Written by Matthew Johnson.

Two of the most enduring and seemingly paradoxical features of China’s propaganda state are its staying power and steady decline.

In English, the word ‘propaganda’ is often deployed as an epithet for media that appears crassly manipulative or one sided. Public relations firms, advertisers, newspapers, and governments may be accused of spreading propaganda on the grounds that their interests lie in persuasion rather than objective description. By contrast, one hears that in China the word frequently translated as ‘propaganda’, xuanchuan, has remained value-neutral by virtue of the fact that it describes a political activity still frequently encountered by that country’s citizens—mobilization or exhortation of the populace to pursue the greater national good by use of communicative, cultural, or rhetorical means.

These differing sensibilities concerning mass persuasion are revealing. For one thing, they help to illustrate the reality that while manipulation of public opinion is no longer seen as a legitimate domestic function of government in liberal democracies, institutions of xuanchuan are considered vitally important to China’s political system. Posters are still produced extolling ethics, socialist values, and the Chinese Communist Party.  Cultural institutions ranging from media studios to universities are directed to reproduce the political vision of China’s current leadership and particularly its propaganda establishment—the Communist Party Central Propaganda Department and national propaganda-education system (xuan-jiao xitong).

For those writing about China’s propaganda state primarily during the 1990s, the recent resurgence of ideological control—censorship being another key aspect of propaganda activity—coupled with renewed state activity in classrooms, social media, and the arts would come as a surprise. Many observers appear to have underestimated the Communist Party’s re-committal to propaganda work immediately following a wave of national protests of the late 1980s, which culminated in the civil conflict and violence associated with Tiananmen Square in 1989.  Since then, a new consensus has taken shape among China-watchers: that economic and political restructuring has not, in fact, dislodged the Communist Party’s privileged position within the cultural sphere.

But are people watching and listening to the state? Moving away from policies and media products, here the picture gets sketchier. One foregone conclusion is that the state’s communicative reach is increasing. CCTV may be losing advertising revenue to competitors but viewers of its Spring Festival Gala broadcasts are estimated at 750 million. Official newspapers continue to thrive along unofficial competitors, even though both types of outlets are ultimately restricted in their coverage by state controls. Communist Party media savviness—including, it seems, involvement in the independently financed anti-pollution documentary Under the Dome—and increasingly effective cyber censorship suggest that online discontent may end up less of a threat to legitimacy than previously imagined by China-watchers and the government itself.

However, little of the outpouring of excellent research concerning the Communist Party’s evolving propaganda apparatus has much to say about efficacy at the grassroots level of analysis, where propaganda institutions and state-directed media networks interact with nonelite members of society. Contemporary snapshots of citizen attitudes produced by on-the-ground reporting and surveying are compelling, but far from exhaustive.

I suggest that in the absence of broad contemporary perspectives on propaganda state successes and failures, researchers of the present should turn to history. For the past several decades, historians of Chinese society during the Mao Zedong era (1949-1976) have been unearthing private, archival, and cast-off state documents to reconstruct a systemic account of what everyday life looked like under high socialism. In Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China’s Era of High Socialism (Harvard University Press, forthcoming October 2015), Jeremy Brown and I assembled what we thought were some of the most novel perspectives on life for ordinary Chinese people during the Mao years. The results were striking. With respect to propaganda specifically, one of the major conclusions to emerge was that far more geographic diversity and organizational limitations existed within the system than had previously been described in studies by political scientists and communications scholars focusing on campaigns—moments of mass mobilization when the state could, and did, demonstrate vastly increased power over the lives of its populace. Even during such moments, messages and degrees of implementation varied by region for reasons of inadequate central resources, uneven local development, and organizational discipline or the lack thereof.

