China: Time of Transition

China Spins Away From Propaganda

Jamil Anderlini
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Successful politicians in democracies are usually expert at tailoring their message to suit the audience and some of them take this versatility to great lengths.

When he was trying to capture the heart of the working man, Tony Blair famously claimed his favorite food was fish and chips. Yet when trying to appeal to a more trendy demographic his favorite meal became fresh fettuccine drizzled with olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and capers.

Freed from the constraints of electoral tests and public campaigning, Chinese leaders have not traditionally been very good at this, preferring to leave their unchanging image management in the hands of Maoist propagandists and a sycophantic state media.

But that appears to be changing.

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From what the world has seen so far of China's new leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have learnt a thing or two from Western spin-doctors.

During his first annual press conference as premier last Sunday, Mr Li's words and demeanor were carefully crafted to present him to the nation as a peasant boy done good.

His choice of earthy simple language and the hints of country-boy accent belied the three decades he has spent as a Communist party official as well as his master's degree in law and PhD in economics from China's best university.

The command performance was augmented this week by a state media campaign lauding Mr Li's "down-to-earth work style".

Xi Jinping, China's newly-confirmed president, has also shown an ability to moderate his message and delivery style depending on who he is talking to.

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In contrast, his predecessor, just-retired Hu Jintao, is often referred to in private as "wooden-face" and his public appearances were predictable in the extreme.

Mr Li's predecessor, Wen Jiabao, liked to be known as "grandpa Wen" and was the official in China's last administration who came closest to the kind of image management on display last weekend.

But he never quite managed to expand his repertoire and whether he was eating dumplings with coal miners or addressing the World Economic Forum he almost invariably came across as the genial geologist he trained to be.

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The comparison between China's incoming and outgoing leaders shows how sophisticated the Communist party is getting at managing its image and how much its propagandists have learnt from their counterparts in the west.

But there is something more substantive behind the slick delivery and the tailored messaging.

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The two men who are expected to lead the country for the next decade exude a confidence and composure that their predecessors lacked and they talk about their country in a subtly different way.

Over the past week, Financial Times reporters were able to observe Mr Li up close on two occasions, the second of these during a bilateral meeting with Jack Lew, the new U.S. Treasury secretary.

On both occasions Mr Li spoke about China and the U.S. as if they are equals and acted as if China is, at least, the second most powerful and important country in the world. This is an attitude that Mr Xi clearly shares.

When Mr Hu and Mr Wen took over the country a decade ago it was the world's fifth-largest economy, with a sclerotic and outdated military and bankrupt financial system.

Today their successors have good reason to be more self-assured – China's military is rapidly modernizing, its banks survived the great financial crisis relatively unscathed and it is the world's second-largest economy after the US.

Many observers in Asia and the rest of the world view a more assertive Beijing with trepidation and worry that Chinese overconfidence could lead to confrontation and even war.

But a much more confident China could actually be a very good thing. If China and its leaders feel powerful and secure then they are more likely to allow what they might otherwise see as provocations to flow off their backs without feeling the need to respond.

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Far more dangerous than a hubristic China is one that feels belittled, cornered and threatened and which views aggressive actions on its part as justifiable retaliation or self-defense.

The world will find out soon enough whether the new leaders' self-assurance is real or whether it is just another example of how much China's authoritarian spin-doctors have learnt from their counterparts in the west.