The Art of China Watching

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two years after his death that the Chinese propaganda machine started to attack Lin by name.
The defense portfolio was just one of many jobs that remained vacant for years on end. For several years there was no army chief of staff, no finance minister, no one in charge of health, no one in charge of public security, and, despite the growing importance of China's oil industry, no minister of petroleum. At no time since 1971 have all of China's provinces had an officially designated top man. Each time a new job opens up in China, it evidently becomes a political nightmare just to get a small group of people to agree on who should fill it. Most Chinese, even those in officialdom, can at best take only wild guesses as to who sits in what job until the appointments are announced by the Chinese press.
Because the Chinese people, and even many officials, are often kept in the dark about domestic politics, the usual problems of obtaining clandestine information about denied areas are magnified in the case of China. Officials abroad are often as confused about domestic developments as western observers are. An amusing exchange ensued last year when the Peking press began to attack the Italian film maker Antonioni. One official abroad asked another what the attacks were all about, and the reply was that there had been no explanation from Peking. Meanwhile, China watchers in Washington and elsewhere were frantically poring over the articles, certain that they were of enormous significance but not at all united about why they were.
Propaganda Analysis
Over the years, China watchers have developed some analytical tools, much the same as those used by Kremlinologists, to help break through the fog. The Chinese, for their part, as their perceived need for secrecy has increased, have devised a number of schemes to render these tools less useful than they might once have been. One rule of thumb is that in their propaganda the Chinese do not say things by accident and rarely say anything directly. They did not, for example, attack Antonioni for nothing, and they probably were trying to convey other messages beside their distaste for the film he made about China. One theory was that the attacks were directed at someone in the Chinese leadership who was known to be an Antonioni fan, another that they reflected a hardening of Chinese views toward cultural exchanges with the West. While the various theories arrived at through propaganda analysis usually lead to lively debates among China watchers, rarely can any single theory be proved conclusively.
Complicating the process of analyzing propaganda is a relatively "free" press in recent years, at least for those in the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The party's official newspaper has been known to carry two articles on the same subject in the same issue, expressing diametrically opposed views. Because no one "faction" in the leadership has exclusive access to the press and because even signed articles are usually in pseudonym, China watchers can never be absolutely certain whose views are being expressed in a given article.
Imprecise though it may be, propaganda analysis is often the only way to keep track of an important political development as it evolves. Last year the Chinese waged a major political campaign, almost exclusively through prop-


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:43 AM
Last Updated: Aug 10, 2011 02:23 PM