Contrary to the official perspective of the Mao years as a time of unending political fervor, we learned that people didn’t just listen to the state. They also listened to one another. Historians we worked with found evidence of armed uprisings, apocalyptic sects, underground churches, homosexual relationships, samizdat publications, black markets, youthful ennui, and other forms of culture rendered illicit by rules concerning political and personal behavior. Moreover, they also showed that local officials themselves were occasionally willing to turn a blind eye to such transgressions, or even to participate in unofficial culture themselves, sometimes as patrons. This sheltering effect created by grassroots Party members has been hinted at but rarely discussed within the space of social science-derived research paradigms, most of which maintain a hard distinction between categories of ‘state’ and ‘society’. If anything, local officials have most recently been made into the chief villains of the tragedy of China’s Great Famine: brutish Maoists willing to uphold central policy regardless of the human costs. (This view, it should be noted, is not only promoted by scholars outside of China. The shortcomings of local officialdom—a theme which resonates across multiple eras and dynasties of China’s history—are a chief preoccupation of historians of the Mao years within China as well.)

This evidence provides us with two important perspectives concerning propaganda during the Mao years, both of which are instructive for thinking about the present. First, people did not always watch and listen to the state, even during a period seen as the apex of the Party’s control over culture and grassroots society. Second, increased state capacity, or ‘reach’, in the form of more personnel, institutions, and local control has not always translated into greater central power. When we consider only the activities of the propaganda state—in the contemporary context, its renewed vigor with respect to anything from poster art to patriotic songs to social media use—we are far from capturing the range of culture and worldviews available to China’s populace and, as was the case concerning the Mao years, largely invisible to researchers. In addition, by misrepresenting the Maoist baseline as one of complete and utter central dominance, we fail to notice that almost since its inception the PRC government has been beating against the tide of China’s immense cultural richness and plurality, including within its own institutions.

The chief counters to this image of an ultimately ‘failed’ propaganda state can be summarized by two words: censorship and state-sponsored nationalism. I would not deny that both governance approaches potentially play important roles in shaping attitudes within Chinese society or in raising the alarm bells of observers of China’s press freedoms (175th of 180 countries according to a 2014 Reporters Without Borders assessment) or foreign policy behavior. Nonetheless, censorship even in China today is far less predictable and rigid than the term suggests, as shown by new research showing that while the state still seeks to limit collective action, it is far more permissive with respect to criticism of the government than has been previously believed.   Another instance of tension between control and its absence is highlighted by the case of popular attitudes toward Japan, which demonstrates that efforts to shift public sentiment can also lead to organized, quasi-legitimate backlash against government policies.

Demonstrable lack of interest in official messages extends to the Communist Party’s own members and, as a trend is deep-seated in the history of the People’s Republic of China since its founding. What the propaganda state has been absolutely unable to prevent, both during the Mao years and after, is involvement of Party members in promoting belief systems which challenge the central government’s monopoly on truth. Religion and ‘superstition’ (often a code for Daoism and Buddhism) are just two of the trends which have elicited targeted responses in addition to ongoing anti-corruption campaigns. The recent ideological crackdown in China’s higher education system, while chilling, does not yet appear to have been won by hardliners. Signs of laxness with respect to maintaining ideological commitment are apparently increasing deep within the Party center, as detailed by a controversial article on China’s coming crackup by a long-time observer of China’s institutions and elite.

Undeniably, the main functions of the propaganda state in China have been to drown out competing voices, cooperate with security forces in repressing organized opposition, and direct public opinion in the directions desired by China’s leaders. Somewhat unexpectedly, it also appears to be the case that propaganda has coexisted with unofficial forms of grassroots culture for far longer than researchers have believed. While the recent propaganda resurgence may be impressive (and, in the case of the accompanying ideological chill, worrying), history provides us with no reason to believe that it will be widely accepted or even paid much attention to. Whether propaganda ‘works’ or not is a question that will never be resolved because of the sheer multiplicity of conditions affecting reception and, especially in the case of authoritarian societies, the number of other coercive methods that can be brought to bear for the sake of enforcing conformity. The ultimate failure of the propaganda state will come not when people stop acting and thinking exactly as the state tells them—for this is clearly already the case—but when the economic and political costs of this highly institutionally interdependent approach to statecraft can no longer be sustained.

Matthew Johnson is an Assistant Professor at Grinnell College.  Image Credit: CC by WBUR Boston’s NPR News Station/Flickr