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What a new series reveals about China

Ppublicity often Articulate how leaders see themselves and want to be seen. On closer inspection, it can also reveal insecurities. In the new year, China’s propaganda machine is working overtime to promote “County Party Committee Compound”, a 24-episode TV series currently airing on various Chinese official and commercial channels.

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The play only alluded to Xi Jinping, the party’s top leader. Sometimes characters quote his most famous speeches and catchphrases. But his vision of party governance is everywhere. Chinese media reports said it was a tribute to last fall’s Communist Party Congress. Xi’s official biography highlights his early years in rural service, where he paid close attention to the reputation of the grassroots party. That helps explain his years-long anti-corruption campaign and his orders to avoid luxury. The son of a revolutionary patriarch, Mr Xi cites history (to downplay the purges and madness of the Mao era) to paint party members as self-sacrificing servants of the people who govern most effectively when they mobilize the masses.

After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party abandoned class struggle and revolution as its raison d’être, and the country embarked on a gigantic experiment in show legitimacy. It’s a political science term for the way even unelected iron-fisted regimes may try to gain power by providing prosperity, order, or other public goods. In the first decades of China’s reform and opening up, many ordinary people complained that officials were only concerned with economic development (and self-enrichment) rather than other forms of progress. In a closed-door speech, Xi warned that the ruling party would collapse if it became corrupt and alienated from the masses. His declared ideal was to have party members of good character, and to appear to be. If that means frugal housekeeping, saying that cadres have people at heart, so be it. Xi Jinping’s version of show legitimacy involves a lot of acting.

However, the show also has risks. A previous episode of the show showed its star — a handsome, hardworking, selfless Communist Party cadre newly promoted to head a poor rural county — worrying late at night whether his eloquence would come across as inauthentic. In this episode, an exciting smartphone video of County Mayor Mei Xiaoge has just gone viral on social media. Audiences watched his speech, then his subordinates watched the filmed version in their offices, tears welling up in their eyes. In his off-the-cuff remarks, the village chief recalled his father, who urged retired grassroots party members to lead by example and sign an agreement to make their village cemetery a part of a wider modernization drive. Finally, he bowed deeply to the old party members. Soon they were lining up to sign, even though it meant their ancestors would be dug up.

A few hours later, the county party secretary drank tea alone with him, worried that ordinary people would see the video and think he was “too good at acting”. The secretary (whose party membership made him superior to the county magistrate) offered assurances. The speech was touching, you do come from the grassroots, the party leader told his deputy.

The arrangement of this exchange was very austere. The two worked late in a small, deserted official apartment away from their families, discussing the ethics of leadership. They could be priests on a mission, and indeed, the series is filled with lines that make the party sound like a faith-based project. The county magistrate, who has just been promoted, requires his subordinates to take action at all times and take the masses seriously.

May, a stern man who often wore the white shirt and black trousers of a senior official, stunned county bureaucrats by abandoning unrealistic economic development goals. Instead, he pledged to tackle long-neglected environmental problems and governance failures. His management style is personal, including anonymous visits to spot problems and impassioned speeches to farmers. In return, the locals believed that, as a country boy, he had their interests at heart, just as he asked them to lease their land to commercial farmers. Time and time again he wins over the residents of his fictional rural district, Guangming County, with eloquence and frugality (he eats noodle soup at roadside kiosks rather than wolfing it down at banquets).

Self-discipline party

Alas, village party secretary, in the real world, role models from the village like Mei Xiaoge are not limitless. The play doesn’t really address that. It was produced under the guidance of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the Party’s Central Propaganda Department. To avoid a boring series of perfect officers, the filmmakers included some sinners. Still, the villainy is pretty low-level. There are glimpses of local graft, often involving environmental regulations, and some bribery of the traffic police. A junior officer steals the job of an idealistic new colleague. But in the series, internal checks and balances ensure that justice is served. Corrupt police were exposed on local state TV (an unlikely scenario given the silence of Chinese journalists under Xi Jinping). During interrogation, the shamed officers explained they hadn’t been paid for months.

The series does show citizens protesting against injustice and petitioning higher authorities for redress. But the loudest protester, “Lao Qiu,” was portrayed as a flamboyant attention-seeker whose family wanted him to whisper. In the end even Lao Qiu agreed to relocate, impressed by a retired official who let the excavator tear down his beloved, tree-lined house and garden. In Xi Jinping’s China, the party needs no external accountability. In a rather abrupt finale, Guangming county was filled with beaming babies and children, reflecting party concerns about a dwindling population. Propaganda is about revealing things.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Taking a Slow Train in China (January 19)
Many Chinese villagers appear ready to shake off covid-19 (January 12)
China’s Communist Party plans to avoid zero covid reckoning (January 5)

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