Are you curious why China is suddenly spreading obvious lies suggesting that the United States was behind the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan? It is a departure for them: not in that they are suddenly using propaganda, but in that they are suddenly being obvious about it. Propaganda is everywhere in Chinese media, and in fact in Chinese life.
Normally the propaganda is carefully concealed. On the 10th of February, Chinese state media company The People’s Daily put out a tweet showing quarantined coronavirus patients dancing. The tweet read, “Virus can’t put out the passion for life!” Similar videos have emerged from Italy, too, where people are dancing on their balconies or playing music for neighbors. You could easily believe that the video of the dancing Chinese quarantines is just as spontaneous. Yet the ‘dancing to show how happy they are in their prisons’ videos have a history in China that they do not have in Italy. When the BBC went to the prison camps in which China’s Uighur minority is being re-educated, they too were shown dancing: Uighurs forced to perform for them, forced to smile and say that everything is all right.
Having lived in China myself for a time, I can attest that propaganda suffuses Chinese life. This has been the case since the Communist revolution following World War II. Mao took his propaganda very seriously, commissioning endless posters, and crafting endless mottoes for the people to learn and repeat. He put together both government and non-governmental organizations of people to push the government message into public life, and to identify and publish anyone who refused to speak the words as if they believed them. Chinese state police were part of the enforcement, but so were the Red Guards, a student paramilitary movement that enforced speech codes against their own professors (and everyone else, though the rare foreigners had some leeway).
Chinese propaganda generally has two faces, one facing the Chinese people, and one facing the outside world. The inward-facing Chinese propaganda is universal and all-encompassing. Its fullest expression is in the “Social Credit” system that China has developed, which checks every aspect of your life that can be checked and digitizes it all into a single score for how good a ‘citizen’ an individual ruled by the People’s Republic is. This controls everything about your life, from how free you are to travel to whether you can get a loan, or what jobs are open to you.
The Chinese people know they are being constantly propagandized, and constantly monitored for compliance. They mostly go along with it (with rare heroic exceptions) both because challenging the propaganda is costly, but also because Chinese culture underwrites this approach. In China it has long been considered very rude to say anything that creates a public upset, and polite to float an untruth if it would calm a situation or allow a beautiful mask to be maintained. Propaganda flows organically atop this social etiquette: what the government says is true becomes the polite fiction to be maintained. It is not just the threat of punishment, then, that makes Chinese-facing propaganda so ubiquitous and pervasive. It is also based on a deep cultural desire to maintain public social harmony.
When Chinese propaganda faces outwards, it tends to try to be completely unnoticed. As the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano points out, this sudden obvious lie is really a departure for a program that normally attempts to operate stealthily. That matches my experience. Chinese propaganda attempting to persuade Americans tends to operate on the principle that a carefully edited truth is much more powerful than an obvious lie. The whole time I lived there I never saw English-language Chinese state media make a false statement, yet I was constantly aware that their presentation of the facts was deeply misleading. If you checked their facts, you’d find that all the facts were true. It was always the interpretation that was false and misguiding.
Truth is a force multiplier in propaganda operations. The more often you can tell the truth, the more credibility you build with readers. The more often they check your story and find that it lines up with reality, the more they will trust you. The more that they trust you, the more you can guide them to believe what you’d like with carefully crafted framing. You can omit, you can distract, and you can interpret the facts that you do present in the light you would prefer. Because your audience has found you reliable in the past, they won’t question your interpretations all that much.
It is even more effective when you can mask your involvement. Chinese state media is always going to be a little suspect to the average American, no matter how often they avoid telling obvious lies, because of state media’s direct connection to a totalitarian state. If you can encourage American media to carry friendly stories, however, you will get a lot farther. China has invested vast sums in US media and technology purchases, allowing them to apply pressure behind the scenes to ensure that American media covers stories (or does not cover them) in ways that advance China’s interests. Their technology purchases also gives them a way to influence Chinese-language speakers in America, and to monitor them — and the rest of us who use apps with Chinese ties. That monitoring provides invaluable feedback to them on how messages are being received and interpreted here.
It’s not just news media that Chinese propaganda has come to touch here. Hollywood has also seen very large Chinese purchases and investments. So have video game producers. This means that China can influence how its government and culture are portrayed in American movies and to a lesser degree our video games. When was the last time you saw a movie that portrayed Communism as evil? How about Chinese government or military leaders in the ‘bad guy’ role?
By contrast, when was the last time you saw a movie or television show that raised doubts about America or portrayed an American government official as corrupt or wicked? All the time, right? Of course, most Americans do think that our government and its leaders are corrupt — at least that ‘the other side’ is. Indeed, many of them are. It’s a strength of our culture that we are able to engage in robust criticism of bad practices by our leaders. As Carafano points out, however, the Chinese are very good at leveraging our own divisions against us. They never have to say anything bad about any American: they can just re-broadcast what we say about our own.
The shift to an obvious lie, combined with the expulsion of American reporters, thus marks a surprising shift in China’s propaganda war. Carafano thinks it may be aimed at Africa, where similar tales of alleged CIA malign activities are already widely believed. That may be right. It also may be that the coronavirus efforts are not going as well as they hoped, and they are trying to get the American free press away before that story gets out. In that case, the obvious lie was a provocation designed to give China ’cause’ to expel the journalists.
In any case, it is a departure. We shall keep an eye on the People’s Republic of China.