Mythmaking and propaganda: How Soviet cultural influence has made Chinese society susceptible to Russian narratives6 min read
“To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the USSR, and to commemorate the traditional Sino-Soviet friendship, we are to reinforce and to enhance the friendship between China and Russia and among the people of these two countries, to promote full-scale Sino-Russo cooperation in all areas.”
Zhang Hanhui, Chinese ambassador to Russia, 26 December 2022
In his written interview with RT in December 2022, Hanhui made the above comment in response to the question how the foundation of the Soviet Union had influenced the fate of the world and China. Even thirty years after its demise, the Soviet Union still plays an irreplaceable role in directing the course of Sino-Russian relations. The reasons behind this phenomenon possibly explain the ambiguous position of not only the PRC authorities but also Chinese society toward the Russian-Ukrainian War.
China on the search for an own grand narrative
Although Chinese society entered the post-communist era after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s, the regime remains a self-proclaimed socialist state, led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Marxism-Leninism enshrined into the CCP’s Constitution. It is also important not to forget that a significant proportion of the Chinese population (and the majority of those within the decision-making inner circle) still have a collective experience with and memory of Soviet — especially Stalinist — culture, one of the definitive features of the years predating the havoc of the Cultural Revolution. The long-term influence of Soviet and Russian culture on contemporary Chinese society is much deeper than many Western politicians realise.
This residual effect of Soviet cultural influence on Chinese society makes it extremely susceptible to the Russian propaganda promoted by Putin’s regime. Putin’s appropriation of the grand narrative used by Soviet propaganda involves the celebration of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War and the commemoration of WWII heroes; themes already familiar to many Chinese people. In the meantime, the PRC’s tactics to establish its own propagandist grand narrative, which also includes bellicist mythmaking promoting restorative nostalgia of the nation’s glorious past, has created synergies with the already existing Soviet cultural background.
Soviet cultural heritage as part of the PRC’s collective memory
During the 1950s, besides the two countries’ intimate political alliance and cooperation in science and technology, China’s full-scale Sovietization process also involved the massive import of the Soviet Union’s culture. Before Chinese society became overwhelmed by the militant revolutionary radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, Soviet culture, or the Stalinist concept of Soviet kul’turnost’ (культурность), was the emergent culture for the Chinese people. Students were required to study Russian language in middle schools; Russian style dresses called Bulaji (a direct transliteration from the Russian word “платье”) became extremely popular among Chinese women; Soviet novels, films, and songs were being translated and distributed at a fast pace.
However, unlike the Eastern European countries and the former Soviet republics, the PRC was never under Soviet military occupation, and the CCP was not a puppet of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), leading many people to view the Sovietisation process and the absorption of Soviet culture as the result of the PRC’s independent choices. While Stalinist Soviet culture symbolises foreign oppression in Eastern European countries, it has the complete opposite connotation in the Chinese context.
The forceful removal and censorship of Soviet culture during the Cultural Revolution was a constituent part of the regime’s oppression. For many Chinese people, Soviet culture and the romanticised imagination of a communist “other” marked the most liberal years in the history of the PRC, between the regime’s foundation in 1949 to Deng Xiaoping’s Reform in 1978. This nexus makes many Chinese citizens much less sympathetic to the de-communisation and de-russification process in post-communist Eastern Europe.
Russia’s appropriation of the Soviet grand narrative and China’s attempt to establish its own
An important part of contemporary Russian propaganda is the mythmaking of the Great Patriotic War, a tactic employed by both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation to promote national cohesion and justify the regime’s legitimacy. Historians have accurately pointed out that the mythmaking of the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union started in the 1960s, when the maturing postwar generations, to whom the grand narrative of the October Revolution had become too distant, started to become an unstable factor of Soviet society. Through the mythmaking of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet authorities attempted to gather support from the young generation. This was a successful tactic, and it has found its apogee in contemporary Russia. By further developing these efforts, Putin’s regime funds film productions that depict Soviet WWII heroes, and uses the anti-fascist grand narrative to justify its invasion of Ukraine.
Over the last two decades, the Chinese regime has started to employ Soviet/Russian tactics. The landmark point was 2015, when Xi Jinping decided to organise a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism. Held on 3 September 2015, the parade at Tiananmen Square was the first time the PRC celebrated the victory in WWII at this magnitude. At the same time, the adoption of Soviet/Russian military ceremonies and traditions in this parade, such as the demonstration of honorary banners of military units, revealed a clear sign that the Chinese regime was looking towards Russia as an example. Since 2016, the Russian embassy and consulates in China have organised Immortal Regiments (Бессмертный полк) parades every year on 9 May — Victory Day.
With the rapid deterioration of China-US relations after the Trump administration initiated a trade war, the PRC responded quickly by directing its propagandist mythmaking towards a war it had directly fought against the US: the Korean War. A series of cultural products with this theme were produced, including the production and release of the first Korean War-themed film and TV series in many decades. Further deterioration of China’s relations with the US and the West after the Hong Kong protests in 2019 and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 fueled the growth of nationwide discontent against the US and its allies. The 2021 film The Battle at Lake Changjin, which depicts one of the Chinese forces’ major offensives in the winter of 1950, became the highest-grossing Chinese film ever produced. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, China’s relations with the US and the West were at a historical low, making Russia’s anti-West narrative especially compelling.
The future of Sino-Russian relations
On 22 February 2023, Wang Yi — China’s top diplomatic official — met with Putin. Although Wang acknowledged that China would offer a political solution to the crisis, he also emphasised that the China-Russia “full-scale strategic partnership of the new era” has strong political, economic, and civilizational foundations. Furthermore, he insisted that this relationship would not be interfered nor coerced by any third party — a clear reference to the US. While the political and economic bases of this bilateral relation are easy to comprehend, Wang’s mentioning of the “civilisational” aspect of China-Russia partnership is vague and abstract, which reveals a possibly concerning trend in the development of Sino-Russian relations.
If Chinese society’s susceptibility to Russian propaganda was the unintended result of historical connections between these two countries’ communist pasts, their grievances against a common opponent today might actually help to create a shared grand narrative of the “new era.” In 2005, when speaking with the People’s Daily delegation to Russia, Sergei S. Razov — Russian ambassador to China at the time — said: “We have been considering through what methods we can make the young people in our two countries move their focus away from the West, to look at each other, to talk to each other. I believe now the time has come.”
Razov might have been too hasty and optimistic back then. Now, the time truly has come.