During World War I, the British government recruited literary and academic celebrities to write pamphlets about the conflict that were then mailed to American elites, with no mention that this content was an effort funded by the British government. These pamphlets were so subtle in their propagandistic messages that several were actually reviewed in the German press. While the term “influencer” may be relatively new, the concept of using individuals or institutions that possess cultural capital in pursuit of strategic objectives is hardly new. Propaganda is a crucial part of any conflict, particularly low-intensity conflict or competition. The Chinese government is adept at exercising what the United States Intelligence Community calls “low level coercion” — including the dissemination of favorable content that supports the achievement of its strategic objectives in competition with the US. Such content is relayed through various mediums, including both old and new media.
Recent social media activity by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its affiliates represents a concerted effort by the Chinese government to appeal to many discrete audiences. This article focuses on the PLA’s attempts ingratiate itself to the Chinese youth population on two particular platforms of new media: Douyin and Kuaishou. Such activity, however, represents only a small sliver of a broader initiative by the Chinese government to disseminate favorable content on multiple mediums in support of its strategic objectives.
THE ROLE OF PROPAGANDA IN CHINESE MILITARY STRATEGY
Propaganda and psychological operations have played a pivotal role in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political and military strategy since its founding. As China analyst Dennis Blasko asserts, this legacy has continued into the twenty-first century, illustrated by recent Chinese military strategies that discuss how psychological warfare plays a decisive role in military operations. Blasko writes that the PLA’s joint “Three Warfare” operations consist of “media (or public opinion) war, psychological war, and legal war.” These three actions integrate into kinetic military operations, as demonstrated by the PLA combining a threatening military posture with legal discourse and robust public communications during its 2017 border crisis with India. David Finkelstein similarly writes how the PLA’s Active Defense Strategy is predicated on the PLA and the Chinese government influencing international public opinion such that China is not ever seen as the initiator of conflict at any level. Such an operation necessitates a concerted public opinion campaign. Finkelstein further notes that propaganda plays an important role not merely in securing kinetic campaign objectives, but also in maintaining a stable environment both on the periphery and internally. Similarly, Daniel Hartnett’s analysis of Hu Jintao’s New Historic Missions reveals that troop loyalty is a major goal for the PLA and the Communist Party of China (CPC).
However, due to the rise of social media, achieving such objectives requires new tactics. Although a great deal of the internet may be censored in China, its citizens can easily access large quantities of content. Furthermore, actors can disseminate their own content (although they may encounter repercussions after). Maintaining control of strategic narratives is now more difficult for governments both liberal and authoritarian, which have previously enjoyed more centralized control. The Chinese government has recognized this and begun to make course corrections.
WHAT IS DOUYIN?
A discussion of Douyin must begin with a description of its Western equivalent, TikTok, a smartphone application that deals exclusively in short-form videos. The power of TikTok is what cultural critic Jia Tolentino describes as how “videos become memes that you can imitate, or riff on, rapidly multiplying much the way the Ice Bucket Challenge proliferated on Facebook five years ago.” One powerful example of TikTok’s potential as a meme generator is this summer’s mega-hit, “Old Town Road,” by the previously-obscure rapper Lil Nas X. Lil Nas X, an adept internet user, purposefully made “Old Town Road” into a meme-able song by starting an “Old Town Road Challenge” that other TikTok users could, as Tolentino says, “riff on.” TikTok helped propel the song to the #1 spot on the Billboard chart for 19 weeks, an all-time record.
Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok, has the highest rate of downloads for a non-gaming app in China and is growing exponentially. As of June 2018, Douyin had 350 million users in China, 40% of whom were between the ages of 24-30. According to the South China Morning Post, the average user in China opens Douyin about five times every day. This number represents an average that would include users who have simply downloaded the app and have not used it since, indicating that the amount of active users open the app far more than five times each day, and for likely a far longer time when they do open the app. Moreover, Douyin is even more expansive than TikTok, with additional e-commerce features, and involves the local authorities, who use Douyin to propagate their messages.
