China’s propaganda machine misses its soft power moment
Photo by Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

China’s propaganda machine misses its soft power moment

Protocol China

Good morning! Washington and Beijing are talking more these days about fighting climate change together, which is a solid idea. The two countries are at loggerheads in other areas but seem to agree that notwithstanding Musk-led boosterism, Mars is markedly less pleasant than Earth.

In this week's Protocol | China: a soft-power home run turns into a whiff, a chip school at prestigious Tsinghua and bike graveyards that could last for decades or more.

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The Big Story

China missed a huge soft-power moment

Chinese audiences have a longstanding love affair with Hollywood — even if it's frequently seen Hollywood bend over backwards to please Chinese censors — and the Oscars are a closely-watched event. Yet few Chinese voices had anything to say about Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who won the Oscar for best director on Saturday, becoming the first person born in mainland China to do so.

  • State media said zilch. The Wall Street Journal reported that state outlets had received directives from propaganda authorities not to report on Zhao's news.
  • Search engine Baidu has blocked search results leading to Zhao's Oscar win.
  • On Weibo, both the news and the translated title for Zhao's film "Nomadland" — 无依之地 (wú yī zhī dì) — are censored.

This could have been the moment of national pride and global validation China has been seeking for years. So what happened?

  • China's nationalist "Red Vs" now control much of the public discourse. Zhao's sin: a comment in a 2013 edition of Filmmaker Magazine that there are "lies everywhere" in China, which nationalists unearthed after her nomination was announced.
  • As Protocol reported earlier this month, Red Vs are now in an informal but powerful alliance with state outlets, who select and elevate grassroots material that best underscores Beijing's narrative, incentivizing nationalists to cook up yet more pro-Party fare.

Propaganda is primarily a technology of domestic social control. It's a complex, multi-sided market mediated by tech. The government must suppress demand for true information using censorship and hate campaigns, while creating demand for government-approved content and the supply to meet it.

  • Zhao's comments in 2013 may as well have been made 30 years ago in Chinese internet terms. China's government has gotten far, far more skilled at censoring content — and creating shareable, government-approved replacement content — since then.
  • The Zhao fiasco also shows why Chinese propaganda is far less potent abroad, despite efforts to spread it via outlets like China Daily and CGTN. Propaganda isn't about persuasion, it's about using words and images to project government power and make disagreeing with Beijing feel marginal and dangerous. That carries much less weight outside of China's borders.

But some Chinese web users still celebrated, using puns and emojis to circumvent censorship. One involved swapping out the second character in the movie title for the number one. Because it indicates a role in a gay rexlationship in Chinese slang, Weibo users are also referring to the film as Chengdu, the southwestern Chinese city known as a queer-friendly place.

On Protocol | China

  • America's most popular news app has its roots in China. News Break is more downloaded than the New York Times, the BBC or even the Google News apps. More remarkably, it focuses on local news, traditionally a harder space in which to rack up pageviews. How did Chinese innovations around algorithmic content curation win the U.S.'s very different news market — and what can American outlets learn from it? Shen Lu investigates.
  • Alibaba's "Rural Taobao" doesn't (really) work. It does benefit villages by making it easier to buy stuff, but the much-ballyhooed program doesn't make it easier for villagers to sell their own goods, a recent research study showed. Zeyi Yang has more.
  • China has over one third of the world's 6G patents, according to a recent paper by the Chinese Patent Office. 5G is in all the headlines, but by 2030, 6G — which which could be 100 times faster than 5G — is likely to be the worldwide standard. Look out, world. Zeyi Yang has the news.

China Goes Global

  • Hello, Hello Inc.: meet China's first bike-sharing company to go public. The Ant Financial-backed Hello is set to be the first Chinese bike-sharing company to IPO. Last Friday, Hello filed to raise $100 million on Nasdaq. Founded in 2016, the Shanghai-based startup survived China's brutal bike-sharing battle that flared up in 2017. Other than bike sharing, Hello has expanded its services to include rented e-bikes, e-scooters and carpools.
  • Tencent plans an Indian comeback for its hit game. After being banned by the Indian government last summer along with hundreds of Chinese apps, PUBG Mobile, Tencent's overseas money-minting video game, may make an imminent return to the country, reports local publication BGR India. The game was hugely popular in India before being blacklisted, so it's no surprise Tencent would want to develop a local version to appease regulators.
  • The future of social media is in China. Beijing-based company Asia Innovations Group is using its China experience to take over the global social media industry. Its app Lamore was the third most-downloaded dating app globally outside Mainland China in the first half of 2020, the company says. In an interview with tech publication Rest of World, AIG's CEO Andy Tian, a Zynga and Google veteran, says social media will look more like China and less like the U.S. "My friends in Silicon Valley, sitting under blue skies, sipping nonfat double lattes, don't really appreciate the kind of social environment we have in Asia," Tian told ROW, predicting the days of one-feature social apps are ending. "The next generation of mobile social [is] much more diverse, much more fragmented, much more interesting."


