Week 1 Newsletter: Telling China’s Story Well

In the first year of his administration, Xi Jinping introduced the phrase ‘telling China’s story well’. The ‘China story’ is a bundle of several narratives – the capability of the CCP, the beauty of China’s traditional culture, the attitude of ‘win-win cooperation’, and the struggle of the ‘Chinese dream’ – which make up the unitary vision of modern China that the CCP hopes to communicate to the world. 

Xi’s emphasis on storytelling in his political rhetoric is nothing innovative – rather, it is a fundamentally Chinese approach to communication. Storytelling has always been the way in which Chinese people prefer to receive information: history is taught in narrative form, national holidays have extensive associations with mythology and folklore, and even within the Mandarin language, chengyu – four-character idiomatic expressions – are mostly derived from ancient literature, containing stories within themselves. 

This traditional narrative culture has carried forward to modern approaches in the media. When expanding into Chinese markets, Western brands shape their strategy around user-oriented, emotive content rather than trying to woo consumers with price or convenience. With the most internet users in the world, social media has undeniable power in China, and Xiaohongshu, a blogging site, is crowded with essay-length accounts of people’s lives. There is no real equivalent to Twitter in China, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it wouldn’t be popular if there was – 280 characters simply isn’t enough space for Chinese people to tell a story from start to finish. 

To some extent, storytelling in Chinese media can be likened to the essay formats associated with The New Yorker and the London Review of Books. While narrative journalism is struggling to keep people’s attention in the digital age, it is also an important differentiating factor which privileges the voice of traditional media over the noise created on the Internet. Long-form journalism crafts an experience out of information, and many Western outlets continue to champion it. In China, this approach is the blueprint.  

However, the issue in China’s media is that there is only one story that the CCP wants to tell. In the Western news cycle, we talk about ‘reporter’s luck’ and ‘catching pearls’ – ways in which journalists can construct a story out of facts. In contrast, China’s narrative, like Adichie’s conception of a single story, is predefined. That vision is imposed upon current news and events, always in accordance with the party line, rather than the other way around.  

Trying to market a single ‘China story’ creates problems in a global context – it’s why people outside of China often aren’t convinced. It presents the Party as monolithic and takes away from the complexities of its politics. The rhetoric around the Belt and Road Initiative exemplifies the challenges of the CCP’s self-fashioning as it migrates to the outside world: the epic language of China’s attempt to ‘enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future’ is unsatisfying for countries with different economic and political interests. Efforts towards ‘telling China’s story well’ generally lack the nuance and insight that international audiences are looking for. 

Within China, audience responses to the ‘China story’ are also varied. During last year’s COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai, blog posts and video diaries acted in counterpoint to the CCP’s sterilised coverage of the situation. Stories were posted faster than censors could take them down. Whereas in the West, news sources may help us find clarity, in China, individual stories open up the bigger picture. In my own efforts to understand China’s contemporary politics, I find myself turning to social media, history books, and conversation, before I turn to newspapers. 

Regardless of the issues with the CCP’s approach to sharing information, there is something to learn from the way in which Chinese people listen to each other’s narratives from start to finish. Too often in the West, we focus solely on the negative aspects of China’s media – the story is, as always, more complex than that. 

Mia Wu,

Poll Results:

Our poll this week was on the question of: “Are Western media outlets more trustworthy than Russian or Chinese media?”
The results are:

YES – 82%
NO – 18%

Recommended Reading

International Symposium on Online Journalism: ‘“Don’t read me the news, tell me the story”: How news makers and storytellers negotiate journalism’s boundaries when preparing and presenting news stories’

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: ‘Personal Narrative under Nationalism: Chinese COVID-19 Vaccination Expressions on Douyin’

The Hague Journal of Diplomacy: ‘Chinese Storytelling in the Xi Jinping Era’

LSE Blog: ‘Telling China’s Story Well or Speaking in Tongues?: Narrative Communication Challenges in China’s Public Diplomacy’