China Learned The Tricks Of Propaganda From The Best: US Politicians & PR Industry

from the we're-number-1! dept

With all the recent talk about Chinese censorship in relation to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, there was a very interesting interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Evan Osnos, who spent eight years in China, and has recently written a book about that “explores the tensions between China’s rapid expansion and economic opportunity, and its enduring commitment to authoritarian rule.” The book is called Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, and the interview about it is fascinating for a variety of reasons. However, one tidbit stood out: how China totally revamped their propaganda system, modelling it after the US PR industry.

There was a point right after the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square when the party realized, you know, our propaganda is not working, otherwise all these young kids wouldn’t have come down to the middle of the capital and held demonstrations for weeks and weeks. And in fact, for a time, they talked about getting rid of the propaganda system completely. And instead they did they opposite, and they doubled down on it.

And what they said was, we need to become much more sophisticated about how we conduct what’s known as Chinese as thought work. And so they began to study the masters, really. They began to study the United States and the origins of public relations culture. So they went back and they actually – if you look in the textbooks for Chinese propaganda officials today, some of the things that they cite are the success of Coca-Cola. They say, if you can sell sugar water in effect to people, well, then we can sell anything at all.

They also looked very admiringly at the way that the Bush administration dealt with the press in the run-up to the war in Iraq. They think this is an example of a successful relationship with the press. They also look at the way that Tony Blair’s government in Britain handled the media around the issue of mad cow disease. And so there’s been this real effort to study what’s been done in the West and to take from it the best attributes – or at least the most efficient and effective attributes of the free-market public relations industry.

Yes, congratulations to Judith Miller and the NY Times! You’re now the very model for how China runs its propaganda operations. Oh, wait, did I say “propaganda”? I meant, “PR.” Even China has changed the name of its propaganda department. Osnos talks about this a big building in the center of Beijing, where there are no signs, and no one will tell you what goes on in there. But it houses the Central Propaganda Department. Or it did. Until they changed the name.

So a few years ago, they actually changed the name of the Central Propaganda Department in English. They changed it to the Central Publicity Department. But I’ve always found it ironic that the Central Publicity Department has no sign and no address.

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Comments on “China Learned The Tricks Of Propaganda From The Best: US Politicians & PR Industry”

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Rocco Maglio (profile) says:

Impress by George W PR then in awe of Obama PR

If they are impress by George Ws PR then they must be in awe of the Obama PR machine. His press team determines what stories most of the press covers. He uses his interviews as a carrot to have the press provide favorable coverage. He will periodically punish a media company by refusing to provide them with interviews from him and his administration. He provides the press with photos that his staff photographer took, so he determines how he is photographed in many events. He also goes around the press with a strong social media campaign.

zip says:

Goebbels, Bernays, Creel Committee ... & Iraq "WMD"

We often hear about infamous Nazi Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine, but the part these stories usually leave out is that Goebbels (and many others) came to the belief that a chief reason why Germany lost WWI was due to inferior propaganda (compared to the British and American war propaganda) so Goebbels studied the techniques of American propaganda, as developed by Americans like Edward Bernays and codified by the Creel Committee during WWI.

During the 2003 Iraq invasion, I was surprised at how effective war propaganda can be, even in the Internet Age, when people could easily go online and find out for themselves that everything being told by the US mainstream press was dubious at best (if not complete bullshit). The zealot that I was, I would print out page after page that thoroughly disproved the Iraq “weapons of mass destruction/ties to Al Qaeda/etc” claims, and pass them around to everyone I knew, hoping to educate them — only to have people immediately hand them right back to me unread.

People around me “KNEW” that Iraq’s WMD existed (as everyone from the US President all the way down to their local newspaper and radio stations said so) therefore they didn’t need to waste their time reading some “fiction” that claimed otherwise. Especially not coming from some young “traitorous” fool who dared to suggest that the honorable President and V.P. might actually be lying.

