China is on the Lookout for Storytellers and Spin Doctors

By Jamphel Shonu*

Why do humans, and not apes or any other species, run the world? Historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari explain it is because humans have the unique ability to create and believe en masse in fictional realities. In other words, he says humans are a story-telling species and it is how humans achieve cooperation and control of each other. This statement rings true when you think about how dictators and autocrats throughout history have successfully relied on stories and storytellers to connect with the public and extend control. Mao Zedong, for instance, had one such storyteller in Edgar Snow, author of the book ‘Red Star Over China’. He famously helped portray the Chinese Communists as simple ‘agrarian reformers’, and Mao Zedong as a brilliant visionary. Through his writings, Snow also helped shape positive perceptions of the Chinese Communists in the western world as opposed to the image presented by Chiang Kei Shek and the Nationalists.

Perhaps taking a cue from Mao and touching base with our natural human condition, Xi Jinping emphasised stories as a crucial means to connect with the public. Within the first year of taking charge as China’s President, he introduced the phrase ‘telling China’s story well’, a euphemism for Chinese propaganda at a conference in August 2013. “We must meticulously and properly conduct external propaganda, innovating external propaganda methods, working hard to create new concepts, new categories and new expressions that integrate the Chinese and the foreign, telling China’s story well, communicating China’s voice well,” he said. However, it was easier said than done.

Almost nine years have gone since Xi took power and made that announcement. China’s global image has only gotten bad to worse since then. According to the Pew Research Center, views of China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies. In countries like the US, UK, India, and Germany, unfavourable views of China have reached the highest level in decades. The immediate cause of the surge in negative attitude was China’s botched handling of the pandemic and its deliberate attempts in the initial stages to mislead the world on the origins of the virus and extent of the spread. At the same time, China’s rising aggressive diplomacy – nicknamed wolf warrior – has invited the derision of the international community. In India, China’s belligerent postures at the border and fatal clashes resulted in record levels of negative attitude towards China unheard of since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. In addition to these, the ongoing repression and violent abuse of human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong, and East Turkestan by Chinese authorities painted a cold and nasty image of the country. It is obvious from these developments that China, in its attempt to tell stories, seems to have lost the plot.

In response to these negative portrayals, China has recently reinvigorated its storytelling campaign. In June this year during a meeting with senior officials, Xi once again emphasised the importance of presenting a ‘credible, lovable, and respectable China’. In the same month, China Daily, an official mouthpiece of the Chinese government, launched the Edgar Snow Newsroom to ‘better tell the China story and the story of the Chinese communist party’. Zhou Shuchun, editor of the China Daily, explained that “the newsroom will give more platforms and opportunities to our international friends” “for recording the wonderful China story and revealing a rich, varied, and multidimensional image of China.” In other words, China is inviting modern versions of Edgar Snow to tell its story. China also seems to have co-opted a barrage of social media stars – influencers as they are called – to shape public opinion. It has started cultivating people with the talent, influence and the right ideological alignment to paint a softer image of China’s regime today, as Edgar Snow did to Mao’s regime.

However, as always, there is a strange and terrible paradox at the heart of China’s call for storytellers i.e. not every story teller is welcomed. In the past 18 months alone, China has expelled at least a dozen foreign journalists from the country. Numerous other journalists have also reported harassment from authorities for ‘rumour mongering’, another euphemism for factually reporting the situation under CPC rule. In truth, China wasn’t looking for storytellers with a penchant for telling the truth. It is only looking for those who would amplify its propaganda, and flip, revise and even gleefully dismiss the real situation inside China particularly in places like Tibet and East Turkestan.

To present a softer and respectable image, China should understand that its own actions is the key. By focusing on its actions and reforming its harsh policies, China can change the narrative. Doing otherwise, like co-opting biased storytellers without taking a look at its harsh actions and rhetoric, is akin to putting the cart before the horse and will only backfire. The selective inattention paid to the genuine grievances of the people especially Tibetans and Uyghurs will only enflame the already fertile tensions in these places. Focusing on storytellers is not only superficial, but also counterproductive. To tell the China story, the story should be accurate, fair, and holistic. Only then, will China succeed in its attempts of an image makeover.

*Jamphel Shonu is the editor of and Tibetan Bulletin Magazine. This editorial first appeared in the May-June ’21 issue of Tibetan Bulletin magazine.