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University of Iowa News Release

 

May 12, 2009

Polumbaum testifies on Chinese propaganda

In theory, the Communist Party and government control mainland China's media, but journalists there aren't necessarily maidservants of national strategy, University of Iowa research suggests.

"As with individuals in bureaucratic agencies, individual mass communicators also have varied ideas and approaches to their work that may put them at odds, directly or indirectly, with official dictates," said Judy Polumbaum, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Polumbaum's research was detailed in a report to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission about China's external propaganda, and she delivered expert testimony at the commission's April 30 hearing in Washington, D.C. The commission monitors, investigates and makes recommendations to Congress regarding national security implications of the economic relationship between the United States and China.

Polumbaum is the author of the 2008 book "China Ink: The Changing Face of Chinese Journalism," based on interviews with 20 young Chinese journalists. She has worked for English-language news organizations in China, and during the 2008 Summer Olympics she arranged for more than 20 UI students to work as media volunteers with the Olympic News Service in Beijing.

The news is state-controlled, but there is evidence of competing agendas and outlooks within the government. Vying views at various levels of government, across agencies, or among individuals frequently influence messages, she said.

"Contrary to what one might expect in a nation so authoritarian in structure, the country is full of scofflaws," Polumbaum wrote. "There are good reasons the irrepressibly mischievous character of the Monkey King is such a beloved folk icon in China."

Polumbaum's research shows that primary audiences for Chinese propaganda include foreigners in China -- teachers, students, diplomats, business people and international correspondents. Chinese propaganda is generated in hopes of explaining China's policies and programs to outsiders, to interject China's voice and perspectives into the international arena, and to influence or manipulate international opinion -- a goal Polumbaum considers unlikely.

Themes of Chinese propaganda include rants aimed at the West, appreciation of its ancient culture, and stories of modernization and international citizenship.

"The 2008 Beijing Olympics, of course, provided a good vehicle for messages of glorious tradition and vigorous modernization," she wrote.

Polumbaum said the most important ramifications of China's expanded external communication efforts might be unintentional. As more individuals and institutions are brought into the effort improving communication there -- which requires dealing in foreign languages with foreign people and cultures -- the more potential there is for the Chinese to learn about the rest of the world.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070, nicole-riehl@uiowa.edu

PHOTO CREDIT: Louis Berney