Xi’s ‘Little Red App’ and the face of contemporary propaganda

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A contemporary oil painting of Xi Jinping surrounded by students at Beijing University. The image was released on the Ministry of Defence’s website in January, 2015.

There have been many articles written recently on what has been described as Xi Jinping’s ‘Cult of Personality’. In this post I would like to examine how this ‘cult’ is being manifested visually, the role of ‘image management’ in constructing Xi’s personal brand and the resultant intensification in propaganda and diversification of media- particularly digital media and new communications technologies that are being harnessed in this process.

In many ways, Xi has been described as the model of a modern multimedia leader. Over the last two years, he has made numerous appearances across a broad spectrum of digital platforms. His image has been rendered in cartoon form, visual tributes in the more traditional medium of oil painting have been plastered across government websites, songs have been written (and parodied) in his honour, there is a dedicated weibo account that provides daily updates on his activities and his writings have now been translated into at least nine languages. A recently released app combining many of these features is now available for download via the iTunes store (more about this later in the post). Clearly the importance of Xi’s image and the prominence of digital platforms in disseminating it cannot be underestimated, prompting an examination of why Xi’s leadership has chosen to prioritise visual media on a scale previously unprecedented in recent government history. Continue reading

Before ‘duang’: character creation, art and ideology in the digital age

duang1eIn the last week there has been much media coverage devoted to an invented character whose viral dissemination amongst internet users earned it the dubious distinction of being labelled ‘The word that broke the Chinese internet.’ The character in question? an onomatopoeiac utterance issued by Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong born action star and movie veteran. Like many celebrities Chan maintains a lucrative side career endorsing commercial products, his prolific and many would argue indiscriminate advertising career has seen him endorse everything from electric bicycles to anti-virus software, auto-repair schools to frozen dumplings. One of his most famous commercial roles is as the herbal shampoo ambassador for Bawang 霸王, the fourth most popular shampoo manufacturer in China. Chan has served as the company’s spokesperson for over a decade, appearing prominently in its visual ads as well as featuring in numerous TV campaigns in which he invariable attributes his glossy, flowing mane to the rejuvenating effects of the herbal remedy. This commercial alliance has not been without its setbacks, in 2010 controversy arose after the company was accused of replacing the supposed traditional Chinese medicine ingredients in its darkening and hair loss-fighting products with carcinogenic chemicals after the Hong Kong based Next Magazine reported that samples of its anti hair-loss formula had 10 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China's largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China’s largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

On February 24th of this year, what many believed to be a new advert for Bawang starring Jackie Chan was released on Youku, the video, however, was a parody created from splicing together old footage from a 2004 TV advertisement. In the original ad, Chan pokes fun at the digitally enhanced images that have become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary commercials, these misleading ‘special effects’ according to Chan, “can make hair go “‘duaaang!’ Very black! Very shiny! Very soft!” whereas Chan’s tonsorial youthfulness is of course naturally credited to his continued use of Bawang. When the original advertisement was first aired over a decade ago, it attracted the attention of Chinese censorship officials who interpreted the company’s exaggerated claims as a misleading promotion of the shampoo’s effects. Continue reading

Let’s sing along now: a little musical number from the censorship choir

On the 10th February at a televised event hosted by the Beijing Internet Association to celebrate the imminent Lunar New Year festivities, the assembled audience of leading internet executives and media figures was treated to a special performance of a new song entitled 网信精神 “Cyberspace Spirit” by staff from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the government agency in charge of Internet policies, and increasingly, censorship. Continue reading