Defend Truth


Taking a proper gander at Chinese propaganda


Mike Wills is a journalist and talk show host.

The only way to understand Chinese politics is the old way – picking through the entrails of its propaganda.

A 12-page supplement fell out of Business Day with a resounding thud on Wednesday carrying the gripping 18-word main headline, “Work Together for Win-Win Co-operation for Common Development and Build A Community with A Shared Future for Mankind”.

If you saw it, I doubt you managed to get beyond that indigestible claptrap but, fear not, I waded in on your behalf, full of nostalgia for good old-fashioned communist propaganda, and can now report back that there’s much to be gleaned from this dense doctrinal drivel designed to promote the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China which, I’m sure you all knew, is coming up on 1 October.

I can remember a time in the 1960s and 1970s when Sinologists desperately parsed this sort of document, and words scrawled on the walls of Peking (as it was then known) by Gang of Four acolytes, for any clue as to what was happening inside the secretive conclaves of the Chinese communist party. When they weren’t doing that, those alleged experts in Chinese politics were, more often than not, to be found imbibing in the famed colonial-era Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Today, Beijing has plenty of foreign reporters in situ, and many more covering the protests in now Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, but, between them all, they don’t really provide much insight into the internecine power plays of the most significant nation on earth, with no apologies to Donald Trump. So, the entrails of propaganda, like this supplement, must still be examined forensically.

The most stunning finding is that, in more than 11,000 words of copy (including 1,000 of them tracing the past 100 years of the Chinese history), the name of Mao Zedong is not mentioned once.

The current president, Xi Jianping, gets, by my count, 25 references and six pictures – an impressive display of hagiography inside only 12 pages. (Cyril Ramaphosa gets three photos but he shouldn’t be flattered because Zuma would have got just as many – the Chinese demonstrably don’t care about the provenance of their subservient allies.)

Sun Yat-Sen, who led the overthrow of Chinese dynastic leadership in 1911, cracks a mention, even though he was no communist, as does the reviled Chiang Kai-Shek, who took his defeated Nationalist government into exile in Taiwan, and the “visionary Deng Xiaoping” who engineered the modernisation of the country. But no Mao. The man who was the subject of one of the biggest personality cults ever – and who ruled the country for 27 years – is non-existent in this document even though he has never been formally denounced and officially remains a revered leader.

Mao’s contemporary as a brutal communist dictator, Stalin, who was resoundingly disowned by his own party, gets more acknowledgement than that in Russia these days under Putin. (According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s brilliant, harrowing biography Mao: The Unknown Story, Mao and Stalin were never close and competed intensely for the leadership of the communist world, but recognised their own defining ruthlessness in each other.)

In policy terms, I think it’s significant that the Chinese government’s Belt & Road Initiative gets too many mentions to count, while BRICS, which we make much of, gets a paltry five references, and Iqbal Survé, BRICS groupie deluxe, gets none at all (no doubt he will claim that makes him as big as Mao). I think this means that BRICS is history but, judging by the rest of the content, gouging African resources remains a huge priority. (If you want a nuanced and highly readable breakdown of the lumpen “Chinese colonisation of Africa” narrative, I seriously recommend the book Continental Shift by Daily Maverick luminaries Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak.)

The Chinese are big on Numbers with Capital Letters. This supplement promotes the Three Togethers (planning together, building together and sharing together, since you asked), the Five Connectivities (I won’t bore you with those), the Ten Co-Operation Plans, and the Eight Major Initiatives for China Africa Co-Operation (ditto on not wanting to bore you).

The headlines are insightful in a polar-opposite kind of way. Chinese Culture Cherishes Openness, Inclusiveness and Harmony, proclaims one, in defiance of the ruling party’s constant, shameless and blatant censorship. As for Chinese Military is a Steadfast Force to Safeguard World Peace and Stability, tell that to the Marines, and to the Filipinos, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and South Koreans who think the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest with more than two million full-time personnel, is a massively destabilising force in the region.

The only reference to turbulent Hong Kong is buried near the bottom of page 4: “China resolutely refutes the distortions of anti-Chinese forces on the issues of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong and never allows external forces to interfere in China’s internal affairs”. Which means, no matter how many umbrellas are shaken in anger, the Hong Kong protesters will not win. It also means don’t think about giving a visa to the Dalai Lama, park your protestations against the way the Uyghur are treated in northwest China, and, if you want to do business with Beijing, check company websites and literature to make sure there’s no map anywhere that even hints that Taiwan is an independent nation.

The supplement also demonstrates the long game that is a feature of China and Chinese politics. Seventy years of the People’s Republic might seem a big number to some but there’s an old joke that illustrates the real time frame of Chinese policy. “The Americans deal in four-year election cycles. The Russians love Five Year Plans. The Japanese think 100 years ahead. And the Chinese are still waiting to see if the French Revolution is a success.” DM


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