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China’s Communism Harkens From Past

November 12, 2002

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BEIJING (AP) _ Energetically publicize the elegance of the times. Ardently sing the theme of ``The Communist Party is good!″ Warmly welcome the ascension of Three Represents thought. And, hey _ while you’re at it, don’t forget to further the glory of the motherland.

Chinese communism may be mutating at breakneck speed to accommodate a globalized world, but some of the language it uses to promote itself seems straight from the communes and tractor factories of Mao Zedong’s forgotten agrarian utopia.

At the Communist Party Congress this week, they’re deploying revolutionary rhetoric in abundance, blending patriotism, platitude and proletarian purpose to convey their message _ even if the message is the decidedly un-Maolike notion of using a market economy to bring China prosperity.

Even when it’s talking about packaging propaganda more progressively, the Chinese government is steeped in the verbiage of yesterday’s socialist narrative.

``Vigorous and effective publicity and ideological work is an important characteristic of our party’s work,″ People’s Daily said in an editorial. ``The situation in publicity and ideological fields is active as a whole, and the opinion atmosphere is sound and inspiring.″

Not exactly Fox News sound-bite material. But it’s daily fare here, in everything from China Central Television’s nightly news broadcasts to the color-drenched pages of the populist Beijing Youth Daily.

``To go outside of the box would be too nerve-wracking at this point _ especially under the international spotlight,″ says Susan Tomsett, managing director for China at Burson-Marsteller, an international communications consulting firm.

Such stout-hearted lingo has a rich history in communism, where propaganda isn’t a pejorative word and is considered ideology’s spear-carrier. As late as 1980, kindergarten students were studying from a primer that urged them to ``Warmly love Chairman Hua″ and ``Make Chairman Mao live forever in our hearts.″

Granted, these days offer few calls to ``Valiantly crush the bourgeoisie.″ Still, in modern China’s suit-and-tie landscape, even the milder Mao-suit motivationals are jarring. But for politicians, they may be necessary; rigidity, it seems, remains a good career move.

``They know what’s politically correct,″ says Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who studies change in China. ``An official may be so earthy, so concrete, so pragmatic in private speech, but as soon as he steps on the podium he begins mouthing the orthodoxy.″

While politically it remains a police state, economically China is overflowing with the Cokes and Toshibas and Harry Potters of global advertising and popular culture, exactly the sophisticated marketing that makes old-style ideology sound quaint.

Consider: To the government, Tibetan independence advocates support the ``Dalai clique.″ Taiwanese against unification with China are ``splittists.″ Members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement belong to an ``evil cult.″ All must be ``resolutely opposed;″ so says ``the third generation of leadership with Jiang Zemin at the core.″

``Maybe what’s going on here is a kind of generational lag, where this type of propaganda will not really become `history’ until the last members of the generation to which it was once the real thing has passed away,″ says Michael Schoenhals, an Asia specialist at Lund University in Sweden and author of ``Keywords of the Chinese Revolution.″

There are, too, questions of whether such approaches connect with a younger generation of Chinese steeped in the irony of the age. This is, after all, a town where a band called Cookie plays what one entertainment magazine calls ``punked-up remakes of Cultural Revolution classics.″

``Some of these slogans, I think people just blank them out,″ says Daniel Southerland, executive editor of the congressionally funded Radio Free Asia and a former newspaper correspondent in Beijing. ``It does seem a little ancient, doesn’t it?″

What will push China away from the platitudes? The Internet, for one, has already changed how Chinese communicate. The increased commercialism of market reforms can only infuse more slickness. Finally, there’s the 2008 Olympics _ the Big Event that will bring more international scrutiny to Beijing than ever before.

Tomsett credits the still-shackled Chinese media for fostering a change in communication, saying it is becoming a mirror of the people. But she acknowledges the government has a long way to go.

``It comes down to a lack of understanding of how to manage communications in today’s fast-moving media,″ she says. ``Nobody wants to step up and be the first. (But) change will happen when it becomes more painful not to.″

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