The most effective type of Chinese overseas propaganda is not the one Beijing has carefully planned, but that which appears spontaneously when a distant civilization speaking a language few European understand comes into contact with Europe’s tendency to create mythologies about “the Orient”. In other words, it’s a byproduct of “Orientalism”. When 20th-century artists and writers fell under the spell of romanticized visions of people and places in the East, seen as a civilization, exotic and enticing, living in harmony with nature, keepers of an ancestral wisdom, their approach was often patriarchal, or even colonialist. The new Orientalism 2.0 is different: it is just as idealistic, yet weighed down by fears and a secret fascination for the “East’s” latest achievements. The logic is similar: the Great Unknown is a blank slate on which commentators in democratic societies write their own debates, anxieties and utopias. Present-day China has replaced 1970s Japan as “the country that does things differently” and is about to outshine the old democracies.
The Western fascination with overinflated nonsense
There’s no better example for our tendency to fantasize about the East than the (overly) famous account of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai being asked by Henry Kissinger during a 1971 visit about what he thought the impact of the French Revolution had been. He answered mysteriously: “Too early to say”. This little anecdote encapsulates all the elements of the new type of Orientalism: the father of American realpolitik meets the Chinese sage, the West’s spur-of-the-moment restlessness as opposed the China’s strategic patience. “Our” superficiality set at odds with “their” sense of history.
It’s just that the story is a big fake! Years later, Chas Freeman, an American diplomat who had been serving as an interpreter on that meeting, revealed that the Chinese Prime Minister had simply misunderstood the question: he thought Kissinger was referring to the May 1968 civil unrest in Paris, not to the actual 1789 French Revolution. “Too early to say” was the politically correct answer of any leader of the Chinese Communist Party back in 1971, designed to conceal the disappointment with (yet) another missed opportunity: three years before the French masses had had another shot at tearing down Western capitalism and had failed! Zhou Enlai was simply the victim of the Newspeak policies of his own regime, back then struggling with great turmoil caused by the Maoist Cultural Revolution. China at the time was awaiting the West’s ideological collapse, thus seeing any street demonstration in Europe or the United States as “the spark of the proletarian revolution”.
In other words, the Chinese Prime Minister was not some sage sharing the ancient wisdom of Confucius or Sun Tzu, but merely an apparatchik reading out dull catchphrases from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Their purpose, first and foremost, was to brainwash the Chinese ordinary folk, who in 1971 had zero access to information about the West. Surprisingly enough, they did manage to confuse someone like Prime Minister Zhou, a Chinese official who had seen much and heard much, someone you would expect to be more familiar with the cultural references of Western democracies. Yet why was this obvious (and somewhat funny) blunder not divulged on the spot? The answer rests with Chas Freeman’s memoirs: “I vividly recall the exchange. The misunderstanding was too savory to invite correction”. Indeed, the fake was too savory to unravel, as it fueled the cultural biases of international media and highbrow commentators. In a sense, it was an episode of “propaganda-by-invitation”.
This trend has endured to this day. We keep indulging in overinflated nonsense Chinese leaders throw at us, looking for a deeper meaning where there is none. We read stories of the regime’s triumphs and forget the empty half of the glass. The Little Red Book, a collection of 267 aphorisms by Mao, which has been printed in over a billion copies, including in internationally-spoken languages, is now being quoted in the British Parliament during debates, referencing the political objectives China pursues in the long-term with relentless precision. Of course, nothing can be farther from the truth. The regime remains imperceptive and undemocratic, which means all the internal rifts, the hesitation and the violent power struggle tend to remain hidden. Few knowledgeable enough people get to look beyond the barrier of censorship and actually speak about the uncertainty that lies on the other side and about Beijing’s opportunistic planning and haphazard decision-making.
Looking beyond Chinese miracle mythologies
A rare example of steering clear of such tendencies is a recently published book where we learn that, during Mao’s rampant and bloody Cultural Revolution, there were rival factions inside the Red Guards, the young communist militia the Chinese leader manipulated to exact his will against his opponents in the party ranks. One of them prevailed over all the rest, becoming “the generation of Deng Xiaoping”. In theory, it advocated pragmatism and reforms, whereas in fact it didn’t hesitate to open fire on the people gathered in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests. President Xi Jinping is the son of a major leader who suffered countless abuses at the hands of the radical Guards during those times of great turmoil, who, years later, after being reinstated, settled his old scores. Family history and clan-like relationships play just as important a role in China’s modern-day politics as ideology and strategic thinking. The only difference is they don’t transpire publicly as much. The latter are often used to bludgeon anyone who stands against president Jinping, a case in point being the “anti-corruption” campaign Xi started shortly after taking power. Many people in the West take these narratives at face value, since they are the only things visible to the naked eye. And since the ideology of the Communist Party is, by and large, just an alternative reality based on conspiracy theories of human society, it is rather normal that its projections overseas should be fake news and manipulation. This kind of manipulation is not even intended for us, people of the West: whatever reaches us are undertoned echoes of propaganda served on a daily basis to the Chinese people.
