Chinese Communist Propaganda Abroad, 1949-1976


A review of Reaching the Distant Comrade: Chinese Communist Propaganda Abroad (1949-1976), by Çağdaş Üngör

This dissertation provides a comprehensive overview of People’s Republic of China ((hereafter, PRC) foreign propaganda work between 1949 and 1976 with emphasis on the radio and print media, which represented “the bulk” (p. 1) of foreign propaganda work during the Cold War. Sources employed include interviews, internal publications, and recently declassified archival sources drawn from institutions in the PRC and the United States. As the author notes, Cold War-era perceptions of the PRC overseas propaganda apparatus often overestimated its strength, a view which has been partly reproduced in more recent scholarship on cultural policies and informational activities carried out by non-Western or authoritarian states. By contrast, this dissertation builds a detailed and well-supported case for the argument that: 1) foreign propaganda work reflected deep insecurities with the PRC’s position within the Cold War international system, and 2) the foreign propaganda apparatus was in fact frequently hampered in its operation by organizational and financial shortcomings. Finally, this dissertation demonstrates—using propagandists’ own internal reports and rare examples of audience feedback—that even those messages which did reach their targets often failed to elicit the responses desired by message-makers. By focusing primarily on the Foreign Languages Press and Radio Peking (China Radio International), it makes a lasting contribution to studies of Maoist propaganda by framing China within a broader Cold War context, and by describing the organization and operations of this propaganda apparatus in unprecedented detail.

Structurally, this intellectually ambitious and historically revealing project is divided into sections devoted to: 1) origins of Chinese Communist Party propaganda, 2) organization, cadres, and principles of operation, 3) editorial policy and discourse, 4) channels of distribution, and 5) audience and reception. The arguments are supported by rich data concerning the organization, output, and audience of foreign propaganda institutions. Additional figures provide a wonderful introduction to the scope of PRC English-language publishing both before and during the Cultural Revolution—stunning evidence that, at least from a propaganda perspective, the PRC was hardly closed to onlookers in North Atlantic countries. Indeed, one of the main agendas which animates this dissertation as a whole is to depict the Maoist propaganda state as typical when compared with other Cold War governments, including that of the United States. As described in the Introduction, propaganda is probably best understood as “a set of activities conducted by a political entity […] to influence public opinion in order to realize certain goals” (p. 4). Thus, international propaganda was a supplement to diplomacy, a form of “soft” power, an area of policy, a financial and organizational enterprise, and a cultural experience for audiences. And yet PRC international propaganda was not, the author emphasizes, an unremittingly successful undertaking. Bureaucratic leadership, funding, overseas distribution channels, and audience attitudes were in constant flux. As a result, the PRC propaganda apparatus experienced severe limitations which have been largely overlooked by scholars. The dissertation, in turn, allows readers to understand the role of international propaganda in PRC foreign relations even as it challenges assumptions concerning that propaganda’s effectiveness as a tool of persuasion. The result is a valuable contribution to “cultural Cold War” scholarship making comparisons possible between the PRC and other governments which employed media as a tool of mass persuasion and diplomacy targeting foreign populations rather than elites. Finally, by exposing the limitations China’s Cold War international propaganda apparatus, the author implicitly offers a useful critique of “soft power” by highlighting how audiences are rarely persuaded by state messages which contradict deeply internalized worldviews and experience.

With research drawn from archives, internal government documents, interviews, and published sources, every chapter of this dissertation bristles with authoritative insight. Chapter 1, “Origins of Chinese Communist Propaganda,” goes back to the earliest years of the Chinese Communist Party (hereafter, CCP) to show how experiences with the Nationalists within the United Front and, later, in rural areas shaped Communist leaders’ understanding of propaganda as a key element of all political and military activity. During the years of the War of Resistance (1937-1945), the CCP gained experience with overseas publishing for foreign audiences, and developed a “mass line” style of journalism which aimed at generating moral support. Foreign fellow-travelers and journalists often lent assistance to these efforts. Among the CCP elite, Zhou Enlai took a particular interest in the day-to-day operations of the international propaganda apparatus, while “personal relationships established and reinforced during the Yan’an years proved to be critical […] in terms of selecting the ideologically fit personnel for [propaganda] tasks after the socialist revolution” (p. 45). Due to the turbulence of the subsequent Civil War, a functioning central party Propaganda Department was not reestablished after the fall of Yan’an until May 1948, when Xibaipo became the CCP headquarters. From this point onward, the policy of nei-wai you bie (“making a distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ propaganda work”) became entrenched among propagandists. In practical terms, however, foreign propaganda work was continuously altered by changes in PRC foreign relations and ideology, and by competition with superpower rivals such as the United States and the Soviet Union.

Chapter 2, “Organization, Cadres, and Principles,” charts the complex process by which directives from leading organs such as the CCP Central Committee Propaganda Department and the Liaison Department shaped propaganda production and dissemination. Here again, Zhou Enlai emerges as the central figure in international propaganda work, in part because the operations of Radio Peking and the Foreign Languages Press (FLP) were organizationally tied to the State Council, and, in the case of the FLP, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As this dissertation demonstrates, embassies and “friendship” organizations also played an important role in expanding the scope of propaganda overseas. Embassies also identified and recruited foreign experts and visitors to the PRC. An important theme which emerges is that “no single organization, including the umbrella organizations such as the [Central Committee] Propaganda Department, was able to exert full control over the diversity of tasks performed by the FLP and Radio Peking” (p. 82). This was partly a consequence of the various administrative and professional subfields involved in production of propaganda on a daily basis, and partly a consequence of the fact that international propaganda work required satisfying the dual—and sometimes competing—requirements of ideology and foreign policy. After the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, operation of Radio Peking and the FLP was handed over to the military. Throughout much of the Mao era, however, journalists and editors working under the Propaganda Department, and often within Xinhua (New China) News Agency, seem to have been responsible for churning out the bulk of foreign propaganda content. Although their work was frequently disrupted by domestic political campaigns and shifts in the foreign relations of the PRC, these working propagandists—and their foreign or foreign-educated colleagues—were the heart and soul of the international propaganda apparatus.

