Peng Shuai Case & China's Propaganda Machine: Why Xi Doesn't Care What We Think

China's tactical use of propaganda helped it to even take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

7 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>The famous propaganda poster featuring Mao Zedong. Xi Jinping has been added for representational purposes.&nbsp;</p></div>

The editor-in-chief of China's state-run newspaper Global Times, Hu Xijin, on 20 November, tweeted a suspicious video of Chinese tennis superstar Peng Shuai eating in a restaurant after she had gone missing following her complaints of sexual abuse by a senior member of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Then, the China Global Television Network tweeted what it claimed to be a screenshot of an email sent by Peng Shuai to Women's Tennis Association Chairman Steve Simon, in which she claims that she is neither missing nor unsafe, and that the reports of sexual abuse against her by the senior CPC member are untrue.

Peng Shuai Case & China's Propaganda Machine: Why Xi Doesn't Care What We Think

(Photo: Twitter/@CGTNOfficial)

And if all that wasn't enough, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held and tweeted about a video call with Shuai on 21 November. It eventually announced that she was safe and well, in a move that is being widely seen as the IOC kowtowing to Beijing.

Rather than calming down voices around the world, including those of tennis stars like Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, who were persistently asking questions about Peng Shuai's disappearance, the above attempts at making everything appear normal have only raised more questions about China's propaganda machine.

And that is what this article delves into. What are the instruments of Chinese state propaganda? Why does China really not seem to care about what the world thinks? And why isn't it as easy for China as it was before to get away with it?


The Instruments of Propaganda 

The Communist Party, since the creation of the People's Republic of China, has split up propaganda work into two compartments.

The first compartment only focuses on internal propaganda and there is one institution at the centre that drives it: The Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, also known as the Propaganda Department (PD).

The PD exercises profound influence on multiple state institutions that have well-defined functions. Some of these are:

  • The State Council Information Office (SCIO): It supervises the content of news all around China

  • The Ministry of Culture and Tourism: Monitors the art and literature, and activities in theatres and museums

  • The Ministry of Education: Decides the curriculum and textbooks at all levels of the Chinese educational system

  • The Ministry of Information Industry: Blocks hostile electronic communications into China

The second compartment is external propaganda, which is directed towards foreigners, promotes Chinese culture and policies abroad, and counters what it perceives to be anti-Chinese propaganda. External propaganda has been given a lot of importance in recent times, and has especially targeted the United States.

An example of this are the exhibitions sponsored by the SCIO, like the week-long "Festival of China" at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in September 2005.

David Shambaugh, the director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University describes in a paper, China's Propaganda System: Institutions, Processes and Efficacy, other activities that the Communist Party engages in for its external propaganda program.

Some of these include "advertising in major US newspapers, providing film footage and 'feeds' to US television networks, giving US reporters in China special briefings and taking them on special trips not granted to other foreign reporters and holding press briefings at the Chinese embassy in Washington" among many others.

Another strategy is providing fellowships for foreign reporters to train young people to become "international journalists."

One such fellow is Filipino journalist Greggy Eugenio, who after finishing the program (expenses paid by China) remarked that it continuously opened his "mind and heart on a lot of misconceptions" that he used to have about the country, The Guardian reported.

"I’ve learned that a state-owned government media is one of the most effective means of journalism. The media in China is still working well and people here appreciate their work," he added.

Does China Even Care About What the World Thinks?

It used to at one point of time, but that was also the time when China needed foreign support.

According to Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury, right from the beginning of the post-Mao period, foreign propaganda was considered as an essential element in the modernisation and economic transformation of China.

In her book Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China, she argues that the Deng Xiaoping regime acknowledged that propaganda was required to "reconstruct China's international image as a constructive member of the international system, rather than a nation aimed at overthrowing that system. The more China opened up to the outside world, the more important foreign propaganda work became."

The policy of maintaining a positive image of China across the globe, or at least trying to do so, was carried forward by presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as is exemplified by their efforts to establish Confucius Institutes in universities all over the world and their launch in 2005 of the Annual World Forum on China Studies.