Today, fans of the authoritarian model of development have pinned their hopes on China, after so many past disappointments. What they fail to see, just like in the past, is the extent to which Chinese decision-making is based not as much on official five-year planning, but rather on opportunistic measures and score-settling among various factions within the party, the army and the business sector. People should reread Kornai Janos’s classic volume on the real socialist system and its rather lax approach to official party documents. Five-year plans have always been on the table, but only to be ritually honored in party meetings, while the economy was being steered with makeshift solutions and patchwork, in an attempt to tone down conflicting pressure stemming from the very nature of the administration. Disinformation and fake news were inherent to the regime, they weren’t just superficial oddities: they were features of the system, not bugs, to use IT lingo.
Admittedly, China’s present-day turbo-capitalism implemented using Leninist principles is not the same as Mao’s communism. The country’s rising GDP per capita, modern infrastructure and pulling millions of people out of poverty cannot be denied. Yet this is not something entirely unheard of in history, save for the grand scale: it is what you normally expect to happen when you tolerate some degree of economic normalcy and when society shifts from rural self-sufficiency to urbanization and industrialization. It’s a typical example of a non-recurring process that encompasses an important “basic” effect, to use economic terms. After the catastrophic effects of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, returning to a normal state of affairs is like an explosive growth: the signs already indicate the effect is starting to wane. It is just as hard to deny that China has managed the COVID crisis with ruthless efficiency. But, after all, is it truly surprising that a communist party is adept at imposing lockdowns, keeping its population in check and people’s mouths shut?
In a nutshell, China’s recent advancement has nothing to do with Mao’s aphorisms, with Confucius’s teachings, which have been rather overtly misconstrued as “Xi Jinping’s ideas”, or with flagship policies, such as the one-child program, Made in China, the Chinese Dream or the Belt and Road initiative. Some of them are real policies that have produced sizable effects. For instance, the one-child policy, in effect over 1979-2015 and introduced under Deng’s enlightened rule, caused great suffering, and a mother-of-all-crises will soon hit China, without any clear solution in sight. Others are just rhetorical hot air, such as the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a propaganda platform of variable size and form with obscure projects and budget used by rival companies and business groups in China to create business opportunities abroad that would give them the upper hand over domestic competitors.
The return to communist orthodoxy
Time seems to pass counterclockwise under president Xi, towards the alternative realities of orthodox communist propaganda. The screw is turning ever tighter on politics and public discourse, with a renewed focus on indoctrination in schools, universities and enterprises. The United Front, an organization with a far-reaching scope charged with the surveillance and integration of citizens who are not party members, has become increasingly active. The Chinese Communist Party is creating organizations inside companies, just like in the old days, observing the “two-headed leadership” principle. German multinational companies operating in China are not exempted from this rule, but are diplomatically allowed not to observe it.
The 2020 COVID crisis was turned into the ideal opportunity to prove to the Chinese people the benefits of military-style mobilization and suppressing any form of opposition.
We, the people who don’t live in China, are merely collateral victims of this massive barrage of propaganda and manipulation orchestrated by the regime and targeting its own people. In spring, 2020, as planes carrying medical supplies landed in Rome or Belgrade, the head of the beneficiary state was supposed to deliver a thank-you speech, right there, on the airstrip, accompanied by the Chinese ambassador. The purpose was, of course, to broadcast the whole show in primetime in Beijing. The Health Silk Road, a makeshift extension of the BRI, is living proof presented to the Chinese people of just how invaluable their leaders have become for the world.
Whenever the narrative wobbles due to the substandard quality of Chinese face masks or the inefficiency of the Sinopharm vaccine, Beijing authorities become passive-aggressive, bad-mouthing the competing Pfizer products. High-ranking officials and state media circulate stories of unexplainable deaths in Norway. Again, this is not about the rest of the world: the Chinese people need to be persuaded their regime thrives where others have failed. And if anti-vax sentiment happens to gain momentum globally, then so be it. For Beijing, stability at home comes first.
Russia’s strategic disinformation efforts have always been more subtle and context-oriented, therefore ultimately more effective. The Kremlin has a more intimate knowledge of countries and societies in our region, particularly in Eastern Europe, with which it shares a long history. Chinese propaganda, in contrast, often resorts to the mechanical reiteration of wooden-language scripted bullet points, praising the party’s great achievements, which is no different from what Chinese media tells the people back home. When there’s no argument to be made, Chinese diplos go “wolf warrior”.
Not that they need to, most of the time. Europe today has its full share of people who are naïve, cynical or Bovaric devotees of authoritarianism, or commentators voicing their anti-Western views, actively collecting Internet memes on the superiority of the Chinese model and creatively patching them together to create their own narratives. This seems to work particularly well in newer EU member states or the in Balkans, where public knowledge of the real China is still relatively limited. Beijing needs only to make its presence felt in the region by means of a few meaningful investments (some economically sensible, others less so) and via a smaller-scale version of the BRI dubbed “the 17+1 initiative”, presented to the public in equally ambiguous party-speak, and then simply let the propaganda-by-invitation grow organically. China can count on Orientalism 2.0 to fill in the gaps, settle any outstanding issues and present its failures as promising signs of progress.