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The Beijing Olympics as a Campaign of Mass Distraction


From 2006 to 2008 the predominant theme in the Chinese media was preparations for the 2008 Olympics. These preparations were not merely about putting up new sports stadiums; China also underwent a massive public etiquette campaign, aimed at “civilizing” Chinese citizens. This was nominally so they could be good hosts during the Beijing Olympics. The 2006–08 emphasis on Olympic-related news coverage and the ongoing public morals campaign was what I have called a campaign of mass distraction: a propaganda campaign designed to mobilize the population around a common goal, and distract them from more troubling issues such as inflation, unemployment, political corruption and environmental degradation. This article discusses China's Olympics propaganda within the context of the modernization of the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda system – which has included incorporating practices originating in modern democratic states – and considers in what way changes in the propaganda system reflect changes in China's system of political control.

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1 Neibu tongxun (hereafter NBTX), No. 15 (2007), p. 1. This publication is a bi-monthly classified bulletin issued by the News Department of the Central Propaganda Department which instructs the Chinese media on the current propaganda line.

2 On the role of the xitong in the Chinese bureaucratic system, see Lieberthal Kenneth, Governing China: From Revolution through Reform (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 192208.

3 The project “Propaganda and thought work in contemporary China,” funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund.

4 See “Zhonggong bu qi bu gao zhengzhi yundong kao zhidu fan fubai de xinlu” (“The CCP won't launch or engage in political movements and is following the new path of relying on the system to deal with corruption”), Liaowang, 9 July 2008, See also Schoenhals Michael, “Political movements, change and stability: the Communist Party in power, 1949–1999,” The China Quarterly, No. 159 (1999), pp. 595605.

5 Xueliang Ding, The Decline of Communism in China: Legitimacy Crisis, 1977–1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

6 Deng Xiaoping, “Address to officers at the rank of general and above in command of the troops enforcing martial law in Beijing,” Deng Xiaoping wenxuan (Deng Xiaoping Selected Works), Vol. 3, accessible at

7 For more on this topic see Brady Anne-Marie, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

8 yanjiushi Zhonggong zhongyang xuanchuanbu zhengce fagui, Shisi Da yilai xuanchuan sixiang gongzuo de lilun yu shixian (Theory and Practice in Propaganda and Thought Work since the 14th Party Congress) (Beijing: Xuexi chubanshe, 1997), p. 367.

9 Lasswell Harold D., “The theory of political propaganda,” American Political Science Review, No. 21 (1927), pp. 627–31.

10 Lipset Seymour Martin, “Some social requisites of democracy: economic development and political legitimacy,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1959), p. 86.

11 Bernays Edward, Propaganda (New York, n.p., 1928), and “The engineering of consent,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, No. 250 (1947), pp. 113–20; Chomsky Noam and Herman Edward S., Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988); Ellul Jacques, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (New York: Vintage, 1973); Lippmann Walter, [1925], “The phantom public,” in Jackall Robert (ed.), Propaganda (New York: New York University Press, 1995), pp. 4753; Sapir Edward, Culture, Language and Personality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961); Whorf Benjamin Lee, “The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language,” in Caroll J. B. (ed.), Language, Thought, and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956), pp. 134–59.

12 Jingyi Jiang, “Zhengzhi hefaxing: Gongchandang zhizheng jianshe de zhongyao keti” (“Political legitimacy: an important issue for the establishment of the CCP as a party in power”), Makesizhuyi yanjiu wang (Marxist Research Online), 12 January 2006,; Kefeng Wu, “Zheng ji kunju: gainian, yuanyin, ji qi pojie” (“Political achievement and political difficulties: perspectives, causes and solutions”), Makesizhuyi yu xianshi (Marxism and Reality), No. 6 (2006); Fangyi Xie, “Zhengzhi zhuanxing zhong zhengzhi hefaxing wenti tanxi” (“On political legitimacy in the transformation of the party), Zhonggong Zhejiang shenwei dangxiao xuebao (Journal of the CCP Zhejiang Party School), No. 5 (2004).

13 Guangbin Yang, “Hefaxing zhebi shenme?” (“What's behind ‘legitimacy’?”), Xuexi shibao (Study Times), 23 October 2007.

14 “Zhongyang wenmingwei Beijing Aozuwei fachu tongzhi guangfan kaizhan ‘ying Aoyun, jiang wenming, shu xinfeng’ huodong”(“Central Spiritual Civilization Office, BOCOG, issue a notice to launch a broad movement to ‘Welcome the Olympics, be civilized, and follow the new trend’”), 13 February 2006,

15 Freudenberg William R. and Allario Maria, “Weapons of mass distraction: magicianship, misdirection, and the dark side of legitimation,” Sociological Forum, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2007), pp. 146–73.

