As China ramps up its propaganda efforts, arguments in favor of the Communist Party’s narrative have tended to become both increasingly standardized and emotional. This makes it more important than ever to counter that offensive with facts and common sense. Below is a list of five arguments that you are likely to hear when discussing China, and suggestions on how to respond.
With a larger budget and growing ambitions, Chinese propaganda efforts today are not only directed at a domestic audience, but also at foreign countries. The scope of the censoring and monitoring of China’s Internet is already known, as well as the resources being spent on “guiding opinions” online.
Two years ago, a Harvard study showed that the Chinese government fabricates as many as 488 million fake posts on Chinese social media annually. A more recent study analyzed 50 million comments on Chinese news sites, only to find that one sixth of those were fabricated. Needless to say, the size and sophistication of China’s Internet management is unprecedented in world history.
A similar trend can be seen in traditional media. In February 2016, President Xi Jinping made a personal visit to the offices of the three most important party medias — CCTV, Xinhua and People’s Daily — to let its staff know that they “must embody the party’s will,” “safeguard the authority of the party” and even “hold the family name of the party.”
Already in 2009, US$7 billion was budgeted to increase the global presence of Chinese party and state media. The news agency Xinhua operates at least 180 overseas bureaus and publishes its material in eight different languages. Its social media accounts are managed by no less than 100 hand-picked journalists and editors.
The trend accelerated with the creation of China Global Television Network (CGTN) in late December 2016. This brand new organization was set up by CCTV to handle its broadcasting for foreign audiences as a multi-language and multi-platform media group. In a personal congratulatory letter, President Xi urged CGTN to tell stories about China well, by presenting the country as a “builder of world peace” and “an upholder of international order.”
Xi has also pointed out the United Front Work Department as a “magic weapon” for the party’s propaganda work abroad, and Chinese foreign students and overseas communities as important groups in for restoring China’s greatness. Hence, there is reason to believe that Chinese propaganda will become increasingly common in foreign countries, not only via media and the Internet, but also during personal interactions.
Apart from being more commonplace, Chinese propaganda abroad is becoming increasingly emotional and intrusive. Under those circumstances, it is extremely important not to lower oneself to the same level when confronting the propaganda: The only result of wrestling with a pig is that you become just as dirty yourself.
Instead, reasoning and facts are more likely to drive home any points — if not with pro-Beijingers themselves, perhaps with people who are listening or following a discussion. Below is five examples of arguments that are frequently used in Chinese propaganda, and how best to respond to them.
Think of it as a conversation, one in which your antagonist is making a statement as a reply to criticism that you may have expressed regarding the current situation in China:
#1 “Without the Communist Party, China could never be rich an strong!”
On the contrary, there are many reasons to believe that China would be even more prosperous were it not a one-party state. As Stein Ringen, professor at Oxford University, points out in his recent book The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, there is nothing really extraordinary with the Chinese economic development apart from sheer numbers. What is regularly called “China’s success story” is, according to Ringen, “in its best time pretty typical for East Asia.”
Yes, over 600 million people may have been lifted from extreme poverty in the past few decades, but there are at least 200 million Chinese who still live under such conditions. The number of poor people in China — high not only in as a figure but also as a percentage of the population — is due to unequal redistributive politics and a regressive tax system.
This is a stark contrast with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which started their development from a similar or even lower economic base than China in the late 1940s. Today, those three nations are high-income economies whereas China remains a middle-income economy, with huge income gaps and many regions or social groups left behind.
Chinese authorities often argue that China needs to get rich before a nationwide welfare system can be established. But Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all rolled out extensive welfare systems before their transformation to high-income economies. This is also true for large parts of Europe. China is now in fact studying Scandinavia as a role model on this issue.
And it is, of course, not the Communist Party that has pulled 600 or 800 million people out of poverty. This is something that the people themselves have done, by hard work and sacrifice. The only thing that was needed for people to have a sufficient caloric intake was the abolishment of three decades of destructive Maoist policies, which in any case was necessary for the party to remain in power. In other words, China’s recent economic development is essentially a result of the Communist Party repairing parts of its own unfathomable past mistakes.
Still, the Chinese state has kept a tight control over its economy. More fundamental economic reforms, combined with some political reforms, could have unleashed the same creativity and energy in the Chinese economy as they did for the “Four Asian Tigers.”
It is also important to define what “strong” means in this context. If a “strong” country is made up of an intolerant regime that spends vast sums of money on the military and on internal security to keep its own civil society in check, then sure, China is very strong indeed. But a strong society could also be defined as one where political pluralism is allowed to thrive, and civic groups are allowed to operate independently from the government.
Again, a comparison with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan is inevitable. Apart from outperforming China economically, these countries have also succeeded in securing many political and civil rights for their citizens. Whereas China’s development has been only economic, development in those countries also had social and political aspects.
This is especially the case in South Korea and Taiwan, where the authorities worked in tandem with civil society to ensure a smooth transformation from dictatorship to democracy, from a middle- to a high-income economy. Those created real foundations for a strong country.
#2 “You are a foreigner, so you do not understand China!”
You are right, I do not understand China. I would say that China is far too big and complex even for any Chinese person to fully understand it. That being said, it could also be argued that some foreigners are in a position to understand China better than some Chinese.