But now, under the aggressive administration of Xi Jinping, which is rapidly spreading its worldwide influence and posing a threat to the US' economic hegemony (it recently overtook the US as the world's richest nation), China doesn't seem to care about what the world thinks of it, because it doesn't need the world's help anymore.

As US President Joe Biden announced that he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympic Games in China in 2022 in protest against the human rights abuses in Xinjiang among other cases, Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency, has described boycott calls as a "distractions" and a "sheer illogical farce", The Washington Post reported.

A call to boycott the Olympics is indeed rather insulting for the host nation. But instead of trying to calm tempers or pursue damage control strategies, China is trying to spin the story around in a way that portrays the US as an envious competitor trying to obstruct China's rise.

Natasha Kassam, an ex-diplomat of Australia who works at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, says that "previously, it would have been treated as a sign of weakness, but now, given the way messaging has changed and the disregard for the cost to international reputation, a boycott would be spun as another example of how the West is trying to contain China", The Washington Post added.


Extreme Chinese Propaganda: Xinjiang and COVID

The Communist Party regularly releases thousand of images and videos whose objective is to present a particular narrative of life in Xinjiang, a province in Western China where it is reportedly persecuting the Uighur and other Muslim ethnic communities.

The US, Canada, and other countries have recently accused the Chinese government of committing genocide against the Uighurs.

Despite drone footages that clearly show Chinese police officers leading shackled men (believed to be inmates in a Xinjiang prison) to a train, or testimonies of multiple women to The Guardian and the BBC about the inhuman treatment that they receive in Xinjiang "re-education camps," propaganda videos that often follow the same script have tried to prove otherwise.

In most of the propaganda videos that are shot in Chinese or Uighur language, the subjects introduce themselves and go on to say how happy they are in Xinjiang and how they look up to President Xi Jinping, according to a New York Times investigation.

While it is unlikely to work outside of China, experts believe that it plays a huge role in proliferating pro-CPC propaganda within the country.

China's tactical use of propaganda helped it to even take advantage of COVID-19.

While initially the CPC faced enormous pressure from both outside and inside the country, especially after the incident surrounding the silencing of Dr Li Wenliang, who had tried to warn officials about the virus but was forced to stay quiet, the Party eventually reclaimed the narrative.

China now portrays itself as a success story in the global battle against COVID-19, as its rival – the United States – tops the list of most infections and deaths caused by the virus. Europe has also started to reel before the virus.

After the first few weeks of COVID-19 in China, censors regained control from the local to the national level, addressing issues faced by ordinary people and silencing criticism from those who were brave enough to dissent.

In fact, according to Chinese officials themselves, the police investigated close to 20,000 people who were accused by the state of spreading "fake news" about the virus, The New York Times reported.

Many American journalists were also thrown out of China.

But the bottom line is (and this is exemplified by their persistent zero-COVID approach), that China has successfully convinced its citizens about the advantages of having their type of system, which is an authoritarian, one-party government that hero-worships one man.

Therefore, due to COVID-19, China has become much more isolated from the world and the West than it used to be, but it has achieved its objective of persuading the Chinese people about the supremacy of the Communist Party.

Is Chinese Propaganda Sustainable?

Yes and no.

Yes, because China under Xi Jinping is clearly not going to buckle under international pressure to introduce any new freedoms in the country, such as freedom of information or freedom of press.

Additionally, the CPC needs only to be present itself as the legitimate ruler of China to the Chinese people, not to the ones sitting in the White House or the European Parliament.

Therefore, from an internal propaganda point of view, China needn't change anything.

The problems lies with external propaganda. China's handling of COVID-19 has deteriorated its reputation in the international system in irreversible ways.

The other obstacle is the nature of information dissemination in the 21st Century. It has simply become very hard for China to hide the truth from foreign observers who are operating with even a shred of objectivity.

As David Shambaugh notes, "propaganda authorities have lost some of their control in the face of technological modernisation, social pluralisation, economic marketisation and globalisation."

Therefore, incidents like the purported disappearance and suspicious reappearance of a massive tennis star like Peng Shuai can't be forever hidden from those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But then again, as apparent by its official news agency's comments, China under President Xi just doesn't seem to care.

(With inputs from New York Times, BBC, and The Guardian)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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