[His administration has castigated propaganda officials as ineffective, too slow to assert control over the internet and lacking in their commitment to Marxist values. He is pushing them to master the tools of digital media, resist foreign influences in popular culture and target younger audiences, a key demographic that some in the party worry it may be losing.]
By Javier C. Hernández
BEIJING — The two-minute cartoon opens with a folksy jingle and a smiling bobblehead of President Xi Jinping, dimpled and cherubic. Then it cuts to a colorful montage praising his government for improving the lives of ordinary Chinese with what might seem like a mundane policy: regulations allowing taxis to be summoned online.
With vivid animation and quirky sound effects, the video does not feel like propaganda. But its creators, a team of 15 people hired by the state-run media, spent months obsessing over the details, down to the shape of Mr. Xi’s grin. Their mission: to promote Mr. Xi and the ruling Communist Party in a voice that resonates with China’s digitally savvy millennials.
“There isn’t any dry language or political jargon,” said Ma Changbo, 35, a former journalist who is the chief executive of the multimedia studio behind the clip, which was published online by China Central Television, the state broadcaster. “People can relate to it.”
Decades after Mao Zedong declared the pen as important to political power as the gun, the party still churns out old-school propaganda — colorful posters with wooden slogans, mawkish movies with patriotic themes, meticulously censored newspapers written in dry, impenetrable language. The evening news is as rigid as ever, almost always opening with Mr. Xi and often featuring the reading of long party communiqués.
But Mr. Xi is demanding that the propaganda apparatus step up its game.
His administration has castigated propaganda officials as ineffective, too slow to assert control over the internet and lacking in their commitment to Marxist values. He is pushing them to master the tools of digital media, resist foreign influences in popular culture and target younger audiences, a key demographic that some in the party worry it may be losing.
The fruits of his campaign are already popping up online. In addition to a more aggressive effort to stamp out criticism and amplify support for the party on social media, the party has invested millions in animated videos that cast Mr. Xi as a compassionate champion of Chinese workers. Scholars have delivered TED-style talks that rail against Western imperialism. New hip-hop songs pay homage to party history and warn of America’s efforts to topple the Chinese government.
It is unclear how effective such tactics will be in winning over a younger generation that is more skeptical of prepackaged messages and increasingly connected to the outside world. Nor is the party’s ability to modernize and reorient its vast propaganda apparatus — perhaps the world’s largest — guaranteed. But there is widespread agreement that the old methods are no longer enough.
“If the government wants to reach this audience they have to use new media to do it,” said Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese propaganda at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
Mr. Xi is trying to increase public confidence in the party as it contends with the challenge of a slowing economy. The campaign also underscores his determination to shore up China’s image abroad as it moves to capitalize on political discord in the West and win new allies. Top party officials have called on news outlets to embrace digital media to help “spread Chinese voices” around the globe.
Inside the offices of The People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper since 1946, editors are turning to video and animation to enliven stories about government policies and appeal to foreign audiences. When Mr. Xi visited the United States in 2015, for example, they produced a video in which foreign students in China offered fawning assessments of his performance. (“Xi Dada, so cute,” an Austrian student said, invoking a popular nickname for Mr. Xi.)
Ye Zhenzhen, 40, who oversees “new media” for the newspaper group and prefers not to use the word propaganda to describe his work, said the videos were aimed at helping foreigners get beyond clichés about political oppression and corruption in China. But he added that finding new ways to talk about China was also a business necessity.
“We can’t simply rely on traditional forms of content,” he said. “We need to diversify and put ourselves in our customers’ shoes.”
The government’s interest in new forms of propaganda has created a booming market for digital media enthusiasts with a nationalist bent.
Mr. Ma, whose multimedia studio, Shizhi Media, produced the taxi cartoon, said about a fifth of its clients are party or state entities. The video about the taxi initiative, for example, was produced for China Central Television in September as part of a contract to promote the work of a party body known as the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, 1,000 days after it was formed.
“Government agencies used to be content to just get the message out. Now they care about persuasion,” said Mr. Ma, who teaches at an academy that trains party officials. “Not only do they want people to see their messages, they want to make you believe the messages are true and to inform your judgment. This is a major difference.”
The party’s best propagandists, he said, are students of politics and popular culture. Some have analyzed hit songs to learn how to use musical repetition to convey key ideas. Others have looked for inspiration in the speaking style of leaders like President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Mr. Ma said he has sought to humanize Mr. Xi by depicting him and his wife, Peng Liyuan, as animated characters, a technique aimed at attracting people who are not interested in politics. He has also tried to make political topics more appealing by using vivid imagery, producing animations that depict officials scheming at bathhouses to promote Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, for example.
The results have not been conclusive. While some of these propaganda videos have gone viral, others have been passed around only to be ridiculed. Few are able to summon the audiences drawn to China’s most popular movies, television shows and songs.
Rao Jin, a technology entrepreneur who runs a nationalistic website and media company known as April Media, has tried to take a more substantive approach, starting a series of online talks in the style of TED events.
The subjects range from the colonialist history of foreign powers to China’s relative stability compared with the United States and Europe, and each video is aimed to appeal to younger audiences, using a conversational tone, sleek graphics and a minimalist set featuring a leather sofa.
Some talks, including one by a political commentator on how to resist the influence of Western culture, have been viewed tens of millions of times. “A lot of Chinese people blindly worship everything foreign,” said Mr. Rao, 31, who finances the project through advertising and profits from his tech firm. “We want young people to have more confidence in their own culture and in their nation.”
Mr. Rao is also working with the Communist Youth League and a rap group known as CD REV to produce music videos that denounce negative foreign media coverage of China and present the country as peace-loving and prosperous.
“All we hear is, ‘China is poor, it’s a dragon, it will eat us, it will beat us,’” Li Yijie, 22, a singer and lyricist for the group, said during a recording session in Chengdu. “We want to show people that China is not evil.”
Three of the four members of CD REV, who wear ripped jeans and gold watches, were raised by parents who served in the People’s Liberation Army. But Mr. Li said the group found inspiration in the anti-establishment music of hip-hop masters like Eminem and Dr. Dre.
The group has recorded a half-dozen patriotic music videos, most of them in English, featuring songs about China’s claims in the contested South China Sea and Mao’s legacy. In one about American attempts to spread democracy, they sing:
Democracy, hypocrisy, false liar
Trying to use invisible bullets to get money, huh
The world is not yours, now you listen
Outta our homeland and get back to North America
Some of their videos have been viewed millions of times, thanks in part to the support of the Communist Youth League and state news outlets. Others have had only mild success.
Mr. Li said the group saw itself as filling a void where traditional propaganda had fallen short.
“Chinese patriotic education has failed — it’s stiff and awkward,” he said. “I think we need to accept the responsibility to make it better.”
Emily Feng, Owen Guo and Adam Wu contributed research.