If the Chinese Dream is to lead to a more viable social contract, the CPC must review how it produces and packages its messages
After months of speculation, the 60-point document that emerged from the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee in mid-November contained few surprises. It confirmed expectations regarding economic policy and hinted at changes in the one-child policy and system of reeducation through labor. However, it did not address one of China’s gravest challenges: promoting socially and environmentally sustainable behaviors among the population, some one-fifth of humanity, at large. The state’s efforts to address this have so far been timid and incoherent.
Breakneck growth and urbanization have brought unprecedented prosperity, but many feel that the values and behavior accompanying this evolution are in need of review. The costs of business as usual have been mounting: from litter-laden streets to melamine-tainted milk to ever more alarming examples of corruption and apathy. Even President Xi Jinping recently stated that his nation’s moral compass has gone awry.
Since assuming leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi has been trumpeting the Chinese Dream, a vision described at times as “a national rejuvenation” and at others as “the aspiration for a beautiful life.” Although he has stated that the Dream will be realized by mid-century, exactly what it entails and how it will be achieved remain unknown, and the Third Plenum’s report did little to elaborate. Given the urgency of the issue, only an expansive, cohesive and sustained Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaign will do. This campaign will have to learn from past mistakes: floridly worded yet vacuous campaigns, including the previous administration’s Harmonious Society campaign, no longer resonate with an increasingly sophisticated Chinese public. Responsibility lies with the CPC’s over-centralized Publicity Department (CPCPD).
A Harmonious Society
After Deng Xiaoping consented to “let some get rich first” in the early 1980s, he unleashed ambitions that had been suppressed for decades. The institutions necessary to govern the transition towards a market economy were weak, and abuses became widespread. By the 1990s, the Party’s leadership felt that materialism had infected the national psyche, and saw discontent with official corruption result in instability. Jiang Zemin’s administration began actively advocating for the restoration of traditional Confucian values, which had been systematically purged in Mao’s era, and created the Central Commission for Guiding Cultural and Ethical Progress to complement the existing Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideological Work. Together, these two top-level agencies direct the work of the CPCPD.
The CPCPD is arguably the world’s most powerful propaganda apparatus, and has a long tradition of shaping values and attitudes via mass campaigns with a scope spanning virtually every media outlet available. Whether through print, broadcasts, the Internet, exhibits, cultural performances or official events, the CPCPD conveys meticulously thought out messages intended to bolster support for the Party’s policies and campaigns.
The Harmonious Society campaign, adopted in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2011), aimed to address some of the endemic growing pains that were accompanying China’s rise onto the world stage. Realizing that social development was lagging behind economic gains, the state was to take a more active role in preempting any instability that might arise from China’s widening inequalities.
In theory, this vision would be realized by 2020 if priority were given to policies promoting the reduction of inequalities through the integration of disadvantaged social groups and underdeveloped regions. The expansive guidelines published by the CPC’s Central Committee, however, were vague on specifics. Using action verbs such as “improving,” “guaranteeing,” and “favoring,” it provided very few concrete procedures or measurable milestones.
The problem with state-led campaigns promoting “a harmonious society” or “civilized behavior” is that they represent abstract ideas which are not conveyed in an appealing fashion. The continuing marketization of the economy and rising disposable income have made Chinese citizens more self-aware and sophisticated regarding their individual preferences and personal consumption. Globalization and the spread of the Internet are molding an urban middle class that is more diverse and discerning in its tastes, and their expectations can no longer be met with the bare minimum.
This said, social campaigns and PSAs should not be completely written off; the state still stands a chance of being heard if its message is packaged and delivered correctly. To do so, it can draw lessons from its own successful, behavior-changing public service campaigns, as well as those from NGOs.
When Beijing was selected to host the 2008 Olympic Games, China was given a chance to showcase its progress to the world. The Olympics were to be an exercise in national prestige, and civic pride dictated that everyone should be on their best behavior. In the capital, a citywide campaign spearheaded by the ad-hoc municipal agency called the Capital Ethics Development Office was set up to organize and execute a campaign specifically aiming to curb spitting, littering and public cursing, and promote orderly queuing. The lead up to the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 marked a similar transition for Shanghai citizen behavior. As well as addressing the same concerns as in Beijing, the Shanghai campaign also sought to rein in the venerable Southern Chinese tradition of wearing pajamas outside.
Both campaigns were largely successful, having consisted of concerted efforts employing all forms of media and teams of volunteers dispatched to the streets to help with enforcement. Unfortunately, once each city’s respective spectacles were over, gains were lost. The ads and volunteers disappeared, enforcement became lax, and an influx of migrants who had not been exposed to the campaigns all but ensured that old habits returned.
As opposed to the rhetoric-heavy, abstract language of the Harmonious Society campaign, these campaigns have all had specific objectives, clearly mentioning the kind of behavior that they sought to change. They have pulled the interest of the Chinese public either by appealing to their pride, their admiration of celebrities, or their compassion, and they have highlighted the costs of business as usual, be they unsightly streets and inefficient transport or suffering animals and shattered ecosystems. They have been educational, without being condescending. Moreover, they have backed up their messages with actions, attempting to legitimize their plea, reinforce the proper behavior, and enforce existing laws.
Doing It Right
The CPC and the Chinese state are no strangers to mass campaigns, but the Harmonious Society drive has made it evident that old techniques are no longer able to generate a visceral connection with the public. If the Chinese Dream isn’t approached differently, it runs the risk of being labeled xin ping zhuang jiu jiu: old wine in new bottles.
An effective PSA campaign needs to be rolled out nationwide via all available media outlets and sustained over the long term with periodic reminders to ensure that gains are held. There are four vital components:
Decentralized Production and a Strong Role for Civil Society
With 33 provincial level administrative divisions and 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, China is incredibly diverse, and a one-size-fits-all approach would not be the most effective approach; what works in Zhejiang might not in Xinjiang. In minority regions in particular, involving locals and showing deference to their own beliefs and attitudes will be incredibly important. In order to tailor PSAs for specific audiences, production of ads and outreach initiatives would necessarily have to be decentralized. Final approval could remain at the CPCPD’s discretion, but local governments and civil society should be given ample creative leeway. If local tastes and attitudes are ignored, the campaign runs the risk of being ridiculed or even backfiring.
China has 591 million internet users, 460 million of which are mobile web users with access to information at their fingertips. Some 99.1 percent of villages and towns have Internet connections and more than 95 percent have broadband access. People from all walks of life are active on social media platforms such as the Sina Weibo microblog service. These have been fundamental to the development of an ever more interconnected Chinese civil society, which is just as capable of criticizing government as it is of promoting civic-minded behavior. It is essential that anything produced carries enough credibility with China’s netizens to go viral for the right reasons, rather than becoming a target of mockery.
Targeting Specific Behaviors
State-led initiatives often fail to generate the desired change because they don’t specify what they aim to change and why. Words such as “civilized” and “harmonious” are seldom tied to actual examples of such behavior. It is assumed that the public knows what they entail and why they are important. Yet unless a PSA can show the costs of bad behavior, it is unlikely to result in the expected change. A campaign to promote the Chinese Dream should be explicit about its targets, and should be graphic about how particular behaviors, however small, compound to seriously affect society. Namely, four kinds of behavior should be addressed:
Apathy: The Chinese term weiguan is a rough equivalent to the bystander effect. It is used to describe a scene in which a crowd surrounds a person in need of help, but offers no assistance. Yet in China, the reasons for inaction may be quite specific, with the 2006 case of Peng Yu, who was successfully sued by the stranger he rushed to the hospital, marking a sorry precedent. In a poll conducted by the Party-run China Youth Daily in 2011, shortly after the death of a toddler who was run over in a Foshan alley, 70.7 percent of respondents believed that the 18 passers-by who then ignored her did so in order to avoid getting themselves into trouble. Ads should encourage proactive behavior, teach the public how to notice and respond to emergency situations, and highlight heroism when appropriate.
Social etiquette: A number of general standards of etiquette are widely held to be requites for basic social interactions. Public urination, spitting, pushing and cutting in line, “Chinese style street crossing,” and aggressive driving are just some of the behaviors that should be reduced in China’s public sphere. Curbing these behaviors will not only improve public safety and public health, but also improve China’s national and global image.
Environmental awareness: The successful initiatives of NGOs such as WildAid and IFAW show that Chinese attitudes towards the environment are already changing. Indeed, the latest study conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that public concerns over air and water pollution now trail only inflation, inequality and corruption. On the citizen side, littering and improper waste disposal, overuse of air conditioners, the burning of trash, and aversion to carpooling are but a few of the deficiencies that can be addressed. However, the government must also honor its commitment to regulate polluting industries, including state-owned enterprises, if it intends to project any credibility. In all these cases the costs of inaction can easily be highlighted.
A commitment to quality: Although Toyota popularized the term kaizen, the word is derived from the Chinese gaishan, meaning “to improve.” As the country transitions towards a service-dominated economy, attention to detail and a spirit of continuous improvement are becoming increasingly important. China has nearly perfected the art of cutting costs, yet in order to become known for quality and innovation, it must correct its tendency to cut corners. Tragedies such as the poisoning of over 300,000 babies by tainted milk formula or the collapse of buildings and bridges are entirely avoidable. PSAs should encourage pride in one’s work and a commitment to product safety and reliability, while collusion between businesses and regulators must be curbed.
