Unlike the Democratic members of Congress who needed a crash course on using Twitter from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Chinese government keeps up with the latest trends and uses them to its own advantage. In addition to the well-known methods of using misinformation to lead public discourse and propaganda posters, the Chinese government is embedding propaganda into popular culture.
During the summer of 2017, Wolf Warrior 2 became the highest grossing film in Chinese history. Released just before the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese army, the film deliberately boosts the image of China and the PLA. On the surface, it is an action film with a plot that resembles a common Hollywood individual triumph story. Wu Jin, the main star of the movie, plays a righteous Chinese soldier who saves innocent lives.
Taking place in an unnamed African country, the villains in the films are the rebels of an African Civil War and European mercenaries. At the same time, the protagonist--a Chinese soldier waving a Chinese flag--is fighting against evil and saving lives. Although the excessively violent yet exciting fighting scenes are its biggest selling points, many Chinese viewers were also touched by the patriotic plot. People's Daily, the major state-run newspaper, praised the film and the “positive energy” it showcases.
The second highest grossing film of the same summer is directly funded by the state-owned company China Film Co. The third film of a trilogy, The Founding Of An Army does not shy away from directly praising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the founders of the People's Republic of China (PRC) such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Similar to the portrayal in the history textbooks that the young generation uses, the movie glorifies the early leaders of PRC as flawless national heroes who saved China.
The film features many XiaoXianRou--young male celebrities with massive fan bases. Not known for their acting talents, these teen idols are instead known for their refined facial features. Nevertheless, each XiaoXianRou has his own loyal fan group and a large following on social media. Casting these celebrities inevitably attracts the younger generation of moviegoers. Their affinity towards their favorite actors and singers may transfer to the historical characters that the celebrities play.
TFboys is the most popular boy band in recent Chinese history. As of 2019, three members: Kerry Wang, Roy Wang, and Jackson Yee, have more than 210 million followers combined on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform. Riding on their success, the Chinese government is speaking through the mouths of these young boys. Wearing communist red scarves typically worn by the Young Pioneers, they modernize songs such as "We Are The Heirs Of Communism" from the Great Leap Forward, a failed attempt by the CCP to transform China into an industrialized socialist society in the sixties.
The Chinese government knows how to use star power to convey its message more effectively. CCTV 6, the state-run broadcasting television channel that focuses on the film industry, often insert public service announcements between advertisements. In these PSAs, movie superstars such as Jackie Chan and Bingbing Li cite the core socialist values and promote the idea of the Chinese Dream, which President Xi emphasized at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.
While apolitical citizens may tune out messages directly from President Xi and other political leaders, they may pay attention to what the lovable and successful movie stars have to say.
With zero tattoos and zero scandals, they are invited to appear on the Lunar New Year Gala, a state-sponsored program that airs on every eve of the Lunar New Year. Unlike the Jonas Brothers who mostly sing about teenage love, TFboys sing about self-confidence, positivity, and values that the government supports.
Even for the "bad boys" in the music industry, the Chinese government has found a way to insert political propaganda. Hip-hop has gained popularity in China in the past several years. Explicit contents involving drugs and acts of crime are usually banned in China. Since the government can effectively censor songs and bar artists from performing, songs with explicit lyrics find difficulty gaining traction in Chinese society. In order to get online platforms and streaming services to play their songs, the tattooed rappers in China with dreadlocks and golden chains substitute explicit content with patriotism.
Higher Brothers, once a popular underground rap group, became mainstream with songs such as “Made in China” and “Panda". Their earlier and more risque songs are still banned by the government. However, with toned-down aggression and lots of patriotism, they can now produce and sell albums as long as they show support for the government. For instance, although the rap song "Made In China" contains profanity, it conveys patriotic ideas that the government endorses. As one line raps, "from head to toe gotta be made in China... made in China goods, made with the joy of the people."
CD Rev, in particular, is a rap group sponsored by the Chinese government. These rappers in their twenties, often defend the actions of the Chinese government while demeaning other countries in their raps. One of their songs raps about the South China Sea dispute and claims that foreign forces are trying to take away a part of China's territory. Performing on national television programs, they are the exemplary rappers that the Chinese government tries to showcase, signaling others that the way to a successful music career is to praise the government.
Game shows and reality shows are other popular forms of entertainment in China. One TV network that's famous for its entertainment content, Hunan Television, developed a game show in 2018 that tests its contestants on the ideologies of President Xi, Deng, and Mao. Without losing the entertainment value stemming from its Jeopardy-like format, contestants and judges discuss socialist ideologies and interpret Xi Jinping Thought, the center of the CCP's contemporary ideology.
Blending propaganda into mainstream Chinese culture is not only making the propaganda harder to distinguish from apolitical content, but it is also making propaganda consumption entertaining to watch. Instead of turning away from the obvious propaganda messages, Chinese citizens may voluntarily tune in to the Chinese version of The Voice and learn about the greatness of Xi's thoughts as a byproduct. Especially for the younger Chinese generation who keeps up with popular culture, the Chinese government has found a way to utilize star power and popular trends to “educate” the future of the nation.
As Chinese popular culture enters the international stage with the growing global influence of China, people from other countries will be more exposed to this new form of propaganda. If they cannot detect the disinformation, the Chinese government will successfully sell its image of China to the world. Conversely, the ideological divide between China and the rest of the world will increase if they recognize the intention behind the seemingly apolitical content.