Chinese Regime Tries to Control Narrative About China

January 15, 2013 Updated: June 20, 2013

One would think that attending an academic conference is about intellectual debate and the free exchange of ideas. But not so much in China. Christopher Ford, a scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, having attended a symposium in China hosted by the China Military Sciences Society in November, recently reported that the experience was “something somewhat akin to a Maoist self-criticism session.”

He published a 2,000 word chronicleof the experience, written in the careful prose of scholarly discourse analysis, documenting the attempts by Chinese interlocutors, affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, to have non-Chinese participants at the forum accept the official Party narrative of Chinese strategic intentions.  

Ford writes, for example: “Rather than being about adjudication between or management of competing claims in a pluralist world, the PLA participants seemed to view preventing international conflict and ensuring future ‘trust’ as aiming principally at keeping competing claims from being conceived or asserted in the first place – specifically, by obtaining others’ validation of and agreement with China’s own claims, and its narrative of itself in the world.”

It is not just in the rarefied world of Chinese military symposia that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to insert its views, and make sure that other parties also communicate them. Hollywood is also in the thrall of the Chinese regime’s extensive censorship apparatus, according to a detailed account that appeared in the New York Times on Jan. 15.  

Studios and movie producers now invite Chinese state censors to review their works, and make adjustments as necessary, to ensure they are given access to the Chinese cinema market. One film, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,encountered troubles because it portrayed Westerners as saving China. Another movie, the 2010The Karate Kid, was initially rejected because it included a Chinese villain.

The dynamic parallels that explored by Ford in the military conference. He found that PLA speakers, as a prerequisite for “strategic trust,” demanded Japan revise its school curriculum to “properly” depict Japan’s wrongs against China, as well as expel right-wing parties from the political sphere.

Ford asked why this did not constitute interference in Japanese internal affairs—an undesirable charge frequently leveled by Chinese regime organs against the United States, when it remarks on the Party’s human rights abuses.

“A well-known PLA general explained that it was not ‘interference’ in another state’s ‘internal affairs’ for Beijing to make demands about how other states view and depict China and their own history in the Asia-Pacific region,” Ford wrote. “Because these things affect China.”

This “proprietary interest,” as Ford put it, by the Party in how the PRC is discussed and understood, is a “conceptual imperialism” that sees it to be part of the regime’s strategic objectives to “control the world’s discourse about China.” Having other countries accept the Party’s official narratives “may feed back into its regime’s own legitimacy narrative at home, and thus its continued monopolization of power,” Ford wrote.

Christopher Ford, Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at the Hudson Institute in Washington, studies Chinese strategic thought. At a recent conference in China he found that his interlocutors were more interested in having him accept the Chinese official narrative, than engaging in intellectual debate. (Hudson Institute)

All this, then, “was not a self-indulgent distraction from the task at hand” of the conference, “but in fact the game itself.”

The CCP’s wish to influence what others say and think about it is not new, according to He Qinglian, a scholar of the Party’s propaganda apparatus now based in the United States, but the increased international clout that has come with China’s economic rise is making implementation much more feasible. 

“Ever since it took power, it has been the dream of the Communist Party of China for China to become a superpower, capable of influencing the whole world,” she writes, in a long article exploring how the regime has largely bought acquiescence around the world through lobbying, economic incentives, and general “soft power” machinations.  

The expansion of Chinese state-run propaganda arms in the United States has frustrated some members of Congress, who demand that the regime also grant American media channels freedom inside China. Xinhua, the state news agency, has a perch in Times Square, and China Central Television, the official television station of the regime, has built out an expansive office in Washington DC. Over 811 Chinese journalists work in the United States, according to Rohrabacher. Meanwhile, American journalists working in China face regular harassment and the threat of being denied visas, and Voice of America, which serves as the U.S.’s mouthpiece to China, has only two journalists in country.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher proposed the Media Reciprocity Act last year as part of an attempt to force the regime to allow American government-sponsored journalists into China. It takes a retaliatory approach to the problem that many disagree with, but there is a consensus that the United States has to figure out how to respond to the Chinese Party-State’s encroachments.

One conceptual forerunner to Ford’s analysis comes from the bibliophilistic Australian scholar of China, Geremie Barmé, who made a “preliminary attempt” to elucidate the idea of what he referred to as “New China Newspeak.”  

In a typically discursive essay on the topic, he wrote: “In its essence, New China Newspeak was and is used by the Party, its propaganda organs, the media and educators to shape (and circumscribe) the way people express themselves in the public (and eventually private) sphere, and to enable the party-state to inculcate its ideology by means of relentless verbal/written imposition and repetition.”

These habits inform how Chinese officials treat the views of foreigners, as discussed by Peter Mattis, the editor of China Brief at the Jamestown Foundation. “The problem with how Beijing frames concerns about Chinese behavior is that it denies foreign countries any standing whatsoever from which to complain,” Mattis wrote recently. “This dismissive approach combined with China’s placing the onus on foreign governments to improve relations does not suggest a good faith effort.”

Other researchers that concern themselves with the regime’s international ambitions differ slightly from Ford in drawing a sharper distinction between the idea of a “Big China,” versus the “Big Party,” that is the threat. Richard Fisher, Jr., a senior fellow of Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, used those terms to distinguish China from the Chinese Communist Party, in thinking through specifically what observers ought to be concerned about.

“If our real first challenge is the Big Party, not so much Big China, then that requires a response that draws more from our hard learnt lessons confronting the Soviet Communist Party,” he wrote in an email, speaking primarily in the context of the PLA’s increasing ability to project military power, and the dubious intentions behind the development of capabilities that appear to specifically target American military assets. 

“Controlling the narrative” about the PRC is part of the overarching strategy, Fisher says. 

“It becomes an added justification for this new concept of Pax-Sinica, or ‘global stability the Chinese way,’” according to Fisher. “You control the narrative about China to preserve the role of the Party. You punish those that complain and reward those that don’t.”

When controlling the narrative does not work, of course, the Party can simply shut down the discussion. Fisher noted the relatively uncommon nature of Ford’s analysis of PLA ideological corralling. “The usual Chinese response to those who tell the truth about China is to limit the kinds of access that allow you to do so with special insight,” Fisher wrote.

He has been denied a visa to China since 2004, after, at a PLA-sponsored conference in Guangdong, he unfavorably compared the PLA’s military strategy toward Taiwan to the subtlety and deft advocated by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. “This gave cause to an uproar in which a line of PLA officers piled on denunciations of U.S. policy, the ferocity of which I judged became absurd even to other Chinese in the room, who could not contain their smirks.”