If Americans have been paying close attention these days to the utterances of Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is more likely than not because they are seeking insights into the truth of allegations about her husband having an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s premier government think tank, the first lady is coming under scrutiny of a very different kind.
Scholars there have been struck by Clinton’s ability to speak to audiences without sending them to sleep. Not many politicians in China can do that, and it is common to see cadres snoozing their way through major political addresses.
So they have been studying her speeches, and in findings published in the latest edition of the journal Ideological and Political Work Studies, she is held up as a model for Communist Party members to emulate.
“Communist Party cadres should study the speeches of Hillary Clinton because she offers a very good example of the skills of propaganda,” said Yu Quanyu, director of the Academy’s institute of media and communications studies, who authored the article.
For example, in one speech he analyzed, at the Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, Clinton spoke for barely five minutes yet drew eight rounds of applause from the audience. This feat stands in stark contrast to the average Communist Party cadre speech, which will last around two hours, draw little or no applause, and possibly put the audience to sleep, he said.
Clinton was considered a good model for the study because her speeches tend to lack political substance, yet hold an audience’s attention, Yu explained. Her husband, also known for his ability to sway a crowd, says too many things Chinese officials disagree with to make his speeches worthy of study.
“We have to find the key to the skills of propaganda learned by Hillary,” Yu said. “Why does she have such magic in her political speeches?”
Yu’s question goes to the heart of a dawning realization among China’s rulers that the Communist Party needs to spruce up its image. That realization was spurred late last year when circulation at the People’s Daily, the official party mouthpiece that is supposed to be required reading for all Chinese, dipped below 3 million, less than half its pre-economic reform peak of 6 million.
Yu thinks he has found the answer. “Her sentences are short and stimulating,” he said. “That’s why she gets a lot of applause. But Chinese people have a habit of giving long speeches in which the sentences are long and tedious.”
With China’s annual speech-giving marathon in full swing at the Great Hall of the People, where the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress is under way, there are plenty of examples of that to be found.
To take one, Premier Li Peng extolled China’s recent achievements with the following sentence: “To sum up,” he said, “the basic experience we have gained over the past five years is to hold high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, conscientiously carry out the basic line of the Communist Party of China for the primary stage of socialism, persist in making economic development our central task, adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles, persevere in the reform and opening to the outside world and unswervingly advance along the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
That is typical of the kind of turgid fare that fills the pages of China’s official daily newspapers. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that ordinary Chinese readers are switching to the rash of unofficial tabloids that have appeared in the past year, sold on streetside stalls and on public transportation.
With titles like “Shopping News,” “Weekend Life” and “Strange News,” these papers carry all the news not fit to be printed in official party mouthpieces, like crime stories, sex scandals and hot tips on where the latest bargains are to be found.
In an attempt to recapture lost readership, the People’s Daily has introduced a “Society Page,” containing human interest features. But with headlines such as “Rich Man Helps Poor Person” and “Life Improves in Small Village,” the section still smacks of the propaganda department’s feel-good preachiness.
Part of the problem is that the propagandists have had to tie themselves into knots to continue to provide politically correct justifications for some of the very un-Communist measures that are being adopted to drive China’s economic growth. Li Peng’s summary of where China stands today accurately describes the result, although whether even Clinton would be able to translate it into plain language is questionable.
Yu says he understands that Chinese would rather go shopping or watch basketball than listen to a political speech. The problem, he said, is that the government needs to keep reminding them that it is the Communist Party that brought them the reforms that made shopping and basketball possible.
“You need to keep in touch with the people so that they realize this,” he said. “The Communist Party is the one carrying out the reforms.”