Many China observers have argued that current President Xi Jinping's leadership style bears uncomfortable similarities to that of Chairman Mao Zedong, the ruthless revolutionary and founding father of the People's Republic of China who ruled from 1949 to 1976. Since 2012, Xi has consolidated his power as the head of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government and the military through an anti-corruption campaign. He has also engaged in an ideological battle by stifling independent thought and encouraging zealous patriotism.
However, as some scholars have pointed out, the times have changed and so has the social-political context in China, meaning the recentralization of power will not be a simple copycat of Mao's red China. In fact, the following propaganda videos, which combine Western-style popular culture with red culture, offer a glimpse of how the political and social scene in China has evolved.
From propaganda to ‘rapaganda’
The latest propaganda video is a rap released by Xinhua, China's state news agency, to promote Xi's idea of the “Four Comprehensives“, a set of strategies to realize the so-called China Dream of revitalizing the nation.
Xinhua, in a tone that could almost be self-mockery, introduced the rap with the comment, “There is no brainwashing in it, you can't help yourself from listening to it 200 times or more…” In fact, the term “Four Comprehensives” appears more than 100 times in three minutes, and the catchy chorus, which repeats four times, easily gets stuck in the listener's head:
Say it with me, The Four Comprehensives, The Four Comprehensives, a prosperous society is the goal
Say it with me, The Four Comprehensives, The Four Comprehensives, reformation is progress
Say it with me, The Four Comprehensives, The Four Comprehensives, the rule of law is guaranteed
Say it with me, The Four Comprehensives, The Four Comprehensives, building up the Party is the key;
The Four Comprehensives will establish a society that everybody dreams about!
The propaganda song has clearly appropriated popular culture to reach out to youth, but judging from popular social media platform Weibo, echoes of the song mainly came from media outlets, Chinese Communist Party-affiliated organizations and official government accounts.
It wasn't the first propaganda rap. This one was released by state-owned CCTV last December to promote the achievements of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, with the rapper speaking about reform efforts in education, healthcare and household registration (“Change, change, change, change”), the anti-corruption campaign (“Flies, tigers and big foxes. Catch, catch, catch, catch”) and environmental protection (“Cure water, air and land. Cure, cure, cure, cure”). The hip-hop samples clips of Xi's voice explaining his determination in implementing policies as the leader of the reform group:
Less official propaganda to a karaoke beat
Apart from official propaganda released by state media outlets, party-affiliated groups or individuals also produce popular songs to promote Xi's image. Most of these songs are to encourage common people to sing along, the beats flow at a moderate pace and are catchy, like many popular karaoke songs.
For example, the song “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama” presents Xi as a romantic and courageous figure who loves his wife Peng Liyuan dearly. The lyrics praise his “bravery” in fighting against corruption, urging all men to learn from Xi and all woman to learn from Peng. The video was uploaded online on November 18, 2014, and within one week, it had more than 22 million views. The composer claimed that he was inspired by CCTV's news feature on Xi and Peng's relationship.
Last September, a similarly styled song also went viral online. The lyrics claimed that everyone in the country loves Xi Dada (a popular nickname for Xi that means “Uncle Xi”) for his care of the people, his courage, his righteousness, his upbringing, and his contribution to the nation.
The message of the above song actually resembles the epic propaganda song “The East is Red” released during the violent Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, which praises Mao Zedong as China's founding father.
Both Mao and Xi are populist leaders, but their political aesthetics as reflected in the propaganda videos are very different and will not generate the same effect. The age of the crescendoing anthem as a way to capture hearts and minds is gone.