of the nature of the Internet, this nationalism ends up running ahead of the state’s own propaganda, with the result that the regime loses control and has to play catch-up with the outpouring of nationalist emotions among the younger generation expressing their views on Chinese social media.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer

Gary Rawnsley is Professor of Public Diplomacy at Aberystwyth University, where his research centers on the intersection of international relations and international communications, with a focus on East Asia. His latest publication is the Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media (2015).

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