Step into the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center in the basement of an apartment building, and you step back in time.
Yang Peiming, the art center's founder and owner, was a teenager when the China's Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. He became a Red Guard — he says just about everyone his age did. But then another group of Red Guards attacked his family's house, ransacked their belongings, even took his stamp collection. The whole experience made Yang start to see through the propaganda of the time.
"Cultural Revolution gave a very good lesson. When you sit down, you think many things. When you're thinking, you will distinguish what is real, what is fake, and what is good and what is bad," Yang said.
Here on the walls, in splashes of color — lots of red — was the world as the Communist Party wanted the Chinese people to see it: Happy dancing people, noble soldiers, a smiling benevolent Mao Zedong. Even during the Great Famine in the late 1950s and early '60s, when some 30 million people died, there's a poster of a cute girl in pigtails, with a fat mother pig and her piglets.
"In the Great Famine, there was nothing to eat so they put a big pig in the picture, so at least people could watch the pig," he said with a laugh.
These days, propaganda in China is decidedly more slick.
The newscast on Chinese Central Television looks like a newscast anywhere. But behind the scenes, the propaganda apparatus is still hard at work. Chinese journalists still get regular directives from the Propaganda Bureau about what to write, what not to write, where to place stories on a page, and how long to leave them up online.
It's all rather annoying for journalists like Yu Chen of the Southern Metropolis Daily, who'd like to do more real journalism.
He says that censorship of traditional newspapers has gotten really tight in recent years – only the Party newspapers, like the People's Daily, are allowed to have freer debate on issues.
"At least, there's social media," he said. He and other journalists have been using Twitter and the Chinese equivalent Weibo to get ideas out that otherwise would be muffled or shaped into the story the government wants people to hear.
Even that arena is getting renewed scrutiny from China's new propaganda czar, Liu Qibao. After disappearing for a few days earlier this month (he was mysteriously pulled off a planned trip to Vietnam, Laos and North Korea), he emerged to say he was studying how to strengthen control of the internet. He said the media – or, as he put it, the "propaganda, ideological and cultural front lines" – "must serve the Party. That is their cardinal task."
He went on to say, "They must explain profound theories in simple language, to enter people's hearts and minds."
That's propaganda, all right.
But Dali Young, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, says the Party's not so comfortable calling it what it is, anymore — at least, not publicly.
"In fact, the Propaganda Ministry has a building that does not carry its name in front. Sometimes, it feels like that department works almost like an underground organization, and that actually says something," he said. "It used to be that the Propaganda Department would issue a lot of directives, publicly. That's no longer happening. Now, they'd make a phone call. They don't want to publicly say, this is what I do — censorship."
That's not surprising, given how media-savvy and sophisticated much of China's population has become. Almost half are now online so information can be checked and counter-checked, and skepticism is rife.
Yang Peiming, the propaganda art museum owner, says it's clear what the government has to do in modern China to win people's hearts and minds.
"I think the government has come to realize propaganda cannot be so important like yesterday," he said. "Education should be proved by the deeds you have done, how much you solve the problems of the people really, and not only lip service, or the like in the propaganda posters."
China's new leaders seem to get this. At least, it's said that at this time of alarmingly wide and growing income disparity, and disgust with corruption, they're reading up on what caused the French Revolution.
The message from this propaganda art museum — this glimpse of an idealized Communist China that never really was — may well be, don't believe your own publicity.
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