Wednesday, October 20, 2010


by Philip J Cunningham

It's not easy being a propaganda chief these days. What with all the new-fangled technology, and talk of democracy, the spectre of yesterday's suppressed news keeps coming back to haunt you.

You shred a story and throw it down the memory hole and it bounces back with a vengeance - a hundred stories where there was once just one.

Your job is to serve the party, and the secretary-general of the party most of all. All sorts of people, inside and outside the party resent your influence; some even challenge your right to exist.

When you do your job skilfully, nobody notices. When you screw up, it's there for all the world to see.

Take the case of Liu Xiaobo.

You were under the impression it was your job to make the story go away, a mission impossible in PR terms. So, instead, you make yourself look foolish. Failing to suppress the news of a dissident getting the Nobel Peace Prize, you double down and go into over-drive. You attack the poor, imprisoned convicted criminal Liu, of course, but also castigate the arrogant award-givers. Then you attack the small Western country that is home to the handful of old, white men sitting on the committee that made the "blasphemous" award decision. Then you attack the Western world in general.

As was frequently the case during the Mao years, a vilification campaign is as hurtful as it is absurd, but ultimately it makes a mockery of its advocates and legends of those sorry souls it targets.

Those not destroyed by vilification often come back stronger than ever, emerging as influential figures in their own right, thanks to the initial drop-kick that made their name a political football in the first place.

The Maoist vilification of Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai drove both men to early graves, but it turned them into the stuff of legend. Getting whacked by an endless stream of words ultimately enhanced the reputation of two hard-core communist operatives who were, until the moment of their fall, loyal henchmen of the party and Chairman Mao.

Deng Xiaoping, who was dislodged from power three times, and each time duly vilified in the propaganda organs of the day, not only emerged with a "name" but with a body of sayings. Even off-the-cuff quotes such as: "It doesn't matter if it's a white cat or a black cat..." that were once bandied about as supposed proof of Deng's perfidy, have been memorialised and become part of the legend of the man.

Zhao Ziyang was cut from the same cloth as his tough communist colleagues at the pinnacle of state power until his fall from grace, after which he assumed a largely undeserved democratic halo.

The way the Beijing authorities have fumbled the Liu Xiaobo case is enough to ensure that this mild-mannered academic, who was but one of many comparable dissidents, will now stand head and shoulders against the rest, eclipsing rebel elders such as Wei Jingsheng, who endured even greater suffering with even greater equanimity and resolve.

The Nobel Prize committee chose to turn the spotlight on just one man in a collective cause, casting a disproportionately large shadow, but it is China's flummoxed media czars, who, by overplaying their hand, are assuring that Liu Xiaobo will be seen as larger than life.

The Chinese Department of Propaganda hasn't always been so clumsy, nor has it always been on the wrong side of history.

It has played a role in maintaining civility in public discourse, especially in advance of, and in the aftermath of, the poisonous reign of "free" speech known as the Cultural Revolution.

In the early 1960's, one of the main functions of the central propaganda apparatus was to keep the doddering old Mao, and his increasingly insane ideas, in check.

Mao, hungry for some vengeful political action, famously complained that he couldn't get a word in edgewise in Beijing, so he had proxies such as Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao publish in Shanghai the first of a long series of veiled vilifications and outright ad hominem attacks that launched the Cultural Revolution.

A wave of suicides, vigilante roundups, public humiliations, torture and extrajudicial killings convulsed the nation for years to come, bringing the life of individuals, and the nation as a whole, to a virtual standstill. Millions died, hundreds of millions were traumatised.

It's enough to make one wish that Beijing's mayor Peng Zhen and the propaganda chiefs had constrained Mao's "right" to free speech, and thus stemmed the tide of invective, winning the day for the silent majority.

While human rights organisations understandably see censorship as a unique threat to them and theirs, an idealistic egotism causes them to miss the point inasmuch as it's really not about them. At least half of the function of the propaganda department is to keep inner-party conflict out of the news, to keep Politburo rivals and wannabes from each other's throats and to prevent insider coups and political campaigns from ripping the country apart at the seams.

In more recent times, the much-maligned department served a stabilising role when the reigns of power were reluctantly handed to Hu Jintao by the ambitious and not-quite-yet-ready-to-retire Jiang Zemin.

By controlling access to the public megaphone, the propaganda department effectively reined in yesterday's leaders, thus enabling the changing of the guard. It's China's equivalent to term limits in US politics.

Were Hu Jintao to completely dismantle the party's propaganda apparatus tomorrow, we would probably learn more about Hu than we know now, but it would likely prove a hollow victory for the free press. Were it not for the restraining hand of the propaganda department, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng would still be in the news, and in the game, using prestige media to advance their coteries and causes.

Other powerful actors, who, by virtue of wealth and position, would come to hog the limelight, making an easy transition to a freewheeling press system that would allow them to exercise power by buying newspapers, TV stations and advertising influence.

But if the opening of the floodgates were so unregulated as to lead to an "anything goes" neglect of media standards, then the vilification, mud-slinging and poisonous hate speech that hurt China so much in the past, would return with a vengeance.

The ensuing chaos would give foreign reporters and local scribes much to report on and write about, but little security or social stability in which to enjoy the fruits of free expression.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator.