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The Dalai Lama, China's "Main Melody" and the Modernizing Propaganda State

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Two phrases stick with me from a fine talk last week by the intrepid Xiao Qiang (director of the China Internet Project at the University of California Berkeley). Xiao described China as a "modernizing propaganda state" (what's to determine is how it is modernizing and in what relationship to increasingly dynamic publics and the global stage).

Xiao also coined the phrase "main melody" to capture the narrative produced by that changing and multi-dimensional propaganda machine (his talk was at a Columbia forum on China).

How that propaganda state shifts the melody -- and in conversation with whom -- was much in evidence this week with respect to Tibet, the Olympics, Darfur and so much more.

For example, we see outcroppings of private conversations between the Europeans, the US and China over the Dalai Lama. By April 26, it's become apparent that China is trying to modulate (however slightly) how it's perceived on Tibet -- as Chinese officials let it be known they would meet envoys of the Dalai Lama.

John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State telegraphed this, on April 22, before Senator Barbara Boxer's Foreign Relations Committee. Negroponte was at his most diplomatic, trying to quell the Boxer Rebellion over how aggressive the US should be in terms of China and Tibet (ironically or consistently, the first Boxer rebellion was about fighting foreign influence in Chinese politics and culture).

Negroponte sought to express a touch of displeasure with China while not, in the current reigning metaphor, "burning bridges" with the Chinese leadership. He urged discussions with representatives of the Dalai Lama (knowing undoubtedly that such discussions might soon be announced), and said:

I would have thought, given the outpouring of reaction that there's been to the Olympics, and some of the protests that have taken place in Europe and elsewhere, that they must be very mindful of the issues that this is creating for China's image. And I would have thought that they would have an interest in thinking hard about what they can do, through a process of dialogue and other peaceful means, to work their way out of the very difficult and unsatisfactory situation in which they find themselves at the moment.... If Beijing does not engage with the Dalai Lama now, it will only serve to strengthen those who advocate extreme views.

On a somewhat different front, China took steps, as well, to make it more costly, at least symbolically, to attack its narrative of strength, efficiency and progress at becoming a "normal" world power. Government officals filed a protest against CNN and Jack Cafferty (see here) and a $1.3 billion lawsuit was filed against the network by two Chinese citizens for calling China a bunch of thugs and goons (and the same thugs and goons they've been for fifty years).

What's noteworthy is the level and extent of the official China reaction to the natterings of a cranky pundit. This is a not so subtle warning to US entities that China would not stand idly by while it is rhetorically demonized. And one should add to these official condemnations the street demonstrations against CNN in Beijing and elsewhere in which spontaneity melds with government sanction.

Earlier in the week, Nicolas Sarkozy, maneuvered in the face of large-scale reactions (including boycotts of the French retailer, Carrefour) to his musings about not attending the Olympics' Opening Ceremonies and to the Paris torch-relay protests. He dispatched a high level diplomat to apologize to the newly heroic Jin Jang, the disabled Chinese athlete who struggled against a Paris protester trying to grab the Olympic torch from her.

And the ever-active Mia Farrow found yet another way to leverage impact on reputation (in this case corporate reputations) to bring pressure to bear on China in advance of the Olympics. She announced Dream for Darfur's latest Report Card on Olympic Sponsors and the extent to which they tried, or according to her, did not try to intervene with China on relations to Sudan. (hint: Coca Cola and Adidas improved their grades).

Undoubtedly, we'll see more efforts to pull top Olympic sponsors into the debate over China's "main melody" as they are seen as an integral part of the modernizing -- to use Qiang Xiao's term -- of the propaganda machine (There's an excellent blog on the increased pressure on these sponsors at Knowledge@Wharton: Navigating Olympic Sponsorship: Marketing your Brand without Alienating the World).

What all this amounts to is a complex battle of, can we say it, Olympian proportions in terms of trying to establish or disestablish the reputation of China. The list of players is virtuously endless (see, for example Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, "Are We Really Going to Let China Cover Itself in Olympic Glory?", all part of the process highlighted in our recent book "Owning the Olympics: Narratives of the New China."