The air over the Great Hall of the People these days feels qualitatively different from a few years ago. If you’ve been in China long enough to remember the “twin sessions” under the previous administration, you may be struck by the re-connection between what’s being discussed within the walls of the Great Hall and what’s being talked about on the street, concrete or cyber, today.
It wasn’t like this a few years ago, especially at sessions where there were no leadership changes. We Chinese call these sessions “small-year sessions” just to highlight the inconsequential nature of such gatherings of two rubber-stamp institutions. In those “good old days”, two distinctive conversations happened in parallel: the one within the Great Hall was stubbornly boring and hollow, the one outside was marked by smart-ass cynicism. The cleavage between the two was so wide that it can be seen from space. For many years what dominated media and internet spaces during such sessions had been so-called “silly proposals” (雷人提案) and pictures like this:
The shift to a new pattern happens like taking an airplane: you don’t feel too much when it takes off, but the next moment you look outside the window, you are 8 miles above ground.
It all started with the CPPCC opening press conference last year (can anyone still recollect one single CPPCC opening press conference under the Hu-Wen administration?). At that occasion, CPPCC spokesperson Lu Xinhua responded to a question about rumors concerning former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang by famously saying “you know what I mean”(你懂的), an expression popular on social media. This clever, delicate response to a question that people actually cared about marked that initial hand-shake between the two separate universes.
If in the future, books are to be written about this administration, its decisive re-invention of party propaganda should definitely be a key component of the bigger story. We can debate about whether it is a blessing or curse for the Chinese society. What’s indisputable is its formidable ability to focus and shape public opinion for its own purposes.
We’ve briefly addressed this topic in a previous post. But at the twin sessions this year, things get clearer for us to see how orchestrated a party-led PR campaign can be. Once again, Lu Xinhua plays forward for the team. Since the CPPCC session always opens first, his opening press conference occupies a unique spot that can set the tone for the coming two weeks. And he doesn’t disappoint. Resorting to yet another social media catch-phrase, this time he describes the party’s anti-corruption campaign as “capricious” (任性), and indicates that no one enjoys impunity. Such head-line-friendly sound-bites are almost like a reservation for newspaper and website front page spaces. Soon, they ushered in the actual dinner guests. Barely one hour had passed since Lu’s cute statement when the military’s leading website released information condemning fourteen high-level military officers on corruption charges. The national press corp struggled a bit in recognizing some of the obscure names (some even mistook one officer for a different person). But they did not fail to recognize Major General Guo Zhenggang, the son of a former deputy chairman of the Central Military Committee. If we stick to the dinner metaphor, what happened next was a national feast on the bodies of the poor father and son. There are playful allusions as expected. But more prepared media outlets quickly handed out dense investigative pieces about the fallen general, his wife and their shadowy businesses. These articles appeared literally minutes after the official announcement, prompting some observers to complain half-jokingly that “I cannot write such an investigative piece in five minutes.” You know what I mean.
If this is fishery, whoever is behind this campaign is not baiting but rather bottom trawling public attention. Tai Kung Pao’s website is more explicit about what is going on: “In previous twin sessions, based on some kind of ‘stability” considerations, they would often try to deflect attention from any particular issue. But under the anti-corruption campaign of the current administration, they would rather warm-up the issue beforehand, then use the twin conference to stir up a focused and heated discussion, in order to align the thinking and consolidate the consensus.”
What’s more revealing is the fact that even when people talk about show business representatives this year, (celebrities such as Jackie Chan, who attend the sessions as “political advisers”), their focus is still on corruption. It used to be the case that these celebrities add “flavor” to a hopelessly dull meeting. Now they are fully integrated to an overarching grand narrative. Plenty of spotlight has been thrown on the fate of star comedian Huang Hong, who made his name from popular comedy sketches at the annual Spring Festival Galas. As he sat inside the Great Hall this week, news came that he was dismissed as the head of the People’s Liberation Army Bayi Film Studio. It fueled speculations about his entanglement with fallen leaders of the military. The faded luster of former A-list singers such as Song Zuying and Tan Jing, both CPPCC members, also becomes a source of curious amusement. A brilliant treatise on-line ventures a theory linking the leadership’s new propaganda ambitions with the decline of previously treasured propaganda singers. It argues that:
“The top leader needs to establish his authority in a range of areas. He will not tolerate a long-time situation of crumbling party discipline and crass party art. Revitalizing the art and propaganda apparatus so that more political songs can be accepted by the general public is certainly part of his agenda.”
Until more evidence emerges from behind the scene, we can’t really tell if what we are seeing now is truly well-choreographed communication maneuvers or just events that coincidentally bumped into each other. A West-Wing-style comms team serving the current leadership might just be a fantasy. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the evolution of party propaganda into more sophisticated forms, sometimes unrecognizable as propaganda, is happening. The sleeping elephant is waking up and wants to reclaim the room now.
P.S. “Under the Dome” is now officially censored, even though the discussion about it is still lingering in a big way on the internet. Is it being seen as a distraction to the twin sessions? Only THEY will know.
 “Twin sessions” refers to the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) sessions, a two-week event stretching from early to mid-March every year.