16 See Connie Rice's top ten list of “weapons of mass distraction” at

17 Stephen L. Macknik et al., “Attention and awareness in stage magic: turning tricks into research,” Nature, 30 July 2008,

18 On the politics of China and the Olympics see Brownell Susan, Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008); Wanning Sun, “Semiotic over-determination or ‘indoctritainment’: television, citizenship, and the Olympic Games,” in Donald Stephanie Hemelryk, Keane Michael and Hong Yin (eds.), Media in China: Consumption, Content and Crisis (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002); Guoqi Xu, Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

19 Zedong Mao, “A study of physical education,” Xin qingnian (New Youth) 1917,

20 Junhong Chen (ed.), Jiaqiang he gaijin sixiang zhengzhi gongzuo xuexi duben (A Reader on Strengthening and Reforming Political Thought Work) (Beijing: Zhonggong Zhongyang dangxiao chubanshe, 1999), p. 169.

21 Deng Xiaoping, “We are confident that we can handle China's affairs well,” See also bianweihui Xuanchuan wenhua zhengce fagui (ed.), Xuanchuan wenhua zhengce fagui (Policies and Regulations on Propaganda and Culture) (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 1999), p. 10.

22 Lindsey Hilsum, “The patriot games,” The New Statesman, 31 July 2008. On the medal tally see

23 Jeremy Page, “Olympics – Beijing's PR team pats itself on the back,” Reuters Financial Report, 14 July 2001,

25 The Central Propaganda Department (CPD) has a leadership (lingdao) relationship with some sectors of the propaganda system such as the media, and “guidance” relations with other sectors such as sport or health. “Guidance” means just that: the General Administration of Sport is not under orders from the CPD. The CPD is not concerned with sporting issues per se, but in a more abstract sense where they touch on ideological concerns or are connected to propaganda.

26 The following is a report from the meeting of a local level Beijing Olympic News Co-ordinating Group, accessed via a cache site.

27 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

28 An example of this is the establishment of China's Confucius Institutes, which were first set up in 2004 and promote Chinese language and culture. As of 2008, there are 260 Confucius Institutes worldwide.

29 “Beijing Aozuwei guwen: Aoyunhui shi tuichu guojia xingxiang zhanlue qiji” “(BOCOG adviser: the Olympics is a turning point for the strategy of promoting the national image”), Zhongguo jingji jikan, 4 August 2008, See also Hongying Wang, “National image-building and Chinese foreign policy,” China: An International Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2003), pp. 4672.

31 The phrase “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi) was first used in Zheng Bijian's speech at the Bo'ao Forum on 23 November 2003.

32 On the improvement in relations between the CCP and the Chinese intelligentsia from the mid-1990s see Fewsmith Joseph, China since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

33 See Joshua Cooper Ramo, “Brand China,” a report sponsored by Hill and Knowlton, February 2007,; “Saatchi eyes branding China Inc,” 22 October 2004, China Daily,

34 Interview with SCIO adviser, September, 2007.

35 In 2006 PBS produced a documentary on how “tank man” had helped shape Western perceptions of contemporary China. See

36 Scenes from the CCTV reporting on “tank man” appears in the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace (1996).

37 Robin Pogrebin, “China won't lend art works to Asia Society exhibition,” 20 August 2008,

38 “China debuts new ten-yuan note,” Associated Press, 7 July 2008,

39 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

40 See Yanqing Gao, “Gongmin shehui yu sixiang zhenzhi gongzuo fazhan de xin qushi” (“New developments in civil society and political thought work”), Dang zheng ganbu luntan (Political Cadre Forum), September 2007, pp. 2830. Interview with thought work policy adviser, December 2007.

41 Zheng Yongnian and Sow Keat Tok, “Harmonious society and harmonious world: China's policy discourse under Hu Jintao,” October 2007, Briefing Series-26, China Policy Institute, Nottingham University.

42 Chen Junhong, A Reader on Strengthening and Reforming Political Thought Work, p. 30.

43 NBTX, No. 15 (2006), p. 9 and No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

44 NBTX, No. 15 (2006), p. 9.

45 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1. See also “Censors make news in PR battle,” 14 August 2008, South China Morning Post, which reproduced a copy of instructions from the CPD with a detailed list of propaganda dos and don'ts in the period leading up to and during the Olympics.

46 NBTX, No. 2 (2005), p. 9.

47 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

49 “Fonterra: we acted responsibly on killer milk,” 16 September 2008, New Zealand Herald,

50 Magnay Jacquelin, “Censors make news in public relations battle,” South China Morning Post, 14 August 2008.

51 Mackinnon Rebecca, “The Chinese censorship foreigners don't see,” Wall Street Journal Asia, 14 August 2008.

52 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

54 “Only China can produce this – an interview with Zhang Yimou,” Southern Weekend, 18 August 2008, translated by China Digital Times.

