The People’s Republic of PR

SHANGHAI, China — The narrative was supposed to be different.

For decades, Western political experts have confidently predicted that China’s embrace of capitalism would usher in freedom and democracy.

A growing middle class would clamour for greater representation. The country’s economy wouldn’t flourish without openness and the rule of law.

Besides — as The New York Times’ Thomas Freidman might argue — investors would demand change. The markets would inevitably succeed where the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests had failed, and in the process a number of sticky geopolitical issues would simply fix themselves.

This line of reasoning justified Washington DC’s stalwart policy of engaging China. Since the 1990s, successive administrations have overlooked concerns about trade issues, human rights, Tibet and Taiwan in favor of courting Beijing, removing barriers to commerce and even supporting World Trade Organization membership.

Yet in reality, China is hardly more democratic or free than it was two decades ago.

In recent months it has arrested scores of citizens for merely requesting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) respect its own constitution. Last month, prominent blogger and investor Charles Xue (an American citizen) was arrested as part of a campaign against “online rumor mongers.”

Calls by Party think tanks for greater internal democracy at the lower ranks of the CCP have been ignored by the top leadership. State media have published gleeful accounts of the failureof hard-won direct democracy in Wukan, Guangdong province, and pointed to the continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa as examples of the chaos that would ensue should the Party give up its grip on absolute power.

No, democracy has not rubbed off on China.

Instead, the country’s leaders have embraced another grand Western political innovation: spin.

The Party has picked up on the power of modern public relations, and has deployed the art to assure its own survival. As academic Anne-Marie Brady wrote in her book, Marketing Dictatorship: “China has been modelling itself on many aspects of the West, though not the aspects that western liberal intellectuals like to boast of.”

Brady traces this adoption of a form of Western-style PR to the mid-2000s, when Chinese officials took cues from the US government’s response to the September 11 attacks and British prime minister Tony Blair’s ‘spin doctoring’ during the mad cow disease crisis of 2000-2001.

A key lesson: accept that not all coverage will be positive. Brady says the Blair model allows for a certain amount of “negative coverage” during a crisis to reduce “social tension.” This approach can be seen in the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, when — instead of repeating the media blackout seen in the 2008 Tibetan unrest — the government actually set up an information office to “assist” foreign reporters.

“They try to control foreign journalists as much as possible by using this sophisticated PR work, rather than ban them,” Professor Xiao Qiang of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism told Newsweek at the time.

President of PR

No Chinese leader has adopted Western-style spin more than Xi Jinping, who ascended to the presidency in March 2013 in a choreographed, week long ‘leadership transition’ event.

While Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping followed the Leninist playbook, favoring cults of leadership, Xi represents the culmination of over two decades of Chinese leadership who have picked up on the sophisticated spin endemic to US presidential politics.

Former premier ‘Papa’ Wen Jiabao so effectively presented himself as a kind-hearted reformer bucking the system that many ignored the fact that very little actual reform was implemented during his tenure. (Wen picked up the craft from his late mentor, 1980s reformer Zhao Ziyang.) The gap between Wen’s public persona and private actions was so great that dissident author Yu Jie christened him “China’s best actor.”

Xi now seems determined to steal Wen’s crown. The new president is constantly seen in public planting treesbeing affectionate with his wifejoking about soccer, and, of course,kissing children. In a South China Morning Post editorial, Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, argues that Xi has recognised the growing cynicism in China over an increasingly out of touch leadership.

“The gap between ruler and ruled needs to be closed — before the whole body politic is poisoned by cynicism, and most citizens, benignly or actively, become alienated,” Brown said. Xi Jinping seems to have embraced this message wholeheartedly, literally rolling his sleeves up to reach his populace on their level.

Xi’s more human public persona and frequent statements about ending corruption have led to prominent Western editorials hoping he will prove to be China’s Gorbachev.

Experts say what these editorials have in common — apart from a misunderstanding of how Gorbachev’s legacy is viewed in China — is that they overlook how little substance there is to back up Xi’s reformist credentials.

Recent high profile crackdowns — on oil officials, a state asset management executive and possibly a security chief — have stirred legitimate debate among China watchers over whether Xi may actually promote change. A more likely explanation, based on history and the individuals targeted, is that the arrests are political score-settling disguised as anti-corruption purging. 

The PR effort to pump up Xi’s character began before he assumed the top job. In a rare personal essay prior to his ascension, Xi described himself as a “son of the Yellow Earth,” a curious self-characterization for a man who spent most of his life in privilege.

The time he spent in the countryside ‘eating bitter’ during the Cultural Revolution has been emphasized as the character-shaping moment in his life, far more so than his many years as a pampered aristocrat at the very top of Chinese society. In many ways, this creation myth echoes the “up by the bootstraps” origin story favored by American presidential candidates, most recently Mitt “I inherited nothing” Romney.

Xi’s public persona resembles Barack Obama’s far more than Hu Jintao’s. In no area is this more true than in the way both leaders use their wives as weapons in the war for public opinion.

The (carefully stoked) fawning over Peng Liyuan (Mrs Xi Jinping) in the Chinese and foreign press has been nothing short of remarkable. Ms Peng, a former People’s Liberation Army pop star, has been compared to everyone from Kate Middleton to Carla Bruni — as well as, of course, Michelle Obama.

“We’ve always looked forward to having an elegant First Lady that’s presentable to the outside world,” a Chinese official told CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz. “Now we have one.”

On foreign trips, Peng has often overshadowed her husband. Speculation of whether a Peng-Michelle Obama meeting would occur during a recent China-US presidential summit — and disappointment when it became clear that it wouldn’t — equalled coverage of the actual summit itself.

More from GlobalPost: The biggest surprises of the Bo Xilai trial

During a multi-country tour by China’s first couple, the Party’s PR machine went into overdrive disseminating photos of Peng playing steel drums in Trinidad and joking with children in Costa Rica. Attention paid to Peng’s actions in public obfuscated Xi’s own statements in private, as China’s president proved himself to be little like the liberal reformermany of his boosters in the West had hoped for. As the Obama administration knows only too well, a media friendly spouse can be a fantastic way to curry public opinion.

Some may argue that the Party’s new appreciation of PR tactics is a sign of reform in itself. Caring what people think is hardly Leninist orthodoxy. But as Anne-Marie Brady wrote regarding the Party’s handling of protests in the late 2000s, this is not a sign of true reform, “rather it is an indication of [the Party’s] determination to survive and its ability to absorb new methods and technologies to enable it to do so.”  

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