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Project Harmony: The Chorus behind China’s Voice

With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, can there really be such thing as a single “voice of China”? According to the Chinese government, the answer is, without question, yes. Not only does there exist a “China's voice” or a “Chinese voice,” this voice is becoming stronger and stronger on the international stage. Such was the view of a June 21 article in the People’s Daily entitled “The Government Must Consider International Implications When Dealing with Domestic Issues.” The piece asserts that China has worked actively to make “China’s voice resound” and then goes on to ask: “In the midst of an ever more resounding ‘China's voice,’ how can we become part of the harmonious melody and at the same time avoid becoming the makers of noise and cacophony[?]”

This grandiose metaphor raises practical questions.

First, whose ideas constitute the “Chinese voice” if not the 1.3 billion+ people who call themselves citizens and people of China?

The People’s Daily article makes clear that what is meant by “China’s voice” is actually the voice of the well-coordinated narrative of China’s leaders. In his analysis of the June 21 People's Daily piece, David Bandurski of the China Media Project emphasizes the chasm between “China's voice” as conceived by China’s present-day leadership and the sum of the voices of the Chinese people.

Bandurski writes:

What I find most interesting about the People’s Daily piece is how it exhibits a more open and proactive attitude toward news stories—the idea, for example, that facts and transparency, and not just cover-up, are crucial—while it argues that “China’s voice” must be uniform and harmonious, which of course implies centralized control of the message (the “main theme,” as the Party calls it).

The most critical question facing China’s “soft power” is the question of whether “China’s voice” is diverse and multifaceted, or whether it is the product of government-engineered uniformity. Are we talking about “China’s voices” or about “China’s voice”?

The People’s Daily piece obviously answers for the latter. China has a single voice, one that is “full and accurate” in the sense that it is in line with the Party’s priorities—but is not messy or strident …

“China’s voice” as modulated by the Chinese Communist Party can only be a limited voice, subjected to an unspoken political violence, and that invites a mistrust that ultimately undermines China’s soft power efforts.

Second, is it true that “China's voice” is becoming “ever more resounding”?

If we understand the concept of “China's voice” to be the voice modulated by the CCP, all signs point to “yes”—this voice is becoming ever more resounding. Not only has the Chinese government committed substantial resources to the international expansion of Chinese state media, but the timing of the planned expansion has coincided with the decision by many prominent Western news media outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times to erect online paywalls, which have in practice limited public access. As Mark MacKinnon, Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail newspaper, recently noted, the tangible effects of this simultaneous rise and decline have been seen worldwide. MacKinnon cites examples of this shift: China Daily is now apparently the only English-language newspaper available at a hotel in Milan, English-language newspapers in the Middle East increasingly rely on newswire stories from Xinhua (as opposed to Reuters or Associated Press), and free home delivery of China Daily to residents of Rockridge in Oakland, California.

It is clear that “China's voice” is becoming more strongly projected not just within highly-publicized international forums, but also through more insidious channels of soft power, such as through international media and Confucius Institutes.

Third, what is meant by the reference to “noise and cacophony”? Based on the People's Daily piece, it may mean two things: the “crowded canvas of international public opinion” and also the rising chorus of Weibo users who have shown their willingness to both harmonize with the official “melody” (i.e. by highlighting the “down-to-earth” action of a local official) and to ring out in dissonance (i.e. by focusing international attention on a case of a forced abortion of a Shaanxi woman who was seven-and-a-half months pregnant). Though the People’s Daily piece urges local officials to remember the importance of better governance in shaping the international image of China, it is not clear that by “better governance” they do not also mean increased management of “noise and cacophony” through, for example, increased censorship and surveillance.

In revisiting the original question posed by the People’s Daily piece (“In the midst of an ever more resounding ‘China's voice’ how can we become part of the harmonious melody and avoid becoming makers of noise and cacophony[?]”), the question may as well be read as follows: Given the decline of Western news media organizations and the rising international influence of Chinese media, how might we amplify the singular voice of the Chinese Communist Party, and at the same time neutralize all other dissonant voices? How can we convince the world that our chorus of one—the CCP—stands for the chorus of all of the Chinese people? Better governance is one strategy, but the more likely one is the one left unsaid—insidious strengthening of the greater harmonious project. Compare this with the loudspeaker propaganda campaigns of the Mao era, and suddenly the newspaper on your front doorstep or at your hotel in Milan takes on a whole new meaning.