Party markets heroics, faith and lofty ideals to the people

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am

Communist chiefs turn to Buddhist teachings and revolutionaries to win back hearts, writes Robert Marquand

As Chinese leaders fret over rising peasant protests, political instability and a decay of traditional values, the Communist Party is experimenting with multiple new messages - designed to capture the hearts of ordinary people.

'It is a very intelligent strategy,' says a western historian in Beijing. 'If people are nostalgic for Mao and old moral values, they've got Lei Feng [a model soldier lauded for selfless service]. For those who say China has lost its traditions, they promote Confucianism. For those who long for spirituality, it is Buddhism. The party is saying, 'You name it, we've got it'.'

But the disparate propaganda campaigns often seem like unrelated storylines in search of a central script. Last month, President Hu Jintao launched the 'eight honours, eight disgraces' - spelling out the virtues of hard work and discipline, and the vices of cheating and selfishness. Other campaigns include engineering a 'new socialist countryside', promoting old-model revolutionary soldiers such as Lei Feng as 'cool' for kids, and biweekly ideology sessions for party members billed as a chance to 'refresh your mind'.

The party is also backing campaigns that diverge from the standard political propaganda, such as opening a department of Confucianism at People's University, turning the late pop star Cong Fei into a young pioneer-style model, and holding the first Buddhist forum in modern China on April 13. A hard-core, neo-Marxist faction has been allowed to rise - contrary to a decade of greater liberalisation - helping to kill a proposed law at the National People's Congress last month which would have allowed private property rights.

A CCTV producer says that in March a senior minister ordered yet another new campaign to be broadcast on the evening news. But he baulked. There were so many other campaigns being promulgated, there wasn't room in the broadcast. Experts say the party is trying for a delicate balancing act somewhere between the extremes of doubt and zealotry.

'It has become a consumer Communist Party ... a party based on marketing, not Maoism,' says Russell Leigh Moses, an American scholar at the People's University in Beijing. '[The messages] are a great experiment, a way to figure out what will take.'

But is anyone listening? For example, Beijing bus No117, like many in the city, has a set of flat-screen televisions that broadcast news, traffic, weather, cooking and sports. On Monday, along with shots of Mr Hu shaking hands with Saudi princes on his overseas trip, there was a Discovery Channel-style five-minute segment that memorialised a soldier who had infiltrated the enemy reactionary forces in the 1930s and became a hero for the cause of Communist China. Called Eternal Monument, the regular segment is part of a broader campaign called 'Maintaining the Advanced Nature of the Party', that is spun-off into various kinds of patriotic media efforts.

But the TV on bus 117 only vaguely catches the attention of afternoon riders as they wind past the Second Ring Road skyscrapers, past the Lama Temple, and towards the new suburbs sprouting outside the Fourth Ring Road. Shows such as Eternal Monument vie for time alongside pop stars, game shows, skin-cream ads and an endless flow of 'infotainment'.

Passengers such as Ji Tong, a garment salesman, are aware that China's leaders are trying to promote something called a 'harmonious society' that will correct social ills and disparities. He advocates a broader campaign of 'self-criticism' for China's party officials. Another passenger, a shy, young man from Hunan looking for a job in a restaurant, had heard of the 'eight virtues and disgraces', but couldn't name one.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the brutal Cultural Revolution, a time China closed itself to the world, and when Mao - through the party machine - spoke to people over neighbourhood loudspeakers. But gone are the days when the party can dominate with one voice by proclamation every waking moment. Daily life and 'public space' continue to diversify. Chinese are busy - looking for a better job, a husband, a wife, English or music lessons for the children, a business partner, a factory or building site for a job.

'Mao [Zedong] and Deng [Xiaoping] were really good at speeches, writing articles, and getting people excited,' says Yang Zhaohui, a Beijing University humanities professor. 'They won the war against Chiang Kai-shek. But today is a different climate. Hu and [Premier] Wen [Jiabao] are engineers. They don't have experience creating ideology.'

Some campaigns, such as environmental awareness, are feathered into serial TV show narratives. One of the most popular soap operas, Sublime Eagle and Righteous Couple, features ancient Wudan-mountain martial-arts monks.

In one programme this week, a Taoist student washes and dries his clothes on a fire before visiting his teacher, to show respect. He then stamps out the fire in a Smokey the Bear, public-service moment.

But the No1 campaign deals with the economy. It goes under the term, 'A Scientific Perspective on Development and a Harmonious Society'. Essentially, this campaign builds on China's budding research and development sectors.

It highlights the pride in developing new products such as turning coal to liquid fuel, and China's Aigo brand digital cameras and MP3s - technology that will allow China to compete with Japanese and South Korean companies.

Beijing media offers proud, self-congratulatory stories on the Shuguang 4000A supercomputer and the Zhongguancun Science and Technology Park in Beijing, which is heralded for producing its own patented products.

The Christian Science Monitor