New York's Times Square has been host to a 60-second film about China since Jan. 17, meant to coincide with Chairman Hu Jintao’s arrival to the U.S. The trifle did not come cheap—it’s part of a multi-billion dollar scheme to renovate the public image of communist China—nor, it appears, did it have the desired effect.
Produced by the Information Office of the State Council of China, also known as the Office of Foreign Propaganda, the film features basketball player Yao Ming and other Chinese celebrities. They stand and smile at the camera, while emotive music throbs in the background. The screen flashes and other celebrities appear. The camera zooms in, then out. Red is the theme color.
The film has an ambitious schedule: It will be played in Times Square 15 times per hour, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following morning—a total of 8,400 times—over the next four weeks. A 30-second version of the film began airing on CNN several days ago, and will also run for 4 weeks.
To observers, the two things that stand out are the momentous cost of the program and its disappointing reception.
Apple Daily reported on Jan. 14 that based on the standard pricing of some well-known U.S. television stations, some mainland advertisement industry insiders believe the price tag could exceed US$10 million a month. Ultimately, the Daily says, the money is expected to come from mainland tax payers.
In 2009 it was reported that the budget for the external propaganda campaign—which was to include a battery of state-run media products, including potential buyouts, Confucius Institutes, and advertising campaigns like this one—was 45 billion yuan (US$6.8 billion).
Response so far has been unenthusiastic—unusually, even in parts of the official media. On the evening of Jan. 23 in China the state broadcaster, CCTV, presented a few vox pop interviews with New Yorkers. One man pointed out the bright colors, before saying: “I didn’t really know why it was there.” Another was more ambivalent: “If I had put the video together I’d love a little bit more specifics about who those people were.”
Online commentators have been more boisterous.
Twitter habitués were the first to start picking holes: there were three American citizens among the Chinese faces (Phoenix Satellite TV anchor Chen Luyu, composer Tan Dun and Kung Fu star Zhen Zidan), at least three other American permanent residents (volleyball star Lang Ping, basketball player Yao Ming and actress Zhang Ziyi), and a congeries of Hong Kong citizens (pianist Lang Lang, diving queen Guo Jingjing, and Asia’s richest man Li Jiacheng, whose two sons are Canadian citizens).
Hong Kong Internet watcher Bei Feng took the opportunity for some light humor: “Everybody seems to have misunderstood the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] intentions with its propaganda film. It is not talking about China, but to send a message: The most talented Chinese are being sent to the U.S. Chinese people’s goal is to become an American.”
Michael Anti, famous among Chinese Internet personalities, wrote: “Broadcasting a film 300 times a day in the same place is not advertising, it’s brainwashing.”
Western China bloggers were not much taken with the commercial, either. Charles Custer, who blogs at China Geeks, wrote: “… this whole thing seems like a colossal waste of time and money. […] Hard to know for sure whether or not the government really cares.”
On Jan. 24, a new, extended version of the commercial came out. Eric Fish, a Master’s student in Beijing, pronounced it a “PR flop,” writing that, like its shorter cousin, it “seriously neglects its target audience and runs more like a domestic propaganda film. It’s packed with questionable, misleading, and outright false statements.”
George Mason University professor Zhang Tianliang says China’s problem is not one of image, but action—and often the actions of the Communist Party. “Just a couple of days ago, CNN reported the story of Chinese human rights attorney Gao Zhisheng being tortured. Such cases appear continuously… Reports like that instantly throw the billions of dollars in propaganda money into the gutter.”
This view was largely shared by He Qinglian, a prominent political and economic commentator on China affairs. In her article “Localization Strategy of the Chinese Regime’s Foreign Propaganda ,” she wrote that a country’s image isn’t best forged by top-down propaganda initiatives, but should be an organic result of its polity and society. “America’s image is not portrayed by the U.S. Information Agency or the White House spokesperson,” she said. “Business logic can never replace cultural logic.”
The “ominous, dark cloud” that overshadows China—in the form of human rights abuses, corruption, the rich-poor gap, pollution—will not be easily dispersed by the commercial, she wrote.
Chinese dissatisfied with the current order are also rarely shy of saying so online. A user going by the name of “diligence” wrote: “Ah, they seem to be very happy! But I am not happy. Because the housing price is too high, the food is not safe, laws are not comprehensive enough, bloody uprisings are everywhere; there is no fairness in this society!”
The apparat remains undeterred. Wang Zhongwei, Deputy Director of Office of Foreign Propaganda, told Beijing News that after the film runs its course in the United States, it will be shown in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. It will also appear on the Internet, he said.