Every nation, business, religion and even certain powerful individuals end up creating propaganda. At times it is called “public relations” and sometimes it is called advertising. At other times it is called “news” and more often than not it is called “intelligence”, but it is all fundamentally a variation on the singular theme. Put frankly, every individual, organisation, nation or super-national body which stands to gain or lose money, power, prestige or the projected ability to gain or lose all of the above, requires the tools of promotion in order to secure its future interests. Before progressing, it must be emphasised that in this context the term “propaganda” isn’t used in a pejorative sense but merely as a reflection of the longstanding objective necessities of promoting an idea so that the idea can flourish and lead to any variety of enrichment. It is something that happens every day and something that happens everywhere.
In the 20th and 21st century, western propaganda, particularly from the United States has been superb. While domestic US propaganda often emphasises the illusion that the US is uniquely free, imbued with liberty and fairness, to the outside world, the message is far simper yet far more effective. Through the promotion of American products, the imagined American “lifestyle” and the insentient simplicity of Hollywood film, television and popular music, well paid US propagandists have convinced much of the world that if they Americanise themselves they will be rich, good looking, comfortable, safe, happy, carnally satisfied and admired by those around them.
Adding to the true genius of what the American author Gore Vidal called America’s only original art form, American marketing (aka propaganda) has been so successful that unlike in many countries, it is not directly subsidised by the public sector. Except for instances where bodies like the CIA actively promotes American culture abroad, most American propaganda is so successful that not only are the products they are selling profitable, but the propaganda itself functions as a profitable industry within America’s powerful private sector. If this isn’t a win-win for America then I fail to see what is.
By contrast, Soviet propaganda emphasised peace, social security, physical security, community values, physical health, academic and sporting excellence and personal good will. This powerful set of values indeed won many hearts and minds throughout the world, but crucially it failed to convince millions to question the “American way” because US propagandists were successful at creating the illusion of every Soviet value (albeit expressed in different lexicon) with the added incentive of saying that one could have all of these Soviet values and be immeasurably hedonistic and wealthy at the same time. Because the economic problems in the US during much of the Cold War were less severe than those at the turn of the 21st century, many Americans themselves believed the illusion as did many in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and The Middle East.
Both Marxists and traditional proponents of the so-called “American dream” realise that a materialist understanding of human behaviour is ultimately the most accurate way to understand how masses of people and nations think and feel. Put simply both ardent Marxist and ardent traditionalist Americans know that the wealthy man is more peaceful, contended and even happier than the poor man. Where these two ideologies depart in terms of “salesmanship” is that Marxist-Leninist propagandists in the 20th century failed to convince the subjects of their propaganda that the wealthy lifestyles promoted by US propagandists were unattainable. The expansion of personal credit in capitalist economies in the 20th century only served to bolster the claims of US propagandists by demonstrating that at least for a while, one could live large before it all came crashing down. Of course, Hollywood films always show a happy ending where the man or woman who loses all their wealth is somehow able to regain the wealth while also being largely psychologically unaffected by a dramatised period of suffering. In the real world, things are quite different but for millions around the world, the American dream was something that held and continues to hold a considerable amount of attraction.
In the 21st century, Russian propaganda has become more sophisticated than its Soviet predecessor. Today’s Russian propaganda outlets aimed at western audiences have become effective at speaking in the colloquial language of Americans and other westerners and in doing so are able to expose the many unhappy endings of people in the west whose American dream has become a 21st century economically depressed nightmare.
But this is only half the battle for any propagandist. The ultimate goal of a propagandist is to not only convince the intended audience that the narratives they have been previously offered were false, but one must also convince the audience that an alternative narrative leads to a better truth and consequently to a better life. While outlets like RT have been pioneering in showing the war criminality, domestic poverty, racism and social discord of the US that domestic outlets have become entirely reticent to touch, RT has generally failed to convince most Americans that a more Russian lifestyle or political system can provide a better alternative.
For example, if one asked how many Americans would trade their traditional vacations for a chance to train with a Russian martial arts team, learn an instrument from a respected Russian musician and then have a personal meet and greet with the Russian President, fewer (key word) Americans would opt for this than the number of Russians who would opt for a summer in a 5 star Hollywood hotel with prostitutes on demand (female or male), sports cars to cruise around in and all the alcohol and opulent foods one could stomach. This vulgar but ultimately accurate dichotomy shows that even at the level of curiosity, more non-Americans are curious about the “American dream” than Americans and other westerns are curious about the things that non-western societies traditionally value.
This is where China comes into the picture. For the moment, when compared to its Russian counterparts, Chinese propaganda tends not to speak in the colloquial language of Americans, nor does it reflect a humorous and undoubtedly enticing “trolling” attitude that is often common in Russian propaganda and is generally much more cut and dry.
One of the justifications for this has been that China’s wealth and its growing economy means that it does not need the kind of seductive propaganda that is being pushed by both the American and Russian superpowers – both of which have an economic future that for the moment looks less promising than that of China.
But as China and the US enter a stage of competition during a transitional period when the US continues to decline but China has not yet fully risen to the level of the world’s largest economy, the world is already in the midst of a major propaganda war that the US and Russia are both fighting hard, but which China for now appears to remain content to sit out, at least in its initial rounds, even though China stands to potentially gain the most from winning the so-called information war.
Ultimately, China does need to push its own national narrative as hard as the US and Russia, not so much for domestic purposes but because the many economic partners and potential economic partners of China are coming under a barrage of propaganda from the US which boils down to: “Go with China and be a hard working slave – join the US and have a bigger house, faster car and the sex appeal of good old American luxury”.
Objectively, China is far better placed to provide for the rapid infrastructural growth of developing nations in south east Asia, south Asia, The Middle East, Africa and Latin America vis-a-vis the US. But when it comes to salesmanship which is what the competition for sovereign partnerships is, China will need to up its propaganda game in order to demonstrate to future partners that the Chinese win-win model is better at producing actual wealth than the American illusion (aka dream).
In a television interview from the early 1970s, heavyweight boxing champion of the world and American political dissident Muhammad Ali explained why it is important even for a campaigner for justice and equality such as himself to have a large house, luxury cars and expensive watches. Ali stated that in order to attract a depressed underclass to a new and radical message, one must provide the visual symbolism of success so that a would be convert will be able to realise that a better worldly lifestyle is possible when one adopts a new spiritual and psychological mentality.
In this sense, China is in a similar geopolitical position as Muhammad Ali was as a respected athlete and socio-spiritual leader. Today, China is able to back up would-be propaganda about the wealth possible through cooperating with China in the same way that Ali was able to back up his often grandiose rhetoric with an untouchable record of success in the ring and an equally impressive set of values which he lived by outside of the ring.
Therefore, while American propaganda has excelled at convincing people to believe in false promises, while Russian propaganda has succeeded in convincing people that the American promises were indeed false to begin with, a bold, easy to understand, ultra-modern Chinese propaganda worthy of the 21st century must demonstrate that China can make bold promises and deliver. In this sense, propaganda is only a “dirty word” if it is based on shaping perceptions based on lies rather than truths. Thus, a would-be modernised Chinese propaganda which demonstrates that the wealthy lifestyle possible in the modern Chinese economy is not what most people have been led to believe is propaganda. It is what a naive American might call “clever marketing”. In China’s case, delivering the product is comparatively simple. Now it is time for China to become more advanced and direct in conveying the message – in making the sale.