How to Watch Propaganda

Certain parts of the blogosphere are atwitter about China’s announcement that it has commenced flight tests aboard its first commissioned aircraft carrier.  You can watch this five-minute newscast on the PLA Navy’s Liaoning from CCTV:

I’m personally less alarmed, and as this post will indicate far more skeptical of Chinese claims, than others by China’s growing military modernization. A single operational carrier of this type places China on par with other medium powers such as France, Great Britain, Brazil, Thailand, Spain, India and Italy, all of which deploy at least one carrier. Italy and Spain both have two. China wants two by 2015, four by 2020. That means one thing if China contributes to regional stability as it has off the coast of East Africa. It means something else if the country continues to squabble over rocks in the South China Sea.

Others are better suited to point out the strategic and operational significance of the new Chinese carrier.  Nonetheless, some background is required. China has long expressed a desire to develop an aircraft carrier and saw an opportunity when it bought the ex-Varyag, a former Soviet vessel built in the 1980s and transferred to Ukraine. Non-operational, essentially a hull, China bought it for $25 million in 1998 and hauled the hulk, harrowingly, from the Black Sea to China over the course of 2000 to 2002 for refitting during the next decade.

But I hold no ambivalence about China’s triumphant unveiling of their achievement: the bold television debut of the Liaoning‘s seaborne fighter squadron is a put-up job and a farce, more video aspiration of what the country would like to be very soon rather than what it actually is today.

And herein lies a lesson in real propaganda. A close viewing demonstrates how much mileage Central China Television (CCTV, the state-run broadcaster) could get out of so little real footage; how little of their naval hand they showed for all that bluster. Only someone with experience in naval affairs or video editing (hopefully both) can parse what’s really being seen — or more specifically, what’s being allowed to be seen — on the Liaoning.

At first glance — and especially if you don’t speak or read Mandarin Chinese, as I admit I don’t (but this isn’t nearly as important, remember, as what the video shows) — the ship is a dynamo. It’s shown underway at sea, then as a hive of activity with sailors scouring the flight deck. Then the aircraft: a J-15 (a carrier version of the J-11, and a Chinese copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier aircraft), approaches for the landing. Following that, another aircraft takes off from the flight deck, and then there is a lot of pirouetting of aircraft and flight personnel waving arms before the segment ends.

Let’s be clear about exactly what the viewer really sees.  Most of the long views of the Liaoning are of an empty flattop. At no time are there more than two aircraft on the flight deck. I am willing to assert that this newscast documents no more than one landing of one aircraft (#552) and one launch of another aircraft (#553). Cutting together footage of three cameras shooting the landing of a single aircraft can make it look as though multiple landings occurred. One sequence (shot of aircraft #552 I believe) is made to look like a launch, but the carrier deck is nowhere to be seen, so I think this was a shot of a flyby. I believe that aircraft #553 was likely preloaded for launch from shore. At no time do we see more of the ship below decks, use of the elevator, the hangar deck, or the air traffic control center (“the island”). We have no sense of how far the ship is out to sea. It’s quite possible the carrier is within sight of shore.

This fairly and in practical terms defines what I mean by propaganda. CCTV is China’s state-run television – there is no other media allowed in the country without censorship – and it is directed entirely for the benefit of the state. Although appearing to be fairly straightforward reporting about an advance in China’s naval arms, a frame-by-frame analysis demonstrates this is an artful exercise in falsification, fabrication and obfuscation. Although I can’t understand the narration (which, nonetheless, includes no interviews), a reasonable guess would include veiled or direct references to rivals in the Pacific Rim. And with that my definition would be complete.

To get another sense of how state-run media propagandizes, you can watch the entire, exhausting CCTV documentary on the Chinese Shenzhou manned space program produced and released with dubbing and subtitling in English.  It’s a feat that something as legitimately exciting as manned space exploration can be as dull as this series. But again it’s at least as revealing about the nature of state media and propaganda in a country like China to see what they release for the Western public. Of course nothing goes wrong, everything goes perfectly well (except the weather, which of course the Chinese meteorologists predict).   The taikonauts are China’s strongest and the best, their positive feelings never waiver. But in the end, virtually the entire “documentary” relating to the mission itself – including the launch sequence, flight and recovery – is computer-animated. It’s not like the producers didn’t have the time – this documentary is dated a full year after Shenzhou 7’s maiden flight. There’s no explanation except for the regime’s paranoia and instinct for secrecy.

This isn’t to claim China didn’t fly, just that there is far more the country wants to hide than it wants to share. An historical analog for this is the first Soyuz launch, which was organized in secret and caught the world by surprise.  Virtually the entire flight profile was hidden from the public until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To maintain the people’s faith, and to show strength to the rest of the world, no cracks in the façade of regime competence must show.

By contrast, the Mercury program inaugurated the American civilian space program in full daylight – in Tom Wolfe’s words, “the greatest death-defying hell-driver stunt ever broadcast” – and Neil Armstrong landed Eagle on the moon with a billion people watching on Earth. Even the U.S. Navy’s greatest recruitment ad ever produced, Top Gun, showed more launch-and-recovery operations than CCTV revealed from the Liaoning. The 1986 film’s plot hinged on some throwaway melodrama — the squadron’s best aviator loses his nerve after being lit up by an adversary — a kind of weakness impossible to imagine on Chinese television.

You can watch much of this on at least two CCTV channels contracted by Verizon cable at least in my region in the United States. RT has two channels on Verizon as well, one in English, the other in Spanish. Their offerings are about the same as each other.  Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has cut broadcasts to China and Russia, so they can’t even get unfiltered, bias-free, US-funded news broadcasting in those countries anymore.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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