C&B Notes

China’s Modern Propaganda Machine

Xi Jingping’s consolidation of power in China is not new news.  The ruling party’s re-versioning of history through a modern propaganda effort is both petty and chilling, particularly with the backdrop of widespread human right atrocities in the northwestern part of the country.  Xi’s re-embrace of Mao, rejection of financial market reforms, and desire to realign commerce with the state portends more trouble.  China gives all indications that it is turning inward again, and we continue to believe it is a difficult place for foreign investors. 

Modern lore has it that Mao Zedong’s eldest son, who was killed in a United Nations airstrike during the Korean War, had given away his position by firing up a stove to make egg fried rice. That story didn’t sit right with the Chinese Academy of History, launched two years ago by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to counter negative views of the ruling Communist Party’s past. In November, on the 70th anniversary of Mao Anying’s death, the academy served up another version. Citing what it said were declassified telegrams and eyewitness accounts, the academy said in a social-media post that Mao was killed after enemy forces detected radio transmissions from his commander’s headquarters. “These rumormongers have tied up Mao Anying with egg fried rice, gravely dwarfing the heroic image of Mao Anying’s brave sacrifice,” said the post, which has attracted about 1.9 million views. “Their hearts are vicious.” The academy attributed the egg fried rice story to the 2003 edition of a Chinese military officer’s memoir. It didn’t mention the book was published by the Chinese military’s official press. 

The history academy is run by Gao Xiang, a 57-year-old historian turned propaganda official who has mixed traditional scholarship with viral marketing techniques to repackage the past in support of Mr. Xi’s vision for a resurgent China. Mr. Gao and his academy are part of Mr. Xi’s push to harness history in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary this summer. Those efforts have culminated in a national propaganda campaign to promote party history, launched in February, that experts describe as China’s largest mass-education drive since the Mao era. China’s Communist Party, like its counterpart once did in the Soviet Union, has a history of manipulating the historical record. Photos were altered to emphasize Mao’s presence or excise purged officials, and history texts and museums were reworked to promote new priorities. 

Reformist leader Deng Xiaoping also sought to reinterpret history, in his case criticizing Mao’s mistakes in launching the destructive 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Deng ushered China out from the shadows of Mao’s dictatorial rule and into an era of collective leadership under which the party’s dominance slipped. Mr. Xi is seeking to change that by concentrating power in his own hands and reinforcing party control over society, including by updating historical narratives to whip up support for Communist rule. Some Chinese historians have criticized the new history academy’s methods, decrying them as undignified and unserious. Mr. Gao, though, has rejected conventional historians’ restrained detachment. “History researchers shouldn’t be cold-eyed observers of times and trends,” he wrote in a newspaper commentary in late 2019. “Historical research must stand atop the commanding heights of our times” to “guide governance and nurture people.” 

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In April, China’s cyberspace regulator launched an online platform and a telephone hotline for the public to denounce instances of “historical nihilism,” such as statements that criticize party leaders and policies or deny “advanced socialist culture.” Such violations can be punished under legislation that includes a 2018 law protecting the reputations of heroes and martyrs. In early May, a regulatory official said authorities have dealt with a large number of accounts deemed to be propagating historical nihilism, and directed online platforms to clean up more than two million illegal posts. Officials commissioned concerts with orchestral renditions of patriotic songs such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” Bureaucrats and students competed in quizzes testing their knowledge of party trivia. Authorities revised books to play down Mao’s despotic missteps. The education ministry added questions on party history to this year’s college-entrance exams, to “guide students to inherit red genes.” 

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