CONTENT TARGETED TOWARD CHINESE YOUTH
Much of the PLA’s activity on social media is targeted towards younger domestic audiences. Global Times China, a Chinese government-run website, released an article about the PLA’s recent decision to release its own videos on Douyin. The article notes that the first PLA-affiliated account on Douyin appeared in the fall of 2017, but that there are now fifteen accounts officially affiliated with the military. Each account has up to two million followers. Each of the five PLA regions has a Douyin account, and several service branches do as well. Although the article itself is a piece of propaganda, its description of Douyin videos is still informative: PLA content on the platform is created to be interesting and engaging to Douyin’s users. One PLA officer describes how video production uses drones and “blockbuster effects” for maximum aesthetic appeal. Several posts include video clips of shirtless male soldiers performing heroic deeds, indicating a desire to make the military appear more glamorous and attractive. In contrast, other posts detail the more mundane aspects of military life, making it more accessible to audiences that may not have much exposure to the PLA.
The PLA undertook a similar effort to create a “viral moment” this past February by permitting a PLA garrison to post a video in celebration of the Chinese New Year (the year of the pig) forming the shape of the popular internet meme, Peppa Pig.
Although Douyin is not available in the United States, several Twitter users have embedded screen-grabbed videos. One example is a grainy video of Chinese soldiers walking across a former minefield along the Sino-Vietnamese border, arm-in-arm to demonstrate that the field has been successfully de-mined. This format is similar to “viral” videos that have appeared on TikTok, and the lack of dialogue also means that it does not need to be translated.
The PLA undertook a similar effort to create a “viral moment” this past February by permitting a PLA garrison to post a video in celebration of the Chinese New Year (the year of the pig) forming the shape of the popular internet meme, Peppa Pig. This represented a reversal of previous Chinese government policy, which had previously banned Peppa Pig for being a “counterculture” item in 2018.
This video could represent an attempt by the military to reach out to a subculture that some analysts call “shehuiren,” or youth who “run counter to the mainstream.” Peppa Pig is not merely a punk icon, however, but is also popular in Chinese middle and high schools, where many students sport Peppa Pig merchandise. The PLA co-opting a mainstream meme that had previously been considered to run counter to Communist values is notable.
Certain branches of the PLA have been slower to catch on to social media trends. For example, only this past February, the PLA Rocket Force’s Publicity and Culture Center opened Weibo and WeChat accounts. However, the center “plans to open accounts” on both Douyin and Kuaishou, an app similar to Douyin that is more popular in China’s rural areas.
Just as interesting as the PLA generating content is what the Chinese government is not censoring – including irreverent videos, such as the popular “Uniform Changing Challenge.”
While there is reason for concern about the relationship between ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, and the Communist party, the relationship between the Chinese government and technology companies similar to ByteDance may not be as imbalanced in the government’s favor as expected. For example, Douyin ran an advertisement last year satirizing a PLA officer from the Chinese Civil War who is seen by many in China as a martyr. The government condemned the ad and forced Douyin to take it down. However, Douyin’s users did not make similar calls to remove the ad, suggesting not only that Douyin users are not as sensitive to jokes at the expense of the Chinese government or the PLA, but that censorship on the application is not based on popular sentiment but rather government initiatives.
REASSESSING THE VALUE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
The PLA’s current social media activity may not seem alarming, and on one level, it is not. It can simply be written off as a military service attempting to reach out to a younger population.
However, when you place this activity within the context of the PLA’s other actions in the South and East China seas, harmless outreach becomes affinity-building. What can seem like a PR stunt may one day have military operational effects. As the PLA builds a sympathetic domestic base, should a crisis break out, it can leverage its preexisting audience by posting favorable content on platforms such as Douyin to consolidate domestic support. It will also have the build-in credibility to disseminate propaganda or disinformation that will be accepted at face value.
The PLA is beginning to learn and adapt to the social media landscape at an impressive rate. It is learning from past government mistakes, such as the poor performance of the Communist party’s official application, Xuexi Qiangguo, which had a high rates of downloads – that were largely attributed to forced downloads – and little application engagement.
While the emergence of TikTok as a popular app has alarmed many democracies, such alarm has not been translated into an adequate response. Encouraging the resuscitation of Vine or the creation of a similar American-owned platform is a good first step towards countering the TikTok phenomenon, but there are deeper, more systemic issues that must be addressed. The lack of attention that the national security communities of many democracies pay towards social media and popular culture as an effective means of competition will have severe negative consequences if these technologies continue to be ignored. Competitors such as China are taking advantage of the increasing preponderance of applications in the day-to-day lives of many, and unless democracies begin to take social media more seriously, they will find themselves lagging further behind than they already are today.
Alix is a defense strategy and policy analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, where she supports clients including the US Navy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). She is also a part-time student in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed herein are solely that of the author and do not reflect the official positions of her employer or any US government agency.