US Republicans, China should beware toxic nature of propaganda

Greg Torode says both the US Republican Party and China's leaders need to remember propaganda can burn those who mishandle it

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 4:28am


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As a point of argument, is there anything the US Republican Party, now licking its wounds from yet another election defeat, can learn from the Chinese leadership transition? On the surface, an absurd notion, perhaps, given the light years separating the two political systems. But if there is a link, it must be the toxic nature of propaganda.

Propaganda can be heady yet acidic stuff. Veteran propagandists know it must be handled with extreme caution, given its potential to burn from within those who mishandle it. Propaganda's most insidious threats take hold, for example, when its creators start believing their own public relations.

One striking element in the Republican defeat - the fifth time in six elections they have lost the popular vote - is the growing role of the right's media bubble. Across certain TV and radio channels, Republican politicians and commentators have merrily lurched ever more rightward, unhinged from the centre where inevitably national elections are won and lost. It is a party some of its earlier presidents would now struggle to recognise.

Yes, the modern right-wing media onslaught might have served to "energise the base", as their operatives would say. But it also allowed a generation of politicians to exist almost entirely in a vast Republican echo chamber without reference to the real world beyond. So when they venture out at elections, the more extreme find themselves exposed and prone at times to alarming blunders as they misread public sentiment.

The dangers are all too apparent back across the Pacific, of course. China's state-controlled propaganda bubble has traditionally been all encompassing and hermetically sealed. Given the insidious nature of the stuff, institutions such as Xinhua have also run a parallel reporting service, for the party leadership's eyes only.

In recent years, state-controlled media have dramatically expanded in scope and reach, pulling in a wider range of voices, including internationally.

Some foreign scholars, initially welcomed, now speak with bitterness about learning over time that only certain views are acceptable; many of their mainland peers, meanwhile, frequently appear to sing as part of a deftly orchestrated chorus.

Yet, are the old masters of the black arts of propaganda once again at risk of fooling themselves, even as their reach expands?

China's regional situation is now far more complex than it was just a few years ago, when a decade or so of soft power was quietly yielding solid results. Now, smaller nations within its sphere of influence have sought to create diplomatic space and leverage by rebalancing ties towards the US, with Washington just as eager to re-engage.

The voices from within the region warning of the dangers to Beijing from its own assertiveness were loud enough to be heard in Washington, yet seldom reflected in the mainland media, which acted with surprise when the tide started to turn three years ago. The situation remains the same now.

Propaganda fortresses can indeed entrap those they were built to protect.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.