The Communist Brand: The Evolution of Propaganda to Public Relations in China.

Who are the Chinese Communist Party?

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921. It has been the ruling mainland China since winning the civil war in 1949. It’s motto is “Seeking truth from the facts” and it’s mission is “the establishment of a communist system”

Since the end of the Maoist revolutionary era, the CCP has had to rebrand itself from a revolutionary to a political party governing legitimately despite the one-party system and the many failures of its past policies. Under Mao, its legitimacy came from the revolution and the corrupt, one party dictatorship of the Nationals (Guoming Dang, or KMT). The revolution was the driving force of the anti-righteous purges of the 1950s, and the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. These events, despite being catastrophic, and weakening the CCP’s credibility, deeply entrenched the party into every aspect of Chinese society.

What do they stand for now?
The era of reform came when Deng Xiaoping started opening the Chinese economy in the late seventies, and created the driving principles of the modern CCP – “The Four Cardinal Principles and the Four Modernisations”, or more famously, “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”

1989 was a defining year for China. The collapse of the Soviet Union (the model for the CCP), and the protests cumulating with the Tiananmen Square massacre forced the CCP to rethink and strategise its longevity. In 1999 Jiang Zemin pronounced “The Three Represents”, where the CCP must represent:
The  ‘advanced social productive forces’
The forward direction for China’s cultural advancement
The truest representative of the fundamental interests of the Chinese population

By 2001, class struggle had been abandoned, and the concept of a party of the people (quanming dang) was introduced, opening the way for business people, the bourgeoisie, religious groups, ethnic minorities and other groups long persecuted by the CCP to be incorporated into the party.

A History of Propaganda in Communist China
Propaganda has always been a key component of any government, but more so for the CCP. The propaganda department is one of the key bureaucracies, and its modernization and transformation into a public relations model is fundamental to the re-branding of the CCP. The strongest influences on Chinese propaganda came from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but since the mid 80s, they have been looking at and implementing American public relations philosophy.

The concept of publicity and the public evolved in revolutionary America. Thomas Jefferson believed democracy depended on “a literate, informed public, constantly engaging in an exhange of ideas”. In the late 19th century, Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase “muck-raking” to describe investigative journalism. By the 1920s, Public Relations – “creating positive publicity and image building” was seen as a way for the American government to combat negative press, and to “Manufacture Consent”. (Brady, p571). A key influence on modern Chinese propaganda is is Walter Lippman, who was an advocate for the use of news that encouraged an opinion.

By 1989, public relations, and publicity were preffered terms to propaganda. The modern leaders like Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabo and Bo Xilai, have all been educated and trained in media appearance and image.

There has also been a shift in the way China has presented itself internationally. Hong Ying Wang’s 2003 research titled “National Image Building and Chinese Foreign Policy” showed a move towards China portraying itself as revolutionary leader, to major power. The Maoist era emphasized China as “a socialist country and supporter of revolution”(Wang). During Deng Xiao Ping’s reform era, to government de-emphasised these images, instead highlighting China as a peace loving “international cooperator and major power” (Wang)

The Maoist era also emphasized communist Lenin-Marxist ideology. Early propaganda techniques included ‘thought control’ through mass mobilization, campaigns to emulate communist (anti bourgeois) theory, and brainwashing through study groups, self criticisms and denouncements.

Large scale failure and dissaproval of this ideology required a new message. Nationalism became a cheap and easy replacement. “Outside forces” were blamed on government failures like the Great Leap Forward, social unrest (Tiananmen), PR disasters like the Olympic Torch relay, and the demonisation of perceived threats to their legitimacy (FG). The CCP’s favorite catch cry of the moment is “Without the Community Party, there would be no new China.”

How Propaganda and Public Relations are Managed
Inside the government, the Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Department (CCPPD)  remains one of the largest, well funded, and influential government departments. The CCPPD views propaganda as a “proactive tool to be used in educating and shaping society” (Shambaugh p29). “Virtually every conceivable medium which transmits and conveys information to the people of China falls under the bureaucratic purview of the CCPPD” (Shambaugh, p28)

The role and methods of official propaganda has changed, but it still remains a core component of the bureaucracy. It no longer holds a monopoly on information, but still controls most of what can be said and when. This is done through “selective enforcement” and “self censorship”.

Criticisms and bad publicity are tolerated to a point, before propaganda directives will order a cessation of independent reporting and the strict use of official information channels. The most recent example of this was in the 2011 Wenzhou train crash when overwhelming public opinion was of government corruption, and disregard for the life of its citizens in its modernization surge.  After a few days of tolerated dissent, journalists were ordered only to report positive stories “in the face of great adversity, there is great love”.

The Medium for Propaganda
The main information service of the CCPPD is the Xinhua news agency. Its dual function has always been to “report news and disseminate propaganda” (Shambaugh, p44). As well as distributing propaganda to the public, they are also responsible for the uncensored publication of classified internal journals for government officials. These two different news operations (public propaganda and uncensored official documents), mean officials should be well informed on any events concerning China. (Shambaugh, p 45)

Officials therefore, are aware of the dilemma they face in their efforts to manufacture consent. In 2006 a letter by retired party elders was leaked to the media. Some of the signatories  included Mao’s former secretary, a propaganda department chief, Editor of the People’s Daily and deputy director of Xinhua. In the letter they warned that “depriving the public of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political transition and give rise to group confrontation and unrest” (Shambaugh, p 55)

Television is a powerful medium, and like all media, still tightly controlled by the government, and restricted from foreign investment. However, as part of the economic reforms reconfigured propaganda controls have allowed television to become “a prime mover for economic reform” (Weber, p53).

