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Propaganda Machine Weaves Intricate Web: Case Studies of China’s Media

“Ignorance is Strength,” exhorted the fictional Party in George Orwell’s novel 1984. In today’s Chinese Communist Party, this axiom is alive and well. In addition to outright censorship and blocking sensitive news, the state propaganda machinery puts together a mosaic of half-truths and one-sided reports. The result is that the consumers of such“news” form what seem to be their own opinions while being controlled by the state.

The misinformation is not limited to the masses. Even China’s high-ranking officials are fed and deceived with filtered news. They become narrow-minded, and consequently are unable to gain individual perspective or make sound judgments based on the situation’s development. The reason Deng Xiaoping issued the order to “shoot to kill” during the June 4th massacre in 1989 might have a lot to do with the exaggerated reports on the“turmoil” by the Beijing municipal authorities.

The media blockage and filtering of overseas news during the past few years have further aggravated the problem.  To investigate the problem, I conducted two case studies: the state media’s spin of the SARS outbreak and coverage of the Taiwan elections.  During the SARS outbreak last year, there was a common suspicion in the outside world that the Chinese government was covering up the real situation, which the Chinese government repeatedly denied. Furthermore, on April 3, 2003, the Health Minister at the time, Zhang Wenkang, declared that China had effectively contained SARS. Zhang’s statements indeed boosted everyone’s confidence. In order to find out if the government reports on SARS were objective, I read over 400 articles posted on since the beginning of the year up until April. Here are some “facts” that were reported:

  • When SARS broke out, specialists from the Central Government to the local governments conducted joint diagnoses and treated the patients together. As a result, the patients were discharged from hospitals and regained their health.
  • Bad elements  stirred up panic, yet the government put a timely end to the rumors and provided a stable environment.
  • An extremely small number of anti-Chinese forces overseas suspected that we have covered up the facts, yet the majority of countries and people in the world do not believe what they say, and the Guangzhou Trade Fair this year will seethe largest number of overseas trading partners than ever.
  • Tourists from overseas are providing testimony to prove that it is safe to travel to China.
  • Experts from the WHO also stepped forward to praise China for effective cooperation and taking the proper measures.
  • There is no significant problem, though later on I found that while the Chinese media deceived the experts, they made use of the polite encouragement from the experts and removed the warnings from the same people.
  • The borders are open, and overseas experts have been granted permission to visit Guangdong Province, though later I found out that permission was delayed for another 20 days.

The reports make everything seem so transparent.  One is made to think, “What news can the Chinese government be hiding?” Also, one would feel a strong sense of pride for the responsible attitude the Chinese government took towards the people’s well being. In retrospect, when I read some reports from the overseas media at the time, I really did feel that some of the reports had“ulterior motives.”

This lasted until April 20th, when the State Council announced that SARS had broken out on a large scale and dismissed the Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing. Only then did I realize how much I had been deceived.

In the case of the Taiwanese election coverage,instead of outright lies, the state media used a variety of news items to paint a picture of panic and despair surrounding the election. The immediate and obvious goal was to put down Taiwan, but on a deeper level, the goal was to discredit the institution of democracy through blaming and associating various social issues and unpleasant things with Taiwan’selections. The following are some of the headlines on the Chinese Xinhua News Agency website’s “Important News from Taiwan” section leading up to and following the election.

