Grotesquely stage-managed or a masterclass in coherent messaging? As China’s role in the global economy expands, and European governments struggle to speak with a single voice over migrants and other crises, should we seek lessons in old-school centralised PR?
In February, China’s president Xi Jinping took time out from his busy schedule to meet senior editors and producers at China Central Television (CCTV), the People’s Daily and Xinhua newswire. At each stop he communicated a simple and unambiguous message: their primary job as journalists is to tell the news as the state sees it, to “safeguard” the Party’s authority and unity, and to serve the country’s political leaders “in thought, politics and action”.
A British prime minister or US president touring London’s or New York’s media firms with this message would be laughed out of the building. But this is China. There is no history of investigative journalism, no broadcaster such as the BBC, with its remit to both convey and question its paymasters’ views. There is only the Party, a monolithic, vertical power structure whose interpretation of the truth is irrefutable. Gainsay it at your peril.
This can be both a strength and a weakness. At its best, the Party combines the instincts of the Western-style politician with a direct and ruthless manner of decision-making. During the fallout from the global financial crisis, while Western governments reacted tentatively, the Party unleashed a stimulus package worth $586bn that shored up public trust and support, and saw China through the worst. State media effusively backed the Party.
It’s one thing to have a Soviet-style domestic public relations model that remains, in the words of James McGregor, chairman, greater China, at APCO Worldwide, “stuck in the 1950s”. The Party rose to power during Stalin’s waning years; many in Beijing still adhere to the ethos that the best way to control people is to maintain an iron grip on the flow of communication. Yet this is often counterproductive when dealing with a well-educated and media-savvy international audience.
Beijing’s consensus-driven committee structure often struggles to respond to crises. Blank-eyed spokespeople parrot platitudes to hardened foreign journalists who want to know who (for instance) was to blame for the explosions that rocked the port city of Tianjin in 2015. Receiving no answers from public sources, they seek them elsewhere. Net result: the Party loses control of the message. “The Chinese government can be very intemperate or just plain tone deaf, and the reason is that it just does not have much familiarity with the outside world,” says Arthur Kroeber, managing director of economic consultancy GaveKal Dragonomics.
This doesn’t make China a bad student. In fact, it’s desperate to learn from the best. Beijing has spent lavishly in recent years, funding national and regional propaganda schools. It is not rigidly autocratic, in that it allows its citizens to vent (just enough) spleen via microblogging services from Sina and Tencent, and permits financial publications such as Caixin to unearth corruption and eviscerate white-collar fraudsters. And when Xi Jinping heads abroad, he is careful to tailor his message to the local audience, praising Whitehall as the “mother of parliaments” during a UK state visit in October 2015, and making a reference to the TV series House of Cards during a trip to Seattle.
A difficult sell
PR gurus such as Harold Lasswell, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann argued that democracy is mob rule, and that it is the responsibility of the elite to manufacture consent. “Those ideas have been adopted wholeheartedly by Beijing,” notes Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. One Beijing strategy has been to fund state media outlets that beam the Party’s message into millions of homes and hotel rooms worldwide.
CCTV now has dedicated Spanish, Arabic, French and Russian news channels; China Daily publishes weekly editions for the US, Europe and Africa. In virtually every item, the Party is at pains to present China as a confident, resurgent nation. Transforming the likes of CCTV into a Chinese version of the BBC or CNN, news sources trusted implicitly worldwide, is seen as essential. But so far, these attempts have fallen flat. CCTV has paid to relocate highly rated news anchors. It employs 60 journalists and editors in Nairobi, and has bureaus in more than 20 African states, but has made little impact. “No one watches us,” says one CCTV Africa journalist. “We’re on cable, so hard to access, and the coverage is wooden and a bit shouty. And we struggle with the big-picture stuff, as China isn’t associated with being open or credible.”
This is likely to become China’s biggest stumbling block. All rising superpowers boast some kind of consistent narrative. The Soviets liked to sabre-rattle, while Washington extolled the American dream. China has great cities and a fascinating history, but nothing that really dazzles the world. Even the meta-message about China’s rise is based on the Party’s desire to remain in power. “Its ethos is all about hard power, not soft power,” says McGregor. “To have soft power you need a message and philosophy, and China doesn’t have one.”
Elliot Wilson moved to north-east China in 2001. He learnt Mandarin and worked as the bureau chief at AFX-Asia, Beijing