By Benjamin Cooper and Philippe Healey

In recent years, the spectacular breaking of China’s digital dawn has unfolded at a pace and scale that has been unprecedented around the world. From ordinary citizens to massive conglomerates, the nation has fully plugged into the digital future, and Chinese officialdom has recognized the urgency of keeping up with its tech-savvy populace and corporates. As a result, the Xi administration has gradually embraced a new digital normal for Beijing’s public voice by beginning to recalibrate its traditional paradigms for speaking to the Chinese people, signaling the Party’s appreciation that China – now one of the most digitized societies on earth – is clearly no country for old communications.

Many foreign media outlets have tended to focus on the issues of Internet control and censorship when covering the Party’s digital policies. And while these thorny topics are very much part of the picture in China’s digital landscape, they are not the entire picture. In the following article, we will attempt to fill the gap by exploring how Beijing has begun to pivot towards embedding digitization at the very heart of its public outreach strategies and thereby bring the Party and its work ever closer to the people.

The Chinese digital universe goes into hyper-drive

The sheer magnitude of China’s leap into digitization can be difficult to fathom, especially for those outside the country. The nation now has one of the world’s most dynamic digital landscapes, underpinned by 731 million Internet users by the end of 2016, a larger online population than that of the U.S. and the E.U. combined. The digital economy already permeates nearly all aspects of Chinese society, and the contribution of Internet-related activities to China’s GDP currently stands at 6.9%, behind only South Korea.[1] In particular, the phenomenal adoption of digital tools by Chinese consumers has seen the abrupt emergence of what is arguably the world’s most active mobile ecosystem in the space of just a few years. Last year, China recorded US$760 billion worth of mobile payments, roughly 11 times the transaction value of the U.S. where people only spent US$74 billion on their mobile devices.[2]

The famed Chinese tech trinity of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (collectively known by the acronym “BAT”) are the corporate leviathans that have largely built the nuts and bolts of the architecture that catalyzed the Big Bang of China’s sprawling digital universe. Often dubbed the Google of China, Baidu is the country’s overwhelmingly dominant search engine for domestic users, with nearly 600 million searches per day, and also owns leading Chinese video streaming site iQiyi.[3] Holding the world record for the largest opening day IPO, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba has emerged as the world’s largest retail platform, with its online sales volume having exceeded that of Amazon and eBay combined.[4] And tech colossus Tencent is currently ranked as the world’s 10th most valuable public firm, worth a staggering US$275 billion, with its products and services running the gamut from gaming to mobile payments.[5] The crown jewel of Tencent’s diverse businesses is its enormously popular social app WeChat, which now boasts nearly one billion users. An American venture capitalist has estimated that Chinese users collectively spend 1.7 billion hours every day on Tencent’s apps, more than they spend on all other apps combined.[6]

Beijing’s digital petri-dish for modernizing its political communications

Beijing is well-aware that it can ill afford to be left behind this boomeranging e-curve while the country’s top technology players and hyper-connected citizenry race full-tilt into the digital age. At the Party’s News and Public Opinion Work Forum in February 2016, President Xi emphasized that, “As circumstances develop, the concepts, content, styles, forms, methods, industry formats, systems, and mechanisms that drive the Party’s news and public opinion work must change, so that the direction and effectiveness [of our work] is raised.”[7] In short, the Chinese leadership has dictated that the Party needs to embrace a fluid and adaptable political communications strategy that is capable of keeping pace and evolving in tandem with the digital times.

So how has the Party moved to integrate its public communications into China’s metastasizing digital ecosystem? To date, Beijing’s uptake of digital tools for conversing with the Chinese people still remains in a fairly experimental stage, but it appears to be rapidly picking up steam, with the government earmarking greater resources for the harnessing of more unorthodox mediums behind its public outreach. The most prominent efforts supporting this digital reboot have revolved around major political events and initiatives as Beijing’s publicity apparatus seeks to provide Chinese citizens with high-quality experiences on new media platforms that showcase the Party’s work on their behalf in a livelier and more accessible fashion than in the past. Several notable instances have included the following:

  • Two years ago, the Party achieved one of its first big digital successes with its cartoon music video explaining the 13th Five-Year Plan’s blueprint for China’s development. Featuring the catchy chorus line, “If you wanna know what China’s gonna do, best pay attention to the Shi San Wu (13th Five-Year Plan)!,” the video was popular among young people and became an immediate hit on social media. The colorful production may have raised some eyebrows due to its dramatic departure from the stilted political language that had nearly always defined official communications on such dry topics, but it did manage to generate significant online buzz, the hallmark of any successful digital communications project, and get younger generations talking about China’s five-year plans.
  • At the beginning of 2017, the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) established an official presence on Bilibili, a video site widely used by Chinese youth that is a thriving hub for online pop culture. Commenting on its entry onto Bilibili, the CCYL stated that, “However high the mountains and however deep the waters, wherever the good youth of China are, the League will go there to meet you.”[8] The organization has since posted hundreds of videos on the new media platform that have ranged from patriotic raps to more traditional political coverage.
  • In March, Beijing created a public discussion group on WeChat during the National People’s Congress (NPC) that allowed users to interact with Premier Li, government ministers, and other delegates via simulated conversations about China’s most important annual political gathering. In addition, the cover page of Premier Li’s official government work report included a QR code that provided access to a mobile-friendly electronic version for the first time ever.

“Tell China’s story well”

And Beijing’s first digital forays have not been directed exclusively towards domestic audiences. The Party has increasingly embedded new media communications within its efforts to boost China’s soft power globally and smooth the way for the country’s strides onto the world stage. In February 2016, President Xi made a rare visit to the headquarters of China’s three leading state-run media outlets, the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and CCTV, where he emphasized that, “China should enhance its international communication capacity, strengthen its voice in the world arena, and tell China’s story well.”[9] The opportunities presented by new media were showcased heavily throughout his tour, and the president urged the media groups to leverage such platforms to the fullest extent possible.

Earlier this year, Beijing produced a series of promotional digital campaigns hyping the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), President Xi’s signature diplomatic endeavor to build a transnational infrastructure network across Eurasia, for the program’s largest international forum in Beijing last May. For example, Chinese state-run media posted an English-language video of children from many different countries singing praise for the BRI across social media platforms, with the chorus going, “The future’s coming now, the Belt and Road is how; we’ll share the goodness now, the Belt and Road is how.” And China Daily released a video series entitled “Belt and Road Bedtime Talks,” which showed a father explaining the BRI to his daughter through bedtime stories, telling her that, “It’s China’s idea, but it belongs to the world.” Such productions are intended not only to break down a vast, hugely complex government-led initiative into easily digestible terms but also to defuse concerns overseas about the actual benignity of Beijing’s strategic goals for the BRI by presenting the project in a manner that is as innocuous and non-threatening as possible.

Most recently, the People’s Daily announced the launch of its English-language mobile news app just days before the landmark political transition at the 19th Party Congress. Having already established its Chinese-language app three years ago, the Party’s flagship newspaper touted the inaugural English version as an important step forward in strengthening integration between traditional and new media platforms as well as efforts to better “connect China and the world.”[10]

Government services start migrating online

Beijing’s push towards digital communications has also seen the rise of direct e-government services in China. In September 2016, the State Council approved a plan to extend the Internet Plus initiative into the public sector, with Premier Li personally endorsing the plan and stating, “We are now living in an age of Internet. Using Internet tools to facilitate public services is an important step in accelerating governance reform, since Internet is the fastest and most convenient way for the government to interact with and provide services to the people.”[11]

The leadership’s focus on providing more accessible public services and improving the quality of its administration through the Internet has seen the expansion of numerous e-government programs. For example, a number of government agencies have already set up accounts on Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging platform, that keep subscribers informed of relevant developments.[12] And many major cities in China, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing, now provide “data.gov.cn” websites that provide Chinese citizens with free access to government data.[13] The Beijing municipal government’s open datasets, for instance, currently cover more than 400 categories, including tourism, education, medical treatment, land use zoning, and transportation.

Highlighting the progress being made by the Chinese leadership towards enhancing its delivery of such digital public services, a UN ranking of e-government services provided around the world saw China move up into the Top 25 performers last year. The UN noted that the Chinese government, “has made special efforts to leverage the Internet and online services for public service delivery, bearing in mind that China has the largest number of Internet users in the world.”[14]

From digital novice to virtuoso?

The significance of the Chinese government’s first exploratory steps into the immense potential offered by digitization during President Xi’s first term in office is often overlooked. However, if Beijing continues to accelerate its use of new media platforms and e-government services, it will not only build deeper and more direct lines of interaction between the Party and its domestic constituents but also overseas audiences as well, bringing heightened transparency with regards to the governance of the world’s largest political organization.

In the years ahead, both domestic and foreign businesses will need to follow closely whether Chinese officialdom decides to make a quantum leap into the digital future. A dramatic reimagining of Beijing’s public communications strategy could ultimately reshape their own means of engaging with the government, and corporates will need to ensure that they are fully prepared for the prospect of ever more digitized Chinese politics.

[1] Shu Li, François Candelon, Cynthia Hu, Xin Cheng, Fei Song, Zhoupei Xie, Linli Huang, and Qiang Wang, “Decoding the Chinese Internet,” The Boston Consulting Group, 28 September 2017.

[2] Jonathan Woetzel, Jeongmin Seong, Kevin Wei Wang, James Manyika, Michael Chui, and Wendy Wong, “China’s digital economy: A leading global force,” McKinsey Global Institute, August 2017.

[3] Robert Allen, “Search engine statistics 2017,” Smart Insights, 13 April 2017.

[4] Shu Li, François Candelon, Cynthia Hu, Xin Cheng, Fei Song, Zhoupei Xie, Linli Huang, and Qiang Wang, “Decoding the Chinese Internet,” The Boston Consulting Group, 28 September 2017.

[5] “China’s Internet giants go global,” The Economist, 20 April 2017.

[6] Brad Stone and Lulu Yilun Chen, “Tencent dominates in China. Next challenge is rest of the world,” Bloomberg, 29 June 2017.

[7] David Bandurski, “New media, old message: The Communist Party remains in control,” Hong Kong Free Press, 04 September 2016.

[8] Diandian Guo, “Chinese Communist Youth League joins Bilibili – Where official discourse meets online subculture,” What’s on Weibo, 03 January 2017.

[9] Zhang Yunbi, “President Xi reaches out with new media,” China Daily, 20 February 2016.

[10] Wang Hailin, “People’s Daily launches English news app,” The People’s Daily, 15 October 2017.

[11] Simon Sharwood, “China gets the e-Gov love bug,” The Register, 15 September 2016.

[12] Carl Rubinstein, “China’s government goes digital,” The Atlantic, 29 November 2012.

[13] “United Nations E-Government Survey 2016,” United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2016.

[14] Ibid.

Photo: Benjamin Cooper

Privacy Policy

We have updated our Privacy Notice for this website. Please click below to review.

View Privacy Policy