55 Brady, Marketing Dictatorship.

56 There are many examples of this sentiment online: the following video clip, made by a UK-based Chinese student, is representative. See Jordan Chen, “Unfair media London,”

57 See for example “Red heart China appears in Netizens MSN signatures,” Xinhua, 18 April 2008.

58 See Brady Anne-Marie, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People's Republic (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

59 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 1.

60 Email communications with journalists from AFP, The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and the Jutland Post based in Beijing during the Olympics, August 2008. See also

61 “Hu says China stands by Games pledges, web curbs lifted,” Reuters, 1 August 2008.

62 Mackinnon Rebecca, “The Chinese censorship foreigners don't see,” Wall Street Journal Asia, 14 August 2008.

64 Carol Huang, “For Beijing's Olympic volunteers, the rules are many,” Christian Science Monitor, 21 July 2008,

65 For an example of the training volunteers received see, accessed 5 February 2007.

66 Liu , Ming (ed.), Jietou zhengzhi yu “yanse geming” (Street Politics and the “Colour Revolutions”) (Beijing: Zhongguo chuanmei chubanshe, 2006). Interviews with government policy advisers in Beijing, October and December 2007.

67 Yanqing Gao, “Gongmin shehui yu sixiang zhenzhi gongzuo fazhan de xin qushi” (“New developments in civil society and political thought work”), Dang zheng ganbu luntan (Political Cadre Forum), September 2007, pp. 2830.

68 “Beijing tries to “civilize” residents ahead of Olympics,” AFP, 21 February 2006.

69 NBTX, No. 15 (2007), p. 6.

70 Interview with thought work policy adviser, December 2007.

71 Chen Junhong, A Reader on Strengthening and Reforming Political Thought Work, p. 152.

72 Hilsum, “The patriot games.”

73 See accessed 22 September 2008. Interview, Residents Association Propaganda Section director, Beijing, September 2007.

74 Anita Chang, “Chinese grumble about the Olympics, but quietly,” Associated Press, 4 August 2008. Phone interviews with two Beijing-based former activists, April 2008 and August 2008.

75 Venter Nick, “China – Orwell's dream come true,” The Dominion Post, 25 August 2008.

76 Ben Blanchard, “Two great Olympic jokes circulating in Beijing,” Reuters, 1 August 2008.

77 Interviews at several residents' associations in Beijing, September 2007.

79 See Kevin Roberts, 1998 speech,; see also Tsinghua-Ogilvie Project for Public Branding, School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University.

80 bianweihui Xuanchuan wenhua zhengce fagui (ed.), Xuanchuan wenhua zhengce fagui (Policies and Regulations on Propaganda and Culture) (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 1999), p. 305.

81 On the politics of China's national narrative see Anagnost Ann, National Past-times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997).

82 Zedong Mao, “Introducing a co-operative,” 15 April 1958, Quotations from Chairman Mao (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1966), p. 36.

83 Deng Xiaoping, 5 September 1988,

84 “Zhongguo renmin you liliang zhishi qinlue zhanzheng,” Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 7 November 1950.

85 Barbara Demick, “Officials: dancer paralyzed, organisers take flak for belated reporting,” Chicago Tribune, 15 August 2008,,0,2964490.story.

86 “Olympic artists angry,” 14 August 2008,

87 “Only China can produce this, an interview with Zhang Yimou,” Southern Weekend, 16 August 2008, translated by China Digital Times.

88 “Chinese whispers,”

90 “The way art works, an interview with Zhang Yimou,” Southern Weekend, 16 August 2008, translated by China Digital Times.

91 Zamyatin Yevgeny [1924] (trans. Zilboorg Gregory), We (New York: Dutton Books, 1959).

92 See Cheng Yunjie, “Memoirs give glimpse of China's farewell to ‘blue-ants’ era,”

93 Guillain Robert (trans. Savill Mervyn), The Blue Ants: 600 Million Chinese under the Red Flag (London: Secker and Walburg, 1957).

95 Sixth IOC/BOCOG press conference, 14 August 2008.

96 Barboza David, “The Games are golden for a Chinese network,” International Herald Tribune, 21 August 2008.

97 “Shi guangdianju zhaokai huiyi quanmian bushu Aoyunhui qijian guangbo dianshi xuanchuan, anquan bochu gongzuo (“City administration of radio, film and television host a meeting on deploying radio, film and television propaganda and secure broadcasting during the Olympics,” 8 August 2008,

98 Landreth Jonathan, “World audience huge for Games opener, China breaks record, German viewership lacklustre,” The Hollywood Reporter, 10 August 2008.

99 “Chinese viewing levels up 45% during Olympics,” 12 August 2008,

101 Liu Melinda and Hewitt Duncan, “China's most modern citizens aren't drawing it any closer to the West,” Newsweek, 9 August 2008.

103 Lippmann, “The phantom public.”

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