Chinese state media dropped a music video over the weekend featuring a little-known Chinese performer named Su Han. In the video Su raps over images of his country’s achievements, including a rover landing on the far side of the moon, a pair of cloned monkeys, high rise buildings, a group of smiling women in ethnic dress, and curiously, a server room.
The not-always-comprehensible song was released to mark China’s largest political event of the year, a meeting of advisory and legislative delegates known as the lianghui, or “Two Sessions”, which began this week. Among the more intelligible lines is this: “Monkey King to the West, legendary dragon to the sky, y’all know it’s time for Chinese miracle”. It goes on: “We’ve got Two Sessions, we’ve got Two Sessions for the fragrance we’re blessing, to the world we show our affection.”
The video, produced by state news agency Xinhua and Su, is China’s latest attempt at youth-friendly propaganda. It is part of a suite of content aimed at drumming up enthusiasm for the Two Sessions, which many see as little more than a political spectacle.
The two weeks of meetings and speeches are largely formulaic, providing some new details of already known policies. The National People’s Congress (NPC) of almost 3,000 delegates, which opened on Tuesday, ratifies Chinese laws that have already been approved.
China’s main state media outlets all have special features on the Two Sessions, including videos of “mini Ted talks” by delegates. The People’s Daily newspaper gives readers an option to read and listen to selected quotes by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China Daily has a quiz on the history of the sessions while Xinhua has unveiled a new female AI anchor to cover the event.
This year’s efforts are especially focused on international audiences. In addition to the rap video, CGTN, the international version of CCTV, published a sleek data interactive showing the number of women in the NPC (about 25%), the average age of delegates (54) and other trivia. In a Xinhua video, two women uncomfortably answer questions as they are quizzed on “fun facts” about the Two Sessions.
In another video by Xinhua titled, “Chinese democracy in the eyes of an American,” a reporter for Xinhua says: “It is widely acknowledged that a key to China’s success is its system of democracy”. He advises interested viewers to follow the Two Sessions to see Chinese democracy in action.
The video posted on Xinhua’s account on Twitter, which is blocked in China, was quickly ridiculed and the journalist criticised.
China officially has several political parties, but the country’s real power lies with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), overseen by Xi. Officials and defenders of the system say China has its “own style of democracy” in which the interests of the people are represented by the government’s decisions.
“The Party has been putting a lot of effort into strengthening the dissemination of their political messages,” said Caterina Bellinetti, an art historian specialised in Chinese visual culture and propaganda.
“In the past propaganda was mainly inward directed, now, thanks to the internet, any person in the world can be subjected to it or at least experience it,” she said.
In some ways, Chinese propaganda appears to be reverting back to campaigns used under Mao Zedong. Large red banners extolling the party and its mission have become more frequent in Beijing in the last few years. A new app for studying “Xi Jinping thought” has become mandatory for many party officials.
“Despite the obvious technological changes, Chinese propaganda is going back in time,” Bellinetti said.
It’s not clear that the campaign is working internationally or domestically. Comments on the microblog Weibo have been invariably positive, a sign discussion is being regulated. A CCTV article about Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s opening speech on Tuesday included the same exact comment three times: “May the motherland prosper and may the people live better and better!”
After the opening of the NPC, the Two Sessions still lagged behind 15 other topics, including movie reviews, discussion of a lipstick brand, and a thread calling on people to discuss their shortest relationships.
Xu Zelong, 24, a graduate student at Beijing Technology and Business University said he had not heard of the various promotional videos and rarely clicks on news stories about the Two Sessions. “I can’t think of a specific topic that would attract my attention,” he said.
Xing Jian, 28, who works at a bank in Beijing, said: “The Two Sessions is supposed to be a big thing in China, but I feel like the deputies are really far away from my life. They may make some proposals but nothing happens. I don’t even know the difference between the NPC, CPPCC, and the Party congress,” she said, naming different government bodies that participate in the yearly meetings.
Scholars say soft power efforts like the rap video, whose production credits include at least 29 people, should not be overestimated. “What we are witnessing here is not a coordinated or well-considered strategy of external propaganda or attempts at foreign influence,” David Bandurski, co-director of the University of Hong-Kong’s China Media Project, wrote in a blog post.
“What we are seeing is the inevitable outcome of a propaganda system that is cash-rich and culturally and intellectually bankrupt,” he said.