With negative sentiment toward technology companies strengthening, Techlash continues to erode much of the good work that many organizations do. Understanding the importance of prioritizing communications to protect and strengthen your reputation is the first step to position your company in the best possible light and minimize the potential of Techlash.

Learn more

One Company You Should Know

Transsion is calling.

You may not have heard of the Shenzhen-based smartphone maker, but Transsion is the undisputed mobile winner in African markets. The company's 2020 Annual Report, released Monday, shows Transsion going strong during a year of global setbacks, with annual operating revenue growing 49% to $5 billion and net profit growing 54%. It maintains a 40% share of the African smartphone market and is expanding quickly into South Asia. Key to its success: Trassion has adapted hardware features and mobile apps to the specific needs of African countries.

Big Brother Beijing

  • A chip school opens at Tsinghua. On April 22, the prestigious Tsinghua University inaugurated the School of Integrated Circuits to train future microchip professionals, according to TMTPost. The move is a direct response to China's 320,000-person semiconductor talent shortage, and aims to help the country pursue semiconductor production self-sufficiency amid continuing tech conflicts with the U.S.
  • Antitrust regulators take on Meituan. On Monday, China's state antitrust regulator announced an investigation into Meituan, a shopping platform for local consumer products and retail services, alleging it forced businesses to enter exclusive partnerships with the platform, a behavior known as "pick one from two." Earlier this month, Alibaba was fined a record $2.75 billion for the same practice. Meituan said it will work with the authorities.
  • Beijing fines four ed tech firms. Beijing's municipal market regulator fined four leading online education companies $77,100 each for false advertising and a breach of China's pricing law, the maximum allowed. The offenders: TAL Education Group, Gaosi Education Group, Koolearn Tech and GSX Techedu. China's ed tech industry enjoyed explosive growth in 2020, buoyed by the pandemic. But this year, the sector has come under regulatory scrutiny as the Chinese government is concerned edtech giants are spending too much on marketing and not enough on education.

On Our Radar

  • China's biggest AI companies look to square one of healthcare's toughest problems: messy text data. Tech-focused outlet QbitAI reports the Chinese Information Processing Society recently launched the country's first public evaluation benchmark for healthcare data natural language processing, called CBLUE. It's supported by Zhejiang University and various Chinese AI companies in the healthcare space, including Alibaba Damo Academy and Ping An Healthcare and Technology.
  • Chinese Big Tech could dodge Apple's new privacy rules. Apple rolled out a new privacy feature on Monday that will allow iOS device owners to control how their data is used. According to the 21st Century Business Herald, Apple's new privacy policy could affect China's $31 billion digital ad sector. Last year, the China Advertising Association and the China Academy of Information and Communication Technology jointly launched the CAID (China Anonymization ID) program that could allow Chinese apps to bypass Apple's new privacy framework. Apple has warned Chinese apps against doging its new privacy rules, but Chinese Big Tech firms are testing countermeasures anyway.


With negative sentiment toward technology companies strengthening, Techlash continues to erode much of the good work that many organizations do. Understanding the importance of prioritizing communications to protect and strengthen your reputation is the first step to position your company in the best possible light and minimize the potential of Techlash.

Learn more

One More Thing

China's bicycle graveyards are here to stay.

How long will it take for bikes to decompose? Will anthropologists in the distant future happen upon buried heaps of two-wheelers in Beijing and speculate on their provenance like a 20th-century analyst contemplating the Terracotta Warriors? Graveyards for abandoned shared bicycles in China — funded by overenthusiastic VCs hoping to win the market — have become an upsetting, and increasingly ubiquitous, aesthetic. The latest aerial photos by AFP showed one graveyard in Shenyang, China that has gone unaddressed for three years.

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