It certainly taught me how effectively propaganda can stir up people’s emotions and create such a false reality to the extent that people don’t even want to know anything else – anything that might burst the bubble of the fantasy world that government/news propaganda has created for them.

That’s the perverse beauty of 21st-century grade propaganda: Although there was plenty of information available — and easily accessible — that soundly refuted president Bush’s claims about the need to invade Iraq, no one even wanted to look at it. Because the appeals to patriotism were so effective, even to examine such dissident ideas would have been considered treasonous at the time.

Due to my own experience dealing with US propaganda during the Iraq invasion, I really don’t think that having an open, uncensored internet will in the end make much difference in China, Russia, or any other country, due to the effective “thought-stopping” techniques that modern-day government propaganda can employ.

jameshogg says:

Re: Goebbels, Bernays, Creel Committee ... & Iraq "WMD"

I was too young at the time, but I know plenty of people from (now) my side of the debate who researched and knew Saddam Hussein could not have possibly had so many WMD, but nonetheless said the war WAS historically justified.

And my side were also trying to tell millions of people this stance, even when those millions were marching to the tune of something like “we believe that even if he has the WMD, the war is still not justified!” The logic we had was falling on deaf ears because the anti-war-demonstrators were regurgitating WMD just as much as the pro-war.

Try being in THAT minority. The humanitarian case, the historical case for fighting all totalitarianism indiscriminately, the case for removing genocidal regimes regardless of how historic such genocide had been, the case for ending the sanctions, the case for democracy and secularism, the case for kick-starting democratic revolutions where dictators were everywhere amongst the continent, the case for internationalism and solidarity: ALL of that got drowned out from BOTH sides.

zip says:

Re: Re: Goebbels, Bernays, Creel Committee ... & Iraq "WMD"

Within a few years after the Iraq invasion, the mantra on mainstream news was “If we only knew then what we know now.”

But in reality, virtually everything WAS known before the war started . The main justification being Iraq’s possession of banned weapons, which was based on the testimony of one person, code-named “Curve Ball”, a known Chalabi protege, who even the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies dismissed as a fabricator (originally, until browbeaten by Cheney into recanting). Curve Ball later admitted that he made up the whole thing. There were also numerous current and ex-CIA and Pentagon intelligence analysts who doubted these claims, but of course, the US news media completely ignored this important fact, presenting the case as if there were no dissenting opinions within the intelligence community — when in reality, there were plenty.

But while there was not one shred of skepticism about Iraq WMD among the entire US mainstream media, at least in the UK, two newspapers, the Guardian and Independent had the courage to dispute their government’s claims.

But I agree, the mere possession of banned weapons (even if true) hardly warrants the military invasion of a country. But that’s where fear-mongering comes in. As Condoleezza Rice once famously said, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be mushroom clouds” popping up over cities throughout the country.

Anonymous Coward says:

Isn't that what defines propaganda versus PR?

PR: Telling the world *your* good points.
Negative PR: Telling the world your *opponent’s* bad points.

Propaganda: *lying* about what you are good at.
Negative propaganda: *lying* about your opponent’s bad points.

The difference is the lie vs the truth. PR is true. Propaganda is a lie, sold as a truth. Of course once you start with the lie, in this evidence rich age, it’s difficult to sustain. Censorship is needed, control is needed, threats are needed. Fear is needed.

None of that is true with PR.

PR is *not* propaganda.

I don’t know about China, but Thailand is all propaganda at the moment, and the suppression of free speech needed to maintain it.

General Prayut (killer of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok in 2010, see countless youtube footage), is “bringing back happiness” to Thailand, and if you disagree he’ll put you in army prison! So smile, or his M16’s will dispense some happiness your way!

Propaganda says “we love the coup” and “we love General Prayut”, but when we do the ‘hunger games’ 3 finger salute to disagree with the coup, we’re dragged off the street by policemen posing as reporters!

His soldiers put up posters *pretending* to be from farmers, thanking him for making the rice payments to farmers! Rice payments his coup conspirators blocked for 6 months! As if farmers are too dumb to know the coup lot were blocking their payments.

But hey it’s “Thainess” to love the army coups. It’s not that we have guns pointed our way and fear arrest, no sir… Thai’ness!

When the army makes us put up pictures of General Prayut on the wall, and pretend we “love General Prayut”, and have to bow till our heads touch the floor when he’s around, then it won’t be because we love our dictator General. It will be because he’s made himself into a dictator, and brainwashed young people into thinking everyone loves him.

We won’t be able to explain the truth to our kid in-case he blurts it at school and we get thrown in jail. Instead we’ll tell our kid it’s “Thainess” to love the dictator and leave it at that.

So in future you’ll read about how Thai people love their “General Prayuth” and that is how he became the supreme head of the country. It will be propaganda. A lie. Not PR.

Propaganda is not PR!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Isn't that what defines propaganda versus PR?

PR has nothing to do with truth either. PR is manipulating the public image into a (more) positive perception. It may include truths, but doesn’t have to, same as propaganda, not all propaganda is lies.

The difference is the perception. If you think the information is positive you think it is PR, if you oppose it you think it is propaganda.

zip says:

Re: Re: Isn't that what defines propaganda versus PR?

Effective propaganda is a ‘proprietary’ mix of truth, distortion, and lies — the exact composition being determined by the target population’s sophistication as well as receptiveness.

This might explain why “Baghdad Bob” – Iraq’s government spokesman – came across as such a laughingstock in the West; the propaganda model he followed might have worked fine on Iraq’s native (captive) population, but not outside the country, where his claims were too easily refuted.

Have you ever noticed how a government or corporate spokesman will start out with big lies, and then when caught, start backtracking, sometimes step-by step? That’s because when the big lies fail, they’re forced to start mixing in a higher and higher proportion of truth into the mix, until they arrive at a formula that works: that is, the highest proportion of lies that the public will accept. (and the process NEVER works in reverse)

The key to the “art of lying” is knowing how much false/deceptive information people will accept, and ‘expert’ liars always try to stay as close to that boundary as possible. Propaganda is of course much more than matter-of-fact lying, it’s appeals to human emotion are by far its strongest (and most expertly crafted) feature.

Of course (mostly false) propaganda that works effectively on the majority of the population will often be counterproductive on the more knowledgeable/skeptical or less-emotional people, who will not experience the desired emotions and/or will see through the lies. But propaganda is designed for the ‘unwashed’ masses, not the intelligentsia.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Isn't that what defines propaganda versus PR?

Propaganda is not PR, it’s just one of the main tools used in PR. Propaganda isn’t defined by it’s truthfulness, either — it can be entirely truthful and still be propaganda.

Propaganda is advertising.

As to the idea of PR being true — that’s just as incorrect as saying that propaganda is true. Both exist independent of truth. Sometimes they’re true, more often they’re not.

zip says:

Re: Re: Isn't that what defines propaganda versus PR?

Even if no one ever used lies or distortion, propaganda would still rely on the selective use of news and information — reporting news and facts that helps your case, and ignoring news and facts that hurts your case.

The use or omission of pictures of dead bodies in warfare might be a good example. During the Iraq invasion, all the US TV news networks were careful not to show any dead bodies — especially dead children — in their pictures and video, despite the fact that the streets were littered with dead bodies. They defended that decision by insisting that corpses were unsuitable for TV, period. But then the same TV networks routinely show the corpses of Nazi concentration camp victims.

US Television news about Israel serves as another good example. A few years ago, Jews and Palestinians were taking turns killing each other. Whenever a Jew died, TV cameras showed close-ups of sobbing mothers. But when a Palestinian died, the TV screens showed stock footage of angry men holding rifles and shaking their fists in the air. Arab TV, quite naturally, showed the opposite. This kind of selective inclusion/omission is one of the key elements of PR and propaganda.

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