News / Asia

    Chinese Propagandists Try Cartoons for Communism

    Xinhua All-Media Service deputy director Li Keyong reviews a video editor’s animated political cartoon in the organization's updated offices in Beijing, Feb. 24, 2016. Communist Party officials have ordered the catchy mix of click-baiting animation and old-fashioned propaganda.
    Xinhua All-Media Service deputy director Li Keyong reviews a video editor’s animated political cartoon in the organization's updated offices in Beijing, Feb. 24, 2016. Communist Party officials have ordered the catchy mix of click-baiting animation and old-fashioned propaganda.
    Associated Press

    What's the world's largest propaganda organ to do when it finds itself struggling to get TV drama-obsessed young Chinese to pay attention to the latest raft of Communist Party slogans?

    Standing over a video-editing computer on the third floor of the Xinhua News Agency headquarters, Li Keyong is convinced the answer lies in a cartoon character rapping while performing the 1990s dance move known as "raising the roof."

    "Look at how we got this bald fat guy and a tiny cute girl singing together," said Li, a deputy director of Xinhua's All-Media Service, as he watched two animated characters promoting President Xi Jinping's "Four Comprehensives'' political doctrine with a mix of high-tempo rap and choir singing in what might be called a neo-Communist hip-hopera.

    "We thought, with such an abstract political theme, it's difficult for young people to accept,'' Li said. "Young people want fun, they want joy."

    Delivery system faulted

    The fun and joy that Xinhua is searching for reflects a quandary facing China's leadership: As Xi navigates a difficult phase of his administration, his messaging machine – for decades one of the Communist Party's most crucial levers of power – has been struggling to make itself heard.

    Carrying echoes of the party-promulgated “Red Songs'' that drowned out folk music 50 years ago, the mix of click-baiting animation and old-fashioned propaganda is a reminder that, for all its ambitions of becoming a savvy, media industry leader with global appeal, Xinhua's core mission is to serve as the party's mouthpiece, something Xi reinforced last month in a politically charged newsroom visit.

    A Chinese woman in an electric wheelchair motors past traditional government propaganda, with the Chinese words "Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule by Law," on the outskirts of Beijing, March 2, 2016.
    A Chinese woman in an electric wheelchair motors past traditional government propaganda, with the Chinese words "Freedom, Equality, Fairness, Rule by Law," on the outskirts of Beijing, March 2, 2016.

    During a recent office tour by The Associated Press, Xinhua officials spoke about their challenges and argued that it's their delivery, not the party's message, that needs a refresh at a time when Chinese youth are glued to their smartphones watching streaming dramas and game shows.

    "We used to be No. 1, the biggest," said Qian Tong, a former diplomatic reporter who, like Li, is a deputy director of Xinhua's All-Media Service. "If you wanted to read anything, you opened a newspaper and you read us.''

    The new newsroom division formed in 2014 to organize the agency's efforts penetrating the online market and manage social media. The Associated Press interviews with Li and Qian were the first with a foreign media outlet about the division's work.

    Mandate for change

    Like news agencies in the West, Qian said, Xinhua was squeezed by digital rivals. "Our social status isn't guaranteed anymore,'' he said. "The question is: Can we change fast enough?"

    It's something the top leadership has been aware of. Immediately upon assuming power in 2012, Xi instructed a top-level committee to find new “innovative ways'' of promoting propaganda on the Internet. In a communique published in January, Xinhua reported that government bodies at all levels has been investigating and improving the use of influential social media accounts and new media channels as "critical channels that connect the party to the masses."

    Xi's efforts to shore up official media were prominently broadcast last month when he toured the three major state outlets – Xinhua, China Central Television and the People's Daily newspaper – and urged its journalists to ramp up their coverage of positive news, pledge complete loyalty and to "love the party, protect the party and act for the party."

    The tour became a flashpoint in online discussions. This week, Internet censors deleted the account of a prominent government critic after he said state media funded with taxpayer money should serve the country as a whole, not the ruling party.

    Mixing expression and suppression

    Fu King-wa, a media professor at Hong Kong University, said the Xi administration tactic of promoting ideology with an irreverent touch mirrors how state media has used a “more down-to-earth image to try to humanize Xi Jinping himself,” even as he simultaneously wages an intense battle against dissent within the party and clamps down on numerous aspects of civil society.

    Ying Zhu, a Chinese media expert at the College of Staten Island-CUNY and the author of “Two Billion Eyes, the Story of China Central Television,'' said that while Xinhua was ``clever'' to turn to pop culture, it was too late.

    “People have long tuned out,'' she said. “This is an old political campaign with a modern PR twist.''

    Updated digital facility

    The All-Media Service occupies a gleaming, remodeled area in Xinhua's Beijing newsroom. Its more than 20 employees manage concerns such as Xinhua's recently launched mobile app and the agency's accounts on microblogging platform Weibo and messaging app Weixin, as well as what executives have identified as three key global platforms: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. All three are walled off from ordinary Chinese by Internet censors.

    In a modern twist on one of Xinhua's historic functions as a gatherer of domestic and foreign intelligence, which it compiles into briefings for internal party consumption, the digital center also monitors public sentiment on Chinese and international social media using analytical software.

    On a recent morning shortly after Xi's visit, Li introduced employees mostly in their 20s and plucked from across text, photo and Web departments. One bearded graphic artist worked in Photoshop on the agency's yet-to-be-unveiled mascot, which vaguely resembled a slimmed-down blue Teletubby clutching a microphone.

    “Xinhua has a cute side too,'' Li said. ``This gives us a sense of affinity, as if we're close to the people.''

    Animation debut

    On Friday, the All-Media Service debuted an animation explaining China's annual meeting of the nominal parliament, the National People's Congress, which opens Saturday. Dotted with colorful flowers and springtime themes, the three-minute spot centers on how this political season is aimed at boosting discussion and participation in policymaking.

    It also plans to roll out four additional animations in nine languages in the coming days, and will try to experiment with virtual reality broadcasts.

    So far, top Xinhua officials are convinced they struck gold with the videos, Li said. He said his biggest hit – with lyrics like “Repeat after me: four comprehensives, four comprehensives, party-building is the key'' – has attracted 70 million views and appeared on thousands of online accounts.

    Xi himself watched precisely 40 seconds of it during his visit. Li counted.

    The video has drawn a deluge of responses, not all positive, Li acknowledged. On Xinhua's Weibo account, many found the video catchy while others complained that too much propaganda material had been forced into state media during the Lunar New Year period.

    One user suggested the lyricist who came up with the line “four, four, four, four, four comprehensives'' had obsessive-compulsive disorder. A propaganda official from China's Inner Mongolia region offered dubious praise, calling the song “bewitching and brainwashing.''

    What pleased him most, Li said, was that final sentiment, when commenters said that they could not get the song out of their heads or that they sometimes found themselves involuntarily humming it.

    “This,'' he said, “is what we call all-media.''

    You May Like

    Multimedia Obama Calls on Americans to Help the Families of Its War Dead

    In last Memorial Day of his presidency, Obama lays wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery

    The Strife of the Party: Will Trump Permanently Alter Republicans?

    While billionaire mogul's no-holds-barred style, high-energy delivery are what rocketed him to nomination, they also have created rift between party elites and his supporters

    China's Education Reforms Spark Protest

    Beijing is putting a quota system in place to increase the number of students from poor regions attending universities

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora