As Chinese leaders fret over rising peasant protests, political instability, and a decay of traditional values, the Communist Party is experimenting with multiple new messages - designed to capture the hearts and minds of ordinary people.
"It is a very intelligent strategy," says a Western historian here. "If people are nostalgic for Mao [Zedong] and old moral values, they've got Lei Feng [a model soldier lauded for selfless service]. For those who say China has lost its traditions, they promote Confucianism. For those who long for spirituality, it is Buddhism. The party is saying, 'you name it, we've got it.'"
But the disparate propaganda campaigns often seem like unrelated story lines in search of a central script. Last month, President Hu Jintao launched the "eight honors, eight disgraces" - spelling out the virtues of hard work and discipline, and the vices of cheating and selfishness. Other campaigns include engineering a "new socialist countryside," promoting old model revolutionary soldiers such as Lei Feng as "cool" for kids, and biweekly ideology sessions for party members billed as a chance to "refresh your mind."
In a fresh twist, the Party is also quietly backing campaigns that diverge from the standard political propaganda: opening a department of Confucianism at People's University, turning the late pop star Cong Fei into "young pioneer" style model, holding the first Buddhist forum in modern China on April 13. And a hard-core neo-Marxist faction has been allowed to rise - contrary to a decade of greater liberalization - which helped kill a proposed law allowing private property rights at the annual People's Congress last month.
A CCTV producer says that in March a senior minister ordered yet another new campaign to be broadcast on the evening news. But he balked. There were so many other campaigns being promulgated there wasn't room in the broadcast. The Party is trying for a delicate balancing act, say experts, somewhere between the extremes of doubt and zealotry.
"It has become a consumer Communist Party....a party based on marketing, not Maoism," says Russell Leigh Moses, an American scholar at the Peoples University in Beijing. "[The messages] are a great experiment, a way to figure out what will take."
But is anyone listening?
For example, Beijing bus No. 117, like many in this city, has a set of flat screen TVs that show news, traffic, weather, cooking, and sports. Monday, along with shots of President Hu shaking hands with Saudi princes on his current overseas trip, there was a Discovery Channel-style 5-minute segment that memorialized a soldier who had infiltrated the enemy reactionary forces in the 1930s and became a hero for the cause of Red China. Called "Eternal Monument," the regular segment is part of a broader campaign called "Maintaining the Advanced Nature of the Party," that is spun off into various kinds of patriotic media efforts.
But the TV on Bus 117 only vaguely catches the attention of afternoon riders as they wind past the second ring road skyscrapers, past the Lama Temple, and toward the new suburbs sprouting outside the fourth ring road. Shows like "Eternal Monument" vie for time alongside pop stars, game shows, skin-cream ads, and an endless flow of "infotainment."
Passengers, like Ji Tong, a garment salesman, are aware of that China's leaders are trying to promote something called a "harmonious society" that will correct social ills and disparities. He advocates a broader campaign of "self-criticism" for China's party officials. But other passengers, such as a shy young man from Hunan, looking for a job in a restaurant, has heard of the "eight virtues and disgraces," but couldn't name one.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the brutal Cultural Revolution, a time China closed itself to the world, and when Mao - through the Party machine - spoke to people over neighborhood loudspeakers. But gone are the days when the Party can dominate and speak with one voice by proclamation every waking moment. Daily life and "public space" continues to diversify. Chinese are busy - looking for a better job, a husband, a wife, English or music lessons for the kids, a business partner, a factory or construction site for a job.
"Mao and Deng [Xiaoping] were really good at speeches, writing articles, and getting people excited," says Yang Zhaohui, a professor of humanities at Beijing University. "They had won the war against Chiang Kai-shek. But today is a different climate. Hu and [Premier] Wen [Jiabao] are engineers. They don't have experience creating ideology."
Some campaigns, such as environmental awareness, are feathered into serial TV show narratives. One of the most popular soap operas, called "Sublime Eagle and Righteous Couple," is set in ancient times and features Wudan mountain martial arts monks.
In one program this week, a Taoist student washes and dries his clothes on a fire before visiting his teacher, to show respect. He then conspicuously stamps out the fire - a kind of Smokey the Bear public service moment.
But the No. 1 campaign deals with the economy. It goes under the term "a scientific Perspective on Development and a Harmonious Society." Essentially, this campaign builds on China's budding research and development sectors.
It highlights the pride in developing new products such as turning coal to liquid fuel, and China's AIGO brand digital cameras, MP3s, and memory discs - technology that will allow China to compete with Japanese and Korean companies. The media here offers proud, self congratulatory stories on the Shuguang 4000A supercomputer and the Zhonguancun Science and Technology Park in Beijing, which is heralded for producing its own patented products.
In March, President Hu Jintao unveiled the tenets of his socialist value system:
• The honor of loving the motherland; the shame of endangering the motherland.
• The honor of serving the people; the shame of turning away from the people.
• The honor of upholding science; the shame of ignorance and illiteracy.
• The honor of industrious labor; the shame of indolence.
• The honor of togetherness and cooperation; the shame of profiting at the expense of others.
• The honor of honesty and keeping one's word; the shame of abandoning morality for profit.
• The honor of discipline and obedience; the shame of lawlessness and disorder.
• The honor of striving arduously; the shame of wallowing in luxury.
Source: China Media Project, chinaelections.org