Howard French, writing for the International Herald Tribune, has a very good piece on China’s historic and contemporary uses of propaganda.
Mao’s state created a propaganda system built on a crude triage: a world of heroes who were unalterably and impossibly good, and an even larger one of villains who were irredeemably, cartoonishly bad. Over-the-top became the routine in official rhetoric. Enemies were called “monsters” and “cow ghosts,” “snake spirits” and “running dogs.” And in one campaign after another the public was called upon to “resolutely crush” or “relentlessly denounce” them.
This was a universe of variable geometry, where people were not to reason things out on their own, but to fall in line. Today’s hero could be tomorrow’s villain, with no clear evidence or explanation. The sole moral compass point was the immoral leader himself, Mao, who to this day remains a sacred cow whose likeness peers out from every bank note.
In recent years, it had seemed as if this movie had been retired, but last month the production was cued up once again. The bad guy this time has been the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and the fact that outside China this villain is one of the world’s most admired people has only caused the propagandists to ramp up the volume.
For the purpose of the cause he has been turned into a canine and called a “wolf in monk’s robes,” “a wolf with a human face and heart of a beast” and the “scum of Buddhism.” In case anyone missed the message, the government has also called the struggle against the Dalai Lama “a life-and-death battle.”
French goes on to look at how the propaganda machine played out in the media. Chinese domestic organs hyped Tibetan violence, repeatedly replayed pictures of a handful of Han Chinese victims, and viciously attacked bias in the Western media (even though Western outlets were happy to print Chinese propaganda alongside statements about the nonviolent nature of the overwhelming majority of the protests). I think French’s analysis is strong on the use of propaganda as a tool to create power for the Chinese government, but misses out on the parallel byproduct of and element in the propaganda itself: nationalism.
China has invested hugely in its hosting of the Olympic Games in August with the idea of introducing itself as an overwhelming success story: increasingly prosperous, harmonious and forward-looking. The first statement is certainly true, but one needn’t be an enemy of China, as the propagandists would have it, to question the other two.
It isn’t just the propagandists that would think questioning whether or not China is “harmonious and forward-looking.” The target of the propagandists, too, would and do perceive you as an enemy because of their own intense nationalistic sentiments towards China. Propaganda doesn’t merely control the message and the medium, but creates an environment that allows the sentiments and goals within the propaganda to be realized. In China’s case, the vilification of peaceful Tibetans and the Dalai Lama lead directly to and through nationalism. As French notes, this will continue to poison China’s response to anything that the outside world says or does regarding the Olympics.