  • Taipei County: Man Shot Blind on the Street[03-29 15:58]
  • Most College Students Think Elections Are Abusing Power and a Waste [03-29 15:05]
  • Five Hundred Thousand People Gather to Protest against Unfair Election [03-2721:49]
  • Earthquake of 4.8 on the Richter Scale Hits Jiayi, Taiwan[03-26 14:14]
  • Taiwanese Continue to Protest against Unfair Election. Stock Prices Keep Dropping [03-26 09:48]
  • Taiwan Election Chills Tourism [03-26 08:59]
  • Taiwanese Fishing Ship Wrecked Near Fujian,Fishermen Rescued [03-25 21:17]
  • Guns and Bullets Seized in Yunlin,Taiwan [03-2611:01]
  • Hunger Strike Starts to Protest against Election [03-25 19:07]
  • Under Unstable Political Situation, Taiwan Businessmen Buy Real Estate Overseas [03-25 15:30]
  • Taiwan Businessmen Buy Real Estate in Shanghai and Hong Kong after 3.20  [03-25 10:53]
  • Taiwanese Emigrate after Election [03-24 13:29]
  • Pessimism and Bad Economy after Taiwan Election [03-24 16:32]
  • Number of Mental Disorders Soars after Taiwan Election [03-24 14:52]
  • Warning of Taiwan Health Department: Enterovirus Infection on the Rise since March [03-24 09:59]
  • Two Dead, Six Injured at a Taipei Construction Site [03-24 09:07]
  • Kaohsiung:Bribery Case Going to Court Next Month. Make-Up Election Made Possible [03-2313:59]
  • After effect of Election: Four Suicides on the First Workday [03-23 12:27]
  • Taiwan Official Announcement: 4.61% Unemployment Rate in Feb. Almost Five Hundred Thousand Unemployed. [03-23 09:34]
  • Taiwan Stock Plunges, Hits Eight-Year Low [03-23 09:32]
  • 560 Rifles Missing from a Police Station in Tainan [03-23 09:28]
  • Instant Loss on Taiwan Stocks Reduces 47.5 Thousand yuan (about $5.7 thousand)of Assets Per Person[03-23 08:27]
  • Taiwan:Sixty-Nine-Year-Old Man Dies from Heart Attack in Voting Station [03-22 15:44]
  • Most Taiwan Businessmen Pessimistic about “Three Exchanges” and Feel Alienated after Election [03-22 15:07]
  • Taiwanese Protest against Unfair Election and Request Recount [03-22 11:17]
  • Taiwan:Psychotherapy Patients Increase by 50% [03-20 08:36]
  • Taiwan Police Seize Gang’s Ammunition  [03-19 10:40]
  • Strange Disease during Taiwan Election: Swollen Gums and Chin Pain [03-19 16:14]
  • Hong Kong Media: Chen Said “Taiwan Cannot Lose.” But Taiwan Has Lost for the Past Four Years. [03-18 16:37]
  • Families against Each Other and Unhealthy Mentality during Taiwan Election[03-18 10:08]
  • How Taiwan Election Affected My Life: “I Cannot Escape from Political Farce” [03-17 08:23]
  • Suicide Rate Soaring in Taiwan.Government Hurries to Find Solution. [03-16 12:44]

The culmination of these articles is an impression in the reader’s mind that democracy and free elections lead to a higher suicide rate, plunging stock market, increase in strange diseases, mental disorders, emigration, pessimistic attitudes, a bad economy, accidents at construction sites, earthquakes,shootings, protests, and general chaos and turmoil. When stated outright, the conclusion seems ludicrous, but the continuous propaganda over the course of months and years has proven to be quite effective. This is exactly where the danger lies in an environment of misinformation and self-deception.Everybody, including the masses, officials at various levels of government, the media themselves, and even the central leadership, are deceived by the virtual reality mutually created on the foundation of bias and one-sided information.

Furthermore, the like and dislike of the leaders will reinforce the bias of the media and news reporters. In the end the situation will further deteriorate when people start to deceive each other; the authorities are deceived by reports from their subordinates, and the subordinates are misled by the instructions from higher authorities. The result is a web of lies woven on top of lies, creating a society that is detached from reality. During the short history of the Chinese Communist Party, many things have happened that look rather ridiculous from today’s perspective. Years later, people wonder how such things could have happened, but while it was unfolding, everything seemed so natural. One of the reasons for this is that people were all living an all-encompassing, fraudulent existence during the events, and could not perceive that anything was amiss.

Sima Tai is a freelance writer inWashington D.C.