Tea Leaf Nation

Watch: China Takes Teen-Friendly Tack in South China Sea Propaganda Battle

A new video offers a peppy, commercialized angle on a hot-button issue.

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China’s gone upbeat and commercial in its latest effort to convince its citizens — and the world — that its claims in the South China Sea deserve respect. On June 21, state-run China Central Television shared an undated video on Weibo, a popular micro-blogging platform, that emphasizes the contested region’s importance as a trading hub. Watch the video here:

“The newest fashions. State-of-the-art electronics,” the video begins, sounding like a commercial. “Don’t you want to get your hands on these as quickly as possible?” Viewers are advised that if they do, “then you better pray for smooth sailing in the South China Sea!”

The future of smooth sailing in the South China Sea is currently murky. An international tribunal in the Hague will soon rule on the validity of some of China’s claims in the South China Sea after the Philippines, one of several countries in the region whose territorial claims there overlap with China’s, filed the case in 2013. China has repeatedly declared it will not adhere to any decision made by the tribunal. To help reduce the toll to its international image if it flouts a ruling by an internationally recognized legal body, China has launched a major public relations campaign attempting to win foreign nations over to its side. The latest video shows Beijing hasn’t forgotten the importance of rallying domestic support.

The clip is the latest of several slickly produced propaganda videos designed to resonate with savvy web users. These videos resemble cartoons far more than they do traditional, staid Communist Party propaganda, which typically featured Soviet-style anthems, prominent nationalist symbols, and  bombastic jargon.

While the video is upbeat in tone, the United States comes in for some criticism. While English translation of the Chinese video softens its rhetorical edges a bit, the original Chinese says that given the U.S. position “very, very far away” from the South China Sea, the United States has been “too actively engaged” in the region, including its backing of the Philippines arbitration case and U.S. deployment of spy planes near China’s border. The video calls such actions “bellicose.”

Of those thousands of Weibo viewers who commented on the video, many declared themselves favorably impressed. “If you don’t share this, you’re not Chinese,” reads one oft-repeated sentiment. Others called it “excellent” and “reasonable.” There were dissenting voices; one popular comment called the video’s explanation of China’s historical claims “lies.”

Leah Liu contributed research.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr