The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held in Beijing last month and it made the Belt and Road Initiative a focus again. Among many relevant issues, how Beijing uses propaganda to promote this initiative is a very interesting topic.
In fact, a long time before this forum was held, the Chinese government had already started to build positive expectations for the event, employing its usual top-down approach. On the streets of Beijing, flower beds, colorful flags, and banners showed that an important event was coming to the city. Official media and some non-government sanctioned mainstream web portals unsurprisingly shifted into the Belt and Road mode – news, introductions, and reviews of this initiative made it into the headlines, focusing on the positives as one would expect. In the meantime, a short music video entitled The Belt and Road Is How was being shared on Wechat, the most popular Chinese social media app. In this short video, a group of children with different skin colors sing a song about the Belt and Road in English. Using simple and childish words, it highlights the significance of this initiative and the advantages it will bring to the world. Put into the context of the forum, the song seems natural because it too aims to encourage a positive atmosphere, so that the meeting can be held “successfully,” similar to the many other measures being taken by Beijing.
The idea that employing foreign actors who can speak fluent English will make their propaganda internationalized and easily win the recognition of the rest of the world is not realistic.
It is not difficult to envision the original intent and the purpose of this video. The children’s smiles are borderless and their use of English can promote worldwide understanding. Combining a propaganda task with the aforementioned factors, leads to the production of something guaranteed to influence and mislead akin to the resultant Belt and Road Is How. From certain angles, it can be viewed as an innovation, at least for the general public in China. First, children or kids’ songs have never been used for the promotion of the Belt and Road initiative, and are not used much in political propaganda at all nowadays in China. Second, the children singing are most likely English speaking foreigners, which makes the video somewhat novel. We should not doubt that the video’s directors and producers have good intentions and are doing their best to make the video look attractive so that they can fulfill their task well. However, for such an internationally positioned piece, as is evidenced by the language employed and used of the children from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it is necessary to examine the extent that this video can be accepted by international audiences. Of course, the use of English ensures its understandability and the multicultural nature of the children as represented serves to promote feelings of friendship, equality, and openness. Additionally, the musical melody employed is rather catchy and easy to follow. But this is not all that the audiences should be concerned about.
After the first glance, audiences will realize that it is first and foremost a propaganda video which involves politics and aims to promote the Belt and Road initiative. Though this initiative is primarily based on economic considerations and its implementation is also centered on economic cooperation, few people, including Chinese politicians and scholars, deny its implication in terms of geopolitics. For most people living outside China, the expectation is that they will be indifferent to such direct political propaganda, if not vigilant against or opposed to it, even if it is offered in new or different forms.
Second, the details, ethics, and intentions of involving children in videos of this nature as both actors and audiences can be disputed. Though children and teenagers are encouraged to participate in politics in many countries, it is widely accepted that such participation should mainly focus on knowledge of political process, rather than political positioning. For the majority of politically engaged parents, their preference would be for their children to form their own ideas and political positions based on their own independent thinking. But one can assume that the young actors and singers in this video cannot fully understand what the Belt and Road means, and thus their song just reflects the idea of the authors and the directors of the piece. Put differently, the video is a result of imitation and instillation.
It is worth noting that the producer of this video is the Fuxing Road Studio, an agency which released How Leaders Are Made, 13 What – A Song about China’s 13th 5-Year-Plan and some other propaganda videos related to the Chinese Communist Party and China’s politics in recent years. This studio is quite mysterious in that it never makes pubic its address or contact information. But it is speculated that this agency has governmental background and is affiliated to Chinese Communist Party organs. What makes it distinct and eye-catching is that it discards the old-fashioned style of China’s foreign propaganda, which can be viewed as being solemn, starchy, and stereotyped. Instead, it uses simple English words and adopts popular multimedia elements such as computer animation and Western style music and dance. All of which aims to better the viewer’s experience and make their propaganda products easier to accept for both Chinese and non-Chinese people.
It is true that such change is unprecedented for Chinese people who have gotten used to traditional political propaganda, and it is no surprise that the videos produced by this studio attracted great attention over a short time. The music video for 13 What got 10 million clicks in just one day. An article in the Foreign Affairs Observer, a Chinese think tank, thinks highly of this “innovation” and argues that this is a “very positive” attempt for improving the state propaganda. This article also mentions that there are hundreds of thousands views to the video for 13 What. However, it misses an important message intentionally or unintentionally. Specifically, that although over 200,000 people viewed this video, there were only 1,600 comments, including 1,200 likes and more than 400 dislikes. Since YouTube users are from all over the world (excluding mainland China), the attitudes of ordinary people are reflected to a great extent in the viewing and response metrics: the number of views, likes, and dislikes. Clearly, this result is hardly successful, or satisfactory. This fact seemingly indicates that any “innovation” in foreign propaganda only applies to the Chinese public. For the public of other countries, such “innovation” as offered in this form brings little change to their ultimate judgment.
What is going wrong? The underlying reason is the divergence between China and the West, and on an even larger scope, the fundamental political institutional and value structures, which can hardly be mitigated by improving the exterior form of Chinese state propaganda. The idea that employing foreign actors who can speak fluent English will make their propaganda internationalized and easily win the recognition of the rest of the world is not realistic. On the contrary, such a bizarre mixture comprised of an underlying Chinese ideology encased in a Western style exterior will probably be viewed as an awkward knock off. It is imperative for the creators of such videos, their executive management structures, and ultimately the Chinese leadership, to understand this.
This is not to say that the Belt and Road initiative per se is negative. Basically, the rationale of this initiative is based on enhancing connectivity and improving trade facilitation, which is in line with the need of many countries along the Belt and the Road. Since its announcement in 2013, many countries have expressed their interest and we have seen some progress made, which has evidenced the significance of this initiative, though such has always been accompanied by skepticism and challenges during the last three and a half years.
Meanwhile, this is not to deny the importance of communication between China and other countries. In fact, such communication can help to promote mutual understanding and reduce misconceptions, which will greatly lower the risks of confrontation and conflict. But the key here is what approach should be used. If judged by the acceptance of the foreign general public, it is almost certain that the political propaganda alternative is not a good one, no matter its form. Compared to these propaganda videos, videos that focus on facts and analysis (both pros and cons) seem to be decidedly more popular. For example, a video on YouTube named How China Is Reviving the Silk Road, which is provided by Now This received 244,000 clicks, 4,000 likes, and only 139 dislikes as of this writing.
Promoting policy coordination is one of the five priorities of the Belt and Road initiative, which shows that the Chinese government attaches considerable importance to communication. However, the correct way to win recognition for their cause is not to use foreign faces, nor Western style techniques, such as rap music, computer animation, or British or American accented English, but rather to use true and verifiable facts.
The video in question can be found here.
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