The balancing act between the CCP’s political and social objectives against essential economic reform has yet to be defined, but Chinese television, like western television, is facing strong competition from internet broadcasts and DVDs, allowing users to choose  and control personalized content without too much government interference. As Chinese consumers become empowered, traditional media risks an irrelevant future.

Case studies in Public Relations
The most successful, and high point for CCPD Public Relations was the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. After the public failures of communication during the SARS epidemic, the CCP showed they were able to respond and improve, adopting “a two way asymmetrical mode in communicating with the media and publics, aiming to take control over the agenda setting and issue framing. Different strategies and tactics were employed, and the communication was both persuasive and manipulative in nature”(Chen, Institutionalizing Public Relations, pp191)

Three contemporary, but less monumental events show three different responses to different stories of interest of the last two months (July and August, 2011) that have gained widespread attention in China. Interestingly, all of these stories, gained attention in weibo before they were taken up by mainstream, government media.

Thousands Protest Against Dalian Chemical Plant, August 14

From Reuters:
“Authorities in northeastern China on Sunday ordered a petrochemical plant to be shut down immediately after thousands of people demonstrated, demanding the relocation of the factory at the center of a toxic spill scare, state media said

‘Selective reporting’ was evident in the coverage of this event on Sunday. A Baidu (Chinese google), did list news stories saying the toxic plant was to be relocated, but there was no mention or images of the protest in any of the stories. Google did have some articles on the protests, but they were inaccessible, presumably blocked by the “Great Firewall”

Government officials did listen and responded immediately to public opinion, and pledge to relocate the plant, however the effort required a very large spontaneous protest by the public, and censorship of the coverage. Dalian is a affluent and internationally influenced port city near South Korea. It was Bo Xilai’s city until he moved to Chongqing. 12,000 protesters gathered spontaneously using weibo. These protesters were educated, middle-class, peaceful, and demanding the government serve their interests. While the government did respond, it took such a large scale protest for them to listen. Whether this will lead to greater government transparency, or larger demonstrations will remain to be seen.

The Chinese Red Cross has no connection or affiliation with the international Red Cross. It is a government approved NGO, which allows it to operate with little need for accountability or transparency.

Guo MeiMei is a 20 year old girl, who was showing off her extravagant wealth on Weibo (Chinese Twitter). She identified her occupation (and this was verified by Weibo) as “Business General Manager of Red Cross Society”. The accusation was she was the mistress for one of the directors of the Red Cross (who has since resigned). It had long been suspected donations to government approved charities were being used for personal fortune, this story only reinforced this perception, and donations have plummeted as a result.

This is a very difficult story for the government to control, as it doesn’t directly criticize them or threaten social instability. Guo Meimei’s ‘god-father’ has resigned, and will probably be arrested, but the long term credibility of NGO charities has been severely damaged.

“ in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love”

Official (uncreditable) sources had the casualties at 40 deaths, and around 200 injured. But for the government, it was a different disaster. he high speed railway network was going to be one of the big showcase infrastructure achievements of the the Communists, highlighting the outstanding achievements, capabilities and legitimacy of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Unfortunately, it is a showcase of all that is the public perceive to be wrong with Communism; corruption, embezzlement, incompetence, substandard workmanship, and construction for ego, rather than public benefit.

After a few days of open coverage, the CCPPD issued directives to journalists on how to cover the story
1. Release death toll only according to figures from authorities.
2. Do not report on a frequent basis.
3. More touching stories are to reported instead, i.e. blood donation, free taxi services, etc.
4. Do not investigate the causes of the accident; use information released from authorities as standard.
5. Do not reflect or comment.

Reporting of the accident is to use “ in the face of great tragedy, there’s great love” as the major theme.
Do not question.
Do not elaborate.
Do not associate.
Music is to be carefully selected!

China has gone through rapid social, economic and political change. In just over thirty years, it has gone from a third world country, to a major economic superpower, exporting advanced technology, and propping up crippled American and European economies.

The CCP and CCPPD have both modernized and adapted, when other communist countries failed, and sounder democratic economies have faltered. China is looking strong, and the 21st century will undoubtedly be China’s century.

Pivotal to this success is the role of PR by the CCPPD. They listen, are aware, address and respond to problems when they occur in an appropriate manor. But the main problems the CCPPD face are the inability to fully control the agenda, a patriotic, affluent citizens more demanding of their government, and the CCP’s history of corruption, self interest and deception. The main fear is, if the regime falters, nationalism will be the last resort for the CCPPD.

However, the CCP and CCPPD have shown an amazing ability to adapt and survive, and there is no indication that either will falter in the foreseeable future.


Alan 2011, Dalian Protest Pictures, viewed August 14 2011, <>.

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Chen, N 2009, 'From Propaganda to Public Relations: Evolutionary Change in the Chinese Government', Asian Journal of Communication, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 96-121.

Chen, N 2009, 'Institutionalizing Public Relations: A Case Study of Chinese Government Crisis Communication on the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake', Public Relations Review, vol. 35, pp. 187-98.

ChinaToday Chinese Government Related Information, viewed August 13 2011, <>.

Fauna 2011, Donations to Red Cross Drop Following Guo Meimei Controversy, Chinasmack, viewed August 13 2011, <>.

Fauna 2011, Guo Meimei Red Cross Controversy Pissing Off Chinese Netizens, Chinasmack, viewed August 13 2011, <>.

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Wang, H 2003, 'National Image Building and Chinese Foreign Policy', China: An International Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 76-2.

Weber, I 2002, 'Reconfiguring Chinese Propaganda and Control Modalities: A Case Study of Shanghai's Television System', Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 11, no. 30, pp. 53-75.

Wee, S-L 2011, China says will shut plant as thousands protest, Reuters, viewed August 14 2011, <>.