There are obvious differences between the leadership transitions in the two largest economies in the world, which will take place within days from each other, in November. Most importantly China doesn’t have a presidential election, as the United States does. Its leadership transitions are organized opaquely, in backrooms filled with the smoke of Panda cigarettes and without any external input. The United States works in quite the opposite way: candidates are intensely scrutinized in the press. Every detail of their private history and public service records are put under the spotlight. This vetting is considered to be of fundamental importance in the process, and has hobbled (Romney’s tax reviews) or ended (Herman Cain’s alleged misconduct) a number of presidential campaign bid. In China, the opposite happens. The personal life and history of top-level leaders is proclaimed to be beyond reproach and they or their families may not be investigated. Similar things happen with policy. A huge political marketing machine has been set up to market, analyze, compare and criticize the policy proposals made by candidates, whereas in China, a huge political marketing machine has been set up to flood the public sphere with a continuous message that the Party’s policy is correct.
China’s political marketing machine is faced, however, with a few problems. First, the Communist Party is obliged to take responsibility for the overall state of the country. It can’t blame a previous government for problems, as the Party has been in power for over six decades. It can’t blame stubborn opposition, as there is none, and it can’t significantly shift in basic political direction, as it has claimed over the last three decades that their policies are correct and historically determined. It can blame foreign hostility and volatile international circumstances, but then, it needs also to explain why China isn’t using its growing international clout to shape the international environment to suit it better. It can also claim that every historical phase brings along its own challenges, and does so, but this can only be a small part of its propaganda. Dealing with challenges requires political choices to be made, and may engender opportunities for dissent. Rather, the Party contends that policymaking is a scientific manner where optimal solutions to problems can be found, depoliticizing the policymaking process.
This is especially important now, as the 18th Party Congress is coming along. This transition is a delicate moment, and all stops are being pulled to ensure that no opposition can organize. One key aspect of this is propaganda. The Party believes it needs to not only tell the people that they are better off, China is getting more important and stronger internationally, and Hu Jintao’s decade of leadership has been a great success; it also believes it needs to mobilize the people to give full and enthusiastic support to the new generation of leaders. The propaganda campaign for this Congress was officially launched late in July, two days after Hu Jintao gave his valedictory speech. Liu Yunshan gave a speech to a conference of propaganda department directors outlining the measures that must be taken “to welcome the victorious convocation of the 18h Party Congress” (Available in translation). Liu heads the Central Propaganda Department and is widely tipped to succeed his political godfather, Li Changchun, to the Standing Committee propaganda and ideology portfolio, . Most of these measures are taken directly from the standard Communist playbook. Advanced models of communist virtue and concrete examples of Communist development will be trotted out, there will be a series of books, articles, films, exhibitions and cultural activities extolling the virtues of the CCP, and closer attention will be paid to sudden incidents. Interestingly, Bo Xilai’s Red Song initiative didn’t leave the scene with him, but there are now two major events, “Everyone Sings patriotic Songs” and “Singing about China”, touring from city to city.
The most interesting remarks in the Liu speech are about foreign-oriented propaganda. Liu now seems to understand that, as the second largest economy in the world, more eyes are pointing towards China than in the past, and that there is more and more non-official interaction between the Chinese and international spheres of public communication. What Liu does not yet seem to comprehend, is the nature of the many soft power own goals that China has made in the recent past. China has often appeared petulant, in spats involving Tibet for example, has thrown its weight around regionally that has sent many smaller South-East Asian nations run towards the United States for cover, and every time it jails another dissident, another corruption case comes out or a food scandal is uncovered, it adds another bullet hole to the many it has in its foot already. Liu seems to believe that this can be rectified with patient and reasonable explanation of the facts as the Party sees it. This is exactly the same path that the Party took after Tiananmen, where it claimed that all that was needed to justify sending tanks at students to the international community, was a rational exposé about Chinese politics. Now, Liu argues that the Party must concentrate foreign attention on the Party’s claim to put people first and govern for the people, but these claims are at best misguided and at worst mendacious when we look at the endemic corruption that sustains the Party’s position in power. In this light, Liu’s contention that the Party must gain “the moral commanding heights” is risible. But there is a more fundamental problem as well. Westerners fundamentally don’t believe in the system that China proposes. Europe’s historical relationship with dictatorial regimes and powerful religious organizations has led to a relativist, postmodernist position that instinctively distrusts any claim to truth and power, while the powerful anti-government stance in US society causes a lack of trust in any overbearing regime, regardless of what political colour. In other words, CCP rule is mistrusted for what it is, even before the discussion starts about what it does. Conversely, many Chinese will instinctively distrust American and European politics for being chaotic and disorganized.
Whether or not this distrust is justified is another discussion. It certainly is the case that China does better materially than in the past, and it is equally the case that the economic, political and social crises besetting Europe and the United States indicate that many improvements there remain to be made. It is, however, undoubtedly so that these perceptions exist, and that China’s ideas on how to deal with them are often ill-informed and cack-handed. China hires foreign law firms as council in its WTO disputes, possibly it could to with a bit of foreign PR expertise as well.