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China Lightens Up: State Propaganda Drawn With Xi Jinping Cartoons

An image of Xi from the video in question.
An image of Xi from the video in question.
Shen Nienzu

BEIJING – It’s rare that one sees the Communist leaders of China transformed into caricatures. However, a few days ago a video appeared called “How leaders are made” in which Xi Jinping’s avatar appears, from 2 minutes and 35 seconds onward, as a comic figure along with American President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. This video has attracted a huge buzz.

The video, which used these three examples showing how leaders are made in the U.S.and Britain, simply spliced the Chinese President’s photo onto a cartoon body image when introducing Xi’s rise to power.

Within the last two weeks, the video has attracted more than two and half a million viewers, breaking the record for a political video clip in China. Numerous Chinese web portals and media outlets, and in particular the state media and television site, also reproduced the clip, which aroused heated online discussion.

Where is this video clip?

This five-minute video is available in both Chinese and English versions. The animated film describes the Chinese leader’s career ladder climb as a series of jumps further and further up, and uses the metaphor of “the making of Chinese Kung-fu master” to describe “the long-term meritocratic screening that takes years” for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) General Secretary.

The intriguing thing is that nobody yet has a clear answer as to who made this clip, which doesn’t specify its source except for the few characters at the end which reads “Fuxing Road Atelier.” The posting account is also called Fuxing Roadand is located in Beijing. But when contacted by Youku, China’s equivalent of YouTube and the first to post the video originally, the email owner doesn’t respond. As a matter of fact, apart from posting this clip, the claimed author hasn’t posted any other clips before either. We can thus conclude that this short film is most likely to have been a propaganda production of the Chinese authorities.

The evolution of Chinese leader’s comic image

It has taken a long time for China to allow the press to show their top leaders in caricature images.

As Lu Linna, a graduate student of the Journalism School at FudanUniversity, pointed out in her thesis, “In ordinary people’s eyes, the cartoon is synonymous with satire and is only used for vilifying the objects one wants to attack. It’s not suitable for describing leaders.” Consequently China becomes one of those few countries where cartoons of its top leaders are virtually never seen, even while their photographs are ubiquitous.

One can recall that in 1986 the Liberation Daily for the first time ever published Deng Xiaoping’s cartoon image. Deng was playing bridge and the card in Deng’s hand was entitled “Chinese-style modernization”. In the same year, Hu Yaobang, the then Chinese President and Jiang Zeming, then Shanghai mayor, also all appeared in cartoon portrayals.

These cartoons, considered as a “bold attempt” in China, were well received, but somehow came to a halt after only a short period.

It was not until 2006 that incumbent Chinese leaders reappeared in cartoon format. Apart from the CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao, the most favored political figure in this period was the Premier Wen Jiabao. When visiting an information system company he got an employee’s improvised cartoon portrayal of himself and commented happily that the cartoon image indeed looked like him. This was the first time a high rank Chinese official publicly accepted a cartoon from an ordinary person.

Since Xi Jinping and the other Politburo Standing Committee members became China’s leaders last autumn, their work and their family lives have been disclosed in the media. There even exist some micro-blogging accounts which claim to be fans of these leaders and their wives, and frequently post their photos.

Earlier this year Jia Nan, a female art student from Xi’an, suddenly got the inspiration of drawing a cartoon image of China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan, after watching her accompany her husband on foreign visits. She posted her drawings on her own microblog and the Renren Network, a Chinese copy of Facebook.

It took only two days before this “Cute version Peng Liyuan” as it was dubbed, to become a frenzy online. Only later did we learn that the key people who promoted its popularity were precisely the team of fans of the first lady. Now you can even buy post cards of the Cute version Peng Liyuan in Hong Kong and China’s Post Office is already set to launch the second batch of these cartoon images.

The yardstick of shaping Chinese leaders

In the Chinese press in the past the use of leaders’ image was very strictly regulated. Most photographs were provided by Xinhua News, the state media. No photo was allowed to be spliced or turned around, and there was certainly no room to paste them onto cartoon body images.

That the video clip, considered as relatively free-speaking by Chinese standards, was able to pass Chinese censorship generally indicates that the authorities were involved in its production.

“So far, no government departments have come to say hello,” Zhao Jianzhong, Youku’s channel editor, said with a grin.

Tell well the Chinese stories

Certain fearless newcomers such as Jia Nan are trying a novel way of drawing China’s leaders. Still, most cartoons tend to show just the realistic characteristics of these leaders. They are neither exaggerated nor lampooned. As Zhang Yenjun, a professional cartoonist, put it, “They are after all state leaders and should be drawn with sense of propriety, unlike actors who can be exaggerated with impunity.”

The last time that a China publicity video generated major attention was when the government launched a national image propaganda film “The Personages.” Aired both at home in China and in such places as Times Square in New York, its conventional form of publicity and relatively stiff propaganda style weren’t well received.

A new, lighter approach is needed. To cite Xi Jinping himself, from his speech in August at the National Publicity and Ideological Work meeting, “We should carefully do outreach work, innovate in external publicity methods, painstakingly create a new concept and new formulation integrating Chinese as well as foreign ideas in order to recount well all of China’s stories and spread a good Chinese voice.”

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