From Xi to shining Xi: China’s propaganda machine goes into overdrive

Cringeworthy poems, viral videos and animated raps.

These are some of the unorthodox tools China’s President Xi Jinping is using as he takes a far firmer hand in guiding media coverage and propaganda within and about the world’s second largest economy.

“General Secretary, my eyes follow in your wake. And in these eyes, my verse takes shape.”

So reads part of a paean to Chinese President (and Communist Party General Secretary) Xi Jinping, posted online by Xinhua deputy news editor Pu Liye after Xi’s visit to the state news agency last week.

The poem lauds “big brother” Xi’s accomplishments as leader, and his policies such as the “One Belt, One Road” trans-Asia trade network.

Rapping for Communism

One symptom of this greater control that has reached outside of China is in a series of bizarre videos aimed at foreigners and clearly designed to go viral.

The most sophisticated of these was “How Leaders Are Made”, released in October 2013 and purporting to compare how a person could rise to the top job in China, the U.S. and the UK.

American and British democracy is held up as equivalent (if not inferior) to the “meritocratic” Chinese system that Xi Jinping rose through.

In recent months these videos have become somewhat less sophisticated, culminating in the recent multilingual “Song of Four Comprehensives”, in which a heavily Beijing-accented rapper explains the key tenets of Xi’s platform:

Follow me, Four Comprehensives, Four Comprehensives, prosperity is the goal.
Follow me, Four Comprehensives, Four Comprehensives, reform is the drive.
Follow me, Four Comprehensives, Four Comprehensives, rule of law is the guarantee.
Follow me, Four Comprehensives, Four Comprehensives, Party building is the key.

Another video entreated foreigners to get pumped about China’s 13th five-year plan, “the shisanwu!”

All you can Xi

While some of the recent propaganda drive has targeted overseas audiences, the majority has been aimed at Chinese news consumers and the journalists that produce it.

During Xi’s visit to CCTV last week, an LED screen touted the broadcaster’s “absolute loyalty” to the Party.

Social media posts showed Xi sitting in the anchor’s chair of Xinwen Lianbo — the network’s flagship evening newscast and one of the most watched programs on earth.

Xi’s face is not an uncommon sight in Chinese media. He featured prominently in CCTV’s Lunar New Year gala, and in December party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran a frontpage with 11 separate stories about the Chinese leader (he also took up much of pages two and three).

In a study released last year, the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project found that Xi had appeared in People’s Daily more than any other Chinese leader since Mao. During the first 18 months of his administration, Xi was mentioned by name in the paper 4,725 times, more than double that of his predecessor Hu Jintao.

The December 4, 2015 front page of the People’s Daily had 11 headlines mentioning Xi Jinping (习近平).

So why the love?

“It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the Party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged,” China Daily said in an editorial this week.

While Xi’s much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign is popular in China, a slowing economy risks taking the sheen off his reputation.

“People loved (Xi Jinping) right until the point when the ordinary stock market investing grannie feels pain in her purse,” said FT Chinese editor Wang Feng in an upcoming episode of CNN talk show On China focusing on the Communist Party leader.

“People are actually feeling hurt and the economy is slowing and we have no idea whether it’s going to slow much more in the near future.”

This drive to control how the media tells China’s story does not seem to be limited to the country’s mainland.

In December, the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s oldest English language daily, was bought by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Following the sale, Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai complained of biased Western reporting on China.

“The world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage,” he said.

Last week, state regulator SARFT published draft rules that set strict guidelines on what can be published online and who can produce such content.

“Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services,” the rules state, though it is unclear just how much foreign publishers (and other media, such as video game companies and app stores) will be affected by the regulation.


Originally published at edition.cnn.com on February 24, 2016.

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