China spends millions to click with young people

The rap band CD REV in Chengdu. Singer Li Yijie is in the centre. The parents of three of the four band members had served in the People's Liberation Army.
The rap band CD REV in Chengdu. Singer Li Yijie is in the centre. The parents of three of the four band members had served in the People's Liberation Army.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Messages praising the govt are relayed in animated videos and catchy songs

BEIJING • The two-minute cartoon opens with a folksy jingle and a smiling bobblehead of Chinese President Xi Jinping, dimpled and cherubic. Then it cuts to a colourful montage praising his government for improving the lives of ordinary Chinese with what might seem like a mundane policy: regulations allowing taxis to be summoned online.

With vivid animation and quirky sound effects, the video does not feel like propaganda.

But its creators, a team of 15 people hired by the state-run media, spent months obsessing over the details, down to the shape of Mr Xi's grin. Their mission: to promote Mr Xi and the ruling Communist Party in a voice that resonates with China's digitally savvy millennials.

"There isn't any dry language or political jargon," said Mr Ma Changbo, 35, a former journalist who is chief executive of the multimedia studio behind the clip, which was posted online by China Central Television, the state broadcaster.

The party has invested millions in animated videos that cast Mr Xi as a compassionate champion of Chinese workers.

Scholars have delivered TED-style talks that rail against Western imperialism. Hip-hop songs pay homage to party history and warn of US efforts to topple the Chinese government.

It is unclear how effective such tactics will be in winning over a younger generation more sceptical of prepackaged messages and increasingly connected to the outside world.

Nor is the party's ability to modernise and reorient its vast propaganda apparatus - perhaps the world's largest - guaranteed. But there is widespread agreement that old methods are no longer enough.

"If the government wants to reach this audience, they have to use new media to do it," said Ms Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese propaganda at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, adding that many young people have grown accustomed to bypassing official censorship.

Inside the offices of People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper since 1946, editors are turning to video and animation to enliven stories about government policies and appeal to foreign audiences.

When Mr Xi visited the US in 2015, for example, they produced a video in which foreign students in China offered fawning assessments of his performance.

Mr Ye Zhenzhen, 40, who oversees "new media" for the newspaper group and prefers not to use the word propaganda to describe his work, said the videos were aimed at helping foreigners get beyond cliches about political oppression and corruption in China.

But he added that finding new ways to talk about China was also a business necessity. "We can't simply rely on traditional forms of content. We need to diversify and put ourselves in our customers' shoes."

The government's interest in new forms of propaganda has created a booming market for digital media enthusiasts with a nationalist bent.

Mr Rao Jin, a technology entrepreneur who runs a nationalistic website and media company known as April Media, has tried to take a more substantive approach, starting a series of online talks in the style of TED events.

"We want young people to have more confidence in their own culture and in their nation," he said.

The 31-year-old is also working with the Communist Youth League and a rap group known as CD REV to produce music videos that denounce negative foreign media coverage of China and present the country as peace-loving and prosperous.

"All we hear is, 'China is poor, it's a dragon, it will eat us, it will beat us'," said singer of the rap group Li Yijie."We want to show people that China is not evil."

Three of the four members of CD REV were raised by parents who served in the People's Liberation Army. Mr Li said the group saw itself as filling a void where traditional propaganda had fallen short.

"Chinese patriotic education has failed - it's stiff and awkward," he said. "I think we need to accept the responsibility to make it better."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'China spends millions to click with young people'. Print Edition | Subscribe