Written by David Volodzko.
In the Autumn of 1934 the Red Army began its Long March retreat to escape the grip of the Kuomintang. The bedraggled survivors arrived a year later in the town of Yan’an where they recouped under the command of Mao Zedong. By the time they took power and established the PRC in 1949, the party had formed a vision for the nation and sharpened the billhook for pruning that dream. In other words, Yan’an is the cradle of communist China and also the birthplace of modern Chinese propaganda. While its propaganda has evolved in form, much of its content can be traced back to Yan’an—a town whose very name, meaning “prolonged calm,” embodies the spirit of Chinese propaganda today. Namely, the practice of positive thinking.
In her 2010 book Marketing Dictatorship, Anne-Marie Brady notes several themes in modern Chinese propaganda. Foremost among them is a “think positive” campaign designed to help Chinese recover a sense of patriotism after Tiananmen. She writes that during the 1998 flood, in which 3704 died, the government celebrated its aid efforts even though much of the money was lost to corruption, and during the 1991 floods the message fengyu tong zhou, qing nuan renjian (rain or wind in one boat, warm feelings among the people) was heavily promoted. This is the silver lining playbook of Party politics. Brady also points out that during holiday periods and other sensitive dates (e.g. May 4, June 4), the media is instructed to “increase reports on unity and stability.” This is known as Project 6521, begun in 2009, and named after that year’s numerous anniversaries: the 60th anniversary of the PRC, the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and the 10th anniversary of the Campaign Against Falun Gong. Part of maintaining an upbeat attitude, of course, includes blocking any potentially upsetting information. So, Brady notes, in addition to promoting positive messages, Beijing also blocks reports on income inequality, the political influence of the wealthy, the instability of Chinese banks, tax fraud, unemployment figures, epidemics (e.g. SARS in 2002) etc. The media is even told not to write bad reviews of Chinese movies. Yet because of the incredible extent of propaganda in China, its PG-rated media is nevertheless surprisingly effective.
Perhaps the clearest modern example of this positive thinking initiative is Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream campaign. Modeled on the American Dream, posters for the Chinese Dream can be found in public spaces everywhere (a list of Chinese Dream posters with English titles can be found here; a list of all Chinese Dream posters can be found here). The posters offer sugary, hopeful messages. In one, a grandfather holds binoculars while a grandmother peers through them. He asks her, “what do you see?” She replies, “I see my dream!” Still, this is a considerable improvement upon earlier examples, even those as late as 1975, e.g. “Create powerful Marxist theoretical troops in the midst of battle.” Not very catchy. The new messages are not only positive, but simpler, more approachable and, rather than spurning tradition, as during the 1966 Destruction of the Four Olds campaign, they embrace tradition by employing classic imagery. As a 2014 article by The Diplomat notes:
“The campaign adopts several folk art mediums, such as traditional Chinese paper cuttings, a practice hundreds of years old. The red cuttings come from Yuncheng County in Shanxi province, while the multicolored cuttings are sourced from Yuxian County in Hebei province. A number of Yangliuqing woodblock prints from Tianjin are used in the campaign, as well as Taohuawu wood carvings from Suzhou province. Red-cheeked figures such as the one in the campaign’s primary image are made by the Nirenzhang clay sculpture workshop in Tianjin.”
However, these traditional folk arts are paired with sleek designs on glossy poster paper, presented in a decidedly modern fashion, often with only a few words splashed in red calligraphy, e.g. “Chinese Dream, My Dream.” The aim here is to stimulate national pride in China’s history. After the failure of Communist China to deliver on its promises of creating an ideal new world, the Chinese Dream is Xi’s effort to get disillusioned Chinese back into the patriotic swing of things. Another equally important goal is to reach into the past to create a sense of historical continuity, thus establishing legitimacy for current leadership while engineering a canon of political philosophy. Along with Marxism and Leninism, we now have Maoism, Dengism, Jiang Zemin Theory, Hu Jintao’s Three Harmonies and Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream. But other than Mao, there is little emphasis on Xi’s presidential predecessors. In a December 2013 op-ed for The New York Times, Murong Xuecun noted that modern propaganda features “slogans from the Maoist era” and “traditional Confucian virtues.” If China built its own version of Mount Rushmore today, it would likely feature the faces of Confucius, Mao and Xi. Murong Xuecun adds that “crude and simplistic discourse has” been replaced by “fresh designs, typefaces and graphics.” Unsurprisingly, this new uplifting campaign is catching on. He points out that the slogan has already seen quite a number of iterations: “the Henan Dream, the Guangdong Dream […] the Space Dream, the Aircraft-Carrier Dream, the Sports Dream,” and even “the Pregnancy Dream.”
Moving forward, it is unlikely that the Chinese Dream will last as long as the American Dream has. The next president will need to establish himself as an equal, with his own philosophy, one to be sold to the nation alongside the likes of Confucius and Mao. It is no matter, leaders may come and go, but the name of the game will not change. What matters above all else is national security, stability and harmony—all of which are code for the strength of the Party. Anything deemed a threat is silenced. Anything considered a boon is pumped through every loudspeaker, printing press and television channel. As long as possible, the calm must be prolonged.