China is going through major political and economic change and its social media has become a battleground of ideas. This personal article by LSE MSc Media and Communications student Min Zhu analyses how popular digital culture has become part of the Chinese authorities’ attempt to popularise its world view.
On the Chinese national day, a lot of my friends posted selfies with the national flag on WeChat. Many clicked ‘like’, including me. This is the moment I noticed that being patriotic has become a ‘cool’ thing in China. This is a time when a Chinese patriotic songs can beat Taylor Swift’s new album.
As millennials have all grown up and become the dominant workforce in society, Chinese authorities have begun to explore a new way for patriotic education. The old-style heavy surveillance and propaganda posters will not work very well on a new generation, because millennials are more educated, more connected to the world, can think critically and can access the outside world by using VPN. To win the heart of millennials, Beijing is trying to learn a better way to connect with us. The way they have found is through the entertainment industry.
The movie My People, My Country was released one day before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, aiming at celebrating the national day. The movie consists of seven stories, which are based on seven memorialised moments in Chinese history. The stories are about what normal people do for the country and why they do that, showing the close relationship between citizens and the country. The film not only features heroes of the hour, like scientists and pilots, but also features ordinary people like a taxi driver in Beijing.
The short clip below is about how the Chinese women’s national volleyball team won the Olympic gold medal in 1984. The plot does not focus on any of the athletes, instead, it focuses on how a little boy in Shanghai helps his neighbour watch satellite TV for the game. In every crucial moment of the game, the satellite breaks down, so the little boy has to constantly hold the wire. However, today is the day the girl he adores will move to another country. Having got the chance to express his feelings to her, this clip shows the dilemma the boy is in.
“Movies should serve the purpose of ‘promoting the prosperity of socialist culture and realising the Chinese dream’ as defined by Xi’s thought” —2017 December, State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television
I have to admit, this tactic works. After we watched the movie, I had a sentimental conversation with my friends about how China created an economic miracle in the late 20th century by lifting more than half a billion people out of from extreme poverty and became the second largest economy in the world. However, it is also important to remember such a movie comes at a time when China is experiencing severe turbulence both at a domestic level and international level. The Hong Kong chaos, the slowdown of economic growth, and the US-China trade war all indicate that China is in a delicate period. Any dissatisfaction citizens might have towards the country, may have the ability to tear a country apart. At a time like this, a good patriotic film is urgently needed to hold the country together, to emphasise and to remind citizens of how we got here.
You might find it interesting to look at reactions to the film in the online national/patriotic public sphere on TikTok. The audience was crying and laughing throughout the movie, while in another cinema the audience was all standing up and waving the Chinese flag to pay respect to the country when the national anthem was played. Whether or not these clips were uploaded by real users is not the question I want to raise, instead, I argue that this online public sphere plays a significant role in influencing social media users in not only what to think, but most importantly, how to think.
Patriotic education also happens in hip-hop music. There is a group of patriotic rappers known as CD Rev, which is well-known for pushing the Party narrative. Here is their newest release song which drops a Donald Trump diss track:
Looking/listening closely at the lines, it is not hard to find the video is essentially state-controlled media platforms’ coverage distilled into a rap song, referencing key points from Party officials. In this highly accessible world, officials from the Communist Party will study political science and popular culture to keep on-trend of what young people like and are inserting the key ideas of the government into those latest trendy elements.
To some extent, there is a general public sense that being patriotic is fashionable in China. Such phenomena indicate the authorities have mastered the power of symbol and symbolism in mass media and social media era. I don’t want to be the uncool person in my generation. On the national day, I uploaded a photo of the national flag and wrote: “Being a courageous person who will contribute to the country is the expectation our nation holds on each one of us. Happy birthday, China”. That post got me 55 likes.
This article by LSE MSc Media and Communication student Min Zhu
This article does not reflect the official policy or views of Polis or the LSE