Home Commentary Propaganda and nationalism in China: A growing threat

Propaganda and nationalism in China: A growing threat

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated 70 years in power — the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1. Some Chinese citizens in the stands wept and cheered, all faithfully reported by the New York Times, which garners extensive advertising revenues from China and had multiple articles after the anniversary on the real, heartfelt and even cool patriotism, including among studded-leather Chinese youth.

Missing in these two articles on propaganda and nationalism in China is the intensity of belief induced by fear of concentration camps holding 1-3 million Uyghurs, organ harvesting of Falun Gong prisoners, and mass indeterminate detention of human rights activists and their lawyers. Also missing is the horrific tactic of breaking the cultural roots of families by separating children from Turkic parents in Xinjiang, and needlessly raising them in state orphanages, in the traditions of the racially dominant Han Chinese. Missing is the way in which China’s patriotism can morph into a conceited aggression, even among the Chinese diaspora in the West.

We have seen spontaneous Chinese nationalist displays of patriotism graduate to aggression when confronted by a young Chinese environmentalist in Washington D.C., who boldly said, “Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.” The same is happening now to Hong Kongers who want a better life than breathing the noxious smog, tear gas, and nationalism emitted on a daily basis by their CCP-controlled government.

But the recent articles in the New York Times do exemplify the danger that China has for the democratic world, and for free thought: Chinese influence and propaganda can even be found in this paragon of journalistic virtue. If it is there, it could be anywhere. 

China maintains its global propaganda through the state’s prodigious economic power, which in turn depends on degradingly low living standards and a lack of workers’ rights. Public acquiescence to communist rule is only maintained through propaganda-fueled domestic nationalism that constructs internal enemies through labeling religions as cults, peaceful secessionists as terrorists, and leading democracies like Japan and the United States as enemies.

Those who seek more business with China can delude themselves into absolving China of its responsibilities to give their citizens human rights and universal suffrage by focusing on the supposed true patriotism and nationalism of the citizens that China very likely hand-picks for them to meet. When unpacking that Chinese nationalism, we find that it is not organic, but induced by propaganda despite the CCP’s horrific history of millions dead from starvation, state-sanctioned murder, and war.

To understand the phenomenon and global risks of genuine nationalism in China, we must unpack how it is done, and the risks therein, including the exclusion of counternarratives, the production of nationalist thought, and finally, how that nationalist thought leads CCP leaders towards ever greater external aggression.

Pedestrians walk pass a propaganda poster in Shanghai on March 27, 2018. (Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP)
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Propaganda in China

The CCP seeks to exclude “undesirable” thoughts of democracy and human rights by, first of all, denying the free thought found in the outside world to its citizens. The Great Firewall of China (GFW) blocks the most popular websites, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. This is not the case in “autonomous” Hong Kong, where protesters use them all extensively. Their use in Hong Kong illustrate for CCP hardliners what to fear from greater openness on the mainland.

While in the past, Chinese elites were able to use virtual private networks (VPNs) for end-runs around the GFW, laws against them are increasingly enforced. School books and even academic journals, when they pass into China, are carefully censored to exclude articles on sensitive topics such as Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Taiwan.

Sadly, western media and academic organizations that want to access Chinese markets allow this censorship to take place, and so are complicit in what should really be considered the political enslavement of the Chinese people through an unethical withholding of free information.

Were the Chinese fully aware of their own oppression through free access to information, they would presumably react as are Hong Kongers today. For the global west to deny Chinese citizens the information they need to protect themselves, while taking advantage of China’s cheap wages, is arguably unethical complicity in their enslavement.

Into this informational void, China pours its own communist and nationalist ideology to enhance the cult of personality around Xi Jinping, the virtues of the communist system and ideology, and finally, Chinese nationalism founded on Han Chinese culture, and buttressed through a tokenist appreciation for cultural diversity.

Religion is elided when loyal to the CCP or derided as cultist if not. Democracy is portrayed as a chaotic system of the west or redefined to mean mere consultation by autocratic rulers. Feminism and neo-Marxism are repressed through disappearance of advocates, most ruthlessly when they raise sensitive concerns over real instances of sexual harassment or a philosophy that might contradict that of China’s current leader, President Xi Jinping.

A giant portrait of former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong passes by Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing on Oct. 1 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)

Nationalism in China

Propaganda and belief in the exaltation of the party are institutionalized through promotion of those who write positively about China’s hierarchical system, and demotion of those who are negative, even in the slightest symbolic degree. This gives power to those who truly believe in the system, or are very good at faking it, and disempowers everyone else, leading to decades of refinement of authoritarianism to the point where by 2005 some Chinese political insiders were calling China not just a dictatorship, but a form of fascism.

The increasingly totalitarian nature of China has arguably given the leader of China, President Xi Jinping, more power than any other man in world history. The GDP of China by purchasing power parity is greater than any other nations, including the United States. Xi is able to use that GDP to buy influence and spread propaganda in relatively porous democratic political systems, even in North America and Europe.

Rather than seeking to empower Chinese through attacking enemies such as poverty and disease, Xi has unfortunately added to the construction of a one-sided history of humiliation of China by the global west, including the United States and Japan.

To keep China’s military leaders in the pro-Xi faction, he has militarized China to an unprecedented degree, including to the point where the United States Navy is struggling just to maintain freedom of navigation in places like the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Japan is having difficulties defending its southernmost islands, the Senkakus, from daily fighter jet and maritime militia incursions that are so normalized as to rarely be covered in the press. China’s militarization and offensive deployment of those forces in order to win incremental gains against India, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the past decades, risks war that in some instances could go nuclear.

China’s revisionist actions are therefore profoundly irresponsible, and so fearsome to democratic publics that they may be more willing to buy time by giving into China’s small territorial demands, than to increase the risk of military conflict. China’s population, kept in ignorance of the dire risks by China’s censorship and propaganda, are less of a liability to China’s strategy of brinkmanship, than are the fully-informed publics in democracies, terrified as they are of nuclear war.

That informational asymmetry could be to China’s advantage. Over time, it will facilitate a greater ability for China to take risk, and therefore more success in winning the games of chicken often required to acquire more technology, territory and military force than the United States and its Asian and European allies. When China’s power exceeds that of the United States or NATO, Chinese global hegemony could quickly follow.

These are the mechanisms and global risks from unchecked Chinese propaganda and nationalism. If the world’s democracies do not more quickly and jointly mobilize against China, that risk may very well become reality. 

Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LICAS News.

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