Modern Marketing Techniques
The artistic creativity needed to make an appealing and effective PSA requires ingenious minds who are familiar with the target audience’s tastes. The CPCPD must necessarily cooperate with private sector actors specializing in marketing and advertising, activities in which interactivity has become a vital aspect. On this front, China’s first public service advertising competition, which was launched this August by state-owned CCTV and received over 4,000 submissions, is a laudable initiative.
Although PSAs aim to educate and affect attitudes and behaviors, some of the same elements used to sell commercial products can be incorporated. Flowery words, patriotic slogans, and revolutionary jingles are not effective tools for disseminating PSAs to a sophisticated audience. Understanding consumer psychology and behavior is instrumental to developing a campaign that takes into account responses to design and employs the most efficient methods to ensure information retention. Different channels of communication must each be utilized to their maximum potential, meaning that designs should be specific to each medium and interactivity should be incorporated wherever possible, giving citizens a role and a voice in the campaign.
The campaign should also use Chinese celebrities and other household names as ambassadors to deliver information and testify on behalf of desirable values and behaviors. These messengers are essential to attract attention, personalize abstract concepts, provide credibility and facilitate concept association to ensure retention. Yao Ming’s participation in WildAid’s successful campaign is a perfect example of the power of celebrity. China’s growing ranks of world-class directors could also contribute to the production process.
The Party should also consider dispatching a dedicated public relations team of experts, officials and other advocates who can stress the importance of new behaviors in the public sphere, making appearances at talk shows, public events and entertainment outlets. Investing in these smaller, “pop-up” campaigns will add a human-interest angle that can influence audiences on a more intimate, relatable level. This can encourage citizens to seek further information and stimulate public dialogue on the topic.
Carrots and Sticks
Judiciously applying policies that demand and reward good behavior has the power to induce and maintain a stronger value system. Singapore is a notable example of the role that the state can play in correcting unsustainable behavior. Although occasionally labeled as sterile, it is undeniable that strict government efforts have yielded impeccable social etiquette, with gains reflected in public health, order and efficiency.
The punishment of egregious forms of bad behavior, such as traffic violations and littering, must be consistent. The “stick” aspect of the campaign would require new legislation and a dedicated public order force devoted to identifying infractions and executing commensurate penalties swiftly. These should not be limited to fines, which would disproportionately harm the poor while amounting to a slap on the wrist for the rich. Guilt and shame are powerful psychological tools, especially given the importance of face in Chinese culture. Best practices from around the world, such as those implemented in Bogotá under the mayorship of Antanas Mockus, could be adapted for Chinese society. The potential penalties for particular behaviors must be highly publicized, and the public must come to believe that both the likelihood and price of being caught are extremely high. The campaign must also have its “carrots,” including the tactful celebration of those exhibiting exemplary behavior, altruism, and self-sacrifice.
Seizing the Future
China’s millenary culture can rightly be described as exceptional, but its longevity does not imply that it is monolithic. Throughout its history it has had to adapt to survive, and it has often done so under the state’s guidance. Now, with globalization an irreversible reality, the state must step up once more to ensure that the nation’s newfound prosperity is accompanied by societal attitudes and behaviors befitting of its status. Xi’s vision of the Chinese Dream provides the perfect opportunity for a mass campaign dedicated to achieving this.
The costs of business as usual are soaring, with measurable effects on public health and safety, economic efficiency, the environment, stability, and China’s global image. The myriad individual transgressions are but the tip of an iceberg.
The CPCPD must learn to adjust to the reality of an increasingly sophisticated audience and avoid repeating past mistakes. Some may argue that pinning hope on yet another PSA campaign is misguided, that the public has learned to phase out propaganda. But if a PSA can be attractive, it can be influential. Modern marketing techniques can ensure that messages get across – and stick. If the CPCPD loosens the reigns a bit and allows for a decentralized production model, it might just be capable of launching the kind of expansive, cohesive and sustained PSA campaign needed to address China’s problems with the necessary breadth, depth, and speed. If it continues resorting to outdated methodologies, however, the Chinese Dream might someday be remembered as a daydream.
Richard Ghiasy is a Research Fellow at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) and a former analyst at the Afghan Embassy to the People’s Republic of China. Stephan Mothe writes for the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences. Frances Pontemayor is a liaison for the Metallurgical Corporation of China’s strategic investments in Guam.