As you well know, media, literature and the Internet are heavily censored in China. Most citizens and even academics can only obtain information that is first approved by “relevant authorities,” whose self-interest is obvious. On the other hand, a foreign scholar working with China has access to the same materials as a Chinese scholar, but at the same time he or she also has access to sources that are not available in China.
A larger body of information to choose from is naturally a better condition to “understand” something than when working with more limited information. This is obvious when reading Frank Dikötter’s award-winning People’s Trilogy, a series on modern Chinese history in which the author makes extensive use of foreign as well as Chinese sources.
Dikötter, who reads and speaks Chinese, combined first-hand interviews and years of research in archives throughout China, with material that, due to censorship, is unavailable to a majority of Chinese people. After all this work, it is unfair to claim that every single Chinese citizen would “understand” China better than Dikötter, just for having been born inside its borders.
This is neither unique to China, nor something to be ashamed of. As a Swedish citizen, I am the first to confess that numerous foreigners certainly “understand” many aspects of Sweden better than I do myself, from politics to culture and history. Everyone has different interests, hobbies and ambitions.
Knowledge and understanding is neither biological nor something that runs in the blood. A major part of it is empirical and can therefore be studied. To say that I can’t “understand” a society because I am not of a certain ethnicity or nationality is tantamount to shooting the messenger. That is a strategy seldom accepted in any discussion about anything, and this should also be the case when debating China.
#3 “Why do you hate China, why are you anti-China?”
You should be clever enough to be able to acknowledge the obvious difference between hating China and criticizing certain policies of the ruling party. For instance, many people are right to criticize U.S. President Donald Trump or the American political system in general, but that doesn’t necessarily make them anti-American.
As a westerner, I am ready to admit the many flaws and shortcomings of democracy. As a Chinese person, I am sure you would agree that there also are flaws in the Chinese political system. It is fair to argue that people who do not dare to talk about those flaws and instead capitalize on them for personal benefit are those who care the least about China.
In fact, highlighting unjust conditions in a society is arguably the best way to show that one cares about its well-being. The best way to improve the lives of Chinese people is to improve the way things are governed, for which discussing dysfunctionalities is a precondition. This is a process that has been taking place in all societies at all times, modern Chinese history not excluded.
In their book Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century, Orville Schell and John Delury give portraits of 11 Chinese reformers such as Liang Qichao and Wei Yuan. All have in common the expression of criticism of the way things are run politically, as well as a desire to change it. As a Chinese citizen, I am sure you would never suggest that Liang Qichao and Wei Yuan are “anti Chinese”!
To equate the will of the Chinese nation and population with that of the Communist Party is perhaps the most common strategy of Chinese propaganda, as well as the oldest trick in the party’s playbook. It encourages the view that believing that the world’s biggest country is more pluralistic and diverse than we think means hating it.
#4 “Democracy is not suitable for the Chinese people!”
There might be some truth to the claim that democracy is not always the most suitable governing system for all countries at all times. But to argue that this is in any way related to ethnicity is not only blatantly racist; it is also downright false. How would you else explain that Taiwan, where over 95 percent of its population is “Han Chinese,” is one of the most well functioning democracies in Asia? There are also numerous examples of politicians of Chinese heritage who had successful political careers in dozens of different countries.
The argument that democracy is not suitable for the Chinese people rings hollow for another reason. Very few people actually argue that democracy should be imposed on China overnight. Even a high-profile activist like Liu Xiaobo maintained that the Chinese authorities should follow the country’s constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, assembly, the press and a range of other civil rights.
The same is true for the many human rights lawyers who have been detained or disappeared in recent years; their main activities consisted of using existing Chinese law to help Chinese people. Keep in mind that the law and constitution were actually written by Communist Party bureaucrats; wouldn’t it therefore be in the best interest of every Chinese person that those actually be followed?
#5 “As opposed to Western countries, China is safe from islamic terrorist attacks!”
Ask the people living in Xinjiang if they agree. While the rising number of terrorist attacks in Western countries is certainly worrying, in the past five years more people have died in Xinjiang as a result of those kind of attacks than in all of Europe and the U.S. combined.
Just because the majority of “islamic terrorist attacks” in China occur in a certain region, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or don’t have any impact on the rest of society. Many Chinese today hesitate to travel to Xinjiang, which makes up over one sixth of China’s territory. Moreover, those attacks have also occurred from Beijing in the northwest, to Kunming in the southeast.
You might have a point when you claim that Western politicians are “responsible” for the islamic terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. In hindsight, there is a lot that could have been done for a better and more smooth integration of muslim immigrants. But in the case of Xinjiang — where in the past few years hundreds of people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been placed in prison or camps — it’s even more obvious how the government’s heavy-handed policies have created a vicious circle of violence.
The Uyghurs of Xinjiang are traditionally associated with a relatively moderate form of Islam, similar to that being practised in Turkey, to which Uyghurs have cultural and ethnical bonds. However, there are several documented cases of how repression by the Chinese authorities has pushed many young Uyghurs straight into the arms of extremist forces, out of hopelessness or a desire for revenge for injustices inflicted on friends and families.
In stark contrast with today, Xinjiang in the 1980s was developing into a relatively calm and peaceful region, thanks to policies shaped by Xi Zhongxun and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, based on ethnic pluralism and religious freedom. Would Xi have continued the policies of his father and his predecessor, a lot of suffering would have been avoided on both sides.
There are a several other propaganda arguments — especially involving Taiwan — that can easily be argued against with facts and common sense. Please feel free to fill up the comment field below with some of them!