Eying next generation of patriots, Beijing propaganda tries a new look

A recent hit film film and video put the spotlight on Beijing's efforts to package propaganda for young, 21st-century audiences – a campaign with pop idols frequently on the frontlines.

Wang Junkai, Wang Yuan, and Yi Yangqianxi of the Chinese group TFBoys perform during a concert to mark the fourth anniversary of their debut in Nanjing, China, on Aug. 11. Many of the group’s songs promote traditional values such as social harmony and filial piety. They have even sung a modern rendition of “We Are the Heirs of Communism,” the anthem of the Young Pioneers.

The Chinese teen idol Lu Han appears for only a few seconds in “The Founding of an Army,” China’s latest propaganda film, but even a little screen time is enough to rev up his biggest fans.

At a showing earlier this month, the crowd chanted Mr. Lu’s name when he appeared on screen. “The shouting was even longer than the time he appeared in the movie,” wrote one moviegoer on Weibo, a microblogging site.

Lu is one of at least three xiao xian rou  “little fresh meat,” as young stars are called – in “The Founding of an Army,” advertised as a war epic with “youthful revolutionary elements.” The Chinese government commissioned the film to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. It opened in late July, and has since become one of the summer’s biggest hits.

It may have had help. In a sign of the film’s importance to the ruling Communist Party, a state ministry reportedly ordered that it be be shown on at least 45 percent of all Chinese screens. The promoters of the film have rebutted such reports.

Still, that heavy-handedness is what many have come to expect from China’s state-run propaganda apparatus – perhaps the largest in the world – as it works to promote President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, a mission with added significance ahead of a key party congress this fall.

But if the intensity of propaganda efforts is nothing news – nor the messages – some of the messengers are. Beijing’s propaganda has become more sophisticated, researchers say, as it tries to speak to young people in their own language: one of viral videos and swooned-over boy bands. The decision to cast teenage idols in “The Founding of an Army” highlights that growing push to package state values for a younger, 21st-century audience.

Chinese actor and singer Lu Han attends a press conference for his movie 'The Great Wall' in Beijing, China in 2016. Mr. Lu appears in 'The Founding of an Army,' a propaganda film released in July.

“The Chinese Communist Party definitely recognizes that the main target for its patriotic education is the youth,” says Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese propaganda at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “It recognizes that it’s pretty hard to change the minds of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution and who have already made up their minds.” 

While some older Chinese viewers criticized the filmmakers for what they called superficial casting decisions, Dr. Brady says those people aren’t its target audience. Moreover, she says the decision to cast Lu and other xiao xian rou reflects the filmmakers’ desire to strike a balance between propaganda and profit. Chinese producers regularly cast teenage idols as a way to attract young moviegoers, a much sought-after demographic in the film industry.

It’s also a demographic that some in the Communist Party worry it may be losing. For years, China’s leaders have feared Western culture – from Hollywood blockbusters to pop music – could influence the thinking and values of the country’s young people. They’re not alone: 77 percent of Chinese believe their way of life needs to be protected from influences abroad, according to a 2016 Pew Survey.

“If you ask young Chinese what term they most closely associate with the US, the majority of them will say ‘Hollywood,’” says Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese film and media. “The Communist Party is trying to compete with what American is selling in terms of popular culture.”

What’s likely more concerning to the party, Dr. Rosen says, is that many Chinese college students have shown a preference for aspects of liberal democracy to China’s one-party system. Sixty percent of Chinese between 18 and 34 years old have a favorable view of the US, according to the Pew survey, compared to 35 percent of those over 50.

Old-school propaganda still exists in China. Communist slogans, censored newspapers, and oversized portraits of President Xi can be found all over the country. But in an attempt to modernize their methods, propaganda officials have developed new ones that include TED-style talks, animated videos, and rap songs.

This youth-oriented approach to propaganda has started to show signs of success in mainstream Chinese culture. TFBoys, one of China’s most popular boy bands, presents a wholesome schoolboy image that has won it praise from the government. Many of their songs promote traditional values such as social harmony and filial piety. They have even sung a modern rendition of “We Are the Heirs of Communism,” the anthem of the Young Pioneers, the party’s nationwide children’s organization.

“Love the country and the people,” they sing in a music video released by the Communist Youth League on International Children’s Day in 2015. “Fear neither hardship nor the enemy.”

Although bands like TFBoys and films like “The Founding of an Army” have found an enthusiastic domestic audience, one of China’s most recent global propaganda efforts undoubtedly missed the mark. Entitled “7 Sins of India,” the English-language video attempts to use humor to criticize India amid a simmering border standoff in the Himalayas.

The three-minute clip, which was produced by China’s state-run news media, features a man in a turban and fake beard speaking in a crude Indian accent. The video was quickly denounced as racist in India, China, and beyond.

“If the goal was to draw attention to the video, then I guess they succeeded in doing that,” says Mareike Ohlberg, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin who studies Chinese propaganda. “But overall I wouldn’t consider it very successful.”

As for China’s domestic propaganda campaign in the run-up to the party congress, at which Xi is expected to cement his status as the country's most powerful leader in decades, Dr. Ohlberg expects to see a sustained effort aimed at young people.

“They are the future of China,” she says, “so the party wants to win them over.”

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