China’s rickety state media is losing the PR battle with a social media-savvy US president

China's moribund state-run media machine is proving incapable of promoting China's interests in a fast, social media-driven world.
Cam MacMurchy

I worked in China’s state-run media machine way back in the mid 2000s, so I’ve seen how the authoritarian propaganda sausage is made — and it’s not exactly sophisticated (or appetizing, if we extend the metaphor). Chinese leaders have a monopoly on information in China so it’s relatively easy to get messages out to a domestic audience, but winning over people outside China — many of whom have been taught to be skeptical about media messages generally — has consistently proven to be a mountain too high to climb.

I’m no flag-waving fan of the Chinese government, but I’ve argued before that it’s not all bad. There are some legitimately good stories to tell about the country’s development, and on some hot-button issues China’s side rarely gets told. This is an institutional failure: the party controls the media, so the media must work to make the party happy for staff to keep their jobs and continue getting paid. That makes party officials the primary audience, and nothing makes Communist masters swell with pride like schmaltzy nationalism on TV. Rinse, repeat, and here we are today with Chinese propaganda stuck in the Soviet era.

Up until 2016, the US had traditionally been quite mindful and sensitive when dealing with China; both sides recognized the importance of the relationship and understood that conflict – hot or cold – could be catastrophic. The election of Donald J. Trump as US President blew that approach out of the water, and China’s media apparatus has proven to be ineffectual in operating in this new, social media-driven, acerbic international PR environment.

The South China Morning Post has an excellent piece looking at China’s media troubles and asks this question: is China’s propaganda machine losing the public relations battle with the US? The answer, in my view, is yes.

“…while US President Donald Trump has tweeted about China more than 100 times since the start of the trade ar last July, the Chinese government has been far quieter.

Analysts say this communication asymmetry has allowed the US to dominate the trade war narrative, as Beijing relies on its carefully managed state media coverage for its side of the story, which struggles to engage international audiences.

The hurdles for the bureaucratic Chinese propaganda machine centre on its lack of understanding of the Western public, restrictions for coverage to toe the official line, and existing preconceptions about China.”

I live in Hong Kong and get a steady, daily diet of China news, and yet I’m not sure I could explain China’s argument against US accusations of intellectual property theft, for instance. The US media – and the President himself on Twitter – has done an admirable job of hammering away on China, repeating US complaints incessantly and winning broad support, while Chinese media have been slow to respond. It can take days to work out an official response, which frequently comes across as clumsy and ineffective. (Frequent attempts to come up with catchy phrases or insults is truly cringe-worthy.)

China’s amateur, unsophisticated messaging and dithering over the “correct” way to report the news is quite literally harmful to the country’s national interests.

China’s achievements over the past 30 years – the rapid growth of the economy, establishment of a huge middle class, re-invigorated military, national prestige – shouldn’t be discounted. But in a way, that was the easy part: China was mired in poverty and traumatized by the Cultural Revolution when Deng Xiaoping decided it was time to let the cats catch mice. Unleashing capitalistic instincts and leveraging a massive population to build a globally-competitive manufacturing sector was a logical next step and made a lot of sense — but now what?

China has long resisted western forms of communication, culture, and governance, but the reality is state media must learn how to communicate effectively and win support from stakeholders outside of China. If it doesn’t, it risks threatening the very culture and form of government it aims to protect.

The country is no longer an underdog; it’s operating in countries around the world, strengthening its military and becoming more assertive in protecting what it considers national interests. It has made clear its ambition: not only be a power alongside the United States, but to exceed it. It can’t pull that off without a slick, nimble, sophisticated media machine capable of making a case, winning arguments, and persuading people around the world. China’s amateur, unsophisticated messaging and dithering over the “correct” way to report the news is quite literally harmful to the country’s national interests.

Donald Trump is despised among huge swathes of the world, even picking fights with long-time allies. There is potential for China to capitalize on the mistrust of the US president, make a compelling case for itself, and ramp up cooperation with countries feeling insecure with the messages coming out of Washington. China’s failure to make any headway is a sign of how far it still has to go.

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