By providing a meticulous account of the hierarchies and professional codes which defined life in international propaganda agencies, this dissertation makes suggestive and important points concerning propaganda as a vocation—an area of research first defined in seminal works of scholarship such as Timothy Cheek’s study of People’s Daily editor Deng Tuo. Propagandists did not see themselves as manipulative panderers of falsehoods, but rather as purveyors of empirical and ideological truths, tailored to the tastes of overseas audiences. Readers may be surprised by the high degree of restraint shown by senior leaders who realized that foreign audiences required delicate handling and were unlikely to be swayed by claims that were not based on some kernel of fact. As during the war years before 1949, countering anti-communist attitudes remained a primary goal, despite the fact that internal campaigns for ideological correctness in all forms of propaganda did occasionally challenge this primarily audience-centered orientation. Indeed, far more immediate were the shortages of housing, office space, reference materials, technology, funding, and staff which impinged on propagandists’ lives on a regular basis. In this sense, this dissertation also offers a window on socialism as a lived experience. Although the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Cultural Revolution were clearly traumatic events from the perspective of the educated, and often “bourgeois,” propagandists working within international agencies, the propaganda apparatus itself survived, albeit in radically reordered organizational form.

Within the context of foreign policy, international propaganda aimed to “create a favorable international environment for the young PRC regime” (p. 151), and thus reflected changing alliances and enmities. Chapter 3, “Editorial Policy and Discourse,” tracks many of these changes, particularly the emphasis on “peace” and PRC economic achievements which served as a prosaic foil to the increasingly radical nature of PRC foreign affairs by the mid-1960s. Countering US claims and allegations was another important focus of international propaganda work. In time, this area of activity was necessarily expanded to include, and discredit, the Soviet Union. International propaganda agencies undoubtedly deserve some share of credit for having brought the Mao cult to foreign audiences (more than 840 million copies of Chairman Mao portraits were printed and disseminated from July 1966 to May 1967 alone), to the point that Mao himself urged greater restraint in presenting this radical face of Chinese politics to the outside world. While Nixon’s 1972 visit was not effusively celebrated in magazines like China Pictorial, this dissertation shows that Maoist discourse was swiftly de-radicalized as a result of PRC-US rapprochement. In Chapter 4, “Channels of Distribution,” attention shifts to the circulation of international propaganda through the International Bookstore, embassies, and Radio Peking. The theme is “setbacks”—how unsuccessful broadcasting efforts, limited distribution of printed material, and foreign government restrictions often held down the efficacy of international propaganda work. At the same time, the author marshals impressive evidence to show that points of contact between the PRC and capitalist countries were organized, and regular. Separate policies existed for propaganda targeting the capitalist camp, and combating “anti-China” (fan Hua) attitudes was a consistent aim throughout the Mao years. The core of this chapter is a series of impressive case studies which document the numerous channels (e.g., mass organizations, embassies of friendly countries, international festivals, radical bookstores, and overseas Chinese communities) through which PRC propaganda was circulated abroad and the equally broad range of laws, objections, and harassments through which authorities in non-allied countries sought to stem the steady flow of information emanating from Beijing.

The dissertation’s penultimate chapter, “Audience and Reception,” consists of groundbreaking research on internal studies of reactions to PRC international propaganda generally. Such information was crucial for fine-tuning the sophisticated targeting schemes which sought to match message to audience. What it revealed, however, was that the ideological restrictions placed on propaganda work often clashed with audience attitudes and opinion. It is intriguing to note that international propaganda was disseminated most actively during the years 1965 and 1975-1976, both of which marked “high tides” of radicalism in the history of PRC foreign policy. Yet as letters sent back to the FLP and Radio Peking attested, few audience members espoused radical political ideology themselves, preferring instead to learn about Chinese society and culture. As the case of Japan showed, the PRC could elicit positive responses from foreign nationals who were critical or skeptical of their own governments. Nonetheless, CCP political jargon and ideological agendas often proved difficult for ordinary listeners, or readers, to digest.

To conclude, Reaching the Distant Comrade represents a powerful fusion of three methodologies: history, comparative politics, and political communication The resulting monograph will undoubtedly shed much light on CCP propaganda in theory and practice, and on the comparative use of international propaganda as a tool of foreign policy during the Cold War. Attentive readers will also note that the limitations of international propaganda work during the Mao years have hardly disappeared in the contemporary era of “soft power.” The author has, in other words, accomplished the rare and impressive feat of offering a detailed perspective on a past historical and political era, while at the same time offering trenchant insight into the dynamics of the present.

Matthew D. Johnson
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Grinnell College

Primary Sources

PRC Foreign Ministry Archives
National Archives II, Maryland, U.S.
Hoover Institution Archives
China Books and Periodicals, San Francisco

Dissertation information

State University of New York at Binghamton. 2009. 329 pp. Primary Advisor: Fa-ti Fan.

Image: Showroom of China Books and Periodicals Inc., San Francisco, 1960s. Henry Noyes Personal Collection at the Courtesy of Margareta Noyes