In Xi We Trust: How Propaganda Might Be Working in the New Era

Damien Ma and Neil Thomas:

That problem was the CCP itself. Most Chinese were well aware that the Party had drifted toward crony capitalism, as corruption swelled within its rank-and-file. The CCP brand reached its nadir when the Bo Xilai crisis—in which the populist and ambitious leader of Chongqing was purged and jailed after his wife murdered a British national—exploded in early 2012, reinforcing the growing cynicism the Chinese public held toward its government.

The crisis shook the CCP just before Xi took the reins of the world’s largest political party. Xi’s urgent task, then, which likely had consensus approval from other senior leaders, was to strengthen a weakened Party through a massive anti-corruption campaign and a reimagined Party narrative to win the hearts and minds of Chinese people.

These twin efforts were of equal importance to Xi’s goals and were mutually reinforcing in their implementation. From the CCP’s vantage point, faltering public trust was as much an existential threat to its legitimacy as a potential economic collapse. The Party understood that it must stand for something beyond perpetuating its own power and its cadres’ self-enrichment. Indeed, the CCP had to fill its platform with more compelling ideas—or face a credibility crisis of monumental proportions. In this context, Xi’s Chinese Dream set the stage for the elevation of ideological work to a level perhaps not seen since the Mao era.

Propaganda often gets short shrift in mainstream coverage of Chinese politics, possibly because the propaganda apparatus is frustratingly opaque and its effectiveness hard to measure. But the CCP, as a Leninist ruling party that demands political unity among its 89 million members and public compliance with its dictates from nearly 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, invests enormous resources in the promulgation of official ideologies, media management, and public opinion guidance.

Propaganda work is so instrumental to the political system that the Central Propaganda Department (CPD), established in 1924, is almost as old as the CCP itself, which was founded three years earlier in 1921. Since 1992, the propaganda system has been overseen by a PBSC member, who heads the Central Leading Small Group on Propaganda and Thought Work (CLSGPTW). This system is responsible for all Party publicity and for the supervision of all information domains in China and, to the extent possible, abroad. That it was so important for Xi to be the first top leader since Deng Xiaoping to enshrine his name in the Party Constitution—under the aegis of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”—is a testament to the tight control and crucial role of political expression under CCP rule.